China’s third generation of contemporary artists are changing the way people regard ‘Chinese’ art, and it is drawing the attention of museums, critics and collector worldwide, writes Tom Pattinson
After the death of Mao in the late 70s, China began a period of opening up. Images of Western art, along with new ideas, concepts and opportunities all filtered into the Chinese consciousness.
Nearly a century’s worth of art history, from abstract to impressionism to surrealism all landed on their lap in one foul swoop. A first generation of contemporary artists emerged experimenting with new concepts, mediums and subject matter. A couple of decades later and Chinese art had hit the mainstream. Colourful social realism paintings were collected by museums and galleries worldwide and made celebrities of artists such as Yue Minjun and Wang Guangyi who’s works
addressed the juxtaposition between China’s turbulent communist past and its newly opened consumer market.
Today’s third generation of artists are now in their 30s and have proven that China is really standing centre stage in the global art theatre.
Huang Ran (b. 1982 in Xichang, China)
Huang Ran’s darkly humorous works appear in a wide variety of mediums ranging from painting and photography to installation and video. The theme that permeates his works however is that of the influence of the other, brainwashing and peoples’ power to manipulate each other. Or ‘Mutual manipulation’, as he calls it.
Born in China’s Sichuan province, he moved to the UK in 2002 and graduated from Goldsmiths in London in 2007. In rural China he was incredibly limited in his ability to source knowledge of the outside world and arriving in a western city he knew nearly nothing about was something of a shock. ‘I was a blank piece of paper,’ he explains. ‘A lot of things I experienced or learnt abroad have become part of me now.’
And it is this concept of absorbing knowledge from other people and experiences that excite him. ‘We all steal experiences, ideas and history from each other. After this conversation maybe I will steal something from you and you will steal something from me. It’s how we build up who we are.’
Huang Ran’s concept of learning from others’ experiences is more sinister than innocent. He talks at length about the concept of history and that no one can fully understand history unless they lived through it, and even then that history is later distorted as other people’s version of that same history manipulates your own memory.
It is this conceptual theory of mutual manipulation that is shown in his work. His 30 minute film that was selected for the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2014, follows on from his depiction of how we are all stealing from one another. Titled ‘The Administration of Glory’, it follows different kinds of interlinked stealing: an office worker steals an ancient sword, masked men steal the office worker’s car, a diner steals his neighbour’s wine and a scientist tells of his lifelong work of brainwashing a child’s mind.
The film was shown at Huang’s solo show at Simon Lee Gallery in London last year along with a number of other works including a revolving billboard which read: ‘They believe this is history because… they believe this is history because…’
Similar to his installation work titled “I’ll See It When I Believe It” he attempts to question how history is told and how easy we are to believe it.
‘We believe what we know because of our education and the experience that others have imparted, and that becomes part of you. But we never really question it. We never think “what if?” What if I really experienced that point in history myself?’
On first glance Huang paintings look like light-hearted jokes, poking fun at people who spent their life trying to achieve mundane feats. His works depicts a man shoveling hot dogs into his face ‘The most hot dogs eaten’.. other feats include ‘The biggest ball of paint’, ‘The biggest biceps’, ‘The stupidest name…’
However there are multiple levels at work here. These record breaking feats would be little more than a footnote in the history books, but by elevating them to gallery status Huang is manipulating their status in history.
‘I am trying to capture these small irrelevant things and by doing so make them important. I want to ask ‘what if’ history had been written this way.”
Not only that but these paintings are adaptations of paintings of Austrian artist Martin Kippenberger’s work. Some works are almost identical to Kippenberger’s original except for some small additions to the subjects, the addition of some text or a new title. Huang, to some extent, is now manipulating how Kippenberger will be regarded in history and intrinsically stealing and giving to him.
Huang Ran is represented by Simon Lee and Long March Space.
Wang Guangle (1976, Fujian, China)
Wang’s graduation show at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts was called ‘3pm to 5pm’, named after the period of the afternoon when he would paint in his studio. The dipping sun would cast beams of light across his studio floor and these became his subject matter.
Over the next decade he went from painting beams of light to creating paintings that look like they are made from light. Bright colours strafe the canvas in electric stripes, radiating a vibrant energy. His works recently exhibited at the Beijing Commune look like they are emitting light from the canvas.
