In 1966 Wu Hung, who teaches art history at the University of Chicago, was himself just an art student. He was attending a state-sponsored exhibit of “reactionary” paintings in Beijing when a group of Red Army guards, incensed by a set of cartoon portraits of Mao, dragged the artist into the room with a leather belt around his neck. They forced him to kneel in front of his paintings and demanded that he confess to making the works with criminal intent, savagely beating and kicking him. Not long afterward Wu was placed in a detention camp. His father, a Harvard-trained economist, and his mother, a prominent Shakespeare scholar, had already been declared enemies of the state.

Wu was one of the lucky ones. After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 he was able to resume his studies at Beijing’s Central Academy of Art. He went on to get a PhD in art history and anthropology at Harvard, where he met his wife, Judith Zeitlin, chair of the U. of C.’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. But the Tiananmen uprising in 1989 brought back painful memories of his family’s experiences.

Wu’s forthcoming book, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space (due in May from the University of Chicago Press), recounts some of these experiences, interweaving his personal history with reflections on the meaning of public and artistic space. He’s also written extensively on experimental art in China. “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China,” a show Wu cocurated with Christopher Phillips of New York’s International Center of Photography, documents the tremendous boom in avant-garde and experimental art that’s occurred in China over the last ten years. It’s divided into four parts, two showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art and two at the U. of C.’s Smart Museum of Art.

Mara Tapp: There was something you said at the opening tour of the MCA exhibit that I feel informs the show. You told us that for these Chinese artists there is no chronological order—it’s all just information. Could you expand on that?

Wu Hung They are basically tied to their own history, education, and the history of the country. Our life here, and intellectual life, as well as our education from elementary school through high school through graduate school, is very smooth. We know exactly what is premodern, modern, postmodern, and [laughs] post-postmodern. But imagine a situation that involves not just ten years—the ten years of Cultural Revolution was the extreme—but this void of information. A whole generation of serious artists was in that kind of atmosphere.

MT: Talk about training for a minute. When we train artists, we teach them—and I think this is fairly universal—the notion of color, certain principles of how to convey what you’re thinking. We train them in the artistic traditions of the country they’re in and others. Did this change for the artists who were trained during the years of communism, and particularly during the years of the Cultural Revolution?

WH: Before the Cultural Revolution this training was there. Academies used either the Russian model or the Chinese model or the French model. But then it was gone. Basically, training in painting was reduced to a formula.

My school, the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the highest school in the country, had 40 or 50 percent of the top artists. When the Cultural Revolution came education just stopped. Many of these same artists were put in detention centers. The so-called revolutionary teachers and students then gave pieces of paper to workers or farmers and basically said, “That’s Mao’s image. You first draw this, then duplicate—”

MT: Paint by number—

WH: Yes, or “you will have some white and yellow mixed together for the forehead.”

MT: It becomes formula.

WH: It’s a mass reproduction in the form of painting, but actually it’s the people functioning as a machine because there was no creativity at all. I think the function of propaganda is to fill vast space.

MT:In Remaking Beijing it’s clear that you suffered but also that your parents, your mother particularly, circumvented the system and survived. And I think that there’s a myth that everything was over with the Cultural Revolution. But of course people always find ways to live and eke out some happiness or at least survive. When I think, for example, of the very famous Russian propaganda posters that everyone goes so crazy about, they are, of course, propaganda, and yet the artists who made them found a way to circumvent and create sometimes very beautiful and compelling art.

WH: Exactly. Exactly.

MT: So Chinese artists did this as well, even during the Cultural Revolution?

WH: The younger artists never experienced the Cultural Revolution. They were too young or born after it, but now they’re trying to discover what is the real socialist art. It’s a little bit like the early Russian avant-garde. They feel the power. They feel the straightforwardness of the image–it’s almost like abstraction to them. So you’ve got people from that period with their many sufferings, but for this generation, they don’t feel that. They see only form.

MT: Could you talk a little bit about the exhibit’s organization into four parts—”History and Memory,” “Reimagining the Body,” “People and Place,” and “Performing the Self”—showing at two museums?

WH: As an educator, as a writer and curator, sometimes I do smaller show—actually I love smaller shows—but these kind of big shows are really for the public, I feel, because more people come to a more central space like the MCA. This show is a retrospective. You see variations. You see trends. You see commonalities, themes. We do have a particular angle: photography, video. We think this medium has a very specific meaning now in China.

MT: What is that specific meaning?

WH: After studying this art for many years I began to ask, Why photography? Why have so many young artists who were trained in painting just abandoned it altogether and turned to a camera and gotten so excited and then produced very exciting work? Many answers are possible, but one is that there is something more real about photography.

