PAN JIAN FENG, No Matter, 2010, series of ink paintings. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai.

SUN YU, Absolute Isolation, 2011, oil on canvas,110 × 70 cm. Courtesy FQ Projects, Shanghai.

(Above, below) FAN SHISAN, two photographs from the series Two of Us, 2009–. Courtesy the artist.

Redefining China’s Millennials

Young Chinese Artists

Features from Sept/Oct 2011
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

As the contemporary art scene in China continues to develop at breakneck speed, the larger international art world remains eager to capture the country’s zeitgeist by exhibiting newfound artists. The likes of Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun, whose iconic figurative paintings were born out of 1980s avant-garde movements, may still dominate the commercial market, but curators and critics are increasingly focused on younger artists from the so-called “post-80s generation.” In the rush to define the new talents and differentiate them from older artists, critics and curators alike have characterized the entire generation with the same stereotypes already entrenched in Chinese society at large: namely, that those born after 1980 are more selfish and introspective, and less intellectually and politically engaged, than their elders. But several recent exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing provide evidence to the contrary, demonstrating young artists’ knack for collaborative work and their respect for theories and practices drawn from the country’s experimental heyday of the 1980s.

At first glance, the common critical assessment of post-80s artists seems to have some grounding in reality. After all, it is easy to portray a generation that grew up in the era of the one-child policy and rampant consumerist values as self-centered and apathetic—particularly when contrasted with the material hardships faced by their parents. Furthermore, as Michelle Ni, director of the Shanghai gallery FQ Projects, notes, “Members of the younger generation are more isolated than before.” As someone who works almost exclusively with twentysomethings, Ni adds, “They talk online, shop online and express their feelings online, rather than communicating with people face to face. The works that result are centered more on their own emotions and feelings.”

As an example, Ni cites the work of one of the gallery’s artists, Guangzhou-based Sun Yu (b. 1982), whose figurative paintings are cast in a gray, somber light. Much of Sun’s dour painting is self-portraiture, and if his unsmiling visage is any indication, the artist seems to be miserably contemplative. The disconnection from the rest of the world that he feels is evident in a canvas such as Absolute Isolation (2011), which depicts a lone naked figure walking down an empty road.

Another artist Ni singles out is photographer Fan Shisan (b. 1984), for whom the loneliness resulting from the one-child policy is the main focus of his ongoing series “Two of Us” (2009– ), depicting Chinese youth with their imaginary, identically dressed “alter egos.” The artist explains that the pictures deal with his and his peers’ struggle to develop a strong identity without a sibling. In the figures’ languid postures and forlorn expressions, the photographs affirm preconceived notions that the generation is aimless and lost.

For some in China, websites such as NeochaEDGE further the impression of a deep apathy among young people. Co-created by Sean Leow and Adam Schokora, two young American entrepreneurs, NeochaEDGE is a platform on which more than 200 artists, designers and musicians present their works, many of which are influenced by graphic design and Japanese anime, revealing a generation enthralled by local and international pop culture, fashion and music. Politics is largely absent here, and the site’s creator has said repeatedly in interviews that the artists he has met are not interested in social criticism. Like most websites, NeochaEDGE facilitates consumerism from the privacy of users’ homes, but the intrinsic feeling of the site is social. Ideas are spread through discussion forums, and artists can communicate directly with one another. Web platforms like NeochaEDGE suggest that the group dynamic—whether virtual or real, or both—remains essential to the lifestyles of young people across China. Far more than their predecessors, this next generation is exposed to more ideas through the internet and social-networking, and also has a richer knowledge of recent art history. Since they communicate and connect to one another and the world in these new ways, it appears premature to definitively characterize the post-80s artists as primarily egocentric and lonely.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom about a generation of isolated youths, the effect of the one-child policy on emerging artists appears to be their tendency to seek out colleagues with whom they can collaborate and exchange ideas. A prime example of this is the amorphous Museum of Unknown, an evolving collective established in Shanghai. With no fixed membership, the group adds and drops members with each new exhibition, though its core members include artists Qiu Anxiong  (b. 1972), Wu Ding (b. 1982), Xie Xingtao (b. 1983), Sui Changjiang (b. 1980), Zheng Huan (b. 1983), Li Xiaohua (b. 1978), Liao Fei (b. 1981), Xu Sheng (b. 1983), Wu Xiaohang (b. 1972) and the composer Jin Wang (b. 1978). The collective functions as a laboratory in which younger artists learn from their older peers, who in turn respond to their protégés’ fresh ideas. They follow the example of groups and regional movements from the 1980s, such as Xiamen Dada. And, like their collectivist forerunners, the Museum of Unknown artists actively curate one another’s works.


