Focal City: Shanghai

In Articles | Installation Art


5 March 2012
Hu Jieming: 1999- 2000 Legendary,
5 x10 meters, Photo installation, 2000

question arose during a recent conversation with an artist: Does Chinese contemporary art have to remain political pop? The answer is obvious to a lot of Westerners but still baffling to the Chinese themselves. After the first generation of political pop artists saturated the market, Chinese contemporary art was on its path to find a new direction and redefine itself by establishing a new aesthetic unique to China. Political pop had its role in the beginning but is now merely relegated to a particular historical period in artistic transitioning. China seeks a new dialogue and path for the next generation of artists, which underscores some interesting events happening in China today.

Installation art landed in China at the end of the century and aggressively probed different fields of artistic endeavor. Shanghai, for thousands of years a distinctive commercial center in China, has produced some unique artists, positioned in their own ways to communicate a sense of what non-political pop can be. Rather than remaining dryly conceptual, these Chinese contemporary artists now draw from a range of resources for their inspiration including Eastern philosophy, the Western influence of conceptual art, Chinese social conditions and world financial issues.

DingYi, cross light draft drawing

Ding Yi stands out among the new breed of black sheep in recent auction mania. Represented by one of the most established galleries in China, ShanghART, with dozens of museum shows already on three continents, he is consolidating his strengths and moving into the form of abstract art. His work is exemplified by its well-known “cross” motif, his iconic personal identification. He uses this symbolic visual emblem to indicate the order and relationship between the universe and human existence. The metaphysical Zen source in calligraphy and brush painting references this same origin and Ding exploits its implications. Like his paintings, Ding’s installation work is outspokenly simplified and draws from a basic conceptual core. The guiding idea in his painting is the perpetuity of lifelong evolution, coinciding with the meditative process in Eastern philosophy. He believes that it is unnecessary for art to have literal meaning because it is a process of mediation. Since a work of art is not to symbolize or describe, the meaninglessness of the cross sign arises. He utilizes the simple form of lines to create a minimal aesthetic, and orients the artistic process around its own independent existence against negative space.

DingYi, Cross Light, light installation, 2011, 239 x 10 x 15 feet

Another contemporary artist very interested in Chinese aesthetics is Sun Liang, who is dedicated to re-presenting the artistic development and sensibilities of ancient Chinese culture. His paintings and installations consistently favor the rediscovery and appreciation of ancient calligraphy? and its aesthetic appropriation. The artist projects a one-dimensional train of thought in a seemingly self-reflecting direction, discovering a unique combination of the ancient and contemporary. His interest in classical Chinese sensibility is reflected in the piece Dazzle, which features the artist’s paintings on silk draperies. Liang is particularly interested in the movement and sensation of people moving in and out of the thirty-six sheets of drapery, arranged in a BaGua maze that originates in Taoism (in ancient times, the Chinese army would arrange a maze to trap its enemies). The vertical composition of the draperies is perpendicular to and contrasts with broken glasses on the floor. In the installation, all the walls are wrapped in foil that reflects the dimmed silver light and broken glasses, creating this dazzling and confusing maze with unhampered flow and playing with a tension between secrecy and discovery. Indeed, Sun Liang’s art can be described as an image, an object, an event or an experience. The Chinese sensitivity to lines and movement are epitomized in this piece.

Sun Liang, Dazzle, 2010, Painted silk and
broken glass, installation view
Sun Liang, Dazzle, 2010, Painted silk and broken glass, installation view

Unlike both the artists above, Hu Jieming is one of the pioneering artists of digital media and video installation in China. One of his principal concerns is portraying the co-existence of the old and the new using a variety of media such as photography, video, digital technology and architectural juxtapositions with musical comments. He has a very unique approach in his visual language. In particular, Jieming’s installation 1999-2000 depicts both self-reflection and media saturation. The artist contemplates individual existence and its relationship to the overwhelming constructed deluge of information that invades people’s private lives and impinges on their independent thoughts. This work lasted for the full day between Dec. 31 1999 at 12 p.m. to January 1, 2000, 12 p.m., crossing the century/millennium in China. Receiving TV signals from programs transmitted via satellite and internet information around the globe, this information was transferred into photos (20 x 30cm), then printed on transparent film 90 x 500 cm, covering a film sheet 7 meters wide, 8 meters long and 5 meters high and thus forming an information maze, including the sound of those channels. Hu proposed a critique of society by investigating its structure and space in notably imaginative and mystical ways.

Yu Gan, Wall Street Diary

Yu Gan presented his action art in the famous Inside Out exhibition , the first Chinese contemporary art show outside of China. He is inspired by the global stock market, which he construes as the largest perpetual group action art form. This action art, according to Yu Gan, involves every single person on the planet even if they are not actively trading in the market because it involves all the social activities around them. From New York to London, Hong Kong to Shanghai, the virtually 24 hour activity combines in a unique art form by Yu Gan. Its visual presentation has been created through a specially designed trading system in three distinct colors: green, yellow and white, which Yu Gan uses to indicate the predictability of the market.

Yu Gan, printed trading system on plastic sheet, 2011

Sometimes artists can be brilliantly avant-garde. Consider that for decades, China remained in its own dark age. Then four artists from Shanghai appeared with their own particular vision and media they adopted as their primary visual language. We hope that youthful Chinese contemporary art retains this visionary originality, taking risks (hopefully manageable in China) and renewing art for the next generation. These four artists have proven their ability to open new pathways that the international art scene would never have found without them. That’s what art should be about.

Writing Credits: Xiaokun Sunny Qiu is a curator and writer who has been publishing articles in major magazines and scholarly books in the United States and China, including Art In America, Art Finance, Art Investment and Oriental Art, as well as ProQuest. She is an international art adviser for the Today Museum in Beijing and World Chinese Collectors Convention.

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