With shocking streaks of blue hair and an outfit worthy of a Japanese cosplayer, Chinese artist Lu Yang has just come from lunch with French president Emmanuel Macron. About two months before the coronavirus appeared in China, the occasion is the opening on November 5 of the Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project, a satellite of the famed Paris museum better known as the Beaubourg, on a prime waterfront location by the Huangpu River in Shanghai. The flamboyant digital artist, born in 1984, seems unfazed by this brush with fame. After all, she is an art star herself, living in a city that is fast becoming China’s art capital, with more than 10 contemporary-art museums and more in the works.
Lu Yang is best known for her creation Uterus-man, a fully operational video game with an androgynous superhero who gets their superpowers from aspects of the female reproductive system, such as an electrified umbilical cord, a chariot in the shape of a pelvic bone, and the ability to switch their enemies’ sex chromosome. She also made a big splash at the 2018 Shanghai Biennale with Material World Knight, an all-encompassing video installation with references to Mars Attacks, exoskeletons, and nuclear disaster featuring miniature models of fallen cities. Nothing could be further from the scroll paintings and Ming furniture that used to represent China to the outside world. In fact, hers are the products of a new generation of Chinese artists who were born after the death of Mao and grew up with the Open Door policy, a China where Starbucks was found in the Forbidden City and quick trips to Tokyo were readily available.
“This generation of artists are having a different sense of identity,” says Guggenheim curator Xiaoyu Weng, who in her early 30s is very much a part of this ambitious, freethinking group of young people. “It’s much less about ties to a nation-state or a cultural belonging, and there’s a sense of globalism that’s sort of a natural default.” Indeed, there is a distinct contrast between these artists and those of the previous generation, born during the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution that took over China from 1966 to 1976. Those artists, who mostly came onto the international scene in the 1990s, grew up in an isolated country with little access to outside influences, and their struggle to define their Chinese identity is evident in their work.
A “new” China where Starbucks was found in the Forbidden City and quick trips to Tokyo were readily available.
There’s Zhang Xiaogang, for example, whose paintings of somber families clothed in revolutionary Mao suits are unmistakable for their “Chineseness.” Or New York–based Cai Guo-Qiang, whose use of fireworks and gunpowder employs pure products of Chinese inventiveness and earned him a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2008, the same year he designed the fireworks displays for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Even Ai Weiwei, now best known for his outspoken views on human rights, began his career fashioning Duchampian sculptures from Han-dynasty vases and antique wooden stools. These artists rose to fame and fortune making work that reeks of Chinese identity.
In contrast, artists such as Lu Yang or her husband, Chen Tianzhuo (whose outlandish performances have landed him gigs at London’s Barbican Centre and the Venice Biennale), have little interest in national boundaries, and define their identity as “global.” Then there’s Sun Xun, an artist I like to describe as “post-passport,” even though he clings to aspects of Chinese culture in his work. In 2019, Sun had projects in Sydney, Seoul, Yokohama, Havana, and Venice, with frequent trips to New York, where one of his galleries, Sean Kelly, is located. An expert in brush painting and woodcuts, two quintessential Chinese practices, he nonetheless turns them into vibrant animations of universal appeal.
A career like that of Sun Xun or Lu Yang would not be possible without a sophisticated art-world infrastructure to support their work. When I arrived in China in 2004 to review the Shanghai Biennale, there were exactly three art galleries to visit: ShanghART, in Shanghai, and CourtYard and Red Gate, in Beijing. Today there are hundreds of galleries in each of those cities as well as dozens of art museums, booming auction houses, and thousands of new millionaires to collect the work. Last year, the UBS–Art Basel report listed China as the world’s third-largest art market, after the U.S. and U.K., with sales exceeding $12.8 billion. This is an infrastructure that no previous generation of Chinese artists had access to; today these young artists take for granted that after graduating from one of the country’s leading art academies they will quickly gain gallery representation and have a show at a newly established museum.
Take, for example, Shanghai. Soon after the Shanghai Expo 2010, the city unveiled a master plan designed to establish itself as the cultural capital of China. Designating the post-industrial zone in the Xuhui district as the West Bund Cultural Corridor, the city encouraged private collectors to establish a string of museums and other culturally related projects. The Long Museum was founded in 2014 by billionaire collector Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei, who purchased Modigliani’s Nu Couché (1917–18) for $170 million at Christie’s New York in 2015, among other record-breaking items. The Yuz Museum, also founded in 2014 by Chinese-Indonesian poultry magnate Budi Tek, has recently come to an agreement with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to share its collection and, in exchange, receive exhibitions on loan from the L.A. institution.
An infrastructure that no previous generation of Chinese artists had access to.
More recently, Shanghai karaoke mogul Qiao Zhibing has opened Shanghai Tanks, a museum project housed in five renovated oil tanks along the river, just across the road from the permanent site of the West Bund Art & Design Fair, a 215,000-square-foot project run and developed by the Shanghai West Bund Development Group Co. Now, with the opening of the Pompidou project, the area is slated to become the largest cultural district in Asia.
