On and Off the Wall

A new generation of artists puts China at the red-hot center of the art world map.

There is a scene in one of Shanghai video artist Yang Fudong's black-and-white films in which several young urban professionals ride a gondola up Huangshan, the mythical Yellow Mountain that inspired centuries of Chinese poets. Gazing earnestly out over a landscape worthy of a Song dynasty scroll painting, they are tourists in their own land, trying to connect with a place and a past far removed from their hectic lives in forward-hurtling Shanghai. The characters' thoughts of loneliness and detachment are telegraphed through voice-overs: "I am destined to lose him, our constellations do not match," muses a beautiful, stylishly dressed girl, staring moodily at one of her companions. "If you are going to leave next week, be my lover this week."

The film, titled Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest, Part I, seems to take cues from French new-wave cinema and Calvin Klein ads. But it is also thoroughly Chinese, steeped in the ancient tale of seven Taoist sages who fled the political turmoil of the Wei and Jin dynasties to celebrate nature and personal freedom in the countryside.

Quiet and pleasant with a perpetually bemused look on his face, Yang speaks no English and is rarely forthcoming. Yet he has emerged as one of the most influential voices in Chinese art. Nominated for the Guggenheim Museum's prestigious Hugo Boss Prize in 2004, he has spent the last three years traveling the globe, trying to keep up with a nonstop exhibition schedule. In many respects, Yang is the quintessential figure of his thirtysomething generation. His short films and photo essays capture the anxiety and confusion of those who came of age in the post-Mao era. Like many of his contemporaries, he is obsessed with the country's rich history and even more so with its uncertain future.

"Yang Fudong's work is beautifully filmed, poetic, moving, and original—it's international caliber," says powerhouse New York dealer Marian Goodman. She recently added Yang to her stable of artists that includes Rineke Dijkstra, William Kentridge, Gerhard Richter, and others at the top of the art world pyramid. "This artist has all the qualities we're looking for," Goodman says, "and this is much more important than borders or boundaries."

Just a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable to hear a leading dealer describe an artist from mainland China as an international star. Back then, artists were hounded by the authorities and had few opportunities to show their work in galleries. With China's recent liberalization, though, the picture changed dramatically. Besides being free to travel, exchange ideas, and exhibit abroad, artists have many more possibilities for commercial success at home.

Recognizing the political and economic benefits, officials today fund major exhibitions of contemporary art, among them the country's first-ever national pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. It may have been the most talked about display at the opening in June. Other government-sponsored exhibitions—including last fall's Shanghai Biennale and the current Guangzhou Triennial—are attracting savvy curators, dealers, and collectors from around the world, as are the burgeoning gallery precincts of Beijing and Shanghai.

Though this robust scene seems to have shot up almost overnight, its roots can be found in events of the late eighties and early nineties. Buoyed by the push for democracy, then crushed by the '89 Tiananmen Square crackdown, artists adopted an increasingly disenchanted, irreverent perspective. Some of the best-known figures to emerge in that period were painters working in Cynical Realism and Political Pop, styles that are characterized by the appropriation of Maoist imagery, often with a cheeky sense of irony.

Fang Lijun, one of the leaders of that group, fills his canvases with masses of identical, bald Chinese citizens wearing broad grins or screaming at the sky. His paintings have often been interpreted as a plea for individuality in a society where Mao suits and asexual haircuts counted as fashion statements. Because of their appeal to Westerners' dark views of Communist China, Fang's works were an instant hit when first shown in Europe and the United States during the nineties. His market remains strong—new large-scale paintings sell for more than $100,000—and his astounding commercial success, multiple marriages, and flamboyant personality have earned him comparisons to Jeff Koons. He has even opened a chain of posh restaurants in Beijing.

Zhang Xiaogang, another painter who rose to prominence in the early nineties, also commands top dollar—upwards of $100,000 for large canvases. In greatest demand are his "Bloodlines" paintings, caricatures of tense couples posing with one or—in violation of reproduction laws—more children. These pictures quietly address the tension between China's honoring of the family above all else and its rigorous restrictions on family size.

