Aerial view of Beijing. Courtesy kleberly.com


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Beijing’s art ecosystem is filled with turmoil and distortion, yet it pulses with complexity and life. If Chinese avant-garde art from previous decades attracted attention and garnered acclaim through its exposure and criticism of oppressive politics or restrictive ideologies, then the current art is challenged with breaking through the shackles of market forces and monetary gain. When the contemporary art market—auction records, art-fair sales and permanent collections of private institutions—starts dictating artists’ objectives, and when all of their efforts go toward cultivating social networks and relationships with curators and players on the museum circuit, securing freedom of artistic expression and independence of opinion becomes more urgent than ever. 

Today, modes of communication have been thoroughly transformed by the proliferating reach of the internet and ever-renewing technology. With so much of our lives taking place in cyberspace, the amount of information we can consume undergoes a massive expansion. For an authoritarian China, this digital phenomenon has profound implications. With access to literature and imagery from all over the world comes a cross-pollination between Chinese and foreign cultures, which renders “local” symbolism—icons such as Chairman Mao and Tiananmen Square, or images of suffering in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76)—obsolete, after its excessive use in earlier contemporary Chinese art of the 1980s through the early 2000s. 

The evolution in the work of Beijing female artist Yin Xiuzhen paints a telling picture. Early pieces such as Dress Box (1995), a wooden trunk containing clothes worn by the artist herself over three decades, or The Ruined Capital (1996), an installation of destroyed objects collected from demolished buildings in Beijing that were replaced by high-rises, are rooted in the artist’s upbringing in the city and are results of her search for creative inspiration and artistic media from daily life. Through her appropriation of found materials from personal experiences or public sites, the works are redolent of her native country and its local culture. Later pieces such as Suitcases 1 (2000), Flying Machine (2008) and Highway (2009), all fabric-based installations composed primarily of used clothes and highlighting the artist’s handcraft process, are products of her continuous travel to countries all over the world, which Yin visits for her exhibitions. Spending a large amount of time in transit or abroad has inspired objects and installations that reflect her thoughts on cities and the notion of place. In the aforementioned works, the “suitcase” has become an emblem of modern existence, the bustling airport, out of which “flying machines” operate, is the microcosm of the global village and the “highway” is the site of movement and transportation. These later works bear relevance to the current state of China’s presence on the world stage, yet retain Yin’s unflinching commitment to her home as well as her choice of media and methods. 

To construe work such as Yin’s, and the majority of contemporary Chinese art produced today, one can no longer rely on the reductive dichotomy of “traditional versus modern.” An updated, more nuanced approach is required to understand these works, one that takes into account the rampant inconsistencies and the fragmented understanding generated from cross-cultural movement both in the real and the virtual worlds. Then hopefully, what partial adjustment or communication that can be achieved will help our knowledge and comprehension of current artistic products. 

Many governmental, corporate or private museums, art centers and galleries now populate Beijing. Most tend to be elaborate buildings but lack curatorial direction or systematic management. They have contributed little to correcting the current crisis plaguing the art scene. Instead, these organizations have created a network that has become a site for power mongering and financial competition. So-called artists claim to question and unmask the ills of Chinese society, yet they themselves are the very victims—and often, even enablers—of the problems and conditions they disparage. Clouded by a relentless pursuit for fame and fortune, these “artists” have lost their way. 

China is undergoing cataclysmic change, and Beijing society—its art scene included—has been thrown into a turbulent ride of modernization. Economic policies have tossed religious, ideological and moral values into a frenzied blur, and capitalist forces have twisted social relationships, political dynamics and human desire. Perhaps it is out of this swiftly expanding gray area that new forms of critical art will emerge.