Another is speed. China is speed. I feel it’s one thing very difficult to imagine from outside. Things change so fast in people’s lives, in their cityscape. These artists are young. They are energetic. Everything’s moving, passing, and waving over them. With photography, computer, they can immediately realize their feelings, inspiration, excitement in a few seconds.

A lot of work really functions as a kind of dialogue with society. We see advertisement. We see all the buildings. So the size of the work and the language they develop really is not a self-contained, framed thing.

MT: Is part of it training? Did these artists come from having traditional training and say, “This isn’t what I want”?

WH: Yes. This generation actually entered art college, often the prestigious ones, after the Cultural Revolution. Basically the schools reopened around 1980, so they’re typically schooled through the 80s.

MT: In these traditional modes, paying attention to Western art forms?

WH: Actually, even more than before the Cultural Revolution. The impressionists, the postimpressionists, even abstract painting, even conceptual art were allowed in school after the Cultural Revolution, so these artists said no even to those modes. Contemporaneity becomes the most important thing to them. The past is not enough to them.

MT: But do you see, as an art expert, any influence of more traditional stuff?

WH: I think for this generation Chinese tradition has become a matter of choice. Their tradition is a particular kind of reference or language or form, like a scroll. If they want to choose it or abandon it they’re pretty free to decide.

MT: Were the four areas that you use as organizing principles concepts that came to you as you were reviewing the art, or did you superimpose them on what you were looking at?

WH: With an art historian, always the first thought is the materials [laughs]. I like the artists, so year after year I talked with them. Every time I go back to China, now three or four times a year, I go to see their new works, go to shows. So when we began to organize this show, I proposed these four themes based on my study of thousands and thousands of pictures.

When you see this art, the art is very different, but actually the artists were attracted by similar things. If you’ll return to this “no chronology” and this “information explosion,” one result is that, sure, all these artists are influenced by Western art, this way, another way, but rarely do they follow a single Western artist. Here we often say this artist has consciously developed or responded to a particular older artist or famous artist, but in China they just grab here and there. They don’t really follow a particular artist. Often I say American artists are very art historical, because they know art history very well and think about artists, but Chinese artists don’t think about them historically. They think about them as a wide ocean of thousands of images.

MT: And these thousands of images are coming from everywhere now?

WH: Everywhere. And starting from the early 1990s [many artists] really travel a lot. In Europe there are many smaller spaces, art centers, so they travel crazily. They have Chinese passports, but many of them don’t have jobs there and they don’t have to report for anyone.

MT: How do they support themselves?

WH: They are very rich, many of them. They sell their works.

MT: Americans are very fad oriented, and it struck me that maybe this is the fad of the moment—new Chinese art becomes the collectible thing for the hip urbanite. On some level that must offend you as a scholar.

WH: No, because I study art also as a social phenomenon. I was trained as an anthropologist. Art is commerce as well. It’s not just pure aesthetic expression.

MT: What do you want people to take away from this show, especially people who have no previous exposure to Chinese art?

WH: People who know nothing about Chinese can really find something here, not just as pure knowledge but through a personal connection. Photography is not like a specific form of painting, which can become a cultural barrier you have to penetrate. And I feel there’s a kind of experimentation and energy to these forms. [These young artists] never stop. They move on. They are trying out different things, just like China. Here people have an illusion we are still technologically on top of everything, we are still modern. It’s no longer true. We have to put ourselves in a global context, travel more and see more.

MT: Let’s shift focus a little bit and talk about Remaking Beijing. The approach you take there is so interesting, this mixing of a historical narrative with the very personal, which is also historical though more impressionistic. I would assume that for a scholar it’s difficult to do a book as personal as this.

WH: Yes. Several years actually after Tiananmen I started to think about this book. I know Beijing from archives, my research, so there’s a part of me that is a scholar, a historian. But I cannot pretend I don’t have the other half. I also knew Beijing–still know Beijing–as an insider. Beijing was my home, still is my home. But how to bring these two together? It’s impossible I think. The one is inside, the other outside. One is first person–“I feel,” “I see,” or “I saw.” The other is the third person. So the final honest solution is to present the two stories to the reader, but the two stories are connected by space and there is a history about the space. Memory is often tied to a certain space. I hope the reader can get some sense about the space and also about the person who’s talking about the space.

MT: What I liked about it was that it moves back and forth. You have a break. There’s a respite, plus I would assume on the personal level that for you to just sit down and do straight autobiography of this period would be relentlessly painful—would be almost unbearable—because you would have to relive it.

WH: I think so. I think so. A lot would be about my family, about my mother, father, separation, and all these things. But I feel these stories have been told. We have quite a few books in English and many in Chinese about personal experiences during that period. Of course, personal experience is so different—but quite similar in a way actually. My family was not the worst. A lot of people died. A lot of people survived. We want to use our time well to do something special.

