Newsweek Magazine
China’s Art Factory
Nov 19, 2006
Wander through Beijing's crowded Tiananmen Square and you may come across Han Bing walking a cabbage on a leash. Han's cabbage is not a one-act vegetable; it's walked on the Great Wall, along the beach at the resort town of Qinhuangdao, and in the idyllic village of Suzhou. "Walking the Cabbage"—like all the works by Han, a performance artist—is a pointed commentary on China's rush to modernize and its captive embrace of rampant materialism. "I want people to see how much of our daily lives are routines that we've blindly absorbed," says the 31-year-old graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China's top art school.
Han is part of a new generation of Chinese artists seeking novel and vibrant ways to make sense of their country's economic boom. They are rejecting the political pop imagery and satirical portraits of Mao that propelled their predecessors into the global spotlight, instead choosing to present China as a pluralistic, capitalistic society. Products of the go-go generation, these twenty- and thirtysomething artists are too young to remember the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Nor have they had to live in fear of being persecuted or imprisoned for their art, like many of their creative forebears, including Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi. "China's young creators have gained the self-confidence to express a brand-new China," says Chinese contemporary art dealer Michael Goedhuis.
And the world is eating it up. Last year Sotheby's and Christie's together sold more than $210 million worth of contemporary Asian, predominantly Chinese, art—a record sum for both auction houses. At a contemporary-art sale at Christie's London last month, a 2006 portrait by newcomer Zeng Chuanxing of a young bride dressed in a paper gown attracted ferocious bidding, eventually bringing the hammer down at £164,800—more than seven times the auction house's estimate. "We had close to 30 people on the line competing for Zeng's piece," says Pilar Ordovas, a specialist in Chinese contemporary art at Christie's. "It just had such a universal appeal."
Art critics and gallery owners agree that China's young artists are addressing unexplored social themes—including the greedy consumerism of post-Tiananmen China. Greater openness and the spread of technology mean that photography, video and performance art are also quickly becoming accepted mediums for China's multimedia "click, click" generation, just as they are for contemporary artists the world over. Photographer Yang Yong's saturated portraits of bored urban youth hang in galleries from London to New York. "The vapidness of urban life is very much a dominant imagery in the works by younger artists," says the editor of Art Asia Pacific magazine, Elaine Ng. "It's very reflective of what's going on in China now."
Other artists come at this theme from a different angle; Cui Xiuwen's paintings depict a wounded schoolgirl in the Forbidden City, whose glazed eyes hint at lost innocence and isolation in the bustle of contemporary China. China's burgeoning art scene has much to do with the country's growing liberalization, which has allowed visual arts, in particular, greater freedom of expression. And Cao Fei, 28, recently won the best-young-artist award from Uli Sigg, the world's biggest collector of Chinese contemporary art, for her schizophrenic video "Chain Reaction," which shows actors dressed in medical garb performing mechanical movements.
But there are distinct drawbacks to China's scorching art market and growing international reputation. For one thing, more and more artists are getting into it strictly for the money. "My students now make direct links in their heads between the commercial aspects of painting and learning it as an art form," says Beijing artist Yu Chen, known for her portraits of babies dressed in Red Army uniforms, who has been teaching sketching at the Central Academy for more than 20 years. "When I was younger, the two were very separate. The first generation of artists didn't paint for money."
Indeed, there is so much cash to be made that some parents are pushing their children into art rather than engineering or law. Competition is fierce; for the current academic year, the Central Academy received more than 20,000 applicants. Still, only about 500 students managed to pass the stringent two-day entrance exams, which include a four-hour practical exam, a written theory test and an English test, on top of having to submit samples of their previous work. "If a young person wants to become an artist in China nowadays, all they have to do is show their father the latest Sotheby's report," says Johnson Chang, owner of Hong Kong's HanArt TZ Gallery.
Artists and galleries are also trying to cash in on the boom by slavishly reproducing what they think is the recipe for a successful sale. If big heads or images of Mao are selling well, then that's what they'll paint and display. This might make sense in the short run, but could spell disaster for the future of Chinese contemporary art, says longtime observer Brian Wallace, who has been running Beijing's Red Gate Gallery since 1991. He notes that the art scene today is very different from that of five years ago. "With so much exposure, it's getting harder to find real talent," he says. "A lot of artists follow a formula for commercial success."
Still, even that is a sign of the times. Just as trends like "Scar Painting," which addressed the painful memories of the Cultural Revolution, and "Cynical Realism," which mocked the uniformity of communist politics and culture, dominated the art scene in the late '70s and early '90s, respectively, today's artists both depict and mirror China's increasingly diverse and fragmented marketplace. They're also fulfilling an important role. "I don't believe that my performance art supplies answers to life's big questions," says Han, who will be walking his cabbage across California later this month. "But it can certainly raise questions in public, provoking people to think." In today's ever morphing, forward-racing China, there is clearly plenty to think about.