The Dimensions of the Contemporary Artist’s Duty

The Dimensions of the Contemporary Artist’s Duty — on Lei Yan’s Art

Written by Luo Fei, this essay has been published in the book of To Start From Art

Lei Yan was born in 1957 to a military family, and herself served in the military for thirty years (1970-2001). After being discharged in 2001, she became a contemporary artist, creating works in the forms of installation art, photography and soft sculpture. She held her first solo exhibition at TCG Nordica in 2007. At that time, I noted her deftness at transforming rich personal memories into public memories, and at transforming such objects of the past as camouflage cloth, old photographs and badges into moving artistic forms.

Lei Yan began shifting away from military subject matter in 1997 in a clear shift to the expression of individual emotions and identity through contemporary art. Her art that followed can be categorized into four different aspects, these aspects being the four key words in Lei Yan’s works: form, heart, culture and public events.

Lei Yan, The Traffic Rule1, Printmaking, 1998

Lei Yan, The Traffic Rule1, Printmaking, 1998


French art historian Henri Focillon held the view that “Perhaps, in our secret selves, we are all artists who have neither a sense of form nor hands. The characteristic of the true artist, however, is that he does have hands.”[1] Thus, the difference between the artist and the average person or even the intellectual is that the artist uses his or her hands to create forms. The forms created by the artist realize his spiritual perceptions in time and space.

In Lei Yan’s works, form encapsulates two levels. The first refers to handcrafted working methods, such as collage, sewing, cutting, knitting and modelling. The second refers to the individual experiments she engages in terms of artwork material, medium and structure rooted in the surface appearance of the artwork and its relation to space. From Lei Yan’s early paper prints The Conversation, Traffic Rules and Environmental Color (1997-1998), her mixed media prints Scenery, Still Life and Wall (2004), and her single print seriesWilderness (2007), we can see her great interest in form, material and crafting methods during her flat painting phase. By 2002, when she began formal experimentation with such diverse mediums and materials as digital photography, cloth sculpture, paper sculpture and blocks of ice, she appeared quite at home.

In art, correct form and materials can realize the emotions and visual forms the artist wishes to express. For instance, in the paper sculpture installation How Can I Protect You, Lei Yan used fragile, translucent parchment to recreate a scene of rubble from a collapsed school in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake[2], along with students’ book bags, shoes and flowers. The artist used this method to memorialize the young lives lost in this earthquake while also voicing suspicions about shoddy construction. Sometimes form and material themselves can bestow meaning onto an artwork. Those spiritual perceptions and memories that have been already expressed artistically can take on a feeling of freshness through an artist’s formal re-expression, giving people a new understanding of their spirits and their memories. For instance, in the Frozen series (2007), Lei Yan froze various mementoes from her soldier days, such as medals, badges portraying political leaders, a book of Mao quotes, uniforms and photographs with her comrades into blocks of ice, bestowing these all-too-familiar images with a new spirit marked by sentimentality, desolation and emptiness.

Her experiments in formal material and her infusion of emotions allow Lei Yan to consistently present a cohesive and incisive voice in the right formal materials.

Lei Yan, A Summer from Age 15, Paper Sculpture, 2011

Lei Yan, A Summer from Age 15, Paper Sculpture, 2011


An important trait of the heart is that it constantly describes itself. The heart is a pattern in a state of constant flow, a state of constant weaving and unraveling. In this sense, the activities of the heart are artistic activities. The heart wishes to turn the external conditions of a person into its own things, bestowing them with intelligent forms. The heart believes it can bring people youthful forms of life that overturn old models. This is the heart’s instinct.

On this level, I see that in Lei Yan’s early mixed media prints, she used materials such as paperboard, hair and cloth to create pictures full of motion, tension and texture: that is a vivid pattern of the heart, an ultrasound image of the artist’s heart.

In another series of melancholy oil paintings entitled Song of Four Seasons (2001-2002), Lei Yan depicted a girl with no clear facial features or traits running around in a closed space. In the Woman Soldier’s Dream oil painting series, she employed a style reminiscent of children’s drawing books to narrate a surrealistic journey of a woman soldier. In the photography series A Bullet through the Young Heart, she took soldiers, those followers of orders and protectors of the nation, and restored them as a series of young hearts, expressing her deep longing for the fragile hearts of her comrades lost in battle.

Lei Yan, The Frozen Youth N0 26, Photo, 2007

Lei Yan, The Frozen Youth N0 26, Photo, 2007

Another form of the heart’s expression is memory, because memory is a richly stocked warehouse that is accessible to each of us at any time. Memory training is a kind of spiritual form that some artists cultivate in their minds. In the artist’s hands, those memories bestowed with form have a special nature. Lei Yan’s memories of her military career and the Mao era have provided her with a rich treasure trove for her art. TheFrozen Red and Frozen Youth series are testament to that fact. In another soft sculpture series, 15 Years Old in Summer, Lei Yan turned a pair of army shoes into butterflies taking flight.

Lei Yan sometimes says that she got involved in contemporary art too late. Truly, taking up art after retirement at almost fifty is something that many young artists can’t imagine, but in her works, we can see that her heart has never rested from her army days, and the life in her heart (perceptions and reflections) has made preparations for her heart in space (art).

Lei Yan’s artworks are constantly describing the heart’s perceptions. This is a powerful voice in her work. If it weren’t for the saturation of her works with soulful emotion, we would not be able to sense the existence of a person from within her artworks, and those artworks would not be able to produce emotional resonance with the audience. Because of the self-awareness, memories, sentiments and consolation expressed in artworks, the artist has become the guardian of the human heart.


Culture refers to the models of thinking, values views, modes of behavior and ways of life that people form over long periods of time. When living in a group, people will inevitably come to face a certain culture and become a part of it, and thus culture is regional. Culture also possesses fluidity and openness; it is not an unchanging specimen. Through the expression of, and intervention in, the values, modes of behavior and other aspects of people and society, the artist takes part in culture and reshapes it, bringing it new vitality while inspiring independent thinking, imagination and joy among others.

In the relatively early installation work Screen (2005), the artist expresses a sense of anxiety regarding the complex and subtle relationships between people. The artist also engages in the alteration of everyday objects to push people to look at the things around them in a new light. In the Camouflage Cloth-Making (2007) and I Love Kitchen (2009) series, she used camouflage cloth of different colors and patterns to remake cooking utensils, appliances and other everyday objects. The camouflage cloth lends these everyday objects militaristic traits, placing them in a state of tension between order and poetry, farce and sincerity. Lei Yan says it is just like women.

In another series, a set of photographs asking “what if,” (2006), Lei Yan probes the memories of a city. She asks, What if I Can Still Go Through My Memory Here, What if I Can Return to Grandma’s Home, and What if Our Factory Were Still Here. In What if You Were an HIV Patient, she uses a dark, empty room with a window to convey the pitiable straits of HIV patients.

In the series that followed, Be Fond of the Problem of Colorful Bird (2009), Lei Yan appears as a bird made out of camouflage cloth around the ancient towns of Dali and Lijiang, as well as the surrounding mountains, constantly asking questions: can man truly conquer nature? Is documentation more important than exhibition? Where are you, my partner? Will I be able to return to such a beautiful scene in future years? Can the tourist industry spur domestic demand? Why are words and deeds always so different? Is this really how cultural heritage is passed down?

Lei Yan, If They Are Women, Photo, 2002

Lei Yan, If They Are Women, Photo, 2002

Against the cultural backdrop of patriarchal society, Lei Yan created two images marked by strong feminine awareness in a dialogue with prominent Western feminist artist Judy Chicago in 2002, titled If They Were Women and If the Long March was a Women’s Rights Movement. In the first image, she used computer editing to add 1930’s-style women’s hairstyles to the male leaders of the Long March to humorous effect while also raising questions about the allocation of power. The second image is a group photo of the female revolutionaries in the Long March. In both pictures, the artist stands at the bottom right corner in camouflage, looking off into the distance with binoculars to try and find a local movement regarding women’s identity. In If Women were Written (2006), Lei Yan once again addresses women’s issues. For this artwork, the artist photographed the covers of the various women’s magazines for sale at the Xinhua Bookstore and combined them into a massive image, with the giant word “WOMAN” alluding to women’s historically passive role.

Lei Yan, The Confusion from Choices, Soft Sculpture, 2010

Lei Yan, The Confusion from Choices, Soft Sculpture, 2010

At its root, culture is religious. The exclusive worship of certain values by an individual or a state is their religious logic. The Confusion from Choices (2010) is a group of five different fist-sized pink cloth sculptures of the Communist Party flag, the American Statue of Liberty, a Guanyin statue, a church and an ordinary cheesecake. These symbols of political faith, religious faith and consumer ideas have been turned into the form of cheesecakes. Lei Yan has seen the predicament of faith that all individuals and nations face within this culture of consumerism, pragmatism and entertainment.

