Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art

Published by Intellect
Print ISSN: 2051-7041
Biennial and triennial exhibitions were first established in western countries, gradually becoming a well-recognized formula that came to influence non-western nations. Biennial and triennial exhibitions rose in prominence beyond western boundaries as they strove for the right to speak on the international stage. The sudden rise of biennial and triennial exhibitions in China is closely linked to these concerns. It is generally accepted that China’s biennial exhibitions first entered into the international field of vision in 2000 with the Shanghai Biennale, closely followed in 2002 by the Guangzhou Triennial, which has garnered frequent mention internationally. Viewed from a historical perspective, the themes explored by the first three editions of the Guangzhou Triennial constituted a different set of ideas regarding the international predicament of Chinese contemporary art, while the featured artists in the latter two editions were not limited to China. The backdrop for these ideas was the frequent appearance of Chinese contemporary artists on such international platforms as the Venice Biennale beginning in 1993, and the tendencies and conditions of the selections for such appearances. Chinese contemporary artists at the time were excited to gain entry to these important international platforms, but at the same time, the ways in which they were interpreted and selected gave pause for reflection. This reflection was directed not just at the artists themselves, but at the response from the critical and curatorial realms. A very important matter within this was the need for China to establish its own interpretive system and internationalized platform. Below, I will follow a chronological path in outlining the gradual progression of the Guangzhou Triennial in regard to these themes, and the connections between them.
This article aims to shed light on a curatorial momentum that was generated at the turn of the 2010s in the broader international art world, allowing contemporary Chinese ink works for the first time within the context of the new century to have a more geographically widespread spotlight of attention under a dual label of the Indigenous and the international. Indeed, in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the curatorial approach to ink art in both China and North America and Europe began to change, emphasizing not only ink’s cultural uniqueness but also its transcultural applicability. The pioneering event to do this was the Third Chengdu Biennale in China, following which there was a noticeable escalation in similar exhibitions across countries like the United States or the United Kingdom. These ranged from the ground-breaking Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China (2013–14) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) to exhibitions at international auction houses and commercial galleries, such as Christie’s or the London-based Saatchi Gallery. By focusing on the Third Chengdu Biennale and The Met’s Ink Art exhibition as the two case-study examples, this article elucidates in what specific ways present-day Chinese ink works were framed by these two significant internationally oriented exhibitions, as well as what kind of critical reception this attracted. Drawing from this analysis, the article also provides a reflection on this curatorial momentum’s both achievements and limitations, suggesting that altogether they present an important foundation for present-day curators to devise new constructive ways of positioning Chinese ink as the global contemporary medium of artistic expression.
With the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, much of the world has been experiencing isolation and quarantine. Digital technology, especially the internet, has become the essential method of communication when social distancing measures constrain physical contact. The global health crisis leads to a dynamically increasing reliance on digital equipment contributing to a posthuman world. The article will take Shanghai-based multimedia artist Lu Yang (1984–) as a representative example to explore an alternative posthumanism subjectivity in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Built theoretically on Kathrine Hayles and Rosi Braidotti’s posthumanism concepts of virtual bodies, this article will examine how Lu Yang’s work articulates the interactive relationships between humans and the material world to go beyond the conservative corporeality and contribute to a renewal of posthuman subjectivity. In Lu Yang’s recent projects created during the pandemic, such as Doku × The 1975 ‘Playing on My Mind’ (2020) and the live-streamed piece Delusional World (2020), the artist experiments with different strategies to break down social-cultural constraints and transcend established dualisms of gender binaries, life and death, human and non-human. With a close investigation of Lu Yang’s multidisciplinary artistic practices, this article intends to argue how a new subjectivity emerges in contemporary Chinese art and its roles in the current COVID-19 pandemic world.
This article examines how internet memes both enacted and reproduced racialization of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were motivated to undertake this work by a surge in hatred towards and violence against people with East Asian heritage following the outbreak of COVID-19. We focus on memes because of their ubiquity in contemporary culture and their capacity to both reflect and shape discourses. We conduct a multimodal critical discourse analysis of two prominent memes – juxtaposing a ‘top-down’ process of meme selection and distribution (the sharing of ‘The Kung-Flu Kid’ meme on Instagram by Donald Trump Jr) with a ‘bottom-up’ process (the ‘Corona-chan’ meme that originated on the website 4chan). We situate our study in a growing literature on politicized memes, challenging an emerging consensus that lauds ‘bottom-up’ memes as a democratizing force enabling resistance to hegemony, inequality and injustice. While we do not reject this characterization outright, we add nuance, showing that racialized memetic discourses around COVID-19 were propagated both from the top-down and from the bottom-up. We conclude that memes are particularly powerful communicative tools in racialized discourse because their use of polysemy, humour and cultural reference allows them to subvert the mechanisms that sanction openly racist statements.
