From Beijing to Shanghai, Shenyang to the internet, a young crop of Chinese artists are making waves. They follow in the footsteps of a generation with a megastar status that was set at a time when China and its art were still something exotic, something to discover—and all the more fetishized thanks to record-breaking prices. Many artists found fame through exploring and responding to China’s knotty sociopolitical upheaval of the post-Mao era. In stark contrast, today’s surge of new Chinese talents have grown up in an altogether different China, and have enjoyed unprecedented higher education opportunities in art, both at home and abroad. Their questions and themes are reflective of this new epoch—their epoch—including the social and environmental impact of rapid urbanization, and the relentless digital onslaught of an age when everything from socializing to shopping happens online. They find modern means of adapting time-honored Chinese traditions and techniques in their work, via of-the-minute technology.
Today’s young artists have a different audience than their forebears. Recent years have seen an uptick in engagement with art within China, from collecting to gallery-going, building museums to launching art fairs. At the same time, Western audiences’ appetite for Eastern art shows little sign of abating—evidenced by a slew of current and upcoming Chinese contemporary art exhibitions and events in the U.K., U.S., and beyond. And fortunately for them, a generation of boundary-busting, genre-bending, thought-provoking Chinese artists is raring to oblige.
Left: Nabuqi, Object No.6, 2014; Right: Nabuqi, A View Beyond Space No.5, 2015. Images courtesy of C-Space.
Hailing from Inner Mongolia, Nabuqi works with both drawing and sculpture in her practice. Best known for the latter, her works currently on view at New York’s Thomas Erben Gallery draw from seminal sculptors of art history, ranging from Bourgeois to Brancusi. In her 2015 solo at Beijing’s C-Space, the artist presented sculptures, ready-mades, and installation works, which curator Han Liya described as “unstable straight lines, semi-closed erect geometric shapes, fragmented bleak landscapes... There are no narratives joining these vague forms and they have rejected any possible connection to one another.” Nabuqi will participate in the 2016 Gwangju Biennale, which kicks off this September.
Ahead of Lin’s upcoming exhibition at Shanghai’s BANK gallery, director Mathieu Borysevicz commented on the artist’s “so dumb it’s smart approach to the human condition in the age of the internet.” The approach won Lin the first Pierre Huber Art Prize in 2014 (the year of his very first solo at Beijing’s Gallery Yang, no less), as well as a spot in the forthcoming 2016 Shanghai Biennale. A member of the young Chinese art collective Double Fly Art Center, the China Academy of Art graduate originally focused on painting before turning to the internet and new media in 2010. This move saw him play with the positioning and appearance of desktop folders and common user interfaces in deceptively simple ways. For example, Star Travel (2013) uses Photoshop’s polygon drawing tool to map constellations onto the night sky.
Portrait of Wong Wai Yin at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, by Amanda Kho for Artsy.
Spanning the potential and actual role of artists, politics (as in To Defend the Core Values is the Core of the Core Values, commissioned by the Hong Kong museum M+ in 2012), or addressing timeless brain-teasers like “what constitutes art?,” Wong’s practice is nothing if not diverse. Following a residency at Asia Art Archive (AAA) in 2011, she returns to the institution in September for this year’s 15 Invitations anniversary program, in which psychic medium Percy Mak will ask AAA’s documents, catalogs, and photographs for their take on history. Wong is currently in residence at Hong Kong’s excellent experimental nonprofit Spring Workshop, where her August solo show, curated by director Christina Li, considers how motherhood has transformed her approach to art.
b. 1989, Wuhan. Lives and works in Amsterdam.
Left: Xinyi Cheng, Bathtub, 2013; Right: Xinyi Cheng, Night Tub, 2014. Images courtesy of BANK, Shanghai.
Xinyi is known for vibrant figurative prints and paintings in glowing colors. The nude male figure—with accentuated body hair—is a recurring motif in her work. Whether fighting, standing in a bathtub, or drinking from a fountain, the figures are rendered in a rich, jewel-like palette that lends them a beguiling sensual nature. Xinyi moved to the U.S. in 2012, after earning an art scholarship at Maryland Institute College of Art. Following her participation in the Bronx Museum of the Arts Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program last year, she is currently a 2016 artist in residence at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. She’s also now one of three artists being showcased at Thomas Erben Gallery’s summer group exhibition, “Soft Haze,” in New York.