In these culture-themed artworks, I see Lei Yan taking on the role of constant skeptic, of cultural observer.

Public Events

Public events are those events that have a broad impact on public opinion, those events that touch on the interests or even lives of every citizen in a nation, that affect the public order. They can be natural disasters, accidents, social group events, political movements, wars or the extreme moral behavior of individuals.

Lei Yan grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and afterwards took part in quite a few battles in the military. This experience has given her a strong participatory mentality towards public events. The never-ending parade of public events has led her to profound thinking on the future of humanity and humankind while shaking her spiritual world. As a result, her works often nimbly shift between individual emotion and public events.

A Bullet Through the Young Heart (2002) is a triptych on the Sino-Vietnam War. The picture comprises countless martyr tombstones arranged together in a dense wall. The left image is red, the central image black and white, while the right image is green. A caption on the left introduces the 1979 war between China and Vietnam. A caption on the right recounts the history of Sino-Vietnamese relations, from the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1950 to the war and on to reestablishment of relations. For Lei Yan, who took part in this war, this special experience has opened up a contradictory world where collective honor and individual life have been buried. Critic Wang Nanming uses this artwork as an example of trans-feminist art. He believes that women can also be political forces in the public sphere. They can discuss anything that is discussed in civil society and thus criticize the feminist theories that recognize only needlework as a trait of Chinese women’s art.

This is an era of internet-enabled, self-driven media, and this has led to a profound shift in the role of the artist. The artist has gone from using painting or photography to convey a subject in studio or natural light, and shifted towards making reactions to social phenomena found in the media, using the materials of public events to express their desires as citizens.

Lei Yan, How Can I Protect You?, Paper Sculpture, 2010

Lei Yan, How Can I Protect You?, Paper Sculpture, 2010

In Ten Years the Death (2012), Lei Yan used parchment to create three tombstones that record the death tolls of various natural disasters that took place around the world from 2001 to 2011. Like How Can I Protect You (2010), with its depiction of an earthquake aftermath, this artwork also reveals the fragile, fleeting nature of life. In Disappearing Image, the artist printed out eight copies of a missing child poster she downloaded from the internet, and using computer software, digitally blurred each copy successively until the final image is completely blurred. The young girl in the photograph is just one of millions of missing children in China. Her hopeful gaze speaks of her longing to return home. The face on that missing child poster will slowly disappear with time, but the pain will always linger over the hearts of her loved ones.

Lei Yan, Little Souls, Photography , 2013

Lei Yan, Little Souls, Photography , 2013

On January 4 2013, a fire broke out in a residence in Chengguan Township, Lankao County, Henan Province. A foster mother in the building, Yuan Lihai, lost seven foster children in the fire. It was determined that the children started the fire when playing with fire. This incident elicited broad discussion on private adoption and the public welfare system. This gave Lei Yan inspiration, and in an artwork titled Little Souls (2013), she collected various articles of children’s clothing, burned them to varying degrees, and photographed them in the air. It is as if those little souls who lost their lives in the fire were telling us of their hardships from heaven.

Another time, on a visit to a friend, Lei Yan witnessed some small birds crashing to their deaths because they had mistaken a window for the sky. She conveyed this scenario in the artwork Lost Birds (2012), using foil to represent glass-lined skyscrapers and cloth paper to create small birds laying quietly crumpled on the ground. There are also a few birds in the air, flying for the towers. In this artwork, Lei Yan expresses her anxiety over environmental issues and blind urban expansion.

In these artworks, we can see that the artist uses her public identity to reflect on certain public events that have taken place around us, leading people to focus on and discuss them.


Form, heart, culture and public events are key words that repeatedly arise in many of Lei Yan’s artworks, and thus her artworks are marked by multiple meanings. I could easily switch the works described above from one key word category to another to come up with a new interpretation. This is the allure of Lei Yan’s artworks. She has established an internal connection and unity between formal experimentation, the guarding of the heart, concern for culture and the voice of the people.

I believe that these four key words can open up four dimensions of the contemporary artist’s duty: the artist as formal experimenter, the artist as guardian of the heart, the artist as one who cares about culture, the artist who gives voice to the people. These four dimensions form the core of contemporary art, with formal experimentation as the core within the core, in that it sets the artworks of one artist apart from those of other artists and other times, and bestows the other three dimensions with lasting vitality in time and space.

August 9 2013
Translated by Jeff Crosby

[1]  Henri Focillon, Life Forms in Art, 1934; Chinese translation by Chen Ping, Peking University Press, 2011, p. 111.
[2] The 2008 Sichuan earthquake or the Wenchuan Earthquake was a deadly earthquake that measured at 8.0 Ms and 7.9 Mw, and occurred at 02:28:01 PM China Standard Time at epicenter on Monday, May 12, 2008 in Sichuan province, killing 69,195 people, with 18,392 missing.


Xue Tao Interview: Contemporary Art in Yunnan


artist Xue Tao, photo by Luo Fei

Xue Tao Interview: Contemporary Art in Yunnan

December 27, 2012, Loft Arts Community, Kunming
Luo Fei (abbreviated below as “Luo”): TCG Nordica Gallery Curator
Xue Tao (abbreviated below as “Xue): Artist
He Libin (abbreviated below as “He”): Curator and Director, Dean of Oil Painting Department, School of Art, Yunnan Art Institute

I.Setting Out from Yunnan

Luo Fei: You were one of the first off-canvas artists in Yunnan. You founded the Red Heart Commune in Dali, Yunnan Province, in 1994, and the Migratory Sky Art Space in Beijing in 2005. You have always been promoting interaction between Yunnan artists in the outside world, and have witnessed the beginnings and development of Yunnan artists born in the 70s. Please tell us a bit about what the situation was like when you founded the Red Heart Commune.

Xue Tao: I first entered the studio to learn painting in 1989, in my first year of middle school, and I graduated high school and took the university entrance exams in 1994. Most of my classmates at the studio got married and had kids after graduation, and basically stopped doing art. It wasn’t like today, when you test into the art academy after a few months. Back then, it was normal to keep testing for four to five years. I felt that after working so hard to test into an art program, it would be a shame to give it up. I should persevere in doing what I liked. So I formed a commune together with Lan Qinglun, Duan Yusong and Shi Zhimin. We didn’t know about the 85 New Wave at the time, and had only seen Scar Art in the magazines. We were all young artists in Dali, and we formed this group to help each other to continue with our passion. We had regular events such as exhibitions and exchanges, but we didn’t have a clear creative direction. In 1997 we started getting more members such as Su Yabi and Liu Kun. At the time, the only exhibitions in Kunming were for the Artists Association. We held our first exhibition in 1997. Our second exhibition, in 2000, was held at the Yunnan Art Academy Museum. Chen Changwei and a few others also joined. Later, we went on to hold an exhibition every two years, in a biennial format, which was influenced by the fad for biennial exhibitions at the time.

Luo: You founded the Migratory Sky Art Space in 2005. Is it still there?

Xue: Beginning in 2002, there were a lot more exhibitions in China, especially after the Loft was founded. In 2003, I did the Shadow New Media Exhibition with Xiang Weixing and a few others. You came to help for that one. Then, we held the Cry Sheep Exhibition at the Red Banana Gallery and Nordica. In 2003, we went to Shanghai for the Spring Art Salon, holding the Altitude Sickness Exhibition. Things were taking off in China, and everyone was actively taking part. That’s because after the 85 New Wave and “Post 89,” things had gone silent in the Chinese art scene. From the 90s to 2000, everything was quiet, and then suddenly a new energy burst forth in 2000. Chen Changwei, He Libin, He Jia and I stayed in Shanghai for a long time, interacting with artists from all over. Once our enthusiasm was let out, it couldn’t be pulled back in. Everyone had this impulse, this feeling that something big was about to happen in the Chinese art scene, though we didn’t know what it was.

In 2004, He Jia and I went to Beijing, to the Binhe Neighborhood in Tongxian, which was one of the places artists had gathered after the Yuanmingyuan Artist Village was scattered. At the time, some of the Yuanmingyuan painters had been sent back to their hometowns, some of the ones with money had bought houses in Songzhuang, and others had moved into the Binhe Neighborhood. He Yunchang was there, as were most of the key members of the Kitsch Art scene. But I started wondering what I was doing there. If I wanted the settled neighborhood life, I was already doing fine in Kunming, with a salary and insurance. That’s not what I quit my job in Kunming for. Later, I went to Suojia Village and set up a space, one set up with money from Yunnan artists. It was called Migratory Sky. I wanted to make a platform for Yunnan in Beijing.

