Art historian Wu Hung came to a startling conclusion while organizing the exhibit “Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the 20th Century,” which opens this weekend at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art–he sees no historical precedent for the current crop of artists emerging in China. “They refuse to be labeled ‘Chinese artists,'” he says. “Of course, they’re still Chinese in nationality. But they’re so influenced by the West–by MTV and global pop culture–that they’ve developed a new sensibility of displacement not rooted in any older tradition.”

Wu says he had few preconceived notions when he first pitched the project to the museum three years ago. “Given the gallery’s small size, I knew I didn’t want a comprehensive survey or a retrospective,” he says. “Besides, those shows date quickly.” By the time it arrived at the Cultural Center in 1997 “New Art in China, Post-1989,” curated by a Hong Kong art dealer, was already “old hat,” he says. Wu had also served as a consultant for last summer’s “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” at New York’s Asia Society, an exhibit that took years to organize. “The bureaucratic politics were horrendous,” he says with a chuckle. “Taiwan insisted on the same number of works as China, and Hong Kong didn’t want to be counted as part of China. It was quite a lot of hassle. My show, I said to myself, would be less ambitious in scope, faster to put together–a snapshot of what’s important right this moment.”

To make sure he saw works from all over the country and not just what was the fad in Beijing, Wu put ads in three journals soliciting submissions. “One is controlled by the government, another is an academic publication, and the third caters to the avant-garde,” he says. “Their readerships don’t overlap too much. I asked to see two or three pieces and required a track record of at least ten years to get a sense of consistency and development.” He deliberately excluded established or famous artists, reasoning that their work would already be familiar to a lot of foreigners. Two months after his notice was published, more than 200 submissions had flooded in.

Wu, the son of Wu Baosan, a Western-educated economic historian, studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in the 1960s and had wanted to become a painter himself. Branded a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution, he was exiled to the countryside to do menial labor. When the political climate improved in the early 70s he petitioned to return to the capital, and between 1973 and ’76 he worked as a researcher in the Forbidden Palace, home to centuries of imperial dynasties. He lived in the palace, cataloging its extensive collection of precious objects and heirlooms, many of which, he says, were confiscated from landlords and merchants during the most repressive periods of the communist regime.

Allowed to continue his education in art history, Wu enrolled in the doctoral program at Harvard, his father’s alma mater, in 1980 and wrote a dissertation on second-century Chinese monuments. He stayed on as a professor until 1996, when the U. of C. hired both Wu and his wife, Judith Zeitlin, an American-born professor of Chinese literature.

In 1997 Wu embarked on the first of his trips to China to interview the artists and inspect their works. In the course of a year, with the help of advisers–some of them critics and professors he’d known in Beijing–Wu winnowed his list down to 21 artists represented by 23 works. “Most of them are in their 30s and early 40s,” he says. “But only four are women, and, interestingly enough, 19 are currently based in Beijing, perhaps reflecting that city’s role as a hub of creativity. Certainly it’s far more complex and experimental intellectually than Shanghai, which has a lot of artists producing for the export market.”

The show is divided into three sections according to trends Wu has identified. “The first, also the earliest, is what I call ‘demystification,’ works that recycle and debunk official political images,” he explains, pointing at Zhang Hongtu’s Studs, an imposing red gate with rows of bent, finger-sized nails. “The gate is a symbol of secretive political power, and the misshapen studs represent attempts to pry it open. Demystifying the old has been a process since the late 70s, but it’s become more urgent, more individualistic after the Tiananmen massacre. Mao, for example, is no longer just an object of hatred but someone who evokes many levels of feelings.”

The demolition of old houses and villages, the subject of Rong Rong’s photographs, tells of a fascination with destruction; Wu terms this section “ruins.” “Not in the pictorial Western sense,” he says, “but something darker and more sinister. Psychologically, these artists, quite often in installations and in performance, identify with broken forms, with the marginal. Keep in mind many of them are part of China’s floating people, those who live in the cities illegally and have severed ties with their jobs and their past.”

From here it’s but a short leap to “transience” and a tendency to combat the uncertainty and anxiety of rapid change with the energy and optimism of the momentary present. Wu looks at some photo collages combining nostalgic images with contemporary kitsch; the works “reveal little of the past and nothing of the present.” One large canvas shows a self-satisfied young couple contentedly afloat in a sea of consumerist possessions. But perhaps the best illustration of China’s uncertain future, Wu says, is Yu Hong’s painting Zero Gravity: “Grown-ups jumping from a trampoline, suspended in midair. They look exhilarated, freed from the earth, and neither they nor we know where they’ll land.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Wu Hung photo by Nathan Mandell; “Costume” by Wang Jin photo by Nathan Mandell; misc. photography by Rong Rong; “Tattoo” by Qui Zhije photo by Nathan Mandell.