Mining inspiration from the natural world and Eastern philosophies such as Tao and Zen, Sichuan-born Xiaoyi is a young photographer who is undoubtedly going places. Case in point: In 2015 she picked up China’s prestigious Three Shadows Photography Award, and later this year will be showing her new series “Koan” at Photo Fair Shanghai with Chengdu’s A Thousand Plateaus Art Space. The series sees the artist reboot her creative process by incorporating photo-etching and photography with traditional Japanese papers. With an MA in photography from the London College of Communications, she was awarded the institution’s Photofusion Prize in 2014.
b. 1987, Zhejiang. Lives and works in Shanghai.
Chen Zhou, I am not not not Chen Zhou, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Magician Space.
You wouldn’t guess it from watching his 2013 banana-yellow-saturated film I’m not not Chen Zhou, but the Zhejiang native is known for being reclusive—to the extent that his remote Shanghai studio is reportedly an internet-free zone to allow for the artist to focus on his painting and script-writing. Working predominantly in film, he was a founding member of the video art collective 3 Minute Group and a member of the Chinese artist collective Company. His themes span the whimsical—why pepper shakers bear the letter P, for example—to more self-reflexive meditations on the role of the artist. In 2012 he was selected as a finalist of Beijing’s Today Art Museum’s Focus on Talents Project.
Miao Ying, Chinternet Plus, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Screenshot from Rhizome.org.
Miao’s medium and muse is the Chinese internet. Specifically, she’s concerned with issues of censorship. In “Holding a Kitchen Knife to Cut the Internet Cable,” an online exhibition she created for the 2015 Venice Biennale, she adorned mock-up web pages from sites blocked by China’s Great Firewall (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc.) with kitschy Chinese internet poetry. A standout artist of last year’s influential group show “The Ballad of Generation Y” at Shanghai’s OCAT, this year she was commissioned by the New Museum and Rhizome to create “Chinternet Plus,” an online-only exhibition that satirically responds to China’s big data initiative “Internet Plus.” She’s recently broadened the scope of her practice with “Content Aware,” a solo exhibition at Shanghai’s MadeIn Gallery curated by Michael Connor, artistic director of Rhizome, which explores how ever-accessible imaging software and online tools create “half-assed aesthetics.”
In 2015, Wang drove 17,000 kilometers from Beijing to New Gallery, Paris, with a flame housed inside an oil lamp, as part of Truth, a time-based performative work. Fruit (2016), his contribution to CASS Sculpture Foundation’s “A Beautiful Disorder” exhibition, is similarly concerned with materials and temporality—and not without a dash of romanticism. The work sees the artist plant a tree in the Foundation’s grounds, and as it grows fruits, they will be harvested and cast in bronze each subsequent year. Time, duration, and space are also the focus of his most recent creation, Apocalypse (2016), a sprawling assortment of stones that were hand-picked from around the world for their likenesses to human portraits.
Shen Xin, Shoulders of Giants, 2015. Images courtesy of MadeIn Gallery.
At OCAT Shanghai’s 2015 group show “Ballad of Generation Y,” Shen’s Shoulders of Giants (2015) video installation transformed a symposium of established artists and theorists into animated creatures derived from Shan Hai Jing, a classic Chinese text. The avatars, who debated over power relations in art, are typical of the artist’s practice—which is predominantly film- and performance-based—and illustrative of her ongoing investigations into the role of artists in society. A graduate of the Slade School of Fine Arts MFA program, her upcoming projects include a newly commissioned performance titled Originally Inclusive (2016) at Manchester’s Center for Chinese Contemporary Art, and a 2016–17 artist residency with ACC-Rijksakademie Dialogue and Exchange, where she’ll split her time between Gwangju and Amsterdam.
Engaged with China’s rapidly transforming urban landscape, Cui’s paintings nod to everything from sci-fi to Soviet communism to city planning. Incorporating futuristic elements like spiral slides and sky bridges, her architectural paintings and sculptures offer a timely commentary on Chinese urbanism. This year alone, Cui was included in the group exhibition “Hack Space” at K11 Hong Kong, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad; had a solo show at Dublin gallery mother’s tankstation limited; and is currently taking part in CASS Sculpture Foundation’s “A Beautiful Disorder.” Come December, she’ll mount a solo booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach with Shanghai’s Leo Xu Projects.
