Unknowing is the True Distance between Two Places: A Scant History and Brief List of Contemporary Chinese Art and Artists

Posted: July 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

Who comprises the most famous of the Chinese Art Explosion which is being noticed by the west?  The following is a register of 10 artists who have come to the notice of the international art world with a oh-so-brief intro to the contemporary historical background.

Wang Guangyi, Campbells Soup, 2006

After the walking back, in 1985, of The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, the art world in China saw a boom in creative endeavors and explorations.  Titled the 85 Movement by its members, this vitalistic outburst of artistic activity held sway until the Chinese government initiated a set of reorganizations to weaken “bourgeois liberalism,” (1987) targeting both new political and cultural endeavors which the regime felt were to inclined to the vague materialisms of liberal thinking. In 1988, this campaign against bourgeois liberalism was ended, and China experienced a tentative resurrection of an avant-garde type of artistic and cultural practice. After the effects of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, a clamp- down occurred towards individual expressive actions and,  along with commercial pressures for the artist to produce lucrative item of purchase, forms of experimental artistic production in China was impeded and confined. However isolated in the Academy were pockets of influence from the 85 movement which found release in 1991 with a number of international exhibitions of artists from this milieu (shows included- “The Exceptional Passage”, at the Fukuoka Museum in Japan and “I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne” and Other Works: Selections from the Chinese “New Wave” and “Avant-Garde” Art of the Eighties”, at the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California). The tenor of cultural liberalization, and its begrudging acceptance by the Chinese state,  resulted in the following years (1992) symposium  “Artistic Creation in the New Period”, held in Xishan, a suburb of Beijing, which looked at this art production and its conceptual basis. Included in this meeting were many who were to come to prominence as artists of their era, including Shui Tianzhong, Liu Xiaochun, Gao Minglu, Li Xianting, Shao Dazhen, and Yi Ying.  The first nationwide exhibition of the new exploratory art since the post-Tiananmen pressures, the “Guangzhou First Oil Painting Biennial, opened 1992 in Guangzhou. The exhibition was internally sanctioned and conceived under official agencies of the regime and was meant to encourage the inflation and recognition value of Chinese contemporary art in the domestic and international markets. From this moment to the present the experimental aspects of contemporary art (and artists) have had an ingrained, if problematic, relation to the Chinese state.

(Note:  Due to vast gender inequalities prevalent in the nature of both the western and eastern art worlds (as with the cultural apparatus in this regard as well) this list contains mostly male artists.  However we have begun to see a smattering of female artists begin to come out of the Chinese art worlds only recently, and even a few exhibitions of their work given over to their work.  A later post will look at a selection of these women artist! Good stuff.)

Ai Weiwei, Documenta 12 Installation, Template, 2007

Ai Weiwei

At the moment one of the most well know and notorious of contemporary artists within the Chinese State, Ai Weiwei’s work continually expounds the intersections of normalized iconography and re-conceptual imaginings.  Using an immense and complex instance of divergent mediums – from Photography, architecture, installation sculpture to performance art – many of Ai’s works attempt to dismount the ideology of icons, cultural positioning and social vestiges through the humor of critique and application of interrogation.  His work often is directed to actively contest symbolic Chinese sites, and the sites of Chinese symbols, with wittily politicized actions, signs, mediums and gestures. His pivotal work on the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium was gesturally withdrawn by him as a critique of the Chinese Communist Party.

Ai Weiwei was a son the renowned poet Ai Qing who fell from Mao Zedong’s favor and, due to this; Ai spent his seminal years of youth in a Xinjiang labor camp as part of his father’s political reassessment and re-education. This disturbing incident informs much of the direction of influence to Ai’s work which is founded on a directly political stylistics and strong governmental critique.

See Ai Weiwei hompage here.

Yue Minjun, Hat Series – Armed Forces, 2005

Yue Minjun
Considered the most famous contemporary artist, Yue Minjun’s exploratory self-portraits are well-known for their stringently bemused sarcasm and teetering intensity of institutional skepticism. Working in a caustic surrealistic style which has been dubbed Chinese “cynical realism”, Yue Minjun nonetheless rejects the underlying connection his work has with this “movement”. The signature and exaggerated “laughing bark” is both prominent and prevalent throughout the execution of most of Yue’s work and become a means to detail a disquieting disconnection between the overly gleeful facial (and redundant) expressions and the  unsettling content combined with the desperate scenes they elucidate. (His work Execution, set a record for the most costly Chinese contemporary artwork sold to date coming in to around 5.9 million USD.)

