Pity the poor privileged ‘After 80s’ artists
China’s rising generation of only children struggles with the idea of artistic collaboration—and the burden of their parents’ expectations
By Lisa Movius. From Art Basel Hong Kong daily edition
Published online: 25 May 2013
The younger generation of artists may be among China’s most fortunate but making a living is not that easy… The title, and content, of Gao Mingyan’s 2012 video What Else Can I Do? echoes the plea of a whole generation. It depicts Gao, born in 1983 in Shanghai, contemplating leaving his studio to find the sort of stable, dull day job that Chinese society considers respectable, and requisite.
Today’s youth are the most privileged in China’s history—but also the most pressured. These only children of the controversial one-child policy, which was instigated nationwide in 1979, have two parents and four grandparents who wait upon their every whim—but also demand improved family finances in eventual return. This generation’s sole experience has been of economic growth, with Communism a drowsy classroom subject, but the expansion of expectations has largely outpaced their opportunities.
Lise Li, the owner of Shanghai’s Vanguard Gallery, which represents Gao, says his video points to the challenge of cultivating young Chinese artists. “A lot enter the profession, but few persist. Many drift off after a few years, which is hard on a gallery. They go to work, or the girls get married and their husbands disapprove of them doing art. Also, they need a stable income.” Older artists, she adds, had more time to make their life choices, before costs of living climbed, the expected trappings of success proliferated and family expectation expanded.
Some emerging artists have been dismissed by their elders as excessively commercial. “The Chinese art world does not exist,” wrote the artist Ai Weiwei in the Guardian newspaper last September. In his article, which roundly criticised the exhibition “Art of Change: New Directions from China” at London’s Hayward Gallery, Ai wrote: “Chinese art is merely a product: it avoids any meaningful engagement. There is no larger context. Its only purpose is to charm viewers with its ambiguity.”
Others argue that the younger generation is merely the product of a materialistic society and commercialised art scene—which the older generation of artists, including Ai himself, have helped create since the late 1990s.
In fact, many of China’s young artists are pushing back against market and social pressures, albeit in a subtle way. “They are aware of sensitivities in society without being explicitly political,” says Waling Boers, the co-founder of Beijing’s Boers-Li Gallery.
China delineates generations by decade of birth, and its art scene remains largely dominated by artists born in the 1950s, 1960s and increasingly the 1970s, who grew up during or right after the Cultural Revolution, with a foot each in Maoism and the market economy. In contrast, the post-reform young, called the “After 80s”, take the internet, mobile and social media and globalised culture for granted.
“The internet influences them a lot, creating an art of the isolated [while] new media is not a problem—they don’t need to study it, they grew up with it,” says Bao Dong, a curator of the “On | Off” exhibition of young Chinese artists at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing earlier this year.
A ripped-up society
Social media pervades the works of some, like the artist Liao Guohe. “That is the situation for the whole world, young people have a similar global background: Chinese, Asian, American, European—the differences are fading. A lot [of young Chinese] now have studied abroad and returned, and they are more international,” Bao says, summarising these artists’ primary subjects as physicality, gender, society, the art system and aestheticism as a counter to the dullness of ordinary life.
“They are a generation that has been exposed to the so-called information age since they were young kids,” says Lu Jingjing, the director of the Beijing Commune gallery. “Obviously they enjoy a better life financially, and have more access to both information and material things, but they are facing the new anxiety of a more ripped-up society, which is undergoing rapid changes every minute. They seem to enjoy a new ‘freedom’ that their predecessors didn’t have, but are, in fact, [vulnerable] to more diversified problems.” Ma Qiusha’s videos and Zhao Yao’s multimedia work express these new anxieties.
For many of these artists, narcissism combines with nostalgia and neutrality. “There will always be this problem of the one kid with the entire family focused on them,” says Lise Li. “They are bad at collaborating.” She says that because of their isolation, the After 80s generation is the first to struggle with collaboration: “It is part of what makes them different.”
“Willing to see”
Another distinction is how these artists document the changes in China. “A few use the personal to come from different angles and look at social change, like old cities’ demolition, new ones’ construction… how the changes impact them as individuals.” While this practice is not new, the artists’ sense of remove is, as is their struggle to connect. Li cites Su Chang’s sculptures, which memorialise spaces that are small, obsolete and ugly—but beloved by those who remember them. Older artists, she says, analyse and evaluate results, lingering on the negatives. “Young artists don’t pass judgment and don’t take a stance, they’re more open and willing to see.”
