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The exhibition We Chat: A Dialogue in Contemporary Chinese Art took its name from the popular social-media app in China, giving space and voice to ten artists born after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). These artists are some of China’s “Millennials” (known also as the “Me Generation,” and successors of what might be called the “Mao Generation”), who were of single-digit age during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest-turned-massacre. Self-reflective and uninhibited by conventional social constructions of the past, the artists and their work suggest a new art history in the making. As a generation, they are similar to their Western peers, accused of possessing a sense of entitlement. More importantly, however, they share anxieties about the impact of pollution, the generation gap, and the increasingly capitalistic world in which their future lies.
The exhibition’s curators, Asia Society Texas Center Director of Exhibitions Bridget Bray and critic Barbara Pollack, afforded each artist a distinct presence, a curatorial feat for a group show of this nature. An experiential flow was achieved, at least in part by the connecting threads evident between the artists’ experiences, despite their processes being entirely unique. We Chat not only highlighted the artists’ youth and shared cultural experience, but also considered their formal art education and unprecedented global connectivity. The exhibition opened with Sun Xun’s works on paper mounted on aluminum and Shi Zhi Ying’s canvases recalling traditional ink painting and Buddhist iconography combined with techniques and aesthetics of European modernism. The Time Vevarium series (2014) by Sun suggests the collision of nature and industry by using Chinese visual tropes, such as a tiger prowling a mountain (except this one is wearing a gas mask). The backdrop is a brown, dripping, muddy sky, while another image depicts a drilling vehicle against metallic green Van Gogh-esque swirls of black smoke. This signaling of traditional Chinese culture in the work of both artists sets an initial tone for the show, which is then dramatically dismantled throughout the subsequent galleries.
In fact, the exhibition proposes that the artists are not overly concerned with nationality or commentary on present-day China. Rather, they have a presence in the culture of digital media and the internet, and they travel and live in relative economic prosperity. While the world-famous artist Ai Weiwei actively engages in criticizing corruption and other wrongdoings of China’s government, the artists included in We Chat showed a desire to present their work more as individual creative expression. Nevertheless, politics do not get a pass, and one of the most publicized events in recent Chinese history—the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China—came into focus through The Exhibition (2015), a video by Lu Pan and Bo Wang. The footage journeys alongside public workers on site at Art Basel Hong Kong, and captures individuals in a crowd via a series of fixed-camera perspectives, ranging from a champagne-serving girl with a blank stare to jazzy music and suited white men chatting among black tablecloths. A quiet moment outside shows a worker with glazed eyes, lost in a daze, and looking as though a gust of wind might tip him over; the beautiful Victoria Harbor is the backdrop. Finally, the video offers a strange and fascinating glimpse into the handover ceremony, complete with Prince Charles and British delegates. The Exhibition records the chatter of politics and consumption, but finds calm moments of focus on laboring individuals lost within the spectacle of globalized contemporary art commerce.
Liu Chuang delves further into the private lives of strangers in her multifaceted installation Love Story (I) (2006–14). Translated notes and doodles adorned the walls, and a platform was covered with popular romance novels found on Chinese construction sites, left behind by migrant workers known as the “floating population.” Some were displayed open to reveal the original handwriting and topped with a painted rock to color-code the note with its corresponding wall text. Like a novel, the installation brought the viewer to imagine the lonely but no-less-thoughtful lives of these unidentified subjects working in a rapidly developed “foreign” country’s urban centers.
Shown in an adjacent space, photographic portraits by Brooklyn-based, Shanghai-born artist Pixy Yijun Liao from the series Experimental Relationship (2007–11) explored personal intimacy by featuring the artist’s boyfriend. In one image, Relationships Work Best When Each Partner Knows Their Place, the artist is fully clothed while her partner stands beside her wearing only white underwear. He looks at her while she looks directly at the camera and pinches his nipple, mimicking the Louvre’s famous (unattributed) painting, Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters (ca. 1594). This reference provides a nod to Western art history, along with notions of absurdity, erotica, and gender fluidity in popular culture. The didactic information provided that Liao’s Japanese boyfriend is younger and submissive, thereby planting the notion that the artist is shown in a position of power over her male partner. The series provides a sweet, romantic, humorous look at a comfortable relationship, while positioning itself within feminist art history.