Half a year after I set it up, they started demolishing Suojia Village. City officials said they were cleaning up the city’s image, knocking down buildings that weren’t up to code. Suojia Village fit the bill. I had just quit my job and borrowed money to set up this art space, and now, right at the beginning, I was facing a tragedy. When the demolition team came, everyone was asleep, and they made a big commotion as they came. We were surrounded by court officials, police and bulldozers.


Artists Xue Tao, Shi Zhimin, Chen Changwei, He Jia, He Libin in Shanghai, 2003

Luo: They didn’t notify you beforehand?

Xue: There was a notice, telling us to knock down the buildings ourselves by a certain date. Of course, no one did, because we had just built them. Then, they suddenly showed up and demolished them. The first one they knocked down was Shang Yang’s studio. His wife fainted, and was taken away in an ambulance. He’s a very famous and respected artist in China. All kinds of people lived in that art zone, including Tan Ping, who was the Vice Dean of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. But it didn’t matter. The political atmosphere in Beijing was too thick. When we saw that they would even knock down Shang Yang’s place, we all knew the game was up. Migratory Sky split up after the demotion.

Luo: Were you compensated?

Xue: No. We were lucky we weren’t fined. We had built it right across from the Village Council, on land rented from the village. The land used to be a graveyard, and they couldn’t do anything with it. It was just a bunch of weeds when we got there. The village was of course happy when we came to use it. We brought them income. Migratory Sky held two exhibitions, the first being an open studio exhibition, and the second being the Entertainment First Exhibition. There were about a hundred people at Suojia Village then, with artists from about a dozen countries. There were very few artist studios in the 798 Art Zone at the time, and people were even saying that 798 was slated for demolition.

Luo: You recently wrote a preface for an exhibition on post-70s Yunnan artists, using the term “non-stream” to describe them. You wrote, “Non-stream is a state that is neither mainstream nor non-mainstream, a state outside of the streams. This is an outstanding feature of Yunnan artists.” Is this an awkward predicament, or is it about finding one’s own way?

Xue: It’s a bit of both. It depends on what Yunnan artists want for themselves. If they hope to enter into the mainstream, then it’s an awkward predicament. If they don’t hope to enter into the mainstream, then it means they are finding their own path. But only the artist knows. Everyone else just sees them staying outside of the stream. Regional and cultural factors in Yunnan have kept many people outside of specific trends or streams. In Beijing, it is very clear. You are either mainstream or non-mainstream. If you want to fight the mainstream, you have to either step aside or form your own stream. Yunnan artists are none of the above. They don’t enter into the stream or resist it, and they don’t have any other stance either.


Wang Jun Performance “Kunming, I’m gone”, 2006

Luo: Their goals are unclear.

Xue: Right. They’re unclear. If they were clear, then in most cases, they would leave Kunming, at least for a while. That has been the case with the past few generations of influential artists since the 85 New Wave.

Luo: You went to Beijing in 2004 to seek out better development, and watched as the Chinese art market exploded in 2006, and as it fell after the 2008 financial crisis. You have experienced Chinese art as it had no market, then had a flourishing market, and then bottomed out. As an artist, how do you understand the connection between artistic creation and the economic environment?

Xue: This is a headache for me. Yunnan is too quiet. There are no surprises here. I went to Beijing to find surprises. Though there weren’t many galleries in Beijing at the time, I had a premonition that something was about to happen, so I quit my job and went. At the time, Chinese artists were all chasing after the “big face paintings,” painting in the style of Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun, with kitschy colors. It was the same with sculpture, with everyone working in fiberglass and automobile paint. Art made in this way saw certain market returns, and I was sometimes swept up in it too, but I pulled out. I was very conflicted. You need to have a market to survive, but the market is too tempting.

In 2007, the artists were all crazy. Artists in Beijing from 2006 to 2008 were the luckiest artists in the world, because every year, there were two months of exhibition opening banquets every single day, which was heaven for artists who had been surviving on steamed buns up to that point. As long as you were an artist, you would get a lot of invitations. That is because the market was good, and the galleries were all looking for resources, so they were very nice to all the artists. It didn’t matter what kind of art you were making. As long as you were an artist, you were treated with a certain amount of respect. In those days, I basically slept till the afternoon, when I would head out for an exhibition banquet, with the galleries covering late night barbecue, karaoke, bars, the works. The artists had it great. In April and May, then again in September and October, there was food to be had every day of the week, and on weekends for the rest of the year. Sometimes I had no idea whose exhibition it was or who was footing the bill.

Luo: Stuff like this can’t happen in Yunnan. Even though manna isn’t falling from the sky, the sky isn’t going to fall down and crush anyone either. The great ups and downs of the art market didn’t affect most artists here.

Xue: These daily banquets wouldn’t happen anywhere else. There were a lot of foreign artists in Beijing at the time who were jealous of the Chinese artists, who by the age of 30 were renting studios by the acre rather than by the square meter. Their studios were big enough to park a small airplane. Think about it. In another nation’s capital, if an artist had a studio that was several hundred square meters, even a few acres, it would mean he was an important artist. In Beijing it was easy. It didn’t cost much at all. A lot of artists saw their entire destiny change in a single night in 2006 or 2007. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, everyone started shrinking their studios, and it all entered into a slump.


Xue Tao’s installation “Compatriot” 2011

II. Open Language

Luo: Let’s talk about your artworks. You twist newspaper into ropes or compress it into shapes like blocks and balls. Some of your artworks are quite large. Do you make them yourself, or with assistants?

Xue: I was making them on my own at first, but as the market got better, I started hiring assistants. There’s a couple that helps me a lot. The man is a renovation worker, and welds the frames for me. The woman is in charge of twisting the newspapers.

Luo: Where do you get the newspapers?

Xue: I get them from a newspaper distributor. They recycle the ones that don’t circulate, and I get my newspapers from them. Sometimes I get them from newsstands.

Luo: Do you categorize them once you get them?

Xue: I don’t. I just make selections. It has to be stiff copperplate paper. If it rips when you fold it, I can’t use it. It has to be thin copperplate or coated paper. It has to be easy to crumple, but it can’t tear too easily.

Luo: Looking at your works over the past few years, the first thing one notices about your work is that it’s non-functional. Second, it doesn’t have a direct, easily-understood meaning. Third, your work is anti-formal. These traits are reminiscent of Arte Povera. Where do you get your inspiration?

Xue: An Italian artist once showed me an artwork made from twisted-up newspapers. I thought it was mine, because I had made some with English newspapers, but it was actually the work of an Arte Povera artist in his fifties. When you twist a newspaper up into a rope, it all comes out in that shape. I think, however, that mine is a bit different. My art has gone through roughly three phases. At first, it was the basic feel for the material, and then I treated it as a modeling technique. In the third phase, I treat it as a language. The reason I use newspaper is that it’s cheap, easy to obtain and convenient.


Xue Tao, “A Bunch of…” 2006

Luo: Your early works mainly imitated forms, such as the sun, flowers, pillars and the like. When we get to your rope works, we see that you have already cast off the modernist framework of form to pursue anti-form, alienation and individualized language. You emphasize a clear form, but do not consciously reveal your conceptual references.

Xue: Right. By 2011, I had entered into a state I was rather satisfied with. Before, I was doing modern art or postmodern art, but now I have truly come to understand contemporary art. At first, you submit to modeling and material, and now modeling and material submit to you. In terms of technique, I also feel increasingly free.

Luo: What is your view on the connection between your artworks and Arte Povera?

Xue: My own creative trajectory has been akin to learning the breadth of art history, but when I really set out to create, I don’t think about any particular schools of art or art history. If you do think about such things, the creative process will not be a joyful one. If, after completing something, you discover that something similar already exists, I think that is normal. It demonstrates that between civilizations and art, there is more potential for human communication. As for the Arte Povera artists, I don’t concern myself much with what they are doing or thinking. I’ve been to Turin and Milan, where Arte Povera began, and I have seen their works, only to discover that we are not quite the same.

Luo: In the narrow sense, Arte Povera is postmodern Italian art from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. It was an art movement that arose in response to the drastic social changes and political schisms taking place in Italy at the time. Arte Povera artists presented found objects in dramatic ways to criticize consumerism, seek new ways of intervening in the world, and challenge the traditional order and aesthetics. This movement had a profound impact on contemporary art concepts and methods around the world. Let’s return to the previous question. Do you think that Yunnan possesses certain resources or value that it can provide to contemporary artists in today’s globalized context?

