Some Thoughts on China + Transformation

Mu Li "The Fruits of Blue Lotus Flower"

Mu Li "The Fruits of Blue Lotus Flower"

In the final week of the Transformation series, I’ve asked a number of people with diverse points of view to offer their thoughts on the topic.

To kick things off, I introduce Ellen Pearlman, a Brooklyn & Beijing-based writer, curator, critic and film maker, who shares her thoughts about the notion of Art + Transformation in regards to China’s art scene:

Cao Fei, one of the featured artists on Art21, came of age during China’s accelerating transformation playing out through Second Life scenarios issues of fragility, loss and alienation. Other young Chinese artists are also delving into issues of their country’s transformation. International cities like Shanghai just had its first gay festival and though Beijing remains the art hub, second tier industrial and provincial regions like Wuhan and Sichuan and Hangzhou are also adding their voices into the mix. Instead of the block buster exhibits mounted by more recognized artists experiments are exploring themes of infantilism and powerlessness with new Chinese Anime, existentialism and ennui with WAZA, and issues of cultural dislocation and transgression with O Zhang.

O Zhang, "Daddy and I" No. 16

O Zhang, "Daddy and I" No. 16

Anime artist Mu Lei, is a painter who develops slick, simple colored canvases with seeming babyish themes and characters. However, couched in their innocuous forms are subtle and encoded signs of resistance and subterfuge. Members of a one-child policy generation these young adults are the hope and focus of their families and both coddled and pressured. Political activity is anathema to them and portray a sense of piercing isolation. Anime and cartoons serve as their refuge.

The WAZA group is a collective of four artists from Wuhan in South East Central China with a population of 13 million reeks beneath its rapid development of existentialism and ennui. WAZA’s work explores these themes through site-specific installations, video and sound in underused or abandoned locations. They investigate a crippling boredom that runs counter to the image of a boom economy and happy times. It is the art of those hovering at the fringe, whose dream of an economic miracle clashes with the hard reality of shrinking horizons.

O Zhang, "It's All Good In the Hood"

O Zhang, "It's All Good In the Hood"

The uneasy balance between cultural dislocation and re-integration is a theme of the Chinese-born New York-based photographer O Zhang. She takes seemingly innocent looking portraits of American fathers and their adopted Chinese daughters revealing a hidden tension and innate eroticism. This stance has caused her to run afoul of the Chinese authorities. Her other work is more encoded resistance, where young Chinese proudly wear t-shirts contradicting the location or setting they are photographed in, an effective and silent means of double entendre.

-Ellen Pearlman

  1. Pingback: A Week of Art + Transformation on Art21 — Hrag Vartanian

  2. sylvain says:

    What is the DSL collection?

    The dsl Collection was created in 2005 and focuses on contemporary Chinese art. It is a private collection currently representing 90 of the leading Chinese avant-garde artists, most of whom have a major influence on the development of contemporary art in China today. Even though it focuses on the contemporary production of works of art of all media of a specific culture, the collection is not guided by the search for an ‘otherness’. It admits basic cultural similarities and dispositions and goes beyond the simplistic approach of looking for typical cultural signs and symbols.

    The collection is not only significant on a personal level, but also on a larger scale. We start from a museum approach, which means that we are collecting a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, installation, video, and photography. Furthermore, the choice of works is not oriented on the trends of the market. To choose this kind of approach implies making the collection accessible for the public, as well as documenting the featured works.

    The major tools to achieve these goals is the use of new technologies, such as the internet and interactive programs and supports, like for example electronic books. These tools provide the means to share the experience of contemporary culture and to make it more accessible and meaningful for a broader public.

    How did we become interested in Chinese art?

    Art is the mirror of a Society.
    When my wife and I came to Shanghai for the first time in 2005, I felt that there was another logic existing here; something that speaks of a very schizophrenic attitude towards economic development. The city embodies a ceaseless pursuit of the “superhuman” that redefines traditional definitions of humanity, sustainability, scale, and speed. Somehow these feelings were very inspiring and we wanted to find art and artists that express the relationships between contemporary art production and society. We are also interested by the Chinese artists who are living outside mainland China, in Taiwan, for instance, and mainly in the Chinese Diaspora in Europe and the United States. These artists have played a decisive role in defining Chinese contemporary art to audience outside China.
    One should also not forget that apart from having a 6000 (5,000?) year-old cultural history, China is the biggest cultural space in the world.

    How is our collection different than other collections?

    We never compare our collection with others because every collection is by nature unique. However, we follow strict personal guide lines in building our collection.

