LOS ANGELES — In the early 2000s, China seemed to be on an endless up and up. In 2010, China became host to the world’s second-largest economy and, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey in 2005, the country had the largest percentage of respondents who indicated they had made progress in their lives over the past five years. Today, in the wake of the ravages of COVID, China has posted one of its lowest economic performances in decades. Trust in the country remains high, but overall global tensions are mounting. The COVID era of China looks very different.

Cruel Youth Diary: Chinese Photography and Video is a snapshot of the country’s now-distant but important period of growth in the 1990s and 2000s. On view at the newly renovated Hammer Museum of Art, the show is assembled from the collection of the Haudenschild family, a gift to the museum. The included works feature 16 artists caught up in the paradoxes of the time. 

“Shut out of official art spaces by strict government guidelines, these artists grew close-knit as they showed their work in a network of nontraditional art spaces such as apartments, garages, real estate developments, and shopping malls,” the exhibition text notes (though I wish it had pointed out that these artists were and continue to be primarily men). Ironically, “many of them found prominence in the global art market even as they faced suppression at home.”

The exhibition greets us with the dizziness befitting a period of rapid economic growth and social change. Liu Wei’s “Unlimited” meets the viewer at the entranceway with a winding, snakes-and-ladders-style assemblage of Chinese shopping areas and malls, interconnected with a series of escalators that form the scaffolding for a cacophony of growth. Zhu Jia’s “Forever,” produced in 1994, is a video piece captured through the then-novel technology of portable cameras, strapped onto a tricycle wheel as he biked around Beijing.

Other works play with scale simply by showing it. The Sitting on the Wall series by Wang Fen (also known as Wang Peijun) shows the rapid urbanization of the Shenzhen and Haikou regions, with school children staring outward at these cities of millions that evolved in just a few decades. Xiang Liqing’s Rock Never series shows the density and repetition of Chinese dwelling places, and Song Tao’s “The Floor (Life Is Wonderful)” is a selection of some 20,000 photos from his daily life in Shanghai. These pair well with Shi Yong’s “Gravitation—Shanghai Night Sky,” a series of photos of skyscrapers in the smoggy-foggy nights of the city, and Yang Yong’s “Run Away (I am not who I am),” comprised of photos of Shenzhen youth, with a Wong Kar-Wai-like sexy composition.

Two striking works are worth seeing in person: Yang Fudong’s The First Intellectual series, a rendition of a bloodied salaryman that has renewed poignance in the wake of the 2020s anti-work movement (known as “lie flat” in China), and Liu Wei’s “It Looks Like a Landscape,” an assembly of photos of nude bodies made to look like a Shanshui painting. Liu was upset that the 2004 Shanghai Biennial kept rejecting his work, so he made something closer to what he thought the exhibition organizers wanted from Chinese art. “I was really angry, really angry,” he said, according to the exhibition text, “so I decided to show them an ass, but it looked like a Chinese landscape, so they liked it.”

Yang Fudong, “The First Intellectual” 1–3 (2000), chromogenic prints
Yang Zhenzhong, “Lucky Family,” 2–4 (1995), chromogenic prints
Xiang Liqing, “Rock Never,” detail (2002), inkjet prints
Shi Yong, “The Moon Will Be Seen Tonight—Gallery Scenery No. 1,” detail (2002), chromogenic print
Yang Fudong, “City Lights” (2003), single-channel video, 6:11 min.

Cruel Youth Diary: Chinese Photography and Video continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood, Los Angeles) through May 14. The exhibition was organized by Nicholas Barlow with Aram Moshayedi.

AX Mina

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work...

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