If you look at Chinese art now, there is no breakaway, and no divergence from the prior artistic lineage – just a group of young artists with a brazen attitude. What has changed however, is the China that they call home. A transition occurred, suddenly a shifting from an isolated China, to a globalised China.
A key factor that redefined what it meant to be young in China was thrown in to the heady mix: technology. Applying new techniques, approaches, concepts and values in their means of expression, these artists are keen to assert their newfound cultural importance, on an international platform. Their arrival started at the epicentre – in Beijing, and once they were established in China, they could set their crosshairs on Western collectors and galleries.
One of the most prominent figures, the artist Wang Yuyang, notoriously uses digital algorithms to make his sculptures invisible to radar, calculates the terminal velocity of a falling feather only to recreate it in neon lights, as well as using seven thousand low-consumption diodes to create an artificial moon, and he transforms the biblical text of Genesis into a sculpture of composite materials and forms.
Another of the most innovative of these artists is He Xiangyu (b.1986), who aged just twenty-two, embarked on an ambitious project that saw him use a lumber mill and a force of migrant workers to boil down one hundred and twenty-seven tonnes of Coca-Cola over the course of a year, creating a thick tar-like, sickly sweet substance.
The end result was exhibited in huge gloopy piles, with crushed up plastic bottles. He also used the tar to paint Chinese landscapes in the tradition of scroll painting and dipped human skeletons made from jade in to the boiling goo, to examine their subsequent damage. A clear discourse on the cultural influence of the West on China, his powerful works recycle American icons into a disgusting, over-saturated material that damages Chinese culture.
Another work by the artist entitled The Death of Marat (2011) saw him create a life-size resin sculpture of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, lying face down on the ground in homage to the 1793 painting of the same name by French artist Jacques-Louis David that depicts an assassinated revolutionary leader. The work brings into question the role of the artist as an activist, and hints at the possibility of political death by art.
He also creates cardboard installations that wickedly combine ideas of ‘the allocation of luxury’ with isolation and mechanisation by placing one solitary egg in a gold egg box to fit thousands. As part of the ON/OFF exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Xiangyu was a pioneer of this new paradigm of art, and will no doubt go down in history as one of its fathers. Having eschewed a studio practice to work instead from home, he is beginning to carve out his name internationally, after a much-lauded show at the White Cube in London 2014.
Another star of the generation, Li Shurui (b.1981), creates the effect of LED screens airbrushed on to large-scale canvases, depicting “shreds of space impossible to render in the logic of 3D,” as she puts it. As metaphysical discourses on light and its matter, the works are spatial explorations of modern visions, deconstructing an image to its pixels and diodes, making it simultaneously familiar and abstract.
Zhao Zhao (b.1982) as assistant to, and pupil of, Ai Weiwei, often shares the same dexterity as the infamous artist. Having his work blocked from being exhibited in New York by the Chinese government, he is under constant police surveillance.
The ‘art-ivist’ uses a power saw to mill down stone Buddha statues into building blocks, shoots bullets through panes of glass, recreates shatter-steel car shells and dresses statues in imperial dynasty warrior uniforms. Possibly the most politicised of this new generation (and probably because of his close work with Weiwei) Zhao, who recently began exhibiting with Chambers Fine Art, establishes the fact that this group of artists really are fearless.
Xie Molin (b.1979) who shows with Pace Gallery is known for his paintings that employ machines to create graphic abstract canvases that appear like piped icing in sickly colours. Using an axial cutting plotter fitted with various types of blades, pencils, brushes and palette-knives, Molin’s works are technology-driven but speak of a historical switch from craft to industrialisation not just in China, but worldwide.
Dragging the centuries old medium of painting into the twenty-first century by using the machine as the driving force, his works raise the question of creativity and power––is the man or the machine the producer of the work? Or if something can be both, can technology in that case, artificially produce beauty without knowledge of what beauty is?
The painter Wang Guangle (b.1976), who also shows with Pace Gallery, creates hyperrealist images that capture the passing of time on static canvas. Depicting uncertain lights, that vary over time, the artist often works to a strict regime, applying for example, two thick, straight horizontal strokes of paint a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.
This reflects a culture in his native province of Fujian where the elderly paint their own coffins with lacquer near the ends of their lives. These inhabited and spiritually imbued works resonate with a Western art historical theme of performance, Dada-ism, and conceptual work from the latter part of the twentieth century, addressing universal themes that defy language and culture.
Huang Ran shows with Simon Lee Gallery and made an installation in which delicate soap bubbles float against a metal grille. His work critically grapples with ideas of perception, often incorporating paradox and juxtaposition in to works that focus on conceptualism.
He breaks down systems and rearranges the elements in unsettling ways, and describes his work as ‘Examining the point where we are voluntarily gelded by a secured experience of aesthetical insecurity'. Also watch out for his mind-bending video works.
Su Wenxiang graduated from The Art&Design Department of Bengbu College in Anhui and has been exhibiting since 2003. Her works have begun to gain traction with Western audiences in recent years, including her most notable film that was taped from a falling camcorder, which ultimately smashes in to its timely destruction. Living and working in Beijing, Wenxiang's work deals with the futile side of life in a city with a booming population that it ultimately can't sustain.
Originally born in Mongolia, Cheng Ran has grown to be one of the biggest names in contemporary art both inside China, and throughout the West. The photographer and video artist recently won the art-world accolade of having his work on the front cover of Frieze magazine, proving his popularity. His work tackles what are commonly thought to be unsolvable problems that trouble younger generations, such as identity and death. His montage works that have had their narrative chopped were a highlight of Art Basel Miami in 2011 and his momentum has been growing ever since.
Despite the difficulties in finding a common denominator amongst these young and ambitious artists, what can be said is that they are minimal, non-figurative, conceptual, dematerialised and definitely globalised. They employ modern technologies to distance themselves from the handmade, using the machine as a poetic metaphor for a modern China, which has become an engine of production. Science acts as an omnipresent source of knowledge that often finds itself called in to question in their art.
While these artists have detached themselves from an artistic Chinese inheritance, they are more than ready to draw on iconic forms of modernity, and combine these with historic art and historical discourses, using the past like an ‘art graveyard’ to be excavated. Full of questioning and themes of socio-economic growth, the environment, consumption and production and self-identity, their work is often brutally beautiful. These artists have set their own global stage and have launched China into an art of modernity that has left the rest of the world reassessing their own vales, and they suggest a future path where in a globalised society, no one can be left out.