The mass shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people including six Asian women in March 2021 marked the new peak of the unceasing waves of anti-Asian violence since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. In this context, this article examines how a group of Chinese visual artists in New York perform and remake their Asian identity on social media in response to a surge in hatred towards and violence against Asians in the United States following the outbreak of COVID-19. Based on my analysis of their visual rhetoric and media activism, I identify three approaches that this group of Chinese visual artists use to perform and remake their Asian identity. First, they performed their Asian identity by developing various visual rhetorics to combat and denounce anti-Asian discourse and hate crime. Second, their Asian identity emerged when they created new visual rhetoric to reimagine what it meant to be Asian in the United States. The new visual rhetoric enriched the understanding of Asian-ness and diversified the experiences of being Asian in the United States by overtly or subtly challenging Asian stereotypes as a product of the western imagination. Lastly, they claimed their Asian identity through seeking racial justice in a larger social context in collaboration with other racial minority groups.
In early 2020, the unforeseen COVID-19 has brought the art world to its knees, particularly the contemporary art scene needs viewers and feedback to survive. Artists require new channels connecting them with their audiences, while artists’ work needs to be seen and appreciated by the public to sustain its value. In the face of social distancing restrictions and limited visitors, however, many international exhibitions are forced to cancel or postponed. With less to no patronage, will the global pandemic bring the end of the art world? As the global pandemic has forced most social and cultural events moving online, the art biennials are no exception. This article examines the art biennial, the Olympics of the art world, to rediscover the meaning of ‘art’ before and after COVID-19. Integrating virtual presentation and digital campaign between the Taipei Biennial and the Shanghai Biennale, the first running art biennials across the Taiwan Strait, this article analyses and presents the art world’s potential shifts in the post-pandemic future.
In 1988, artists Chen Shaoping, Gu Dexin and Wang Luyan began collaborating with a distinctive approach to art-making in Beijing, China, forming the New Measurement Group (NMG). Active until 1995, they based their practice on a series of complex collective instructions, which they would execute to create artworks. Their resulting drawings would then appear in different forms such as tables, diagrams and numbers, which were then bound together into books for presentation in an exhibition context. This article considers the NMG's art practice as situated within a Communist approach to art-making, one structured upon collective ownership of production and moral codes, and reflecting China's artistic, economic and socio-political context at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s. Additionally, this article considers their collective instruction-based practice within an international history of instruction-based art; that is, art based on artists' instructions for themselves or audiences to enact, a genre having a longer history within a western context, specifically through the genres of conceptual art and Fluxus. To understand the NMG's contribution to art-by-instruction, this article discusses their practice alongside some aspects of the exhibition series 'Do it' – the role of the audience, the value of subjectivity and chance, and consideration of the art-making process. Since its inception in 1993 by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, 'Do it' has featured certain kinds of instructional artworks; that is, artworks based on artists' instructions and enacted by audiences. Though very different, this curatorial project offers the possibility of discussing and considering the NMG's distinctive process-based approach to art-making in greater detail.
The environmental art project, Keepers of the Waters , organized by the American artist Betsy Damon, invited artists from the United States and China to create artworks in and around a polluted urban river in Chengdu in 1995 and again in Lhasa, Tibet the following summer. The site-specific event occurred outdoors – outside institutional spaces of art – and showcased experimental performance and installation, formats that had previously been excluded from state-run museums in China due to state censorship. Although recent scholarship has examined socially engaged projects of the early 2000s that drew from global trends of social activism, relational aesthetics, and site-specificity, little work has been done on this nascent moment in the 1990s when Chinese artists began to draw connections between going outdoors, working in a site-specific manner, and advancing broader social commitments through their art. This study examines Keepers as a test site for a newly developing xianchang (on-site) aesthetic based on outdoor, site-specific engagements with social spaces. By situating Keepers within the specific historic concerns of the mid-1990s, I suspend the overly robust interpretive frameworks around art activism to uncover the nuanced ways in which xianchang art operated. As I demonstrate, the tensions and contradictions surrounding xianchang art challenge imported models on art’s social efficacy and continue to inform contemporary art practices in China into the twenty-first century.
