Written by Lee Ambrozy
It is impossible to summarise neatly the multifaceted and vast metaconcept of ‘Chinese contemporary art’ or the art world from which it emerges. Without approaching the problematic nature of the term, the fraught work of curators who attempt to engage with artworks from China thematically, or my own outsider status as an international roving art critic, I wish to propose a more emic approach to such a synopsis. Borrowing from social media’s format of sharing experiences of near and far-off places, this approach will help those situated outside the Chinese art world to gain insight into that complex ecosystem while leaving something to the imagination. In contemporary China, one social-media platform in particular has overhauled the lives of people from every social strata, and it has been equally as influential on art production and the art world: Wechat, or Weixin in Chinese. In any single Wechat post, the greatest possible number of images is nine. Thus, I’ve chosen nine concepts to share in lieu of images, in the hope that readers may piece together a larger picture of China’s art world in their minds.
WeChat is an extraordinary phone app that synthesises the functions of Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, mobile wallets, RSS feed aggregators, and self-publishing platforms. It has changed how people negotiate their relationships and the way and speed with which the art world spins. A phone app merits discussion in this context simply because it is a social juggernaut, and has become an indispensable tool for curating exhibitions and promoting artists. Chinese Summer presents a constellation of artworks linked by sometimes tenuous notions of ethnicity or nationality. This essay-cum-social-media post strives to outline a more rigorous network of potential associations by which audiences might see deeper into the works, individually and collectively, and maps nine conceptual reference points that can connect or distinguish the artworks from one another.
The notion of a singular, monolithic China holds currency both domestically and across the globe. It echoes official narratives of a culturally derived nationalism that draws the Mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and an overseas diaspora into a seamless nexus of shared values or ‘Chineseness’. When viewed from a distance, the ‘China’ rubric coheres, but upon closer inspection is a superficial and sometimes unintelligible imaginary. Not only do cultural divisions separate the littoral zones of China’s east from deserts in the west and the Tibetan Plateau, but Mandarin and Cantonese linguistic divides distinguish north and south.
Cities are distinct intellectual centres of gravity hosting unique artist communities, some boasting millennia of history. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou represent the largest discrete contemporary art worlds, separate but linked, each with a local art economy, academy, representative style, histories, and museums.
Beijing artists derive power from their proximity to the central government; the city has always been a magnet for migrants who have sought opportunities from the international flows of resources funnelled there. The capital has a history of protest art, beginning with the Stars Art Group in 1979, the Democracy Wall in 1981 and the Yuanmingyuan painter’s village in the 1990s. Shanghai, on the other hand, contends with Beijing as China’s art and culture capital. It is the cosmopolitan centre of finance, has the highest concentration of private contemporary art museums and an unrivalled quality of life. Further south, Guangzhou’s close proximity to Hong Kong steeped its artists in capitalist culture well before those living inland, and its great distance from the capital continues to foster relaxed political attitudes and stronger ties to traditional culture. Many cities boast distinct art movements, including Hangzhou, Wuhan, Kunming, Xiamen, Chengdu and Xi’an, each instance of locality disproving any notion of universal Chineseness in art. In native terms, a monolithic ‘China’ has less substantial effects on art production than local discourses.
Proof of China’s decades-long push towards urbanisation, the nation is home to nine of the world’s 37 megacities, which are defined by a population over 10 million. In China, contemporary art is born and transpires within them, the optimal social and intellectual networks boasting a particular type of urbanity. The psychological toll on people living in megacities uniquely shapes contemporary art production on multiple levels, influencing and acting upon artists in myriad ways. In artworks, the city performs as muse, as object depicted, as backdrop or stage, or acts as a vast and generous repository of formal shapes, materials and narratives.
For their residents, megacities present an overwhelming matrix of spatiotemporal relations and potentialities. At certain angles, the dense urbanscapes of Asia prove that a sci-fi future has already arrived. Yet layers of history are revealed through cracks in the surface, the quick bursts of ephemeral ancient architecture that puncture an otherwise unassailable spectacle of monotonous concrete-and-glass towers. These moments make residents astutely aware of an archaeology of the present; they remind that a city’s networks spread across time just as they expand across space. Artists in such cities are free to inhabit any or all of these spaces.