Xue: To ask whether or not Yunnan artists can provide more meaningful references is like asking what Chinese artists can provide for the world. I would be hard pressed, using my own abilities, to answer this question, because I think it is unclear whether or not Yunnan can provide contemporary art with a new model, new methods, new concepts or a new condition. This must be answered by history and time. As an individual, I am infinitesimal. I cannot transcend time and space to see the results.

Luo: How do you maintain a flow between your increasingly rich international experience and your inherent Dali experience? For instance, how do you bring your experience of globalization to Dali, and how do you bring your local experience into the contemporary context?

Xue: This is an important question, one many artists must ponder. I think that contemporary art is an extremely open language mode, one which gives artists great freedom. Just to have this language, however, is not the end. What matters is what you say with it. In global contemporary art, I have learned this language mode and method of interaction, allowing me to interact with people from different countries and different language backgrounds. As a Yunnanese born in Dali, or as an Easterner, my interest and understanding of handcrafting and Zen Buddhism is infused into my art. Some people may use contemporary art to express sociological or scientific matters, but I think that my own expression is more religious.

Luo: This calls to mind Mono-ha, because Mono-ha also used everyday objects, while they drew spiritual resources from Zen and Shinto to explore the relationships between something and nothingness, between man and thing, thing and space, man and space, referencing materiality. Arte Povera was more directed towards social criticism.

Xue: My art is none of the above. It may appear similar, but when placed together, they are quite different. Neither Mono-ha nor Arte Povera are as produced as my art. The difference is in this production aspect. The production aspect of Mono-ha is concealed, secondary, with the emphasis placed on materiality itself. My artworks highlight the production process.

Luo: You make the energy of vast amounts of highly repetitive labor come to rest on ordinary materials.

Xue: Right. I am most satisfied and interested in the production process. What people see is not an object, but a production process. There is a massive amount of manual labor within. As I understand Buddhism, Mono-ha and Arte Povera, Mono-ha is about “emptiness” while Arte Povera is about “substance,” while Buddhism is neither emptiness nor substance. What is expressed in the end is the “non-duality of emptiness and substance.” I see Mono-ha as a philosophized understanding of religion. Its understanding of Zen and the Dao is philosophical. Buddhism is neither philosophy nor wisdom. Zen is different. In India, Zen is called “dhyana.” Zen cannot be explained. If it can be explained, then it is something different. It is just like all of these ropes I have made. I can’t explain clearly what they are, but in the end, I am satisfied. It feels right.


Xue Tao, “State of the Union Message” 2012

III. The State of Art in Yunnan

He Libin: In recent years, the Chinese contemporary art market has been aggressively encroaching on young Yunnan artists. The situation is not as good as it was in 2000, much less the 1980s.

Xue: When the Red Heart Commune first began, a lot of the artists were making installation art. At the time, Shi Zhimin used glass, X-ray plates and acrylic to make his graduate thesis work. He was placed under investigation, and in the end barely got his degree.
hen Changwei and Duan Yisong all worked in installation art. In those days, a lot of people were making experimental artworks. For instance Ning Zhi, who was from the same graduating class as us in 1998, was also making installation art. The young people were basically all working in off-canvas art and conceptual photography, but later on, they all basically stopped.

Luo: After the market picked up, most people shifted to canvas painting. The last time a lot of Yunnan artists were making experimental art together was with Jianghu in 2005 and 2006.

He: When the market began to dominate art in 2006, artists came to see their positions and goals more clearly. Of course, the end of Jianghu in 2006 had nothing to do with the market.

Luo: As post-70s artists, do you think there are any clear shared characteristics among post-70s Yunnan artists?

Xue: A lot of the post-70s artists are multi-talented. For instance, Wu Yiqiang, Shi Jing, He Jia and Zhang Tian all work in painting, performance art and installations.

He: If we’re looking at it based on time, I think that the post-70s generation is in a rather anxious mental state, and this finds expression in their artworks. Post-80s artists find ways to dispel this sense of anxiety. Older artists have a clearer connection to the ideology of the state. They are imprinted by the state.

Luo: I feel that Xue Tao’s creative experience is quite representative of the post-70s artists. This generation got started in the traditional art academies, learning colors and modelling. They then went through the modernist enlightenment, self-awakening and the artist group movement. Then they entered into contemporary art within the patterns of globalization, using individualized language and spirit to express artistic concern within the context of globalization. Among earlier Yunnan artists, very few truly entered into contemporary artistic language, with most artists born in the 50s and 60s absorbing modernism or pacing about between modern and postmodern in a quest for Chinese schemas and the expression of the Chinese experience. Their contributions are mainly connected to the post-Cold War unification of the international economy, the collectivist narrative of modern Chinese society and resistance to the same. Their advancement of contemporary artistic concepts was highly limited, and that is why, after they were successful, the only thing they brought, aside from insight into success, was modernist sentiments left over from the 85 New Wave. They didn’t engage in much exploration of artistic concepts. Some artists are creating contemporary art at the same time they are painting Impressionist or Romanticist landscapes. I can understand that as they satisfy increasing domestic demand, they don’t have to focus so much on export as with contemporary art, but this phenomenon shows that they are lost and conflicted about their individual artistic mission. That is not to say, of course, that one cannot create artworks for the masses; that is another issue altogether.

Xue: The “85” artists basically work within a modernist context. Some artists of the post-60s generation entered into the contemporary, such as He Yunchang. As for the post-80s generation, the question is whether or not they’re interested in art in the first place.

Luo: A lot of post-80s artists have been influenced by the individual icon methodology and success schemes. Artistic concepts have been flattened and fragmented, many of them secondhand in the first place. They need to raise their individual character.

He: You raised the question of whether or not Yunnan could provide contemporary art with new possibilities. At this point, I’m not optimistic. Yunnan has its own culture that is markedly different from that of the Central Plain. In fact, southwestern Chinese art as a whole is different from that of other regions. For instance, it places more emphasis on expressiveness, temporality and spiritual experience. The artworks are more closely connected to nature. Setting out from a regional perspective, it is possible that Yunnan can produce something of value, but the future isn’t so clear.

Xue: Among the art spaces in Yunnan that do true contemporary art, TCG Nordica is one, then there’s Liu Lifen’s Contemporary Yunnan, as well as the Lijiang Studio. These three art spaces all have strong international backgrounds. There are also a few individuals who engage in contemporary art creation and curation, but that’s it. Statistically speaking, it is very small, and the role such small numbers can play is very limited. If we took those away, Yunnan would basically be a desert, with nothing but the modernist influence left behind from the 85 period. Kunming still ranks up there with some of the big contemporary art cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Chongqing, mainly because most cities lack contemporary art spaces that are truly rooted in their localities. Why are there so few? It is because there is no demand. If there was more demand, then there would be more. This shows that China is not prepared to enter into the contemporary art context. It hasn’t prepared at all; it is simply making the preliminary preparations.


Ning Zhi, “The Manifesto”, 2000

Luo: The Chinese language academic scene has dubbed the last century of change as the modern transition, the transformation from a traditional society to a modern civilizational order supported by core modern values (freedom, reason and individual rights) and run according to market economics, democratic government and the ethnic nation-state. Critic Zha Changping describes contemporary China as a mixed modern society, where the premodern, modern, postmodern and alternative modern are mixed together, often interlocking and overlapping. This shows that China is not prepared to enter into the globalized world. It tends to view the world with a nationalist, clan-based worldview rather than universal values. One of the missions of Chinese contemporary art is to take part in promoting China’s modern transition.

Everyone knows that Yunnan is richly endowed geographically, ecologically and culturally. The key is for artists to change their vision and language. Today’s scene has developed into an ecosystem comprised of nature, society and culture, and when we look at this scene, we must keep in mind the pressing rural issues of land and left-behind children, the disparity of wealth and environmental issues. Beyond direct concern for social justice, even in artistic form, we must engage in a transformation of traditional aesthetic taste, of observational methods and concepts. Otherwise, we will always be in a state of cultural dislocation and chaos.

Translated by Jeff Crosby


Revisiting Political Pop And Cynical Realism, Discussion With Luo Fei


By R. Orion Martin

It’s difficult for me to remember the first images I saw of Chinese art, but it’s almost a certainty that Wang Guangyi’s commercialized propaganda paintings and Fang Lijun’s yawning mouths were among them. As Chinese contemporary art emerged onto the world scene in the 1990s, two groups of artists, labeled Political Pop and Cynical Realism, came to represent Chinese art to the western world. Although these works continue to fetch some of the highest prices in the Chinese art market, they have been criticized both from within and without the Chinese art community. I spoke to curator and artist Luo Fei about the origins and legacy of these artists. Our discussion is divided into defining the works, a discussion of the works themselves, and a review of how they were received.

