10 Artists Who Defined Chinese Contemporary Art
Ai Weiwei’s willingness to confront the Chinese government over censorship, shoddy building practices, and even his own detention—along with his mastery of Twitter and Instagram—has helped him hoover up news headlines outside China. Inside China, he is less well-known, and even in the art world there, it can be hard to find people who wholeheartedly admire his work.
As Ai’s art has turned outwards, focusing on the plight of refugees and the stateless all over the world, other artists have played a bigger role in shaping contemporary art in China, in part by skillfully juggling the competing needs of commercial galleries, international institutions, and government officials.
These are the 10 artists who have shaped the landscape of contemporary art in China over the last several decades, and continue to have an outsize influence. While this time period has been admittedly male-heavy (Cao Fei is the only woman represented on this list), fellow female tech-enthusiasts Miao Ying and Lu Yang can be counted as leaders among China’s generation of emerging artists.
B. 1969, Zhangzhou. Lives and works in Beijing and Hangzhou.
If Qiu Zhijie sleeps at all, it can’t be for long. In the past year, he has made a massive new piece for the Guggenheim Museum survey “Art and China after 1989”; curated the Chinese pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale; and continued to head up the School of Experimental Art at the elite Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Beijing. He was also instrumental in launching China’s national contemporary art museum, The Power Station of Art (PSA), curating its inaugural show, the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, and giving the institution its English name, the acronym of which is a riff on New York’s MoMA PS1.
Qiu’s embrace of all aspects of the art world is matched by a practice he describes as “Total Art,” which encompasses everything from conceptual calligraphy in works such as Writing the “Orchid Pavilion Preface” One Thousand Times (1990–95) to the investigation of a Nanjing bridge infamous for suicides. A big part of his practice has become idea maps, one of the few forms expansive enough for the breadth of his vision.
B. 1954, Xiamen. Lives and works in Paris, France.
Installation view of Huang Yong Ping,Tower Snake, at Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2009. Photo by David Regen. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.
The oldest artist on this list, and the one who has lived outside China the longest, Huang Yong Ping nevertheless continues to make waves in Chinese contemporary art. His Theater of the World (1993), a reptile and insect battle royale that requires exhibitors to replenish the supply of live insects and reptiles, was removed from a show at the Guggenheim after protests that it was cruel to animals—a bank-shot success, given the work’s intention to depict brutality and chaos.
Huang was among the first generation of art students to attend the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) when universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. When unable to purchase his own copy of Pierre Cabanne’s Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (1971), Huang copied a Chinese translation to take back to friends in Xiamen, Fujian Province, where he helped found Xiamen Dada, a blend of ideas from Marcel Duchamp and Chan Buddhism. After his inclusion in the ambitious “Magiciens de la Terre”exhibition at Paris’s Centre Pompidou in 1989, Huang later moved to France, representing the country at the Venice Biennale in 1999. He continues to occupy a distinct niche in Chinese art, often using found objects and animal imagery to comment on modern society.
B. 1971, Beijing. Lives and works in Shanghai.
The godfather of video art in China may be OCAT Shanghai museum director Zhang Peili, but its leading proponent right now is Yang Fudong. Whereas Zhang’s early, career-making videos document difficult, arduous performances—painstakingly re-gluing a shattered mirror, for instance—Yang’s sumptuous multi-channel works are light on narrative but look cinematic, shot with a large crew and with careful attention paid to sets, wardrobe, and styling.
Lately, Yang’s aesthetic has lingered in Shanghai’s belle époque era, an international, hedonistic jazz age that preceded the Communist Revolution. Earlier works present a more minimal aesthetic. The five-part series “Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest” (2003–07), shot in black-and-white 35mm film, references the legendary Seven Sages, a group of Daoist intellectuals from the 3rd century, as commentary on the new generation’s struggles to define their roles in modern China.
Yang is also known for his still photography, often of the same subjects that appear in his video works. Among his most famous early photographs is the triptych The First Intellectual (2000), which shows a bloody, battered businessman holding a briefcase and, even more ominously, wielding a brick.
B. 1964, Wuhan. Lives and works in Beijing.
Few contemporary Chinese artists fetch as much at auction as Zeng Fanzhi. A member of the Cynical Realism movement, which formed in Beijing in the early 1990s, Zeng’s angst-ridden portraits—like the work of peers Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, and Fang Lijun—address sociopolitical issues in China with humor and irony. The intensity of his work is influenced by artists including Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, and Max Beckmann.
Zeng has continually taken his practice in surprising directions, moving away from his successful and recognizable paintings of masked figures to landscapes inspired by the Northern Wei, Song, and Yuan Dynasties, which he obscures with thick black bracken. He has also experimented with expressionistic techniques such as multi-brush painting, where he paints with two hands at once: The first brush is controlled, while the second makes unguided strokes. This integration of the unconscious in his technique is itself a wry commentary on China’s asymmetric, oft-interrupted liberalization over the past 20 years.
B. 1977, Shanghai. Lives and works in Shanghai.
The great ironist of Chinese contemporary art calls everything into question, including his identity, country, and the art industry at large. Xu’s 2005 mockumentary 8848-1.86—which is about seizing the top 1.86 meters of Mount Everest and carting it back to Shanghai—satirizes world governments’ Realpolitik ethos.
In 2009, Xu founded the “art creation company” MadeIn, subsuming his artistic identity as the CEO and producing artworks (“products”) that celebrated their commodification. His sumptuously textural “Under Heaven” paintings (2014–18), for instance, are sold by the square meter, and he has exhibited several editions of his works side by side, obliterating the conventional pretense that each work is unique.
