Contemporary Chinese Art: Young and Restless

At The Economist’s Analects blog, Alec Ash discusses ON / OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice. The exhibition at Beijing’s Ullens Center includes the Foxconn-focused Consumption by Li Liao, who was interviewed last week by Evan Osnos, and a leather tank, lying crumpled and deflated like a discarded snake skin, by He Xiangyu.

Where the old guard of Chinese contemporary art lived through the Cultural Revolution, the experiences of this new generation are more rooted in the everyday competition of urban life, and the rapid changes that China has gone through as they grew up. For one installation, the 30-year-old artist Li Liao laboured at a Foxconn factory for 45 days. With his wages he bought the very iPad Mini model he had been assembling. He displays it—alongside his work overalls, identity badges and contract—as “Consumption”. (The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has posted an interview with Mr Li.)

But they are not entirely divorced from the past. In another work, Zhao Zhao, a 30-year-old former assistant of Ai Weiwei, cut cubes out of stone Buddha statues that had been destroyed by Red Guards, “to return them to their original state…in a repetition of history”. And that tank fashioned from leather cannot help but hold a particular charge in a post-1989 Chinese setting, even if the artist who conceived it, He Xiangyu, was only three years old when those tanks rolled into central Beijing.

Bao Dong, himself 33 and one of the exhibit’s two curators, said that “since 2000…China’s artists no longer only face an autocratic system but one of soft power. The market and capitalism [is] a soft, invisible cage.” It takes just as much courage to be original and daring in these conditions, he thinks, and such is the challenge for young artists who have “grown up in a society and culture beset by binaries, constantly toggling between extremes”.

Photographs and more information on the exhibition are available at the Ullens Center’s website.


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