Chen Tianzhuo, Tianchuo’s Acid Club, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
The enfant terrible of China’s contemporary art scene, Chen graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins before completing an MFA at Chelsea College of Art of Design. To date, his practice has straddled various realms, all imbued with touches of hip-hop, psychedelia, and kitsch. In 2013, he created a temporary nightclub at Star Gallery (Tianzhuo’s Acid Club); he’s collaborated with Chinese fashion label Sankuanz, Beijing’s post-punk band Snapline, as well as Chinese dancer and choreographer, Beio; and most recently, he’s brought elements of operatic performance to Shanghai’s coolest underground clubs with his project Trayastrima. Chen’s signature freakiness was on full display in a June performance at K11 to launch the China iteration of his 2015 solo show at Palais de Tokyo. Cultish, grotesque, and gaudy, his work is at once entertaining and morbidly compelling.
b. 1985, Rizhao. Lives and works in Rizhao.
Installation view of work by Zheng Haozhong. Courtesy of BANK, Shanghai.
The winner of the 2014 John Moores Painting Prize China, and currently enjoying a solo exhibition at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Zheng graduated from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2008 before returning to his native Rizhao, Shandong Province. The artist’s reclusive rural lifestyle is evident in his figurative, storyboard-like paintings of the world around him—rural China, his friends, his models, and his studio. His work is included in Sylvain and Dominique Lévy’s collection of contemporary Chinese art, which is known for identifying promising talents at an early age.
b. 1984, Zhejiang Province. Lives and works in Shanghai.
Lu Pingyuan, Ghost Trap, 2016. Courtesy of MadeIn Gallery.
Lu is best known for works that encompass strange little tales—from the story of fathering a kitten called Schrödinger, to a troublesome chameleon running amok in a museum, to a horrifying graveyard revelation in Curious Allen (2015). Begun in 2012, his “Stories” series sees sparse texts, often magical realist in style, either simply pinned to a gallery wall, or, more recently, as part of more elaborate installations. One such text was included in the 2015 inaugural exhibition of collector David Chau’s Cc Foundation in Shanghai. Others are currently on view at the Liverpool Biennial, alongside the artist’s installation piece Do Not Open It (2016). At present, Lu is participating in CASS Sculpture Foundation’s “A Beautiful Disorder” show, and this month, has an exhibition at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art. He has been active in Guest, a collective he established in 2012; and PDF, a digital art publication he co-founded; and is part of Xu Zhen’s contemporary art creation company MadeIn.
b. 1986, Beijing. Lives and works in Beijing and New York.
Liu Yefu, What Up Yefu, 2014. Images courtesy of the artist and Magician Space.
A consciously clumsy style of splicing together of snippets of low-budget infomercials, live online streams, adult films, and even museum tours lends Liu’s time-based installations a signature irreverence to cast new light onto global mass media. Earlier this year, the artist enjoyed a solo exhibition at noteworthy Beijing gallery Magician Space, and come September, he will graduate to the institutional level through a group show at Shanghai’s YUZ Museum, alongside the likes of Alex Israel, Katja Novitskova, aaajiao, and Gao Weigang. To date, he’s worked with several curators of note, including Shenzhen-based collective Jiu Society, New York-based Dispatch founder Howie Chen, and artist Matthew Brannon.
Geng Yini, Double Headed Species, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and BANK, Shanghai.
A graduate of the city’s Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, Geng is best known for large-scale figurative oil-on-canvas paintings. Imbued with a compelling disconnect between protagonists, setting, and narrative, these works have sparked her appearance in numerous solo and group exhibitions in China and beyond in recent years—including Shanghai’s Antenna Space and BANK, and most recently Beijing’s Today Art Museum. In her work, a broad, brash mishmash of elements span everything from religion to humor, politics to sex, intermingling cultural symbols to imagine new sociological constructs and norms.
