Chinese art goes against the communist norm

Wang Jianwei, Chapter Four - Photo by Wang Jianwei's Studio

Wang Jianwei, Chapter Four - Photo by Wang Jianwei's Studio


Running from March 16 to Sept. 3, Yellow Signal showcases a series of media art exhibitions – a collection of video art and film screening – at seven venues in Vancouver. Keith Wallace, curator at UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, says it is only in recent decades that media art has entered into contemporary Chinese art.

“Art traditionally came out of the academy and focused on painting, sculpture and print making,” says Wallace. “What is considered media art began in the mid- to late-1980s … the first real art videos were made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.”

B.C. based curator and scholar on contemporary Chinese art, Shengtian Zheng, helped organize the series and described the artworks in it as some of the best in contemporary Chinese art. Zheng identified economy and technology as the two driving forces that propelled media art in the ‘90s.

In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaopeng introduced the Open Door policy that promoted foreign trade and economic investments in China. As a result of the economic growth, Zheng noted, there was a higher demand for advanced learning and some of the aforementioned art academies became prominent as economic growth endowed art academies with more resources.

“Artists in China could now turn from more traditional tools, like paintbrushes, to more modern ones, like camera and camcorders, and become technicians as well,” says Zheng. He explains that the emergence of occupations in design and advertising fields in China also gave art students more incentive to go into media art.

The Politics of Yellow Signal in red China

Fifth Night, 2010. Film Still. - Photo by Yang Fudong, courtesy of ShanghART Gallery

Fifth Night, 2010. Film Still. - Photo by Yang Fudong, courtesy of ShanghART Gallery

China, as an authoritarian state, is well known for censorship, and the yellow signal of a traffic light is a good metaphor that describes very well the uncertain relationship between the Chinese government and the media artists working in China.

“Artists are aware of the censorship issue,” says Wallace, “and [they] all work to be exhibited as opposed to be viewed and approved by authorities from the culture ministry in advance. While many artists try and push the boundaries of what can be exhibited, I would say there is some degree of self-censorship.” However, this hesitancy is not limited to the artists.

Zheng says that the Chinese government works similar to a traffic light by deciding whether a piece of artwork is recognized or not.

“Many works nowadays could be interpreted as making social comments not favourable to the government,” says Zheng, “yet the government would still allow them to be shown.”

There is ambiguity on what the artist decides to create and what the government decides to show. He says that ultimately it’s up to the artists to express themselves, and to “convey their messages powerfully, and to take risks without lying or becoming dishonest to themselves.”

New artistic freedom

The age of propaganda art is arguably long gone and its place is a “communal state of ambiguity,” a term coined by Chinese artist Wang Jianwei. Amidst this ambiguity, there is a diversity of ideas, styles and voices that signal China’s coming of age in the contemporary art scene.

Daina Augaitis, chief curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, says that while the artists in this exhibition are Chinese, the topics are of an international variety and are engaged in ideas.

“[They] may indeed offer insights into the fascinating and ever-changing conditions of contemporary China,” says Augaitis, “but these artworks can also be interpreted through a much broader lens of a global society. Feelings of alienation, loss and a search for historical connectedness are ideas that people from many parts of the world can relate to or learn about.”