Installation view of “+Follow” at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), Shanghai, 2011. Courtesy MoCA, Shanghai.

LU YANG, Happy Tree (detail), 2009, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

One such exhibition, “As We Talk About Art, What Are We Talking About?”  was held in 2010 at Shanghai’s now-defunct BizArt Space. There, the collective created a living room of art, inviting the audience to experience the multimedia projects in unorthodox ways. Couches were strewn throughout the space to allow the audience to sit and read specially designed books that filled shelves in the room. Videos were shown on traditional television screens, as well as projected into tiny paper boxes on white pedestals. Sketchbooks were left out for the audience to add their own bits of inspiration. Vases of flowers, antique typewriters and seemingly random photographs all shared the space, adding to the chaotic nature of the installation and disrupting any clear distinction between artworks and decorative objects. Audiences were left wondering if what they were looking at, sitting on and leafing through was artwork or not—an experience that required active engagement more than just passive viewing. The installation implemented the idea of “social sculpture,” a broad, multidisciplinary conception of art devised by the charismatic German artist Joseph Beuys—whom several artists in the collective count as a major influence. Furthermore, rather than creating a purely virtual experience, which might be expected of young post-80s artists, “As We Talk About Art, What Are We Talking About?” connected audience members to one another and the artwork in a physical environment.

In addition to exploring the parameters of the art object and the art experience, at Beijing’s Arrow Factory, Museum of Unknown tackled the equally vexing topic of how to assign value to artwork. For their installation Décor, which was exhibited in May, the group transformed the tiny storefront space into a lending library from which viewers could borrow paintings according to guidelines set by each artist. In some cases, the artists required cash deposits or assigned age restrictions—stipulations that allowed artists to toy with the notion of value and determine their intended audience. Which pieces visitors chose to borrow was documented, providing insight into whether the public valued concept over execution, aesthetics over ideas, and whether they saw the artwork as mere decoration or as an object that could add meaning to their daily lives. 

The show also functioned as a critique of the speculative appraisal of art, a process that artists are not always directly involved in, particularly in the current market in which value is determined largely by gallerists and auction houses. Liao Fei, a regular member of the collective, believes that valuing art in the present is essentially a useless exercise. “We cannot know the true value of art,” he told me. “Who is to say what I am worth as an artist? Who can really say which art will stand the test of time, what will still be relevant in the next hundred years? It’s such an intangible thing.” Museum of Unknown’s explorations of art objects’ intrinsic properties and values—or the lack thereof—facilitate their multidisciplinary approach. This was evident in Museum of Unknown’s collaboration with 40 artists, musicians, writers and designers for “+ Follow” (2011), a survey at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art of younger artists selected by curator Wang Weiwei. Beginning with the idea of geography, each artist was asked to meditate on the idea of “place”—their own and their relation to others. The projects came together like the Telephone Game, in which one artist would present his idea to another, and in turn that artist would create work loosely inspired by the first artist’s idea. This pattern continued until all 40 artists were brought into the fold and the project became a complex web. Strips of tape were placed throughout the space, indicating the interconnections and who introduced whom to the project. The works themselves were an erratic assortment, and the resulting installation was a seemingly disordered collection, with a large shipping container on the crowded main floor sharing space with a sound installation, a ceramic set and abstract sculptures. Paintings hung alongside maps, photographs and installations, and drawings were suspended from the ceiling. No one piece stood out from the rest, and the works functioned together as one unit.

The collaborative spirit was taken a step further by Museum of Unknown member Liao Fei, whose contribution to “+ Follow” was part of a multiartist project that combines literature and drawing, and focuses on the story of an unidentified dead man found in the snow. The participating artists, including Xu Sheng (b. 1983), Li Xiaohua (b. 1978), Ye Linghan (b. 1985) and Belgian artist Lore Vanelslande (b. 1983), each provide their own version of a story simply titled M. Each work, whether a drawing, painting or written part of the novel, gives clues to the identity of the dead man. Viewed apart, the works are intentionally fragmented and enigmatic. No one work provides the whole story, leaving the viewer to piece together the narrative using elements in each work, like a detective in a mystery. With multiple viewpoints necessary to see the bigger picture, M illustrates that the group is more vital than the individual.  

Museum of Unknown’s collaborative approach to curating and art-making is not new in China. Informal groups of artists have organized shows together since the 1980s. For example, the Pond Society, founded in 1986, tackled issues of exhibiting art within the narrow scope of a newly open society. Most notably, Zhang Peili—who co-founded the Pond Society with several artists including Geng Jianyi and Song Ling—created paper silhouettes of people practicing tai chi and plastered them on walls throughout Hangzhou. More than 20 years later, these same topics remain pressing for young artists. Museum of Unknown itself is a successor to the close-knit group of Shanghai artists that includes Yang Zhenzhong, Xu Zhen (now working under the name MadeIn) and Yang Fudong.

