Work Report: An overview of the Chinese contemporary art scene

by Chris Gill

The modern relationship of art versus society in an ever changing turbulent landscape or the avant guarde isn’t afraid of the long march


This article is an expansion on lecture notes for two talks given in late 2009 to students of Shanghai Fine Art University and Students from Griffith University and the University of Western Australia at Zhejiang University.

I have been living in China since 1992.  Now I work a writer for the international press (Guardian, the Art Newspaper, FT’s Rui magazine, etc), and have had a studio in China since 1992, my first studio was at Yuanminyuan artists village in Beijing, now I am based at the Weihai Road 696 studios in Shanghai.  Some highlights of my painting career have been a solo show “City of Gold” at Shanghai Art Museum in 2007, and the group show “Stolen Treasures of Modern China” at Shanghart in 2009.  I also have a blog which covered some of the goings on in the arts. (Note this blog was closed and is now taken and run by Shanghai TV)

This talk is partly an introduction to the Chinese art scene, and comprises quotes, photos and videos I have collected during the last couple of years.


Study the Soviet Union's advanced economy to build up our nation, 1953

How to categorize Chinese contemporary art:

There are numerous types of art which can be broken down to two main categories- traditional and contemporary. Firstly traditional art is the form most people are familiar with, such as ‘blue chip’ art, ie. Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, and within this category we also have fine art- which is traditional style work, though not necessarily ‘blue chip’ – and in China there is also ‘guohua’ – traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. The main factor in the traditional category is that it is mostly the work of dead artists.

Contemporary art breaks many of the boundaries within traditional art – generally contemporary art is by living artists, or their work, on the whole, was conducted within living memory. A lot of contemporary work comments on modern society, or offers personal commentary, and with experimental use of materials, unique content and research, much contemporary art is created outside the academic formalism of traditional art, but many new forms of contemporary art are already creating their own rules, so in effect, are becoming new forms of traditional art, which will become apparent in a couple of generations.  The mainstream mediums of contemporary art are painting, sculpture, electronic work, performance and installation.

Within the contemporary art scene there are strong conflicting currents of a growing internationalization, while at the same time there are strong counter currents of polarization of contemporary art stylistically, as well as regionally. Regionalization of artists- forming regional groups- means much contemporary art is now categorized according to regions- some typical regional categorizations are US, Europe, S American, Indian, Korean , Japanese, SE Asian, Chinese…etc… Around this we now have 300 global biennales, with an estimated 10,000 participating artists, and numerous global art fairs, such as Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze, where more or less the same artists sell their works.

Chinese contemporary art

So within the above categorization system, Chinese contemporary art exists as a sub division within art, simultaneously international, regional and local, also and also exists as a sub-category stylistically.

What specifically differentiates Chinese art, apart from the obvious regional specification? A major factor was Chairman Mao’s decision that “Art should serve the people,” made at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in the 1940s, which was fully implemented once the Communist Party had taken over leadership of the country. By means of this directive, Soviet style realism dominated, and those artists who had been more integrated into the world art scene prior to this, had to disregard western art practice, which was considered bourgeois. Many artists were denounced, and this became worse during the cultural revolution. Also after the Communist take over of China artists had very little exposure to anything except Soviet style work, and soviet style art education still dominates in art schools to this day. Once the reform process started by the early 80s Chinese artists gradually became aware of the various art movements and ideas that were prevalent outside the Soviet sphere. Currently artists who want to can keep close contact with the art world outside of China, mostly via the internet, and also there are numerous exchanges and travel opportunities available for Chinese artists today.

