Cultural taboos, consumerism and unique challenges: Art in contemporary China

Posted on 31 Mar 2021

Professor Jiehong Jiang talks about contemporary art in the context of the unprecedented cultural, political and urban transformations in post-Mao China.

Image: Zhuang Hui, Mao, 2007

The Art of Contemporary China features over 50 artists. Do you have a favourite?

No. These artists were handpicked individually with one particular reason or another. They range from well-established artists, like Ai Weiwei, Huang Yongping, Xu Bing and Zhang Peili for example, to emerging generation of artists, such as Hu Weiyi and Nabuqi. It is important to invite various artistic voices to reflect contemporary China. I have to admit that it is impossible to include all of my favourites in one volume. I regret that in authoring this book with limited space, I have to miss many other artists and work that I equally admire.

What impact does the ongoing urban transformation in China have on street and performance art?

China’s urban transformation has been generating impact not only on street and performance art, and art in general, but more significantly, on everyday life of the residents and their ways of thinking. People experience and perceive the urban environments differently due to the rapid urbanisation. It becomes a mine of inspiration for artists. To a certain extent, the unprecedented urban changes are not only revolutionary, but also illusive, or artistic.

Image: Wang Jinsong, Taking a Picture in Front of Tiananmen, 1992

Throughout all the changes in the last 40 years, what are some remaining cultural taboos in Chinese culture, and how do artists in the book respond to/engage with them?

The cultural taboos do not remain; they evolve. They evolve from time to time, so does art practice, through imaginations, as responses or actions to challenge.

How do contemporary artists in the book respond to China’s duality (a place of ancient traditions versus being a global technology powerhouse in the 21st century)?

In my recent project Everyday Legend supported by Leverhulme Trust (2016-18), we developed a research looking into how artists have been translating, challenging and reinventing the cultural and visual traditions. For example, some traditional materials of craftsmanship – such as jade and silk – and skills and techniques are reborn through contemporary practices, whilst the associated connotations and concepts have been further extended into the 21st century. However, artists do not necessarily see that duality as such. Past stays in the past, and present is the present. There is always a gap between them, and this is where art grows, claiming its ambiguous independence.

Image: Huang Yong Ping, Serpent D'Ocean, 2012

What role does dissent and rebellion have in the work of the artists in the book?

It is the blood. As I suggested in the book, Chinese contemporary art was born outside the legitimised art space, i.e., state-own museums and institutions. The Star Exhibitions for instance at the end of 1970s staged on the fence of China’s National Art Museum in Beijing are particularly symbolic, as an alternative voice to reveal a new world of Chinese art.
How does China’s contemporary consumer culture influence art?

Consumer culture will never influence true art, either in China or elsewhere.

What might surprise readers about The Art of Contemporary China?

The affordable price for an invaluable collection of art and thoughts in our time.

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