China’s artists: From one era of physical endurance communicating the hardships of a Cultural Revolutionary (1966-1976) past to physical exposure perhaps laying bare a sense of sheer boredom. Painted against the backdrop of the ultimate consumer-driven society, the question remains… Do the “rebels” still have a cause?
Artists Without Borders
Art. What is it? How does it develop over the course of generations, each and every one engulfed in socio-politico ups and downs of its own? China, as it so often does in our contemporary world, makes for an interesting case study in the field of contemporary art. As one glances at the past six decades of artistic behavior in the country, this history reveals a legion of layered meanings – often cutting deep into the heart of Chinese society and politics.
China’s generation of artistic revolutionaries! Case in point: performance artist Zhang Huan (张洹; 1965). China’s generation of artistic revolutionaries? Case in point: the late and great photographer Ren Hang (任航; 1987-2017). When looking at these artists from Generation X to Generation Z, we cannot deny the importance of context and socio-politico narrative(s) of the times.
How does one compare a generation of artists that grew up during the dire times of the nation’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to the offspring of the world’s No.1 consumer-driven society as we know it today? One arguably should not. Nevertheless, we’re willing to tackle this beast.
Blast From The Past
Man’s organic structure, his purest physicality and the very visceral challenge thereof, the sense of endurance; these aspects were of the essence in the creation of art for those born in the wake the founding of the People’s Republic of China back in 1949.
Performance art (行为艺术| xíngwéiyìshù in Chinese) such as that of Zhang Huan, paved new paths in China’s art scene as it opened up to Western ideas and “values” back in the early 1980s, testing the limits of both legal and social norms. Namely his“12 Square Meters” (1994), in which Zhang covered himself in a mixture of fish oil and honey from head to toe, then sat stock-still on a peddle stool inside a southwest Beijing public latrine for hours on end as he let different types of insects crawl all over his body, states the case in point.
This performance allowed Zhang to portray the Chinese people’s relationship with their environment, where even today, public toilets in terrible conditions still continue to exist in the most poverty-stricken communities in China and even major cities.
Groundbreaking to Breaking Point
Zhang’s work according to critics is at times confrontational, visceral, and personally dangerous, as well as engages both implicitly and explicitly problems of overpopulation, cultural erasure, political repression, poverty, famine, and “want”.
His type of socially condemning work defined an entire era of Chinese art right up to 1989, when the Tiananmen incident taking place on June 4 of that year, shook Chinese society — and global emotions — to its core.
Not only did Tiananmen pose a radical break in the development of Chinese society, — it also signified a radical break in the most radical and rebellious of art China had born witness to for decades.
The events of 1989 resulted in some extreme emotions and reactions among China’s art community at the time. Some artists became despondent and, fearing change would never come, lost faith, and killed themselves. Others opted to go commercial, while yet others moved abroad in search of artistic freedom.
From that critically acclaimed, socio-politico groundbreaking body of work, we move into the art as produced by those post-80 artists coming onto the scene in the 2000s.
Shock Jocks vs Brazen Boredom
Interviewers would often ask Ren Hang if his work was intended as a critique of China’s communist regime, but he always insisted that it wasn’t; he simply shot what he saw, starting off with his roommate’s naked body.
Nudity continued to be a source of inspiration for the photographer, whose visionary, artfully-constructed scenes blend the surreal with the provocative. Nudity seemed a fascination. A raw curiosity of how being stripped bare could reveal the truths of the exposed mind. Ever-infused with a dose of humor and je m’en foutisme.
Much analysis focused on the explicit nature of Ren’s work or his queer identity and in this particular case, the onlooker might at times indeed pose the question, where lies the line between art and pornography?
And nudity does still look to feature high on the post-80 creative’s agenda. Looking at the status quo of Chinese art today, we find ourselves scrolling through an Instagram-filtered landscape of nudity thriving with untamed pubic hair and pixelated nipples. Are we talking bra-burning bravado or just a sense of sheer boredom?
Keeping It Real
According to Alex Lebbink, contemporary Chinese art curator and founder of Dutch The Hague-based SinArts Gallery:
“China’s post-80 and -90 artistic minds grew up after the nation opened up its doors to the world back in 1982. All they have ever known is an era of booming economic evolution, with Chinese cities expanding and heavily lit skyscrapers shooting up like bamboo. Content-wise, ‘real’ historically relevant content, and I have no intention of coming across as brash here, there just wasn’t much happening.”
