Born After the Cultural Revolution: China’s Young Artists at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Jerome Sans with The Unknown Shimmering at the Edge of the World. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.

BEIJING - "YOU are so GREEN!"—exclaimed Uli Sigg when he bumped into me wearing a vibrant jade green down jacket at the preview of a new show featuring China’s young artists at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in mid-January. Uli (among his many titles, former Swiss Ambassador to China) is, along with Baron Guy Ullens who endowed the UCCA in Beijing, one of the earliest and most influential collectors of contemporary Chinese art with more than 2,000 artworks (and growing) in his collection. Although Uli and Baron Ullens started collecting Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Zeng Fanzhi and the like way before they became museum staples and auction darlings, their thirst for discovering young talents remains unquenchable.

Uli Sigg (right) at the Ullens Center.

ON | OFF includes 50 artists who were born after 1976, an unspoken reference to the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The end of the Cultural Revolution meant these artists were spared disruption in their education and had access to information about Western art history, a luxury not available to the artists from just a generation earlier. Toggling between "ON" and "OFF," metaphorically referring to the two mutually interdependent modes of the interface of a VPN (virtual private network), these artists have made their experience of living simultaneously between Chinese academic training and the Western art world the theoretical underpinning of their artistic creation. They are much more conscious of their multi-faceted modes of productions or artistic practices, ready to take on the fluidity of eclectically moving among multiple media and methodologies without much angst over which value system or which medium is more "quintessentially Chinese."

Sporting a tailor-made coral-peach wool suit, UCCA’s Art Director Phil Tinari explained to me that he commissioned this show shortly after he took over the stewardship of the center a year ago. It was gratifying for him to see it come to fruition. While we were chatting, an audio device clipped to Phil's jacket intermittently shouted out in Mandarin: “Jin Tian Wu Shi Fa Sheng” (Nothing happens today)!  The voice was a moving extension of Li Ming's multi-screen display of the same theme, including a zeppelin inscribed in Chinese with the slogan. As Phil circled the exhibition halls to greet throngs of stylishly dressed international and Chinese elites, the existential pronouncement about a "non-event" became an artistic event that interacts and intersects the other art projects on display.

Phil Tinari and I at the UCCA exhibition.

I then saw Jérôme Sans, a French curator/artist who was UCCA’s inaugural Director—as always, impeccably dressed in his signature style to show off his trendy thin legs. When asked about a good backdrop for a photo call, without spending a second to ponder, he immediately took me to Li Shurui's acrylic painting with a pseudo-digital shimmering effect—The Unknown Shimmering at the Edge of the World.

Leng Lin, an art-critic-extraordinaire-turned-galleriest-extraordinaire and President of Pace Beijing, thought he was using his phone to shield his face from a paparazzo when I raised my camera. After he realized it was me, he looked at the picture I took and smiled: “That's a good one!” Leng Lin, along with Waling Boers of Boers-Li Gallery and Tian Yuan of White Space Gallery, who also attended the opening, each has four or five artists represented at the show. Even though these young artists do not flag Political Pop, Cynical Realism or Mao icons, signifiers that have become indelibly associated with the Chinese elements in contemporary Chinese art, the attention generated by the show is a testament to the everlasting desire to search for new talents.

ON | OFF  China's Young Artists in Concept and Practice
January 13, 2013 - April 14, 2013
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA)
798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu
Beijing, China

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's