Chinese Contemporary Art in a Transitional Era

Liu Bolin, Great Wall, 2010

Chinese Contemporary Art in a Transitional Era
For the exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Art –Identity and Transformation


I felt a great pressure when I tried to write this essay. I’m sure that this pressure is common to anybody who attempts to characterize and describe Chinese contemporary art. None of us is able to define it with a couple of simple concepts or frameworks because of its rapid and stupendous evelopment. Even though we only want to talk about art, we can hardly grasp its complicated evelopment and the vast energy contained deep in its reality. The key point is that contemporary art is constantly growing. In addition, I still feel I lack sufficient accurate data and information to write anything like a definitive account. Thus, I can only contribute my own feelings about Chinese contemporary art, as seen From my own perspective.


China, as a big country with a huge population, is undergoing an incredible change brought about by rapid economic development and internal investment. This seems to have given tremendous energy to Chinese contemporary art. Since 1993 when Chinese artists attended the 45th Venice Biennial for the first time, artists From this vast nation have participated frequently in some of the most important international art fairs and have developed into a remarkable group in the current worldwide art scene. All this was inconceivable for those who lived in the late 1980s.

Today, when we talk about Chinese contemporary art, we have to pay close attention to two characteristics. One is its interaction with social progress. How did it cultivate the freedom and significant individual consciousness in China during the course of modernization of China’s society? I will develop this point by reviewing the drama of Chinese art and the construction of an art community. The second characteristic we must note is the special role Chinese contemporary art has had during the course of globalization and the increased international attention China now receives. I am aware that these two points are not enough to describe all details of Chinese contemporary art; however, they offer two aspects that can lead to a greater understanding.

Arousal of individual consciousness

Before the later eighties, China was still suffering From poor material supplies, decadent mental amusement and insufficient knowledge resulting From the chaos caused by war and long-time political campaigns. Artists of that time only acted as advertisers for political propaganda. Free creation was a luxury for them. They were not allowed to have their own ideas; instead they had to follow the national will. The reforms, which started in 1979, opened the door of a closed nation and created new opportunities after the conflicts of the previous century. Along with the break-dancing that appeared on the streets, a modernism of thought started to be seen among young artists. Thereafter, the rise of a series of modern art groups and movements formed a conscious, or perhaps unconscious, departure From the restrictions of the past. This awakened the individual will and independent awareness in China for the first time. Throughout this time, which included the likes of ‘85 Thought’1 of the 1980s, ‘The New Generation’2 of the early 1990s, ‘The Cynical Realism’3 and the increasing use of new media and performance in the later 1990s, the one consistent factor has been that all the art movements and trends which have emerged look like fast-moving clouds driven by strong winds.

All of these trends have broken through the ideology of ‘greatness and unity’ and the aesthetic style of ‘red and bright’ which was promoted in the Cultural Revolution. They have stepped out of the psychological shadow, and have made a true move towards original thinking and an exploration of contemporary life in China. The 1980s can be regarded as an enlightening time for individual awareness of Chinese contemporary art and elementary experimentation in art styles. Some post-modern Western philosophical monographs were introduced into China during this period. These monographs became the idealistic support for artists and their desire for enlightened self-awareness. The key phrase of that era was ‘The Great Soul’. At the same time, poorly printed painting albums in the style of Western modernism started to spread silently among Chinese artists.

It is not very hard to imagine the uniform nature of the art scene at this time and the tremendous potential energy behind it, which was desperately trying to burst out as things gradually opened up. This potential energy was completely released in the late 90s. Artists changed their focus From national thinking to individual experience, From revolutionary aesthetics to daily aesthetics. Their mission also turned From carrying forward truth, kindness and beauty to addressing social problems, From singing the praise of political figures to gazing intently at ordinary people, From the ‘Public Square’ to the home, From a political event to an unintended yawn, From the vague and general cultural saying to a practical exploration of the possibilities of varied media.

Today, when we review the history of the past twenty years, we find that the spirit and ideas of art have developed From national ideology to individual experience, then to an illustration of styles, then to the searching for different media and materials, and this has mirrored the rapid economic development. Contemporary Chinese art has an ambiguous relationship with official aesthetic ideas. The official mainstream ideas still focused on eulogizing ideologies such as ‘beauty’ and ‘harmony’. The reality in the mid and late 1990s was that the rapid economic development was causing the whole of society to experience amazing change. During this period, artists’ hearts were stricken by a dramatic rise in materialism, a deficiency in human spirit, a demise of morality and a collapse of belief.