Constant change is an inescapable reality of contemporary China. A state of flux permeates all levels of society, cities and rural areas, evinced in the prevalence of new constructions and irreverent demolitions. The mutability of the built environment is mirrored by a sense of social and political instability, and reflected in the art world via themes of ephemerality and impermanence, asymmetry, disjunction and sometimes a sense of isolation.
Life in flux makes particular demands upon the artist, who must adapt to intangible and concrete factors, such as studios disappearing from the margins of cities, demolished to make way for new real-estate developments. The rate of change seems to be increasing exponentially, a velocity that in turn influences the lifespan of an artwork: from inception, to completion, to exhibition, the creative process unfolds at breakneck speed, often without the chance for contemplative digestion. Liu Chuang’s Buying Everything On You, 2006, poignantly captures a sense of human existence at a singular moment in time, enshrining a fragile second in an urban dweller’s lifetime.
Proliferation in the art world befits the world’s second-most populous nation and global manufacturing champion. For a growing population of artists, opportunities for exhibiting art have multiplied exponentially in the past several years. Not only are there more commercial galleries, but they range from blue chip to start-ups; museums are multiplying and spreading to smaller cities across China; independent and non-profit spaces host artistic collaborations, performance lectures, panel discussions and reading groups that compete with larger institutions for audiences. For art workers, the small armies of student volunteers at museums, or the contemporary art flaneur, opportunities to see art abound, with the number of events rivalling those in any major international art city. For artists, the request to fill an enormous museum or post-industrial gallery space with new works is not unheard of. Artistic output soars.
In the expanding world of art discourse, small, independent art publishers have arrived, seeing more art historical, theoretical and critical content translated into Chinese then ever before. Hans Belting, Boris Groys, Jacques Ranciere, Artforum magazine and the panoply of international art voices are regularly translated and discussed in tandem with native intellectuals such as Wang Hui. These voices coalesce into one seamless, cosmopolitan discourse. With the addition of self-publishing through social media and the web, intellectual output has mushroomed and more critical voices have emerged, some choosing anonymity, others not. There is simply more of everything, and despite censorship of the ‘Chinternet’, everything is available, intellectually, materially, spiritually, as long as one seeks it out.
A ruthless ambition currently characterises the endeavours of businessmen, politicians and artists alike. New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos, in his 2014 award-winning book Age of Ambition, called it China’s ‘Gilded Age’. Drive and initiative in art can be evidenced in enormous physical scale of artworks, or in the energy and resources sometimes poured into them. A desire to work with unusual, fragile or labour-intensive materials is often seen in contemporary art. Cai Guo-qiang and his gunpowder-explosion events are among the most ambitious in scale; Hue Tao’s rigorous manipulation of newspaper into ropes is another. However, artists surrounded by an atmosphere of tireless ambition do not necessarily succumb to its pitfalls. Understated or naive stylistic approaches and the use of deliberately non-precious materials are common artistic strategies, as in the painting of Duan Jianyu.
A growing pool of art collectors also strives to amass the biggest and most inclusive collections, with opening a private museum as the endgame. There are now several such institutions, including Yan Zhijie’s Red Brick Museum in Beijing and Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum in Shanghai. The most renowned is the Long Museum in Shanghai, owned by former cab driver-turned billionaire Liu Yiqian and his wife. In 2015 Liu charged a Modigliani nude to his American Express card for $170.4 million. It was the second-highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction, and he had already broken records for the highest price paid for a Chinese antiquity the year before – twice. Extraordinary stories are merely one symptom of the unchecked ambition.
Chinese artists today flaunt an impressive sophistication of personal influences and aesthetic breadth. Most have made the pilgrimage to Venice, Basel or Miami, have toured major European museums and galleries in New York or London, and they draw on the increasingly internationalised and expanding art economies at home. Discriminating style is a must-have accessory in the Chinese art world. Sophistication in art reveals itself in purposefully cosmopolitan formal vocabularies. ‘Chinese characteristics’ are no longer desirable; artists have absorbed the full spectrum of twentieth-century art history within a few short decades and are eager to build on the narrative. In terms of visual languages, gaps no longer separate artists working in China from their colleagues across the world, and the same can be said for audience expectations.
Art-world infrastructure has quickly matched the calibre of world-class exhibition spaces overseas, with international starchitects making regular appearances in cityscapes here: Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Stephen Holl, Arata Isozaki have multiple realised buildings in China. We can add to this an entire class of gallerists who swim fluently in international waters, floating rafts of international artists. But sophistication doesn’t always imply looking towards an imagined ‘West’ – plenty of complexity can be found at home.
