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Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art

After all the hubbub of art fairs and exhibitions in March and April, it has been an abrupt move to school work for weeks on end. (I talk about school work too much.) Funnily enough, after visiting the M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art, I liked it so much I wrote an essay about it! And other things. After finishing the essay, it feels real good to share about it here!

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Huang Rui, Yuanmingyuan: Rebirth, 1979, oil on canvas

黃銳, ‘圓明園新生’, 1979, 油彩布本

The exhibition is a preview of Hong Kong’s to-be-built-soon-enough M+ museum’s permanent Sigg collection of contemporary Chinese art. Here, it’s a review of forty years of Chinese contemporary art from 1974 to present, though we will have to see how broad the full collection will be. China’s modern history is really a fascinating one (China Studies minor talking), although it would really be too ambitious of me to talk about it here. The exhibition’s website has a great timeline here, if you’re interested to know more.

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Liu Heung Shing, China After Mao, 1981 Beijing, Taking Down Mao’s Portrait, 1981 (top left), China After Mao, 1981 Beijing, Painting from Life in the Studio, 1981, 1981 (bottom left), China After Mao, 1979 Beijing, Ma Desheng Calls for Artistic Freedom, 1979 (right), silver gelatin prints

劉香成, ‘《毛以後的中國》 1981年北京, 取下毛澤東肖像’,1981 (左上角), ‘《毛以後的中國》 1981年北京,畫室裡的人體寫生’,1981 (左下角),‘《毛以後的中國》 1979年北京,馬德升演讓要求藝術自由’,1979 (右邊),銀鹽照片

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Liu Heung Shing, 1989 Beijing, Hunger Strike, 1989, silver gelatin print (top left), 1989 Beijing, Sending Wounded Students on Tian’anmen Square to Hospital, 1989, archival inkjet print (bottom left), 1989 Beijing Couple Hiding Under the Bridge, silver gelatin print (right)

劉香成,‘1989年北京 絕食抗議’,1989,銀鹽照片(左上角) ‘1989年北京 送天安門廣場受傷的學生去醫院’,1989,噴墨彩印,(左下角)‘1989年北京,藏在立交橋下的情侶’,1989,銀鹽照片 (右邊)

The exhibition is split into three sections by chronological order: 1974-1989, 1990-1999, and 2000-present. The first section featured works from underground artist groups that created artworks addressing sensitive political issues, and which were restricted from public exhibition. 1989 was a turning point in Chinese art what with the Tiananmen incident of 1989 and the staging of the China/Avant Garde exhibition, which I would say initiated a wave of ‘avant-garde’ artworks in the 90s that were highly critical of the political scene and social issues of the day. The 2000s was another decade of transition with artists’ experimentation with new media, such as video art and installations. Chinese contemporary artworks in the present often focus on contemporary societal issues in China.

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Wang Guangyi, Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2, 1988, oil on canvas

王廣義,‘毛澤東:紅色方格2號’,1988,油彩布本

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Geng Jianyi, The Second Situation, 1987, oil on canvas, set of four

耿建翌, ‘第二狀態’,1987,油彩布本,一組四張

I really like this one. It seems like innocent portraits of a laughing man at first glance, but after looking at it a while longer, it begins to feel really strained and put on.

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Zeng Fanzhi, Rainbow, 1997, oil on canvas

曾梵志,‘彩虹’,1997,油彩布本

Geng’s The Second Situation is a great precursor to Zeng’s Rainbow. It’s in the similar vein of masking one’s real emotions and putting on a pseudo-happy expression. Rainbow has five working men in similar styles of dress and all with the same bad hair, sharing the same masks with red lines of tension on their foreheads and hands that betray their real feelings.

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Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline Series – Big Family No. 17 – 1998, 1988, oil on canvas

張曉剛,‘血緣 - 大家庭17號 - 1998年’,1988,油彩布本

Zhang’s Bloodline Series is very well-known, and features the most depressing family portraits ever, the way I see it.

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Fang Lijun, Untitled, 1995, oil on canvas

方力鈞,‘無題’,1995,油彩布本

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Song Dong, Breathing, Houhai, Back Sea, 1996, Breathing, Tiananmen Square, 1996, chromogenic color print

宋冬,‘哈氣,後海’,‘哈氣,天安門’,1996,彩色照片

On a side random note, a high school group came in for a tour while I was visiting, and I was just being so jealous by myself of the fact that high school students here have such fun school trips. Make the best out of them, students!