"If you look at these post-Tiananmen Square artists, it is amazing how they had a clear and unique identity right away," comments New York dealer Max Protetch, who represents Fang and Zhang in the States. "The blend of five thousand years of art history, the conditions of isolation throughout the twentieth century, and then the chance to express themselves more freely combined to create this visual sensation."

Painters like Fang and Zhang were able to stay in China without being completely marginalized, but many artists doing more provocative, experimental work were essentially forced to emigrate to pursue their careers. Working abroad, Cai Guo-Qiang, Gu Wenda, Xu Bing, and Zhang Huan were among those who gained fame for conceptual installations and performances that astutely played on the West's fascination with China. Cai, for example, sets off displays of fireworks in mammoth proportions, creating pyrotechnic "drawings" in the sky. Xu fills rooms with sculptural scrolls of calligraphy, overwhelming viewers with the expansive scale and his labor-intensive technique.

By establishing themselves in such places as New York, London, Berlin, and Paris, a number of these artists now enjoy huge international profiles and have sparked an explosion of interest in Chinese art. "Five years ago, if you looked at a list of the world's top artists, you might not have seen a single Chinese name," says Swiss collector Uli Sigg, who has followed the growth of this scene since the late seventies. (His own massive holdings of contemporary Chinese art are currently on view at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, through mid-October.) "Now you have several of them, starting with those living abroad. The artists on the mainland are just a step behind."

These days, the younger generation of artists doesn't see the need to move abroad or pander to Western tastes by trading in stereotypes and icons of Chinese culture. For them, creating art has little to do with tradition or the experience of emerging from a Communist past. Their perspective has been molded, most of all, by living through one of the greatest economic transformations on the planet.

Xing Danwen makes stunning photos of the mountains of debris generated by the country's booming electronics industry. Zhang Dali cuts holes in the shape of his profile in the walls of Beijing buildings about to be torn down. He then uses the hollowed-out silhouette to frame images of the new construction under way all across this once-sedate city. Equally poignant are Weng Fen's photographs of uniformed schoolgirls perched on walls, their backs to the viewer as they survey the rapidly shifting urban skyline.

Chinese art's new globalism echoes, of course, the mainland's increasingly complex engagement with the international community. Cao Fei, one of the few women among the rising stars, captures this collision of cultures in her video installation Cosplayers. The work follows the imaginary exploits of a teen troupe dressed up as Japanese anime characters as they travel around Guangzhou acting out scenarios from the violent cartoons. For a recent series of photographs, Liu Zheng recruited Western expats living in Beijing as models, then shot close-up portraits of them with their faces covered in dust and soot. These monumental images deliberately call to mind survivors of the World Trade Center attacks, but they could have been made anywhere—a point the artist is trying to make. "It is time to change our ideas of universal and of Chinese," says Liu, speaking through a translator.

While overtly political works may still face censorship, this hasn't stopped artists from examining the negative side of the new market economy or the country's Maoist past. Hai Bo tracked down the individuals pictured in a cache of photographs taken in the sixties and seventies and had them pose for new portraits. The haunting part of this project is the number of people missing—many of them killed during the Cultural Revolution. Even just a few years ago such works might have encountered problems with the authorities. Today their creators are promoted in government-supported shows.

The greatest signal of Chinese officials' change of heart toward contemporary art was the appointment of Cai Guo-Qiang, a New York resident, as the curator of the China pavilion at the Venice Biennale. One of the works he chose for the high-profile exhibition was a video by Xu Zhen, aptly titled Shout. Echoing the open-mouthed figures depicted in Fang Lijun's mural-size paintings, it records the artist screaming off camera in a Shanghai street and captures the reactions of pedestrians, who turn around and stare in surprise and terror.