Big Tail Elephant Working Group ( daweixiang gongzuo zu , hereafter BTE) is synonymous with the city of Guangzhou and the surrounding Pearl River Delta. Formed in 1991, the group is most closely associated with the artists Chen Shaoxiong (1962–2016), Liang Juhui (1959–2006), Lin Yilin (1964–) and Xu Tan (1957–). This article re-examines BTE artists’ practice from 1991 to 1994 and argues that the artist’s performing body provides the critical lens through which to understand BTE artists’ work during this time. Acknowledging that the experience of BTE’s work was primarily physical, embodied and performative allows for an important reconsideration of not only their works but also the predominant ways in which the global capitalist ‘turn’ in the 1990’s China has been discussed in art historical writing. This article argues that BTE artists were primarily interested in urban forms for what they signified about commercialization as a form of a new political rationality after 1989 and suggests that BTE artists were ultimately concerned with commodification’s transformation of society and of ideas of cultural value.
This article examines the function of the Venice Biennale as an ‘archive’ for documenting diasporic Chineseness: establishing a body of work by the Zhongguo ren gongtong ti ‘community of Chinese’ during the period of the 1990s to the mid-2000s when Chinese states were first included in the Biennale roster. The difference between cultural and national identity can be explored through the statist distinctions of the island-nation of Taiwan, the special administrative region of Hong Kong, and the People’s Republic of China represented at the exposition. The artists selected for the case studies of this article, Lee Ming-sheng, Lin Shu-min, Wu Mali, Stanley Wong, Ho Siu Kee, Zhang Huan and Cai Guo-qiang, have adopted the conceptual medium that showcases the body as the subject and/or object of the work of art – the medium contributes to the understanding of the human subject that Chineseness ultimately represents. The Biennale becomes a theoretical frame for contextualizing these representative works, contributing to a historiographic perspective for examining their inaugural moment. Ultimately, the exposition functions as an empirical stage for the analysis of the emergence of Chineseness in the global context for contemporary art.
This article discusses the characteristics and background of the phenomenon of self-organized collectives formed by the younger generation of Chinese artists after the year 2000. First, this article traces the origin of the term ‘self-organization’ in the context of contemporary Chinese art. Second, four categories – art communities, art groups, independent projects and autonomous institutions – are employed to analyse these self-organizational practices. The article then offers specific examples of these self-organizational practices under various different conditions, demonstrating that the strategic responses and aims of self-organizations vary with their contexts. Lastly, the article demonstrates that these self-organizations differ fundamentally from the collective practices of the previous generation of artists, and that the cause of this change was the establishment and consolidation of an institutionalized contemporary Chinese art scene. From this angle, the self-organizational practices of young artists today constitute a rethinking of, and critique against, this new institutionalized system.
Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-Jen’s video works directly address Taiwan’s post-martial law condition. His video installations demonstrate what I propose to identify as ‘the aesthetics of the multitude’. Through the process of filmmaking, Chen imagines the possibility of a collective political alliance. Theorized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the multitude rejects reductive identity politics and acts against capitalism. The multitude depicted in Chen’s work suggests a democratic potential that has the capacity to resist the sustained exploitation and homogenization that exists under neo-liberal globalization. His first video installation, Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph (2002), not only sets the tone for his later works but also signals a paradigm shift in Taiwanese contemporary art from the national to the global after 2000. I argue that Chen’s aesthetics of the multitude move beyond the contentious issue of national identity that characterizes Taiwan’s postcolonial art in the 1990s and anticipates the formation of a postnational subjectivity.
This article analyses Hong Kong-based choreographer Helen Lai’s work HerStory (2007) in the context of Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 and its impact on modern dance and women’s writing. I examine HerStory ’s innovation of a gesture – falling – in multiple registers and argue that the gesture of falling enacts a potential field to articulate the unspeakable, unrecognizable bodily experience. I show the ways HerStory , through falling, undid the boundaries of the rural and urban space, the past and the present, the individual and the collective; and expressed the tensions between women’s corporeal experience and gendered social inscriptions. In the end, I discuss why revisiting these relations can help us better understand Hong Kong’s historical moment.
