Introduction to AAA’s ‘Materials of the Future’

Introduction to Materials of the Future: Contemporary Chinese Art in the 1980s
by Jane DeBevoise, on the occasion of AAA-MoMA co-launches
in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and New York, 2010
All images, courtesy of  Asia Art Archive Hong Kong unless specified below
Thumbnail image: Homepage for Materials of the Future project website (Chinese version)

To begin, and on behalf of all my colleagues at Asia Art Archive (AAA), especially those who have worked so hard on this project – Claire Hsu, Phoebe Wong and Anthony Yung –  I want to thank you all for your support. I would also like to thank and congratulate our launch-partner, the Museum of Modern Art, on their recent publication titled Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, edited by Wu Hung.This project would not have been possible without the steadfast support of our sponsors.  First and foremost, the Robert Ho Foundation.  Other important projects sponsors include the WLS Spencer Foundation, Ilyas and Mara Kahn and the Foundation for Arts Initiatives. Thank you all very much. Founded in 2000, AAA is a Hong Kong based non-profit organization, focused on deepening understanding about contemporary art from Asia. We have a library of over 31,000-catalogued items, researchers in nine different Asian countries, and have continued to raise awareness in the field of contemporary Asian art through a series of public programs and long-term projects and collaborations.  We will soon be celebrating our 10-year anniversary, and thus the launch of this project Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art 1980-1990(未來的材料:紀錄1980­-1990中國當代藝術) forms part of our anniversary celebration.For me, this project marks a 30-year anniversary, as it was thirty years since my first visit to Mainland China in 1980.  I was to spend a year at Peking University as an exchange student from the University of California Berkeley where I was in graduate school, studying Chinese art history.  I had previously spent two years in Taiwan, so I spoke some Chinese, but as I wrote in a letter to my parents – we wrote letters back then! – nothing had prepared me for what I was about to experience.

(Clockwise from left) Wang Keping & Jane DeBevoise in Wang Keping’s studio, Beijing; Statue of Mao Zedong; Bicycle parking lot, China, 1981.  Courtesy of Jane DeBevoise and Joan Lebold Cohen
As you all know, Beijing was a very different city back then; there were virtually no cars, no streetlights, and hot showers only once a week.  Few restaurants and stores existed, and what stores there were carried almost no goods.  Everyone was wearing either dark green or blue, but the people I met were extraordinary, especially considering what they had just been through. My classmates at Peking University told me incredible stories about the Cultural Revolution.  What impressed me most about my classmates and others I met in Beijing, was their resilience, their optimism and their insatiable curiosity.Let’s fast-forward twenty-three years.  In 2003, I had the great privilege of returning to graduate school at the University of Hong Kong.  My focus was Chinese contemporary art, which I first encountered in 1980 when I went to the Stars exhibition at the National Gallery in Beijing (now called the National Art Museum of China) and which I continued to follow with fascination throughout the intervening years.As I began my research, I quickly realized that basic primary materials, the kind that were necessary to do original research, were very difficult to find.  This is not a criticism of the University of Hong Kong or AAA with which I had already become involved.  It was just a fact.  Despite the red-hot art market, which wasn’t as red-hot when I started my research, and the dramatic upsurge in the production of contemporary artwork during the 1990s and early 2000s, there were still no systematic institutional collections of contemporary Chinese art or art-related research materials anywhere in the world.  In fact, the most important documentary information about contemporary art was scattered and vulnerable, and most often found in private hands.

走向未来 (Zou xiang wei lai) book series and samples of 1980s artists’ slides
Examples of resources acquired and archived at AAA, Hong Kong, 2006-present
So AAA decided to remedy this situation, starting with the 1980s.The 1980s (with our investigations beginning in the late 1970s) was a pivotal decade in the history of recent China.  It was neither entirely Maoist – think of the Cultural Revolution that officially ended in 1976 – nor entirely Deng-ist – think of the economic pragmatism that began to produce serious results in the 1990s, catapulting China’s GDP this year into second place behind the United States.  For Chinese contemporary art, the 1980s represented a beginning of sorts.  It was during this time when many of the most celebrated artists of today attended art academies, held their first exhibitions and developed the intellectual foundation on which they have built their later art practice.

1980s project manager Anthony Yung and artist Liu Dahong in Liu Dahong’s studio, Shanghai, China, November 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Shanghai Normal University
In 2006, in order to help fill this gap in research, AAA embarked on a focused archiving project, which we called Materials of the Future. So far we have collected hundreds of magazines, newspapers and books published during the 1980s, digitized ten personal archives, conducted over 75-videotaped interviews and produced a 50-minute documentary film

Webpage for 75 interviews, made available on ‘Materials of the Future’ project website
(click image for more details)

‘From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Contemporary Cantonese Art in the 1980s’, screenshots, 2010
(click image for more details)
With over 70,000 scanned documents, AAA is now the most comprehensive archive of material about Chinese contemporary art in the world.  All this material is available at our physical location in Hong Kong.  We are open to the public six days a week and free of charge.In order to make this material even more widely accessible, we have developed a dedicated bilingual website which we hope you will peruse:

Homepage for ‘Materials of the Future’ project website (English version)

Introductory remarks to ‘Materials of the Future’ by Jane DeBevoise (Chair, Asia Art Archive)

Asia Art Archive Special Collection Samples for Zheng Shengtian, including a close-up of Zheng Shengtian’s English proficiency test from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, 1985.  Courtesy of the artist and the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, China.

The primary goal of Materials of the Future is to raise the level of critical writing and scholarship about Chinese contemporary art by providing a comprehensive and publicly accessible archive and research platform.  I am confident that this will happen over time.

On a more personal level, one of the goals of this project is to recover some of the complexity, richness, and I would even say, wonder, of the 1980s and the art that developed from it. Too often has the story of experimental art in China been over simplified, even caricaturized, and thus impoverished. My hope is that the material we have collected, especially the 75 interviews, will be able to convey, in a very direct way, the richness of Chinese contemporary art.

I sincerely hope that the material we have made available online as well as at our physical location will inspire you, and will foster  in you a life long interest in and enjoyment of one of the most important developments in contemporary art of our time.

We are truly grateful.  Thank you.

Window display for 1980s project, Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, 2010

For more information, please visit our project website at


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