All of this created a sense of anxiety amongst intellectuals and artists, which was clearly reflected in the work created during this time. The spirituality of Chinese classical art came From a poetic pastoral mood; however, the spirituality of Chinese contemporary art is rooted in the anxiety of real life. This situation can be understood as a permanent conflict between the artist and reality. Chinese contemporary art has converted an evasive spirit of classical art into a worldly spirit of the present age, and in doing so has risked danger on the “edge of reality”. Reality is always an aggressive force behind us. It moves artists to step down into the boggy marsh of simplistic reality From the plateau of super-organic thinking and virgin style.
The art historian Lu Peng once said: “The development of art history of this century was introduced by ‘thought’, ‘-ism’, ‘political event’, ‘governmental paper’, ‘instruction’, or ‘ideology’, but broke away From the matter of style.” In other words, the development of Chinese contemporary art in the past twenty years has totally rid itself of the impact of Cultural Revolution thinking. However, as a type of art formed From individual experience and experimenting with different media, Chinese contemporary art still can’t really break free From the morass of reality. It must respond to every occurrence in this land. It is not only a fact of China, but also a fact of Chinese artists.

This is one profile or collective portrait of Chinese contemporary art. The combination of repressed energy and the introduction of Western modernist thought, early in the opening of China, produced a freedom of thought and will among Chinese artists. ‘Vogue art’ and ‘pioneer art’ are common terms used to describe Chinese art From the late 1980s to the middle of the 1990s. Yet this did produce a definite distance From the general public.

Establishment of public surroundings

Since 1995, curators and artists have tended to utilize the neutral term ‘contemporary art’ to identify their exhibitions, instead of ‘pioneer art’ or ‘vogue art’. Of course, discussion and debate about modern art, post-modern art, pioneer art and contemporary art were also launched in the academies. Finally, we are mostly called or call ourselves exponents of ‘contemporary art’ or ‘Chinese new art’.

Since the mid 1990s, an artistic movement, which used new media and performance art, quickly developed, supported by the experimental spirit initiated From Chengdu, Kunming, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Beijing and Shanghai. Its impact has reached to the big and small cities, and continued to develop in the cities mentioned above. Thus the initial regional pattern of Chinese contemporary art was formed. Flourishing and active artistic movements emerged endlessly, but formal exhibition spaces were not sufficient, so most of these movements generally happened in an underground way. The audiences for exhibitions were limited to the artist circles. The official attitude toward contemporary art was suspicion while still watching From outside. This kind of attitude did not change until the Shanghai International Art Biennial in 2000. This event is now seen as the first official recognition of Chinese contemporary art.

In 2000, when LOFT, one of the very first art communities not only in Kunming, but also in China, was founded, only a few Chinese artists owned their independent studios. There was not enough normal exhibition space for young artists to exhibit their work, but the artistic thought and practice that had flourished really needed an exhibition platform to open them to a wider public. Then the artists started to construct and operate the art space themselves. In the beginning, it was a type of space in which artists could both create and show their work. Due to the characteristics of non-profit and cheap rent, this kind of space supported numerous young artists and experimental art groups and provided many opportunities to develop their practice. This type of art space suddenly emerged everywhere throughout China, resulting in endless experimental exhibitions. It was a rapidly growing stage for Chinese experimental art; the major methods for artistic exploration were performance, new media and installation. Until the establishment of the Chinese art market in 2005, more and more artists owned their self-supported art space and studio. But with new investment coming From increased national wealth and international capital, and with gallery practice now firmly established, extensive art communities grew up, in particular the Beijing 798 art space. With this change, the pattern for Chinese contemporary art communities was formed.

This new industry also drove economic development in other respects. It was a hard process, which began with nothing and integrated some other industries such as tourism, culture, real estate, recreation and food provision. After absorbing investment From many parties and various resources, these art communities contributed fresh blood and motivation to the Chinese contemporary art scene and the Chinese economy. On the other hand, this establishment also added some elements of simply following the latest fashion, entertainment and humanism into the city.

Nonetheless, students, art fans and “common people” all had a chance to enjoy art exhibitions in some art communities. They could learn more about Chinese contemporary art history of the past twenty years and international art trends. Press media, universities and civil organizations started to cooperate with art communities. This kind of cooperation even supported some social programs with marginal groups. Chinese art no longer praised itself as “emerging art”; it has entered into communities and become a necessary part of the city by keeping its characteristic of aesthetics and spiritual elite and criticism. Therefore, we can conclude that a city without any art communities is not a complete city.

