ARTicle

CONTEMPORARY ART FROM CHINA – REWRITING WORLD ART HISTORY

by Antoinette du Plessis 4 September 2007

Over the last decade, contemporary Chinese art has entered world markets in a steadily surging wave. Prices rise and rise; collectors, museums and galleries cannot get enough of new art coming out of China. In Beijing, as elsewhere in China, artists’ villages are mushrooming; galleries appear everywhere.
 
Though the boom in Chinese art has taken many Western collectors by surprise, others believe that it was inevitable, even predictable, for a variety of intertwined reasons. 
 
Firstly, historical: The Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong’s brutal 1960s and 70s campaign to retain power by mobilizing the Red Guards to persecute rivals, authors, artists, and religious figures with dissident ideas, produced a population intimidated into conformity. Many people lost their lives and survivors were coerced into acceptance of Mao’s socialist prescriptions. Mao died in September 1976 and his successor, Deng Xiaoping, opened China’s economy selectively to Western capitalism and to foreign cultural influence. 
 
The dominant artistic idiom was one of social realism, promoting communal values and strongly discouraging individualism. Artists born during the 60s and 70s grew up in an atmosphere of fear and the disappearance of family and friends amid violence and official denial. They were young adults when the army cracked down on protesting students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, killing an unknown number of civilians and ushering in Post-Maoist liberalisation in waves of revolt and repression. As Chinese society embraces Western style consumerism, strange juxtapositions with older Socialist ideas present artists with ample potential for expressive and ironic comment. 
 
Secondly, demographics: China is a vast country with a vast population. It stands to reason that the country would produce a large number of artists who have to be fiercely competitive for economic survival. The emergence of a relatively small number of exceptionally talented, even genial, artists is a logical outcome. 
 
And then, artistic tradition: Chinese artistic traditions and their pride in craftmanship, honed through centuries of continuous civilization, have reached profound levels of technical mastery and philosophical diversity. These artistic traditions, ranging from bronze casting to fine painting to ceramics and calligraphy, present Chinese artists with a wealth of material to draw upon in creating new, yet unmistakably Chinese, artistic idioms. 
 
In addition to these issues, the world of collecting contemporary art has expanded, and continues to expand right around the globe. Demand for emerging art grows as the number of serious collectors and investors grow. There is no sign that this market has reached anything like an apex yet, nor will it soon: contemporary art markets have become extremely diverse and very sophisticated; dealers, collectors and artists appear in any conceivable incarnation, and in any conceivable corner of the globe. As long as this diversity produces demand as well as supply, market conditions will remain buoyant and profitable. 
 
The concept ‘contemporary’ implies a short time frame, it adds excitement and turnover and ensures an ever renewing, ever growing market, with ever expanding fashions and fads, always something new, always something more exciting than the previous best thing around. Auction houses reach higher and higher prices, galleries reach more and more buying clients, turning times get shorter and shorter, liquidity becomes lighter and lighter, and so contemporary art has become an attractive asset class. 
 
The place to visit in search of contemporary Chinese art, is Factory 798, an abandoned military electronics complex in Beijing. A vast district, a cavernous labyrinth of artist’s homes and studios, it is claimed by some to be the third most visited Beijing attraction after the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. American and European museums are increasingly establishing branches here, for the complex has become a primary source of new art, and the home of some of China’s best-known contemporary artists.
 
34 Long Fine Art flew to Beijing to investigate and brought back some gems to introduce to the Cape Town art world. Some of the artists whose works will be shown in the gallery in October, include:
Wang Guangyi works in a style known as ‘political pop’: he pairs proletarian figures in Cultural Revolution propaganda style with corporate logos in the flat, colourful idiom of American pop. The graphic languages of ideological communication and corporate advertising (visually, the two are astoundingly close) are used to send what appears to be a bold message, yet its exact content remains unclear. Does the artist mock or affirm Maoist ideology with the uneasy, unexplained relationship he draws between consumerism and political control? Perhaps he does no more than comment cynically that subjugation and coercion of innocent people will happen, in one form or another, whether through political or economic power. 

 

 


Yue Minjun
repeats his laughing self-portrait in virtually all his work. His toothy, laughing figure has become one of the best-known icons of the 1990s style known as cynical realism, a trend that evolved as artistic aspirations collapsed in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square and the closing of the “China Avant Garde” exhibition at the Beijing China National Gallery in 1989. Artists turned to irony and indifference as a response to hopes dashed by political realities. Yue’s art contains humour and cynicism in equal measure, and comments on Chinese traditions with optimism and mistrust and every emotion in between. 
Zhang Xiaogang is one of Beijing’s eminent contemporary artists. Zhang has been painting professionally since the early 1980s, when he worked in a dreamy surrealist idiom. He exchanged this for a subtler, psychologically charged ‘photographic’ style in the 1990s, when rediscovered family photographs taken during the Cultural Revolution became a source of inspiration for his ‘bloodline’ series of works. The visual language of official photography – standardised formal frontality, impassive, touched-up facial features, deadpan eyes – is used to create evocative, melancholy images of altered histories, painful individual destinies tied up in memories of collective repression. Xiaogang’s concern with family ties finds expression in a subtle bloodline locking individuals into secret ancestral compulsions and unknown futures; strange patches of light attest to forgetfulness and willfulness; exposed genitals speak of vulnerability. 

The Luo brothers (Luo Wei Guo, Luo Wei Dong and Luo Wei Bing), all trained in fine art, hail from the south of China and have been producing art in Beijing for some years. They lived through the Cultural Revolution, and their work speaks of the disorientation of living through rapid modernization. Their well-known and much sought after series of mixed media works entitled ‘Welcome Famous Brands of the World’ combine a riot of iconic images, traditional, revolutionary and consumerist, on backgrounds of radiating beams of colour. Banal images, embedded in shiny lacquer, evoke traditional decorative Chinese art while proclaiming the demise of spiritual values. Or do they announce consumerism as the new spirituality? The Luo brothers are represented on this show by ‘Welcome Famous Brands of the World’ 08, a unique work of collage and lacquer paint on panel. 
 
The Gao brothers, Zhen and Qiang, may be described as China’s answer to Gilbert and George. They were born in Shandong Province, China, in 1956 and 1962, respectively. Zhen graduated from Shandong Academy of Arts and Crafts and Qiang graduated from Qufu Normal University. They have been cooperating on art projects since 1985 and have exhibited widely, including at the China National Art Museum in Beijing. They run two studios in Factory 798: one for sculpture and one for photography. 
Sheng Qi was born in Hefei in China in 1965. After the Tiananmen massacre, he removed the little finger of his left hand and buried it in a flower pot before embarking on a decade of self-imposed exile. He completed a masters degree at Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design in London and returned to Beijing as a well-known performance artist, painter and photographer. His mutilated hand, symbolizing disappearance as experience, has become central to his art, a constant reminder of China’s troubled history.

Huang Gang who hails from Beijing, grew up during the Cultural Revolution. He holds a masters degree from Beijing Central Academy of Art and Design. Gang’s art focuses on Chinese cultural identity, which he perceives to be threatened by political systems and increasing materialism. Using the abstract language of traditional Chinese calligraphy together with ancient Tibetan motifs, he creates works of austere harmony and deep symbolic resonance. A lifelong student of Tibetan culture, art and religion, Gang believes his art conveys a Buddhist tranquility which contrasts with the visual noise intrinsic to abstract expressionism.
 
World art history will never be the same. Beijing is the new London, New York and Paris combined. 

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