Once typified by an eagerness to look externally for artistic sustenance and opportunities, artists in China have a native discourse more cosmopolitan and refined than ever before, and they are more willing than ever to engage with it. An increasing self-reflexivity is identifiable in their work, as is a willingness to build upon and reference native histories. While language barriers largely obfuscate this discourse to outsiders, it is more robust than ever thanks to the proliferation of art-related media.
The new generation of contemporary artists must reckon with formidable predecessors – Cai Guo-qiang, Huang Yong Ping, Ai Weiwei, to name a few. If earlier artists self-identified through Chinese symbols, younger artists eschew obvious signs of Chineseness, but find continuity on a conceptual level. An example of this is the Post-Sense Sensibility artists led by Qiu Zhijie, whose manifesto on art beyond mere sensation began with an exhibition in 1999 and has been reprised over several exhibitions since. The newly robust exhibition culture, including a series of emerging artist surveys hosted by the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, has also created more internal benchmarks for native art discourse.
Self-reflexivity can also be interpreted as the revisiting of traditional media, similar to Qiu Anxiong or Sun Xun’s quasi-ink aesthetic, actually acrylic paints striving to achieve ink effects. It can also denote an artist’s reference to him or herself. This is endemic in Kan Xuan’s oeuvre, in her Looking Looking Looking for…, 2001, for example, as well as in Chu Yun’s Who Has Stolen Our Bodies, 2003, and in Zhou Tao’s works.
A long, illustrious legacy of decorative arts in China has fostered sensitivity to materials and materiality. While all artists train in Soviet-style studios and focus on observational realism in the traditional plastic arts, many are quick to look for new materials that push the limits of possible media. Materiality is often essential to a work’s interpretation as materials become vehicles for allegory. Liu Wei’s Love It, Bite It!, 2007, for instance, is a survey of global monumental architecture rendered in rawhide dog chews. Natural media and surfaces, wood, clay, and living plants are increasingly on display; found objects are also important, with reclaimed furniture a frequent trope. In a nod to megacities, materials appropriated from building sites such as concrete or brick are often employed. Commingling several media into a single artwork, as in Zhang Ding’s practice, is common, and artists often strive to activate viewer’s intellectual and sensory perceptions simultaneously.
The documentary function implied by photography and film lends a veneer of truth, and the performative aspects inherent in both are widely exploited. Cao Fei's iconic series COSPlayers delineates the fine divide between truth and fiction, while the hyperrealism in Madein Company’s Play, 2011, demonstrates not only how porous the boundary can be, but also the motivations of artists to manipulate it. Despite a broadening definition of media tools, some artists simply choose to expand the potential of traditional arts. Painting as a formal language is being taken up by many capable hands, and has evolved into a subtle conversation of brushwork and narratives between artists that is unlike anything I have seen outside of China. The works on canvas of Zhou Zixi or Liu Weijian are examples, their content sometimes absurd, at other times perplexingly banal, but evincing a discussion between practitioners unfolding on a material level. Overall, subverting the aesthetic and narrative prerogatives of ‘official’ artists or state-commissioned artworks is a shared intention of most contemporary artists. Rigid painters and sculptors working in figurative modes still represent the vast majority in China, despite the press that contemporary art receives worldwide.
The spectre of Socialist Realism looms in the art academies and in visual culture, demonstrating that legibility in art is the enterprise of the state, thus it is no surprise that contemporary artists gravitate towards its opposite. A sense of ambiguity, or deliberate abstruseness is a common artistic strategy, a mode of abstraction that is deployed across all types of media. Perhaps it is an unconscious reaction to the omniscient watchful gaze or to varying degrees of censorship, although it is not exclusive to Chinese artists. The complex operations of allegory and metaphor, however, do permit the author to shrug off any incriminating interpretations. The ambiguity has roots in absurdity or the divination-based creative processes of older artists, Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping respectively.
My goal here has not been to seek critical messages where they may not exist, only to point out that much more lies outside each frame, and that open-ended possibilities are strengths in many artworks produced in contemporary China. Similarly, the conceptual viewpoints outlined here are partial explanations, short discussions that offer mere glimpses into some of the potentialities currently playing out in Chinese contemporary art. Hopefully, they will germinate new understandings, and, taken either collectively or individually, help to frame the context that these artworks share.