Research Log

Observing contemporary Chinese art through writings

Fiona He, Researcher for China

This paper was first written for the Annual Researchers’ Meeting at Asia Art Archive in March 2009. Each researcher was given the opportunity to share their observations on the contemporary art scene in their region, as well as provide a list of about ten to fifteen texts they considered critical, influential or controversial in respect of that art scene...

I have attempted to combine the latter two in hope of best portraying a comprehensive image of the current state of contemporary art in China.

Contrary to the critical scarcity observed by Lee Weng Choy in his ‘In Search for Discursive Density’ [1], the amount of verbiage in China can be overwhelming. Having previously worked as a freelance translator focusing on contemporary Chinese art, I am more than aware of the type of writing generated for exhibition catalogues. These texts serve to legitimize and validate the works of art, in other words what some refer to as ‘academic packaging’. It seems necessary to reassess what constitutes influential, critical and controversial, or even critically informative. Who are the art critiques’ audience and is the instrumentality of these critiques conducive to generating a dialogue between the main players of contemporary Chinese art and their audiences.

The financial market crashed right around the time when over a dozen Biennials and art fairs opened in Asia. Since then speculation on the impact of the financial markets has not subsided. Of course it is easy to get caught up in this speculation but let’s remember that debate surrounding the art market started long before the economic crash. A conversation between Richard Vine, Barbara Pollock and Christopher Philips, entitled ‘Money Talks Mandarin: China has suddenly become the world’s hottest contemporary art market. What are the effects on artists of this massive influx of cash?’ [2]  published in Art in America in 2007, was translated into Chinese and published in the World Art at the beginning of 2008. The three observers offered views on the many facets of contemporary Chinese art, from the circulation of artworks, to the shifting identities of its main players, to the infrastructure for contemporary art, to artistic production. Indeed they looked at the way in which we view art in China is being challenged and needs reassessment in light of the sudden influx of cash into the Chinese art market.

At the cusp of the economic downturn, Pauline J. Yao’s In Production Mode – Contemporary Art in China [3], presented a critical perspective on the production of Chinese art in the context of an economic boom. As the inaugural recipient of the 2007 CCAA art critic award, Yao’s independent research on artistic production in China sheds light on the artistic practice that is becoming less of an individual affair by the artist, but a more collaborative project both in China and elsewhere in the world. Much like what Vine, Philips and Pollack have witnessed, the sprawling of large art spaces, monumental artworks, frequent yet short exhibition periods and the pressure for artists to produce work to fill such exhibitions, prompts Yao to question whose labour is encoded in the artwork, whose labour is valued, who does the valuing and why, and what is the level of presence of the artist’s participation in this process? Yao looked into the process of artistic production of many contemporary Chinese artists working within different mediums, where studio involvement is no longer implicit in the role of the artist, rather it signifies a more managerial role of delegating between contractors, production companies, labourers and studio managers. In addition artists in China began to look into alternative ways to counter the economic situation. In the recent past artists did not have to worry about production cost or venues to show their work; this would be inconceivable in current times.

I have always believed in the action-reaction theory, especially when conditions are favourable. A number of alternative spaces have sprung up in the past year – Arrow Factory and HomeShop in Beijing, and Small Production based in Hangzhou – just to name a few. By alternative spaces I mean that not only are they non-commercial spaces as opposed to commercial galleries or museums and other art institutions, but also offer an alternative to the gargantuan exhibition spaces and lavish exhibition opening banquets with high production costs and other theoretically validated exhibitions, or even that they are located away from the popular enclaves of art districts, in the hope of creating a new channel of dialogue between the art being shown, created and viewed.

In Zhang Liaoyuan’s manifesto ‘Don’t Stop’ [4], written for the fifth event at the Shopping Gallery (a venue initiated by a group of artists in the arthub of 50 Mogangshan) he states the impetus for a series of events calling on artists to show their work in makeshift venues over short periods of time. Along with the artist Shao Yi (both who live in Hangzhou, a city known for its leisurely lifestyle tucked away from the commercial art traffic of Beijing and Shanghai), Zhang Liaoyuan has noticed the thinning of communication and dialogue between artists. Many artists are preoccupied by selling their ideas to commercial galleries that would require high production costs beyond their own means, or preparing for already scheduled solo exhibitions for commercial purposes. Also at the foot of the China Academy of Art, many young artists and students crave the opportunity to show their work. Inspired by Zhang Peili’s initiation of the Pond Society in 1984, an artist collective performing and installing works in public spaces in Hangzhou, Zhang Liaoyuan also embarked on finding alternative ways to create dialogue and discourse among local artists, engaging artists and students to take part in making and showing works requiring very little in the way of production costs and to experiment and realize their ideas without the restriction of a theoretical or thematic umbrella, or the pressure from vested interests of commercial gain. Although some might consider their works to be premature, juvenile, or veering towards ‘craft’, the stated aim of Small Production is accomplished by providing interaction through this process, and its outcome, at least for the artists, far exceeds our expectation.