Living in a more open society, coupled with increasing exposure to the outside world largely through the internet, young artists increasingly embrace multidisciplinary practices that allow them to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. This is most vividly evident in projects by Lu Yang (b. 1984), a participant of “+ Follow” and whose work combines medicine, biology, music and science fiction. Her long-term, multipart series “Project for Seeking Cooperation with Scientific Teams” (2011– ) appropriates the format of lab experiments to sadistic ends. For example, in Zombie Music Box – Underwater Frog Ballet (2010), Lu attached beheaded frogs to music boxes whose notes, when played, cause the legs to twitch in a morbid ballet. On display in “+ Follow” were her meticulous prints of instructions for each experiment—resembling pages in medical textbooks—accompanied by a small video showing the entire procedure. The detached tone of the technical terms in the instructions and videos is punctuated with violent images of frogs being beheaded with scissors, mice being impaled through the skull and the tendons of a human arm being pulled from the bones—all of them nihilistic portrayals of human curiosity and the desire to control nature.

Lu’s controversial work with live animals began before Zombie Music Box, with Happy Tree (2009), in which the artist ran electrical currents through small tanks holding live frogs, salamanders and fish, causing the creatures to jump and convulse. Lu filmed and recorded the action and broadcast it in real time on small video screens placed around the installation. When she exhibited the piece at BizArt Shanghai in 2009, audience reactions to seeing animals harmed for the sake of art were extremely polarized. In response, the artist stated that she would not show this piece again, admitting that she was too consumed in the experimental possibilities to weigh the ethical issues. 

Lu flirted with controversy again withKrafttremor (2011), her investigation of Parkinson’s disease. For patients whose severe symptoms—hand shaking, tremors and muscle rigidity—cannot be controlled by medication, a surgical procedure called Deep Brain Stimulation is performed, in which a neurostimulator is implanted in the brain. The device delivers electrical pulses to block the abnormal nerve signals that cause the symptoms. In Krafttremor, presented in the form of large printed diagrams, Lu synthesized these symptoms with music, using a neurostimulator in an entirely new way: Lu recorded the electrical impulses that surge through the brain when a patient shakes and transformed them into a clip of electronic music. In a music video, Lu filmed actual patients as they are beset by symptoms, accompanied by a discordant electronic soundtrack. The patients gave their permission to be filmed and were paid for their time, but the sight of the men, shaking uncontrollably and dressed in striped pajama outfits reminiscent of asylum uniforms, is unsettling.

The artist professes to care little about politics and instead emphasizes her geek-like devotion to scientific theory. Yet, living in the rigid confines of a powerful state such as China, it seems more than coincidental that the idea of control is so central to her work. All her subjects—whether animal or human—are essentially powerless, and react or move in ways that are prescribed for them by the experimental scenarios. Her works can be disturbing, but Lu has a keen grasp of the metaphoric power in the language of science. Their extreme violence and child-like fascination with the morbid are born out of a mind questioning the established powers and the passive role of the individual in an authoritarian society.

Lu’s incorporation of animals in her work links her practice to that of previous generations of Chinese experimentalists, particularly the controversial duo Peng Yu (b. 1974) and Sun Yuan (b. 1972). In Peng and Sun’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), they positioned two canines on treadmills and placed them face-to-face so that they growled and ran toward each other but could never meet. Similarly, Lu’s forays into bio-art have precedents in projects by Li Shan (b. 1942), whose long fascination with DNA and genetic engineering led to a collaboration with a local pumpkin farm and biological engineers to design new strains by crossbreeding. Li exhibited the resulting mutant pumpkins at ShanghArt Gallery in 2007 and allowed his creations to grow in the exhibition space, offering evidence of humans’ potential impact on the ecological system. Like Peng and Sun and Li before her, Lu uses the trappings of science to expand aesthetic conventions and comment on the relationship of humans to nature, and in doing so continues an established discourse in Chinese art about the position of the artist as a creator of unnatural encounters.

While Lu Yang and the Museum of Unknown represent just a handful of young artists in China, their practices defy the established expectations of an art world quick to define a generation still in its infant stage. Far from apathetic and isolated as initially feared, the post-80s artists are demonstrating that they are interested in politics and critical ideas, eager to collaborate, and keenly aware of the traditions established by both their predecessors and artists from abroad. And as their generation matures, they will canonize new tactics and strategies for future generations to draw inspiration from.

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