In a gallery in Hong Kong’s Chai Wan district last week, during the city’s third annual installment of the international Art Basel fair, the Beijing-based artist Huang Rui introduced a new live work called “Red Black White Grey.” At the start of the performance, four affectless women walked onstage wearing trench coats, then disrobed one by one as Huang, who is sixty-three, slathered their bodies with black and then white paint. He directed them to lie down on a canvas that looked like four Hong Kong flags, in configurations that by the end spelled out “1997,” the year in which sovereignty over the territory transferred from the U.K. to China, and “2047,” the year that Hong Kong is slated to merge completely with the mainland. As the soundtrack’s drums and electric violin built to a furious climax, the women put their coats back on and the artist painted single digits on the front of each jacket, to form “2015.” The music stopped, and the audience applauded.
Huang’s performance stood out in the week of nonstop art, if not for its subtlety then certainly for its political intent. I’d come to Art Basel expecting to see political messages, especially given that it had been only a couple of months since the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests gripped Hong Kong. But, with the notable exception of Huang and the Beijing artist Xu Qu, whose installation of tattered yellow umbrellas, called “Occupy Art Central,” was shown at the nearby Art Central fair, few Chinese artists whose work I saw seemed to grapple overtly with the city’s recent trauma, or with the Communist political system that spawned it. Whereas many artists of Huang’s generation, from the sculptor Wang Keping to the painter Ma Desheng, made their names by challenging the government, the younger Chinese creators seemed less interested in activism.
Westerners are often criticized for looking at Chinese art through a narrow political lens. Ask an American to name a Chinese artist, and the response is most likely Ai Weiwei, whose brand of political provocation ranges from mocking the government on his blog to collecting the names of more than five thousand children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake as a result of shoddy building construction. He has become all but synonymous with Chinese art. (Evan Osnos profiled Ai Weiwei in 2010.)
This focus on the political has persisted in the West for decades, fostered in part by the journalists who reported on China in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, when relatively few international art critics had visited the country. Back then, the Chinese artists who drew global attention were those who criticized the Communist Party, including Huang, who organized one of the seminal independent art displays of the era, the unauthorized “Stars” exhibition, in Beijing in 1979. This journalistic bias persisted into the nineties, when several avant-garde Chinese artists, including Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, and Wang Guangyi, gained international fame after their art was labelled “cynical realism” or “political pop,” and described by Western media as an expression of disillusionment with Chinese society following the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. By the mid-aughts, their paintings were selling for millions. More recently, the mantle has passed to Ai, whose success owes to many factors: his quotability, his gift for social-media engagement, his family background, his physical appearance, his humor, his excellent English, and his well-regarded body of work. But it’s his defiance of the government that has made him an icon—outside China, at least.
Inside China, people have more complex views of Ai and of the relationship between politics and art. After Huang’s performance was finished, I encountered Wang Keping, a gifted wood sculptor who first made his name at Huang’s “Stars” exhibition in Beijing. Wang was even more radical than Huang at that event, agitating for a march and, according to an account he wrote later, shouting out “I am a rebel artist!” in the presence of state media. Among the sculptures that Wang hung on the gate of the National Art Museum that day was “Silence,” a bloated face with a cork in its mouth. Since then, however, he has drifted away from politics, building abstract depictions of male and female bodies; two of these sculptures occupied prominent spots at the fair. “When you look at the art scene, the work that really carries weight and power in politics and society is very rare,” he said.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILLIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GETTY
I asked Wang why younger artists might hesitate to address politics the way he did in 1979. “I think it all has to do with money,” he said. “If you don’t focus on politics and just do commercial work, your life is good.” Wang, who has lived in Paris since 1984, also argued that there’s more repression now than in the early eighties, when it seemed as though China’s economic reforms might bring about political liberalization. “That was a special time,” he said, but now, “if Chinese artists criticize or cause trouble, they’ll get taken away.”
Huang came over, paint still caked under his fingernails, and we sat down to talk. He pointed out that young Chinese artists simply grew up in a different environment. He and Wang experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand as Red Guards, and had bristled at Mao’s sloganeering. Artists who grew up in the eighties and nineties, after China opened up its doors to an influx of foreign money, confronted a different set of questions. “They grew up during an economic period,” he said. “They think economics influences their lives. They don’t realize politics can influence their lives even more.”
