The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Yan Lei
Executed in 2003
acrylic on canvas
180.5 by 240.5 cm.; 70 7/8 by 94 5/8 in.
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Acquired directly from the artist



Born in 1964, Yan Lei is one of the key figures in Chinese contemporary art's conceptual turn during the late 1990s and early 2000s. May I See Your Work? (Lot 875) is among the most important two or three paintings of his entire oeuvre, a milestone in the emergence of a critical sensibility in the Chinese art world parallel to what Western artists of a previous generation called "institutional critique." In this painting, the Latvian inventor Walter Zapp and his team are arrayed around a table, looking into the lens, or directly at the painter. Together, they are the pioneers of the subminiature camera "Minox," shown at the moment their first prototype went into production in the late 1930s. The Minox, which formally appeared on the market in 1938, remains in production today, was a key tool of Cold War espionage, used by spies on both sides of the Berlin Wall well into the 1980s, and immortalized in countless movies. An electronic gadget before its time, the Minox came in a variety of colors and finishes, and could be augmented with a full range of "app"-like accessories.

The figures of the five inventors are rendered in a deliberately rough, schematic way, and finished with contrasting pastel tones which coyly evoke the silkscreens of Andy Warhol. A single sentence is scrawled in Chinese and English at the top and bottom of the frame: "May I See Your Work?" These five words and nine Chinese characters drastically alter the meaning of the image which they frame. No longer the subject of a historical inquiry, the five men are posited as stand-ins for the foreign, mainly European, curators who were so often visiting China throughout the 1990s in search of artists to put into their survey shows, and who were, in turn, seen by Chinese artists as their only points of access to an exclusive international art world. While the Chinese font at the top of the painting evokes political posters, the English is clearly the artist's own, moderately trained scrawl, which seems to visually perform his inability to fully engage in or with the English language. More importantly, however, in combining this particular line of text with a rendition of this particular image, Yan Lei suggests an equivalence between espionage and exhibition-making.

This parallel, if grandiose at first glance, may not be so farfetched: espionage and curating both rely on the collection of knowledge, and both are deeply visual. "Spying," after all, is done primarily with the eyes. For Yan Lei, adrift in a post-bipolar world in which the intellectual structures of the Cold War had outlasted its geopolitics, seeing visiting curators as foreign spies was one way of making sense of a complex system. This image follows on another slightly earlier piece called Are You in the Exhibition Going to Germany? In which Yan Lei juxtaposed imagery from a Chinese school poster of a national team fencer with the flags of Documenta X, curated by Catherine David in 1997. The larger context for both of these pieces is the performance he realized with Hong Hao in 1997 of sending out "fake" invitation letters to one hundred leading Chinese artists to come to Germany and show at the art world's most prestigious show. This painting "marked the first time," Yan Lei said in a 2006 interview, "that an artist put this element of direct psychology into their work."

In 2000, he would revisit this iconic piece in May I See Your Work? – Five Figures (Lot 876), tearing apart the original canvas and depicting each of the five inventors on individual sheets of paper. This method of constant return and reinvention of earlier motifs is one of the marking elements in Yan Lei's work. In essence such a gesture functions to take his own work, even if it is only several years old, as a readymade.

The idea of the painted readymade looms large in Yan Lei's practice, as evidenced by his 2000 work Cover Series— Duchamp (Lot 877). Here, Yan Lei has simply painted the cover of a well-known monograph on the master's work, published by Taschen. In effect, Yan Lei's relation to this catalogue is identical to Duchamp's relation to the urinal which is printed on its cover; just as Duchamp's decision to call the urinal a work of art made it such, so does Yan Lei's decision to paint this book. This painting, in other words, is a readymade of a readymade.

It was around this time that Yan Lei's own international career began to pick up, with his inclusion in exhibitions such as the 2002 Gwangju Biennale and São Paulo Biennial—two other exhibitions whose publications he incorporated into his Catalogue Covers series. As this ascent continued, Yan Lei began to envision himself as a spy planted within the art world, his own career somehow emblematic of the trials and tribulations faced by all Chinese artists as they encountered a global system. As the angst of the late 1990s began to give way to the triumphalism of the early 2000s, Yan Lei began his Climbing Space series of paintings based on the photographs that he snapped while traveling around the world for various exhibitions. The 2003 work Climbing Space—Pompidou (Lot 878) is an excellent example of this series, dating to the exhibition "Alors la Chine?" held at France's national museum of modern and contemporary art during the "Year of China in France." Yan Lei's participation in this exhibition was a key moment in his career, as it was the first time he was able to exhibit in such a hallowed center of modern art. The present work takes us inside the museum, looking up its iconic southern escalators and into its exhibition halls.

This concern with the politics of exhibition space would follow Yan Lei back to China, where in September of the same year (2003) he participated in a groundbreaking exhibition of outdoor sculpture in Shenzhen curated by Hou Hanru and Pi Li, and entitled "The Fifth System: Public Art in the Age of Post-Planning." For this exhibition, concerned with questions of power and urban space, Yan Lei took the curators and the organizers quite literally, choosing a space of around three hectares and building a fence around it. His "work" was the restriction that the piece of land could not be touched, even (especially?) by its owners, for two years, effectively barring it from a real-estate market that was then exploding. He constructed a wooden fence around the land and painted the words "The Fifth System" on it at several junctures, sealing it with a lock to which only he held the key. This painting, The Fifth System (Lot 879), is one of a group that depicts the trees which lay temporarily safe on the inside of the massive fence.

Returning to May I See Your Work? it is subtly fitting how that early piece serves as a reference to the artist's own future practice. How funny, we think, that Yan Lei should choose to memorialize the inventors of a super-portable camera, particularly as in the following years, his own painting would draw so extensively on imagery captured with a contemporary version of the Minox—the digital camera attached to his cell phone. How fitting also that Yan Lei would settle on this object, renowned for its intriguing, sleek design. For all his conceptual investments, Yan Lei's main concern is actually with style, or more precisely,how to cultivate a knowing, aestheticized vision of contemporary China above and beyond the simple symbols on which so many of his immediate predecessors based their work. The Minox is, like Yan Lei's paintings, a deeply and defiantly contemporary object.

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China