Wang Guangyi

Defining Political Pop and Cynical Realism

Orion Martin: Li Xianting was the first to propose definitions for these styles in a 1992 issue. Can you give me your personal understanding of what defines Political Pop?

Luo Fei: Personally I’m not sure if it’s Li Xianting who put forth this concept. In fact this kind of art is not particular to China, in the Western political waves of the 60s and 70s there were already artists who employed this kind of style. An example is Andy Warhol’s Mao Tse Tung. The concept of Chinese Political Po was established and widely excepted during the 1992 “Post 89 Chinese Modern Art Exhibition” in Hong Kong.

Political Pop is often understood as appropriating images of political images and symbols, and mixing them with a commercial style. I think first of a few artists such as Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan.

Mao Tse Tung - Andy Warhol

It’s primarily oil painting?

In the beginning it was only oil paint. Later, there were sculptural pieces and prints as well. It’s worth mentioning that early American Pop art was all prints. It was an important method for the copying and mass production of Pop art, and Wang Guangyi’s Political Pop is oil painting that mimics the style of printmaking.

How about Cynical Realism?

It was proposed by Li Xianting. I first think of Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin. Besides Yue Minjun, the other artists later gave up their early period Cynical Realism style. I think Yue Minjun’s paintings remain Cynical Realism through and through. They are very boring, just ridicule and self-mockery.

The East Village of Beijing was an important center for artists, and there are many interviews from that period. Among these were a group of artists who, after the suppression of the 1989 student movement, felt intensely disappointed by the incident, and disappointed by authority figures. They felt it was all a kind of joke, and this changed their attitude. I think this is the generational background for the appearance of Cynical Realism in the early 1990s.

Yue Minjun Cynical Realism

They are quite different than the philosophy inspired artists of the 1980s.

That’s right, the 1985 movement believed that this (1989) was the time for them to change society and art. They were possessed by a heroism complex, that they want to save this sick society, a kind of intense feeling of historical heroics. Afterwards they found that the people in power aren’t ready to accept change.

Wu Hung has described this as a feeling that art is powerless in the face of political power.

These artists are in Beijing, and as a result they are influenced by the center. In Yunnan at that time, artists were more interested in the artist’s inner life and psychology, and these art styles were called “life flow.” The Beijing artists, in contrast, were very influenced by the political environment of the capital.

Is it fair to group Political Pop and Cynical Realism together or are they quite different?

According to the terminology and style they are different, but there is an inseparable spiritual connection between them. Generally we can say that they are two sides of the same thing. Political Pop is trying to use a playful attitude and the forms of capitalism to break open the existing system and ideology. Cynical Realism is a form of nothingness. Meaninglessness with a mocking attitude. This not only happened in art but also in Literature, like the writer Wang Shuo.

I believe that the common ground of Political Pop and Cynical Realism is that they lack an active response to problems and a direct response to history. They lack the strength of spirit to be farsighted and constructive. This also certainly influenced the widespread cynicism in later Chinese contemporary art and the focus on nothingness. But from another angle, their visual production also became a prediction of the collective decline and materialist lifestyle that dominated Chinese societal values in the coming years. At least in this respect, they were quite prescient.

Li Xianting also talks about this attitude in post-Cui Jian rock.

That’s right, at that time, the bands Three Prominents of Moyan and Tang Dynasty were representative.

Is there work being made today that fits these categories?

Generally speaking this type is used to describe a group of post-89 artists, but it also certainly influences many artists even today, particularly recent art school graduates. If you went to 798 in Beijing in 2005 you would see many followers of this kind of work. Among them was a style that Gao Minglu named “Big Face Group.” These are derived from cynical realism. They feature enormous self portraits, pink bodies, simple and flat painting styles, superficial images, etc. These things influenced art styles but also the spirit of art and the attitude of artists.

The Work Itself

Now I would like to take a moment to analyze the way these works typically operate. Political Pop is known for adapting symbols from China’s tumultuous recent history, including Cultural Revolution and Mao symbolism. Why was this an important development?

I think these images are an important visual resource. This history was never clarified. Many things were concealed or hidden, even until today. Through the art, the artists are trying to express their feelings and attitudes towards this past. It is a stone in Chinese history it can’t be moved. Artists can only use their own way to challenge or express it.

David Spalding has pointed out that for a long time, these images were “the only images allowed,” and so any artist looking into the recent past of art and culture will unavoidably confront them.

I agree. Reality can’t jump over such a thing, you must face it. We say that for the Beijing artists, this is their reality. All of China went through this struggle and all Chinese artists exist in the course of all of Chinese history. And yet the vast territory of China and established traditions determined great differences in the local and intellectual trends. The local art styles during the 1980s and 1990s are radically different based on location. At that time there were many artist groups, such as those in the Northwest, Southwest and South, who did not express this narrow political topic. Different locations found their own traditions and predicaments.

Yunnan artists never paint Chairman Mao. If they did, other artists would wonder why. This is also why landscape is so popular, because this is the reality for Yunnan artists.

Some critics have interpreted these works as China publicly engaging with its past. Was it that significant? How were the works received by the Chinese Audience?

Before they became successful in the western world, normal people would never have seen those images. In recent years, after they became successful they also gained influence in mainstream media. Sometimes you can see works by artists like Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang on novels or films.

But how do normal audiences see them? I’m not sure. There was a period of time when many essays criticized them for showing a terrible side of China to the western world.

Gao Minglu has commented that they are not really “Pop” because Pop relies on contemporary images while these artists reach into the past.

Warhol and other American Pop artists did not use historical images.

But Warhol is definitely the biggest influence for these artists, correct?

I think perhaps he’s not the only one, as the influence of Pop reached very far and in affected the artists in many ways. In 2005, for example, there were many Yunnan sculptures using a Pop style. Their typical method was to use fiberglass with car paint finish, creating a glossy and flat sensation. At the same time it gives one the feeling of industrial production.

A feature of Political Pop (and to a lesser extent Cynical Realism) is that the works deal directly with political themes but refuse to take a stance. Can you comment on this strategy? Is it a result of the political environment? Does it reflect a true ambivalence of these artists towards the past?

I think that for many it’s a kind of marketing strategy. It is more successful in the market. There is of course political risk. For example Tang Zhigang’s work initially was influenced by Political Pop and Cynical Realism, both in terms of style and content. But his works have a piercing yet humorous style, as they deal with the army, human nature, and our society. He couldn’t publish on magazines in the early 2000s. One of his appearances in an art university newspaper was published but then recalled, and all of the copies had to be kept in storage. There is attitude in his work, but all artists must find a balance between political, business and art.

But I think the majority of Political Pop works lack attitude. They’re focused on the surface symbols and posturing, but they don’t engage the politics.

Political Pop

Let’s talk about some of the contradictory ways these works have been interpreted. Sometimes they are described as very critical (commercialism is the new communism), and other times they are seen as nationalistic (as if saying “we need a new propaganda to resist commercialization”).

Personally, I don’t think this art is critical. Maybe in the beginning it was, but today it is not. It’s more like a game in which you use Communist symbols and brands.

Wang Guangyi has said his work comes from a non-standpoint (无立场), in which every standpoint has merit so none is correct.

I think many artists use this strategy. It is very difficult to interpret a single work of art. In order to understand their viewpoint and works, we must use a longer view to look at their production, such as their work over many years or even their life.

As for Wang Guangyi, I would agree that his works come from a nationalist standpoint. In 2008 there was a protest against France after Sarkozy invited the Dali Lama. Wang Guangyi and other artists joined the protest and refused to exhibit in France.

In general, non-standpoint is a valid strategy for artists. However, I think that when look at Wang Guangyi’s career, it is clear that he is indeed taking a stance. Other artists are the same. Looking at one piece it looks neutral. But if you look at their work for a long time, not even a long time just ten years, you will have a deeper understanding of them.

Gao Minglu has been a vocal critic of the artists such as Wang Guangyi for tapping into the suffering and profiting from it. He says they are complicit, no longer seeking confrontation.

I agree. It’s like rotten food. The artists themselves don’t eat it, they package it nicely and give it to others. I think artists need to go deeper into the history, and not just exploit it.

Are there examples of other artists who have gone deeper and examined this more successfully?

It depends on the definition of successful. If the standard is market success, then although some artists go deeper into these issues, they are not necessarily more successful. If the standard is whether artists take responsibility for history, and whether they participate in constructing a public society, then I think there are some artists on this path. Wang Nanming (art critic and author of The Rise of Critical Art) is interested in this kind of investigation by artists like Lei Yan (who, for example, has made works that examine the history of China’s wars).