MT: You clearly came from a very privileged class, a very educated class. Your parents were Western trained, so you had a good sense of the world.

WH: Not really.

MT: You feel you didn’t grow up with this?

WH: Nope.

MT: Why, with parents as educated as this?

WH: Because in the 50s my mother was already criticized and branded a political enemy of the people. I was in boarding school. One’s family definitely profoundly gives you something, but it’s not so clearly through words. There is a totally different official education.

MT: When did your interest in Western culture begin, then?

WH: Very early on. In college I studied Western art history. I studied oil painting in my high school, so Chinese tradition for me was already far away. My whole generation rarely if ever used a traditional brush. It would be weird. Here people assume that all Chinese are schooled in Chinese tradition, but my generation wasn’t.

MT: So you’re living in 1950s China and then in college in the 1960s. Your family is not well thought of at this time. In the mid-60s, things are not good but they’re survivable.

WH: Actually, there were even exciting moments in the 60s. Just like in Russia, there was a moment of freedom and a lot of Western art came in before everything shut down. My first two years in college, 1963 and ’64, were very exciting. We were big fans of the Beatles.

MT: By 1966 things changed completely. You became a very dangerous person.

WH: Very. Background, family, whatever.

MT: And you were then imprisoned.

WH: This kind of detention center is everywhere throughout the country. It can be worse than real prison, it can be better. But this is really a kind of a camp.

MT: And in this camp, which is by Tiananmen Square—

WH: Not far away. My school was pretty close. Then I went back to work in the Forbidden City. That’s the 70s—1976 was the end of the Cultural Revolution.

MT: At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution you witnessed a horrible beating of the artist Zhou Lingzhao, who painted Mao’s first Tiananmen portrait for the 1949 inauguration ceremony of the People’s Republic of China. In your book you write, “I had never seen people being beaten like this. Shaking uncontrollably, I rushed out of the room and ran back to my dormitory. Unable to tell my roommates about what [had happened], I cried and hit the wall with my fist, leaving bloodstains from my knuckles.” When I read this memory it seemed like it was one of the most traumatic moments of your experience. You lost your voice. Was this the most traumatic time, or was the whole ten years too unbearable?

MT: No, that was the most traumatic time, from ’66 to ’68 or ’69. Yes. You simply didn’t know what was going to happen to you tomorrow. You could die, be sent anywhere. As a young person, you just completely lost hope.

MT: Which is a very difficult place to be.

WH: Yes, it was pretty hard. Even if you didn’t have a very strong ideology you were labeled an enemy. People would say a “dissident.” [Laughs] I was not. It’s really a kind of label put on some young kids for liberal ideas or some kind of interest in Western art.

MT: Now that you’ve had a chance to look back, do you feel like the Cultural Revolution is a defining moment for you, that it creates who you are and what you’ve attained and how you think about the world? It’s probably very difficult to articulate and quantify, but I’m going to ask you to do it anyway.

WH: Right. It may be, on many levels, very hard to articulate, but on the simplest level it really is your life. What is life itself? It’s really a passage of time. We lost ten years completely. So the next part is how to get it back. So when I came to this country there was a very clear goal. I was ten years older. The time became so important to my generation. That sounds simple but it’s really quite profound.

But, on the other hand, you also feel you didn’t do anything. Actually, you survived, and survival means something’s inside of you, because you were not like a vegetable then. You were still feeling. You were still thinking. You got a certain strength. The younger artists ask me why they can talk to me. They’re much, much younger, but it’s very easy for me to deal with them and interview and talk to them. I feel this is from the Cultural Revolution. I was terribly shy before the Cultural Revolution. I couldn’t even make a telephone call—I was scared of the voice coming out. I had confidence after the Cultural Revolution. So definitely you lost ten years painfully, but also you gained something very important but very hard to define.

MT: Let’s end with one of the lines from your book that intrigued me the most. You say about Tiananmen Square that your “faith in this primary monument of New China was challenged, restored, and destroyed.” And there’s a final section on the “soft monuments”—often flower arrangements, sometimes works of art—that now fill the square, versus hard monuments like the buildings. You explore the idea that this is a way to focus this history, the history of this country, the complexities of moving through this period, and your own changing and evolving, moving back and forth.

WH: The soft monuments are really a wonderful metaphor. It’s not to say the system changed, but the boundaries softened and we now can penetrate them—people come back and forth, just like the Internet is in the air. Now I find myself in this situation and memory assumes a new meaning. My memory connects with the reality now again, with this new art, for example. So the situation is not just that I write a memory about the war camp or something. China is there in a new way. I’m still really trying to deal with it, change it in some way.

Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China

When: Through 1/16

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 5550 S. Greenwood

Price: $10 suggested admission (MCA); free (Smart)

Info: 312-280-2660 (MCA); 773-702-0200 (Smart)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.