Can you name some of the best artist collectives from China today?

Art Radar profiles 4 notable Chinese artist collectives who are making waves in the contemporary art scene. 

Xu Zhen, 'Fearless', 2012, collage on canvas, 645 x 316 cm, produced by MadeIn Company. Image courtesy the artist and MadeIn Company.

Xu Zhen, ‘Fearless’, 2012, collage on canvas, 645 x 316 cm, produced by MadeIn Company. Image courtesy the artist and MadeIn Company.

Collectives and creative partnerships have produced some of the most ambitious and subversive works in contemporary art. The melding of diverse talents sparks fresh chemistry while expanding the scope of manpower, resulting in challenging, thought-provoking projects.

Frequently political in nature, collectives create work that stimulate questions about everything from globalisation to diverse cultural assumptions. Art Radar profiles some of the best Chinese coalitions working in the contemporary art scene today.

1. MadeIn Company

Established in 2009 by prominent Shanghainese artist and curator Xu Zhen, MadeIn Company (沒頂公司) is a contemporary art powerhouse and one of the most active research organisations in the Chinese contemporary art field. A self-proclaimed “contemporary art production company”, the enterprise’s doctrinal focus on the “production of creativity” pokes fun at the increasingly corporate and production-centred art market. Chiu-Ti Jansen writes:

[…] MadeIn takes Andy Warhol’s The Factory a step further, engaging in an ongoing investigation into the “system of art”.

The diverse members of MadeIn produce ever-evolving output spanning multiple platforms and media, including painting, performance, sculpture, installation, animation, photography and video. Right from the start, the group grabbed headlines with playful yet provocative works that satirise cultural assumptions and question authenticity and perception. In “Seeing One’s Own Eyes” (2009) and “Lonely Miracle” (2009), the group exhibited works ostensibly created by anonymous Middle Eastern artists. In reality, MadeIn had deliberately used clichéd symbols to expose and challenge stereotypical cultural perceptions.

Xu Zhen, 'Seeing One’s Own Eyes', 2009, installation. Produced by MadeIn Company. Image courtesy UCCA.

Xu Zhen, ‘Seeing One’s Own Eyes’, 2009, installation. Produced by MadeIn Company. Image courtesy UCCA.

In 2012, another of MadeIn’s headlining shows involved transplanting their entire studio, including the research and administration departments, to the ground floor gallery of Minsheng Art Museum. Artists and employees carried on with their work, laying bare the structure and processes behind the collective’s creative practice. In effect, the piece blurred the lines between creation, curation and consumption, likening art-making to a social machine or a multi-production event.

The successful collective has exhibited widely at international museums and biennales, including the Biennale de Lyon (2013), the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2012), Hayward Gallery (2012), Kiev Biennale (2012), Ikon Gallery (2010), and S.M.A.K. (2009), among others. In 2013, MadeIn launched the brand “Xu Zhen”, so that rather than being the company’s CEO, the artist became one of the company’s “products”. In his profile on the White Rabbit Collection website, founder Xu Zhen was quoted as saying:

Great works are something you discover, not something you create. I feel I would be limited in what I could discover if I were working on my own.

Liu Dao / Island 6, 'Infinite Pendulum, 2011, LED display, transparent Lambda C-print, stainless steel frame, 190 cm x 24 cm x 8 cm. Image by Art Radar Asia (KCE).

Liu Dao / Island 6, ‘Infinite Pendulum’, 2011, LED display, transparent Lambda C-print, stainless steel frame, 190 x 24 x 8 cm. Image by Art Radar Asia (KCE).

2. Liu Dao / Island 6

Also hailing from Shanghai, Liu Dao (六島) is a multi-national and multidisciplinary art collective based at the island6 Arts Centre in Shanghai’s contemporary art district. Founded in 2006 by French curator Thomas Charvériat, Liu Dao’s members come from China, Europe and Africa, but the artistic focus is on Asia. The collective aims to produce “cutting edge art that constantly contemplates the future of Asia” – in particular the vivid, hectic environment of 21st century Shanghai.

The profile on Opera Gallery describes Liu Dao as the collective with the ‘tech-geeks’: the group’s work has a strong emphasis on interactive electronic LED art, digital media and modern sculpture involving neon and laser techniques. Red Gate Gallery, one of China’s oldest private galleries, describes the relationship between Liu Dao and technology in an essay:

For the artists of the art collective at Liu Dao, technology […] turns them into magicians. With their help, technology becomes organic, digital reality comes alive, where it begins to speak, dream, conspire, and seduce.

Liu Dao, 'All You Remember', 2014, laser projection, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Island 6.

Liu Dao, ‘All You Remember’, 2014, laser projection, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Island 6.

The collective has a highly organic and collaborative production process that involves multiple artists, in-house choreographers and art directors. There is a long list of credits for each piece, similar to those found in a film. Art Asia Pacific writes that the group is

a proudly eclectic organisation – choreographers, programmers, technicians, writers, producers and even a taxidermist number among them – that aims to produce cosmopolitan art that effortlessly crosses borders and mediums through interactive experiences.

