Project
CAPITALIST REALISM | SMarchS Thesis

Advisor: Caroline Jones
Readers: Renée Green, Lauren Jacobi

The artist-instigated exhibition Art for Sale (1999), which partially operated as a fully functioning ‘art supermarket’ inside a large shopping mall, was one of the most important exhibitions that took place during the development of Shanghai’s experimental art-scene in the 1990s, a time when the influx of consumer capitalism was becoming a key mechanism of life in the city. Organized by the artist-curators Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong and Alexander Brandt, the exhibition was divided into two sections, a supermarket and an exhibition space, and included 33 artists that were prompted to create a pair of works, one for each section. The supermarket section consisted of works that were at once art objects and commercial goods, many of them bizarre amalgamations of familiar household items, and visitors were able to selfselect “merchandise” to purchase; therefore, becoming “art consumers” for the first time in post-revolutionary China. Post-reform China was a uniquely volatile social and political environment; the failure of the 1989 social movement incentivized the rise of state-directed capitalism, and Deng Xiaoping was championing a new official ideology of the Communist Party of China, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, which doubled as a strategy to thwart the democratic movement of the time. Necessarily, the Shanghai art scene of the 1990s must be seen in the context of these pro-consumerist state policies, as almost overnight, the state attempted to turn a nation of workers into a nation of consumers. This transition was rife with tension. An emerging ideology of consumerism had to be cleverly negotiated with and against a strong residual ideology of Mao-era policies and values. It was a historical moment of incredible flux and ideological hybridity where the necessary contradiction of “socialist capitalism” could take root.  The Art for Sale exhibition was deftly self-reflexive about these permutable conditions of the late 1990s, and this thesis argues that it functioned as a way to worry the question of consumerism in China through making consumption into an aesthetic act; considering, challenging and even subverting the contingent future of capitalism that the state was trying to enact. Through the introduction of Capitalist Realism, an art historical movement begun by East German artists in 1960s West Germany, this thesis links Art for Sale with previous examples of artists using consumerism as an aesthetic strategy, arguing that Capitalist  Realism can be used as an interpretive heuristic for understanding how conceptual art practices emerged in 1990s China as a critique of  Western consumerism.