This narrative is a familiar one: China’s incredible economic rise has sparked global interest in its contemporary art. Collectors, academics, historians and curious minds want to know what the artists of a nation in constant transition can create that can spark discussion and prod people into thinking about their place in the world.
What does it mean when a tea cup fired in an imperial kiln is auctioned for US$36.3 million?
What can skilled hands and sharp minds do to break the association between a nation and its Soviet-style propaganda art?
This narrative is a familiar one too: Chinese police shut down art exhibitions in Beijing, Shanghai, anywhere. Productions that touch on issues deemed too sensitive are erased from the public eye, and even the public mind.
The hand of censors reaches across borders too. Last month, artwork about Tibet was shown at the Dhaka Art Summit. The exhibit was titled Last Words, and it showed photographs of letters written by Tibetans before they set themselves on fire in protest of Beijing’s rule of Tibet.
The Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh was “offended” when he saw the work, and he contacted the administration of the summit. Under pressure, they chose to cover the photographs with blank paper.
Ai Weiwei, who is probably the best-known artist from China, wrote in 2012 that “China’s art world does not exist.” He called the work of his colleagues “consumerist offerings, providing little in the way of a genuine experience of life in China today”.
But then, after the Chinese government reissued his passport and lifted his travel ban, even Ai’s outspokenness toward the CCP has been tempered.
That’s not to say there aren’t accomplished individuals who have left indelible marks on the art world. Yue Minjun’s name may not be recognizable to many, but his face surely is. The main subject in his paintings is himself, expression frozen, eyes shut, a jaw-breaking smile permanently plastered on his face no matter the setting.
His work is knocked off constantly, and copies are easily found as you stroll along, say, Hollywood Road. Yue has, effectively, turned himself into a meme, much like what Andy Warhol did for Campbell’s soup cans.
Besides, is there a more reasonable representation of the nihilism needed to navigate the darker elements of life in China?
Just as artists anywhere learn to draw and paint by copying the masters, maybe the fact that much of contemporary art made in China follows western cues is fine. The Communist Party may take issue with this westoxification, but nothing great is ever created in a vacuum, and closing the doors to outside influence makes no sense in the 21st century.
The question remains, if the reader is still interested: does contemporary Chinese art tell us anything about China, however small those revelations may be?
You might be able to answer that for yourself by visiting three exhibitions in Hong Kong.
M+ has a cluster of contemporary Chinese art on display. It is curated from the Sigg collection, amassed and donated by a man named Uli Sigg and billed as the largest, most comprehensive collection of modern Chinese art in the world.
Next week, you can peruse the Central Harborfront and check out what’s on offer at Art Central. Nearby, Art Basel will be held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center.
See part of the Sigg collection at Artistree, 1/F Cornwall House, Taikoo Place. The works will be available for public viewing until April 5. Admission is free. Public days for Art Central run from March 23 to March 26, while Art Basel is from March 24 to March 26.
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