The Emergence of the “China Post-70s” Generation
In 2005 a series of exhibitions symbolized the arrival of China’s new generation of artists. These exhibitions included Next Station: Cartoon? – Painting from the post 70s generation at Beijing’s Star Gallery and Shenzhen’s He Xiangning Art Museum; Post 70s – the generation changed by the market at Beijing’s Today Art Gallery; “Naughty Kids – Problem kids from the post 70s generation” spanning several galleries in Beijing’s 798 Factory complex; and The Self Made Generation – A retrospective of new Chinese painting” at the Shanghai Zendai Museum of Art. Judging by the success and attention received by these exhibitions, the “China Post 70s” generation is beginning to firmly establish itself.
The artists designated by the “China Post 70s” appellation are simply born after 1970, but in the “China Post 70s” exhibitions mentioned above most participating artists were born between 1975 and 1980. All these recent exhibitions focus on the question of new directions and trends among this younger generation and defining how they differ from their elders of the “Post 89” generation – whether they represent significantly new cultural values in contemporary China’s cultural landscape.
Continuing social changes in China today are a crucial contribution to the background of “Post 70s” artists. They grew up around the overly familiar political slogan “Opening and Reform” and a shifting climate in politics and amidst economic and cultural amelioration. The shift towards the free-market, the privatization of once state-owned enterprises, the liberalization of the media, the slow democratization of politics, fast-paced urbanization, and increased physical mobility – these idiosyncrasies of the era continue to be fundamental to the “China Post 70s” generation.
For these artists, the Cultural Revolution is a sliver of time, either a diluted memory or a foreign land experienced through the sympathetic remembrances of older generations. In elementary school they watched outdated black and white television; in their middle school years they were baptized with cassette tapes bearing traces of promising pop culture from abroad; and in university, they finally caught up with the world’s cultural trends courtesy of the internet and a push from the explosive, opening economy. These are single children born of the “One Child Policy,” most of whom had sufficiently “prosperous” material lifestyles while growing up. They didn’t experience the struggle and “bitter hatred” against individualism that was the social norm in the generation of their fathers.
Almost all of these artists graduated from China’s most prestigious art academies, but most were far from being considered model, exceptional students. After graduation these artists have for the most part managed to rely on the sale of artworks to support themselves and their families, attesting to their close correlation with the prosperous local art market of the last 5 years. The “China Post 70s” exhibitions mentioned above all took place on native soil and with local funding from private museums supported by large property development firms.
Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s aggressively adopted diverse media – from performance and installation to photography and video – but the “Post 70s” generation’s move into the 21st century has taken a different course. These artists showed a pronounced love for painting and an ambivalence towards other media. Rather than flaunt an experimental avant-gardism, they prefer the prevalent, familiar medium in which most were originally trained for upwards of ten years. At the very least, this generation has made painting the beginning and foundation for their careers.
In contrast to the “New Wave” generation of the 1980s, and particularly the “Political Pop” painters of the early 1990s, the “Post 70s” generation overtly turns away from political content. On one hand, this is a result of the diminishing importance of politics in their lives, on the other, it is a conscious rebellion against the over-saturation of political irony in works by the previous generation. This younger group has benefited from the opportunity to shed political currents and focus upon their “individualistic” emotions and egos. Their attention is now divided by truly diversifying lifestyle choices, which are reflected in the personal narratives embodied in their works of art. Common themes, however, are the problems of their generation… love, marriage, wealth, violence and sex. Traces may remain of the former generation’s grandiose narrative themes of “everything under the nation,” but even if politics makes an occasional appearance, it is usually in the guise of a fond childhood remembrance.
The prevalence of cartoon elements is palpable in the works of “Post 70s” artists across Asia, and China is no different in this regard. The appearance of cartoons is uniquely related to the visual stimuli with which the “Post 70s” artists have been bombarded and their psychological needs for self-expression. They came of age amidst a deluge of imported cartoon programs from various cultures – “Astroboy,” “Transformers,” “the Smurfs,” and “the Mole” – as well as Chinese classics like “the Monkey King.” At the same time, painting cartoons was a benign if direct revolt against the wishes of their academy professors.
As the Chinese government describes itself in a stage of “National Development,” so the artists of “China Post 70s” remain in a fertile period of artistic development. They continue to play the role of eyewitnesses and first hand participants in China’s gradual advance towards a pluralistic economy and lifestyle. As a rapidly growing China has its struggles and growing pains, the potential of “China Post 70s” artists lies in their responses to these shifting ideological layers and their reflections of and upon these growing pains. They may then prescribe the appropriate medicine and, in so doing, give form to what is most vital in contemporary Chinese art.
Adapted from an article by Beijing-based curator Fang Fang (translation by Lee Ambrozy).
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