Wang Ziwei (王子卫) started painting Mao as early as 1987 but these works made no impact either in China or abroad. Why were such images more important in the 1990s?

I am not to clear on the concrete conditions of this artist. Sometimes the development of artists is tied to their participation in important exhibitions. Sometimes the time also needs to settle. 20 or 30 years later, people can look at the history more objectively, and reevaluate the art of the past.

An important part of that publicity was Li Xianting’s essay, which became famous not only in China but also among western art audiences. Did Li discover this trend or did he create it?

I don’t think he created it. He encouraged it, but in the beginning it stems from the artists themselves. As far as I know, after the events of 1989, many people had the same feeling of disappointment, dejection, and profound powerlessness. However, he discovered that many artists were very happy and joyous. They were having lots of parties, looking for girlfriends, and dancing. He asked himself, “How can they have this attitude?” and concluded that this was a new attitude. Of course at that time he was also very influential so if he encouraged this kind of art, more and more would flock to join it.

The first Chinese artists in the Venice Biennale were invited by the curator Achille Bonito Oliva in 1993 and were drawn almost exclusively from Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Was this a valid strategy in 1993, or was he overlooking other artists? Did this help solidify the reputations of these artists?

I’m not clear about how many artists he saw or who was the bridge or contact person for the curator. I don’t think he could pick the artists by himself, because normally foreign curators depend on a contact person from China. Perhaps the foreign curator and the Chinese contact argued because of differences in opinion.

In Oliva is not the Savior of Chinese Art, Wang Lin (王林) writes that he had a Chinese advisor who presented many works, but then went on to choose only Political Pop and Cynical Realism.

I can imagine that, because these works coincided with the conjectures and imagination of the western world after Tiananmen. The western world still had no conception of what was going on in China, and these works shocked people. If we saw this art coming from North Korea today we would also be shocked.

The market has embraced these artists an unprecedented way. How much was that a factor?

At that time I think the market was very important, especially the western collectors. In the 80s or 90s it was considered pretty good if artists were able to sell work to foreigners. Li Xianting also presented a thorough academic background to explain why these works were important. The art critics also supported its rise.

It was like a perfect storm in which the market, critics, and curators all converged on these artists.

This example still has influence on the way art is organized in China. If organizers can combine the support of critics with the purchases of collectors, than that art is labeled successful.

Cynical Realism

Finally, I want to ask a more subjective question. These works are the best known Chinese contemporary works, the most prominent in world art history. Do they deserve this position?

They have an established position in today’s art history. I don’t know if they will still be there 100 years later. I imagine they will be, but I don’t know if it’s really important, if it will really have influence. Personally I don’t think these artists are particularly mature or outstanding in terms of art and consciousness.

However, I do think that the images these works produced will be important to a generation of visual studies. When I toured European museums with other Chinese artists, we got to see the works of true masters. I and the other artists felt that our works were weak in comparison, and yet Chinese art has become so expensive. It’s almost the same price as those masters now.

I think it’s because these works are important in understanding China. They may not be as important as other recognized masters in art history, but do in fact represent an image of China. In this respect, they may be considered classics.

Many thanks to Luo Fei for working on this text with me. For more resources on Cynical Realism and Political Pop, see these sites.

The Paintings of Wang Guangyi: Revolutionary Acts? by David Spalding
Mao Zedong – Stylistic Resume as Critical Method by Martina Köppel-Yang
Cynical Realism – An Exponent of Contemporary Chinese Artistry by Annette Labedzki
Pop Art: At the Time of China’s Cultural Revolution by Lihua Zhao, for Fine Art Registry
Don’t believe the hype about Chinese art by Ana Finel Honigman
A Brief History of Cynical Realism via Fang Lijun by Sinopop
Between Bada and Calvino–Guangci’s Post-Political Pop Narrative by Zhu Zhu

Can The Art Market Judge Value? Discussion With Luo Fei Part 2

Note: This interview is posted by R. Orion Martin, and this is the part II(Part I). Thanks Orion:)

This is part 2 of an interview I did with curator Luo Fei, in which we discussed the successes and failures of the Chinese art market, and its influence on art. Our discussion is loosely based on the views that Huang Zhuan expressed in a 1991 interview with Art Market.


Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), 2010, Sale price: $534,600

Orion: In the 1990s and later, some curators asked companies for economic support in order to create independent galleries. Is this a better solution? Perhaps some galleries work like this?

Luo Fei: Strictly speaking, they do not support. Rather they rely on a kind of exchange. They ask for gifts from the artist or collectors in order to regain the capital invested in the exhibition. There’s no free lunch. Continue reading

Can The Art Market Judge Value? Discussion With Luo Fei Part 1

Note: This interview is posted by R. Orion Martin, he interviewed me last week, and this is the part I. Thanks Orion:)

View from the auction floor of Sotheby

View from the auction floor of Sotheby

In 1991, Huang Zhuan participated in an interview for the magazine Art Market. In it, he argued that the creation of an art market in China would establish a relatively fair arena in which artists could compete while also supporting those artists. He further explained that artists are always under pressure (political, religious, social, and economic), and that the test of a true artist is how he or she responds to that pressure.

20 years later, I think many in China would say that the development of the art market didn’t work out quite as well as he predicted. I sat down to discuss his ideas with curator Luo Fei.

Orion: Let’s begin by talking about what happened to the development of the Chinese art market after this interview written. During the 1990s, Chinese art was “discovered” by foreign dealers.

Luo Fei: Yes that’s right. In the 1990’s foreign embassies became important to Chinese artists as alternative sites of exhibition.

Orion: This is the so called “embassy art”?

Luo Fei: Yes. At that time artists had no space to exhibit. Sometimes they would show in embassies or private spaces. Of course, the artists who were able to exhibit in an embassy or a diplomat’s house were those artists who were already discovered and were relatively well known.

Orion: Throughout the 1990s there was more and more attention paid to Chinese art circles, but what about major auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies? When did they become involve?

Luo Fei: I’m not sure about the specific dates, but the legitimization of 798 was a major turning point because it was a signaled that the government had acknowledged contemporary art. In the beginning 798 was a spontaneous, independently founded community like the Artist’s Loft in Kunming. It was a place where artists and art organizations gathered together and resisted the pressure of urban development. Then in the mid-2000s it was recognized by the government as a cultural center.

Orion: The 2000 Shanghai Biennale was also an important turning point, correct?

Luo Fei: That’s right. I remember reading many art magazines talk about the biennale when before they had never introduced contemporary art.

Orion: Around 2006 the art market really began to heat up. Since then it has cooled a bit, but there was a lot of money invested in the 2000s.

Luo Fei: In Yunnan during 2005 and 2006, the hottest thing was wasn’t the market but Jianghu (a series of experimental exhibitions funded by the Lijiang Studio). After that, the market’s influence on Yunnan became stronger and stronger. Particularly in 2006, many Yunnan artists were invited to display in Shanghai and about 20 or 30 artists participated in an exhibition. Most of the pieces where oil paint, sculpture, installation and photography. One particularly large event was the “New Impulse” exhibition held at the Yuan Gong Fine Arts Gallery. I think this definitely had an influence on Yunnan artists, the chance to go out and exhibit, look at different kinds of exhibition. Through these large exhibitions, artists with commercial value began to filter out. Some good artists sold all their works and began to work closely with galleries.

Personal experience with commercialization was an important learning experience for Yunnan artists. I remember that once when I was installing an exhibition in Shanghai, someone from China Post came and asked if I was willing to print my works on postcards. They wanted to expand the market and its influence by printing these postcards. I remember thinking that there were no China Post officials in Yunnan going to exhibitions and asking about collaboration, and if you went to them they would definitely look at you with indifference. The entire Yunnan market was still clearly very immature.

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1998

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1998, No. 26, Sale price: $2.6 million

Orion: What happened then?

Luo Fei: In those years there were many artists who moved to Beijing or other locations and established studios. Many of their studios were huge, even as big as a gallery, in order to make large works. Some young artists also began to employ small teams of assistants to produce their work. At that time there was really a lot of investment in studios, art production, teams and selling. I did a very simple installation involving a loudspeaker on a six meter long wooden pole that played recordings of the prohibition of violent and grotesque performance art in public spaces. They wanted to take the installation to Shanghai but to move that long piece of wood across the country they had to rent a huge shipping container. Personally, I thought it was unnecessary, I just wanted to do a new art project in Shanghai. But at that time many galleries really didn’t care how much the price was. They wanted to try presenting a grand exhibition. I think that this kind of thing rarely happens today unless you are a very successful artist.