It is easy to see why Wang Guangle’s works are popular. The calming subtle, tones pulsate out of the canvas creating a three dimensional feel.
Extending on this 3D effect, he created a series of installation works where layers of paper and paint added to the gallery wall actually make the wall bulge out as if being pushed from behind.
His ongoing series, Terrazo, consists of vast paintings of tiny stones painted in minute detail; each canvas can take over a year to paint. They reflect both the timelessness of the objects (stones have always been appreciated and collected by Chinese scholars) and also of the time it takes to produce the paintings.
For time is very much central to Wang’s work.
‘There is so much focus on the development of our country, the changes in society, the impact of history. Art is just a shadow of these things,’ he says. ‘My work isn’t a reaction against this fast pace of change but reflects my personal relationship with time.’
Having remained in the same scruffy studio in a village outside Beijing for over a decade, Wang’s work remains the same regardless of what’s happening outside.
‘No matter where you are, or what your style is, the one thing we all have in common is time. Time marches on whether you like it or not.’
Wang Guangle is represented by Pace Gallery
Tu Hongtao (b.1976, born Chengdu, China)
After graduating from Hangzhou’s China Academy of Fine Art Tu Hongtao moved to the megacities of Guangzhou and Chongqing. At first he tried to focus on his career as an artist but was forced to sell clothes at a local market to make ends meet. His works during this period reflect the tense, violent crowded cities that so many millions call home. Buildings crammed together form the back drop, as semi-naked women are piled up against each other like toys. The titles of these works ‘Maybe Tokyo or Chengdu’ comment on how all major cities, like the people who live in them, lose their individuality as they blur into one another.
‘As an outsider, someone who had just landed in this community, I was completely overwhelmed,’ he says. These intense works produce a claustrophobic atmosphere where everything is for sale, even people.
After the economic slowdown of 2008, Tu made the decision to bypass the commercial art capital of Beijing, and the chaos of the nearby urban hubs, and locate his studio in a tranquil artist community near his home town of Chengdu. Today, he lives in an archetypal vision of rural China with a large lily-filled lake, bamboo forests and lush greenery visible from his window. And his works focus on the natural landscape he lives and works in.
‘This new environment helped shift my attitude and my working style to a more optimistic outlook.’
‘I grew up at a time where there was a spiritual and material conflict of interest,’ he says. ‘People were desperate in their pursuit of material possessions, which led to an erosion of society.’
Traditional culture is at the root of Tu’s work but his study of western culture gives him a new viewpoint. After visits to Europe to meet with artists, including Daniel Richter, he learned more about international art giving him scope to truly understand his own work.
‘Western abstract art is based on representation of the physical perspective and then the deconstruction of this. However, Chinese painting has always had an innate abstract sense. Traditional Chinese landscape paintings show this through their use of single lines and blank space.’
Whilst Tu’s subject matter is the natural environment his works are anything but natural. Reality is bent depending on the portions of the landscapes that jump out at him leaving negative space and exaggerated elements to create an abstract feel.
Tu Hongtao is represented by Hive Art
Hao Liang (b 1982, Chengdu, China)
Born into an artistic family in Chengdu, Hao Liang had a keen interest in traditional Chinese painting from a young age. His grandfather was a collector and lover of art and took him to exhibitions and encouraged him to paint.
In his studio on the outskirts of Beijing a large three-metre long silk hangs unfinished on the wall. The sketches of the work are pinned on the wall beside it and copies of paintings from the Ming Dynasty are strewn across the table.
Hao Liang is a contemporary ink painter who uses a traditional technique known as ‘Guohua’, which has been mastered over hundreds of years, while adding his own unique take on it.
He has spent years of academic training studying the Chinese masters and reproducing one of the classic works from the North Song Dynasty at university. ‘Any innovative or ground-breaking act can only be achieved after the painter has learnt thoroughly all the existing artistic legacy,’ he says.
‘Coordination between the mind, the hand and the eye takes a long time to learn. The ideal of shan shui (Chinese landscape) painting is the unity of man and nature. It seeks for a relationship between the human body and nature that enhances both. In western landscape painting, the emphasis is in observing and dominating nature.’
At a time when contemporary ink is very much back in vogue, Hao Liang is the modern master. His works have a darker hue but the subject matter - of animals and landscapes – echoes traditional themes.
He is an academic artist bringing the traditional form into the modern era.
Hao Liang is represented by Vitamin Space