How to Serve Contemporary Chinese Art Outside of China

Ji Wenyu, Tires of the Old and Finds Joy in the New Increase Domestic Demand, 2010, oil on canvas, 162 x 130cm. Courtesy of ShanghART, Singapore.

Contemporary Chinese Art Outside China: Four Approaches

One of the most striking geopolitical developments of the 21st century is the rise of China as a global economic superpower. China's art scene has been likewise ascendant, with billionaire collectors setting records at auction and new museums, galleries, and art districts opening up all over the country. Outside of China, however, besides a few very recognizable names, like Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo Qiang, and Zhang Xiaogang, contemporary Chinese artists remain somewhat unfamiliar to most international audiences. It seems then, as China continues to grow in prominence, that the "contemporary Chinese group show" has become somewhat of a fixture, as a way of introducing, packaging, and marketing Chinese artists, and China's culture, abroad. Here, we examine four current exhibitions that introduce Chinese contemporary art through four different approaches and purposes--from the commercial to the non-profit, from the state-sponsored to the private collection--mirroring China's increasing global reach, and economic and cultural clout.


Modern Times

ShanghART, Singapore

14 May to 10 July, 2016

Zhou Tiehai, Charles Chaplin-Modern Times 6, 2007, oil on canvas, 100 x 90cm. Courtesy of ShanghART, Singapore.

Established in 1996, ShanghART is one of China's largest and most influential commercial galleries, now with five locations: three in Shanghai, one in Beijing, and one in Singapore, at the Gillman Barracks contemporary art hub. As one of the first Chinese galleries to participate in international art fairs like Art Basel, ShanghART has been instrumental in promoting contemporary Chinese art to international collectors. It represents over 40 artists, nearly all of them Chinese.

Zhu Jia, Never Take Off, 2002, single-channel video, 5 mins. Courtesy of ShanghART, Singapore.

The exhibition Modern Times at ShanghART Singapore features nine Chinese artists--Bird Head, Ji Wenyu, Liu Weijian, Ouyang Chun, Shi Yong, Wei Guangqing, Xu Zhen, Zhou Tiehai, and Zhu Jia--with works that explore the exhilaration and anxiety associated with the modern industrial era and its "continuous crazy surges." Shanghai artist duo Bird Head present black-and-white snapshots of daily urban life; Shanghai-based painter Ji Wenyu exhibits a canvas clustered with images of consumerism and symbols of waste bordered with classic political propaganda icons; and Beijing-based video artist Zhu Tiehai shows his video, Never Take Off (2002), of an airplane in a perpetual state of taxiing. Signs of industrial expansion--factories, machinery, mass-produced goods--square off with the symbols of Western consumer culture--Disney, Joe Camel, Coca Cola--in this gallery exhibition.


We Chat: A Dialogue in Contemporary Chinese Art

Asia Society Texas, Houston

26 March to 3 July, 2016

Pixy Yijun Liao, Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place, 2007, digital c-print. Courtesy of the artist.

Group exhibitions at independent non-profit cultural centers, such as the Asia Society, are free to pursue avenues of scholarly inquiry through exhibition-making without the commercial constraints of a gallery setting. The cultural center primarily functions to promote education and mutual understanding between cultures, and their exhibitions reflect that mission.

Guo Xi, There never should have been an artist named Jia Siwen, 2012-2014, installation view at Asia Society Texas Center, 2016. Courtesy of the artist, Red Brick Art Museum, and Inna Contemporary Art Space. Photo: Alex Barber.