President for Life
That all this is happening despite China’s reputation for censorship may be surprising to most visitors, especially given that much of this activity is government-sponsored, at least to the extent of providing land deals and tax breaks that make the creation of museums possible. From 2006 to 2018, the central government was relatively lenient, allowing a contemporary-art scene to blossom because of the enviable art market it brought into being.
But all that started to change in the past few years. In February 2018, Xi Jinping declared himself president for life and, in reaction to the slowdown in the Chinese economy, initiated a series of crackdowns on human rights for fear of protests against the central government. As early as 2014, just a year after he was elected president, Xi declared that “art must serve the people” and return to socialist values; but the full impact of this declaration was not felt until this past year, when protests in Hong Kong, and fear that they would migrate to the mainland, added to the government’s pressures, resulting in major spikes in censorship of both art and social media.
The art world has had to respond: The Centre Pompidou willingly cooperated with the Chinese government, agreeing to remove several artworks that had been found objectionable. As recently as November, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a prestigious Kunsthalle in Beijing, had to cancel a show of Chinese-American painter Hung Liu because her works were forbidden to come into the country.
Even so, millennial collectors are emerging in vast numbers, optimistic about revitalizing the Chinese art scene. Mostly in their 30s, they are highly visible in their designer outfits and Mercedes-Benz sedans, circulating at openings, auction rooms, and museum galas throughout the world. Michael Xufu Huang, born in Chongqing in 1994, was a museum founder even before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017.
Teaming up with Lin Han and Wanwan Lei, also under 30 at the time—a hyper-fashionable, then married couple in their late 20s made famous on Instagram and in Vogue—Huang established M Woods, a private museum in Beijing that has hosted shows of such unlikely artists as Paul McCarthy and Richard Tuttle, avoiding the censor’s intrusive control thanks to savvy relations with the Ministry of Culture. Now, Huang, who is also on the board of the New Museum in New York, is breaking out on his own to open X Museum, also in Beijing, which will focus on an international roster of millennial artists mostly working in new-media art. (X Museum’s official opening, initially scheduled for March, has been delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.)
David Chau, in his mid-30s, is another young mover and shaker. Born in Shanghai but educated in Hong Kong and Canada, he founded the Art 021 fair with his wife, Kelly Ying, and brand marketer Bao Yifeng in Shanghai in 2013. He also gave two galleries their start: Antenna Space, run by Simon Wang, and Leo Xu Projects, whose owner recently moved to Hong Kong to head up the internationally renowned David Zwirner Gallery. Chau’s Art 021 fair, which competes every November with the more blue-chip West Bund Art & Design Fair, is a raging success, attracting over 100 galleries from around the world, including David Zwirner, Paul Kasmin, Almine Rech, and White Cube.
Mostly in their 30s, they are highly visible in their designer outfits, circulating at openings and galas throughout the world.
Then there’s Perrotin sales director Uli Zhiheng Huang, often photographed at art fairs and openings wearing eye-catching clothes by young British designer Craig Green. He recently opened a show of paintings by Hongtong-born, Beijing-based artist Chen Fei, who has already been showing at the gallery for seven years. Chen Fei, like Sun Xun, sees a Chinese influence in his work, an “accent,” according to Huang. Yet his satirical views of contemporary China are packed with cinematic narratives that could happen anyplace in the world. Already an auction phenomenon, his work sells from $20,000 for a small still life to $250,000 for a large canvas.
Huang is typical of his generation, having gone to high school in Geneva, getting a degree from the University of Virginia, and then working a range of jobs, from Phillips auction house in New York to a stint as one of Ai Weiwei’s studio assistants in Beijing, before landing his present position in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Yet he is hesitant to make any generalizations when it comes to himself and his contemporaries in the art scene. “It is still very early in the sense that we are still looking for our identity,” he says. “We are all in the same group of people who are still knocking on the door of what contemporary art is for our nationals, and it will take generations to establish this as a genre.”
Despite government censorship, a slowing economy, and the impact of the U.S.-China trade wars, which have resulted in a 15 percent tariff on the import of Chinese artworks to American buyers, such collectors, and major sales at the international auction houses in Hong Kong, point to the undeniable progress in the young Chinese art scene.
“I do see that there is new interest in this group of young artists, and we are probably going to see more of them,” says Yuki Terase, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art, Asia, who offered works by Liang Yuanwei, Sun Xun, and Guo Hongwei—artists who, she notes, already have international exposure despite being early in their careers—at their recent October sale. She is also seeing pronounced interest from millennial buyers across Asia, not just in China. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale last April, where a painting by American artist Kaws set a record for the artist at $14.7 million, 40 percent of the buyers were under the age of 40, according to Terase. She compares that to sales in New York, where only 15 percent are under 40. “These young collectors are very enthusiastic and often, though they have just started collecting, are already accustomed to traveling the global art fairs, auctions, and gallery shows—so their learning curve is extremely steep.”
