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  • Pop Goes the Avant-Garde: Experimental Theatre in Contemporary China by Rossella Ferrari
  • Tarryn Li-Min Chun
POP GOES THE AVANT-GARDE: EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA. By Rossella Ferrari. Enactments. 365 pp. 40 illustrations. London: Seagull Books, 2013. Paper, $25.

In Pop Goes the Avant-Garde: Experimental Theatre in Contemporary China, Rossella Ferrari offers readers an overview of the historical and artistic development of China’s theatrical avant-garde in the last decades of the twentieth century, detailed analyses of work from this period by leading Chinese theatre director Meng Jinghui, and a provocative new conceptual construct: the pop avant-garde. Consistently attentive to the complex sociopolitical and economic dynamics of post-Mao China, this exemplary study employs a deft combination of archival research, textual and performance analysis, and interviews—subtly bolstered by insight drawn from the author’s experience performing in Meng’s Amber (2005) during her fieldwork in Beijing—to explore the interactions of experimental ethos, intra- and extracultural engagement, art, market, and the individual auteur in contemporary Chinese theatre.

The book’s prologue and introduction (chapter 1) tackle the conceptual instability of the “avant-garde,” drawing on the work of Peter Bürger (1984) and Paul Mann (1991) among others, and the contextual appropriateness of using the term in relation to contemporary China. The driving questions of the study, articulated in the prologue, address both of these overarching issues: “Should we still employ the term ‘avant-garde’ or should we rather devise an alternative concept to categorize this latest turn? Is there an unsolvable clash between high culture and the market, critical engagement [End Page 659] and popular recognition? Are critical constructs such as ‘avant-garde and ‘pop’ inevitably at odds with one another? And what, then, is the proper designation for and ultimate purpose of an ‘avant-garde’ in an increasingly pluralistic, globalized and yet politically constrained milieu such as that of contemporary China?” (p. xv) Ferrari answers these questions by proposing a fluid and dialectical “pop avant-garde” that encompasses both the avant-garde’s original anti-institutional ethos and Chinese artists’ more recent attempts to adapt to the market, engage with everyday life, and contribute to society.

The subsequent three chapters are devoted to laying the historical and theoretical groundwork for the rise of this reimagined avant-garde. Arranged chronologically, chapters 2–4 divide the post-Mao era into a “temporal trilogy” of periods marked by major political events and shifts in experimental theatre aesthetics and practice. Ferrari outlines a complex and fraught progression from the sense of “nouveau esprit” and flourishing experimentation that dominated the 1980s (chapter 2), to a mid-1990s period of “dissent and marginality” wherein the Chinese theatrical avant-garde transformed their peripheral position vis-à-vis increasingly commercialized entertainments into a space of resistance and protest (chapter 3), and finally, to a rapprochement between art and market at the turn of the twenty-first century (chapter 4). Effective as evidence for the theory of the pop avant-garde and as an introduction to the following discussion of Meng Jinghui, part 1 of the volume also stands on its own as a concise, accurate, and theoretically engaged overview of Chinese theatre of the late 1970s to early 2000s. As such, these chapters are a particular asset to introductory courses on contemporary Chinese theatre and general readers.

In part 2 of the volume, Ferrari turns to Meng Jinghui as the prototype and poster child of the pop avant-garde. According to Ferrari, from the turn of the twenty-first century, Meng’s experimentalism has “been defined by a dialectical approach to society and spectatorship that has reshaped the concept of avant-garde as a concurrent interchange of experimentalism and popularization, art and market, intellectual commitment and playful entertainment” (p. 115). On the level of content, a fundamental tension between the sacred and the profane drives the poetics of his work (p. 148) and echoes in his predilection for mixing playful irreverence with serious meditations on disease and illness, Self and Other, cultural consumption and socioeconomic commoditization, and technology and control.

Ferrari’s three chapters on Meng describe the development of his artistic praxis as simultaneously circular and linear, with...