We Chat at the Asia Society in Houston, curated by Bridget Bray and Barbara Pollack, centers on the notion of communication, drawing its title from the name of a popular social media messaging app in China. The ten young Chinese artists in the exhibition--Chen Wei, Guo Xi, Jin Shan, Pixy Yijun Liao, Liu Chuang, Lu Yang, Ma Qiusha, Shi Zhiying, Sun Xun, and Bo Wang--all born between 1977 and 1988, exemplify a more globally tuned, liberal Chinese identity that has emerged with China's economic rise and the advent of the internet. The exhibition proposes that these artists are looking beyond their local culture, less concerned with their "Chinese-ness" than artists of the previous generation. Highlights include an installation by Guo Xi of the work and notes of a fictitious artist whose works are "lost" in transit between China and the U.S., a photo series by Pixy Yijun Liao that reverses gender roles in an "experimental relationship," and an installation of found romance novels and marginalia by Liu Chang.


What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China

Qatar Museums, Gallery Alriwaq, Doha

14 March to 16 July, 2016

Xu Zhen, Produced by MadeIn Company, Under Heaven-2902VT0149 (detail), 2014, oil, canvas, aluminum plastic composite panel, 250 x 180 x 14cm. Courtesy of MadeIn Company.

Curated by renowned artist Cai Guo Qiang, this exhibition, at Doha's Gallery Alriwaq, is, in fact, a form of cultural diplomacy in the shape of an exhibition. Part of the Qatar China 2016 Year of Culture, it is one of the highest profile efforts of cultural outreach promoted by the Chinese government of late. These state sponsored cultural exchanges take place all over the world, forming the "third pillar of China's diplomacy," as China's Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng called them.

Jenova Chen, Journey, 2012, video game. Courtesy thatgamecompany Inc.

Cai's exhibition, however, directly interrogates the concept and legitimacy of the "contemporary Chinese group show" by asking "What about the art?" and focusing on the artworks themselves rather than on overarching theories and generalizations of Chinese art. The 15 artists in the exhibition--Hu Xiangqian, Hu Zhijun, Xu Bing, Jenova Chen, Li Liao, Jennifer Wen Ma, Zhou Chunya, Yang Fudong, Liang Shaoji, Wang Jianwei, Xu Zhen, Liu Xiaodong, Liu Wei, Huang Yongping, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu--do not represent the usual, over-exhibited suspects, but rather emphasize the diverse practices of artists in China and abroad, from reworkings of traditional ink painting styles to young artists embracing digital narratives.


Chinese Whispers: Recent Art from the Sigg and M+ Sigg Collections

Kunstmuseum Bern, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

19 February to 19 June, 2016

Chow Chun Fai, CY Leung, 'June 4 Incident for sure was a tragedy for China,' 2012, enamel paint on canvas, 244 × 488cm. Sigg Collection, © Chow Chun Fai.

This major exhibition of Uli Sigg's collection of contemporary Chinese art contains around 150 works by 72 artists made in the last 15 years, and takes place across two venues in Bern, Switzerland. These 150 works represent only a fraction of the former Swiss ambassador to China's systematic 2,300-piece "document" of contemporary Chinese art, dating to the late 1970s, the largest such collection in the world. This large-scale showing of the collection comes in advance of Sigg's major bequest to the M+ Museum, opening in 2019, in Hong Kong.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Old People's Home, 2007, installation with 13 life-size puppets on motorized wheel chairs, dimensions variable. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong, © Sun Yuan & Peng Yu.

The exhibition is organized into four thematic sections, illustrating such topics as the divide between East and West, tradition and progress, the rapid rise of consumerism, and the changes on China's urban fabric and political system. Some truly impactful works are on display here, from Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's installation of life-size figures of old men in motorized wheelchairs, to remarkable paintings by Chow Chun Fai, Zhao Bandi, Wang Xingwei, and others. If one man's collection, whether embarked upon systematically or not, can truly represent the cultural output of a country is up for debate. As Sigg himself remarks, "What will be the canon of Chinese contemporary art? And you already see that different players try to pull the tablecloth to their side. Who has been important? Who created the names and the labels? It's in process. It's a very interesting process to see."

Zhao Bandi, China Lake C, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 210 × 280cm. Sigg Collection, © Zhao Bandi.

--Natalie Hegert