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Old Meets New in Chinese Art: Five Young Chinese Artists to Watch

Picture of Luise Guest
Updated: 24 February 2017
Contemporary China is a pressure cooker of change. The excitement, anxiety and stress of this society in flux results in artworks of extraordinary intensity and innovation. There is a sense of possibility and optimism, mixed with a sense of loss and regret. Some artists look back with longing to the past in an effort to understand what has happened. Others envisage a future in which technology overcomes biology in a ‘brave new world’.

These five young Chinese artists venture into new domains – transforming traditions of painting, black and white photography and embroidery; creating performance and temporal works; confronting new subjects and experimenting with new technologies. They work in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong and they are most certainly top artists to watch.

Gao Rong, Mailbox, Foam, Cloth and Embroidery
Gao Rong, Mailbox, Foam, Cloth and Embroidery

1: Gao Rong, Beijing, Installations with embroidery and found objects

Gao Rong says, “I am not an embroiderer, I am a sculptor who works with embroidery.” She transforms traditions of embroidery into large-scale sculptural works, stitching onto fabric which is wrapped around sponge stiffened by steel frames and wire. Exact representations of peeling paint, public phones, letter boxes and bus timetables reveal the urban Beijing life of the young artist

They tell a story of her personal view of the contemporary world — a public telephone from which she called her mother when she came to study in Beijing, the bus stop where she had to wait every day on her way to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the entryway to her basement apartment. Her most ambitious work was one of the most popular installations at the 2012 Biennale of Sydney; a full size replica of her grandparents’ traditional home in Inner Mongolia. Every detail —rust-stained pipes, enamel mugs and thermos flasks, heavy furniture, flowered quilts and ancestor portraits — is made from embroidered fabric.

When I spoke with the artist in Beijing she told me that Tracey Emin and her subversive applique blankets inspired her, showing her how female experiences could become legitimate material for art. Gao Rong’s work speaks of family history, memory and the domesticity of the everyday. It also reveals the ways in which women’s lives continue to be transformed in China. Her most recent work satirises the materialism and ‘luxury brand’ obsession of contemporary consumer culture. Fake designer handbags are embroidered with stains — instant noodles, make-up, coffee spills — and filled with bizarre soft sculpture objects in a witty reflection on the lives of young women. This project was inspired by the urban women who collect such bags as trophies of their success, but it also reminds us of the ‘factory girls’ who make them.

Gao Rong’s work is held in the collection of the White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney and has been shown internationally, including at the 18th Biennale of Sydney, ‘Transformation: A View on Chinese Contemporary Art,’ Istanbul Modern, Istanbul, Turkey and at Eli Klein Gallery New York.

Hanison (Hok Shing) Lau, A Century Old Shop,  sculpture, and documented performance 2010
Hanison (Hok Shing) Lau, A Century Old Shop, sculpture, and documented performance 2010

2: Hanison (Hok Shing) Lau, Hong Kong, Installations with found objects

In Hong Kong Hanison (Hok Shing) Lau explores similar themes, focusing on notions of space and place; on tradition and its collision course with contemporary culture. His work merges sculpture and performance, informed by a childhood immersed in the traditions of Peking Opera. Lau combines a passionate belief that young Chinese need to reconnect with traditional culture with a sophisticated awareness of contemporary art practices. ‘Century Old Shop’, a replica of a traditional tiny Hong Kong shop front, is made from recycled cardboard and discarded materials, just big enough for the artist to enter. He pulled it around the streets of Hong Kong, engaging passers-by exchanging items from inside the shop such as old newspapers and cheap items of stationery for whatever people chose to give him in return. His conversations with the people he encountered about their memories of fast-disappearing aspects of Hong Kong were recorded, becoming part of the documentation when the ‘shop’ project was finally exhibited.

Lau uses found objects and ‘poor’ materials in sensitive and unexpected ways. Cardboard packing boxes are glued together and carved to form mountains reminiscent of classical Chinese paintings, paper towels are designed to form lakes and waves, kitchen sponges are shredded to make trees and foliage. He makes references to poetry from the Song Dynasty, and ‘Shan Shui’ painting. Many of his works have a sly humour. ‘Letter to Marco Polo’ includes a pair of boots made of teabags sewn together. ‘Table Top Gardens’ are miniature traditional Chinese gardens with tiny carved cardboard mountains, real plants and fish. He ‘adopted’ these out to people who agreed to look after the gardens and to take a photograph of them every day. Together with all the gardens in the series these photographs were then exhibited with the works as a large installation. His works are often playful and whimsical, belying the seriousness of his intent. He challenges the flashy throw-away culture in which we live and asks us to reflect on enduring truths, such as the veneration of nature found in traditional Chinese poetry and painting, represented through the metaphor of the garden.

Hanison Hok-Shing Lau is featured in ‘Hong Kong Eye: contemporary Hong Kong artists’. He has exhibited in Australia, the USA, China and Hong Kong and has recently completed an artist’s residency in Korea.

