young china TIME young china
the arts ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: THE ARTS
Singing the Blues: Why Chinese rock doesn't rock

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Riot Grrrls: Mian Mian and Wei Hui face off

Literary Boom: Youth fiction is far more varied than the sex-and-drugs glam-lit that nabs headlines

What's Hot: The fads du jour among urban youth

Father and Son: Two generations of filmmakers reflect on their differences—which turn out to be less than they had feared
TIME Asia Home
Magazine Archive
Asia Buzz
Travel Watch
Web Features


nav

OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16


Courtesy of Shanghart.
Paintings like Zhou Tiehai's 'Placebo - Mademoiselle Riviere' take advantage of the collapse of cultural boundaries

The Political Becomes Personal
Chinese artists are moving beyond diatribe and Mao tableaux to address new social realities with courage and inventiveness
By HOU HANRU

People think they know all about Chinese avant-garde art. They assume it means neon paint slapped on a bust of Chairman Mao, or a McDonald's sign added to a Cultural Revolution propaganda poster. But, like China itself, the art scene today is too complicated, subtle and fascinating to be captured in any simplistic nutshell.

When Westerners talk about Chinese modern art, they are usually thinking of the generation of artists who made a name for themselves in the 1980s and early '90s—people like Huang Yongping and Gu Wenda. Shaped by the clash between Maoist idealism and Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic reforms, these artists were caught up in a sudden confrontation with a rapidly changing reality. Much of their art focused on collective criticisms of the new consumer society. Some of these artists struggled to maintain their intellectual values in the face of a dominating materialism while others, going in the opposite direction, resorted to a more mocking and self-denying cynicism.

Chinese today, however, are shaped by different forces. They are accustomed to a consumer society a la chinoise. Unlike their predecessors, artists now realize that the old utopianism is inefficient. Instead of dwelling on a collective communist—or even Chinese—consciousness, they celebrate personal and diverse ways of looking at things. One of the major schools to arise from this new way of thinking concentrates on the emotions of individuals rather than groups, often painting close-ups of faces. Artists like Fang Lijun not only look into their own souls, but, more importantly, address a multitude of new social realities—including the growth of Chinese cities, technological advances and a looming environmental crisis. Artists like the Guangzhou-based Da Wei Xiang (Big Tail Elephants) group (Lin Yinlin, Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui and Xu Tan) directly intervene in the urbanization process with their fluid, flexible and performative projects in public spaces. Lin Yinlin, for instance, built a brick wall across one side of a busy city street and then spent hours rebuilding the wall, brick by brick, on the other side—provoking traffic jams as well as thoughts about the position of imagination and creativity amid rapid urban expansion.

The past few years have also seen intensified contact with the international art scene. Many Chinese artists now live and work abroad, while others exhibit in Europe and the U.S. They understand that, as painter Zhou Tiehai says, "the relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post-cold war era"—in other words, much less beholden to traditional boundaries. These artists have begun to pose questions of global and local cultural identity, as well as postcolonial critiques of the West's hegemony, in a new context.

China's painters and sculptors benefit from a more extensive artistic infrastructure as well. While the previous generation suffered from a lack of exhibition space, today artists can use public spaces, private galleries and even the Internet to showcase their work. A wealth of new media, such as photography, video and digital technology, is allowing artists to expand their aesthetic vocabulary.

This explosion of mediums and different ways of interpreting a rapidly changing world has helped fuel artistic and intellectual invention across Asia. Chinese contemporary art is playing a unique role in this revolution. Artists are moving beyond the clichés of Chineseness to deal concretely with issues faced by society today. How these tensions will be resolved, no one knows. But in the meantime, China's artists are turning this very friction into a source of newness and daring.

Hou Hanru is a Chinese-born, Paris-based art critic and curator. He is the co-curator of the upcoming Shanghai Biennale 2000

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

the arts ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: THE ARTS
Singing the Blues: Why Chinese rock doesn't rock

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Riot Grrrls: Mian Mian and Wei Hui face off

Literary Boom: Youth fiction is far more varied than the sex-and-drugs glam-lit that nabs headlines

What's Hot: The fads du jour among urban youth

Father and Son: Two generations of filmmakers reflect on their differences—which turn out to be less than they had feared

Young China Home | TIME Asia Features Home
TIME Asia home


young china

  Back to the top
  © 2000 Time Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.