Ai Weiwei is one of the artists with greater relevance outside China. In Spain, he is one of the Chinese artists to have attained more visibility with the media and art centres, as exemplified by the first exhibition Resistencia y tradición/Resistance and Tradition at the Andalusian Contemporary Art Centre of Seville (2013), and with On the Table: Ai Weiwei at the Palau the la Virreina in Barcelona (2014–2015). It is worth noting that both exhibitions by Ai Weiwei have become the most visited in the history of the aforementioned institutions. With the aim to expand on the reception of the prolific and heterogeneous trajectory of Ai Weiwei in Spain, I will analyse the exhibition’s discourse of On the Table and its impact on the local and national media. The article will take into account the political aims of the Palau de la Virreina’s director in relating Ai Weiwei’s public persona with the political message that the Catalan institutions wished to convey in connection with the right to self-determination for Catalonia and the terms of their relationship with the Spanish state. The Palau de la Virreina opted for an artist who symbolizes – in the western media – the fight for democracy and freedom of speech. In order to delve deeper into such ideas, I will focus on the controversies and expectations that Ai Weiwei generates as an artist, as well as his role as a political activist.
This photographic article presents installations shots of works by Chinese artists included in the Venice Biennale 2015.
This article analyses the practice of Handshake 302, an art collective based in Shenzhen, as an exemplary case of the recent development of urban public art in China in which public participation has become central. Defining itself as an experimental public art project, Handshake 302 adopts an interdisciplinary, open-ended, collaborative and socially conscious approach in designing its various participatory tactics. Advocating that ‘art should belong to everyone who contributes to the city’, it has charged itself with the task of creating opportunities to enable people of disparate backgrounds ‘to participate in art activities and unleash their creativity’. In practice, it embraces a wide range of forms/ methods to engage urban residents of Shenzhen, involving them in art making, exhibitions, research, workshops, dialogues, tours and field trips, among others, with the mission of enabling ordinary people to engage with creative activities that deal with Shenzhen’s diverse urban spaces. Discussing key programmes carried out by Handshake 302, I posit that urban public art has become an expanded field for critically minded art professionals to initiate grassroots urban interventions and social innovations and the working of this art collective sheds light on this new artistic and civic movement that can be called socially engaged participatory public art.
This article focuses on the China pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale as a case study. The theme of the pavilion, Continuum ‐ Generation by Generation , revolved around the long history of Chinese tradition and offered a visual re-elaboration of it by means of contemporary art and folk art. The works exhibited drew on Chinese mythology, masterpieces of Chinese art history, philosophical concepts and handcraft traditions, hence presenting a variegated image of (contemporary) Chinese art. This exhibition offers opportunities for a critical reading of the relationship between contemporary art and tradition implied by the theme Continuum , and I will explore the narrative and curatorial discourse it presented to the audience.
The simultaneous phenomena of the political upheaval in Hong Kong and Sinophobia in the United States produce a double bind for diasporic artists working about and between Hong Kong, China and the United States. Hong Kong diaspora filmmaker Simon Liu navigates this political landscape through experiments in abstract film as a medium for documenting protest and urban transformation sans spectacle. This article locates Liu’s work in the transnational matrix of Hong Kong’s post-colonial non-sovereignty and American Sino-diaspora politics to analyse the ways in which the filmmaker’s diasporic positioning necessitates abstraction and to demonstrate the potential of abstraction as an apparatus for geopolitically vulnerable subjects to continuously deconstruct and re-establish their subjectivity under political conditions that threaten their erasure. I posit that abstraction in Liu’s quasi-protest trilogy – consisting of Signal 8, Happy Valley and Devil’s Peak – offers a sensory orientation for finding blind spots between recognition and indecipherability, opening up new ways of documenting a crisis through the disarticulation of discrete events into atmospheric conditions.
