Contemporary Art In China Cultural Studies Essay

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Upon a visit to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, located in the Beijings 798 Art District, museum-goers can see a spread of the typical modern art pieces: provocative sketches and abstract sculptures.

Exploring the old, repurposed factory, visitors might forget that they are in Beijing, China and not Brooklyn, New York. When one thinks of China, contemporary art isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind. But like almost everything in the world's second largest economy, it too is growing.

Spattered in among the nude photographs and an army tank fashioned completely out of leather are thought-provoking pieces by Chinese artists chock-full of symbols of daily life in the People's Republic.

A part of the museum's current ON/OFF exhibit, an iPad Mini sits on a white pedestal of a dimly lit back corner of the museum. On a nearby wall hangs artist Li Liao's dingy Foxconn uniform.

Li, a native of Hubei Province, is an artist recognized for his work experimenting with social systems. For this work, Consumption, he gained employment in China's largest Foxconn Plant, the factory where Apple products, among other electronics, are made.

Li worked in the factory assembling iPad Mini's for 45 days. He then displayed the cash he used to purchase the device as a way of demonstrating the stark contrast between production and consumption, and the indifference towards their work that most of China's factory employees experience.

Consumption is so poignant because while Apple's international success has created a generation of iDevice-toting super fans, Li's work demonstrates an experience that is truly a Chinese one.

Only a Chinese artist, like Li, had the ability to gain access to Foxconn as an employee. His work is so characteristic of China's culture of factory workers, the characteristic indifference of factory workers to the products they assemble, and the relationship between China's production and global consumption.

Since its opening in 2007, the Ullen's Center has been a huge success with nearly 700,000 visitors per year. Serving as the main museum in Beijing's 798 Art District, the Ullen's Center serves as a good gauge of China's modern art.

One observer in the Ullen's Center, Lei Ming, 21, is a student at Beijing Normal University and a frequent visitor to the museum. From behind thick black plastic-rimmed glasses he explained his love for the Ullen's Center.

"I always think the artists' use of color is dramatic and it makes me feel more calm," said Lei.

"Sometimes, I am surprised by how crazy it was. After leaving, I think 'I had never seen anything that different.' I think that my generation is more open to crazy things. It is a good way to express my generation's desire to be more creative."

Eight hundred miles south of the capital, in Shanghai's rising contemporary art district, 50 Moganshan Road, Hunan artist Wei Yi's current collection "Bachelor Problem" is on display at a small gallery.

Wei's life-size impressionistic paintings of 12 disheveled, single men reflect life in Fenghuang, a poor town in far western Hunan whose male inhabitants grow old unmarried due to China's growing gender imbalance.

Grim grays and browns dominate "Bachelor Problem," and Wei's chunky brush strokes feel characteristic of what life must be like in the impoverished city.

China's art districts are growing; Beijing has multiple art districts with galleries selling modern pieces and connoisseurs ready to make their purchases.

While China is innovating within the art scene, censorship is common and the government's punishment of individuals it finds guilty.

Despite efforts to silence them, artists like Ai Weiwei, the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics, actively criticize the government on issues including democracy and human rights.

In 2011, Ai was arrested at a Beijing airport and held for over two months without official charges. Chinese officials insinuated Ai's arrest was for economic crimes, but human rights groups and Internet circles feared the arrest was a crackdown on dissidents, one of many for the CCP.

Another story of artist-become-activist voices stifled by the CPP is that of Liu Xia. For the last couple of decades, Ms Liu's work has been highly regarded within the Chinese contemporary art world.

In her work, Ms Liu uses various mediums including photography, painting and poetry. While her work is rooted in traditional Chinese style, reappearing themes in her work include the suffering of Chinese people and desire for freedom of expression.

Currently, Ms Liu's work is banned in China. Formerly a civil servant in a Beijing tax bureau, Liu is well known for being the wife of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese literary critic, professor and political activist who calls for the end to a single-party regime in China, was most recently arrested in December of 2009 for allegedly "inciting subversion of state power."

In Mandarin, shāndòng diānfù guójiā zhèngquán zuì, is a charge frequently used by the CPP to arrest human rights activists. According to a 1997 United Nations visit to China, "Working Group on Arbitrary Detention" thought the law's vague language would ultimately be used to halt the communication of ideas and thoughts. Under this law, Liu Xiaobo is nowserving an 11-year sentence.

Ultimately, it was Liu Xia's connection to her husband, not necessarily her own art, which led to her loss of rights.

After a visit to her husband in jail, Liu was put under house arrest. Currently confined to her Beijing home, Liu is not allowed access to phone lines or to watch television.

Ms Liu's latest exhibit Silent Strength is currently touring in the United States with stops along the East coast, including at Columbia University.

For her Silent Strength exhibit, her photographs show dolls contorted into uncomfortable positions meant to demonstrate the strife of Chinese people. Photographs of these "ugly babies," as she calls them, were taken in the artist's Beijing home and smuggled out of China one-by-one by a network of her close friends.

Guy Sorman, one of the individuals involved in getting the photos out of China, convinced Ms. Liu to show her work and is now the co-curator of the exhibit.

In an interview on the Columbia University website, Mr. Sorman explains the two artistic scenes in Beijing. The first being the, "official artistic scenes," which are approved by the Chinese Communist Party. The second artistic scene in China is the "underground scene," which has not been approved by the regime and often where critical art not yet banned in China is displayed.

Despite China's crackdown on contemporary art it deems politically offensive, it is undeniable that art districts in the People's Republic are booming. And of course, with the demand for art comes the demand for artists.

