CHINESE SUMMER - Chinese Contemporary Art from the Astrup Fearnley Collection

Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran

The name of the exhibition Chinese Summer is a metaphor for a nation and art scene that have seen explosive growth over the last two decades. China is now one of the most important industrial and economic forces on the planet and this has been matched by overwhelming artistic and cultural production that in recent years has moved from a local situation to a position on the global stage.

Astrup Fearnley Museet has been engaged with Chinese contemporary art for more than ten years, beginning with research into the new situation in China at the start of the new millennium that resulted in the touring exhibition China Power Station in 2007, co-produced with the Serpentine Gallery in London. From the outset, this show was conceived as an evolving project that would change to reflect the time and place in which it was shown. As a result, the artists and works varied from one venue to the next in a dynamic model that, by embracing new developments and knowledge in changing contexts, reflected the developments in Chinese culture.

Astrup Fearnley’s relationship and dialogue with the Chinese art scene crystallised in our on-going process of building up a collection of Chinese contemporary art that would parallel our other collecting activities. While it includes works by ground-breaking artists such as Huang Yong Ping (b. 1954), Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957) and Ai Weiwei (b. 1957), often seen as the first generation of contemporary Chinese artists, the main focus has been on the younger generations of artists who emerged post-2000, allowing us to embark on the exciting journey of following their creative development.

The pioneering generation of artists that included Huang, Ai and Cai came to public attention during the 1980s, when there was a creative explosion in China. This spearheaded the artistic revolution that continues through to the present day. These first-generation contemporary artists emerged out of an extended period of cultural isolation and a closed regional context characterised by a highly traditional way of conceiving and appreciating art. They abandoned traditional formal approaches and adopted many of the radical aesthetic and conceptual paradigms of the Western avant-garde. Spread thinly throughout the nation and working in self-organised clusters, talents were home-grown and their progressive activities were not the product of an institutional system but the result of the will to advance cultural dialogue.

Born in Xiamen in southwest China, Huang Yong Ping studied painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. After a short period of experimental painting, he turned to a form of conceptual art inspired by figures like Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Joseph Beuys. An emphasis on transformation and performance, in which paintings were burned or books were altered by being washed in industrial washing machines, characterised his shift away from Chinese artistic norms towards a new kind of art that was neither nationalistic nor ‘pure’ – an art based on a fusion of Western and Eastern cultural and philosophical ideas. 

Huang’s works are vessels loaded with intelligent and meaningful reflections on the human condition, and the power and the originality of his art lies within the forms, objects and materials he brings together. These refer simultaneously to cultural, philosophical and folk traditions of both the East and West and are articulated around the artist’s rejection of fixed notions of identity, political hegemony and ethnic difference.  Colosseum (2007) for example, is a terracotta model of the eponymous architectural icon, a symbol of the Roman empire, overgrown by trees and plants. The work is a powerful statement on the fragility and ephemerality of national power, as well as on the continuous dialogue between nature and civilisation. For Huang, culture is always in a state of flux. This sensibility is anchored in his understanding of Buddhism, Taoism and I Ching (The Book of Changes) which teaches that there is no such thing as pure culture (nor purity, in general) and is reflected in his incorporation of unexpected materials and surprising constellations of objects into his art.

Cai Guo-Qiang grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and attended the Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1981 to 1985, specialising in stage design. He spent the next decade in Japan, before emigrating to New York, where he has lived since 1995. The gunpowder drawings, performances and installations with which he first experimented during his time in Japan have become his signature works. His powerful and ever-expanding oeuvre is charged with unexpectedness and unpredictability, and often draws upon feng shui as well as ancient systems of Chinese aesthetics, Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues. The portraits in this exhibition, introducing possible ways to represent the invisible, are of figures associated with the supernatural, spirituality and esotericism who have lived at different times in Edinburgh. His monumental work The Eagle has Arrived! (2001) is a gigantic upside-down boat, suspended from the ceiling and pierced by oars and spears, completed with a fan and an EU flag. The boat recalls a Roman galley, or an eagle spreading its wings. The closer one gets, however, the clearer it becomes that Cai’s structure is little more than a common French fishing skiff, held together with everyday fabrics – a ready-made relic à la Duchamp or Picasso. Multi-semantic readings index different times and periods (from the Roman era to the present day) as well as different geopolitical regions. ‘Sailing’ shakily under the European flag, the ship alludes to the West in tragic-comic decline. 

The artist and activist Ai Weiwei is probably the most internationally known of today’s Chinese contemporary artists. Since the 1980s, he has been combining references from Chinese art and political history with the artistic languages of Western avant-garde art. His fusion of artistic expression with political activism, questioning and commenting on Chinese and international social issues, often results in spectacular and overwhelming installations. The marble sculpture Tyre (2017) refers to the suffering of the thousands of Middle-Eastern immigrants who have been forced to leave their countries, often risking or losing their lives while attempting to cross the Mediterranean on rafts made from tyres.

The influence of artists such as Huang, Ai and Cai on contemporary Chinese art is unmistakable. Indeed, as three of the seminal artists that liberated the country’s cultural production from antiquated traditions, their mark is ubiquitous in the thinking and methodological approaches of today’s younger generation of artists. The cornerstone of their appeal resides in the fact that they never abandoned Chinese art and philosophy, but adapted their national thinking and sensibilities into an on-going dialogue with Western culture, building bridges that young contemporary Chinese artists are now taking in all directions.

