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Two videos are played on two screens in a darkened gallery space. Cushions are placed on the floor for viewers. The left screen shows a man smoking against a blue background and the right screen shows a gathering of revolutionaries wearing white.

Yang Zi, Beijing-based and one of the Sigg Prize 2023 nominators, shares his insights on how international developments from 2019 to the present have impacted artistic creation and how Chinese artists are moving forward in a society shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2018, the escalation in trade tension between China and the United States has created instability and uncertainty in mainland China’s economy. The issue of trade also turned the public’s attention towards populist ideals and away from their countries’ domestic conflicts. With the continuous and seemingly inevitable opposition between China and the United States, other countries have had to take political sides, with each camp continually breeding negative sentiments of the other. By 2020, the spread of COVID-19 across the globe further severed any international cultural exchange.

This sudden shift in global dynamics has impacted China’s art industry in many ways. The pandemic and quarantine policies disrupted international travel, while tariffs from artwork transactions overseas remained high. These factors made those in the Chinese art scene temporarily shift their focus from the world stage back to the realm of local history. Retrospectives of pioneering artists were held one after another, from Zhang Guangyu (Guardian Art Centre, 2020) and Yuan Yunsheng (Long Museum, 2022) to Liu Huanzhang (Star Gallery Beijing, 2021) and Ding Liren (Power Station of Art, 2022).

Chi Xiaoning, 'Film of Stars Group Activities of 1979' (excerpt)
Chi Xiaoning, 'Film of Stars Group Activities of 1979' (excerpt)

Clip of the Stars Group protest march from Chi Xiaoning’s footage. Chi Xiaoning, Film of Star Group Activities of 1979 (excerpt), 1979. Single-channel 16mm film transferred to digital video (black and white, silent). M+, Hong Kong. Museum purchase and gift of The Stars Art Foundation Limited, 2017. © M+, Hong Kong

Not only do their artistic styles diverge from socialist realism, brought in from France and the Soviet Union and embraced by the state, they also differ from the avant-garde art represented by the Stars Group and the ’85 New Wave movement. Despite being from different generations, they remain dedicated to reinvigorating China’s traditional artistic lineage, a cause repeatedly hindered throughout history but which has never entirely ceased.

The younger generation of artists have their own interpretations of history and the present. Liang Shuo, adept at using recyclable materials to transform spaces, understands traditional Chinese culture in a rather radical way. His solo exhibition Scenery (Beijing Commune, 2019) and the work In the Peak, commissioned by M+ for the Sigg Prize 2019, present how pristine nature as envisioned in Taoism is destroyed in contemporary settings. With processes that cut to the heart of the matter, Liang shows that although the forms and traditions of ink art have not been abandoned, its spiritual core has been changed.

Time-lapse of Liang Shuo’s ‘In the Peak’
Time-lapse of Liang Shuo’s ‘In the Peak’

With bamboo scaffolding, In the Peak is a recyclable construction material widely used in Hong Kong, Liang builds a structure on the terrace of the M+ Pavilion that is immersive and largely enclosed. He opens two small windows to incorporate views of the distant Victoria Peak and the nearby M+ building under construction into this space, alluding to the technique of borrowed scenery in Chinese garden design and introducing classical imagery of nature and humanity into contemporary architecture. Liang Shuo, In the Peak, 2019. Bamboo, plastic mesh, branches, and artificial flowers. Commissioned by M+, Hong Kong. Commissioned by M+, Hong Kong

With his interest in black humour, Liu Yefu often offers piercing commentary on the inequities and absurdity of society. In Liu's video Fool’s Paradise shown at his exhibtion with the same title (Magician Space, 2022), scenes of conventional scholar’s life repeatedly alternate with images of figures such as Elon Musk, highlighting and strangely subduing the tension between global and local, future and past, progressive and conservative ideals. As history reincarnates endlessly, the work exudes a heavy sense of pessimism.

The Chinese art scene temporarily shift their focus from the world stage back to the realm of local history.

In addition, fear and confusion triggered by global economic downturn and political unrest have intensified the large-scale production, display, and commercialisation of paintings. This had the effect of encouraging deep and significant reflection on the art form, allowing experienced painters such as Liu Ye, Duan Jianyu, Zhang Enli, and Xie Nanxing to present grounded and insightful solo exhibitions.

Take Xie Nanxing as an example. Trained as an adept painter, Xie deliberately avoids clearly defined styles and reduced symbolic and narrative elements in his paintings to a minimum, focusing exclusively on creating visual experience. Recently, making use of a light source in sketching, he makes abstract compositions and adopts experimental approaches to express the human psyche.

In a pink tone, this picture shows a row of abstract figures walking down from a staircase, with a black square in the background. A grey and green parrot is standing on the left hand of the figure in front, who stands next to a staircase.

