Signs of subversion in Chinese art

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Signs of subversion in Chinese art

For decades, the Chinese government forced artists to view their creative activity from a utilitarian point of view. In retrospect, it’s obvious what the results would be.
Up until the mid-1980s, the work of Chinese artists focused on the ideological propaganda dictated by the government, in styles that were mainly based on “socialist realism.”
Pi Li, a lecturer at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, says that the turning point in modern Chinese art was the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, which “caused artists to realize that they really did not have the ability to carry out their own artistic convictions.”
Tiananmen Square, he says, allowed cynicism and malaise to put down strong roots in Chinese art.
Indeed, the Chinese works currently on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art suggest a certain resistance to the “party line,” both in style and in subject.
Perhaps surprisingly, given their subversive qualities, the works in the exhibition, titled “Currents in Contemporary Chinese Art,” were selected for a government-run national art competition, a prestigious event held once every 5 years.
In “Harvest Time,” Li Yong-wen deploys grotesque realism to depict a young schoolgirl in the countryside. The picture is simply an image of a girl playing alone at home after school. Yet the details of the painting, such as a string of keys around the girl’s neck and the manufactured toys she is surrounded by, are suggestive of the reality of Chinese capitalism today and what it means for the lives of suburban children with working parents.
A great deal of tension is conveyed in the settings of these paintings as well.
In “Raining Night,” Liang Feng creates a dramatic situation by depicting a nurse drooping in an armchair, making it unclear whether the woman is sleeping or dead.
Sun Hong-min’s “Girl, Girl” depicts two city girls lying on a sofa with expressions that are absent and exhausted, almost decadent.
Though many of the works in the exhibition follow the technical styles that the state’s art academies have imposed on Chinese artists, they also represent a dramatic shift from the art of previous generations, which was reactionary in its use of conventional symbolism.
Perhaps the exhibition’s most important subversion of the Chinese aesthetics of the recent past is found in the artists’ increasing emphasis on individual style, and the depth of cultural understanding that they demonstrate.


by Park Soo-mee

“Currents in Contemporary Chinese Art” runs through Sunday. For more information about the museum, call (02) 2188-6000. The museum is closed Mondays.
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