Xu also has a gleeful antipathy for gallery-goers’ photography, painting glaring camera flashes directly onto perfect replicas of famous artworks in his “Light Source”series (2013), and spearing cameras through the lens in his “Focus”installations (2016). Recent mashups of different cultures are occasionally brilliant, such as the European Thousand-Arms Classical Sculpture (2014), where multi-limbed Buddhist figures are suggested by lineups of classical Western sculptures.
B. 1963, Liaoning. Lives and works in Beijing.
Liu Xiaodong may be China’s greatest living painter, an especial achievement given how popular the medium remains there. Working either en plein air or from snapshots, his portraits, loosely built in thick paint with a wonderful eye for color, draw directly from life. While his style is influenced by Lucian Freud, Liu’s subjects are the lao bai xing (common people), often portrayed wearing unglamorous fashions and viewed under harsh fluorescent lights, in front of smoggy skies and semi-demolished buildings, or in overgrown fields.
Liu’s brand of social realism—painting people as they are—is a powerful counter to the socialist realism perpetrated by Chairman Mao Zedong, which encouraged idealized, ideological renderings for use as propaganda. Liu’s work has a much broader embrace, reflecting the dignity of uncelebrated lives rocked by massive political and economic transformation. Coming from a small industrial town in the northeast of China, Liu received both his undergraduate and master’s degrees at CAFA, where he is now a tenured professor in the painting department.
B. 1978, Guangzhou. Lives and works in Beijing.
Being the youngest—and the only Chinese—artist commissioned to create a BMW Art Car is among the most prosaic ways Cao Fei is exceptional, but the approach she took to the project in 2017 is telling. Leaving the carbon-black paint job untouched, her design is visible only via an augmented reality app. Making the fantastical visible is a recurring theme in Cao’s practice. Notably, she made use of the online world Second Life to create the utopian RMB City (2008–11), a carnivalesque megalopolis inspired by the heady development of China’s rich east coast cities.
Cao also explores the disconnect between people’s fantasy and real lives in video and photography works such as Whose Utopia? (2006), where she asked factory workers to act out expressions of individuality (dancing ballet, playing guitar, and so on), and COSPlayers (2004), where she photographed fantasy roleplayers in the grim, over-industrialized landscapes of southern China. Now, Cao is perfectly positioned to comment on the emerging techno-authoritarian China enabled by ubiquitous e-commerce, oppressive social credit systems, and new identification technologies.
B. 1965, Anyang. Lives and works in Shanghai and New York, New York.
Zhang Huan is one of the most radical artists in contemporary art. After graduating from CAFA in 1993, he helped form the East Village movement, which staged provocative shows often shut down by police. In his performance 12 Square Meters (1994), Zhang covered himself in honey and fish oil and sat naked in a public toilet, allowing himself to be covered in flies—an expression of the poverty and overcrowding prevalent in the country.
As abject as that work is, others are sublime and empowering. Zhang and nine other artists piled their naked bodies atop a mountain to increase its elevation in To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), effortlessly re-engineering the world. Other outstanding performances include his literal efforts to pull down museums, and the muscular meat suit he made—long before Lady Gaga—for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, a comment on the U.S.’s role as a world power and the political climate of the War on Terror.
Zhang has since shifted his focus from performance to production, creating paintings made with incense ash collected from temples; engaging taxidermists to imprint Buddha figures on cattle skins; and making huge copper sculptures of Buddha body parts reassembled almost at random—a reference to the way Buddha sculptures have been blown up, decapitated, and dismembered across East Asia.
B. 1955, Chongqing. Lives and works in Beijing.
Trained as a printmaker, MacArthur fellow Xu Bing’s greatest preoccupation is language. One of his best-known works is Book From the Sky (1987–91), an audacious text created using 4,000 characters that adhere to the fundamentals of Chinese pictographic composition, but don’t exist in the Chinese language. It’s a work that echoes China’s abrupt transition from traditional to simplified characters beginning in the 1940s. Xu also made a bridge language—a kind of Esperanto of the East—by arranging English words in the style of Chinese pictographs, and later made Book From the Ground: From Point to Point (2012), a complex narrative told entirely using emojis and public signage.
Other great works include his Tobacco Project (1999–ongoing). Here, tiger pelt installations—whose stripes are formed from 500,000 cigarettes—are arranged with either their orange filters or white papers exposed. Xu’s father died of lung cancer, so the piece is hardly a “thank you for smoking.” But considering how frequently conversation in China is accompanied by smoking, the piece also functions as a metaphor for language, which represents a ritual or bond.
B. 1957, Quanzhou. Lives and works in New York, New York.
Cai Guo-Qiang,Sky Ladder, 2015. Photo by Wen-You Cai. Courtesy of Cai Studio.
The most bombastic Chinese artist is too big for the art world alone—and now there’s a Netflix documentary about him, too. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang was released in 2016, long after a leaked video of the events at its center garnered 30 million views online in just two days. After several stymied attempts to realize Sky Ladder (2015)—a 1,650-foot chain of fireworks suspended by a helium balloon—Cai did it in secret, without getting the necessary permissions from Chinese officials and skipping the country immediately afterwards in case of repercussions. Equally audacious, he suspended “exploding” cars (using neon lights arranged to resemble sparks) from the ceiling of the Guggenheim for his solo show there in 2008, and used four barges to fire off daytime fireworks for the opening of a solo show at the PSA in 2014.
Cai also curated the superb inaugural show at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. Entitled “Peasant Da Vincis,” the exhibition displayed the inventions of everyday tinkerers from around China making wonderful, weird work—from flying saucers to robots—outside of the market. Long after Zhang Huan and Xu Bing returned to China, Cai continues to live in New York, and he has a canny sense of how Chinese art is perceived both inside and outside of the country.