Art critic Karen Smith looks back on twelve months in Chinese contemporary art and identifies emerging trends.

In April 2013, critic Karen Smith brought out As Seen 2, the second book in her series on Chinese contemporary art. A panoramic snapshot of 36 artists taken over twelve months, As Seen 2 reveals developments in China’s art scene.

Win a copy of Karen Smith’s As Seen 2! Scroll down for details.

The second part of Karen Smith's 'As Seen' series maps recent developments in Chinese contemporary art.

The second part of Karen Smith’s ‘As Seen’ series maps recent developments in Chinese contemporary art.

Since her arrival in Beijing in the early 1990s, Karen Smith has documented the “emergence of Chinese art,” writes Ullens Center of Contemporary Art (UCCA) Director Philip Tinari in his foreword to As Seen 2. The As Seen series is both documentary and to some extent art diary, as Smith provides a critical and a personal take on the works she encounters over a year of exhibition going. The result, in Tinari’s words, is not strictly a reference text but “a string of encounters with works by individual artists, a strand of aesthetic epiphanies, revelations, and recognitions.”

Win a copy of Karen Smith’s As Seen 2! Scroll down for details.

Reflecting back on her year of aesthetic epiphanies in the introduction to As Seen 2, Smith identifies three emerging trends that she considers integral to China’s current contemporary art dynamic.

Geng Jianyi, 'Two People Under a Light', 1985. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Geng Jianyi, ‘Two People Under a Light’, 1985, oil on canvas, 117 x 154.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Art in the slow lane

In Smith’s view, China’s lightning fast social development has had wide-ranging ramifications that extend even to the art world. The pace of art production and the explosion in social media have left artists and critics unwilling or even unable to respond to external events. There is only enough time to react. Smith notes,

There is barely pause for reflection: there is no time to pause. That seems to be true for all, be that artists, curators, critics, collectors, or even the gaze of a burgeoning public audience. No one intends this to be so. Rather, for those engaging with the art world, it is just a fact of having to accommodate an extraordinary number of invites, assignments, exhibitions, lectures, tours and mundane chores. All of that while simultaneously trying to keep up with the general pace of change that is still perceived as unfolding into a bright new future, the arrival of which no one wishes to impede.

In this brand new high-speed China, some artists are “opting out of the fast lane, taking a step back from the front line,” says Smith. Singling out Gu Dexin, Geng Jianyi, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Wei, Cao Fei and Hu Xiaoyuan as examples of slow-lane artists, Smith associates the trend with a desire to reassert creative control over artistic practice. Describing a visit to UCCA’s “The Important Thing is Not the Meat“, the first and only retrospective of Gu Dexin’s work to date, Smith notes that the “retiring, reclusive, avant-garde” artist refused to visit the 2012 retrospective, which spanned his entire career, from early wood sculpture to site-specific installations of fetid fruit.

Liu Wei.'Born in 1989', 1995. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Liu Wei, ‘Born in 1989’, 1995, oil on canvas, 179.7 x 179.7 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Anything goes, but is it art?

While some significant artists may be stepping back and slowing down, China’s contemporary scene is for the most part populated by active, assertive artists who take an “anything goes” attitude to their practice, according to Smith. Best described in terms of intuition and vision, these artists are innovators in Chinese contemporary art. Although she does not name those associated with the “anything goes” trend in the book’s introduction, throughout As Seen 2 Smith highlights several artists with an ability to break free from convention. Little known Li Shurui‘s “manipulation of the visual experience”, Zhang Ding‘s gory installation Buddha Jumps Over the Wall and the work of Beijing collective Irrelevant Commission encapsulate the positive energy of the “anything goes” trend for Smith, as opposed to the “anything you can get away with” aesthetic which is, according to Smith, all too common.

Still from Zhang Ding, 'Buddha Jumps over the Wall', 2012, single channel video. One of the works that will be presented by ShanghART Gallery at Art Basel Miami Beach 2012.

Still from Zhang Ding, ‘Buddha Jumps over the Wall’, 2012, single channel video, 2 min., edition of 5. Image courtesy ShanghART Gallery.

New Futurists

Contemporary art in China has little to do with art history, at least in western eyes, writes Smith.

Today, in terms of the cultural sphere, there are, for example, no museums where an overview of modern and contemporary art can be seen. And there are too few books on the evolution of China’s contemporary art forms; not a single tome viewed by consensus as objective or factually reliable.

The effects of this art historical blindness are complex. China’s contemporary artists are nostalgic incarnations of the Italian Futurists, says Smith: instead of wanting to tear down the past to make way for a new future, some such as Zhang Xiaogang, Chen Wei, Utopia Group, Hai Bo and Wang Wei reveal an “ongoing state of nostalgia […] a yearning for a different time that effectively obliterates history.”

Win Karen Smith’s book!

To win a copy of Karen Smith’s second book, As Seen 2: Notable Artworks by Chinese Artists:

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Related Topics: Chinese artistsart trends, book reviews

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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