The Many Faces of Chinese Art

Moving beyond the "exotic" and "alien"

Patchen Barrs

“Contemporary Chinese art is exotic, profound, challenging and groundbreaking.” “Contemporary Chinese art is a passing fad, of fleeting interest and ultimately trivial.”

These contradictory opinions both find widespread and adamant expression in Western art circles. They sound like very different reactions to the rising prominence of Chinese art, but UTSC art historian Yi Gu believes they come from the same place.

“In a way, both opinions are a reflection of how alien and how far away China still seems to be,” she says. “It’s either far-away exciting, or far-away disturbing.”

As China’s presence is increasingly felt in the West—economically, politically and culturally—the perception of a distant land shrouded in mystery necessarily fades. In the world of contemporary art, this shift provides an impetus, and an opportunity, to understand China’s art movements in a different way.

Gu believes that, while today’s Chinese artists struggle with many of the same issues and themes as artists in any other country, a cultural legacy remains that is unique and that stems from China's recent history. She believes Chinese art is distinctive, but perhaps not for the commonly cited characteristics.

“It’s not certain symbols like the face of Mao or Tiananmen or the colour red,” she says. “It’s not a mix of tradition and high modernism—many people all around the world adopted that.”

She notes that the canon of “traditional” Chinese art was established and codified in the 1920s, a period when China had close ties with the West and was greatly influenced by Western culture. In many ways, she says, China has never been as distant or ‘alien’ as is sometimes perceived.

She sees the distinctness of Chinese art as having risen from political and cultural revolutions’ disruption of the arc of art movements:

“Because of China’s modern political history, China’s dialogue with the world of art was interrupted a few times. When it was picked up again, there was a strong sense of belatedness. Artists young and old felt they had a very different trajectory—not behind the West, but not in sync with the dominant modern discourse.”

Gu is careful to avoid assigning any essential qualities to contemporary Chinese art. Like contemporary artists anywhere, those from China include individualistic boundary shifters who function in an increasingly global context.

“In my ideal world,” she says, “I hope that critics and writers link their appreciation and reception of Chinese art with an open-minded attempt to understand China not as an exotic object for admiration, but as a part of the world that is already linked to our daily existence.”