Chinese contemporary art under the influence

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SONG ZHUANG, China — The Chinese artist Lu Lin leans back into the sectional sofa in the corner of his hangar-like studio in Song Zhuang, a traditional village turned artist community east of Beijing.

Towering canvases suspended around the open room dwarf the artist, whose dramatic mixed-media work combines traditional Chinese painting with abstract sweeps of bright color.

It's clear from his studio that Lu does well by his art. Yet, when asked his opinion on Chinese contemporary art, Lu narrows his eyes and says: “China has no contemporary art.”

Warming to the subject, the artist puts his elbows on his knees and leans forward.

“Why do I say that China has no contemporary art? Because none of China’s contemporary art comes from China’s history or culture. It just follows the Western conception of what Chinese contemporary art should be like.”

Lu says he remains frustrated that so many contemporary Chinese artists follow the marketable style that has sold so well in Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions: a kind of perverted realism, often called cynical realism, that makes continuous reference to Mao, the Cultural Revolution and China’s Communist symbolism.

The market for Chinese art has expanded rapidly in the past decade, making stars out of Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun, among others. Beijing’s art gallery districts have seen unprecedented growth. But while the growth and popularity of the Beijing art scene has provided more opportunities for artists, galleries, writers and curators, some say they feel alienated by international influence and its emphasis on the West.

The 798 District — a neighborhood of converted factories combining white-cube galleries with dusty brick — encompasses hundreds of art spaces. The 798 plays host to international galleries from New York, Denmark and Italy, as well as Chinese contemporary and commercial art spaces like Long March Space.

The Long March Space followed the Long March Project, initiated by Chinese artist-curator Lu Jie in 1999. In “A Walking Visual Display,” the Long March Project’s first undertaking, Lu Jie and more than 250 Chinese artists staged 12 exhibitions along the path of the original Long March: a retreat by the Communist Red Army from 1934 to 1936 during which only 10 percent of the army’s original 80,000 members survived. Some Long March participants included Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping, dominant figures in 20th-century China.

“A Walking Visual Display” examined Chinese history internationally and locally, using art to examine identity, space and memory. According to the Long March Project’s Director of International Programming,  Australian Zoe Butt, the project’s scope and aim had “definitely expanded” beyond Chinese identity.

But the path between local and international has proven difficult to navigate. For Butt, the problem lies not in the lack of international exhibitions for Chinese artists, but the lack of cultural exchange and engagement.

"There are, of course, many Chinese artists willing to more critically engage with an international platform, but it’s a slow process,” she says. From her perspective, "meaningful relationships" between the Chinese contemporary art world and international communities "are few.”

Beijing’s contemporary art scene strives for independence, but integrating local Chinese art into the international art world has been difficult. Gao Yang, a Chinese painter who achieved international success while living in Italy for 13 years, considers Beijing’s art community nascent. At the moment, he said, Chinese artists are taking too many cues from Western art rather than acting independently. “In the future, young Chinese artists will have to work together with the West,” Gao says, “They have to create something new. Right now that isn’t happening.”

Tang Jianying, another Song Zhuang artist, is more positive about Western influence on his art and career. Leaving behind his wife and children in his home village in 2002, Tang came to Beijing because the city is “the only place you can earn enough money to live by making art.” Tang’s works are large paintings of brushy faces encased by nets and cages or crowned by flowers.

“Some of my earliest influences were German artists, many Western artists,” Tang says. “But I don’t want to paint like Western artists. I also don’t want to paint like Chinese artists. Artists shouldn’t just follow the bandwagon, they need to find their own individuality.”

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.