In Beijing, Arrow Factory is located in the hutong within the 2nd ring road. “It is a storefront space presenting a model of an art space whose approach to exhibition making and display is uniquely defined by its physical location and immediate social setting. Our modestly sized space (fifteen square meters) provides an alternative scale to the ever-expanding commercial gallery spaces and art districts.” as Pauline Yao, one of founders, wrote in a recent issue of Contemporary Art and Investment, ‘Small is the New Big: Arrow Factory’ [5]. Furthermore, unlike commercial art spaces Arrow Factory does not employ any staff to be at the venue on any given day. The art is displayed in the shop-front window attracting the local community to linger and explore a window they would otherwise usually ignore. The operative manifesto of Arrow Factory does not only qualify the space as non-profit, but also as self-funded. The three founding artists and curators, all based in Beijing, are committed to carrying on their spirit of experimentation through their programming.

Last, but not the least, I want to mention HomeShop. The Chinese-American artist, Elaine W. Ho, opened her private home to the general public, as well as an array of architects, curators, scholars and friends, to participate in a series of events during the Olympic Games in Beijing. Located at the heart of hutong alley in old Beijing where all walks of life cross each other’s paths, HomeShop was a locale for interdisciplinary discourse to converge. Ho’s attempt to bring the local community together by setting up a large screen and projector to watch the games reached far beyond its mere attributes. Events at HomeShop ranged from a theoretical discussion on Doina Petrescue’s text ‘The Indetermined Mapping of the Common’ carrying on late into the night; to the contemplation of exhibition spaces; to a five-minute open discussion with a curator on the issue of speaking; to collecting used clothes for an artist’s work in the forthcoming Guangzhou Triennial; to movie screenings and much more. Does HomeShop constitute an alternative art space? Perhaps this array of events shies from being everything artistic, or perhaps its encompassing nature was core to the artistic manifestations of ideas. Furthermore, this body of ideas propelled Ho to document this series of events in a publication, Wear – the journal of HomeShop [6] , which was then transformed into a work of art in its own right.

Despite the low budget and lack of funding for these alternative spaces and organizations, they thrive on the freedom to experiment with ideas that may not otherwise be realized, and the accessibility to the general public, allowing them to reach out of the everyday norm for intrigue and endeavour. Meanwhile, public participation in such events enriches their own understanding of contemporary art.

Public art projects are not only the domain of alternative spaces; private museums such as Shanghai Zendai MoCA and the Today Art Museum in Beijing are also engaged in such activities. Although the goal, scale, and audience of projects at these museums differ, they are nonetheless admirable initiations for young private museums in China. Independent curator and writer Carol Lu and artist, Liu Ding, in collaboration with the Today Art Museum, initiated the Suitcase project to showcase contemporary art beyond the institutional confinements. The very concept of this project suggests shifting locales, venturing into unknown spaces.

'Intrude: Art and Life 366', organized by Zendai MoCA was a year-long interdisciplinary and cross-cultural public art project. Throughout 2008, one project took place in Shanghai everyday engaging local and international artists to present a global perspective on art, and its proximity to everyday life. In conjunction, a monthly journal of the same title [7] has been published to document these one-day ‘shows’.