Dong Yuan, Hui Hua Chi Fan (detail) oil on multiple separate canvases
Dong Yuan, Hui Hua Chi Fan (detail) oil on multiple separate canvases

3: Dong Yuan, Beijing, Installation using domestic objects

Dong Yuan explores the significance of everyday domestic life and family relationships symbolised by possessions and all the objects with which we fill the places we inhabit. On separate canvases she paints every single object in particular spaces, including each successive apartment she has rented in Beijing. She is currently obsessively recreating, in paint, singular object by singular object, the interior of her grandmother’s house near Dalian. A rigorous academic training at the Central Academy of Fine Arts exposed her to the traditions of Western painting and she immersed herself in the works of Renaissance masters. With meticulous realism and attention to detail she records the here and now, in a taxonomic process of ordering her world. When all else in life appears temporary and uncertain, these solidly modelled, convincingly rendered forms are a way of keeping chaos at bay.

When I visited Dong Yuan in the outer suburbs of Beijing her canvases were stacked against every wall and piled up in every corner. They depict her grandmother’s plants on the kitchen window ledge, pots and pans, piles of newspapers, an umbrella leaning in a corner (and even, on separate canvases, the individual drops of water it left on the floor), her uncle’s pants hanging from a hook on the wall, a portrait of Mao. Her work is a process of ‘fixing it in memory’ she says. She has already completed more than 400 paintings for what will become an astonishingly hyper-real installation. The paintings will be installed in a re-creation of the house, an astonishing feat of trompe l’oeil which is both funny and immensely touching. Her reflection on her own personal journey from Dalian to Beijing is a memorial to tradition and a meditation on the transformation of modern China.

Dong Yuan’s work is held in the collection of the White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.

4: Chu Haina, Beijing, Photography

Chu Haina, 隐秘的风景1号 (Hidden Landscape No.1) 2006
Chu Haina, 隐秘的风景1号 (Hidden Landscape No.1) 2006

Beijing photographer Chu Haina lives and works in Caochangdi and uses her camera to record intriguingly ambiguous images which possess a fleeting, melancholic beauty. She works primarily with black and white film. The lyrical melancholy found in Wang Ningde’s works finds its echo in Chu Haina’s approach to her work. She believes it is what she can see through her viewfinder, rather than how she can manipulate it later, that is the important thing. In this sense her work runs counter to much contemporary Chinese photography, which often features elaborate staging or complex digital post-production processes. She admires the simplicity of early 20th century photographic techniques.

Chu identifies Hiroshi Sugimoto’s exhibition at Pace Beijing in July 2012 as hugely influential. It made her realise how a photograph can convey layers of meaning and a deep philosophical intent. She adroitly evaded my direct questions about the subjects of some of her more ambiguous images. ‘I want my photographs to trigger a feeling, or maybe a memory’, she says. She walks around the city with her camera, every day, recording as blurred evanescent images the things that catch her eye in Beijing streets and parks. Although essentially abstract, like traditional Chinese poetry they have at their heart a sense of the fragile temporal nature of the material world.

Chu Haina’s work has been shown in group exhibitions at Redgate Gallery and Egg Gallery, Beijing

Lu Yang, Uterus Man poster
Lu Yang, Uterus Man poster

5: Lu Yang, Shanghai, New Media

Shanghai-based new media artist Lu Yang makes works that shock and surprise. Martin Kemble, Director of Art Labor Gallery, says, ‘In an art scene where formal training is de rigeur, where everyone can paint a pretty picture, Lu Yang dares to tangle with ideas that daringly straddle the ethical and moral debate lines raging between cultural borders.’ She works with 3D animation, video projections, medical diagrams, supporting text and music to explore the underbelly of modern science and technology. Her works cross the conventional boundaries between art and design, art and popular culture, yet are also significantly informed by tradition, belief and philosophy. ‘Wrathful King Kong Core’ investigates the anatomical origins of rage, melding the image of the Buddhist deity Vajrakilaya with a biological explanation of the origin of anger in the thalamus and amygdala.

Her multi-media works, animations and graphic design-influenced still images venture into provocative territory; they owe something to music video and pop culture, Japanese anime and contemporary design, and even something to sci-fi. She often works in collaboration with designers, technicians, computer engineers working beyond the limitations of art conventions. The radical frontiers of scientific research directly inform her work. Kemble describes the world depicted in Lu’s ‘Uterus Man’ as ‘mad science and manga, all rooted in some kind of incontrovertible truth about what we are made of, DNA, and chromosomal chains that sometimes get twisted out of shape and into something completely unexpected.

Lu Yang is represented by Art Labor Gallery, Shanghai. A new project, ‘Uterus Man’ will be shown there in late 2013. ‘Wrathful King Kong Core’ was shown in the 2012 Shanghai Biennale and her work has also been shown at Boers-Li Beijing and Meulensteen Gallery, New York.

Image courtesy 1: Gao Rong, 2: Hanison (Hok Shing), 3: Dong Yuan, 4: Chu Haina, 5: Lu Yang/ Art Labor Gallery