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The Yuanfen Flow art gallery in Beijings 798 art district is a perfect metaphor for many issues and ideas that Chinas contemporary art scene confront and contemplate. The building itself is a blocky Soviet-style building and a former chemical depot factory, replete with a large rectangular holding vat and wall-length windows to allow ventilation, as well as an electronic trap-door that allows easy access between floors for workers. Now, the space has been converted into a co-op artist's workspace. A bedroom has been installed and the holding vat has been converted into a swimming pool. Art lies scattered across all three floors, and modern technology has taken over from industrial era machinery. And instead of Chinese factory workers, the workspace is primarily dominated by foreign intellectuals.
The profound change in the Yuanfen Flow gallery art space signifies so much about Chinese society that it is hard to translate into words. The shift from industrialization to cultural modernization, the desire of the Chinese to express long dormant or suppressed ideas, the influence the West has on Chinese society... simply writing about these changes does not do the depth of the ideas justice. That is why Beijing's contemporary art scene has flourished, especially in the past couple of decades. Contemporary art is a means to display modernity, and the changes that comes with it, in a way that everybody can understand. Those same ideas of modernity and change that come to mind in Yuanfen Flow are the same issues that today's Chinese contemporary art tackles.
Beijing's contemporary art scene is China's most vivid and influential display of intellectuals' ideas and sentiments about modern China. A variety of innovative mediums employed by Chinese artists allows them to show the Chinese people a view or an idea about life in China that many may already realize subconsciously, but do not have the means to express. At the same time, the art also gives the artists the opportunity to show the same ideas to an international population that has not experienced Chinese culture. This is the beauty of contemporary art-it makes a simple idea accessible for a wide variety of viewers, not just for intellectuals or other artists. Therefore, most Chinese artists who gain international recognition are contemporary artists. They devise and produce art that strikes at the minds and hearts of their audience, while showing them an idea that they did not fully comprehend.
An example of this is the artist Tsewang Tashi (æ¬¡æ-ºæ‰Žè¥¿), whose art was displayed as a part of the "Return to Lhasa" exhibition at Red Gate Gallery, in central Beijing. One of a new breed of contemporary Tibetan artists, Tsewang Tashi's art is, according to curator Tally Beck, intended to "deconstruct outsider stereotypes of Tibet and its inhabitants. He confronts his audience with their own notions of primitivism and exoticism." For the common audience, Mr. Tsewang's photographs do just that.
Ironically titled "Shangri-La" and influenced by Chen Danqing's "Tibet Series," Tsweang Tashi's collection of photographs document daily life in Tibet. In Chen's Danqing's collection, the paintings (based on photographs) were intended to fight back against the conformity of the Cultural Revolution and the crispness of Socialist Realism propaganda. Mr. Tsewang's art is an evolution of this idea, in that his photos are meant to combat stereotypes about Tibetans. Namely, the "notions of exoticism and primitivism" that are maintained in the West and among many Chinese.
"Shangri-La No. 1," a photograph in Mr. Tsewang's collection, depicts a young couple walking arm in arm. The woman is wrapped in traditional Tibetan garb, including a red shawl covering most of her face. The man she is walking with however, is wearing typical American hip-hop gear, down to bright red Adidas shoes which visually juxtapose the woman's scarf. In the background are gaudy posters of Tibetan women in traditional clothing advertising Tibetan food, and on the woman's back is a young child wearing blue jeans and Puma brand sneakers. Mr. Tsewang, according to Tally Beck, "[deconstructs] outsiders' fascination with the fictive reality superimposed on Tibet." He illustrates the irony of how Western and Han Chinese try to see a romanticized Tibetan culture that no longer exists because of outsider influence. Simple photographs like Tsweang Tashi's "Shangri-La No. 1" help show the public the truth to the artist's claims in a way that only contemporary art can provide.
Tsewang Tashi is just an example of how successful Chinese contemporary art can display an idea that is deemed important by an artist to a wide audience. There are so many different ideas that can be seen in Chinese contemporary art today that in order for an artist to touch an audience profoundly he or she must employ multiple ideas within their art that strike more than a single chord in the hearts and minds of the audience. An example of this is the art of Lu Peng (å•éµ¬).
Influenced by both Chinese cultural icons like traditional Chinese drama and Western entertainment like Hollywood films and electronic games, Mr. Lu's art has an inherited absurdness and violence, which he uses to shockingly display various ideas in the form of images layered on top of one another. (Peng, and Qian) This style creates a chaotic and often disturbing image in which multiple layered images fight for supremacy over each other. It also symbolizes the frenzied state of Mr. Lu's mind as he tries to come to terms with his existence in an ever-changing society that constantly pushes into the unknown while leaving a growing trail of unresolved issues in its wake. Mr. Lu's art represents these unresolved issues with strange, gruesome, and hugely complex images that are intended to confuse the audience, and thereby force the audience to contemplate the message that Mr. Lu intended; namely, how to resolve issues in a culture and society that has become a wild and convoluted jumble. (Peng, and Qian)
There are certain images commonly displayed in Lu Peng's art that invoke themes in Chinese culture. The first and most obvious is the immensely complex layering of images. This layering often proves too much for an observer to take in, like a person trying to listen to a dozen people talking at once. Li Xianting, an independent art critic, curator, and expert on Chinese avant-garde art, claims that the layers in Lu Peng's art "seize a kind of Chinese general sense of life [...] Cultural memory, without worthwhile sustenance, inevitably becomes fragmented." In Lu Peng's art, these fragments of memory are tossed together to create a work of art that brings together so many ideas that one cannot help but bask in awe of the complexity of both the mind of Lu Peng and modern Chinese culture as a whole. "The viewer is left with a feeling of confusion, devoid of a systematic cultural system, lost in a sea of time and space." Writes Li Xianting.
