Chinese Contemporary Art - Asking for It
An exhibition of work by seven emerging Chinese artists forces Liz Shannon to rethink her view of contemporary China
China has become something of a cause célèbre in contemporary art market circles. Tales abound of international collectors swooping in to snap up entire bodies of work, leaving artists with empty studios and considerably enriched bank accounts. Whether this attention is entirely beneficial for the artists is debatable, however it is paving the way for a new generation of Chinese contemporary artists by providing them with opportunities to exhibit and create a dialogue with the West.
Asking for It: Everyday Neurosis in Chinese Contemporary Art is a case in point. Curated by Beijing-based Colin Chinnery and Pi Li, it presents work by seven emerging Chinese artists. Chinnery’s curatorial statement asserts that the exhibition is designed to draw the audience into the artists’ ‘personal universes’, bypassing the China as presented in the media, that of an ancient culture, host of the upcoming Olympics, a last bastion of communism.
Accordingly, Hu Xiaoyuan’s ‘The Times II’, a constructed ‘blanket’ that hangs below the gallery’s skylight, is strictly personal. The textiles feature Chinese motifs, such as boggle-eyed goldfish and flowers, which appear factory embroidered. It is a lo-fi piece of work (the antithesis of a tightly constructed patchwork quilt) yet it is a depository of memories, having been stitched together from the artist’s childhood linen and other personally significant pieces of fabric. Shi Qing’s series of photographs show the artist dressed as an ancient warrior, albeit one wielding various kitchen implements attached to a pole. His poses evoke a melancholy sense of ceremony, rather than confrontation, ironically noting the mundane nature of domestic life. A similarly everyday theme is exhibited by Chu Yun’s pile of sunflower seed husks, representing wasted hours.
While the exhibition overwhelmingly succeeds in presenting the artists’ works as reflecting personal concerns and everyday lives, we must query whether this viewing strategy is always correct. Chen Xiaoyun’s video work, ‘Lash’, features quick, flashing cuts employed to the sound of a cracking whip. The narrative is completely fractured, constructed of night-time images of the naked artist in a wood, a suburban street, a gas ring, a snake and fireworks, cumulatively inducing a sense of disturbance and threat. It’s hard not to ruminate on the Chinese government’s curtailment of certain freedoms: what impact does this have on Chinese artists, and how does it affect the kind of work that they create?
Kan Xuan’s excellent video works also seem to question China’s position, this time as a producer of goods for Western markets. The hypnotic video work ‘Two Yuan! Two Yuan!’ features a parade of items bought for two yuan (about 20p). Punctuated by the shout of ‘Liang Yuan!’, we are shown a variety of plastic bargains. How can these things be produced so cheaply? In this context, her other work, ‘Garbage’, which consists of a close-up on a bag of domestic rubbish, with a hand rifling through it and picking out particular items to show us, seems completely apt.
Asking for It, Glasgow School of Art, until Sat 10 May.