Research Log | Outside the Centre


November 2004

Many people regard Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou as the three major cities for contemporary Chinese art. International curators, journalists, dealers, and collectors have been scrounging new artists and works in these three cities for many years. Many artists have moved to Beijing and Shanghai aware of the opportunities for exposing their art in the art world. On the other hand, there are still a number of artists would have stayed in their hometown or smaller cities to continue their art creation. Here we find another side of the contemporary Chinese art world, which should not be ignored.

Over the last month I came to visit artists in four cities: Jinan, Harbin, Chang Chunand Chongqing.

Jinan is the capital of Shangdong province, located about 400 hundred miles South of Beijing. Over the last five decades, Shangdong, the hometown of Confucius, has been engulfed with a strong atmosphere of experimental art exploration. It is obvious that the Gao Brothers have been the leading influence on the younger artists in this area. Many younger artists are active practitioners of performance, video, and photography, such as Ya Liang and Han Tao. Because it is a five-hour train trip from Jinan to Beijing, many artists go back and forth between these two cities and establish their studios in Beijings art colonies, such as Tongzhou and 798 Factory area. The Gao Brothers and Han Tao were taking care of the renovation of their newly rented space in 798 Factory compound in Beijing, which meant I missed visiting their studios in Jinan. As suggested by the Gao Brothers I visited the studios of young oil-painting artists, such as Guan Puxue and Gao Weihua, both of whom are teaching in the Fine Art program of The Art Institute of Shandong.

Guan Puxue's studio is located within the residence compound of the campus, which is a common two-bed room apartment on the top floor. Her studio occupies the 30 square meters living room and one bedroom functions as storage room. Finished and un-finished works cramp the narrow space, and the smell of the pigment and turpentine are pungent. Her major subject are flowers and still-life, but presented with an individual expressive fashion. I actually met her ten years' ago when I was art history student (MA)) at the China Art Academy, and she was an auditing student at the Central Academy of Art. We lost connection over the last ten year, but I heard from time to time that she emerged as a prominent oil painter in Shandong, and had solo shows in China Art gallery in 1999.

Zhou Weihua and Li Xun are young couple artists. Their works are on view in the lobby of a new luxury office building. They told me that the owner and developer of this building is a young man who pursued his art dream in an art institution ten years ago. Although he has become a developer, he would like to run a gallery to support the local artists and foster the local art scene and market. His gallery is located on the top floor of this building, which is still under construction. The gallery will open at the end of this year. Zhou Weihua's large-scale oil painting features pretty model-like girls, visible on ad billboards, magazine covers, and television screens. What distinguishes them is that all the girls are floating in the sky and over the sea. For the artist, these young trendy girls are the product of commercial society, although they are popular they have not root.

The cradle of the Jin and Qing dynasty, Harbin used to be an international commercial city in the early 20th century, The Annual Ice Lantern Festival in December and January is a huge tourist attraction.

There are some key art professionals nationally well -known, such as Lu Yushun, Liu Manwen, Shen Shaomin, and Zhang Hao.

Lu Yushun, now the president of the art school of Northeast Normal University, has been active among the new-literati painting movement since 1990. He is now a leading ink-painter North China. Under his leadership this institute has become the cradle of new art. Li Manwen and Zhang Hao are both teaching in this school. Li's personal symbolist oil painting is popular among many Chinese collectors, and she is represented by Beijing's Red Gate Gallery. Zhang Hao's large-size X-ray photograph of human being's bones and skeleton shocked the viewers when the work made its debut in the Guangzhou Art Museum in 2002. He is currently working on a large-size oil painting series entitled "Interior Landscape". The landscape is actually magnified views of human bodies.

One of the most interesting artists in Harbin is Shen Shaomin, who established his studio in Daqing city near Harbin. Shen migrated to Australia ten years' ago as a well-known national woodcut artist. Three year ago he returned to Harbin, his hometown. His new works are sculpture-like installations, composed of whitened animal bones. His trademark images are a wide variety of Disney World -like creatures, both fantastical and futuristic. Shen has developed a special technique to whiten the bones then reassembles them together according to his vision. His works have recently been included in some international shows in Singapore, Beijing, and Sydney.

His studio is located in the basement of an apartment building. He hires four workers to do the whitening process. The room is intoxicated with a suffocating smell and workers have to wear a special protection. Shen Shaomin told me he plans to move to a studio in suburban Beijing, as the pollution here is harmful to surrounding residents.

