Post-Mao, post-Cultural Revolution (1966–76), a new generation of Chinese artists, born after 1980, have the art world looking east. After decades of state control, barbarism, and social upheaval under the thumb of Communist leader Mao Zedong, China’s landscape—and art production—is markedly changing. Last year, Beijing-based writer, curator, and director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Philip Tinari, organized an exhibition that coined the term “ON|OFF Generation” to encapsulate the young artist crowd in China—“ON|OFF” referring to the VPN software used to circumvent China’s internet firewalls and the “double consciousness” of the new generation. And next week, Tinari curates The Armory Show’s Focus: China section, where more than half of the 17 booths feature ON|OFF artists. Among them, Zhao Zhao, a protege of Ai Weiwei, is touted as China’s next rebel artist. Explore Focus: China, and the following four highlights, to find out which Chinese artists Tinari thinks you should know.
“There’s plenty that suggests Zhao will one day become just as famous as his mentor,” German publication Der Spiegl wrote of the young artist and former assistant to Ai Weiwei. Like Ai, Zhao has attracted attention from both international collectors and the Chinese government (in 2012, works en route to a solo exhibition in New York were confiscated by customs police; among them, a concrete statue of a police officer whose uniform number matched the date of Ai’s publicized arrest.) We spotted Zhao at Art Basel in Hong Kong last year, where his bullet-ridden series “Constellations,” inspired by a head-to-windshield car crash and challenging China’s anti-gun laws, recalled a shimmering night sky—and at Chambers Fine Art, he shows fragmented steel, an oil painting reminiscent of shattered glass, and a lush, bright blue Sky painting, the farthest cry from Beijing’s polluted air.
Emerging painter Song Yuanyuan trained formally as a photographer—painting throughout his photo courses at China’s prestigious Luxun Academy of Fine Arts—and now employs traditional. photorealistic painting techniques to depict contemporary subjects. Sourcing images from the internet, Song paints purposefully static subject matter, like domestic, 19th-century interiors; dark wood furniture, common objects, and empty living rooms devoid of sitters. “You see a lot of neo-Baroque furniture at furniture markets these days,” he once explained about his subject matter. “What I’m really doing is highlighting an obsession that keeps cropping up in Chinese society. We’re far removed from the Baroque era. It’s just another style that we shanzhai—or rip off—and we really have no connection to the cultural source of that image. Just like we knock off mobile phones. It’s surface.”
Recognized as one of the most provocative artists among China’s new generation, Shanghai-based artist Zhang Ding is known for his large-scale, mixed media installations—a flower box filled with 96 cactii, a room housing 24 refrigerators, a giant wooden platform complete with planks for walking—which incorporate video and interactive components, and explore subjects from ethnic tensions to marginal urban culture in the recesses of Chinese society. At Tinari’s “ON|OFF” exhibition, Zhang unveiled a tower-shaped installation, assembled entirely of speakers and doubling as a reactive sound installation, and at The Armory Show, ShanghART presents Zhang’s Black Guardians and Black Orbit—menacing stainless steel sculptures glossed with black industrial baking paint.
Beijing-based artist Li Shurui entered art school with the intention of painting Chinese landscapes—but quickly turned her attention to Op Art. In 2005, attracted by light and color, she began a series of airbrush paintings depicting LED lights. “In our education, there is traditional Chinese ink painting and Socialist Realism art, but not modern art nor abstract art; it jumps directly into contemporary art,” she once said. “When I started my ‘Lights’ series I had no idea what Op Art was. It was in my DNA to choose such a style of art, and my concept of light is always inseparable from that of space.” Today, she is known for immersive, large-format paintings, like her installation in a 2008 group exhibition the New York Times art critic Holland Cotter called “a cross between a Minimalist environment illuminated by fluorescent lights and an open elevator stuck between floors.”