Chinese Contemporary Art Beyond the Global Market

China China China!!!
is a major exhibition that features 18 contemporary Chinese artists whose work has not been constrained by the rapid expansion in demand for Chinese art in recent years.

Chinese art continues to be highly sought after, making it a hot commodity in today’s art market. In Spring 2008, Christie’s Hong Kong auction had record sales that totalled $315/£217 million, making it the most valuable series of art sales held in Asia. Beijing’s first commercial art gallery, 798, only opened in 2002, now there are more than 200 commercial galleries with new art spaces opening every week.

Chinese culture is experiencing a metamorphosis; the current generation of artists live in a time when freethinking and personal expression is possible. Extreme economic growth and materialism are now normal components of this once ultra–left society. The speed at which this transformation has occurred is awe-inspiring. Chinese cities have the ultimate urban landscape with endless skyscrapers, and a dominant position in the world economy with both production and consumption. China is a paradigm of globalisation in action. New values have been established while former ones have been abandoned. This radical transformation has created a new generation who are the product of this rapid change, a movement from an agrarian society to an industrial one in only 30 years. This transformation has created a multitude of spaces (both physical and metaphysical) for new perspectives and visual expression. The all-consuming question is, what does this mean for Chinese art?

China China China!!! opening at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on 10 February is the latest exhibition that seeks answers to this question. The exhibition has been organised by the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, and comprises three distinct projects created by cutting-edge China-based curators — Li Zhenhua founder of the Art Lab, Beijing, Zhang Wei, Director of Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou (on the Pearl River Delta, north west of Hong Kong) and Davide Quadrio, founder of BizArt in Shanghai, the first and only self-supporting and non-profit cultural organisation in China.

The three curators have collaborated for 10 years and their artistic development is fully documented in this exhibition. The chosen artists have produced work that is radical, critical and often playful, which is rooted in their local context, but also participates in the international art arena. The result is a collection of fascinating and uncompromising works that give new depth to our understanding of what it means to live in a society going through immense cultural and economic change.

Li Zhenhua asserts: “China China China!!! is very different to other exhibitions about contemporary Chinese art. The works are intimate and practical with a strong story to tell. I hope that the visitors to the exhibition will become more curious about global culture, will consider that Chinese culture is relevant to their lives and will appreciate the artists as human beings, responding to the world around them.” Li Zhenhua’s curatorial work searches for common cultural roots between different populations, both between China and its neighbours and East and West. In Multi-Archaeology, Li Zhenhua and artists Ren Qinga, Wu Ershan, Shen Shaomin and Zhao Liang examine cultural identity, demonstrating how individuals are moulded by constant change. The figure of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, is used as the symbol for communication between civilisations.

The curators also included The Angel, a life-size sculpture by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, from The Saatchi Gallery (London). Li Zhenhua explains: “The Angel was purchased on the international market, but the inclusion of this fallen angel in China, China, China!!! is a reaction to the current world economic crisis.”

Davide Quadrio’s contribution to the exhibition is a documentary, which maps the complex reality of Shanghai’s artistic scene and reflects on the social relevance of contemporary art in the China of today. In 40 + 4 Art is not enough, not enough! Quadrio interviewed 40 of the city’s major artists, asking a series of questions that were grouped by theme on a deck of cards. Quadrio says: “The resulting film, shown on four screens with English subtitles, appears to show the artists in discussion and challenges what we know in the West about Chinese art.” Themes discussed include the importance of the artist in modern Chinese society, the artist’s relationship with the public, and the influence of the international art market on artistic production.

Zhang Wei’s contribution, Throwing Dice, looks at the personal experience an individual has as a member of any society. He selected works that provide an individual response to China’s rapidly changing social and cultural world. Duan Jian Yu’s Art Chickens sit in front of watercolours of Chinese landscapes; Cao Fei (aka China Tracey) explores the utopian online society, Second Life, in her film I-Mirror and Chu Yun’s photographic work, Career, documents government officials in their private time. Wei states: “All the works demonstrate the energy or emotions of Chinese reality. This part of the exhibition, Throwing Dice, creates an environment in which the audience can feel the reality of China. I am not just talking about China geographically, but am also concerned about thousands of years of Chinese culture.”

China China China!!! is a seminal exhibition to gain an understanding of contemporary visual culture, its influences, movements and trends. It examines the current demand for contemporary Chinese art and asks profound questions about the society that is producing these works, but also about the society that is consuming these works. Where is it going? Why has it moved so fast? What does this mean for the concepts of individuality and the notions of freedom? In this examination, we can only look at the sheer power of globalisation and see the ultimate paradox. Amanda Geitner, Head of Exhibitions at the Sainsbury Centre says: “After a period when China has been the constant focus of international attention, we are keen to reflect on the impact of this interest, and to offer a thought provoking show, which does not simply feature artists whose work is in high demand in the West at present.”

The exhibition opened at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, on 10 February 2009 and ran until 3 May 2009.

Shirley Stevenson