Behind the Wall: Contemporary Art of China

Amazingly rapid development of Chinese contemporary art is on everyone’s lips today. A unique combination of traditions, difficult social situation and globalization tendencies made it a true cultural phenomenon of the last decade. So, let’s have a close look at its features and major representatives.


Traditional Chinese art with its thousands-years history is still extremely popular: for instance, in 2011 the top-five of the best-sold artist along with Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol included such celebrated Chinese painters of the 20th century as Xu Beihong, Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi, who worked in traditional ‘guóhuà’ ink painting technique. Classical subjects often guarantees commercial success, that is why young authors often paint abstract pagodas or blossoming plum-trees. Yet, more renowned masters approach their cultural heritage.

Huang Yan covers pictures and sculptural busts of Mao Zedong, his self-portraits and bodies of other people with traditional Chinese decorative motifs and patterns. He is especially interested in the outlining the significance of epoch in China’s history for modern society. One more artist, who is recognized for his performances and site-specific installations, is Zhang Huan. Zhang often refers to traditional Chinese philosophy, putting its ideas in the core of his artistic endeavors. One of his works is a huge installation, which depicted resting Confucius, whose personality and doctrine, for him, was the key for uniting the whole nation.

Others, conversely, struggle to break up connections with traditionalism: the most wide-known contemporary artist of China Ai Weiwei organized a performance in 1995, during which he smashed a Han Dynasty Urn. In other project he covered Neolithic vases with Coca-Cola logos.

artist of China Ai Weiwei

Cynical Realism

It’s an artistic movement, which emerged in the 1990s as the reaction on so-called Social Realism, which was inculcated in PRC to glorify its leaders and political system. Cynical Realism is in fact the first trend in contemporary Chinese art, though has a little bit longer history.

First vanguard masters appeared in China in 1980s, after the declaration of course towards market economy and general loosing of the state control. The culmination took place in 1989, when the first in Chinese history exhibition of avant-garde art was held at the China Art Gallery (today known as National Art Museum of China in Beijing). It featured 297 works ranging from paintings and sculptures to photographs, installations and even performance art.

National Art Museum of China-in-Beijing

Most of its participants gained popularity among western collectors. Artists of Cynical Realism, who were among them, turned principles of Social Realism inside out, revealing the terror of the country’s political system and its indifference to individuality. For instance, Zhang Xiaogang is famous for his body of works, which consisted of painted family portraits of the Cultural Revolution period – all people on them have the same scared expression on their faces and frozen eyes. Another representative of Cynical Realism was Yue Minjun, whose style is easy to recognize, as he mocks himself and the society, underlining it with an exaggerated smiles on the faces of his heroes.

Chinese Cultural RevolutionsMost of the prominent contemporary Chinese artists were born in the times of the Cultural Revolutions – a cruel period in the country’s modern history, which lasted for a decade (1965 – 1976), till the death of Mao. During it any “art for art’s sake” was prohibited and most of the artistic academies were closed down. In 1990s and 2000s masters, brought up in the period of the Red Guard’s arbitrariness, started using Mao’s image for their ironic and showy pieces that were inspired by Western artistic influences.

Shi Xinning montaged “the Great Helmsman” to all famous photographs, like the Yalta Conference, where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill were captured. Zeng Fanzhi placed his figure over the building in Tiananmen Square and Qiu Jie depicted the politician with a cat head in his “Portrait of Mao” in 2007 (“mao” means “cat” in Chinese). For many authors such irony is one of the ways of fighting their childhood fears.

For example, the family of the Gao brothers, who created provocative sculptures ”Miss Mao” (2007) and “The execution of Christ” (2009), suffered in 1968, when their father was thrown into the jail and died there (whether from tortures or committing suicide – it remains unknown).

The execution of Christ

Ai Weiwei and underground artists

Any criticism of those the state’s policy is restricted in China. That’s why after the earthquake in Sichuan province on 12 May 2008 that lead to the death of many kids, Ai Weiwei undertook an attempt to find out, why schools scattered like houses of cards. He created a serpentine sculpture for an exhibition in Germany, made of school backpacks, to commemorate the more than 5,000 school children who perished, thereby shedding light on the tragedy in the West. After that, the artist was arrested under investigation for alleged economic crimes. Despite all penalties, imprisonment and foreign travel ban, keeps on organizing political actions and creating pieces, dedicated to the problems of Chinese society.

chinese underground artists

Emerging artists demonstrate more freedom in their thoughts and intrepidity before the pressure of those in power. In 2011 a piece of former Ai’s assistant Zhao Zhao was displayed in Beijing. It was a huge concrete statue – a broken figure of an enormous police officer, on whose uniform the date of Ai Weiwei’s arrest was engraved. Many critics notices that show had changed the way they say what Chinese artist were permitted to do, and that the pressure on them goes down. However, by the end of that summer, it occurred that Zhao’s works that he had to send for his first exhibition in New York, were confiscated by custom house and destroyed afterwards. Moreover, the artist had to pay penalty of 48 thousand dollars.

Zhao work

Despite all the problems, the market of contemporary Chinese art is ‘gaining in weight.’ In 2011 the painting of Wu Guanzhong was sold on auction for 150 millions of yuans, which is equal to 24 dollars of the USA. The development of the market is unofficially supported by the government, which allows establishing huge art districts in major cities, with more than 100 galleries and art studios in each, like 798 Art Zone in Bejing. International art fairs and festivals are held in Beijing, Shanghai and Siangang. 21 auction houses were opened in PRC.

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