9 Chinese Artists Who Give Tradition A Facelift With Shiny New Technology
Find yourself browsing catalogs in any art gallery in China and, chances are, you’ll find yourself reading—over and over—some derivation of the following sentence: “Artist XYZ combines traditional Chinese __________ with modernized Western ____________.” This strikingly recurrent statement reflects a preoccupation of many contemporary Chinese artists: contending with China’s radical transformation in recent years, thanks in large part to garish new architectural projects that appear in conflict with both its landscape and traditional architecture.
Fusing together traditional and Western sensibilities is thus one way for artists to contend with Chinese culture’s shifting landscape. On the flip side, it’s also an easy way to market Chinese art to international markets. Merging East/West references has become a trendy cliché—one that has underwritten the Chinese art market since the 90s by helping foreign buyers “understand” what they’re looking at.
An artist in Shanghai once told me he cringes every time he sees Mao Ze Dong on a canvas painted in Andy Warhol’s saturated colors. Yet, critics refuse to remove the Western lens through which they view China’s contemporary art, and artists struggle to define what Chinese art is once emancipated from the context of this falsely constructed dichotomy.
In recent years, however, we’ve seen a number of young artists attempting to break this mold by incorporating new media into their work. Intrinsically transnational, technology is a medium relatively free of cultural context, therefore allowing artists the opportunity to create work that isn’t immediately seen as derivative from the Western canon.
Here, we take a look at some Chinese artists who are playing with an interesting contrast: classical Chinese art forms (like landscape painting or calligraphy) updated—maybe even transmuted—with lasers, robots, and other new media technology.
Classically trained in Chinese painting and calligraphy, Yongliang uses digital tools to create landscapes that appear like shan shui paintings from afar, but are actually views of modern cities up close. “That way, the art form will find a more meaningful place to exist in our society,” Yang commented in our behind-the-scenes documentary.
The Central Saint Martin graduate updates the traditional qipao—a 200-year-old way of dress—with the latest printing technology. Specifically, Liu transforms the traditional gown with Lenticular printing: digitally printing computer-created imagery in strips to create the illusion of depth and animation.
In an exhibition at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum earlier this year, Zhang Huan included two incredibly eerie-looking Confucius robots. The first, nicknamed “breakdancing Confucius,” featured the philosopher dancing in a cage filled with monkeys. The second was a gigantic, photorealistic bust of Confucius’ face, submerged in water and slowly breathing in and out.
Photo © Miko He
Ceramic artist Li Xiaofeng repurposes shards of tiles from ancient dynasties, sewing them together on a leather undergarment to create polo shirts, suits, and dresses. In a self-aware nod to his practices, Li titled this exhibition “Save As: Contemporary Chinese Art Born Of Ancient Traditions,” which was shown at the Virginia Miller Gallery in Miami.
Popular video artist Yang FuDong’s Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest is a 30-minute video that dwells on the dignity of the individual amidst urban chaos, and does so by following several actors as they escape the city and set up camp in the mountains. The narrative is actually based on an ancient legend about a group of Chinese scholars and poets, who retreat to a bamboo grove to escape a corrupt emperor.
Mengbo gained international acclaim with his large-scale interactive video game installation called The Long March, which was acquired by MoMA PS1 last year. It lifted imagery from from Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros., combined with propaganda motifs from Communist China.
Yang’s sculptural installation Artificial Moon was made with thousands of fluorescent light bulbs. The artist based the work on an ancient legend about Chinese goddess Chang’e and her ill-fated trip to the moon, as well as his interest in the American moon landing. He remarked, “Both seem legendary, but both are questionable. Is there any connection between these two? These are the questions I really explore.”
The Shanghai-based artist collective Liu Dao combined traditional paper cutting soaked in soy-sauce rice paper with LCD video to create Gas, Ass Grass—a “blatantly contemporary aesthetic that was surprisingly melded with traditional elements.”
Meant to create “mental and emotional balance,” cloud.data is an iPhone/iPad app that allows users to control passing cloud formations using their own gestures. Aaajiao wrote that “In the ancient legend, gestures have mysterious powers,” and that with these performative movements, users could attain “courage, mercy, intelligence or calm.” The app is an interactive version of Cloud.Data, an installation by the artist from 2009.