Chinese Elements at 2013 Art Basel Hong Kong

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Can you tell if a piece of artwork is by a Chinese artist? Are “Chinese Elements” what make contemporary Chinese art sell these days?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, when Westerners first flocked to contemporary Chinese art, there was a trend for some Westerners to seek out (and for the Chinese to manufacture) elements that clearly manifested Chinese identity. Pictorial references to Mao, Mao suits, red guards, kung fu players, dragons and pandas had not only become stereotypes of Chinese art, but in the most radical form, empty signifiers dissociated from the emotional import of these artworks.

As the premiere art fair in China representing a wide-ranging variety of artists, Art Basel Hong Kong offers a great opportunity to see whether artists and dealers are still feeding on the Chinese Elements as a market dictate.

Surely the fair includes classics that illustrate Chinese Elements such as Yan Pei-ming’s Portrait Officiel Rouge (2003), seen at Bernier/Eliades. But the red guard youth in Zhang Xiaogang’s newest sculptural series and the Mao-suited personas in Zhang Huan’s Heart to Heart Talk (2008), both at Pace, first draw the viewers in with their psychological depth and intricate materials. The cultural identity behind the subjects of these pieces has become secondary.

Li Songsong, Sister on Horseback (2012).

Artists of the "in-between" generation – too young to have experienced the hardships under Mao, but old enough to remember the Tiananmen Square uprising - such as Li Songsong (also represented by Pace), have felt free to explore both culturally specific and non-specific techniques and subject matters, as seen in Li’s Sister on Horseback (2012). His works often embed and dissolve figural images within abstract blocks of layered colors, creating a sense of ambiguity that invites interpretations.

Gallerist Pearl Lam with Zhu Jinshi’s Parent (2008).

On the other hand, artists who were previously not dwelling on their cultural heritage can have a fresh take on Chinese Elements. Pearl Lam Gallery is showing at the fair and in its Hong Kong space abstract painter Zhu Jinshi’s powerful German Expressionism-inspired works. In Parent (2008), he applied his signature thick paint to a reproduction of a Chinese antique desk as if it was being carpeted with red ancient Chinese seal wax. His Tiantong Temple (2012) incorporates the elements of blank space and inscription that characterize the traditional Chinese ink painting.

Zhu Jinshi, Tiantong Temple (2012).

Chen Qiulin, a member of the post-Cultural Revolution generation, has juxtaposed dilapidated demolition scenes and colorful Chinese operatic vignettes to explore the psychological impact made by physical changes of environment, whether natural or man-made. Twilight (2008), seen at A Thousand Plateaus Art Space from Chengdu, shows the artist clad in a long-sleeve bridal gown with two Sichuan opera characters and a groom, all against a backdrop of devastated relics resulting from the Sichuan earthquake. The disruption of history, like the suspended wedding, leaves the viewer in a limbo between daylight and darkness.

Chen Qiulin, Twilight (2008).

I have never been a big fan of “panda art.” But I am intrigued by Jin Yangping’s Martial Arts No. 2 and Martial Arts No. 4 (2012), shown at Hakgojae Gallery, where pandas, kung fu showmen and opera characters are intermixed with bird cages and gas masks to create a cinematographic stream of consciousness.

Jin Yangping, Martial Art No. 2 (2012).

Jin Yangping, Martial Art No. 4 (2012).

Qiu Zhijie’s 26 dramatic hanging scrolls of ink painting from his Bird’s Eye View (2013), installed at Hanart TZ Gallery’s, map out a world history of thoughts, politics and cultures. Accompanied by poems composed by the artist himself, these remakes of the classical Chinese idea of landscape paintings as the “images of the mind” offer a transcendental sanctuary from which one can seek retreat. Qiu’s mastery of traditional ink and brushwork reminds me of old masters such as Shi Tao (1642–1707) and Gong Xian (circa 1618–1689).

By not delivering their messages in an “in your face” style, these works neutralize Chinese Elements and allow us to look beyond fixed cultural references and discover the depth and subtlety of an aesthetic experience.

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