A New Generation of Chinese Artists

Jul 29, 2014 1:29 pm

Curious about new Chinese art but can’t afford a ticket to Beijing? Try Florida.

“My Generation: Young Chinese Artists,” including 27 artists under 39, was organized by New York-based Barbara Pollack, author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (2010). Currently at the Tampa Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg (through Sept. 28), the exhibition will move this fall to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (Oct. 25, 2014-Jan. 18, 2015).

The show’s focus couldn’t be more timely, given two major tendencies now at play (and somewhat at loggerheads) in the People’s Republic.

On the one hand, ink painting and calligraphy are enjoying a resurgence—part of a reclamation of cultural identity and history taking place in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s destroy-and-rebuild policies. On the other hand, globalism is embraced by experimental artists of the sort featured in “My Generation.”

Meanwhile, critical (to say nothing of financial) speculation grows intense. In 2012, Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts solicited international nominations to bolster its “CAFAM Future” exhibition of 95 young artists. The following year, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, offered “On|Off,” its own survey of 50 practitioners aged 37 and under. The most recent Venice Biennale, also in 2013, was awash in approximately 350 Chinese artists.

Given all this Chinese self-scrutiny, what is the value of a Western look at the country’s art? Could an outsider, though less attuned to internal nuances, have a clearer view of global receptivity to new Chinese work? With such questions in mind, A.i.A. visited “My Generation” and conferred with Pollack both on-site and by e-mail.

RICHARD VINE What do you find distinctive about this generation of Chinese artists?

BARBARA POLLACK These artists were all born after 1976, the year Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended. Unlike their predecessors, who lived through a time when all Chinese art was state-controlled and the country was largely isolated, they grew up with a booming market economy and access to lots of information about the outside world. They don’t employ the Cultural Revolution iconography found in works by Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and other older artists. Instead, they are more likely to reflect global art movements and popular culture. But, they also deal with conditions shaping China today, such as the one-child policy and rampant urbanization.

VINE What is their relationship to the newly reasserted Chinese cultural identity—especially as seen in recent ink painting and calligraphy?

POLLACK I find that very few artists in this age group are interested in revisiting ink painting or classical motifs. Two artists in the exhibition—Sun Xun and Shi Zhiying—draw on ink painting, but most of the others are looking at the present. In his installation No Man’s Land [2014], Jin Shan goes so far as to have cutout motifs from classical painting (e.g., crane, chrysanthemum) cast shadows on a futuristic urban structure, suggesting the distance between himself and his painter father. Rather than insisting on their “Chineseness,” the participants in “My Generation” almost always define themselves as global artists.

VINE Do they have a sense of community—embattled or otherwise—comparable to that of the ’85 New Wave pioneers or the early ’90s artist-village denizens?

POLLACK I did not find that they seek to be part of a school or movement, or view themselves as a single community. Instead, their chief characteristic is a pursuit of individuality and a signature style. Still, Chinese artists do have an enormous sense of sociability, and many of the artists in the exhibition are friends, alumni of the same art academies and residents of the same neighborhoods. They offer each other enormous support and camaraderie.

VINE How do they see the artist’s role in the entrepreneurial New China?

POLLACK As aptly illustrated in Ma Qiusha’s haunting video self-portrait, most of these artists were singled out for their talent in elementary school and went through rigorous instruction. This is difficult and narrowly focused education, like that required for other professions. However, many of the participants say that they wanted to be artists not because of the strict training (which many rebel against in their works) but because of the relatively free lifestyle they enjoy compared to their friends working in professions or business.

VINE Is there any vestige here of Mao’s “art for the people”?

POLLACK If anything, the artists in “My Generation” reject the notion that art should serve the state, or have a sociopolitical agenda at all. As these artists are increasingly exposed to Western art, their work has evolved in ways that might be considered elitist in China. It diverges from both classical and realist painting, which are familiar and reassuring to Chinese viewers. This is why the Irrelevant Commission collective is so interesting. By working directly with their parents on video projects and installations, they try to bridge this gap, one that is both generational and cultural.

VINE Are video and new media becoming the dominant means of expression?

POLLACK There are so many great video and new media artists in China that it was difficult to limit the number in this exhibition. As it is, a third of the artists represented here work in video or animation. For some, new media is a way of escaping realist painting, the core of their art education. Quite a few of them—including Lu Yang, Doublefly Art Center and Sun Xun—attended the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where video art pioneer Zhang Peili teaches in a technologically up-to-date facility.

VINE Do these artists embrace China’s current system of academies, museums, galleries and auction houses?

POLLACK While almost all of these artists have gallery representation in China, most would say that they reject the overall system as too commercial and too weak in critical standards. Xu Zhen created his “art company” MadeIn precisely as a spoof of the system. Other artists, especially those who work in video or installation, resist the pressure to make easily salable paintings and objects. But, on the whole, these artists are proof of the maturation of the Chinese art market. Their relationship with galleries is strong, and collectors seek out their work through conventional channels. That makes them far different from their immediate predecessors, who were often sold work directly from their studios and had a difficult time with gallery representation.