L ast year, the long-awaited opening of M+ Hong Kong – a landmark new museum for the region – sparked a renewed focus on the dynamic history of Contemporary art in China. The centrepiece of its inaugural program, From Revolution to Globalisation (until 1 March, 2023), is an ambitious survey of Chinese art since the 1970s, drawing on a collection acquired by the museum from the former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg.
Current attention on the art historical cannon of late 20th-century China comes forty years since the end of the Cultural Revolution. The intervening years have witnessed a flourishing of avant-garde art which has responded to, and shaped, an era of immense political, social and cultural upheaval.
This important single-owner collection was assembled by a pioneering collector who played an integral role in supporting and developing Chinese Contemporary art during its nascent stages, both in China and internationally. It brings together trailblazing works by artists who were at the forefront of an explosion in creativity in the 1980s and 1990s. Among them are early examples of abstract and performance art, alongside key works from the defining movements of the period, encompassing the Stars group, Cynical Realism, Post-89, and Political Pop. Together, these works tell not only the story of the birth of Contemporary art in China, but the birth of the global China we know today.
The collection is further notable for the number of works that were acquired directly from the artist, and that have never been seen before on the market. Many have been rarely exhibited, and only as part of important museum shows across the globe.
Here we take a thematic look at the collection highlights, exploring some of the key early movements, the enduring importance of Eastern aesthetics and spirituality in contemporary Chinese practice, and the influence of the West.
In the 1980s, avant-garde artists in China sought a new mode of expression, eschewing realist painting and embracing new styles and genres, including abstraction – previously prohibited under Mao. The transforming social landscape of China at this time, and Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy, meant artists in China were also exposed to the ideas and images of Western art.
Articles in academic art journals focused on the likes of Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, while exhibitions such as American Paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at the Shanghai Museum in 1981, gave artists the opportunity to view American art in person. One such artist was Yu Youhan, an influential teacher at the Shanghai Art and Design Academy.
Yu’s ground-breaking ‘Circle’ series of paintings fuse Eastern philosophy with ideas gleaned from Western abstraction. They reveal an indebtedness to the ‘plus-and-minus’ compositions of Piet Mondrian, while also being deeply inspired by the Taoism of Laozi. The choice of the circle, as Yu explained, is imbued with deep significance:
“Because of its stability, the circle can express both the beginning and the end of everything, and thus can also serve as a metaphor for both the fleeting moment and eternity. The circle symbolises the movement of cycles, as well as the movements of expansion and contraction. So it manifests capacious generosity, reason, and harmony.”
Yu first exhibited examples from his Circle series at the Modern Men – Six Men Group Exhibition, staged in Shanghai in 1985, and the example in this collection is one of only two large-scale paintings by the artist from this early Circle period.
Smaller in scale, but of no less significance, is Zhang Wei’s seminal 1978 Abstract Composition, a crucial early example of abstract art in China. The use of both oil and ink on paper demonstrates the importance of Chinese ink and calligraphy techniques on Zhang’s work. By combining the ideas of Western abstraction with traditional Chinese elements, Zhang forged a unique visual language. Abstract Composition exemplifies Zhang’s pioneering approach to landscape painting; focusing on movement, spontaneity and the feelings aroused by the subject.
“When painting landscapes, I would try to focus on the first impression, and quickly present the effect that the atmosphere has had on me. In terms of the sense of beauty that moves me, it could be the morning mist, or a rusted steel gate after the rain.”
Stars Art (Xing Xing)
The two Stars Art Exhibitions in Beijing in 1979 and 1980 are considered foundational moments in the birth of Chinese contemporary art. They broke from the state-approved Socialist Realist style, pioneering new aesthetic approaches while adopting overtly political positions.
Preparation for Democracy Wall by Huang Rui, one of the initiators of the Stars group, is the preparatory oil study for the painting, Democracy Wall, which was executed a year later. The title refers to the 'Democracy Wall Movement', a period of relative political liberation (1978-79) during which citizens were able to plaster a wall in Beijing with posts making political and social complaints.
Huang was also taken by the imagery of Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace in Beijing), depicting it in numerous sketches and paintings. Some of these works were exhibited in the first Stars Art exhibition in Beijing in 1979, a radical pop-up exhibition outside the National Art Museum. For Huang, the ruins of the rocks depicted in Yuanmingyuan symbolise the rebirth of China after the social upheavals of the cultural revolution.
In the early 1990s, ‘Political Pop’ was the introduction to Chinese Contemporary art for many in the Western world. Yu Youhan, who, having earlier focused on abstraction, shifted his approach to pop in the late 1980s, responding to a culture increasingly influenced by commercial imagery. Yu became known for his portrayals of Mao, which flattened and humanised the Chairman’s omnipotent image, decorating his portraits with floral patterns.
“I chose to depict Mao because I wanted to portray China, I wanted to portray history, I wanted to portray the experiences I have had in life. The sequential events of revolution and opening of doors under Deng Xiaoping’s rule gave artists a greater allowance of creative freedom. I was then able to depict Mao, the icon of modern China, in my own style.”
Mao and his Friends from the Third World, is a rare example from 1992, referencing the Chairman’s international fame among developing nations at the time. As with Warhol’s American Pop works of the 1960s, Yu’s ‘Political Pop’ paintings became internationally emblematic of the visual culture of the age (a fact exemplified by one of the artist’s Pop paintings featuring as the cover image for Time magazine’s ‘China’s Amazing Half Century’ edition in September 1999).
Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism series juxtaposes Cultural Revolution-era images of communist worker-peasant-soldier groups with the logos of consumer products like Coca Cola and Marlboro. In doing so, Wang suggests a parallel between the strategies of political propaganda and that of big brand marketing.
This painting is among the first of the Great Criticism series, painted when Wang worked without the help of an assistant. The paintings of this period have a more hand-crafted feel, with the black drips of paint revealing the artist’s touch.
Performance and Photography
Wang Peng is believed to be the first artist in China to engage in performance art. For a 1984 performance, Wang covered himself in black ink and made seven large imprints of his body on xuan paper, typically used in calligraphy. In resistance to the rigid insistence on technical skill in art education, Wang used his body to press and smear ink onto the xuan paper. He performed for only two people—his classmates Li Tianyuan and Chen Kemei—who helped photograph the performance and apply ink to his body.
Rong Rong's East Village Beijing No. 19 documents a powerful performance by the artist Zhang Huan. Covered in honey and fish sauce, Zhang spent an hour in a small, swelteringly hot, public toilet; his body attracting swarms of flies. The work symbolises resilience and resistance in the face of adversity, recalling Buddhist principles of purification through suffering.
Not only a ground-breaking performance piece, the documenting of such works also heralded the emergence of conceptual photography in 1990s China.
Qiu Zhijie is another artist who used photography and performance together to stage his own body. In Tattoo II, now considered an icon of Chinese contemporary art, the artist seems to be pinned to the wall by a red character painted across his torso, mouth and onto the background. The red character – referencing calligraphic traditions – translates as “No, you must not”, and Qiu has described the work as a reaction to constraints on individual independence.
‘The subject is powerless to act because he is nothing more than an image. The only thing remaining is a flat surface onto which anyone can crawl. This series is a response to the futility and drowning of the individual brought about the onslaught of the Chinese media culture.’