Neo-Traditional Art + Culture: The New “Made in China”

by Courtney Gould Miller
September 24, 2012

{Ai Wei Wei with his sunflower seeds, from the Guardian UK}

Visiting the Tate Modern in London a few years ago with my husband, it was entirely fortuitous that well-known Chinese artist/activist Ai Wei Wei was exhibiting Sunflower Seeds at the time. Each seed, porcelain cast in molds and hand-painted by artisans, represented the manufacturing stereotype of “Made in China” while commenting on the individuality of the seemingly identical. The large foyer of the Tate was filled with millions of the seeds and it was truly a moving installation. Though Ai Wei Wei’s work is controversial in China, his talent is beyond question. A recent independent film, Never Sorry, focuses on his work and political involvement. It’s a must see.

Art in China is simultaneousy rooted into Chinese cultural traditiona and yet counter-revolutionary. There are the centuries-old painting and pottery commonly associated with China, but there is also a modern edge to art that has emerged in the recent decades after the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, contemporary art in China often borrows from its past in deconstructed fashion, such as Ai’s use of Chinese porcelain for creating sunflower seeds instead of fine china.

I have followed China’s art development casually since 2004, when I first visited a burgeoning art commune in Beijing, 798 District. The changes in subject matter, and the sophistication of the work, is really astounding for less than 8 years time. Themes have moved beyond purely remembering China’s history, particulary focused on Mao, to constructing commentary on the present and hoping for the future. If trends continue, I think China’s art scene will be the most impactful of the next generation.

{My photo of an exhibition ofhundreds of meat cleavers suspended from the ceiling, at 798, artist unknown}

Interested in exploring the Chinese art scene? Check out two of my favorites,  Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, and Cai Guoqiang.


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