Drawing on themes of censorship, virtual reality and rapid cultural transformation, China's contemporary art scene is booming.
In his book The Future Will Be… -- published in 2012 -- the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist wrote about the contemporary art scene in China. Back then it was relatively small, but growing. Though China offers a vast art history and cultural heritage, stretching back thousands of years, contemporary art is a relatively new phenomenon. Of course, there is Ai Weiwei and Yang Fudong, but besides these superstars, a new generation of visual artists are establishing themselves, with their works being exhibited in major institutions and museums globally and gaining serious acclaim. These young artists are exploring topics such as the differences between internet usage in the West and China, the censorship of the rigid, controlling communist regime that is China's government, and technological enhancements and their cultural impact. Here are four visual artists -- from Shanghai, Peking and Hong Kong -- making a major impact.
Miao put her first work on show in 2007. For three months she had researched every word blocked by google.cn. Titled The Blind Spot, the piece became her own index of censored words and marked the beginning of her long-term engagement with internet suppression in her home country. Although there are ways of getting around censorship in China with a VPN, Miao finds it more interesting to deal with it rather than avoid it. "My work is about the personal relationship with censorship. It's like Stockholm syndrome. The more I deal with it, the more I sympathise with it. I have a romantic relationship with it, so to speak," she says. Born in 1985 in Shanghai, Miao now lives and works between New York City and Shanghai. She studied Electronic Integrated Arts and Visual Art in Beijing. Her work has been shown in exhibitions in New York, Vienna and Berlin. Currently on display in Hong Kong, her installation Landscape.gif is a bold political piece of art, made from a sun bed, emojis, towels and several iPads that show amateur GIFs -- popular on China's most used social media network WeChat, GIFs are hard to censor.
Li Liao experienced first-hand what it means for Apple products to be assembled in China. Born in Shenzhen in 1982, Li studied fine art at the Hubei Institute. Currently his most well-know work is Consumption, the result of his experience working at one of the world's largest manufacturers of electronic devices, Foxconn. For 45 days he worked assembling iPads -- that's the time it took him to be able to buy his own device. His work clothes, ID card, contract and the iPad became the artwork, which has now been shown in galleries around the world. His most recent piece, Unwinnable Game, is on display at the K11 art museum in Shanghai, in cooperation with New York's New Museum. In the first room of the exhibition you see six gamers in front of their screens playing League of Legends. Li programmed it so that they cannot lose or win. The game just goes on and on. The gamers are at the mercy of artificial intelligence. "It's about becoming part of the game, to forget reality and dive into virtual reality. That's what's happening at the moment anyway," says Li.
Neuroscience, mortality, religion and gender. These are the themes explored in the artworks of Lu Yang. She graduated from the Academy of Art in Huanghzou in 2010 and quickly gained an international reputation with her subversive and elaborate productions. In 2013 she showed her most famous piece to date, the anime multimedia work titled Uterus Man, a gender-neutral figure with super powers, weapons and pelvic bone for a chariot. Lu collaborated with punk and electro musicians and manga artists to create the complex work. Uterus Man has since become a popular figure in China, with a franchise including manga comics, feature films, merchandise and even a video game. Born in 1979, the Beijing native is interested in the human body, and its fundamental existence and functions. In her video work Lu Yang Delusional Mandala, she digitally destroys her own body in order to create her work.
Cao Fei is one of the most innovative contemporary visual artists in China today. Born in 1978 in Guangzhou, she graduated in 2001 from the Academy of Fine Arts in the city. Cao lives and works in China's capital, Beijing, where she combines topics like urbanity and mobility with strong surrealistic references. She explores the everyday lives of Chinese people born after the cultural revolution, who grew up with the internet. In the 2000s, the immersive computer game Second Life became a central preoccupation, and Cao created her own digital utopia, RMB City, within the game. In her documentary film The Birth of RMB City, she explored the creation of the world and reflected on China's rapid development and its mega cities. Cao has had exhibitions at major international galleries such as London's Serpentine Gallery and New York's MoMA. She is currently working on several virtual reality projects and a design for the 18th edition of the BMW Art Car.
Text Moritz Gaudlitz