"This is a wake-up call that we have arrived," explains Cai, who emphasizes that this announcement is directed not only at foreign art audiences but at his countrymen as well. Scores of Chinese artists are now garnering attention both at home and around the world, stunning audiences on both sides of the Great Wall with artwork that is worthy of the global arena yet undeniably "Made in China."


WHERE TO BUY: THE SAVVY GUIDE

BEIJING
City Center The influential CourtYard Gallery, located along the moat of the Forbidden City and directed by American entrepreneur Meg Maggio, represents such top artists as Cao Fei, Liu Zheng, and Wang Qingsong. Red Gate Gallery, overseen by Australian dealer Brian Wallace and situated in the 15th-century Dongbianmen Watchtower, offers works by leading contemporary artists in a templelike setting.

Dashanzi Art District This former munitions complex, often referred to as Factory 798, is packed with studios, galleries, coffeehouses, and boutiques. It is home to a trio of spaces run by Westerners: Chinese Contemporary is headed by London dealer Ludovic Bois, White Space by Berlin dealer Alexander Ochs, and Galleria Continua by Mario Cristiani, Lorenzo Fiaschi, and Maurizio Rigillo.

Cao Chang Di Village Just north of Factory 798, a cluster of top-caliber galleries have established a base. CourtYard has a large annex, and China Art Archives & Warehouse, run by artist Ai Weiwei, mounts respected exhibitions. Beijing Commune, which presents museum-style shows curated by the critic Leng Lin, opened in May, as did L.A. Gallery Beijing, cofounded by Frankfurt, Germany, dealer Lothar Albrecht.

SHANGHAI
Moganshan Lu District This dusty complex, also called Chongming Industrial Art Park, is the city's contemporary art hub. ShanghART, an international dealership representing Yang Fudong and other up-and-coming stars, has a pair of spaces, including a massive room devoted to video and installation art. The district features two other adventurous galleries: Eastlink, devoted to artist collaborations and performances, and BizArt, which stages short-term projects.

The Bund This high-priced former colonial district boasts two major galleries. The Shanghai Gallery of Art, in the exclusive Three on the Bund, organizes some of the most professional exhibitions in the country. Bund 18 Creative Center, overseen by independent curator Victoria Lu, brings cutting-edge style and ideas to Shanghai.

Ming Hang District New York dealer Chris Mao has opened a branch of Chambers Fine Art here to show works by both Chinese and U.S. artists. Some 40 minutes from downtown, the gallery provides complimentary car service.


NAMES TO KNOW: DOING THE GALLERY SCENES

The old adage about doing your homework is especially true when it comes to buying art in the fledgling—and freewheeling—Chinese market. Dealers don't necessarily follow familiar international guidelines, and prices can change depending on the buyer. Foreigners may be charmed by invitations to visit an artist's home and the prices may seem low, but it is wise to consult a local specialist—a necessity for most Western visitors anyway, given the language barrier and daunting complexity of China's big cities.

SHANGHAI
You won't find a better guide than Victoria Lu, formerly the leading curator in Taiwan and now head of the Bund 18 Creative Center (18 Zhongshan Dong Yi Rd.; 86-21/6323-7066; www.bund18.com). American-educated with an inside track on the city's art scene, Lu often takes collectors and executives on tours of galleries and artists' studios ($500 to $1,000 per day). Laura Zhou at ShanghART (50 Moganshan Rd., Bldg. 16; 86-21/6359-3923; www.shanghart.com) will also arrange tours for serious buyers.

BEIJING
Italian-born Beatrice Leanza, who left China Art Archives & Warehouse to be an independent curator, designs tours tailored to astute collectors (from $300 per day, plus commissions on some purchases; 86-10/8470-7098; bea_leanza@virgilio.it). At Factory 798, grab a coffee if you can with Robert Bernell, the witty and opinionated Texas native who runs the Timezone 8 bookstore (4 Jiu Xian Qiao Rd.; 86-10/8456-0336; www.timezone8.com), the best place to find English-language books on contemporary Chinese art.