Between 2016 and 2017, Xie Nanxing returned to the roots of his painting practice and revisited classic tropes from Western art history in a series of abstracts titled Spices. Spice No. 3 (2016) depicts nudes descending a staircase, a reference to famous pieces by Pre-Raphaelite master Edward Burne-Jones, conceptual art pioneer Marcel Duchamp, and contemporary artist Gerhard Richter. The parrot in grey and green is a representation of Xie expanding his imagination by manipulating and reinterpreting canon motifs in Western painting. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of the De Ying Foundation, 2020. © Xie Nanxing. Photo courtesy of the artist

On the other hand, China’s isolation on the external front echoes its domestic restrictions. In the 1990s, the internet rose to prominence and was widely regarded for its higher purpose: to connect the world and offer free ubiquitous access to high-quality information. If, as foretold in the 2014 Art Post-Internet exhibition at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, the internet is a new creative platform that allows anyone to become an artist, then the Chinese government’s increased output of online content after 2018 to protect national security dissipated any optimism for the web.

Instead, the World Wide Web seems to have become an insular storage room for data. As big data technology tracks human cognitive behaviour, users are targeted and fed with content that amplifies their existing views, creating an echo chamber. The capitalism-driven logic behind this operation is also part of government policy.[1]

A video installation consisting of seven television screens positioned together in both portrait and landscape orientations. A large screen sits in the middle of the installation. It depicts a partly loaded visual of the top of Mao Zedong’s head. The Apple ‘spinning pinwheel’ sits in the middle of this screen, indicating that the image is still loading. Images of cats and celebrities such as Heath Ledger (in-character as ‘Joker’), Kim Jong-un and Kanye West are depicted on the screens surrounding the middle one.

Known for her projects about global technology and Chinternet, China’s hyper-regulated digital realm, Miao Ying turns the visual culture that people encounter daily on the internet into a new artistic language. Her installation work Problematic GIFs (2016) hybridises popular GIFs of clapping hands from social media platforms, with an incomprehensible image in the centre due to loading failure, which seems to be a GIF of a government leader clapping hands. This work alludes to the prevalence of self-censoring among netizens to circumvent internet censorship and surveillance in China. M+, Hong Kong. M+ Council for New Art Fund, 2019, © Miao Ying

As China self-isolates in the information era, Chinese artists resist and respond tactfully with themes such as everyday nuances and materiality. Artists like Yu Ji, Nabuqi, Zhang Ruyi, Yu Honglei, and Zhong Yunshu use sculptural mediums to respond to Western art history, particularly modernist questions about form, which remain unresolved in China. At the same time, these artists emphasise how a focus on materiality does not stop the work from commenting on everyday life.

Contemporary Chinese art does not simply establish the differences and conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures.

In her exhibition, The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog (Beijing Tabula Rasa Gallery, 2020), Zhong Yunshu built a strange environment using many everyday materials. The exhibition reveals and forces the audience to confront the real yet fragile convergence between the power of art, the functionality of the objects, and the semantics of everyday life.

There are also artists who challenge the internet’s seemingly lofty ethereal quality. In 2021, Chu Yun created the work Butterflies with butterfly specimens. Shown in a small private exhibition in Beijing, he juxtaposed butterflies captured near Chaobai River in Beijing with keywords and category labels from Pornhub in the same gallery. No matter from which angle, audiences were not able to see both parts at the same time. Desire and death echo each other to form a karmic loop that appears and disappears perpetually. Sex and flight are both symbols of freedom that are, in this moment, restricted and exhausted.

Taking from the right bottom angle, this image shows a white specimen box on a wooden table. Light yellow wing-spreading butterflies are displayed in rows. Only few of them are in a bigger size.

Installation view of Butterflies at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2023. M+, Hong Kong. Museum purchase and partial gift of Wang Bing, 2023. © Chu Yun. Photo courtesy of the artist and Vitamin Creative Space

The trade war and informational isolation are the two forces shaping the development of contemporary Chinese art in recent years. As a cultural body, China, having never been fully colonised, is now having a deeper reflection on its connections with and contradictions against Western civilisation in a period of limited exchange.

Today, contemporary Chinese art does not simply establish the differences and conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures, nor does it express an absolute necessity to learn from the West. Instead, Chinese art is rediscovering the complexity of its historical lineage and searching for non-ideological modes of expression from the materiality of experiences. Maybe this path will lead to a space not yet compressed by political power.

Image at top: Wang Tuo's Northeast Tetralogy (2018–2021) at Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition. Photo: Dan Leung. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

  1. 1.

    In 2015, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China released the ‘Internet Plus’ action plan with an aim to ‘integrate the Internet with traditional industries, and fuel economic growth.’

Yang Zi
Yang Zi
Yang Zi

Yang Zi is a Beijing-based researcher and independent curator. From 2012 to 2014, he was an editor of LEAP. In 2015, after joining the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), he acted as executive editor on a series of catalogues and curated exhibitions and public programmes; he became a curator and the head of public programmes in 2018. His curatorial projects include La Chair, Secret Chamber, Pity Party, Land of the Lustrous, In Younger Days, and numerous solo exhibitions. He was a finalist for the Hyundai Blue Prize in 2017, a judges of the Huayu Youth Award in 2019, and the recipient of the inaugural Sigg Fellowship for Chinese Art Research in 2020.

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