As all this creatively happens around us, and we find writing in publications and arising from academic panel discussions, we come back to the question of criticality. Towards the end of last year, the archive invited Pauline Yao to write on the subject of art criticism in China for its newsletter in a text entitled, ‘Critical Horizon – on art criticism in China’ [8]. Stemming from Lee Weng Choy’s quest for ‘Discourse Density’, Yao proposed three possible responses to Lee’s observation, the first one being the lack of qualified individuals writing on art, secondly the lack of such writing to be sufficiently critical, and thirdly the visibility of a certain kind of criticality. Unfortunately, large amounts of what is considered criticism in China are in fact reviews or reports on art and the necessity for such writing serves largely as ‘academic packaging’. The reason behind such a phenomenon, as Yao suggests, is that it is a source of income for many. There is an increasing level of self-interest and the desire to reach a position of authority, and to avoid the complex entanglement of personal politics. Admitting that contemporary Chinese art is run by the art market, Yao boldly points out that many art critics and writers in China accept money or artworks in exchange for writing, putting their names up as the signature of academic validation and providing the socio-economic context of cashing in on contemporary art. Furthermore, Yao also proposes that the Chinese language itself might be a hindrance to the production of independent art criticism due to the utilization of transplanted Western theories and methodologies and a lack of critical vocabulary. Having laid out the phenomenon on contemporary criticism of Chinese art, the ideal standard for critical analysis of art, in Yao’s opinion, should not only rely on descriptive analysis but also an articulation of the cultural complexity that lies behind it and a sophisticated awareness of other theories and ideas that preceded and follow it. In spite of this grim account on art criticism in China, ‘Critical Horizon’ ended on a hopeful note.

The three explanations observed by Pauline Yao in response to Lee are predominately true. Furthermore, even that which might constitute critical writing for Chinese scholars is largely disseminated ineffectually to the local art scene. Yet it is unfair to make sweeping generalizations about art criticism in China. From my reading on contemporary Chinese art by Chinese writers in the last year or so, there are three texts I have found to be particularly well written. Perhaps they do not live up to the hopeful criteria set in ‘Critical Horizon’, but they were all critically informative.

One such text is found in Zhang Peili’s catalogue Work Manual [9], written by Huang Zhuan, ‘Zhang Peili – Art as a kind of work’. Not only does the writer provide a chronological account of the artist’s development through different phases vis-à-vis the mainstream of contemporary Chinese art of that given period, but his understanding of the artist allows him to recognize the artist’s scepticism of the mainstream, and his constant challenging of existing artistic languages and approaches. It is a text that illustrates both Huang’s understanding of the artist’s body of work, as well as the understanding of the development of contemporary Chinese art, from which he makes incisive observations.

Another text that I found interesting is Chen Tong’s ‘An Analysis of the Guangdong Contemporary Art Environment from a Spatial Perspective’ [10]. The reason Chen was propelled to analyze the ecosystem lies with the condition in which art has been produced in Guangzhou since the 1990s to the present day. To do this, Chen Tong embarked on a mapping of art created, shown or related to Guangzhou, interwoven with the concept of space. He provides examples of the concept of exhibition spaces from studio spaces, to the unique model of the Vitamin Creative Space – a commercial venue successfully bridging artists, critics, institutions and collectors – to exploring the concept of space in works by artists such as Xu Tan and Lin Yilin, and finally concluding that the compounded spatial concepts gives contemporary art from Guangzhou its advantage. This text not only provides a comprehensive overview of the infrastructure of the art world in Guangzhou, both historically and of the present day, but also of the artists and artworks produced from such an ecosystem and their mutual influences that, in my view, is considered critically informative.

Lastly I wish to mention a talk given by the artist Zhang Peili at a seminar at Leiden University titled China on Display. In Zhang’s talk on ‘Chinese Artists in Chinese Scene’ [11] criticality was observed from the perspective of the artist. In the artist’s opinion, as the contemporary Chinese art world develops into a unique scene, the artists are becoming the object on display, a view that is fabricated in relation to the West on China. It is predominately manifested through four characteristics, namely political symbolism (iconography on Mao, Tiananmen Square, the Cultural Revolution); oriental objects (dragons, pandas, Chinese medicine, Chinese landscape, Chinese characters etc); the artist’s ‘state of being’ (which in Zhang’s view is often distorted); and lastly the merging of Chinese and Western symbolism. All of these conform to the Western understanding of Chinese art. To account for such a phenomenon, Zhang suggests the existence of differences in history and culture between the East and West and, most importantly, that the genesis of contemporary Chinese art is neither induced by Western traditions nor by Chinese traditions or the mainstream official culture. Moreover, the identity of the Chinese artists has always been seen in light of a collective, in other words, the suffix of ‘Chinese’ distinguishes them from other artists. Furthermore, this common characteristic prompts Zhang to ponder, “who is the audience for contemporary Chinese art?” and the answer he could offer is none other than Westerners and ourselves. Following this train of thought, the issue of oriental culture is what many Chinese artists are interested in. Zhang asks rhetorically if is there are any Western artists who are as concerned with their relationship to the Orient? In other words, the concern of the Chinese about how the West sees them far exceeds Westerners’ concerns about how they are viewed by the Orient. In conclusion, Zhang Peili believes that the China on display is not only fabricated by the West and in the West, but by Chinese artists themselves tailoring their work to the needs and expectations of their Western audience, or even a fabricated combination of both. This introspective examination of the position of Chinese art and artists vis-à-vis its audience provokes the reader to examine the perspective from which we view art from China, questioning whether our interest in it is founded by our curiosity for the artists’ qualities and the broader issues that are being tapped into, or indeed our interests in the exotic ‘other’.