See Ye Minjun page at the Saatchi Gallery.

Cai Guoqiang, Fallen Blossoms 2009

Cai Guo-Qiang

Using the excessive pyrotechnics of display and spectacle Cai began his concerns of excess and awe after moving to Japan. His most famous of “detonation happenings”, from which his most obvious notice from the international community was incurred, was the fireworks spectacle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Though still working in Japan Cai garners his multitude of visualizations from an array of Chinese iconography and concepts and his current production includes sculpture and painting. His frequent assessments of his own work are steadily political and have made him and his productions a controversial item within his homeland.

See Cai Guo-Qiang’s homepage here.

Zhang Xiaogang, Big Family 1998 (from Bloodline Series)

Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang is looked upon as a fundamental integrator of symbolist portraiture, everyday surrealist, and tonal field painter working within the Chinese context. Using unspecified and anonymous portraits of families and individuals, which draw heavily upon inspiration from, both, the emblematic generic family snapshot and Mao era family photo portraits, Zhang works with the collectivist Chinese character and the unsettled encounters with a painterly European field and international individualistic ideology. His signature conceptual, and painterly, stylistics is the use of reoccurant facial features within familial ties to represent an uneasy and expressionless collectivism submerging the individual with the flat detail of color to denote eruption of a miniscule individuality.  The Portraiture work, which is reminiscent of standardized studio photos  and detailed primarily in a dispersive gray leaking to nebulous black and white, is disrupted by locations of color carefully alluding to the turmoil of the expressive subjective countering both the surface of painterly sameness and contained guise of the group.

See Zhang Xiaogang’s Website here, or his description at Saatchi Gallery here.

Zhang Huan, 1/2, 1998

Zhang Huan

Beginning his artistic career as a performance artist and photographer in Beijing Zhang used his exposed body as the frail testing site for explorations of the milieu and the uncontrollable circumstances of the human. Zhang’s more recent work explores the conglomerate of people and how this infuses and alters the world around them.   Zhang’s use of human physical presence is used in a number of recent works including his intriguing To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond by One Meter  where he photographed the displacement of water though the partial submersion of  40 migrant workers.

See Zhang Huan’s Webpages here. Or Zhang’s Altered States site at the Asia Society which has many quotes from the Artist.

Fang Lijun, Untitled 2, 2005

Fang Lijun
One of the prominent members of china’s “cynical realism” movement, Fang’s signature imagery of the bald repetitive figure was settled upon in his early paintings and would find home throughout his work until very recently. Fang’s work explores the philosophical and political dilemma continually at play between the elaboration of the individual and the mechanisms of the collective (which is shared by the majority of the “cynical realist” painters).

A runthrough of Fang Lijun’s Cynical Realism by Ben Davidson at Beijing Scene.  Or An Assesment of Fang Lijun at Artzine (Chinese contemporary Art)

Wang Guangyi, Swatch, 2006

Wang Guangyi
Recognized figure within the  “political pop” movement of China (Initiated by influences of the American Pop movement in the 80’s, and though small comparatively to other movements within China, members include – Yu Youhan, Li Shan, Liu Dahong, Feng Zhengjie, Zeng Hao, and Li Bangyao), Wang Guangyi reinvests the definitive propaganda posters of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) with the compulsive advertising imagery of the commodity culture to illuminate the capitalist containments of the post-industrial era . His Great Criticism series, was a means for Wang to incorporate the graphic display of Western marketing logos with the cultural display of the defined and idealized Chinese soldier/worker. The integration of images, collectivist propaganda and empty branding icon, gave a lilting and comic critique to the unlikely convergence of controlled uniformity emanating from Mao-era iconographic propaganda melded (and ideologically intersecting) with the relentless western advertising.

See Escape into Life’s short portrait of Wang Guangyi with many examples of work. Art Asia Pacific does a good synopsis of the direction of Guangyi’s work in “Reasoning with Idols”.