Chinese contemporary art in an international perspective

As I have mentioned at the beginning, Chinese artists often appeared in many important international exhibitions since the 45th Venice Biennial in 1993. Some of them have been familiar with international Biennials, and Chinese contemporary art has become a notable force in the art world. There are many reasons that can be used to explain why Chinese contemporary art has won so much attention: it is in the largest developing country, this country maintains continuous high-speed economic development, the Olympic games are going to be held in the country, the price of Chinese art keeps rising, the label of Mao-style revolutionary romanticism, huge international investment, environmental issues, the so-called ‘workshop of the world’ among others. However, I want to summarize all of them into three main reasons. The first is people. Incredible hard work during the period From ‘85 thought’ to the middle of the 1990s enabled Chinese emerging art to accumulate a distinctive history and become noticeable. A number of excellent artists who are competent in using visual language have grown to be important components in international art. The second is geographical position. Since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, China is the last experiment in international communism and holds a unique position in the world. The third is international climate. Cultural diversity increasingly became fashionable in international art criticism and exhibitions, and post-colonial theory also came to an end, creating many more opportunities for Chinese contemporary art.

Today, the prosperity of the Chinese artwork market, its increasing percentage of international auction sales, and the establishment of art communities are escalating China to greater heights and increased dynamism in international art. The holding of international art biennials and festivals symbolizes the fact that Chinese contemporary art is no longer a representative of an exotic culture appearing on the international stage; it is directly participating in the creation, construction and development of international art.

Chinese art poster(uddvalla)


The purpose of this description of the general characteristics of Chinese contemporary art and its development is to help generate a greater understanding of the art and artists of this country. It is by no means complete; this would not be possible with such a vast and fast-changing art scene. However, I highly recommend the exhibition of “Chinese Contemporary Art – Identity and Transformation”. This is a great opportunity to learn more and gain a greater understanding of Chinese contemporary art. The artists involved in this exhibition include some of those pioneers of the later 1980s as well as some other young and unsophisticated artists. The composition of artists in the exhibition is varied in age, use of media, and theme. Their art forms cover photography, painting, sculpture, video and Chinese ink painting. Their art themes relate to current social problems, individual life, the current situation of Chinese traditional culture and folk art, female art, body art, and simple exploration of style and materials. They are revealing their own mind and China’s reality in a sincere and intelligent way. With such abundant vigor, this exhibition can be seen as a living sample of Chinese contemporary art and well worth sharing with our Swedish friends.


1 ‘85 Thought’ refers to a kind of Chinese artistic thought that arose in the mid 1980s. The young people of that time were not satisfied with the conservative art guidelines. They grew tired of Russian artistic patterns and some of the values of traditional culture. They tried to seek new elements From Western modern art and generated new artistic thinking in the whole country.

2 ‘The New Generation’ painting revealed an individual political narrative and a kind of hopeless counteractive political emotion which occurred in the political society of northern China in the early 90s. What the painting stated is a kind of mental description of vanity in a closed social space. The movement was committed to exploring the visual localization of realism, expressionism and modernism.

3 The ‘Cynical Realism’ has not yet acquired an exact definition. Commenting on this idea, Mr. Li Xianting, a Chinese art critic and an independent curator, once used the terms ‘rogue humor’ and ‘rascal culture’. When he analyzed the situation of these artists, Mr. Li said: ‘It is the artist’s sense of vacuity that led them to describe the familiar, tiresome, occasional, even ludicrous living scene with a self-mocking, ruffian, cynical and indifferent attitude. Finally it formed a kind of rogue but humorous art style.’

Luo Fei – curator at TCG Nordica Gallery and artist
July 1, 2007
In Liangyuan, Kunming

Chinese vision of this essay, 阅读本文中文原文

chinese art exhibition
Chinese art exhibition from TCG Nordica

4 thoughts on “Chinese Contemporary Art in a Transitional Era

  1. 很有用呢! 本来想要你的幻灯片的,有这个就更好了, 我会好好看的 ,不过需要时间 , 嘿嘿

  2. Pingback: Chinese Contemporary Art- Identity and Transformation[Kunming] | TCG Nordica

  3. Pingback: Chinese Contemporary Art- Identity and Transformation[Bohuslans Museum] | TCG Nordica

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