Lu Peng's "Realm of Red," (2004) is an example of this complexity. Innumerable bodies tangle together with shocked and wild faces signifying "a kind of arousal in [Lu Peng's] mind- that this world really has little stimulation." says Mr. Li. The characters are surrounded by comic miniatures of historic Chinese heroes adding to the sense of fracture in Chinese society. Traditional Chinese qipao robes swirl around and paint droplets drip down as if the scene, and reality itself, were melting away. One cannot help but feel that Li Xianting's comments about being lost in time and space accurately describe Lu Peng's art style, and Lu's general sentiment about current Chinese culture as a whole.
Though paint and canvas is the most revered and traditional form of art in China, contemporary artists in Beijing are breaking that mold in multiple ways, while keeping with the contemporary theme of making statements about important issues.
A common practice nowadays in the art world is using photography as a way to make an intangible statement about something tangible. The artist Zhang Hongkuan's (å¼ æ´ªå®½) collection "Migrant worker's cottages" (2010) is a series of images of migrant worker homes, in which the poverty and class struggles of migrant workers is documented with stark simplicity. Gordon Craig, the Exhibitions Coordinator of the University of Queensland Art Museum writes, "The series strips bare the hardship of those who undertake many of the mundane jobs for the wider population." The focus of Mr. Zhang's photographs are strictly windows and doors, which at first seems a trivial subject matter. But upon examination, most of the windows are boarded up with broken pieces of plywood, ragged cloth, and even newspaper. Some have no cover at all, allowing the elements to wreak havoc on those living in the makeshift structures. This accurately captures the struggle of the Chinese migrant worker- treated like a second-class citizen, forced to live in a glorified dog house, with no protection and no privacy. According to Mr. Craig, by dispassionately photographing these buildings, Zhang Hongkuan is "allowing the forlorn structures to communicate the hardships of their inhabitants."
Another non-traditional medium used in contemporary art in Beijing is the use of "found" objects- material discovered by the artist that is deemed significant- as art. In another exhibition for the University of Queensland Art Museum, artist Liu Gang (åˆ˜åˆš) created his "Paper Dream" (2008) series using photographs of advertisements found in Beijing. Using these images, Liu Gang creates an ironic collection in which advertisements displaying Western ideas of opulence, like attractive Western women walking through pristine meadows or feasts laid out on white linen tablecloths. These advertisements, as described by Mr. Gordon Craig, are "crumpled, the banners themselves have folds, and home-made advertising is haphazardly pasted on their surface." He further explains:
"[In Beijing,] magazine imagery spills onto safety hoardings around building sites, providing surreal scenes across the city [...] in contrast to the rubble and bustle of the surrounds. Such images are often peopled by Caucasians, reinforcing a notion of the opulence (and waste) of Western cultures, an opulence to which the new class aspires."
The tattered state of the advertisements shows the irony of these too-good-to-be-true advertisements. New Chinese elites have become rampant consumers. As a result, Beijing's downtown has become a haven for American and European consumer brands, turning Beijing's center into an indistinguishable cacophony of consumerism without distinguishing Chinese features. Liu Gang "investigates the drive behind such rampant consumer behavior, which often looks to the West for inspiration." (Craig) Liu Gang uses the advertisements to show how the ads are a metaphor for "breaking the illusion" of the utopia that the advertisements try to sell to so many of China's newly minted elites
The Tibetan contemporary artist Keltse (æ ¼æ¬¡), a contributor to the Red Gate Gallery's "Return to Lhasa" exhibition, utilizes yet another medium to display his works- the lightbox technique. This technique uses a light source to project images drawn on transparent slides. Keltse's "Guru" collection shows two figures, one male one female, wearing the traditional Tibetan headdress of spiritual leaders. Gallery curator Tally Beck draws attention to the figures' "right hands [...] raised in salute, implying subordination. Their eyes are wide open in a state of panic. The artist designed them without mouths to emphasize their diminishing voices in the contemporary world." Keltse makes a statement about the influence of outsiders on Tibetan culture, and how Tibetans are affected because of this influence. Gurus are traditionally displayed as spiritual guides for their communities, charged with supreme knowledge and subject only to the will of their god(s). Keltse shows how this attitude and influence is shifting. Now, Tibetan gurus are subjected to the will of Han culture, indicated in the military salute that implies forceful subjugation of Tibetan religion. The wide eyes are panicked because the guru can see that his/her influence is waning and that his/her people are being led astray from the spiritual path. The absence of a mouth is especially significant for a leader like the guru, who relies on the spoken word to pass down traditions, as well as give counsel to his congregants. Without a mouth, the guru is sadly faced with "a diminishing voice in the contemporary world." (Beck)
All of these unique contemporary art methods and mediums provide insight into the minds of Chinese contemporary artists. One method in particular, utilized by young artists throughout Beijing and much of China is the newly devised combination of interpretive contemporary art and Shan Shui style , the traditional Chinese art form meaning "Mountain" and "Water" that depicts landscapes and natural environments in exquisite detail. This form, called "altered Shan Shui," takes traditional Shan Shui art, which emphasizes precise detail and neatness, and combines it with surrealism and abstractness associated with contemporary art. This allows the audience to make their own interpretations about the art, while admiring the neatness of the art form itself.