With the radicalization of activism in Hong Kong in the past decade, it has become increasingly common for artists to engage in the political situation through their creative work; the discussion of art and activism has also become popular and the term ‘art activism’ is usually used to describe such practices, referring it with a new political imagination of art. This article takes the discussion of such practices through the concept of art activism as a complex dynamic of discursive practice. It reflects the ways in which politics are constructed through the discourse of art activism, and how such a concept contributes to its political dynamics in social movements. This article attempts to analyse the changing trajectory of the discourse of art activism and to explore how different actors discuss its confrontational relationship in different contexts. Hence, what kind of politics does this concept refer to? This article suggests that the discourse of art activism has been influenced by the theory of New Social Movements in the West, in which the construction of collective emotions and identities are emphasized. It has become a key element in the political composition of art activism, and provided a new impetus to the dynamics of social movement, but at the same time imposed certain limitations later on. This article takes such a review as an attempt to outline the political construction of the discourse of art activism in Hong Kong, tracing its dynamics and changing trajectories, hence the heterogeneous elements in the discourse of art activism that may provide an alternative perspective in deconstructing its boundaries.
This article focuses on the nature of socially engaged art as environmental aesthetics in a particular project that has spanned several years from 2014 onwards: the ‘Cijin Kitchen’ project initiated and curated by artist, curator, art educator and activist Wu Mali (b. 1957). The project is set in an underdeveloped seaside community on the outskirts of Kaohsiung with a sizeable population of fishermen, labour workers and diverse immigrants. Importantly, the place has a historical significance due to its rich maritime memories. The Cijin Kitchen project has involved various artists, designers, urban planners, scholars as well as local communities and it has allowed such a marginalized area to be empowered and renewed for its future development. The communities at stake have, indeed, developed an awareness of their cultural uniqueness, their local colours and flavours. The transformative power of art no longer solely lies in its ability to be displayed in museums or alternative spaces within the confines of the ‘art world’. Its power extends to the ‘real world’ whereby artistic or curatorial concepts become genuine platforms for urban change and community reconstruction.
This article counters the prevailing and frequently disparaging economic and diplomatic associations of the term ‘export’ in discussions of contemporary Chinese art, and especially those artists who live and work outside China. Drawing attention to the previously underacknowledged political, social and affective aspects of this term, the article offers a new reading of foundational works by Huang Yong Ping (1954–2019), resident in Paris from 1989 until his death; Ni Haifeng (b. 1964), resident in Amsterdam since 1994; and Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957), resident in Tokyo from 1986 to 1995, then subsequently in New York. The article also highlights a concern shared by these artists with the persistence of colonial legacies in contemporary global capital, the connections uniting past and present modes of production and consumption and the essentializing impulses of chinoiserie, Pan-Asianism and related cultural trends. The combined study of these themes is intended to introduce a renewed focus on contexts of display and interpretation, and material, subjective and affective dimensions of meaning, to our understanding of these canonical works.
This article attempts to define body aesthetics in contemporary Chinese art. By tracing the body aesthetics in Hong Kong Sculptor Ho Siu Kee’s artistic development in the past two decades, it will argue that Ho’s artworks exploring the body and extension of the body as themes and mediums entail a certain kind of body aesthetics that is unprecedented in the history of contemporary Chinese art. It will also examine how Ho’s adoption of contraption parallels his western counterparts. Most importantly it will examine the ways he has developed his sculptural forms emphasizing modification of the body, bodily movement, contraptions, the art of measurement with regard to the body, materialization of bodily measurement and fine craftsmanship that transcend his western counterparts. His art as a whole can be interpreted in a fluid manner that goes beyond the boundaries of performance art, installation art, conceptual art, photography, video art and sculpture.
This article presents the text of a paper given by the curator and writer Carol Yinghua Lu and the artist and writer Liu Ding at Shadows: Attempts at Re-examination and Re-evaluation of Socialist Realism in the Practice and Discourse of Art in China from 1950 to the Present, a seminar held at Tate Modern in London on 4 December 2013. The seminar, which was staged as part of Lu’s residence as the first Visiting Fellow at the Tate Research Centre: Asia-Pacific in 2013, was supported by Tate and the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham. Lu and Liu’s paper, which is published without significant editorial intervention, discusses the pair’s struggle to develop a critical, research-led history of contemporary art in China in the face of significant public criticism from established art historians and critics.