I met one these younger artists, Cao Fei, an artist from Guangzhou who is in her thirties, one evening during Art Basel. A crowd had gathered on a balcony in the exhibition center to watch her light show, “Same Old, Brand New,” play on the side of the ICC Tower, across the harbor. For Cao, politics aren’t part of day-to-day life in the way that they were for her parents. “Criticizing society, that’s the aesthetics of the last generation,” she said. “When I started making art, I didn’t want to do political things. I was more interested in subcultures, in pop culture.” Ideological art had been done, she said. “It’s all been expressed.”
Cao’s work plays with themes of fantasy and escape, from videos about kids who dress up as Japanese manga characters (“Cosplayers”) to a photo and video project in which factory workers enact their dreams (“Whose Utopia”) and a virtual city that she created within Second Life (“RMB City”). The question arises, though: Escape from what? Rather than threats posed by governments, her work is more often concerned with boredom, or with financial and social pressures. Whether these problems arise from political circumstances is for the viewer to decide. “I want to create a space for people to talk about it, rather than directly saying it myself,” she said.
The crowd turned to watch the ICC Tower light up with a five-minute animation inspired by nineteen-eighties arcade games. On first viewing, I registered only the familiar symbols: Pac-Man, a mountain of Tetris blocks. But when I rewatched the video online later, the message sank in. In one sequence, an animated fist punches upward at a block, out of which spring symbols of middle-class aspiration—a house, a diamond, a happy couple—only to have the block come crashing down. A sea of skulls dances across the façade, and later the whole building flashes “Game Over.” It reminded me of Unfair Mario, a fan-made version of the Nintendo game that is rigged with infuriating traps. Even if you work hard and play by the rules, Cao’s piece seemed to say, the result is the same.
Cao’s critiques, however tame, have at times raised the alarms of censors. When officials objected to a mock Tiananmen Square and a statue of Chairman Mao floating in the sea in “RMB City,” she created a “clean version” for display in mainland China. She’s willing to make changes if the exhibit is important enough, she said, but it depends on the nature of the demands. When a Chinese curator heard that her piece “La Town” would appear at the Venice Biennale this year, the curator suggested that she take it to Shanghai. “I said, ‘Why don’t you see it first, then we’ll talk.’ ”
Wang Jianwei, a wide-ranging multimedia artist who had a solo show at the Guggenheim this past winter, rejected the notion that Chinese artists should be expected to address politics—or to talk about China at all. “It’s not important that I’m from China,” he said, when I approached him after a speaking event. “If art is good, it’s good.” He told me that it frustrates him when Western artists suggest that he has it easy as a Chinese artist. All he has to do is criticize the government, they say, and his work sells. When I asked about the influence of Ai Weiwei, Wang didn’t hide his distaste. Chinese artists “don’t care about him, and don’t care about the media’s worship of him,” he said. Wang added that, although he is aware of China’s flaws, he refuses to make political work in order to flatter the biases of Westerners. “China has big political problems,” he said. “I don’t like this country. I don’t like the politics.” But neither does he like the expectation by Western media that Chinese artists disparage their own government. Both the state and its critics in the media are “simple and crude and dictatorial,” he said. “We hate dictatorship, whatever form it takes.”
When I spoke with the Beijing-based, American-born director of Pékin Fine Arts, Meg Maggio, at her booth, she took this line of thinking even further. “This is not Henry Luce’s China,” she said. “We’re not fighting Commies anymore. This is 2015.” In her industry, she added, “We don’t identify artists by their geographical location. We’re not National Geographic.… We don’t think, You’re American, show me how American your art is. You’re black, show me how black your art is.… I look to see that they’re a really good artist and they’re doing something that’s meaningful and sincere.” She paused to advise an assistant on the proper level of deference with which to treat a collector, then turned back to me. “Art is basically not really political,” she said. “It’s about self-expression and individuality and someone’s ability to say whatever they want through their art in a sincere way.”
A couple of days after arriving home in Beijing, I met up with Cao Fei for a follow-up interview at a hotel café near the 798 Art District. By chance, Ai Weiwei was sitting at the next table. He was wearing a blue T-shirt under a windbreaker, his trademark beard a thatch of black and white. After Cao introduced us, I mentioned to Ai that many artists at Art Basel had seemed detached from politics, preferring instead to focus on their own lives. “I think that’s an excuse,” he said. “In this society, we talk about individuality—is that really there without essential rights? You can escape, you can pretend.… But, if you’re talking about contemporary art, it’s developed through struggles. It has a strong philosophy behind it.”
Artists who don’t acknowledge this, he said, are simply trying to have it both ways, promoting shows in the West while maintaining friendly ties with China. “They always stand on the side of power,” he said. And what of the artists who simply want to live their own lives? “I don’t blame them,” he replied. “I shake hands, I smile, I write recommendation letters for them, but … total disappointment.”