In lockstep with China’s economic thrust onto the world stage, its domestic art scene has quickly and assertively gained a significant presence within the international art world. This seismic change, less than four decades in the making, has allowed Chinese artists to break free of traditional emphases and adopt a new language inspired by Western artistic reference points. A generation of artists born in the late 1970s and 1980s came of age at a highly particular socio-political moment at the end of the 80s, when a cultural revolution was brewing and a true awareness of the avant-garde had arrived. They are well-educated, versed in the lessons of both Western and Eastern art history and benefit from the freedom to travel, which has enabled them to build extensive international relationships. Not only are they the first ‘post-Mao children’, but they are also a mobile generation of truly global artists.

Despite their mobility, and unlike their predecessors, who tended to go into exile overseas, many in this group have chosen to stay in China. One reason for this is the advantageous working conditions and beneficial economic situation that the country offers (large studios at a fraction of the cost of those in Europe or America, and an upwardly mobile base of patrons to support their work). Additionally, in the new millennium, China has shifted from the cultural periphery to the centre, standing for power, resilience and dynamism, and the artists are eager to be a part of the future development of their homeland.

The Chinese artists who emerged at the beginning of the new century highlight the tremendous creativity of those who are breaking new territory in international contemporary art. These artists tend to adhere to a tradition of post-conceptual art premised upon ideas and artistic concepts rather than materials or formal techniques. Their works are realised as installations, films, sculptures, photographs, computer graphics and paintings. Audiences are confronted with a variety of works that tell stories about universal topics of power and politics, identity, history, memory and nostalgia. Other works take on abstract notions like time, unpredictability, chance and illusion.  Like the society in which they live, the artists are acutely aware of their place in history, and there is a profound intermingling of joyfulness and unadulterated aspiration with serious social and political questions.  

Xu Zhen (b. 1977) ‘goes to war’ in his installation entitled 18 Days (2006), staging a fictive invasion of an indefinable neighbouring country, a parody of a war machine. In more recent works influenced by new technology and possible narratives inspired by the internet, he transforms quotations and references from different cultures. Sun Xun (b. 1980) takes us through a cityscape, narrating a fragmented, enigmatic and layered story of political powers, all traversed by his reflections on truth, memory and the human condition. Zhang Ding (b. 1980) also evokes a city, through a sound installation that offers a sound-scape of the Chinese Islamic city Linxia in the Gangu province, while Liu Wei (b. 1965) has created a fragile cosmopolitan city of buildings made out of pigskin, which reflect histories and signs of power in public places. Cao Fei’s (b. 1978) city is presented through an interactive work – a parallel society accessed through the Second Life virtual computer world, which raises questions of identity and newly emerging social orders. Xue Tao (b. 1975) recycles newspapers into hanging spiral ropes, and Chu Yun (b. 1977) creates the illusion of a starry night sky, which turns out to be a constellation of office and home furnishing equipment – a scene of out-dated technology recalling the ephemerality of consumerism. The artist also tells intimate social stories through objects such as a selection of used soaps culled from public bathrooms, which have gone through many different hands, a metaphor for individual expression and collective binding and awareness. Zhang Huan (b. 1965), who lived for more than ten years in New York, is known for his performances, loaded with spirituality and undertaken in extreme situations. Recently, he has transferred and reinvented the presence of mystism and spirituality into paintings made with incense ashes, which he collects from temples in Shanghai. When used in associatation with certain images such as the American flag, the ashes conjure layers of possible meanings. Liu Chang (b. 1979) presents an inventory of clothes that he bought from people in the street (in fact he bought not just their clothes, but everything they had on them), usurping and exposing their external material identity. Zhou Zixi (b. 1970) paints historical references into the modern skyline of Shanghai, mixing times and reactivating memory. Yang Fudong (b. 1971), one of China’s pre-eminent video artists, has created highly personal cinematographic narratives frequently without linearity or authoritarian chronology, with images presenting and transmitting moods and impressions related to the present but always with an important sense of nostalgia, resulting in a moving and sublime aesthetic. There is also an abundance of subtle, poetic works conveying a certain kind of absurdity, like the paintings of Duan Jianyu (b. 1970), where stewardesses feed geese with bananas, or where seals picnic in the countryside alongside people. A work by Zhou Tao (b. 1976) entitled Chick Speaks to Duck, Pig Speaks to Dog (2005), where different people, placed in the trees of a park, imitate the sounds of animals in what ultimately builds to become an astonishing musical, is at once humorous and serious, addressing systems of communication. Pak Sheung Chuen’s (1977) photo collage is ‘documentation’ of him waiting listlessly at the train station for someone he knows to unexpectingly show up – a reflection on the notions of time, haphazardness and unpredictability.

The Chinese contemporary artists from these different generations are all in one way or another caught in a productive tension between tradition and modernity – between being global citizens and denizens of an unprecedented period of vitality on the Asian mainland. They situate their practice in a reaction to the social and spatial infrastructure of their country, but they are also citizens of the world, as we can see from the many foreign iconographical references in their work. Eminently original, poetic, dramatic and even frightening, these ambitious works narrate transcultural fictions.

Chinese Summer, and the collection of Chinese contemporary works in general, must also be seen against the backdrop of the extraordinary development of museums and galleries in China in recent years. Collections are presently being built at high speed in China.  Astrup Fearnley Museet’s collection is not merely a knee-jerk reaction to this state of affairs, however, but a considered response. Above all, it is our intention that the collection serves to complement these burgeoning institutions in China and beyond, and to open more dynamic ways of thinking about Chinese contemporary culture. These works offer a window on to the Chinese contemporary art scene, contextualised by other international works in the Astrup Fearnley Collection.


Gunnar B. Kvaran

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