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Song’s photographs speaks to a small, but ultimately futile, attempt in changing the little bit around you. Breathing, Tiananmen Square had him lying out on the ground in the freezing cold for forty minutes! It was in the hopes that his breathing could melt the ice below him, and change a part of the environment around him.

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Zheng Guogu, Me and My Teacher, 1993, chromogenic color print

鄭國谷,‘我和我的老師’,1993,彩色照片

The genuinely happy smiles in this photograph really struck me, especially after the forced smiles and sad portraits seen earlier. This has a feeling of coming back to where you grew up and seeing the people closest to you again, after having left for the big city. All the feels.

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Hai Bo, They Recorded for the Future (16 Women), 1999, black-and-white photographic print and color photographic print

海波,‘留給未來(16個女生)’,1999,黑白照片及彩色照片

Seeing photographs of how people have grown over the years are always so fascinating, aren’t they? These 16 women are so awesome for agreeing to participate in this!

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Ai Weiwei, Still Life, 1995-2000, stone

艾未未,‘靜物‘,1995-2000,石頭

Still life, in the style of Western art, has always been of fruits, flowers, random objects laid out on a table like skulls – but Ai changes it up with rocks instead.

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I spy some Neolithic rocks… they look like the ones I saw at the Hong Kong History Museum a while back!

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Zhang Huan, Family Tree, 2000, a series of nine chromogenic color prints

張洹,‘家譜’,2000,彩色照片,一組九張

I thought Song Dong’s photographs were large, but this takes the cake. Zhang addresses issues of personal identity, with the names of stories and people he knows gradually written on his face, to the point that the ink takes over his face completely.

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Wang Xingwei, New Beijing, 2001, oil on canvas

王興偉,‘新北京’,2001,油彩布本

This painting references back to Liu Heung Shing’s Sending Wounded Students on Tian’anmen Square to Hospital of 1989 (shown earlier in this post), with the two injured students replaced by penguins. 2001 was the year China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, and was striving to create an ‘international’ image. The use of penguins represents the attempt to form a new identity, with penguins not having any attached meaning to anywhere except probably Antarctica.

The painting is not technically done very well, though this is definitely not only prevalent in Chinese contemporary art, but I do like the way Wang presents the idea behind the painting.

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Shi Xinning, Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China, 2000-01, oil on canvas

 石心寧,‘杜尚回顧展在中國’,2000-01,油彩布本

I love this, it’s such a good joke! I half-thought this was for real, because it looked so photograph-like as if taken straight on the scene. It’s actually a painting, another great medium for manipulation, depicting a fictionalized account of Mao viewing Duchamp’s Fountain, based off of a real photograph of Mao at an industrial product fair. Of course, viewing Duchamp’s Fountain would have been so much more interesting.

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Yangjiang Group, Calligraphy Peach Blossom Garden, 2004, calligraphy papers, plastic trees, wax, wooden bridge, CCTV, and massage machine

陽江組,’書法花園’,2004,水墨紙本,假膠樹,蠟,閉路電視及按摩器

This installation references to the traditional Chinese story written by Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365–427) in 421, Peach Blossom Spring 《桃花源記》,  about a fisherman encountering an utopian society tucked away in the mountains that lived in peace and harmony away from the rest of China.

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The installation creates a landscape including, of course, peace blossoms and a wax waterfall. A pile of crumpled tossed-away calligraphy papers add a really interesting touch to it, in my opinion. I’m not sure what the CCTV is for, with its “monitoring” of the calligraphy papers, but say what you will about it.

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I was endlessly fascinated by the calligraphy papers because they were vibrating – turns out there’s a massage machine underneath all that. I just had to take a video of it for keeps. 

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Weng Fen, On the Wall – Shenzhen (I), 2002, chromogenic color print

翁奮,’騎牆深圳(I)’,2002,彩色照片

This is one half of a series of two photographs, the other photograph showing the same scene 10 years later in 2012, I think. The other photograph wasn’t shown in the exhibition, but I found it online somewhere. It’s clearly about China’s rapid transformation in the last few decades, visually prominent in the building of shiny skyscrapers. This photograph only shows the beginning of the changes.

I really enjoyed this exhibition as I have a personal interest in modern Chinese history and contemporary Chinese art. I can’t wait till M+ is finally up and running so I can see what the full Sigg collection has to offer! For now, head over to the exhibition’s website here to learn more if you’re interested.

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