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Chinese Contemporary Art Comes out of the Shadow
2007-09-21

Yue Minjun enjoys laughing at the world. He paints himself on canvas: a group of Yue's laughing during military exercises, laughing while flying on backs of geese and laughing at historic world events.

The 44-year-old Yue has a reason to laugh in the real world now. His painting, "The Pope" – a giggling Yue dressed as a Pope – sold for 2. 14 million pounds, or over 30 million yuan, at Sotheby's London auction in June 2007, setting a new record for Chinese contemporary art piece.

The last record holder before was Liu Xiaodong, whose painting "The New Migrants of the Three Gorges" sold for 22 million yuan at Beijing Poly International Auction in November 2006.

Chinese contemporary art has taken off in the international art world. Yue is not the only Chinese avant-garde artist selling at international auctions; others include Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Liu Xiaodong and Yang Shaobin.

The rise of Chinese contemporary art took many by surprise. Just 20 years ago, today's big-name artists were described by their neighbors as "mang liu", or jobless loafers, moving from their hometowns to illegally live in big cities like Beijing.

To escape their neighbors' distrustful eyes, during the early 1990s many artists moved to a village near the Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace) in northern suburban Beijing, where the rents were lower and they could live as a group.

"We were a headache for local police, who thought we were troublemakers. They just didn't want us to live there (the Yuanmingyuan), but had no reason to get rid of us so they kept coming to our homes. It was hard to concentrate on painting," recalls Yue in his spacious studio in Songzhuang Township.

Like Yue, many artists are now living in Songzhuang after being driven out of the Yuanmingyuan area in the early 1990s. In fact, about 1,500 artists from all over the country have moved to Songzhuang since 1994, taking the town as their home. The town in Tongzhou district in the eastern suburbs of Beijing has become a leading base for Chinese contemporary art.

"You can't imagine how life has changed," says Yang Wei, a leading art critic who came to public attention with his sarcastic paintings of the People's Bank of China. "If our electricity meter is broken, the local authority immediately sends people to repair it. In the past, they would have tried to drive us away."

Chinese contemporary art has blossomed since 1979 after Chinas reform and opening-up drive. It boomed from long years of isolation from the international contemporary art scene, which sprang up after 1945.

Few aspects of modern Chinese life better characterize the nation's continental drift away from its collective past to a more individualistic future.

"The country's management mode has changed. During the planned economy era, it was the elite powers who decided what the people should do and say," Yue recalls.

"The people should all make steel because the country needed steel or should weave cloth because of a shortage of cloth. Society was run from top to bottom."

"Now a lot special creation starts from a basic individual. The creation grows and then gets accepted by the mainstream and changes the people's thinking just like Chinese contemporary art's trajectory."

Contemporary art has transformed the country's physical landscape too. It has formed several cultural landmarks out of dilapidated plants or reclusive villages in Beijing such as the 798 Plant, Jiuchang (Brewer Plant), Fangcaodi (Fresh Grassland), Suojiacun Village and Songzhuang Township. The centers in the other parts of the country include the Moganshan No. 50 on the Suzhou River in Shanghai, the Tank Storehouse Art District in Chongqing and the Blue Roof Art Center in Chengdu, all places densely populated with studios and galleries.

"These communities reveal the true state of Chinese contemporary art – seemingly marginalized, but actually vigorous," says Li Feng, director of Chinese oil on canvas department at Beijing Huachen Auctions.

Since the Star Show in 1979, which marked the launch of China's contemporary art, new platforms have mushroomed. Since 2000, these have included the biennales at Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou, Li says.

Yang Wei believes the sudden rise of contemporary art, from the underground to the spotlight, is the result of the continuous economic growth and social reforms in China that make people more open-minded.

"Chinese contemporary artists have two advantages. On the one hand, the outside world wants to know China and the artists are important channels for telling the world China's stories. On the other hand, China wants to show the world something new besides the Great Wall and the Forbidden City."

International collectors quickly focus on countries with long histories and rapidly changing societies, such as India and China.

"China's unique experience is the attraction of its contemporary art. The country is absorbing Western cultures against a backdrop of a culture with thousands of years of history. The country is changing like never before in history and the future is even more unpredictable," Yang says.

Yue believes "creativity" is the charm of Chinese contemporary art. "Every artist is trying to express his individual experience and thought."

But not all artists are reveling in the newfound prosperity.

Avant-garde artist Jiao Yingqi says, "Society is already talking about money all the time. Now you are also talking about contemporary art after learning it sells well. Contemporary art came into being as a rebellion against capitalism, but now it seems quite satisfied with capitalism. Criticism of society and capitalism should be the core value of contemporary art, but the core value is fading."

Critic Huang Heqing says in his book "Cultural Conspiracy" that Chinese contemporary art is actually "Western art made in China". The booming interest is a form of "cultural invasion" and the prosperity is almost the same as that in the former Soviet Union.

Despite the worries, most artists concentrate on creating their own styles. Many artists have their own signature theme or style, such as the old photos on canvas by Zhang Xiaogang, the harmless hooligan-like men with shaved heads by Fang Lijun and the red-hued violence depicted by Yang Shaobin.

"Every artist has in his mind an individual style. It's the theme of contemporary art and also the key," says Yang Shaobin.

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