Artists Contemporary art Features China

The company you keep

Artists’ collectives in China can be anything from loose, anarchic groups to serious associations with a shared ideology

Artists in the Double Fly collective at work. Photo: Peter Le, courtesy of UCCA

A drunken party rarely results in anything of substance, but one night in Hangzhou it sparked what would grow into an art trend. “We snuck into the zoo in Hangzhou, and messed around and filmed it,” recalls the artist Zhang Lehua of his classmates from the China Academy of Art’s New Media Art Department. That video went on to establish Double Fly (Shuang Fei) as one of China’s foremost young artist collectives. Their cheeky anti-art created a splash at New York’s Armory Show earlier this year.

“We had graduated in 2008, and wanted to do something,” Zhang says. “We didn’t have jobs, and were just living in Hangzhou together. We began to do everything, and did not know if it was really art, but in the 21st century, anything can become art.”

Double Fly’s works, such as their currently trending WeChat art actions, have been influential with many other artists’ collectives. Lu Pingyuan, an artist and a member of MadeIn Company, says that these collectives came together between 2011 and 2013. “Many were just together to have a few works and a name. A lot also just combined their solo works,” instead of being truly collaborative. Lu believes that the trend is now petering out, with many collectives dissolving. But collectives can still present an appealing alternative model for young artists, while established groups such as MadeIn and Double Fly continue to attract the spotlight.

Of course, artists’ collectives are not new. “The 1980s saw many collectives and loose-knit art associations,” says Mathieu Borysevicz, a curator who works with Double Fly, and more established collectives such as Polit-Sheer-Form Office (PSFO). “Since contemporary art was a recent import from the West, these groups were concentrated little avant-garde movements. The precedent for these groups existed outside of China before; it’s a borrowed form, like contemporary art in general, made Chinese by the overwhelming cultural context. There is also the political reality of the collective: [Chinese] people were forced into collectives for decades.”

“Collectives, historically, were ideologically grounded, united around a manifesto,” Borysevicz says. That lives on in PSFO, a group founded in 2005 by the curator Leng Lin and artists Liu Jianhua, Song Dong, Hong Hao and Xiao Yu, all born in the 1960s and already very successful. “Disillusioned by the current state of society, they resolved to reimagine a space for Socialism in today’s environment. These guys have more staying power than most ‘younger’ collectives because of their maturity, and their own dynamic and successful independent careers.”

Liu Jianhua, a celebrated ceramic and installation artist, recalls how the group came together over a shared distaste for Chinese contemporary art’s growing commercialisation. “It is a different road from commercialisation… It is a spiritual judgment, a possibility within collectivism [that] we contemplate society, culture, economics, individuality. [During] our growing up, the conditions were different. Our memories start with the Cultural Revolution and then Reform and Opening… so we have a very different approach and thinking.”

Creative freedom

China’s collectives also differ structurally: the term “jiti” signifies a more serious, structured approach, while most young collectives identify as “xiao zuhe”, or small groups. “A zuhe invokes a lot of meanings, about ideas and exercise, while a jiti is more deliberate, long-term and reliable,” Liu says.

China’s most structured collective is MadeIn, founded in 2009 by 1970s-born artist Xu Zhen and ten lesser-known, mostly post-1980s artists. A founding member, Lu Pingyuan, says, “MadeIn does a lot of things, like the curation of its own shows and works, and it curates other artists’ shows. Xu Zhen is the boss and the brand. With other collectives, you have three people who are equal. MadeIn is a company structure and it pays a salary.”

The Ma Daha collective provides a creative outlet to a shifting cast. “Founded by a couple based in Changsha, they work with different and changing members, some who aren’t exactly artists: factory workers, musicians, their parents,” Borysevicz says. “It’s like a group of friends that research and invent ways to approach and reflect the world together, and the credit goes to an anonymous collective. They have day jobs and Ma Daha is like an escape from their mundane reality.”

Counterintuitively for China’s youngsters, creative freedom is more easily found as a group. “Collectives form for different reasons,” Borysevicz says. “Sometimes it’s a common interest, a challenge, or simply for the strength in numbers.” For Double Fly, it was “a way to make outlandish work that none were prepared to call their own individually. They found it easy to hide behind the collective as author of the group. The collective was also a way to develop their careers in a very competitive field—Double Fly is bigger than any individual member.”

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