Gu Wenda, China Monument, Temple of Heaven 1998

Gu Wenda
A contemporaneous leader of the ’85 Movement (1985 was a seminal year for the development of the Chinese art production. The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, 1983(see Wendy Larson’s excellent essay “Realism, Modernism and the Anti-spiritual Pollution Campaign in China”, pdf), had been ended against “western style liberalism. Released from the restraints of the Pollution Campaign, multitudinous new art and numerous art groups expanded across many and divergent mediums –literature, dance, music, visual art, film. This historical art phenomenon came to be known as the ’85 Movement).  Originally working within woodcarving and traditional Chinese calligraphy in an attempt to simplify the Chinese language (The process of simplifying Chinese characters was officially started in 1950, the year after the People’s Republic of China was founded. The final list of simplified characters and radicals was published in 1956, though work continues and is debated*). , Gu later began to import cross discipline imagery to his work in the midst of the explosions initiated by the 85 wave of arts. Visiting the United States in 1987 Gu became engrossed in the entanglement of humans within the mechanism of globalism and how a art my resist the conformity of commodification of the subject. Using the locale of the body to create his art Gu hopes to confront the contested tyranny of the normal by producing worked based from the body and its products. (See the United Nations Project created via human hair).

See Gu Wenda’s site.  Or Artzine’s synopsis of Gu’s work.

Zeng Fanzhi,Mask Series No 19 2011

Zeng Fanzhi
At first sight, Zeng Fanzhi’s work may be classed with the “cynical realism” movement. However, his use of a pensive reflective existential iconography wanders beyond the “cynical realists” questionings of the collectivist and the social/political, and instead moves distinctly towards an confrontation of the  individuality of the isolated (and isolated) person captured in a emphatically unresolved emotional display.  Daily emotive incidents formulate the elements of his work and the shared human confrontations of the solitary individual are his focus. Zeng’s work presents a simplistic and almost kitschy attack on painterly surface, with clashing scale and ambiguous depths, to look at the mute isolation and confrontational seclusion which confronts the ubiquitous urban dwellers of the global age.

Saatchi’s profile of Zeng Fanzhi.  And Artzine’s profile.

Zhang Dali, Demolition, Forbidden City Beijing 1998

Zhang Dali
Urban activist and Graffiti artist Zhang Dali is most known for his multitude of divergent self-portraits created through action and spray-painting onto the decaying structure of thousands of abandoned and crumbling structures in Beijing. A critique of the direction of urbanism and controlled capitalism of the new regime these portraits became an inscription of individual loss and submersion in the development and destruction of the elderly by the careening mobility of the new, but questionably dispersed, political economy. (see also: his work, Chinese Offspring (2003-5) with full life Resin figures of migrant workers displayed upside down connoting the tenuousness of the unrecognized individual within the nation-state.)

Artzine’s profile.


* After the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, the government began an institutionally sanction simplification of Chinese characters. In 1950, the Education Department of the Chinese Republic compiled the first of its registration forms for simplified characters. In 1951, the first comprehensive list of simplified Chinese characters was published, which included 555 characters. 1956 saw the officially published The Plan for Simplifying Chinese Characters in the state-run paper the Peoples Daily (The paper is an organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC)). In 1964 The Glossary of Simplified Characters, was published which included 2,261 complicated characters and 2,235 simplified characters.

  1. Maaretta says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve heard a little bit of talk about Chinese art and artist, but outside of Ai Weiwei I was fairly unfamiliar with the Chinese art movements.
    I worked as a guard at a museum where Ai Weiwei’s work were shown. The art was indeed interesting, but I felt that as a westerner and as a person who knows very little about Chinese history or culture, I didn’t fully understand all of the politics and social commentary Ai Weiwei was depicting in his work. I actually felt that the Ai Weiwei is very particularly speaking to the Chinese, so I got little out of the work. However, that isn’t a critic; it’s a compliment. I think it’s good Ai Weiwei is trying to get the Chinese to rethink their culture and history. A good artist should attempt people to rethink their worlds and the cultures they live in, no matter where the artist lives or is from.

    Zhang Huan’s piece shown in this post disturbed me, which I loved. I think I’ll check out what other works he’s made!

    Good post!

    • hapstance says:

      Thanks for the input. And yes check out Zhang’s work. A bit more stead than this posted picture, but interesting use of his body, and later branching out to the social as located in the collective body..

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