Based on this insignificant sampling, which does not even account for a mere fraction of texts available, it is clear that a lack of writing on Chinese art is not the issue. By associating these texts with my own observations of the contemporary art scene in Beijing and Shanghai, it seems that the critical discourse generated is insufficient in providing a comprehensive understanding of the art scene in China, let alone being instrumental in the discourse of artistic production. Yet one must remain hopeful, especially in a time like the present when conditions are constantly changing, the focus is shifting from market hype to creativity, which, after all, is what interested us in the first place. 


1. Lee Weng Choy, ‘In Search for Discursive Density’, Art iT, issue no. 21, p.95
2. Richard Vine, Christopher Philips, Barbara Pollock, ‘Money Talks Mandarin: China has suddenly become the world’s hottest contemporary art market. What are the effects on artists of this massive influx of cash?’, Art in America, March, 2007.
3. Pauline J Yau, ‘In Production Mode – Contemporary Art in China’, Timezone 8, August 2008
4. Zhang Liaoyuan. ‘Don’t Stop’ (written for Small Production) exhibitions at Shopping Gallery, available from
http://www.shoppinggallery.cn/en/news.asp?caseg=xzz2
5. Pauline J. Yao. ‘Small is the New Big: Arrow Factory’, Contemporary Art and Investment, issue 28 (April, 2009), p. 53-55.
6. Elaine W. Ho. Wear – the journal of HomeShop, Beijing: HomeShop, 2008.
7. Intrude: Art and Life. Issues 1-12, 2008
8. Pauline J. Yao. 'Critical Horizon – on art criticism in China', Diaaalogue (AAA Newsletter), December 2008
9. Huang Zhuan ed. Artistic Working of Zhang Peili, Lingnan Art Publisher, 2008.
10. Chen Tong, ‘An Analysis of the Guangdong Contemporary Art Environment from a Spatial Perspective’, Art Gallery Magazine (April, 2008), p. 49- 54
11. Zhang Peili, Chinese Artists in Chinese Scene (lecture), China on Display seminar at Leiden University, compiled by Zhou Tao, Art Today, p.28-29

  • Installation view of artist Ni Haifeng’s Vive la Difference at Arrow Factory
  • Wang Gongxin’s It’s about the Neighbors at Arrow Factory at night
  • Local community gathers at HomeShop to watch the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. Image courtesy of Elaine W. Ho.
  • The Critical Reading group gathers at HomeShop, discussing Doina Petrescu’s ‘The Indeterminate Mapping of the Common’. Image courtesy of Elaine W. Ho.
  • Migrant workers looking at Mathieu Borysevicz’s photographic billboards of construction workers in at Himalyama Center construction site in Pudong, Shanghai, for the Intrude: Art and Life 366 project. Image courtesy of the artist.
  • Billboards of construction workers by Mathieu Borysevicz. Image courtesy of the artist.
  • Billboards of construction workers by Mathieu Borysevicz. Image courtesy of the artist.
  • Invitation of the Small Production’s fifth event at Shopping Gallery, Shanghai, done in the style of Dragonball cartoons.
  • Blue cocktails served at the opening ceremony of Suitcase Project at Yintai Center, Beijing. An appropriation of Yves Klein’s Le Vide at Iris Clert Gallery in 1958.
  • Artist Zhou Tiehai’s Le Jude, Le Ministre, Le Diplomate, served at the opening event of Suitcase Project, at Yintai Center, Beijing.
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