As the institutional, academic, critical and political situation is quite different to ‘the west’ a new emerging way of doing things is emerging in China, loosely referred to as “The Chinese Model.” What is the Chinese model? It is a rough, and often unspoken, collection of strategies for dealing with issues- such as lack of funding- more specifically state funding, censorship, under the table financial dealings, problems with institutions and cultural organizations, who have political directives and agendas that the artists may not want to be associated with. Also art criticism in China has many detractors- mostly due to the perceived idea that art critics now only write about artists for payment. Similarly auctions in China have become a very grey area- with a lot of talk of manipulations. What this means in effect that there is a blurring of the lines, as the contemporary art scene rapidly evolves, and the government mechanisms of control also evolve in parallel, so we have a very sophisticated escalation on both sides, which will create a very complex and in some way unscalable monolithic structure, which we call “Chinese Contemporary Art.”

Some personalities within Chinese contemporary art

  • Ai Weiwei

Now considered on the world’s leading artists, he was a part of the team that designed the Bird’s Nest stadium. A complex and controversial figure, he is currently in conflict with the authorities, most especially over his work on the Sichuan earthquake.

  • Cai Guoqiang

Another artist who was involved in the Olympics, he works mostly from the US, and is one of China’s leading ‘huigui’ or returned émigré artists.

  • Zeng Fanzhi

A painter whose work is probably most familiar to general observers, with his ‘mask’ and ‘hospital’ series.

  • Lorenz Helbling

A swiss gallerist based in Shanghai.

  • Zhang Xiaogang

Also a painter, who twinned with Zeng Fanzhi, often sees his work selling as the highest priced artwork by a contemporary artist.

  • Karen Smith

A Beijing based curator and art historian.

  • Fang Lijun

A painter, whose seminal works of artists as young hooligans with shit eating grins, typifies the artist as rebel persona popular with western academics.

  • Xu Bing

Winner of the Artes Mundi prize, he now is in charge of Chinese Academy of Fine Arts.

  • Zhou Tiehai

An artist who tends to work outside of usual art practice in China, he is now vice director of the minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai.

  • Xu Zhen

A conceptual artist who is leading the way in changing perceptions of Chinese art

  • Guan Yi

A collector who is popular with artists, who is building a collections of contemporary art he plans to return to the nation, and not market oriented.

  • Uli Sigg

A Swiss collector who has built up a museum quality catalogue of Chinese contemporary art

  • Johnson Chang

Hong Kong based gallerist, curator and collector. He is pioneering various re-establishing traditional as well as contemporary art techniques.

  • Zhang Rui

A Beijing based collector, who has a wide, eclectic collection of western as well as Chinese art.

  • Fan di’An

Head of China’s National Art Museum of China. He is a liberal figure within China’s notoriously conservative cultural administration.

Below are some quotes from a recent interview I conducted with Ai Weiwei:

  • “To use art is not enough, to describe your view, in the old traditional forms, such as painting, sculpture… as a citizen you need to express your views, writing, blogging, giving interviews, is a part of that, otherwise  you will very easily be misinterpreted, or misunderstood, by the society, by the establishment I should say….as long as there is power and people there will be a struggle.”
  • He co-curated the Shanghai show “Fuck Off” in 2000 at Eastlink Gallery, with Feng Boyi. “I was quite unhappy about some of the content (of that show), but art is not about making people happy. Not so much art touches the taboo, it was ugly, bloody, violent, and sickening, but not too far from the reality, you know? The reality in China is at least one million times worse.”
  •  “I think China strategically now has come to a very crucial moment,  they have to rejustify themselves, even the past 20-30 years are based on a kind of destructive, self suicidal act, now they are trying to reach a higher level, but I think in any society culture should have its own rights, not to be touched by the government, not to be promoted by the government, also not to be destroyed by the government, so when someone has a style or way to talk, that’s natural, kind of charming, but when the government encourages that it becomes disgusting, its very sad, its obvious. So for artists, I don’t think the government should interfere. If there is no understanding on these fundamental issues, the Chinese government uses these things like the Olympics to promote Chinese culture, but it remains embarrassing.”

