He Xiangyu’s breakthrough exhibit took place in 2011, when he was just 25 years old. The Coca-Cola Project was a mound of noxious, gooey residue extracted from 127 tons of Coca Cola, a landfill shrine to consumerism that could be interpreted as an indictment of capitalist China. After that came a giant military tank made out of Louis Vuitton leather, deflated and powerless on the art-gallery floor but charged with political meaning. It was loud, bold art, speaking to a set of political concerns freshly relevant to the post-Tiananmen generation. But since 2013, He’s art has been minimalist to the point of parody: a huge canvas pasted in olive oil; a wall clock set one hour fast; a single sock inside a glass cabinet. Those pieces, and others by He’s peers, represent a broader trend among younger Chinese artists, as political-statement art gives way to more abstract, contemporary fare.
China’s art market first exploded around the early 2000s, with works by Xu Bing, Zhang Xiaogang, and Yue Minjun selling for millions. After decades of art-as-propaganda, these artists created message art that challenged China’s socialist past and served as commentary on more recent atrocities. One of Yue’s paintings from the nineties that later sold for $5.9 million, “Execution,” depicts a firing squad pointing make-believe guns at four men in underwear while both the soldiers and the victims grin maniacally. A famous 1995 artwork by Ai Weiwei, the international darling of Chinese art, depicts him giving the finger to Tiananmen square and the portrait of Mao Zedong on the Forbidden City. During this period, China’s art became synonymous with its politics.