January 2008, China: the New Generation

Tan Tian, Island, 2007, acrylic on canvas (triptych), 270 x 190cm

Autolatry: China's New Generation
by Amy Lin

Was anyone really surprised when Chinese contemporary art set new records at Sotheby's October auction?

To say the sleeping dragon is stirring is an understatement. There are the upcoming Olympics and the good and bad that come with it (better mass transportation – a subway system!, more pollution as a result of massive building projects, greater efforts to combat said pollution). The black market DVD racket is booming; enough to include full seasons of Heroes and Lost and indie flicks (ten years ago, the selection would have been 40% Titanic and 20% The Godfather).

Beautiful 20-somethings stalk the streets in equestrian boots and tight cropped pants. Fried chicken stands spring up next to the steamed sweet potato sellers. Marc Jacobs opened a store here.

It's a far cry from the standard-issue army-green or navy trenchcoats everyone was wearing just a decade ago.

Liu Ren, Somnambulate Palace, 2007, digital print, 90 x 129cm

Beijing's burgeoning 798 art district is a graffiti-splattered barometer of the rising alternative scene. The neighborhood plays host to galleries, hip shops and cafes, not to mention the notorious warehouse parties that run past dawn, ending just in time to buy the first bag of oranges from a street cart. Yuppies and expats amble through the area after work but it's the constant presence of cool local kids with spiky hair and pink leggings that shows just how much the country's changed in the last decade.

Enter China's new art rebels. Like the YBAs when they started, these kids are fresh out of school, most in their early to mid 20s, with a few solo shows under their belts. They come from the “only-child generation”, born amidst the economic boom after the capitalism reform. They grew up consuming McDonalds, cartoons, the internet, video games, fashion, back alley piracy and Hollywood alongside a steady diet of rich cultural history.

The resulting artwork is unmistakably Chinese yet manages to bypass the themes of cynicism, suffering and political despair that contemporary Chinese art is known for. There are no sombre black and white portraits, no smart pop riffs on Communist propaganda posters, and no pieces recasting classical paintings with cigarette-huffing hookers and pimps.

Leave that to the old guard.

Autolatry at 798's RedHot Gallery is aptly named; who better than the young to rebel-yell the virtues of self-worship? For this generation, it's less about finding a place in society as much as it is creating one. Unlike their parents, they have immediate access to the rest of the world. Piraters and rogue programmers have insured that no matter what Great Walls the government may throw up to restrict information, there's always a way over. They are free to travel outside the country, a near impossibility for many Chinese fifteen years ago. Acutely aware of China's rising status on the world stage they, like everyone else, are curious to see how capitalism and globalism will play out in a country that is so cautious not to repeat the mistakes that led to exploitation and subservience.

Yang XiaoLin, Plaza No. 2, 2006, C-print, 80 x 120cm

For a young artist, it's riveting. There are no rules and no shoes to fill. The timing is perfect: mainstream contemporary Chinese art has acquired a “look” and those themes are getting stale, especially to a generation that's experienced such profound transformations in their short lifetime.

Liu Ren's collaged photographic landscapes resemble the love children of Mariko Mori and Richard Prince. A tranquil sea of water lilies softly fade into the stately architecture of Forbidden City, complete with commercial airplanes in the sky. Dinosaurs prowl the city alongside tanks and helicopters and a huge flock of sheep mill around in Tienanmen Square. It's a dreamy fantasy that the artist hopes will remind people to slow down and take time to enjoy as simple pleasures. Not a surprising reaction considering the older generation's sidewalk games of chess in the evening, tai chi in the park and neighborhood fan dance parties are rapidly being replaced with television and membership gyms.

Xu Dian also reappropriates images in her work. Her piece “Cosplay” stars a cast of characters from famous western paintings. Plato, the Venus de Milo and the Three Graces all make appearances dressed as skate punks, beach bums, government agents, sanitation workers and Playboy bunnies. It's a sly wink in a country where reappropriation is a surefire moneymaker, so long as it looks like it could be a genuine Versace.

 Xu Dian, Cosplay, 2006, digital print (triptych), 100 x 30cm, 80 x 30cm, 80 x 30cm
Lined up along the far wall are Wu Hao's prints of Che Guevara's iconic image, executed in black ink washes on rice paper. Swaying softly with a slight breeze, the portraits come across as both strong and tender, a rarity for Guevara's overused and hyper-commercialized visage. Could sincerity be the new irony?

 Wu Hao, Useful People, 2007, ink on rice paper, 92 x 126cm

Tan Tian's massive multi-panel paintings feature masses of white cartoon balls lumped in the center of a solid red ground. His installation piece has a mound of balls piled at the foot of a gigantic cross. The quirky and playful spirit recalls the vibe of Commes de Garcon's early days. Conceptual, yes, and also very en vogue.

Perhaps Yang XiaoLin's work sums it up the best. His photographs star a young man and woman dressed in starched white shirts, black bottoms and full-headed boy and girl masks typically worn by the lead tamers in lion dance performances. They stand in front of city monuments like Tienanmen Square and the 2008 Olympics countdown clock, one part old-school tradition, one part recent past, snapped in a rare moment of stillness before hurtling on towards the future.

It's worth mentioning the show catalog. The Autolatry artists sport rumpled shirts and gleaming aviators, nonchalantly dangling black cigarettes as they strike slick rock star poses. In their interviews, they candidly discuss gender politics, Emmanuel Kant, the commercial side of art making, tradition and the limitations of academia. They balk at the idea of being boxed into a generational type and are adamant about not selling out. With a memory of what has been and enough savvy to know what could be, they'll do just fine.

Watch these kids, they will blow your mind.

TopRed Gallery
Beijing, China

Amy Lin in Beijing

Amy is an artist, writer and creative consultant.  She currently resides in Beijing, China.


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