Ai Weiwei is a media sensation, and that’s not a bad thing. The artist’s pioneering works, relentless activism and life-broadcasting on Twitter and other media have turned Ai the artist into Ai the figurehead. His role as a pioneer of contemporary Chinese art in the Western world, taking on landmark exhibitions like his recent Tate Turbine Hall commission, is an extremely important one. But for all the attention Ai gets, the giant sometimes overshadows his country’s other artists in a way that’s detrimental to our own understanding of Chinese contemporary art as a whole. Here are some other Chinese artists worth looking up, learning about and paying attention to.
Not to be confused with Xu Bing, the older artist known for his conceptual calligraphy, Xu Zhen is the bad boy of the Chinese contemporary art scene. Only in his thirties, the artist has taken a leading role with exhibitions at the reputable Long March Space and James Cohan Gallery. After deciding that his own artistic practice as an individual was stretched to the max, Xu Zhen recently decided to go corporate. Under the name MadeIn, the artist collaborates to create huge series of works and massive installations that often lampoon Western contemporary art with a sense of blank-faced irony made possible by the company moniker.
This duo of young Shanghai photographers isn’t yet well known in the US, but they certainly deserve to be. Packed with visual punch, Birdhead’s works also don’t lack for conceptual depth. These are tough pictures, and they require a lot of chewing. Their latest work is a photo book entitled Xincun, or New Village. Documenting their own relationship with the outdated Shanghai housing compound they grew up in, Birdhead begin to show China’s relationship with its recent history. It helps that the photos are beautiful, too, alternating desaturated long-distance shots of apartment buildings with hazy color shots of friends moving through the same architecture.
Liu Xiaodong is better-known in the US in part due to his relationship with Mary Boone Gallery, who have featured the artist in several solo exhibitions. A painter from Liaoning in China’s Northeast, Liu became a star in Beijing for his rough documentary paintings style and engagement with political and social issues. For his most recent project, the artist returned home and spent time painting portraits of childhood friends, now grown, but still living in the same village.
Another young star of the Chinese contemporary art scene, Sun Xun’s animations take surreal journies through society and history without stooping to so much as a coherent narrative. A free-associative acid trip in charcoal, the artist’s videos have received much acclaim in China but haven’t made many inroads into the Western art world. Expect that to change soon.
Wang Gongxin is an older, established member of China’s art world elite, but the artist also has a connection to the US: his best-known piece, “Brooklyn Sky,” was made after the artist had moved back to China from New York. He dug a well into the center of his courtyard home in Beijing and placed a monitor in the bottom showing a looping video of the Brooklyn sky. The artist’s other work plays with ideas of perception, creating large scale video installations.
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