Li adds that suspicion and provocation also underlie much of the work of these young artists. She highlights the cheeky advice comics of the artist and curator Zhang Lehua, with their “Chinglish” sex instruction for teenagers (see box), and the outrageous performances and videos of the collective Double Fly, who, in Death of Basel, 2011, disrupted the august art fair in their trademark underwear and rubber masks. “They run amok, and mock everything,” Li says.
She describes how Xu Di overlaps the beautiful with the grotesque in his art, which superimposes seafood upon bodies. “Xu feels the sea creatures represent how people can be very pretty, wearing big-name brands and driving a nice car, but also be very unpleasant from another angle, like Chinese consumption when abroad, something that other Chinese find scary.”
Market forces, within and beyond art, provide another main theme. The performance artist Li Liao went undercover at an Apple assembly line to document how long it would take him to purchase an iPad using the wages he earned there in Consumption, 2012. Attention to commerce can, in itself, be a resistance against commercialism, Bao argues. “These artists are under a lot of pressure. Artists born in the 1950s and 1960s are actually way more commercial. The young are influenced by older artists. They see how much money can be made, but the conditions are still not good for them,” he says. “Commercialisation is not the problem but rather what commercialisation does to art.”
Certainly the top prices are commanded by older artists (Double Fly’s work sells for around Rmb50,000 [$8,000] and Gao Mingyan sells in the Rmb20,000-Rmb50,000 range). But when that generation emerged in the 1980s and early 90s, there was a cultural vacuum rather than a bubble—contemporary art existed underground and was unprofitable. Since then, Waling Boers says, financial valuations have become too dominant in China, detracting from the critical discourse. Beijing Commune’s Lu disagrees. “I don’t think having more chances to show with a gallery means that an artist is ‘commercialised’. Good artists always work for art, not for the gallery or collector.”
Lise Li points out that every generation has its commercial contingent, and in China that centres around auctions, which include few young artists—the market is geared towards recognised artists with an established market value. While the economy provides opportunity and possibility, it also creates a risk, Li says, of artists being recruited straight out of art school by a gallery that pressures them to create what is saleable. “Right now they can get attention just because they are Chinese artists, and that must change too, because they are good artists.”
Three 30-something artists
Zhang Lehua (b. 1985 in Shanghai) is best known for his 2011 “Teenager Dissemination” series of instructional paintings advising teenage boys on things such as visiting prostitutes and masturbating unobtrusively. “I hope people don’t view it too seriously—that they laugh,” he says. The awkward situations, the innocence of youth combine with the utilitarian captions recalling a government health campaign down to the faulty Chinese-style English translations. Sexual education (or the lack thereof) remains controversial in China
A graduate of Shanghai’s Huashan Art Academy, Zhang studied new media at Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art. With eight of his former Hangzhou classmates, he is part of the Double Fly (Shuangfei) Art Center, notorious for their puerile pranks. The others are Cui Shaohan, Huang Liya, Li Fuchun, Li Ming, Lin Ke, Wang Liang, Sun Huiyuan and Yang Junling.
Physicality takes on a gritty intensity in the videos, installations and performances of Zhang Ding. Born in Gansu Province in 1980, and educated at the China Academy of Art, he goes for the visceral reaction, describing his work as “violent, sexy, graceful, sad, cheap, expensive, mysterious, realistic…” Whether punching a cactus until his hands shred (Boxing I & II, video, 2007) or riding a bike adorned with a severed horse head through tableaux of decay (Great Era 1-3, video, 2007), Zhang says, “I don’t worry about any contradictions in the society. All problems or contradictions in our society will be dissolved and forgotten by time, including myself.” He is one of a pack of Shanghai-based video artists, most born in the late 70s. As well as solo shows at ShanghArt Gallery’s Shanghai and Beijing spaces, and in Austria, his work has been included in dozens of group shows, including “On | Off” (2013) at the Ullens centre, Beijing.
Beijing-based Sun Xun opts for the introspection of traditional literati. Even the debased body becomes poetically ethereal in his ink drawings, wood blocks and meticulously hand-drawn animations. Born in 1980 in Fuxin, Liaoning Province, he attended the high school of China Academy of Art, and graduated in printmaking. His signature 2010 animation, 21G, referencing the apocryphal weight of a human soul, follows an everyman through dark cityscapes and wastelands of alienation and grief. “People think I’m 40 after they [see] my works,” he says. “My works only reflect what I’m concerned about. [Namely,] defining the existence of oneself. And it concludes two points: history and politics. They’re like the axes of a co-ordinate: history represents ‘time’, and politics represents ‘space’. Or we can say that politics is the present history, and that history is the past politics.”
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