The Central Academy of Fine Art is known as China's most prestigious art academy. The Beijing school was founded in April of 1950 and began the education of Chinese modern teaching of fine arts.

The academy is a breeding ground for China's hottest new artists and many of the students there for their undergraduate degrees have already had their work on display in contemporary art galleries around Beijing.

Not only does the academy boast some of China's brightest young painters, designers, and creators, but it also has a faculty of already accomplished Chinese artists. Currently Xu Bing, a renowned Chinese artist known for his work with installations and the use of words and language in his work, is the academy's vice president.

Relocated to the countryside right near the end of the Cultural Revolution, a 24-year-old Mr. Xu returned to Beijing to enroll in the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts where he studied in the printmaking department.

Not long after receiving his master's degree in 1987, Mr. Xu's work came under scrutiny for what the Chinese government saw as criticism around the time of the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989.

Mr. Xu was not the only one involved with the academy to create political-statement art during the tumultuous Tiananmen Protests, however. A group of CAFA students, fearful that the protests demanding for democratic reform were losing momentum, erected a statue title "Goddess of Democracy" in the Square.

The Goddess, fashioned from a statue of a man with clay added to the face and body to resemble a woman, was erected in late May of 1989. The students involved in making the statue had to sneak its parts into Tiananmen Square.

The three-foot papier-mâché statue stood for only five days by the time it was destroyed by an army tank with millions of spectators watching throughout the world on television.

In the Central Academy Art Museum, a sleek building draped in silvery slate located on the campus's northeast corner, students spend countless hours installing their newest artwork.

Yi Xue, or Snowy as she is called in English, is a graduate student at the academy. The tiny 25-year-old woman furls her brow in concentration as she assembles carefully selected oak branches and papier-mâché snow into what will become her latest piece.

Looking calm and minimal next to another student's work, a series of kimonos composed entirely of 1-inch ceramic tiles, Ms. Yi's self-titled piece is inspired by stillness of winter.

" I like to use ideas from my memory. I use stories from my childhood, my feelings, my lovers, things like this," said Ms Yi.

Ms Yi says she never worries that she will create something too controversial or get into trouble because of her work.

"My subject matter is very easy. It is very simple, it can be understood very well. Most of my subject is about nature," she said about her sculpture and installation pieces.

Ms Yi believes the reason she need not fear being silenced by the Chinese Communist Party is because of her work's earthy themes. However, she knows that contemporary Chinese art can be a fruitful business if you can please more than just the Party officials.

"I think a lot of modern art in China that is controversial, many Chinese people just don't understand it. For artists, [Chinese] people won't understand their work or want to buy their work. So this is important to many artists," Ms Yi admits.

Another student studying at Central Academy of Fine Arts, Liu Yang, agrees that many Chinese audiences simply aren't accepting of contemporary art.

Ms Yang is in her final year in the school of design and despite spending four years in one of the most creative environments in Beijing she hopes to see the art world grow and become more open in China.

"In China, I don't think [contemporary art] is very popular now, but maybe in the future.

Because only a few people know about modern art, many cannot accept modern art because it is very crazy," she said.

Ms. Yang believes that the best art is the craziest, and she thinks the more eccentric Chinese artists are the most influential.

"In my opinion, I think art should be crazy. It is very important, I think. The more crazy, the more the art is deep," she says.

Ms. Yang continued to bring up one of China's most outspoken artists, Ai Weiwei, even though she herself could not get on board with his outlandish ideas.

"Ai Weiwei, in my opinion he is very crazy. He takes a lot of photos and…he is very crazy. I don't like his actions, and I don't like his performance about art. Maybe it is too crazy, so in China maybe a lot of Chinese people just can't accept it," she says.

Not too far from the academy, employees at art galleries in Beijing's 798 Art Zone experience firsthand what buyers want and what art is successful in China.

Yang Gallery is a spacious and airy gallery filled with some of China's most innovative paintings and sculptures and some of Beijing's hippest audiences. The gallery's website boasts that, "Chinese contemporary fine art has become a global phenomenon," and the gallery even hosts a seminar about investing in contemporary art.

Currently among the works on exhibit in Yang Gallery is the work of the Luo Brothers. Luo Weidong, Luo Weibing, and Luo Weiguo are originally from Guangxi province, China.

Throughout the gallery shiny lacquered sculptures of chubby Chinese babies and paintings bright with as many colors as the neon signs that adorn China's skylines are characteristic of the work by the Luo Brothers. Even an image of Chairman Mao standing tall in front of a Coca-Cola logo appears in the piece "Welcome! Welcome! The Red Era."

"The meaning of all the symbols in the Luo Brother's work is that they are things in the life of all Chinese people," said Anita He, the Human Resources Manager of Yang Gallery.

She explains that the Luo Brothers have been so successful in the Chinese contemporary art scene because of their ability to create a brand for themselves.

"All their excellent works are symbolic, it means that when you see a Chinese baby with a Coca-Cola you… know it is the Luo Brothers. The first most important element Yang Gallery is that it presents artists' works that are collective, valuable, symbolic, and engaging-like the work of the Luo Brothers," said Ms. He.

Like the works of the Luo Brothers, images of Chairman Mao are abundant in contemporary Chinese art, but this does not mean they are always making critical political statements.

While Ms. He believes that controversial art pieces are the most influential, she says that Yang Gallery never takes part in displaying these pieces.

"I think the art works that are controversial are good. The reason why is because contemporary art should be distinctive and creative," said Ms He. "[But] we never have any controversial pieces because most of our artists' works are happy, sensual, or symbolic of Chinese life."

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