Sometimes, revolution happens subtly – without explosions, brashness and flashing lights, without excess and drama. Although most of us are familiar with the Pop Art versions of Mao, and the ‘Cultural Revolution Pop’ of the 1980s, where Chinese Communism was branded in such a way as to rival American Capitalism in its attractive, shiny modernity, there is another side to contemporary Chinese art that is less well-known, but in many ways more revolutionary. The exquisite paintings on show in Moving Beyond celebrate centuries of Chinese traditions and mythology, as well as the natural beauty of the country as it is today. They show another side of Chinese identity and society to the commercial propaganda usually celebrated by fans of Warhol and apparent dissent. The glamorising of revolution has become a kind of repression in itself – at the expense of appreciating truly beautiful painting in China today.
So as we enter the Private View on a Tuesday night, our previous ideas about China and its art world are immediately challenged, as we are taken aback by the quiet elegance of the paintings exhibited. All six of the artists are present, and we play a game of matching the art to the artist with photographer Nick Howard, who took portraits of the artists during a trip to China last year (and which are also on show in the exhibition). His memory is pretty good, even with a little champagne and distractions to phase him, and he introduces us to some of them, framed by their brilliant abstracts on the walls behind.
In some ways, this sort of painting is like poetry to pulp fiction in the art world today, and especially regarding the contemporary Chinese scene. So it is fitting that during the evening we are also read poems by the Nobel Prize nominated poet Yang Lian, and a younger poet, Zhao Ye, in between speeches (translated with a Lost in Translation surrealism and subtle humour) from the legendary art director Ricky Demarco and curator Janet McKenzie, about the political and cultural implications of showing modern Chinese art at the Edinburgh festival. And there is a quiet sense of change, as the beauty of the paintings sinks in, and the elegant majesty of the portraits and poetry resonates: there is a depth in this exhibition that is rare, not only modern Chinese art, but also in modern art in general. As we follow the artists into the twilit Edinburgh night, for dinner at the Dome, we feel very privileged to be tagging along.