Colonization and race are important issues influencing international contemporary art practice, but related discourse is often focused with Europe or America at one end of a binary dialogue opposing the peripheries and former colonies. Since mid-twentieth century, following the independence of new nation states and events such as the 1955 Bandung Conference , there has been an increasing awareness to create new axes of sociopolitical connections. China–Africa relations evolve from this context but remains a topic mostly studied from state-level politics and economics. Recently, artists from the Greater Chinese context have started investigating ways of understanding Africa culturally through their artworks. Pu Yingwei (mainland China), Musquiqui Chihying (Taiwan) and Enoch Cheng (HK) are three young artists whose recent works focus on creating more intimate narratives to construct an understanding of China–Africa relations. China is introduced in the dichotomous mode of discourse, and this new triangulated focus expand the understanding of China–Africa relations by offering more nuanced perspectives.
This article presents an argument for the Internet as a novel ‘post-human’ dimension where individuals around the world can explore possibilities for social engagement in a virtual environment beyond the confines of their ‘real’ lives. Artists take to the Internet to conceive original forms of aesthetic expression outside of ordinary objective existence; the diversity encountered within the Internet realm reflects the complexity of our human condition in the twenty-first century. While the authorities in mainland China continue to patrol cyberspace in an effort to maintain control over actual society, some Chinese artists are finding ways to engage the digital sphere to create virtual communities, political opportunities and sensual experiences that transcend corporeal and ideological borders – ostensibly the post-human environs of the Internet surpasses our human reality. Through their dynamic use of social media and other online platforms, artists such as Ai Weiwei and Cao Fei are redefining social activism and artistic praxis in China today.
This article will examine the evolving function of critique in the work of artist, activist and dissident Ai Weiwei since the mid-1990s. It will do so by first considering Ai’s manipulated and transformed furniture in relation to the inundation of Ming and Qing Dynasty antiques on the market during the 1980s and 1990s to demonstrate how his art uses ambiguity to critique western market expectations. Throughout his artistic career from 1996 to the present, Ai has repurposed antique furniture, doors and temple beams as sculptures and installations. If this under-researched yet important group of works by him is considered through a socio-economic framework and a Duchampian sense of irony, as this article intends to do, these pieces will be able to be understood as sardonic assisted readymades, with a specific set of different meanings for people in China and the West. Differing from prevailing views of Ai’s repurposed antiques that have regarded them as objects moving away from their Chinese sources, i.e. their ‘Chinese-ness’, this article will look at his sculptures and installations, which incorporate while dramatically altering these historical objects, as satirizing western consumption of Chinese culture and history. It will also situate the works as critical of a consequence of China’s rapid transition to global stage: consumers’ and government’s tendency to erode cultural heritage, sites, and artefacts in exchange for economic growth and the new. Ultimately, this article will suggest that these works source their political thrust from a type of ‘radical ambiguity’ that Ai has now expunged from his practice in favour of more determinate means of critique.
This article examines a brand new member of the biennale system in China, the Guangzhou Airport Biennale, in Fenghe Village, Renhe Town, Guangdong Province, and focuses on its first edition in 2019 entitled Extreme Mix , by analysing the topic of social engagement and public participation. In other words, the discussion below is two-way – not only art engaging in society but also public participating in art – and is principally about the latter. The interventions in question were initiated and activated preponderantly by the local residents in the biennale and artworks. Most notably, their line of practices was replete with competitiveness and confrontationality. It will be argued that although intention-wise the biennale was not dedicated to be socially relational and participatory, it ended up being strongly so, owing to the agency and creativity of the villagers. Using Clarie Bishop’s theory of antagonism, the conclusion of the article is that the competition, confrontation and debates are conducive for the fostering of democracy.
This article addresses the work of Chinese American interdisciplinary artist Patty Chang over a 25-year period that begins with her groundbreaking short form videos in the 1990s, and considers transitional works in the mid-2000s that led the artist to create two major bodies of work connecting identity issues with climate change since 2009. I discuss Chang’s influence on subsequent generations of Chinese American and Asian American artists, her prescient use of online aesthetics and her complex engagement with the political, social and ecological realities of mainland China and neighbouring Uzbekistan. After contextualizing Chang’s influence through the lens of her inclusion in the group exhibition Wonderland with nine other Chinese Diasporic artists, I consider the impact of COVID-19 and anti-Asian violence in the United States and globally on the direction of Chang’s work and discuss the experience of curating her recent project during the pandemic shutdown.