With the help of artist Huang Yan, I visited Changchun and the local artists on November 8 and 9. Changchun is the capital city of Jilin province, known for its function as the capital of the Puppet Manchurian administration during the Japanese occupation (1931-1945). There are now many Japanese style government buildings that function as museums and colleges.

Huang Yan explained that many of the young artists in Jilin involved in the "85 New Art Wave Movement," like Wang Xiaoming, Guan Dawo, and Lao Xi, were no longer practicing art, and had become college teachers or gone into business. Only Huang Yan and Wang Xingwei have continued and emerged as prominent artists in this period. Although Changchun is Huang Yan's hometown he travels around extensively, in and outside China, and has built up several studios in Beijing’s artist colonies.

This was my first visit to the new campus of Jilin Art School, an impressive Bauhaus style building. A well-equipped large exhibition gallery housed in the building was showing design works by students. Huang told me a national-sized show of contemporary Chinese art involving 40 artists took place here entitled, "The 1st Video Festival." Wang Xiaoming, the Vice-President of the school, explained that due to the demands of the economy, the design and new media program had been developed to mainly focus on practical and commercial application, such as animation, flash, digital editing and website design.
I gave a lecture on contemporary Chinese art for the art program of the newly founded Tourism College. The owner, Lao Xi, a local billionare, used to be an artist in 1980s.

On November 11th and 12th, I visited Chongqing, where the Sichuan Academy of Art is located. Chongqing is a beautiful city set in the mountains and located in Southwest China, in the upper reaches of the Yangzi River. It was the temporary capital city of the Nationalist government during WWII, during which famous intellectuals and top art educational institutions were moved and housed here, including the Sichuan Academy of Art. The Sichuan Academy Academy of Art has been the top art educational institution in Southwest China since 1949. The Academy has played important roles in some key periods of the modern art movement, such as Socialist Realist Woodcut during the 1950s, and the collaborative sculptural project, Rent Collection Courtyard, during the Cultural Revolution. However, it was only in the 1980s, that Chongqing-based artists emerged as a group on the central stage of the national art world. Artists who emerged from the Academy at that time include Cheng Conglin, Luo Zhongli and Wang Chuan. Their works attacked the national disasters caused by the Cultural Revolution. In early 1980's, Luo Zhongli's "Father" became widely recognised as representing what was known as the Rustic Realism school, whose aim it was to expose the hardships and suffering of the Nation.

Over the last two decades numerous national and international renowned artists have been educated in this school, such as Luo Zhongli, Zhou Chunya, He Duoling, Wang Chuan, Zhang Xiaogang, Ye Yongqing, He Sen, Wang Qingsong, Zhang Xiaotao, Qi Zhilong and Zhao Nengzhi.

In the past five years The Sichuan Academy of Art in Chongqing has attracted the attention of the art world, as promising younger artists like, Cao Jingpin, Zhong Biao, Guo Wei, Guo Jin, Xiong Lijun and He Jian, have graduated from the college.

In Huangjiaoping area, Southwest of Chongqing, where the Sichuan Academy of Art is located, exist many artist studios, spread among residential apartments. Cao Jingping, for example, Vice-Director of the Oil Painting Department, has set up his studio in the basement space of an auditorium with a tall 4 - meter - high ceiling. His focuses on animals, especially the insect world, such as ants, butterflies, and dragonflies, hyper-realistically depicted on canvas using spray technique.

A new complex at the corner of the campus of Sichuan Academy of Art is under re-constructed. The former huge armory storage space will become studios and alternative art spaces. According to Guo Jin, coordinator of this project, the entire facility will include 20 studio spaces, each 200 square meters, one alternative space, about 800 Sq. metres, and ten residential apartments. Guo Jin wants to turn this project into a national and international art exchange centre, providing studio for international artists, conducting workshops and lectures for students. A new direction for the college, the whole program will be formally launched in May of 2005, when they will call for applications and proposals from national and international artists, critics, and curators.

My three-week intensive travel to these four cities reminded me of the importance of looking at the developments outside the major art centres, Beijing and Shanghai. To fully understand the diversity and dynamics of contemporary art in China, artists working on the periphery, shaped by their local histories and circumstances, must also be considered.



ZHANG Zhaohui, 張朝暉

Wed, 1 Dec 2004

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