You’ve probably heard of Ai Weiwei, but there’s much more to China’s contemporary art scene than its most famous representative
Perhaps the most acclaimed living Chinese artist/activist known to Western audiences, Ai Weiwei’s influence on the Chinese and global arts scene resonates through his extensive body of work. Yet he is just one of many contemporary artists whose work has helped in shaping a post-Cultural Revolution art scene since China opened her doors to the world in 1976.
Many tackle the larger themes of governmental policies (such as the one-child policy), economic growth in the ‘90s, and more recently, rapid Westernization, while others draw inspiration from the prosaic – personal memory and urban life. By no means an exhaustive list, here are 6 contemporary artists – ranging from old to young and representing fields in visual arts, performing arts and architecture – that you need to know.
Web: Shanghai Art Gallery
- BIRDHEAD 鸟头
Birdhead is an artistic collective made up of Song Tao & Ji Weiyu, photographers who document everyday life in their native city of Shanghai. People, parks, alleys and landscapes are subjects in their extensive black-and-white photographic story. Their snap-shot aesthetic further adds an ephemeral quality to the temporary scenes captured in the rapidly changing city.
- Galerieurs Meile
- Liu Ding刘鼎
Liu Ding questions the arbitrary idea of “value” and how it is formed in the art world through his work in both conceptual and curatorial projects. In an installation of his Samples series, Products, he hired factory workers to paint the same painting over and over again in the style of an assembly line, with a result (above) that suggests China’s state of capitalism and frenzied commodity culture.
- Yang Fudong
- Yang Fudong 杨福东
One of China’s pioneer filmmakers, Yang is best known for his “Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest”, a silent, black-and-white five-part film that follows a group of attractive Chinese youths as they attempt to escape the modern world and retreat to the bamboo forest together. Preferring to shoot with 35mm film, his works often eschew a clear narrative in favor of emotive and poetic dreamscapes.
- Saatchi Gallery
- Yue Minjun岳敏君
Best known for his oil paintings where he paints himself into iconic moments in art history, Yue Minjun is one of the biggest stars in contemporary Chinese art. Since the ‘90s he has offered his work as a form of serious political criticism and social commentary. On the trademark grins in his paintings, he has said “I always found laughter irresistible.”
- Zhang Huan
- Zhang Huan張洹
Zhang is one of the most influential and provocative performance artists working today. In 12 Square Meters (1994), he replicated the repugnant state of Chinese public restrooms by sitting naked and immobile on the toilet for an hour, all the while caked by a liquid of fish and honey. His body was covered in flies as they fed. His recent work consists of sculptures and paintings that draw inspiration from the history of his native country.
- Chinese Architects Website
- Wang Shu 王澍
Our last man on the list is Hangzhou-based architect Wang Shu. Like many contemporary Chinese artists, he perfectly balances the dichotomy of traditional Chinese elements with Western influences in his work. He designed the Ningbo Museum to resemble nearby mountains, a reflection of its natural setting, and constructed the building with bricks salvaged from buildings which have been demolished to make way for new developments.
China’s contemporary art scene is exciting and provocative, and these artists’ works are worth seeing in person. Be led through Beijing’s contemporary art circuit by WildChina Expert Wai Wai on our Beijing Contemporary Art Tour. Take a trip to Shanghai , Beijing, or Hangzhou to experience these conversation-starting pieces up close and personal.