A Cultural Revolution

A portfolio of significant works from China's contemporary-art boom
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Slideshow: "Visionaries From the New China"

Art scholar and curator Britta Erickson comments on works by China's most significant contemporary artists.

Contemporary Chinese art is attracting widespread international interest, thanks to the extraordinary prices being paid at auction. Last November, in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaogang’s Tiananmen Square (1993) sold for $2.3 million, and Liu Xiaodong’s Three Gorges: Newly Displaced Population (2004) sold for more than $2.7 million.

The headline-grabbing sales have been dominated by a handful of Beijing-based painters whose works have a signature look easily recognizable as Chinese. Museums worldwide, though, are beginning to take a much broader interest in the Chinese art scene, exhibiting artists working in a variety of media, from ink painting and sculpture to installations and performance art. Major solo exhibitions—such as those of Huang Yong Ping at Minnesota’s Walker Art Center, Cai Guo-Qiang at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Zhou Tiehai at Tokyo’s Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, and Yang Fudong at the Kunsthalle Vienna—show an increasing appreciation of the breadth of the work being created in China and provide evidence of the rapid integration of Chinese artists into the international art arena.

Photo
MY FUTURE IS NOT A DREAM 02, 2006,
Digital C-print, 47 x 59 in
Cao Fei (born 1978) is one of several innovative young artists to come out of the Pearl River Delta, one of China’s economic and manufacturing powerhouses. Her photographs, videos, installations, and theater productions reflect the region’s manic development and its youth culture, heavily influenced by Japanese manga and “cosplay“ (dressing up as anime and manga characters). For her What Are You Doing Here? (2006), which compares the dreams of migrant workers at a lightbulb factory with the reality of their lives, the artist encouraged performances and installations by the workers in the factory space. She is one of four artists featured in the China pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
Photo
BLOODLINES: MY BIG FAMILY, 1994,
Oil on canvas, 69 x 89 in
Zhang Xiaogang (born 1958) is one of the world’s most financially successful artists. A figurative oil painter, he is one of four artists (along with Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, and Wang Guangyi) whose work has dominated the recent auction boom. Half of the top 10 lots in Sotheby’s March 21 sale of contemporary Asian art were by Zhang, and four of those five works came from his Bloodlines series, among the most recognizable works of recent Chinese art. Begun in the early 1990s, Bloodlines features smoothly rendered portraits of “families” (generally two parents, one child) or “comrades,” with the poignantly dispassionate look of the sitters in old photographs. Recently Zhang has begun experimenting with photography.
Photo
MAP OF CHINA , 2004,
Tieli wood from destroyed Qing Dynasty temples, 20 x 79 x 63 in
Ai Weiwei (born 1957) is one of China’s most influential cultural figures. He first made his name in the late 1970s with his participation in the dissident “Stars” artists group. After more than a decade in New York, he returned to China in the early 1990s and devoted himself to curatorial projects and publications that nurtured the country’s nascent conceptual-art scene. Today he spends most of his time on architecture and urban development, and he is a consultant for Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing Olympic Stadium. Ever intent on answering the question “What is Art?,” Ai ranges artistically from exquisitely reworked—or destroyed—antiquities to such vast projects as Fairytale (2007), for which he is transporting 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, to explore themes of identity and place. Map of China is one of a series of sculptures he has made from Qing Dynasty wood rescued from demolished temples.
Photo
DOMINO, 2006,
Installation at Xin Beijing Art Gallery
Liu Xiaodong (born 1963) is China’s top realist figure painter, widely celebrated for his ability to capture nuances of mood. He was associated both with the “New Generation” figurative realists, who broke away from their academic socialist-realist training, and with the “Cynical Realists,” who turned a sardonic eye on society in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Liu paints ordinary people, presenting them sympathetically and with an eye for the absurdity of everyday existence. In protest against the speculators buying up his works, Liu painted directly on the gallery walls for his 2006 “Domino” exhibition, only to whitewash them at the show’s close.
Photo
NO SNOW ON THE BROKEN BRIDGE, 2006,
Eight-channel video installation
Yang Fudong (born 1971) is a leading light of the Shanghai art scene, noted as both a filmmaker and a photographer. His photographs depict a youthful elite adrift in a contemporary urban environment, while his films more often portray a mythic historical time reminiscent of early-20th-century Shanghai. The films hint at plot development but offer no coherent narrative, and the combination conjures a dreamlike world. Yang’s masterful use of color, lighting, and composition owes a debt to his education as a painter at the China Academy of Fine Arts, in Hangzhou.
Photo
ELEGANT GATHERING AT WESTERN GARDEN ON MT. HUA, 2007,
Hand-painted digital photograph, 31x110 in
Hong Hao (born 1965) first became known with his early serigraph series Selected Scriptures (1992–2000), consisting of images of the pages of an open book whose witty content ranges from altered world maps to pop visual commentary on Chinese cultural history. Some of his recent photographs have been dense compositions depicting ordinary objects, reflecting a fascination with trompe l’oeil; others have satirized the foibles of the art world. For his take on the time-honored Elegant Gathering, Hong digitally inserted contemporary figures photographed at exhibition openings into historical renderings.
Photo

HERE? OR THERE? No. 1, 2003,
Digital photograph edition of 10, 45 x 55 in

Lin Tianmiao (born 1961), like Ai Weiwei, lived in New York for many years. After she returned to Beijing in 1995, she and her husband, the video artist Wang Gongxin, exhibited mixed-media installations in their home at a time when the public display of such work was not sanctioned. Over the next decade, she refined her technique with her signature material—laboriously worked natural and man-made threads—reaching a high point with the series of phantasmagorical costumes she created for the video and mixed-media installation Here? Or There?, co-produced with Wang and featuring otherworldly figures moving through diverse landscapes.
Photo
A VIEW OF SAN FRANCISCO FROM ALCATRAZ ISLAND, 2006
Unique camera obscura gelatin silver print, 56 x 145 in
Shi Guorui (born 1964) shoots large-scale photographs with a camera obscura. In 2002, he transformed one of the Great Wall’s watchtowers into a pinhole camera and photographed the wall and surrounding landscape. In 2004, he shot Shanghai’s waterfront from a luxury hotel room made into a camera. Recently he has turned his attention to the American landscape, producing images of California for his current solo exhibition at the de Young Museum, in San Francisco. For the image shown here, he gained permission to photograph San Francisco from the chapel of the now-closed prison on Alcatraz Island.
Photo
BOOK FROM THE SKY, 1987-1991,
Hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls from false letter blocks,
Installation view at the Elvehjem Museum of Art, Madison, WI, 1991
Xu Bing (born 1955) took the Beijing art scene by storm with his Book From the Sky (1987–1991), an installation of books and scrolls printed with invented characters­—also pictured on pages 6–7. Critics now recognize it as one of the most important works of 20th-century Chinese art. Xu left China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre and has had tremendous international success.
Photo

CRYING LANDSCAPE—PENTAGON , 2003,
One of a series of six paintings with sound installation
Ink and mineral colors on paper, each 118 x 197

Yang Jiechang (born 1956) was trained in the traditional Chinese arts, studying calligraphy with a master and living in a Taoist monastery, in addition to receiving an academic art education. Based in Europe since 1988, he works fluidly in a wide variety of media, using traditional techniques in innovative ways. His paintings cast a skeptical eye on both East and West and address politically and socially charged subjects such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 9/11 attacks. With Crying Landscape—Pentagon (2003), Yang used the meticulous “fine line” Chinese painting technique—traditionally employed to render birds and flowers—to depict one of the most shocking events in recent memory.
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