At Sotheby’s Hong Kong April sale, 40 percent of the buyers were under the age of 40. In New York, only 15 percent are under 40.
It’s not only Chinese or young collectors who are pursuing the work of young Chinese artists, though, Terase notes. Their appeal stretches across all categories. For example, when Don and Mera Rubell made their foray into China, they added many young artists to their collection, including Liu Wei, who currently has dual shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art and MOCA Cleveland; Wang Guangle, who shows with Pace Gallery and whose auction record is $701,026; and Liu Chuang, who in 2018 completed a three-channel video for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Billionaire collector J. Tomilson Hill and his wife, Janine, also have works by Liu Wei and Wang Guangle in their collection.
Meanwhile, at Luhring Augustine’s Bushwick space, this winter’s exhibition “A Composite Leviathan” featured such not-yet-discovered Chinese millennial artists as Jiu Jiu, Nabuqi, Liu Fujie, and Yang Jian, among others. Interestingly, the artists were selected by James Elaine, a former curator from the Hammer Museum, who moved to Beijing in 2008.
Though it is hard to see direct connections among the artists in “A Composite Leviathan,” because their practices are so diverse, an energy and experimentation with materials tied the show together. At the center of the gallery, a towering sculpture by artist Yang Jian, for which the show is named, comprised a mammoth amalgamation of polyurethane replicas of statues and friezes from China’s government buildings, assembled to seem like they were about to fall apart. According to Yang, there is a political message beneath the surface of all of this, one that Elaine also recognizes. Taking a cue from Leonard Cohen, Elaine says, “I believe that all these artists, because of their optimism and their perseverance and their resilience, are cracking the armor of this monolithic world, globalization, nationalism, the state, wherever it is, and this is how light gets in.”
Still, many of today’s emerging Chinese artists, who came of age during this current period of pronounced nationalistic propaganda, steer clear of criticism entirely. “There’s this overly optimistic view of China because it has accumulated a lot of wealth, it has become powerful, and art has become a neoliberal kind of consumption,” says Xiaoyu Weng, who has curated two shows of young Chinese artists at the Guggenheim. “Art becomes a product, and the artists stop there and do not think about what art really can do for the people and for society, instead of just being things shown at an art fair.” As pressure from Xi Jinping increases, more Chinese artists will be left with no choice but to curb their criticism of the government. Many of this youngest generation have been educated in the United States and Europe and are settling down in the West, but as long as they retain their Chinese citizenship, they worry about risking the wrath of the Chinese government, which oversees the comments of its citizenry both on the mainland and abroad.
In China, filmmakers need a license to make and distribute their films, so artists like Sun Xun worry whether their films will be shown in their home country. “You don’t know what is forbidden,” Sun says. “You talk about sex, it’s forbidden. If you talk about religion, that’s forbidden. If you talk about international politics, that’s forbidden, and if you talk about some leaders, it’s forbidden. So these I will not touch, but I may have other problems. This you don’t know.” Sun gets around the censorship by using a lot of allegorical characters, like animals and megaphones, instead of depicting politicians, asserting that he is more interested in history than politics. But, in China, history is highly charged politically.
Another young Chinese artist (who went to graduate school in New York and now lives here) was willing to talk to me, but only on the condition of anonymity. “My perspective is always critical, because I am not living there, so from a distance it’s really easy for me to criticize,” she says. She follows the news from China and Hong Kong closely, worrying that things are becoming more oppressive. “I think in general the feeling is that China wants to be enclosed more and is not progressing in a way where people have a vision. This influences whether I want to show my work in China or not. I’m definitely boycotting China.”
In China, history is highly charged politically: “You don’t know what is forbidden.”
The future certainly remains murky for the Chinese art market, which, despite the movements of a fresh generation, has contracted in the past few years—while in 2011 it reached No. 1, in recent years the market has hovered between the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, with the U.S. maintaining first place and the U.K. going back and forth with China for the next spot. The internationally renowned Pace Gallery closed its Beijing satellite last year, its founder, Arne Glimcher, claiming that “it’s impossible to do business in mainland China at this time.” Meanwhile, Perrotin and Lisson galleries have opened in Shanghai. Galleries in Hong Kong, integrally involved with the Chinese market, are worried about the escalating violence of the protests, while others reported sold-out shows throughout last fall; on February 6, Art Basel Hong Kong—scheduled for March 19–21—was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Throughout it all, the resilience of these young Chinese artists, and their ability to succeed internationally despite troubles in their homeland, is remarkable. Sun Xun will still circle the globe making his stunning animations and paintings, and Lu Yang will continue to attract attention for her gender-bending video games and installations. I see them and their peers turning up in museums around the world, and it seems certain that nothing will impede their unbridled ambition.
Barbara Pollack is the author of Brand New Art from China: A Generation on the Rise