He Yunchang

Below are some quotes from a recent interview I conducted with multi disciplinary artist He Yunchang:

  • In March it was declared illegal to do nude performance art in public. I felt this was ridiculous. Artists are not terrorists or aiming to do harm to the society. They just want to do something they enjoy. But I think the tolerance level of the society for this is quite low. [Sighs] No harm to the society is possible. I have chosen a professional space such as a gallery or a public professional facility to render my work. To me, it is a serious thing to do. There should be a difference. You cannot treat artists like terrorists, right? There are things that you walk around when you know they are there.
  • In ‘Wrestling, one and one hundred,’ I was exhausted when I was fighting with the 5th person. When it was the 20th, I thought I was already dead. Then I could see 70 more people behind him. At that point I felt desperate. But then I thought I should finish it. It took me 66 minutes to finish fighting with all of them, 100 people.

Qu Fengguo

Below are some quotes from an interview I conducted with the painter Qu Fenguo:

  • “There is no way to control time, it is like someone who has good relationships, but no way to express them,”
  • “Art critics use an academic way to criticize, it is not really a method, a kind of personal complicated way of seeing. They do not necessarily understand the meaning (of art works)- they look at art from a different perspective. Critics are not necessarily important for artists, but are very important for audiences. Chinese modern art history is still very short when compared to the west, many artists want to quickly develop in this environment, I think the opposite. I must go through a long period of development. The market is very quick, so artists are moving quickly, China really only has ten years of a real art market, in ten years the price has gone up a lot. Some recent students works are very expensive, it is not so good for development of styles.”


Here are two key quotes from curators Johnson Chang and Gao Shiming, who curated the Third Guangzhou Triennial, arguably the most important exhibition in Chnese contemporary art circles every three years.

  • “In Guangzhou the focus is on cultural issues and experimental art, a
    laboratory for art, working with artists to predict the future. We
    embody the work still in progress spirit, we hope art will be returned to the artists,”

Johnson Chang

  • Referring to Huang Yong Ping’s work-“preface to the poem on the peach blossom Spring,” that the art worldis creating beautiful things on the crumbling ruins of civilization. “For the younger generation that exists in this media reality of post
    historical and post western world, it is complicated, the search for Utopia.”

Gao Shiming

Video 2: This is a slideshow presentation predominately of imagery from the Shanghai Biennial, Taipei Biennial and the Guangzhou Triennial, all held at around the same time in 2008.

  • artworks are increasingly expensive. My own personal ability, to more accurately say, my economic ability, it is hard to keep up, as things are increasingly expensive, even young artists are expensive. So now, when we buy things, we need to be increasingly clear, on target, to choose the best art. No extra money to go and buy other things.
  • So the name list of the artists I collect is very small- just a few dozen. Wang Jien Wei, Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong, Zhou Tiehai, Xiao Liu Wei, Cao Fei, Da Liu Wei, they all represent this time.
  • I won’t sell work at auction, but I will choose some, as you see now works are too expensive, so I have 700, maybe even 800 works now. So, maybe, since I collected them, maybe now these works aren’t so important to my collection, or fit into my system.
  • its very hard to write about Chinese art. There is no education, there is no tradition, texts, to get an accurate answer to any question ,who can tell you? Chinese critics? There are far too many problems with them.  Too many people have become business oriented, so you have no idea if he is telling the truth or lying.   Turning it around, can we trust these national art museums and what have you? The art museums also, they are not clear, the time is too short, in China, and all this influence of the market. How can see a good work, how can you tell? So from this perspective, I rely on myself.  
  • in China a lot of young artists they come up with an idea, and that idea they can sell several hundred pieces. In the 1980s an artist would have an idea, and then do perhaps 2 or three pieces, and then leave it and move on, as he would think, that idea I have finished. But now its become like a production line, that idea, several hundred pieces, that idea two hundred pieces…the factory model. Not a lot to do with art.
  • The dead artists, their work its already settled, in the hands of certain collectors, but with living artists they can make a plan.  They can catch the living artists, it’s a capitalist’s game. Capital is becomingly increasingly important in art, and you must be especially careful of it, it’s a bad influence. Its like Marx said. I have re-read Marx and a lot of what he said is right. What does capital exist for? Its about control.

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