    About Collecting, how do you approach it?
    “Collecting,” is not “accumulating.” and it is not “investing.” It is acquiring objects that have some relation to each other and putting those objects into the kind of order that reflects the collector’s response to them. Each true collection achieves a personality beyond and apart from the sum of the objects. I feel also that diversity is one of the main strengths of a collection.
    What role does the Collector play?

    The Collector should not take centre stage himself and should let the art itself be at the centre of the collection. Artists should be given the maximum spotlight. My role, my real power is to make that happened (My role and my aim is to make this happen. Its what the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist calls “the fundamental invisibility.”
    What is the the dsl Collection viewpoints?
    – A museum approach
    At first we looked at Chinese art according to our personal tastes, but we very soon realized that very few people were systematically collecting Chinese contemporary art, either in China or outside — neither institutions, nor individuals had a museum approach and even less so a university museum approach.
    And why this kind of approach?
    University museums are unlike other museums. They are not intended to have a powerhouse of masterworks on display, though some have their share of these. They are, before all else, teaching instruments intended for students and scholars to use in a hands-on way. As such, they often house objects that are considered of second- and third-tier value at auction but that fill out a deep and detailed account of cultural history. Intellectual adventure is privileged over box-office appeal.
    – Education and entertainment
    Entertainment and education have quite different intents, but they can be integrated to achieve both aims. Certainly the demand from younger people has shifted strongly to only paying attention if content is truly entertaining. Beyond that, Art is fundamentally about providing experiences. People today seek engaging and powerful experiences.
    In such a large country, how do you choose your artists?
    We try at the same time to acquire new works from emerging artists and maintaining interest in the works of China’s more established big names. We are always keen to find individuals who are interested to see where the prevailing boundaries lie, either in terms of content, of materials, of disciplines and how they can push these open; I respond most to art that has powerful links to both the times and the context in which it was created.
    We think also that chinese contemporary art at the moment is in the process of breaking away from the Western art canon, which has sort of hit a dead end.

    What is our focus?

    In this New Age, a private collection is also about inspiring people.
    Dsl collection would like to become a platform that is accessible to everybody from everywhere. A place where people can have exciting experiences, build their knowledge and actively participate. With the help of curators and critics we try to get the audience engaged and, consequently, move ideas forward and extend interest in Chinese contemporary art. We see the dsl collection as a place that provides experiences with content and also enables participatory experiences–with other people, both visitors and experts.
    Consequently, apart from building the collection, dsl is carrying two strategies aimed at increasing and deepening participation and developing education.

    Why is the internet platform interesting in our collection?

    Having chosen a museum approach, we felt an obligation to make the works available to the public. The challenge of attracting audiences is hardly new.
    We have to admit that many brick and mortar museums for the most part are kind of hidden jewels .They do not have great foot traffic and often they are unable to exhibit many of their important works at the same time.
    That is why, as for showing the works we have decided upon, to primarily use technology by creating a website: Nevertheless, nothing will ever replace a direct contact between the audience and an artwork.
    dsl collection has also adopted many of the internet tools to increase the audience. This is done by creating interactive and participatory forms of engagement and altering the traditional relationship between art and its audience. The online technology allows this flexibility. Our daughter Karen is more and more involved in the collection is focussing in particular on social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and Second Life.
    These latest online services are creating new, more interactive and participatory forms of engagement and altering the traditional relationship between art and its audience.

    Does the internet platform play a larger role in China than in the West , and why?

    The internet is important because It renders possible an ” EVERYBODY, EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME” experience!
    This choice is even more important in the case of China where you currently have 300 million people connected and 100 million personal blogs.

    Will there be a space to eventually view the collection?

    We are working on the concept of a nomad collection that could go from China to Europe and the United States. Meanwhile many works are on loan to museums or biennales. We are of the principle that whenever an artist wants to have his work exhibited, it should always be made available. We would like to have the first exhibition of the collection in a museum in the United States

    How will the collection evolve?

    The collection is limited to a specific number of art works – about 150 pieces – that, as an entity, is open to constant redefinition. Openness, movement and communication are basic qualities we want to promote. Another important point: When we collect a work of art, you are essentially acquiring not just one work of art but a part in the artist’s entire body of work which is known as an oeuvre. It means that if this oeuvre evolves in a direction that is not the good one for us we decease the work.
    We shall focus more and more on education by being ever more present in China in particular. In 2010 dsl collection will be in charge of an Art Management course at the Shanghai University.

    Why is art important? What inspires us?

    Art is a way to make our life better. It is not about inanimate objects, but about connecting to people. Thanks to this collection we discovered a great country with great people and a great culture

  3. chandra bhan pratap says:

    This is a very interesting post, and the comments are also fantastic to read. I’ll have to have a little re-think about my own contact form on our new website, as this poses some interesting questions.

    IT developer

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