The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Sunday, April 6, 2014

China Syndrome: just what is it that makes Chinese contemporary art so different, so appealing?

Yang Yongliang, A Bowl of Taipei, Digital Image
With apologies to Richard Hamilton's iconic Pop Art image and its highly memorable title, I have been pondering this question over the course of the last (long) school term. In the last few months back in Sydney, teaching students aged 12 to 18, after an extended stay in China, I've been struck anew by what I am calling 'The China Syndrome': the way in which kids are so instantly fully engaged with, and fascinated by, contemporary Chinese art. My Year 8 students are incorporating Wang Guangyi, the Luo Brothers, Pu Jie and Feng Zhengjie into their investigation of how the Pop art of the '50s and '60s has continued to play out in the work of artists in every subsequent decade, in the process discovering what the Cultural Revolution was and (hopefully) learning just a little about the wider world beyond their immediate teenage horizons.
Luo Brothers, Welcome Famous Brand Pepsi, image courtesy Hughes Gallery
Pu Jie ,’Feeding’, 2010, oil on canvas, 200 x 250cm, image reproduced courtesy of Ausin Tung Gallery.
Year 11 loved 'Waste Not' by Song Dong and were able to connect its nostalgic memorial atmosphere to their own family's memories. And (thank goodness - what a relief!) - my Year 12 students have written some very insightful essays about the way in which Xu Bing's 'Phoenix' installation, currently installed in Manhattan's St John the Divine Cathedral, uses the materials he collected on Beijing construction sites to make a profoundly humanist statement about the way in which China's shiny new cities are built on the backs of migrant labourers who live and work in pretty appalling conditions. In the process they, too, have learned about a part of the world that most of them previously had no knowledge of. and have also discovered the way in which artists can cleverly embed layers of meaning into the very materiality of their work.

Song Dong, Waste Not, image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Carriageworks
Next up - Gao Rong's fabulous fake designer handbags, embroidered with stains and filled with surprising sculptured objects will be an interesting comparison for Year 8 with Japanese Yuken Teruya's exquisite tiny worlds created by cutting into shopping bags.
Gao Rong, Designer Bag, Image Courtesy the artist
Year 10 will find out about the painter Han Yajuan and sculptor Li Hongbo, Year 11 will discover Liu Zhuoquan and his fabulous "neihua" inside bottle painting installations, comparing his practice with that of Cai Guo-qiang and his use of gunpowder as an art material, and Year 12 are taking flight and selecting their own contemporary artists for a major research project,from a list including Liang Yuanwei, Lin Tianmiao, Li Hongbo, Gu Wenda and Cao Fei, among others.

Liu Zhuoquan, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist and China Art Projects
I have been pondering anew just why it is that my students are so enthused and engaged with this material. Partly, of course, it is because I am so passionately interested and my enthusiasm is a little bit infectious! But more importantly, I think it's that contemporary art in China - and, more broadly, the Asian region in general - is like nothing else anywhere in the world. Artists who in many cases came late to modernism, and to postmodernism as well, have been freely inventive, applying (particularly in the case of the Chinese) their extraordinary technical skills to make work on a scale of ambition that just doesn't happen in the same way elsewhere. Labour and materials are cheap, spaces are available that artists here in Australia would kill for. And, just perhaps, the necessity over many years of dealing with, shall we say, a level of political scrutiny, has made artists very adept at creating works embedded with subtle coded layers of meaning. Whatever the combination of reasons, it makes for an exciting classroom full of animated discussion and engaged students - and that's got to be a good thing.
Liu Zhuoquan, image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects
Meanwhile, I'm about to get on a plane and head back to Beijing. On my agenda: interviews with 13 artists in 13 days. Am I insane? Quite possibly, but I am incredibly excited to be meeting Cao Fei, Yu Hong, Li Shi Rui and Shen Shaomin as well as re-interviewing a number of the fabulous artists that I met on my previous three visits to this extraordinary city. So- watch this space!
Li Hongbo, 'Paper Man', image from
And meanwhile - check this out!