Wickedly irreverent, Lu’s punchy practice gives everything from cancer cells (Cancer Baby, 2014) to sanitary pads (Uterus Man, 2013) a cutesy, if gaudy, makeover. She makes even the most taboo topics absurdly appealing—think Japanese manga-inspired aesthetics, video games, and lurid animated emojis. Lu studied under Chinese video and new media art pioneer Zhang Peili at China Academy of Fine Arts, before going on to participate in the Chinese Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Telling of her interests in neuroscience, biology, and sci-fi is her recent work Delusional Mandala (2015), a video installation featuring the artist’s own avatar using a stereotactic system to investigate the neurological symptoms of dying, currently on view at Seattle’s Interstitial Gallery. Lu will also feature in Spencer Museum of Art’s “Temporal Turn: Art and Speculation in Contemporary Asia” later this year.
Liu Chuang, BBR1 (No.1 Blossom Bud Restrainer (2015) No. 2, 2015. Courtesy of Magician Space.
Combining found footage, science, and a mesmerizing drift of falling catkins (flower clusters), Liu’s short film BBR1 (No.1 of Blossom Bud Restrainer) (2015) describes the self-propagation of poplar and willow trees within the urban landscape. Recently included in Shanghai Gallery of Art’s group show “Community of Celibates,” it is typical of the artist’s roundabout approach to urban, social, and economic realities via subtle interventions and everyday observations. For example, in 2010 he choreographed two cars to move silently and at minimal speed around Beijing’s ring roads, which is documented in the video work Untitled (Dancing Partners). His take on urbanization and social change is an informed one: Upon graduating from Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in 2001, Liu moved to Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone, an all-round boomtown, which exemplifies the country’s 1978 Open Door policy. Come October, his video work will feature in the Focus Section of Frieze London with Beijing’s Magician Space, in the gallery’s first outing at the fair.
b. 1983, Qinghai Province. Lives and works in Beijing.
Liu Chengrui, Looking for my lost finger, 2010. Courtesy of MadeIn Gallery.
In 1999, Liu chopped off his left pinky and incorporated the bone into a necklace. After losing the keepsake in 2008, the missing digit became the focus of his web-based work Looking for my lost finger (2010), which featured flyers posted on Chinese social networking sites. The piece is typical of the performance artist’s practice, which is oftentimes violent or painful in nature. A similarly long-term project, Decade, started in 2006 when Liu, while working as a teacher in his native Qinghai province, posed with each of his students and attached a strand of his or her hair on the back of each photograph, along with a written promise to repeat the project every 10 years. This year marks the end of its first cycle. Liu recently participated in the group exhibition “Heavy Artillery” at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, and was featured in both the 3rd Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art and the 6th Moscow Biennial last year.
A computer scientist-cum-artist whose work comprises algorithms, virtual landscapes, and digital renderings, Xu (better known by his internet handle, aaajiao) is already a fixture in China, and increasingly making waves abroad. While he’s currently enjoying a solo at OCAT’s newest space in his native Xi’an, this fall he’ll participate in two shows in the U.S.—a group exhibition at Spencer Museum of Art as well as the Hans Ulrich Obrist and artist Christian Boltanski-curated “Take Me (I’m Yours)” at New York’s Jewish Museum. Most recently, the Shanghai-based new media artist, blogger, and programmer has been applying state-of-the-art technology to seemingly unrelated fields, including traditional science. Take Body Shadow (2014), for example, in which the artist presents the meridian system of traditional Chinese medicine first as a 3D rendering of his leg, then made tangible by way of a very real tattoo.
The first artist to be awarded a three-month residency as part of a partnership between New York’s New Museum and the K11 Art Foundation, Cheng will mount his U.S. solo debut this October at the New York institution. The artist is known for beautifully shot, dreamlike films that draw on everything from pop culture to literature to film—his 2012 work 1971 - 2000, for example, combines elements from A Clockwork Orange and The Million Dollar Hotel; and Simply Wild (2014) sees a solicitous spam email, of the flirtation-masquerading-as-extortion sort, become something beautiful. If time’s on your side, his contribution to last year’s Istanbul Biennal, a nine-hour film based on three real-life stories titled In Course of the Miraculous (2015), is well worth watching; chief producer of the film was K11’s billionaire founder and collector Adrian Cheng.