Identity was further explored in an installation by Guo Xi, There Never Should Have Been an Artist Named Jia Siwen (2012–14), which appeared almost as a stand-alone exhibition. It centered on a series of faux email exchanges between U.S.-based Guo and China-based Jia Siwen that challenged the viewer to differentiate between the “real” artist and the fictional one. Wall text contained a map as a guide and an apologetic explanation for “untitled” artworks, which were a result of lost documentation in (imaginary) overseas shipment. While identity as fabrication is a familiar subject in contemporary art practice, cross-cultural engagement was here highlighted in a situational dialogue.
Jin Shan’s No Man City (2014) spoke to a different kind of loss, that of the cultural heritage of previous generations. A hanging mobile, the only light source in a dark room, projected shadows of paper cutouts of three symbols—a crane, sun, and peony—slowly making their way across a pure white sculptural backdrop. The wall text noted that the artist’s father was a classically trained painter and maker of Beijing Opera scenery. A solemn and exquisite reminder of a lost-but-not-forgotten history of creative expression, the installation constructed a dream-like gaze into a past that the Cultural Revolution attempted to eradicate and is now mostly separated from its descendants’ experience.
This quiet moment in the exhibition was shattered, however, by Lu Yang’s explosive animated video, Delusional Mandala (2015). In this adventure through medical manipulation, fear, science, and spirituality, the artist’s body becomes a scanned three-dimensional computerized vessel of machine-like systems and data. Despite the scientific observations, the work is a hyper-color feast including fast-paced electronic music, dancing, and spastic facial expressions. A medical head vice is at once a fiery Hindu halo. A CAT scan turns into a scene of hellish cremation as the body burns into black smoke, and an astronaut suggests a cosmic afterlife. Delusional Mandala abandons gender and plays with our discomfort about what the body actually is, while simultaneously exploring the mind’s various emotional states. Moving Gods (2015), a second video by Lu, carried forward these concerns in its depiction of men with features reminiscent of deities of world religions. Humans become Gods, Christ is absorbed into Buddha, and the Sistine Chapel meets the cosmos.
Finally, Ma Qiusha brought the show into a stark relation with present reality with a soft-spoken, carefully voiced video monologue of the artist recounting her experience as an art student. From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili (2007) subtly addresses her generation’s internalization of the one-child policy, introduced in the late 1970s. While U.S. viewers may have related to her narrative about the pressure to succeed, she explicitly describes her journey as the quiet sacrifice of a child in the Chinese school system. Seen to possess artistic talent, she was pulled from regular classes to attend hours-long drawing lessons. In the video, after her facial expressions become increasingly pained, we see her remove a razor blade from her bleeding mouth, revealing the source of her self-inflicted suffering. Lightly shocking, yet somehow providing a sense of relief, it is an act of dedication to the expectations and desires of her parents, and now herself.
The video works in We Chat were particularly successful, and it is fitting that these young artists are attuned to nontraditional and digital art forms in ways that elevate new media over old. The fabric of cultural identity that connects them is far from homogeneous, and they emerge from a pigeonhole that previously placed them in opposition to Western artists. We Chat situated them at the erasure of the East/West binary in a promising globalized world. As the artworks move away from a certain brand of “Contemporary Chinese Art,” however, questions arise as to whether the work, in fitting with more Westernized modes of art making, becomes oblivious to and complacent toward existing unresolved social injustices that the previous generation addressed. In all, We Chat was a layered, nuanced, and exhilarating presentation of contemporary currents in Chinese art, with a multitude of productive complexities.
Adjunct Professor, Department of Art, Department of Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Houston