Liu Dao’s White Rabbit Collection profile states that the group collectively “explore[s] the blurry borders between man and machine, dreams and reality”. The renowned collective exhibits in acclaimed art fairs around the world such as Art Basel, Art Paris, SHContemporary, Art Dubai and Art Stage Singapore, to name a few. In recent years, Liu Dao has also formed partnerships with exciting galleries around the world.

The Museum of Unknown, 'Seat of Meditation', 2010. Left: Draft by Liao Fei. Right: Draft by Zheng Huan. Image from aaa-a.org.

The Museum of Unknown, ‘Seat of Meditation’, 2010. Left: Draft by Liao Fei. Right: Draft by Zheng Huan. Image from aaa-a.org.

3. Museum of Unknown

The Museum of Unknown was initiated in 2007 by a group of young Chinese artists and theorists. In contrast to standard traditional museums, which showcase the ‘known’ and the obsolete, the Museum of Unknown creates a space in contemporary art that allows for a more fluid, flexible dynamic – the ‘unknown’. Qiu Anxiong, one of the founders of the collective, said in an interview with the Asia Art Archive in America:

There [were] three simple principles set forth from the very beginning. First of all, there is no physical space. Secondly, there is no curator – this is perhaps a response to the phenomenon that [the] curator seems to have become a role […] symbolis[ing] power in the current art system. […] We hope to establish a more democratic dynamic […] so that every member can equally discuss and participate in the decision-making. The last principle is that financial considerations should not be the precondition for our activities. Our projects can be done with or without money, because what’s important is not necessarily the final outcome, but the process of communication.

The projects undertaken by the Museum are diverse, multidisciplinary and highly thought-provoking. For their first exhibition, “Seat of Meditation” (2010), the collective invited friends and artists to submit draft proposals and small installations on designs for ways to meditate. As Qiu explains in the interview, the project was in essence a reflection on the sense of space:

We know meditation is a state of mind; but we can also think about it in terms of space. As you reset all your senses to zero, as close to zero as possible, actually you are expanding the space indefinitely. Seat of Meditation is basically considering the sense of space.

The Museum of Unknown, 'Coral', 2011. Image from aaa-a.org.

The Museum of Unknown, ‘Coral’, 2011. Image from aaa-a.org.

The Museum of Unknown, 'Coral', 2011. Image from aaa-a.org.

The Museum of Unknown, ‘Coral’, 2011. Image from aaa-a.org.

Among other interesting experiments and projects, “Coral” (2011) stands out. The Museum of Unknown was invited by the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art to do a special project, ideally one that questioned the process of exhibition-making. The collective invited a selection of artists and instructed them to invite other artists: each participant could control his/her neighbour, but no one could control the whole exhibition. The show was called ‘Coral’ because it was a structure that developed by itself.  

Yangjiang Group, 'Das Kapital Football', 2009. Image courtesy the artists and Vitamin Creative Space.

Yangjiang Group, ‘Das Kapital Football’, 2009. Image courtesy the artists and Vitamin Creative Space.

4. Yangjiang Group

Yangjiang Group was established in 2002 by artists Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan and Sun Qinglin. Based in Yangjiang, a small city in southwest Guangdong, the collective employs an aesthetic that mixes the traditional with the avant-garde: their modern twist on Chinese calligraphy forms the basis of a diverse and daring contemporary art practice. According to their profile on Vitamin Creative Space:

For Yangjiang Group, the momentum of modern society is calligraphy coming to life and the process of creating calligraphy becomes a way for the artists to reflect the world. Combining calligraphy with the unknowable dynamics of life force, the art of Yangjiang Group forges a unique style – I make calligraphy therefore I am.

Instead of adhering to established rules and customs, calligraphy works as a metaphor for the collective to indicate unpredictability and in-your-face rebellion. In the work Fan Hou Shu Fa (“After Meal Calligraphy”), for example, the artists turned an ordinary household dinner into a spontaneous public theatre where food leftovers were used to create calligraphy. As Art Asia Pacific observes, it was “calligraphy pushed to the limits of comprehension”.

Yangjiang Group, 'Das Kapital Football', 2009. Image courtesy the artists and Vitamin Creative Space.

Yangjiang Group, ‘Das Kapital Football’, 2009. Image courtesy the artists and Vitamin Creative Space.

Yangjiang Group was recently at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, their first exhibition in Australia. The collective presented two bodies of work with large-scale calligraphic murals, wax-covered clothing and sculptural elements, transforming the space into an immersive installation. Aaron Seeto, Director of 4A, commented:

Yangjiang Group’s approach to art-making is based on traditional ideas of energy flow, medicine and Chinese calligraphy, but also rooted in an awareness of the impact of social change on people and the effect of money and wealth on the subtle appreciation of life.

The collective has garnered a strong following in China and abroad, and has exhibited in important art spaces and events, such as the San Diego Museum of Art, Tate Liverpool and the Venice Biennale, among others.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, artist-curators, political art, art groups and movements, collaborative art, artist profiles

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Brittney

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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