Orion: In your opinion, does the market now establish a “legitimate arena” with “rules of competition”? (terms drawn from Huang Zhuan’s piece)

Luo Fei: First I should say that I’m not in the market. I focus on experimental art. But my friends and teachers who are involved say that the art market is no different than other areas of the economy. In actuality, the Chinese art market is governed by Chinese rules of competition. All of the society’s rules of competition clearly have problems, there are too many unwritten rules and background connections. For example, Bo Xilai’s case is dramatic because there are a lot of things going on behind the official news. Maybe the art market is not as dramatic as the political sphere but it has the same characteristics.

The infamous Bainsbridge vase

The infamous Bainsbridge vase, a dusty antique discovered in an English home that auctioned for a stunning $85.9 million dollars

Orion: Are you referring to corruption in the art market?

Luo Fei: It’s a bit different but yes, it’s there. In politics we have corruption, but in art circles it is expressed in a different form. For example, if a boss wants to support an artist, he may ask someone to buy their work at a high price in an auction.

Orion: There are reports that during auctions of Chinese works, some organizations will plant buyers in order to push up the prices.

Luo Fei: Yes, it’s a game. In addition, the critics who assess value are also involved. The boss will gather buyers and art critics for dinner. The critic says good things and at the end of the night he/she gets a red envelope (Chinese tradition for passing gifts of money or bribes). It’s good that the critic gets some income but they lose their independence.

Orion: Zhuan sees a very large role for critics in the art market. Do you think critics can be the arbiter of art’s value?

Luo Fei: This is one of the critic’s responsibilities, to distinguish between good and bad, to assign art value, and to publicly interpret art. But as to the value of art, I personally do not believe that critics can act as the final arbiter. In terms of the public value of art, I am more interested in establishing a robust art system based on museums. Museums are a more fair way of selecting outstanding artists. Critics today are all self-employed or teaching at schools. Some work in galleries. I work at TCG Nordica, and therefore my responsibility is to introduce artists to the public. Interestingly, some independent curators will ask their students to write essays for them. This makes evaluations of worth very dubious and ambiguous, turning art criticism into a kind of advertisement.

Orion: They just tell the students to write some nice things?

Luo Fei: Yes, as a kind of practice for the students. Artists often complain to me about critics who do this. You can read the work and recognize that it’s really bad.

Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No. 1, 1994, Sale price: $8.4 million

Orion: You mentioned that museums are a better alternative, but if there were more museums, wouldn’t they be like the Yunnan Provincial Museum? I recently saw an exhibition there that was absolutely terrible.

Luo Fei: I’m not talking about official museums. I mean those run by companies or independent individuals. In this system, buyers buy the art in order to collect the history. The public institution (whether private or a type of organization) profits from society, and then those profits are translated into cultural value and given to society. This is the function of those museums.

Orion: We’re talking about independent large scale galleries and private museums.

Luo Fei: Yes, we need different kinds of organizations that can show the public there are different values. Ideally, art critics would not have all the power. Different systems would reflect different values. We need a rich art ecosystem with all kinds of organizations including commercial, nonprofit, experimental, government, religious, classical, fashion, conservative, large scale, small scale, stable and mobile. The audience can decide what good art is, or what is good in different areas.

Part 2 will be posted next week.

Disease under the Sun

Disease under the Sun
—On Hu Jun’s Series of New Life

Author: Luo Fei
Translator: Xu Yang

Author’s Note: Hu Jun’s atelier was on the upstairs room of my workplace, he often invites me passionately to go to his atelier to drink some tea and chat with him. I’m much moved by his enthusiasm and especially by his special countenance, so we became intimate friends soon. The short distance between us gives me convenience to observe his working state and makes me know more about his art.

Desire Landscape 6, oil painting

Hu Jun’s works can be divided by different topics into three stages: the first stage is the series of Lips from the year 2003 to 2006 which are a group of sexy and showy red lips. The second stage is the series of Desire Landscape from 2007 to 2009, this series are mainly works about the orange-red landscape of the city wrapped and permeated by a kind of liquid (the artist said his inspiration came from the semen), and there is a strong light from the outer space pierced through the mist. Watching these paintings you would got a feeling of eschatological spectacles. There was a small part of this series named Desire—Flow which were abstract paintings about the floating things withdrew from images. The third stage or topic is the series of New Life which started from 2006 and lasted till now. The initial paintings of this series are cartoon-like, depicting the lives of men and women. The figures in these paintings evolved from the artist’s self-portrait, they are of a jocular style and filled with philistine sentiment. The earlier works of Hu Jun were more or less influenced by the methodology of the “Cartoon Generation”, the figures in these earlier works have big heads and funny facial expression. The colors that he used were light, pure and pink. For the spirituality in this period, he was influenced by the Cynic Realism which advocates a joking attitude towards life.

From 2008 on, Hu Jun has experimented and developed a unique way of art not only in the style of the painting, but also in discourse and composition. In other words, the artist began to reflect sincerely on his works in the previous years and try to dig out the originality and express human beings’ appeal for the spiritual existence through his own life experience. He turned from a compassion for broken marriages in the contemporary society to the deep concerns over human’s despairing existence.

New Life 9, Oil Painting

New Life

The original title for this series was Human·Nature. From the names of his work series, we can discern the artist’s continuous concern for the living condition of human being and his interest in the effect and expression of desire. There’s no doubt that New Life was a title of irony. As an artist born in the 1960s, although he was still a child in Culture Revolution, the discourse pattern of “New China” and “New Life” in the Revolutionist Idealism Period still imprinted much on his mind. “New” is the renunciation of the “Old” system, pattern or order which had a blind optimism about the future. However, the New Life we talk about here has detached itself from the blueprint of society and history and become the daily incident of men and women’s/husbands and wives’ psychological life.

In this series, men and women are not passionate first lovers; they had married and got their children. They repeatedly appeared in a boat which looks very soft and springy, the texture of the boats seem like sofas or mattress, and they are basically pink, warm grey, flesh-colored or black. The delineation of the boat benefits from the earlier series of the Lips, so there is also a vague feeling of flesh in these boats. The boats are floating on the surface of a boundless sea; the background is always very simple, sometimes sunrise, sometimes sunset, sometimes the vast clear sky. The colors used are light and replete, the sun was shinning brightly—those are the common scenes which appear repeatedly in these paintings. Photographic techniques such as staged photography and snap shot with a strong flashlight are commonly used in this series of works.

New life 11, oil painting

New life 14, oil painting

Body and Marriage

In New Life -No.9, three members of a family are sitting on the boat, but they all look like the artist himself. This may be an extension of Hu Jun’s sense of humor in daily life and the exaggerating style derived from his cartoon period. The picture has a subtle dramatic feeling. The man and the women has lost tender and affection for each other, the naked man looks very tired and necks with his wife to seek for some comfort. However, the woman who dressed vulgarly doesn’t care the man’s feeling. Instead she is immersed in the connection with the outside world using her mobile phone and the sunglasses she wears conceal her indifference. The child dressed fashionably, plugged his ears with headphones and is totally steeped in his own world. In Hu Jun’s opinion, this is exactly the portrait of middle-aged man: career and family already been set up but the only found himself totally lost. He should know his fate decreed by Heaven at this age, yet he is still more confused, not knowing what he should seek for. The only thing left is an exhausted body and a much more indifferent and estranged family relationship. In New Life-No.11, the estrangement between the husband and wife appears to be more subtle and perceptible under the peaceful holy light of the setting sun. Both of them are naked and frank with each other, and with such slack bodies and portraits they are enjoying the mild breeze swaying over their faces. The stiff “gulf” between them reveals the irreconcilable feeling of estrangement.

Hu Jun has been continuously practicing realism in body portrait and he also goes out for scenery sketch frequently, these all endue him with strong capabilities in using color to shape body and space to form a delicate and vivacious picture. For him, typical Chinese contemporary art lacks depth and the aesthetic enjoyment which are shortcomings he tries to overcome. He tries to evoke a an aesthetic effect which embraces the wish to extol human bodies in the Renaissance period, so he made microscopic depictions on the bones, tendons, structures and the minor undulation of the skins of the body. In this way we can say that he was also influenced by Michelangelo, but the bodies in Hu Jun’s paintings are not as powerful as Michelangelo’s. Under the appearance of the delicate, strong and near perfect bodies was the broken essence of the despairing contemporary metropolitans. This was especially prominent in New Life-No.14 where Hu Jun used the composition pattern of Michelangelo’s The Mourning of Christ to express his sympathy for the married man. By referring to a masterpiece in art history, Hu Jun wants to intensify the self-consciousness of a sufferer in marriage. He wants to evoke people’s attention to the moments of failure and hurt in marriage by referring to a total failure pattern of selfless love just as Christ’s Crucifixion. However, the women who embrace Christ (men) is not the beautiful, tender mourning St. Maria (women) anymore, but rather a shrew who has just won complete victory and is coating her face with powder and paint. It seems that the artist has turned his pike toward the female sex. Women are neither beautiful vases that can add value to men nor tender, domestic and obedient housewives. On the contrary, they have become offensive and ferocious. In New Life-No.21, the woman was painted as an androgen-increased female chimpanzee with strong body and ferocious face. From this point it’s not hard to understand why some women are so surprised and angry when they look at Hu Jun’s paintings that they want to destroy them, and why some middle-aged man would be moved to cry and sigh that they are exactly the man in the picture.