How to compare these two generations, then?
Lebbink elaborates: “I’m not sure we should compare the two, and maybe view them in their own setting. The gap in backdrop to their stories is wide. Going from the struggle of the iron rice bowl [i.e. getting a steady paycheck and put food on the daily table] to Mickey D on the daily, so to speak.”
The works of Ren Hang still resonate very well with international audiences, as his topics of individuality, plus a dash of “boredom” and the exploration thereof, are recognizable to many a Gen X buyer.
“I’m not sure if these post-80s are pushing the boundaries as their predecessors did,” Lebbink reckons, “But they also don’t have that same reference frame. So how could they?”
The Political vs Social Status Quo
All outsider observations aside, getting to the core of things requires a look into the mind of those actually getting their hands dirty, having their fingers in the pie that is art production: the artists themselves. Temper approached Shanghai-based visual artist Chen Hangfeng (陈航峰; 1974) whose topics tap into the issues surrounding commercialization, environmentalism, globalization, and cultural transmutation, to chime in on “the old(er) versus new(er)” artistic debate.
Chen describes: “If you generalize the situation, I do see a lot of older generation artists whose work has continually and strongly so engaged with political and social issues. Post-80 and -90 artists may still be broadcasting an equally strong message, but one that is in a way more personalized. Or hidden, even.”
Many a post-80 and -90 Chinese artist seemingly no longer really cares about socio-politico issues and only cares about the personal feelings involved. “The question perhaps, and perhaps overly simplified so, becomes, what are their personal feelings?” Chen ends.
One artist very well-known for his nude imagery is photographer Lin Zhipeng (林志鹏; 1979). Nevertheless, Temper counts the man as a post-80 artist — full stop. When asked about whether or not his art has any political “incentive” to it, Lin tells us:
“The inspiration behind my photography is completely apolitical. I’m using a camera lens to write a diary of life; I’m driven by social and personal experiences. And coming in from that angle, nudity, and sex, among other things, are simply part of that daily life my imagery covers.”
Like eating, sleeping, shopping, nudity is a part of life on the daily. “ I’m not shooting my subjects in the nude for the sake of being controversial,” Lin recaps, “I’m shooting them as a part of recording my life and experiences. I think this day-to-day life is exactly what drives many of the artists in my generation.”
I’m Not An Artist, I’m An Entertainer
According to Misha Maruma, contemporary Chinese art curator and founder of art platform CNCREATE:
“If you look at China’s art scene prior to the retirement of Deng Xiaoping in 1989, you’ll notice just how many artists are producing Mao Zedong-influenced works. It’s no surprise, really, if you grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution days [1966-1976].”
“In my opinion,” Maruma continues, “a Chinese artist born after 1980, and most certainly after 1990, is more inclined to follow some pop culture features. Especially those coming in from Japan and South Korea. The individual and the personal have overthrown the political. One beautiful example is that of Lu Yang (陸揚; 1984), a post-80 media artist pushing the boundaries of contemporary art. In fact, her work is highly original, her formative years watching Japanese pop culture clearly visible in her work.”
Browsing through the art catalog of one evolving Chinese artist after another, the overall “apolitical” statement ostensibly holds up. It seems that the one thing making this crop of artists different is the point that they are no longer driven by politics. And appear to apply a more social and personal driven reference frame in their pursuit of art.
As we have moved from Zhang’s performance pieces to life on the daily nude, we present you with Lu’s most famous quote — a RADII China one: “I’m not an artist, I’m an entertainer”.
That about sums it up nicely.
China’s creative “rebels”? Perhaps not so much in the original James Dean fashion anymore. But more in a “Breakfast Club” Judd Nelson sense.
Yet by laying bare the different foundations of two artistic generations, we can spot a new reality in art, a solid inspirational shift from the political to the personal realm.
In 2020 China, the world’s ueber-consumer society, this, the quest for self-definition, is the ultimate conforming creative cause.
Featured image: Lu Yang, “Material World Knight” (2018), a continuation of her “Electromagnetic Brainology” series inspired by Japanese anime and games with new characters including the Knight. Courtesy of the Lu Yang
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