Earlier this year, an exhibition at the Red Gate Gallery titled "Altered Shan Shui States" featured work from seven altered Shan Shui artists, all younger than thirty, and all but two college graduates from Chinese art schools. The way these artists incorporate the past and the present in their art is influenced by "Western thoughts on traditional Chinese painting" and the "rapid urbanization of China whereby we witness hundreds of millions people migrating from rural areas to the cities over the last 30 years" claims Red Gate curator Tang Zehui. The ages of the artists give them a fresh spin on an art form that has existed for hundreds of years but had been denounced and convoluted over the past century during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Now, these young artists are able to reexamine the art of their ancestors with eyes unclouded, as well as add their own take to the art due to an education that emphasizes experimentation. The result is a uniquely Chinese art form that takes influence from Chinese culture itself, which continues to change and form in a turbulent world.
An example of remarkable altered Shan Shui art is Chen Jiaye's (é™ˆå®¶ä¸š)"To Tear" series. In these pieces, a white canvas is torn away to reveal a traditional Shan Shui scene. The blank canvas is meant to represent the overwhelming uniformity and conformity of modern Chinese society. However, Mr. Chen, by tearing away the canvas and revealing the Shan Shui landscape, claims that underneath this uniformity lies a Chinese culture that has stood the test of time. However, he is worried that many Chinese are losing touch with their culture. The violent tearing seems to signify an anger at the loss of identity which causes the uniformity, and the desperation Mr. Chen feels that many of his countrymen and women will never have a sense of pride about their own culture.
Because altered Shan Shui is interpretative, it is not confined to the traditional rules of Shan Shui. Therefore, art emerges like THEY's (ä»-ä»¬) "Scholar and Cavalry" (2011). A traditional scene of a Chinese scholar cloaked in traditional garb sitting on a stone outcropping overlooking a late is interrupted by the presence of a man on horseback, wearing modern clothing, floating on top of the water in the middle of the lake. The line between the lake and the horizon is absent, and snow falling from the sky creates a surreal appearance of total solitude. The only indication that there is anything tangible around the two men is signified by their shadows reflected on the surface of the water. The meeting of two worlds, the old and the new, is represented by the scholar and the cavalryman respectively. The solitude of the painting seems to indicate that the two are not meeting in the physical world but in a spiritual realm, as if they are projections of two ideas within a person's mind, one adhering to conventional methods and the other trying to push forward and innovate.
Or perhaps, the painting means something else entirely. Or maybe it is just a painting, with no true meaning at all. It is this that makes contemporary art so important to modern Chinese society. The ability to create one's own opinions on a piece of art means that the art is accessible to a wide population. In China, the world's most populous nation, this might be the most appealing aspect of contemporary Chinese art. With so many people living so many different lives, nobody will see the same thing in a work of art. Red Gate curator Tang Zehui describes this phenomenon well. He states,
"Does contemporary Shan Shui represent an authentic experience, visual records of a past heritage, a spectacle for consumption or a literary repose? Perhaps it is not something people need to differentiate in this show [Altered Shan Shui] because the miscellany of works invites viewers to drift along in these landscapes, seek their own meanings and complete the loop themselves, whatever their backgrounds may be."
Beck, Tally. Return to Lhasa. 1st ed. Beijing: Red Gate Gallery, 2008. Print.
Tang, Zehui. Altered Shan Shui States. 1st ed. Beijing: Red Gate Gallery, 2013. Print.
Craig, Gordon. Beijing Hao! Six Chinese photomedia artists. Beijing: 2012.
Lu, Peng, and Cheng Qian. A Fighting World of Female Beauty. 1st ed. Beijing: Red Gate Gallery, 2005. Print.
Special thanks to the Yuanfen New Media Art Space, especially Luma-Lu gallery curator Lucie and the Red Gate Gallery's Cameron S.K. for accommodating me during my research. The Yuanfen gallery can be found at Seven Stars East Street, Dashanzi Factory 798, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015. The Red Gate Gallery is located in Dongbianmen Watchtower, 9 Chongwenmen Dongdajie, Dongcheng District, Beijing.