Made in China

Posted July 17, 2008 in Arts & Culture

If you think life as a struggling artist blows, try making it in China. On top of the crappy pay and living on the fringe of society, there was a time when you got your share of harassment from the government if you’re weren’t creating what was acceptable by Communist standards, like, say, if you portrayed General Mao with tits or something. Which the Gao brothers did—tsk tsk

See, our artists could totally get away with something like that, and who wouldn’t want to see Bush characterized as the country’s nurturer with a good rack? God bless America, indeed. Or could we get away with that? Maybe we’re not as different as we think.

These days, China’s artists have more autonomy and spend their wheels expressing the country’s loss of identity, spawning from the loss of Confucianism to its Communist regime to its current quasi-blend of Commies and Capitalists living in distorted harmony amid unprecedented growth.

Despite the human rights and environmental controversies surrounding China, all eyes are on the Republic, or both republics, because of the Olympics bowing in Beijing this summer. On top of that, China just surpassed France as the world’s third largest art market, and its first ever Chinese Contemporary art museum is opening in Beijing near the former 798 Arts District, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, funded by Belgian food baron, Guy Ullens. 

So it’s not so unusual that UC Riverside’s Sweeney Art Gallery is looking East, presenting Absurd Recreation: Contemporary Art from China, an exhibit opening July 26 featuring artists documenting the changes in a civilization that goes back six millennia. 

As China continues to embrace capitalism, despite its cold shoulder toward democracy, artists are finding unprecedented freedom of expression, and with the increasing price tags their art attracts, the government is loosening up a bit. Money talks, even under an uptight dictatorship, if said dictatorship really likes chatty currency. 

So now China’s younger artists are inheriting what their freethinking forefathers from the 1970s started, and the result is an art microcosm focusing on lives that’ve been impacted by a country that embraces greed while, inevitably, the richer get richer and the poorer get, well, less richer. As artists do, the multi-media representations explore the alienation that goes along with that. 

“Chinese artists do work based on what’s going on around them,” writes Karon Morono Kiang in the exhibit’s catalog. She is co-owner of Morono Kiang Gallery in Los Angeles, which displays contemporary Chinese art, and she and her husband are involved with helping preserve the 798 Arts District. “And what’s going on around them is really absolutely insane. In China, they build a city the size of Houston every six months . . . if you live there, you cannot help but be affected by that.”

But back to the hippies. During the late 1970s contemporary Chinese art developed rapidly after the country began market reforms under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping after Mao Zedong’s death. There were the Stars, an avant-garde artist group that formed, which gave way to subsequent artist communes, most notably the Yuanmingyuan Artist Village during the late 1980s, which is the subject of Zhao Liang’s experimental documentary Farewell Yuanmingyuan, on display in the exhibit. 

Two of the artists featured in Absurd Recreation lived in Yuanmingyuan before the government systematically disenfranchised and harassed its members until they disbanded.  The 42-year-old Hong Hao, definitely right there with the most well-known contemporary Chinese artists from the last decade, is one. His trompe l’oeil style silk-screening prints appear as facing pages of an open book in which Hong restructures the world to point out its inequalities and ensuing injustices. He also works in photography, with his claustrophobic photographs (such as “About Him #2”) of commonplace objects that give a glimpse into China’s emerging overcrowded, increasingly material world. 

Times they are a changing though, according to exhibit curator and Sweeney director Tyler Stallings. “Since that time (of the Yuanmigyuan Artist Village inquisition), the central government has embraced some newer artist communities, such as the 798 Arts District, to the point that it is listed on the Beijing Olympics Web site as one of the cultural places to attend.” So Hong and his peers get to trash talk the government in their own way now, so long as their adding to the vibrancy of the Chinese economy. 

“In essence, China has embraced capitalism, though not democracy,” Stallings says, “and so they now see the benefit of supporting the artists, both for financial reasons and for diplomatic reasons.” 

Chen Wei, the youngest of the artists featured, offers up his photography series, “Countless Unpredictable Stand,” in which lone figures in urban environments situate themselves as living statues, stagnant and detached from their urban landscapes. Those silent protests become as disheartening as heart warming because of their multitude and subtlety—while they may not be making a difference, the silent protests will continue on. 

The starkest extrapolation of the country’s current state is the reemergence of painter Xu Ruotao, one of the original Yuanmingyuan artists, who has disappeared from the China art scene more than once. In this, his third comeback of sorts, two paintings are on display from his “Oxidation” series. Xu’s paintings utilize mixed disparate images layered with linear mark making. What seems chaotic and abstract is actually precise and controlled, which could be one way of interpreting China’s current economic and social climate.  

China’s emerging artists—those mentioned as well as Wang Wei, Xiaoze Xie, Xu Zhen, Chen Chieh-jen and others who are also included in the exhibit—reflect a change in China’s values, now with its capitalist market economy inevitably creating inequalities while embracing the bourgeois notion of art as a means of expressing one’s individuality now encouraged. Absurd Recreation, according to Stallings, is a commentary on the contradictions in a society where “before you know it, today seems to be already yesterday.”


Absurd Recreation opens July 26 with an opening reception 6-9 PM.  The exhibit runs through Oct. 4. Sweeney Gallery, 3800 Main St., Riverside, 951-827-3755;


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