Homegrown Artists and China’s Cultural Rise

“As a young man, traditional Chinese art simply did not interest me. I studied oil painting, and it was Western art that inspired me—I only started to like ink landscapes after the year 2000.”
—Zeng Fanzhi, South China Morning Post, 2016

Self Portrait 09-8-1
Self Portrait 09-8-1 by Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng was speaking ahead of his largest solo exhibit at Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary art (UCCA), in which a palpable turning towards classical traditional brush-and-ink Chinese styles reflected a shift in artistic approach of the blue chip painter. The centrepiece of the show is Self Portrait 09-8-1, which shows a barefoot Zeng dressed in monk-like attire.

Zeng’s earlier style explored Chinese society through the lens of Western aesthetics, from haunting German Expressionist-inspired crowd scenes to more playful, Pollock-style abstracts, and his break from this reflects a widespread trend of creatives embracing—and looking to fix upon—artistic sensibilities that feel more homegrown.

A rising number of artists are returning to ink paintings in which aspects such as negative space and delicate, allusive forms signal a growing desire to legitimize China’s cultural rise in a post-colonial world. This is a pursuit to define what it means to be Chinese in a globalised world and has recovered an idealised past that is both bucolic and sophisticated, rejuvenating folk iconography so that it resonates with the rising middle class as its tastes “mature” and as the spectre of Mao’s anti-intellectualism fades from view.

The shift of contemporary artists from a Western-influenced focus on aesthetics into one that is both uniquely Chinese but also fresh and sophisticated is palpable in the resurgence of interest and association with the literati tradition of Chinese poet-artists. The literati figure embodies ideals of sincerity, self-expression, and authenticity in its expressive and non-stylised delivery. Placing emphasis on spontaneity alongside the desire for personal erudition to supersede faithful rendering of the subject produces works of obvious beauty and craftsmanship

With traces of naivety redolent of the Socialist Realist art movement that espoused values of utopian egalitarianism, the “literati” symbol in its modern guise represents a more sophisticated evocation of a desire for a simpler, natural world and a propensity for free expression. The literati build on intellectual sensibilities of the pre-Cultural Revolution society, forced to disappear or go underground and as such, conceptually, stands in opposition to the state-sanctioned Socialist Realism art movement.

The nation’s chequered and confusing relationship with its history, alongside a modern tendency for the Chinese to commercialise their heritage attractions and install replicas in place of the real thing, renders efforts to trace an “authentic self” a struggle. The information overload of the Internet, compounded by the rise of the microblog (leading to an overwhelming multiplicity of unverifiable interpretations of nationhood and history) complicates matters further.

Artists and young creatives are trying to pave their own way through the noise by turning to sophisticated symbols of old, poetic and pastoral China. Part of their power and resonance comes from the wilful rejection of Western attitudes that sideline non-Western art forms as “quaint”. Their aesthetic builds on the Western avant-garde approach of the Neo and Abstract Expressionists while breaking with Chinese tradition and heritage in order to organically discover an authentic, cohesive cultural voice in a fractured age.

Disorientating and Hazardous Urbanisation

Rising wealth and literacy rates, rampant consumerism, and increasing access to international products and information brought seismic shifts in lifestyle choices. The world’s second largest economy witnessed phenomenal growth and rapid industrialization over the past few decades, rendering terrains unrecognizable in the relentless drive to build new cities and shift its agricultural workforce into urban centres. Though sprawling and rife with opportunity, these urban environments can at times feel unsafe or even unreal. Devastating images from the Sichuan earthquake of crumbling shoddy “tofu” architecture serve as reminders of the dangerous corner-cutting that can come with quick urbanisation efforts. The fragility of these structures, especially when pitted against natural elements, gives weight to a rising sentiment that the manmade, the artificial, and the new are inferior and somehow inappropriate.

Plant explosions, cancer villages, food safety scandals and an increasing awareness of the health hazards that come with PM 2.5 haze fuel nostalgia for mythological beliefs that encompass Taoism’s non-interference with nature and simplicitypre-industrial times of traditional and pastoral China. Meanwhile, a sense of fatigue over a compulsion to adhere to Western culture and aesthetics pervades. Chinese creatives are looking closer to home for cultural influences that can define the nation’s output as it attempts to make the transition away from heavy manufacturing and copycat technology to become an innovation economy.

China’s Cultural Voice

Spouts (2015) by Ai Weiwei
Spouts (2015) by Ai Weiwei

From Ai Weiwei’s revamping and decimating of Chinese heritage pieces to the rising popularity of ink paintings at auction houses or the remarkable profitability of bottled “natural” air, nostalgia for natural and authentic old worlds is enjoying increasing cultural capital. Part of its power and resonance comes from the wilful rejection of Western conceptions of the “highbrow” in pursuit of the authentic. Ai’s fraught relationship with his nation’s story, his compulsion to embrace his heritage and subsequently take it apart, vandalise it, or violently reconfigure it reflects the tensions at the heart of society. It bears noting that Ai’s own father was a poet denounced by the state.

With some parallels to the European trope of the “Renaissance man”, the literati archetype lovingly creates cultural products that are highly subjective and often has a cross-disciplinary attitude to artistic output. The creative voice is found in the retreat into the self that rises above the real world.

The reconfiguring of the literati archetype in art and counterculture movements across China express a turning away from the precision and detachment of the digital age into more organic mediums and spontaneous and personal production methods. This renaissance also reflects regret at losing environments to urban developments, which embraces the worldwide sustainability movement that is just now gaining prominence across China.

Efforts to foster a closer relationship between man and nature suggests both a desire to relinquish aspects of society that are consumerist and impersonal, and a prevalent will to rejuvenate idealised, quasi-mythological Chinese worlds and aesthetics. These are values that have and will find their way into new cultural expressions. Tensions and yearnings that rise in attempts to overcome obstructions to creativity and self-expression may serve as curious textures in the work of artists pushing back against the tides of mechanised modernity.

—Sarah Karacs, Journalist and Cultural Analyst