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23 Jan, 2020 / by Pi Li

A Look at Globalisation and Language in Contemporary Chinese Art

A barefoot man dressed in the brown robes of a Franciscan monk lies down on a cobblestone street. He is rolling himself along the street, wrapping himself in a thick paper rope. He is surrounded by a watching crowd of people. He holds his hood to cover his head.

Lin Yilin. The Back, 2019. Three-channel video. Commissioned by MAXXI, Rome. Courtesy of the artist and MAXXI, Rome

The Sigg Prize 2019 Exhibition is focused on artists born or working in a specific geographic region: that of Greater China. However, the exhibition is filled with languages and cultural particularities from beyond this region, such as Japanese, Korean, Italian, and English. Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Art) considers whether this reflects a larger trend among a new globalised generation of Chinese artists through examining the works of Shen Xin, Tao Hui, and Lin Yilin.

We are facing a generation of artists growing up in an increasingly globalised world. These artists often identify themselves through smaller, more personal identifiers rather than nationality, which is what previous generations of Chinese artists did. For me, in this exhibition, the most fascinating phenomenon is that, even though this is an exhibition of artists from Greater China, they incorporate a wide range of languages from beyond this region in their works.

Video still depicting two people facing each other, viewed from the torsos up. Each person is holding out a hand to almost hold the other’s, curling their fingers towards the other’s hand. They look at their almost joined hands.

Shen Xin. Provocation of the Nightingale, 2017. Four-channel video installation. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wang Bing, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Shen Xin’s work Provocation of the Nightingale deals with gender, religion, science, and culture. It consists of four videos in a configuration that faces both inward and outward. On one outward-facing screen, a Buddhist and a manager of a genetic testing company affectionately discuss life, science, and faith on a stage. Another video depicts a male and female dancer who face each other while standing still and breathing deeply, gradually becoming soaked in sweat as background music highlights their confrontation.

The core part of this work was staged and shot in Korea, having been commissioned by Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, Korea. The artist wrote the screenplay in English, and it was then translated into Korean. The actors, who were Korean, started to elaborate on the screenplay and perform it based on the way it appeared in Korean, a language that the artist didn't speak.

Three large screens in a darkened gallery space. One screen shows a video of a person in white clothing with long hair tied back against a black background, looking down. The opposite screen shows a video of a television on a theatre stage showing a video depicting a line of bullets on a table. The middle screen is blank.

Shen Xin. Provocation of the Nightingale, 2017. Four-channel video installation. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wang Bing, 2018

Shen, however, was quite happy to see the kinds of misunderstandings that arose because of this language barrier. The whole work crosses over from English to Korean and multiple other cultural contexts—with, for example, Americans sharing their DNA results in one video, and clips of Muslim Chinese women in another—so the subjects are placed in a fluid and global environment.

Shen will produce a performance for M+ Live Art: Sigg Prize in Freespace in March 2020, in which they will explore issues of immigration. Most people in Hong Kong, when thinking about immigration, think about immigration from mainland China, but Shen Xin will explore Korean immigration in Japan and Russia, again playing with nationality and language in unexpected ways.

Multiple rows of small pedestals with screens in a gallery space, each showing different images.

Tao Hui. Hello, Finale!, 2017. HD video installation. Courtesy of the artist, Kyoto Art Center, Rockbund Art Museum, and Luxelakes·A4 Art Museum. Installation view, 2019. Photo: Winnie Yeung @ iMAGE28

In Tao Hui’s Hello, Finale!, the artist collected Chinese news stories and translated them into Japanese, to be read by Japanese actors. Displayed on nine television monitors—resembling headstones installed in three rows of three—the work is comprised of short films, each of which captures a scene of a character speaking on the telephone. Their conversations all relate to the end of time, death, and finality. Tao shot the work during an artist residency in Kyoto, Japan.

During his time in Japan, Tao realised that Japanese culture had a totally different understanding of the future. In China, there are ideas of the re-cycling of life: that the future is always determined by the past. In Japan, however, there isn’t that same belief. To explore this, Tao transplanted the stories he collected from China into a Japanese environment. He asked the Japanese actors to play with that cultural mismatch, and to use the Japanese language to articulate universal concerns.

Video still in which a person dressed in a white dress shirt and black bow tie leans over a coffee shop bar from behind the counter, wiping it with a rag. They hold a phone to the ear with their other hand.

Tao Hui. Hello, Finale!, 2017. HD video installation. Courtesy of the artist, Kyoto Art Center, Rockbund Art Museum, and Luxelakes·A4 Art Museum. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Lin Yilin is a Chinese artist who was born in China and immigrated to the United States in the early 2000s. Most of his work deals with the body and environment, and the political and cultural symbols behind them. One of his performances in the Sigg Prize exhibition, 2019’s The Back, draws a connection between Rome’s symbolic status as the birthplace of Western law and the controversial amendment to the Chinese constitution in 2018, which ended presidential term limits.

Dressed in the robes of a Franciscan monk, he reads the amendment in broken Italian in front of the Pantheon in Rome. He doesn’t know Italian at all, so he essentially used Google Translate to translate it. So, basically, he uses a language that he doesn’t understand to read something he doesn’t understand.

A barefoot man dressed in the brown robes of a Franciscan monk stands in front of the Pantheon in Rome. He is surrounded by people who stand watching him.

Lin Yilin. The Back, 2019. Three-channel video. Commissioned by MAXXI, Rome. Courtesy of the artist and MAXXI, Rome

So the whole show involves a lot of different languages, and these languages represent different cultures and ways of thinking and understanding. On the one hand, this mix of languages reflects the artists’ global identities, and on the other hand, it shows that their subjects are highly relevant to this era of globalisation.

We’re seeing this more and more outside of this exhibition as well, because in the twenty-first century, China is less and less isolated. These artists are travelling, they are moving from one place to another. Their experience flows everywhere. They try to combine this kind of flowing experience with something personal and in depth. I think even within the Greater China region, between Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, we can see this kind of exchange of lived experiences. A single nationality can no longer define the identity of these artists, and every artist finds a way to identify themselves. They're identifying themselves by their connection to the outside: to language, to gender, to narrative.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Pi Li is Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Art at M+.

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