“In my painting, I am dealing with certain contradictions – contradictions between past and present, China and the West, national character and the world.”
This exploration of identity amidst the rapidly changing social and cultural landscape is a theme we see repeated across the highest echelons of contemporary Chinese art practice. Finding themselves at individual junctures, contemporary Chinese artists have found a way – whether consciously or not – to address questions concerning the vicissitudes of life and death, and the quest for meaning in the space between.
Hao Liang meditates upon the possibility of rebirth – of the self, of society – in the dark monumental triptych Theology and Evolution, whilst Zeng Fanzhi’s renowned expressionist portraits of masked everymen allude to the schism between outward appearances and inner existentialist fears amidst rapid social change. At the other end of the darkness/light spectrum, Huang Yuxing adopts neon hues as the colour of our generation, a beacon of living energy shining the way forward, whilst Duan Jianyu depicts harmonious bucolic landscapes bathed in sunlight, a message of hope borne aloft by a continued journey towards the future.
Hao Liang, Theology and Evolution, 2011
Fusing meticulous Chinese gongbi technique with the scientific rationalism of Western painting, Hao Liang draws on ancient and contemporary Chinese and Western thought to rationalise the relationship between the physical world and the cycles of life and death. His monumental triptych Theology and Evolution offers a unique take on the iconic “The Road to Homo Sapiens” image: progressing from left to right, the formless rabbit, a symbol of the metaphysical, is followed by the zoomorphic rabbit-man, a symbol of the material, and finally the haloed sage in translucent robes, symbol of human thought approaching the metaphysical realm. The rabbit is an important symbol across Chinese and Western contexts. Fourth in the Chinese zodiac, and representative of the hours between 5am to 7am, it is a symbol of dawn and vitality. In one of the Jatakas (stories of the past lives of Buddha) a rabbit sacrifices its own body to feed a starving elder, who turns out to be a god and elevates it to guardian of the moon as a reward. In the West, the rabbit is a symbol of fertility and new life, associated with the Easter celebration of the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1999 no. 6, 1999
Zeng Fanzhi’s decade-long Mask Series has been dubbed one of the most important bodies of work created in the history of Chinese contemporary art. It ruminates upon the lives and anxieties of modern city dwellers amidst the rapidly changing social and political landscape of 1990s China. Zeng was unnerved by the rising tension between outward appearances and inward emotions, which he attributed to a broader rupture in traditional culture in the 1990s. Masks became a powerful symbol of concealment in these uncertain times (see also Zeng Fanzhi’s Untitled (2000) in this season’s Contemporary Day Auction). Western attire displaced grey Mao suits as the uniform of choice amongst China’s urban nouveau riches during the 1990s, and they became symbolic of the coming new age. Yet the protagonist’s raw oversized hands and contorted brow visible beneath the white mask and slick overcoat reveal the universal existential angst of the modern experience.
Standing upon a misty peak, Zeng’s Mask Series 1999 no. 6 recalls the iconic Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan (1967) by Liu Chunhua, a full-length portrait of a youthful Mao striding across the mountains which became the most widely circulated propaganda image of Mao in the 1960s. The ingraining of such Mao images in the national consciousness is a point driven home by another work by Zeng, Mao (2002). Frantic haptic swirls fail to obscure the familiar features of a personality known by billions of people, whose likeness was once displayed everywhere in China, from homes, offices and shops, to the front of the Forbidden City in Beijing, where it remains to this day.
Zeng’s artistic focus in recent decades has shifted to landscape paintings such as Untitled (2010). Gnarled textures and expressionistic brushwork highlight Zeng’s virtuoso technique honed over many decades. The bare yet resilient trees thriving in such harsh conditions are a harbinger of the future, holding the promise of renewal and rebirth.
Huang Yuxing, Mountain Bathed Under Golden Sun, 2018-19
“Neon represents the colour of our generation. Its vibrancy is something that no other colour spectra could ever rival: it carries with it a unique sense of import, like an outburst of living energy after a long period of repression.”
Huang Yuxing’s fantastical landscapes transform the natural scenes found in traditional Chinese shan shui paintings into turbo-charged virtual realities. Blurring the boundaries between abstract hallucination and meticulous gongbi-style constructions of landscape and form, Huang enchants the viewer with his ethereal, sensory experience of space and time. Born in 1975 in Beijing and graduating from the mural painting department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2000, Huang made a trip to Lhasa, Tibet, which sparked a lifelong fascination with Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. A supernatural calmness lies at the heart of Mountain Bathed Under Golden Sun, amidst the whirling eddies of electrifying colour and inscrutable darkness. Speak to the fast-paced realities of our generation like no other, Huang’s paintings are allegories of contemporary life at the eye of the storm.
Duan Jianyu, Sister No.15, 2008
The largest work by the artist to be offered at auction, Duan Jianyu’s iconic Sister series centres upon the unlikely adventures of a fictional blue-suited airline stewardess. Sister No.15 depicts our heroine and a travelling band of animals as they journey together across a vast, golden plain. Her unlikely train of companions includes tigers, zebras, orangutans, camels and elephants. Pu Hong observes, “It is much like Life of Pi […] animals endowed with counterpoints to the cowardice, greed, and sometimes earnestness of humanity.” After graduating from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, the artist chose to stay in Guangzhou instead of moving to Beijing, the usual pathway of many of her contemporaries. Anxieties about modernisation and the complexities of regional identity inform much of the artist’s work, in particular the growing tension between China’s urban and rural identities. Drawing from influences as diverse as primitivism, abstract art and Socialist Realism, Duan situates her idiosyncratic subjects in scenes of warm, bucolic beauty. Sister No.15 conjures up an atmosphere at once intimate and sentimental – a poetic and allegorical wish for the future of contemporary society.