Yu Honglei Could Be China’s Next Great Artistic Export

Julie Baumgardner
Jun 17, 2015 10:19PM

Portrait by Yu Honglei, courtesy of the artist.

Last fall, at a small gallery in the M50 district of Shanghai, a surprising show materialized. “Fat Mouse” at the new Antenna Space, Yu Honglei’s solo exhibition of almost-too-perfectly fabricated futuristic objects arranged clinically along with a hyper-stylized video, hid behind a wall of rhetoric—literally and figuratively. The wall text explaining the exhibition sewed too many quotes around words and strung empty concepts together.

And yet, Yu’s work was devoid of theory, even in China, where art-making is often tied to political dissent and the resurrection of tradition. “My interest is about how to associate things,” Yu says. “My understanding of the world takes most of my time everyday.” The show looked great and stumped China’s art critics and viewing crowds. 

Take a Walk (b), 2014
Antenna Space

This was to be expected from Antenna Space, which opened in the fall of 2013 and achieved great strides in a short amount of time. The gallery even had more than one artist in the New Museum’s Triennial this year. And such Western success is certainly in store for Yu, who is having his second Europe showing ever—his first solo—at the LISTE art fair in Basel this week.

LISTE, which started in 1996 as Art Basel’s edgier little sibling, is an incubator and an accelerator for surefire talent and retains its parameters of exhibiting only galleries that are less than five-years-old and mostly artists under 40. Yu, 31, may be a foreign name in the West, but within the circles that matter in China he has received the sort of attention that would prime him for the big time.

Yu Honglei, Take a Walk, 2014. Courtesy Antenna Space.

“‘Artist’ as an occupation is no different from other occupations in society,” Yu decrees. He isn’t being snotty or cunning, like some artists in the West who have adopted a purposely impervious attitude towards the art-world game. Rather, his works eschew the tricks and tropes of so many fledglings preening for curatorial success.

Still, a quality of nebulousness and its tightly cranked history in art anchor Yu’s work. Whether in his digital painting The Farm, a riff on Joan Miró’s pastoral self-reflections, or Take the Walk, a two-channel video of 100  artworks, including a Jeff Koons “Balloon Dog”, mashed up into familiar-yet-surreal sterile spaces that appeared in his Antenna show, Yu claims that he still doesn’t place his work in “relationship to Chinese and Western art history.” Take the Walk leads Antenna’s presentation at LISTE, along with a token from Yu’s practice, Ear with Incense, a literal incense holder, fashioned from a life-sized (acrylic) human ear (that, too, made its debut in “Fat Mouse”).  

An Ear with Incense
Antenna Space

Yu’s sculptures are about relevance. “They consist of multiple objects, and in each object they play with the individual, object, and environment separately,” as he teases out the mechanics. Self-identified as a sculptor, Yu rejects the notion that he is anything but. He’s been lumped together with that tricky “post-internet” sensibility, though tellingly, in the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art show that attempted to define the movement in Yu’s hometown of Beijing, neither Yu nor any local artists were included.

“‘Post-internet’ is a very general art category—too labeling,” he says. “Artist’s work and practice should be diverse.” And yet, “we cannot live without the internet today,” Yu adds. “It means open information that facilitates exchange. It is beyond geographical.” It’s hard to imagine one of Yu’s generational precursors, Ai Weiwei or Zhang Huan, positioning such resign in the practice of art. Only 20 years earlier, in Beijing, the kernels of artistic protest popped along with the dissidence that trailed the Tianamen Square group. But any naïve assumption or shortsighted calculus that China’s homegrown, capitalized art market is still tender-footed needn’t look further than the opportunities Yu has been able to negotiate.

“I liked painting when I was a kid,” says Yu, who was born in Inner Mongolia. “My parents were very supportive of me.” Though he is not of Mongolian origin, his father, a businessman, afforded a life where Yu’s mother didn’t have to work. Yu began studying art formally in 1998, and then moved to Beijing in 2000 to continue his education at university, though he only lasted half a year. Some need schooling, others need practice, and Yu certainly followed his own path. “Whether in China or the West, contemporary art is work that reveals a thing’s possibility.” Ideas are still waiting to be discovered. Such an unjaded perspective in the art world? Unexpected indeed.

Julie Baumgardner