A Shock to the System

17 March 2008

The fight against oppression is waged on many fronts. From propaganda to panda porn, young Chinese artists are anything but conventional. Jess Bowie reviews the modern art craze in China.


When Xu Zhen exhibited a video of a panda being masturbated at a Shanghai warehouse in 2006, he probably wasn’t expecting his show to be closed on its opening night. After all, a few years earlier fellow-artist Ai Weiwei had run his exhibition Fuck Off without a peep from the authorities.

No, there’s nothing apologetic about contemporary Chinese art. Indeed, some of the works to have emerged from the Chinese new wave would make Hirst’s shark quake in its formaldehyde. A recent offering from Huang Yong Ping, for example, pitted live animals against each other in a cage. After having been rejected by the Pompidou, Huang’s Theatre of the World was also forced to close in its opening week in Vancouver last April. (The stated aim of the piece, “to make onlookers think seriously about the dynamics of power in today’s society”, was, unsurprisingly, insufficient for animal rights groups.)

Huang in particular is no stranger to controversy, especially in his own country. Two days before the artist’s major retrospective in Guangdong in 2002, Chinese foreign ministry officials entered the museum and swiftly removed one of his installations. The piece was Bat Project 2,a full-scale replica of the cockpit of an American spy plane, filled with taxodermically preserved bats, and modeled on a plane which had collided with a Chinese fighter jet in March 2001. Evidently, still a touchy subject for the authorities.

In light of this act of censorship, it is easy to understand the desire of Chinese artists to push boundaries. One can dismiss them as mere ‘artistic shock jocks’, but unlike the productions of our beloved YBAs, Chinese avant-gardeart has emerged out of the unique circumstances of the nation’s recenthistory.

Under Communism, particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), many of China’s traditions and artefacts were eradicated. The country was cut off from artistic developmentsin the rest of the world, and art was firmly under state control. For decades, the only new work endorsed was that which fell under the banner of socialist realism (viz. propaganda-style paintings of happy, hard-working peasants, Mao smiling beneficently, and so on). Since the violently-quashed Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a gradual shift has been taking place in government policy, and its strangleholdon visual art is finally being loosened. Judging by the treatment of Huang Yong Ping, however, there is still a way to go.

Not all of the Young Chinese Artists are as overtlyprovocative as Huang. Their oppositionalmessages tend to be subtler and, refreshingly, at a time when Western modern art has almost completely turned its back on representational painting, many of the YCAs are bringing it back to the fore. Zhang Xiaogang, for example, best known for his family portrait-style images, has assimilated classical European painterly technique to make something at once familiar to Western eyes andindigenous. Inspired by family photos from the Cultural Revolution period, as well as European surrealism, Zhang’s paintings combine an often-hyperrealistic attention to detail with oversized heads and cartoon-like eyes, making them hover somewhere between faithful portraiture and disturbing illusion.

Yue Minjun also works in oils, offering his own twisted take on the genre painting. Yue’s work is easily distinguished by the uniformlaughing faces which appear in all his paintings (and his sculptures, and his installations). Eerily, these trademark faces, with their scalded pink skin and toothy cackles, are all the face of the artist himself. Through his absurd, mirthlessly grinning figures, Yue not only offers a new take on the self-portrait, but also frequently comments upon Western art history, giving us contorted and grotesque versions of such masterpieces as Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe andVelazquez’s Pope Innocent X.

Alongside their reinterpretation of Western techniques, many of these artists find China’s vast legacy of propaganda is something they cannot leave behind. The paintings of Wang Guangyi are a case in point. They belong to a category whichhas been termed Political Pop: work whichappropriates visual tropes of Cultural Revolution propaganda, reworking them in the kitsch, colourful styles of American pop culture. Juxtaposing revolutionary images with consumer logos like Prada and Porsche, Wang’s huge, billboard-size canvases, with their blurring of opposing ideological beliefs, create an irony which can be read both ways. They also highlight the paradoxof a still Communist yet increasingly free market-orientated China.

This capitalist streakis especially relevant to the YCAs themselves. Whereas in the 1990s many contemporary Chinese artists struggled to earn a living, considering themselves lucky to sell a painting for £250, today China’s avant-garde have morphed into Gucci-clad multi-millionaires. The rocketing market value of their work is staggering. Charles Saatchi recently leaped on the bandwagon, paying $1.5m for a painting by Zhang Xiaogang, while in 2007,Yue Minjun’s Execution (pictured above?) became the most expensive work ever by a Chinese contemporary artist, fetching £2.9m at Sotheby’s. (Last year Sotheby’s and Christie’s each opened a division focusing exclusively on contemporary Chinese art.)

Some critics say the focus on prices has led to a decline in creativity, as artists churn out variations of their best-known work rather than exploring new territory. Yet painting-for-the-market has its plus sides: Picasso did it shamelessly with the result that seemingly every gallery in the world can now boast at least one ‘genuine Picasso’.

But the YCAs aren’t the only ones producingknock-offs of their work. The town of Dafen on the border with Hong Kong, known as ‘Oil Painting Village’, is famed for its impressive replicas of Western paintings. Nowadays-although many of the mainland Chinese haven’t yet heard of them-imitation-works of the contemporary Chinese heavy hitters have begun to line the streets. Sitting alongsidethe phoney Da Vincis, Monets and Dalis, these $20 reproductions are yet another testimony to the growing kudos of Chinese modern art.