Based in China

Contemporary Art and Tradition

Exhibition from June 24 to September 23, 2012



With the words "there is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics", Mao Zedong banished any individual artistic expression, denouncing it as petty bourgeois and decadent, in his seminal speech at the Yan'an Talks on Literature and Art in1942. After the end of the Cultural Revolution and the cautious opening of China, it is not just the writers but particularly also the visual artists that strive for autonomy and independent expression. In the late 1970s, they push themselves forward into public view with courageous actions and interfere in the process of political reform with emotional and subjective points of view. They establish artist colonies and organize exhibition projects which, although always patronized, banned or closed down by state regulatory bodies, bring a new and complex Chinese contemporary art into being. Even when this development cannot be separated from the discourses of Western modernity and postmodernity, we must first determine its autonomy and cultural distinctiveness.

The political, cultural, economic and ideological changes that China has experienced since the communists took over, are unparalleled. Chinese contemporary arts reflect and criticize the process of unbridled materialism in the context not only of their own society, but the global community at large. Their inherent complexity, the quest for orientation, the perception of change and destruction, the dialectics of finding identity and loss of tradition, the visions of a better life paired with the visionlessness of our time, the newly acquired freedom, constantly requiring defending and at the same time the fight against the establishment can only reflect a part of the contradictions expressed in the works of the artists. Their strength lies in the interconnection between current issues and the return to age-old mentality and tradition.

In 1979, the artists of the legendary Star group passed through the city of Beijing with banners that bore the inscription "Picasso is our model and Käthe Kollwitz", pulling up before the KP headquarter to fight for a first major exhibition of their work. Although internal reforms, the opening of academies, the construction of museums and the international interest in Chinese art as represented by collectors, galleries, cross-cultural exchange programs and artist networks have established contemporary art as an image factor for opening, pluralism and tolerance, until now courage and resolve are still the determining factors in artists' work in China.

It is time to turn our attention to Chinese art, just as passionately as the Star-artists drew their strength earlier from the European avant-garde. For one thing, Chinese contemporary art differs from the art which became familiar to us for long: It articulates the pressing issues of our time in the context of Taoism, Confucianism and Maoism!

Yin Xiuzhen, who caught the attention in 1995 with spectacular public art projects such as "Washing the River", uses materials from old traditional houses, old furniture and predominantly worn textiles as a signifier of authenticity and identity. For her installation "One Sentence", for example, she asks 108 people to make their entire set of clothing available to her, from underwear to overcoat. Cut into stripes and wound up from inside out, each one fills up a differently sized film box.

Hung Liu, who immigrated to California in the 1980s, is the role model to date for China's young generation of artists, due to her huge wall painting "The Music of the Great Earth" (1981) in the old canteen of the China Academy of Fine Arts. In her work, she reflects mainly historical roles of women and their patterns of behavior visible until today.

The sculptor Wang Shugang, who lived and worked for 10 years in Germany from 1989 to 1999, focuses on the contradiction between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism. At the same time, his figurine concepts reflect the loss of self-positioning and the helplessness of man in relation to the permanent exploitation of the world. Zhao Zhao creates cynical, large-scale paintings through which he criticizes the distortions and absurdities caused by both the Chinese state-totalitarianism as well as the capitalization of society.

Kexin Zang, who lives in Germany since 2000, connects the methods of ancient Chinese sciences with technologies, media and ideas from Western conceptual art. For example, in her photographic work, she transfers historically significant events, such as the appointment of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the sinking of the Titanic or the fall of the Berlin Wall to completely new visual symbols, arranging them into a still life on the basis of the conversions of the I Ging, one of the most ancient Chinese texts. In this way, she refers to processes of cultural transformation and questions rationalism as the ultimate, valid principle of thought.

In Lu Song's large-scale paintings, city and parklands appear to be liberated from their mundane reality as projections of a higher order, a little unsettling, but as if trying to give the teachings of Taoism a modern contemporary interpretation for the unifying of opposites and the deep magic of all being.

Yang Shaobin moved in 1991 from Hebei province to one of the first legendary artist village of Yuanmingyan that emerged in the mid-1980s in the ruins of the old imperial palace on the outskirts of Beijing. His colorful, often oversize paintings analyze systems of power and violence both in a political context and on a human psychological level.

In the 1990s, the photographer Rong Rong joined the artist colony "East Village" (1993-1998) on the outskirts of Beijing. There, young artists from various regions of China started living together in an atmosphere of freedom and the simplest of living conditions to experiment with new forms of artistic expression. Those temporary, but for the development of contemporary Chinese art important and often scandalous performances of the "East Village" were captured by Rong Rong in his eponymous photographic cycle. He documents the artistic activities of his friends, while he acts simultaneously as a participating and concerting eyewitness.

Rong Rong's recording of Zhang Huan's "12 Square Meters" (1994) has already become an icon of Chinese contemporary art. Completely naked and covered with flies, the artist appears in Rong Rong's photo. He had been smeared with honey and fish oil and sat for hours in a public latrine. With such often masochistic actions Zhang Huan reflects the social and political developments of his time.

In 2004, Zhang Hui came from Hangzhou to Berlin with only two suitcases. She combines traditional Chinese painting with serial abstraction, in which subjective perception and her individual feelings are mirrored.

In his "shaped" canvases, Liu Wentao, who studied traditional print design, combines Western rationalism with the wisdom of Zen Buddhism. In the repetition and parallel setting of finest pencil lines, he ignores the traditional rectangular screen format and its two-dimensionality and makes an apparent spatial component emerge. In a meditative, minimalistic image composition, Wentao anchors the contradiction between perception and reality.

Although Chen Guangwu’s large-format works on paper seem similar to abstract serial constructions, he describes himself as a calligrapher and denies any interest in abstraction. Rather, it is the traditional practice of writing with ink on paper in which he traces formal rows and principles of order. In objects and room installations, he makes Taoist poetry, Confucian teachings as well as the essential works of Mao illegible in his paper cuttings, sculpture and encrypted typography, in order to draw attention to the ideological rape of Chinese philosophy and history.

Unlike many other artists of his generation, Yang Maoyuan, who represented China at the Venice Biennale in 2011 with "all things are visible", puts traditional Chinese models of thought in the centre of his work. He is interested in the spiritual and mental possibilities of Chinese thought traditions and sees his work as an expression of the search for spirituality, harmony, and the aspiration for a deeper meaning of human existence.

BASED IN CHINA - CONTEMPORARY ART AND TRADITION takes place as part of the cultural summer in Schleswig-Holstein in 2012 with China as its country focus.

An exhibition of the Ernst Barlach Museum Society Hamburg with the support of the Alexander Ochs Galleries Berlin / Beijing

 for more information, please visit:

Ernst Barlach Museum Ratzeburg

Barlachplatz 3

D-23909 Ratzeburg (Hamburg) Germany

Telefon: 0 41 03 / 91 82 91

Fax: 0 41 03/ 97 13 5