The Current State of Chinese Contemporary Art

Date: 2023-10-25

Slime Engine, Slimi, 2020, Digital.
Slime Engine, Slimi, 2020, Digital.

Chinese Contemporary Art is a vibrant and ever-evolving field that has been under the international spotlight for the past few decades. From its nascent stages in the late 20th century, when the country began opening up to the world, to the present day, the evolution of Chinese Contemporary Art reflects the socio-political changes, globalisation, and cultural synthesis that the nation has experienced.

The early days of Chinese Contemporary Art, marked by the '85 New Wave' movement, were characterised by a fervent desire for artistic experimentation and freedom of expression. Artists began to break away from the constraints of the state-sanctioned Socialist Realism, engaging in avant-garde practices, reflecting upon their personal identities, and questioning societal norms. However, the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 brought about significant state crackdowns, pushing many artists into the underground or overseas.

The China/Avant-Garde Exhibition, opening on February 5, 1989 at the National Art Museum of China.
The China/Avant-Garde Exhibition, opening on February 5, 1989 at the National Art Museum of China.

The now infamous China/Avant-Garde Exhibition captured this turning point. The China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in February 1989 at the National Art Museum of China was a landmark event in contemporary Chinese art. It showcased over 300 works by nearly 200 artists, including performance art and installations that challenged traditional norms. Controversy arose when artist Xiao Lu fired gunshots at her own installation. It is seen as a precursor to the rise of Chinese contemporary art, highlighting the country's complex relationship with modernity, tradition, and political expression.

The turn of the millennium saw China's rapid economic growth and its increasing integration with the global community. This period witnessed a transformation in the artistic landscape as well. Art districts such as Beijing’s 798 and Shanghai's M50 emerged as hotspots of creativity. Artists began to explore a diverse range of mediums, from painting and sculpture to performance and digital art.

Yu Hong, 2001, Yu Hong, thirty-five years old; 2001 Liu Wa, seven years old, 2001, Acrylic on canvas.

One of the defining features of the contemporary scene is its reflection on rapid urbanisation and its consequences. Artists delve into topics such as displacement, identity, and, like Chengan Xia, the tension between traditional values and modernity. The impact of globalisation has led Chinese artists to adopt a more cosmopolitan outlook, drawing influences from Western art practices while simultaneously critiquing them.

However, it's also essential to understand the dichotomies within Chinese Contemporary Art. While many artists enjoy global acclaim and participate in international art fairs and exhibitions, there is also an undercurrent of censorship and state control. This duality often results in artworks that are layered, allegorical, and, by necessity, subtly critical. Again, a description that Xia’s practice shares much in common with. The landscape of Chinese Contemporary Art is both rich and complex, mirroring the nation's tumultuous journey from tradition to modernity. While it stands tall on the global stage, its roots lie deeply embedded in its unique cultural and historical experiences.

Sun Yitian, Dionysus's Obsessions III, 2022, Acrylic on canvas.
Sun Yitian, Dionysus's Obsessions III, 2022, Acrylic on canvas.

Key artists

  1. Xu Bing: Celebrated for his works that delve into the dynamics of language, culture, and perception, Xu Bing often plays with textual mediums and traditional Chinese calligraphy.
  2. Song Dong: An interdisciplinary artist, Song Dong's oeuvre encompasses performance, video, and installation. He frequently explores themes of memory, impermanence and the urban-rural dichotomy.
  3. Yu Hong: Renowned for her detailed paintings, Yu Hong examines the personal within the broader context of historical and societal changes in China.
  4. Cao Fei: Cao Fei delves into the intersections of technology, society and urban life. Her multimedia artworks offer a lens into post-industrial landscapes and virtual realms.
  5. Chen Tianzhuo: Known for his avant-garde visuals that merge traditional motifs with subcultural elements, Chen Tianzhuo's works traverse the realms of installation, performance and video.

Important artworks

  1. Xu Bing's Book from the Sky (1987-1991): An installation of hand-printed books and scrolls, filled with nonsensical characters, questioning the reliability of language and texts.
  2. Song Dong's Waste Not (2005): A collaboration with his mother, this installation showcases over 10,000 items, reflecting on the Chinese cultural imperative of saving and the complexities of familial relationships.
  3. Yu Hong's Witness to Growth series (2004): A personal chronicle using herself and her family members as subjects, mapping the socio-political changes in China alongside her own life events.
  4. Cao Fei's Whose Utopia? (2006): A video installation that offers a look into the lives of factory workers, juxtaposing their everyday reality with their dreams and aspirations.
  5. Chen Tianzhuo's ISHVARA (2016): A multimedia performance and video that combines elements from various religions, rave culture, and internet imagery, probing into spiritualism in contemporary society.

Young artists to watch

  1. Slime Engine: An enigmatic presence in the world of art, Slime Engine's work is a blend of the contemporary and the uncanny. Often intertwining digital realms with tangible mediums, their artworks delve deep into the modern psyche, exploring themes of virtuality, identity, and the blurring boundaries between reality and the digital frontier.
  2. Sun Yitian: Sun Yitian's artistic vision is a tapestry of vivid imaginaries, profound societal reflections, and personal narratives. Employing a range of mediums, from painting to installations, Sun Yitian's works often challenge perceptions and invite viewers to question and reflect on the intricacies of modern living and cultural amalgamations.
  3. Tao Hui: An artist who masterfully captures the zeitgeist of contemporary life, Tao Hui interweaves personal experiences with broader social issues. Through his engaging video installations and multimedia artworks, Tao Hui takes the audience on an emotional journey, shedding light on identity, cultural intersections, and the human experience in today's globalised world.
  4. Gao Ludi: Gao Ludi's oeuvre is a celebration of colour, form, and emotion. With a distinctive approach to painting, Gao Ludi's canvases are often a blend of the abstract and the representational. Exploring themes like urbanisation, nature, and human relationships, his works provide a refreshing and thoughtful perspective on the dichotomies of contemporary life.

Key texts

  • Wu Hung, Contemporary Chinese Art: A History: 1970s-2000s provides a comprehensive overview of the development of contemporary Chinese art, reflecting socio-political changes and the country's interaction with the global art world.
  • Wu Hung, Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents offers a curated selection of primary documents that provide insights into the thoughts, intentions, and reactions of artists, critics, and officials, shaping the trajectory of Chinese art.
  • Luise Guest, Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China focuses on female Chinese artists, providing a unique perspective on their challenges and contributions to the art scene.
  • Barbara Pollack, Brand New Art From China: A Generation on the Rise explores the lives, aspirations, and challenges of a new generation of Chinese artists, navigating the global art market and their cultural context.