In the 1990s, Cai Guo-Qiang uses one of the most famous Chinese inventions, gunpowder, to realize his Projects for Extraterrestrials, which claim to establish a dialogue with extraterrestrials. Behind his projects that seem to question the infinity of the sky lurks a scarred feeling that results from a historical wound that afflicted the Chinese people for two centuries. For Cai Guo-Qiang, a dialogue with the West is impossible because the two worlds are not on an equal level. In his work using gunpowder, we can notice a change from form to no-form. The moment of the explosion not only reminds us about a simple breath – the primordial breath Qi ( yuanqi) – but also evokes Laozi’s famous thought: The Great Image Has No Form ( daxiang wuxing). It is through this emptiness, this simple Qi, that Cai Guo-Qiang brushes aside the asymmetric relationship between the West and the Far East. He succeeds in directing the impossible dialogue to a cosmic dimension that assures an equality in the emptiness ( kong, xuan) of Dao. Since living and working in the United States, Cai Guo-Qiang has continued exploring this approach. Discovering the shape of the mushroom cloud allowed him to sketch the small clouds working in the register of flatness ( dan) that binds the polluted Qi ( xieqi) – mushroom cloud and the upright Qi ( zhengqi) – the Basidiomycota mushroom. Since these disjunctions are at the same time conceived as being opposed and complementary, they become exchangeable. In the works that followed, the artist has similarly engaged with a set of reversals inspired by history, geography and world economy. By consequence, he manages to overcome the impossible dialogue with the West, when implying the use of flexibility and the resting on the strength of opposite to explore its dynamics ( yirou kegang). Thus, Cai Guo-Qiang’s artistic approach that fits into the international contemporary art scene indeed also follows an old trail of ancient Chinese concepts.
Tang Nannan, Billennium Waves, 2015. Colour Video. 4 minutes 3 seconds. The China Pavilion, 2017 La Biennale di Venezia, 57. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte. © Jenifer Chao.
Yao Huifen, Twelve Images of Water Surging by Ma Yuan Series, 2017. Suzhou embroidery. 20 cm × 35 cm each. The China Pavilion, 2017 La Biennale di Venezia, 57. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte. © Jenifer Chao
Wu Jian'an, The Birth of the Galaxy, 2012. Paper-cut collage. 267 cm × 2400 cm. The China Pavilion, 2017 La Biennale di Venezia, 57. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte. © Jenifer Chao.
This article examines the China Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale through an exploration of temporality. It argues that the pavilion's deployment of a politics of time ‐ by mobilizing China's dynastic past and its traditional arts to enhance the present ‐ constructs a mode of cultural timelessness that sustains a stultifying visual and discursive regime. Touting the theme of 'Continuum ‐ Generation by Generation', the pavilion paid a lofty tribute to folk-art practices such as embroidery and shadow play, elevating two paintings from the Song Dynasty as the fount of contemporary artistic imagination. This recourse to the past mirrors a predictable and safe representational strategy often mobilized by the country to shape its own public and media image on the global stage. In view of this, the pavilion can be more constructively investigated as an exercise in image and perception management, or nation branding, which reveals the self-narratives that the country embraces. Nation branding serves as a complementary analytical lens that probes the instrumentalization of Chinese traditions, history and past, while crystallizing some parallel visual logics and aims of contemporary art. Aesthetics and nation branding are, therefore, conjoined to question the shared visuality that perpetuates, to borrow a term from Rey Chow, the 'affect of pastness' that obscures a more timely and inventive imaginary of the country.
The Cultural Revolution was not only a political attempt to restructure society in its entirety but a transformation of the world of Chinese visual representation. Photography was a major part of the image world of the Cultural Revolution, serving ideological aims and projecting a coercive revolutionary mode of social and political behaviour. This strict state control of photographic production and dissemination has led to photography, and other forms of visual expression in the Cultural Revolution, being viewed as an exceptional visual culture, framed and understood largely as a phenomenon of propaganda. This reductive view is reflected in the hitherto dominant image world of the Cultural Revolution which has sometimes calcified into a visual discourse of mass rallies and Mao iconography. This article considers the more recent emergence of other photographic records of the period – transgressive images, unofficial and private images, archival research projects – which offer alternative frameworks of mediating contested memories and understanding the history, complexity and consequences of the Cultural Revolution.
Top-cited authors
Jenifer Chao
  • De Montfort University
Luise Guest
  • UNSW Sydney
Frank Vigneron
  • The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Giulia Zennaro
  • Freie Universität Berlin
Yanhua Zhou
  • The University of Arizona