New Life 21

New Life 23

Viewers’ emotions tend to be offended by an artwork’s apparent provocation and then they would form some misunderstanding about the artist and his works. So we need to follow and observe an artist for an enduring period and compare his/her works both transversely and longitudinally with other artists’ works in order to know the true intent of the artist. Sometimes even the artist himself can not be sure about his intents and need other people to sort them out from the numerous works by using their own life experiences, spiritual traits and cultural psychologies.

Just as what we observe in New Life-No.23, there is a body in the foreground of the boat under the glimmering of the early morning (the head does not appear in this painting.) He/She lays elegantly, the upper part of the body (breasts) looks like women’s body while the lower part looks like man. Such kind of cross-gender figure embodies a more neutral and conservative consideration compared with the aforesaid masculine-predisposed women. He/She was displayed and portrayed with a more classic aesthetic perspective. This seems to reveal the artist’s deeper consideration: the mixing gender identity (psychologically/physically) and the dislocated relationship (the individual’s relationship with the self/ the interrelationship between the couple) are fatal problems in marriage, although this kind of dislocation appears to be common and of no novelty.

Dislocation means that there should be some kind of appropriate relationship in which men are men and women are women, and that conjugal relationship should be based on loyalty, humility, restraint, tolerance, sincerity, responsibility, determination and happiness which are the important qualities in setting up a happy marriage. However, a mutual conquering and possessing relationship has subverted the original healthy conjugal relationship which makes people feel exhausted and despair over marriage.

But the artist does not care only for marriage problems (though there are very few artists in Chinese contemporary art who are concerned about marriage), for the artist did not play a role as a marriage consultant but rather as a guardian for people’s spiritual homeland and their patterns of life. As one of the most primeval and important relationships of human being, the symptoms of marriage has revealed the deeper problems of human per se, for the despair of something is not thorough despair, but the despair genuinely unfolded is the despair of human per se.

New Life 19

New Life 17


The little child playing cards to divine the future in New Life-No.22 and the child overlooking the faraway scene in New Life-No.23 all had some anxiety not suiting their age. In New Life-No.17 the man squirts a pile of dolls nervously with water-pistol, in New Life No.18 and No.19 the men are trying painfully to break loose, and in New Life-No.20 the man is licking his knees eagerly…

Apart from broken marriages, we can also see anxious babies, recreational invading behaviors and painful solitudes in this series. All these plain pictures show the artists’ attention to people’s universal perplexity, upset, restraint, despair and the need to be comforted. The dismembered and attacked dolls in the picture seem to imply the character’s broken dreams.

New Life 20

New Life 16

All these characters are taking pictures in a photographical studio carefully lay out and decorated by Hu Jun. The artist hopes that the background would be aesthetic, the color would be bright and the posture would be comfortable. Under the bright sunlight, the air is so clear, the lake is so peaceful, the skin is so fair and white, the body so strong and healthy, but the human is so anxious! Do you think this was disharmonious? Do you think these people are mawkish and blot on the landscape? Why should the artist display the weakness of man in such an intensive way?

The characters’ pain and despair is set off by the aesthetic and peaceful scenes, just as the smoke from the Auschwitz death-camp’s cremator had been set off by the clear vast sky. The internal sufferings of human being are more hidden and profound than the sufferings in history or society. As the head of a family, the bearer of responsibilities, the guide of belief, man has retreated to a situation of self-entertainment, self-pity, self-abasement and self-lost. And this forebodes that the last defense line of social ethnic and belief is collapsing, which is the major problem of contemporary society.

Existentialism philosopher Kierkegaard once talked about despair in his work The Sickness onto Death and said that despair is a psychological disease of self, a misplaced relationship between man and himself. A misplaced relationship with God is the core mistake which determined that despair is a way of human existence.

But Kierkegaard also held that being able to despair is one of the qualifications that make us human, while existing in despair is the most unfortunate and mischievous thing. The universal situation is that we are not aware of our despair, which is one form of despair but the lowest level of it. Despair is like the sofa boat in New Life, it is a mattress for people to lie down and enjoy, entertain and play and then cut all their possibilities to fight against, it is a battlefield for people’s self-depletion and mutual-devour. Therefore the more one is aware of his despair, the stronger the qualification of people as a spiritual existence he would acquire. In Kierkegaard’s opinion, there is an ascendant gradient from existing in despair and existing within the relationship with despair.

Interestingly, those who admit frankly that he is in despair would be dialectically easier to be cured than those who do not admit or those who are not aware of his situation. This is one possibility for art to become a way of self-redemption though this option still has its limitedness. And the fact that the artist himself appeared as the protagonist in the pictures repeatedly also demonstrated his sincere wish to express his despair and his motivation to cure himself. Not only for middle-aged man but also for women and children, the artist’s expression will become a mirror in the cure activities for people in society to obtain both comfort and warning.

To be sure, as for the creative orientation, we can only discern Hu Jun’s experimentation on and discussion about the interrelationship between man to women (marriage) and man to himself (despair) which determines that this series of works are highly self-concerned and self-conscious. As to the experimentation on human’s perpetual existence and their struggle to get rid of the state of despair—as participant, witness and recipient, we have not got the answer yet. Although he compared the powerful beams of light from the outer space to the necessary capabilities to restraint human’s evil desire by using a grand narrative picture in his Desire Landscape series, how to transform them into the holy daily incidents in New Life and how to experience the moment of cure still needs a “confident leap” in order to enter into a more unfamiliar field in the composition schema.

After all, despair is the normality that we are more familiar with; cure and emancipation appear to be so strange and unfamiliar.

Finished at the forth day after the big earthquake of Japan, in Kunming
March, 13th, 2011

The Yunnanese Way

Guan Yuda and He Libin

The Yunnanese Way: The 2nd Dialogue of “Inscape On The Spot” Art Exhibition

Guan Yuda (Curator, Art Critic, Professor of Art and Design College of Yunnan University),
Luo Fei (Gallery Director and Curator of TCG Nordica Gallery)
He Libin (Artist, Curator)
Lei Yan (Artist)
Li Youjie (Artist)

Time: 2009, May 17
Add: Kunming Dandi Coffee

Translated by: Wu Yuerong
Proofreaded by: Anders Gustafsson

Professor Guan Yuda (hereinafter referred to as Guan ):

“…modernity is actually the starting point for an inquiry into the relationship between man and nature, people and life itself. Modernity transformed the Western culture. It also saw the emergence of a civil society, and the transformation of people’s daily lives.

In fact, I see this happening in Yunnan as well, mainly through two important developments. One is the early ‘Shen Community’, and artists such as Mao Xuhui. Their landscape paintings was a way of escaping the mainstream ideology. According to the provisions of revolutionary realism, you could only paint peasants, soldiers and ideological motives. And if at that time you wanted to deviate from the mainstream, painting scenery was the best way. That way, you would not break the ideological taboos, but you could put your own consciousness into the art. This was the beginning of modernism and self-conscious art in Yunnan. Mao Xuhui were to bring in subjectivity; and this is modernity. This point is very important, because it is also the reason that he saw a kind of religious loneliness inside Gui Shan. I think this is the main sense of involvement, of ‘Inscape’. And this subjectivity is the most crucial point.”
But I think we should not exaggurate the fact that the experiments of “Kunming Impressionist School” was earlier than Mao Xuhui. Because almost all artists painted landscape in Yunnan at that time; that was a way of life. And many people still do. Secondly, Yunnan itself is far away from the political and cultural center. That’s why Ding Shaoguang, Jiang Tiefeng, and also Wang Xiaobo went to De Hong (note: a town close to the Burmese border). Through the closeness of nature they could escape the mainstream ideology. It is similar with today’s tourism. They came there either to escape the harm from the ideological and commercial capitalism, or to heal their wounds and seek consolation in the landscape. But I think this is a sociological phenomenon. The discussion of art history in terms of subjective consciousness or awakening, and to truly grasp the origins of the modern landscape, is the main point of interest here. Continue reading