Watching Fox 44 the other night, I noticed surprisingly in my drunken state, that I could not understand a word of the commercial lasting for around 60 seconds. I thought it was due to my then numbing mind, however after rewinding the television commercial I saw that it was in Chinese without any subtitles. I have to be honest and say that it was liberating in a way. It was as if finally a minority group in our society were being represented without having to cater for the super majority. They did not care whether you and I were interested in the product. It was irrelevant whether we understood the language. If I wanted to find out more, I would have to do research, or at least ask someone about it.
Yes there was something on my television that I did not understand, and instead of resenting the people who made it, I found myself more interested in their product and indeed it reignited my interest in all things Chinese. Culturally speaking China has a great history going back thousands of years, yet the country has seen the most dramatic fundamental changes happen in the past 100 years. The establishment of the Communist Party in 1921 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966 changed China’s cultural backdrop beyond recognition. People’s lives were also changed and copious injustices were force-fed to the population who lost much of their individual liberties for the promise of national progress.
It’s immaterial whether I’d agree with the Chinese take on Marxism, because these days I have my doubts about Marxism itself, however from an art history prospective I have never seen any group of artists find their connection with humanity and modern times more than the Chinese artists of today. What is even more wondrous is that these groups of Chinese artists are doing these great works amidst embargoes and restrictions placed on them by the government. It’s as if when artists’ hands are tied and they are more limited they manage to shine brighter and find a clear voice amidst the fog of conflict.
Chinese art that really matters today is born out of boundaries and not heartache. It is profoundly political and uncompromising. It is the new generation questioning the value system of the old, and ironically finding their way back to history. It is rebellion against collective ideology, yet it works within that framework. It is subtle and meaningful when you look at it twice, and you need to because you might otherwise dismiss it wrongfully. I have here introduced three artists that I thoroughly like myself.
Liu Bolin is a great Chinese artist who uses his own body to question the position of the individual inside a modern society. He prepares his body with paint and stickers in order to blend in with his backgrounds. He disappears, yet you can still see him, you know he is there because his work is being presented in a way that requires you to look for him. Living in any city around the world and you might encounter hundreds of people walking around at one time or other, yet you’d be hard pressed to remember their faces because you tend to be on your way to somewhere or on your way back. We have become so preoccupied with getting to places that we miss each other on the way. We have become complacent to other’s existence, and we are more ignorant because of it. Seeing these works makes you question your own preconceived values and you are searching for an individual in an urban background.
Next artist is the painter Zhang Xiaogang whose work I came across when watching the film “Sunflower” by Chinese director Yang Zhang. The film explores the relationship between an artist father in the time of Mao and his son who later becomes an artist himself. Sunflowers are referring to the communist generation who turned toward the revolutionary party exhibiting their loyalty. However the son’s paintings when he grows up, which are actually by Zhang Xiaogang, question these loyalties and the conditions people of China were subjected to. Some people see these works as supporting the Communist ideology, however I see more of a human link within these paintings which do not adhere to the ideas of a collective. Zhang Xiaogang himself commented: “For me, the Cultural Revolution is a psychological state, not a historical fact. It has a very strict connection with my childhood, and I think there are many things linking the psychology of the Chinese people today with the psychology of the Chinese people back then”.
Final artist I want to praise is the world renowned Ai Weiwei. He has been described as an activist artist, and much of his work is about highlighting the flaws in a system that preaches perfection. He took it upon himself to collect the names of children who died in the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008 called the “citizen’s investigation”. Ai Weiwei published 5 385 names in his blog which was later shut down by the authorities. In 2010 his installation “Sunflower Seeds” was exhibited in Tate Modern Turbine Hall, and consisted of one hundred million porcelain seeds all handmade and painted. Apart from referring to the revolution loyalists, the seeds are significant in terms of exhibiting the condition of the Chinese population. He remarked that having sunflower seeds have become a favourite pastime of the people, some of whom have cracked front teeth because of it.
China’s art is now a force to be reckoned with, and they are showing the world a side of our modern times that might have been forgotten and forsaken due to shackles of cultural and social fixations.