“What would you say?”
From Drift, Li Qing, 2010
“I would say my connection to a Chinese identity is mainly emotional,” says Li Qing, 30, a painter who lives in Hangzhou. His installation Drift, featuring videos that capture the poetry of feathers floating through the air inside a down-coat factory, was presented at the Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente in Fuenlabrada, near Madrid, in 2010. Inside the gallery, a fan blew out the insides of 100 actual coats. “I don’t want to show China as a stereotype,” the artist says. “I don’t like such iconographic things.”
When looking back on the older generation of contemporary artists who put China on the international art map, Li Qing is quite philosophical. “We are facing different questions. The questions pertinent to their works, for us, are pretty old,” he says. “They experienced the Cultural Revolution and the expression after such suppression. But for our generation, our reaction would be more concrete, more prosperous, more various, and more heterogeneous. The reality we are facing is not a post-revolution situation. We are more connected to a materialistic world. We have different actions, more subtle.”
Garden of Babylon, Dream Series, Chi Peng, 2005-2009
Many critics of these younger artists—if not of the entire younger generation in China—fault them for being narcissistic and apolitical. But probing beneath the surface sometimes uncovers deep concerns about politics that are difficult for these young people to articulate. Chi Peng is close friends with Ai Weiwei, the renowned dissident artist who was jailed and released earlier this year. At first, Chi Peng hesitates to comment on the situation, offering only, “I am an artist, not a politician.” But when pushed, he replies defensively, “If you were Chinese, living in this country, what would you say?” Liang Yuanwei admits that when she first heard of Ai Weiwei’s arrest she couldn’t work for two weeks. “For now, it is enough for me that I am free to do my work. But I worry, if I go in a different direction and make work about politics, it would not be so good for me,” she said.
“A lot of people think the younger artists are superficial; I can’t agree with that,” says Leo Xu, pointing to artists like Guo Hongwei and the artist collective Double Fly Art Center, whom he included in the James Cohan exhibition. “I think the younger generation is promising and hugely diverse in their art making and in philosophy. In the past,” he adds, “in Chinese contemporary art, you don’t see people who will speak out on sexuality. You don’t see works inspired by fashion or design. You don’t see anything that can be hilarious, a Chinese version of Dash Snow or Terence Koh. It’s happening now with artworks that embrace what happens in the world. I think it is an exciting moment.”