Germany, in particular Berlin, is an artistic melting pot for creatives of all walks of life. The city has been likened to “Americans in Paris after the war”, a place where intellectuals and artistic misfits seek refuge from the mainstream. And it is Berlin that is now home to a growing community of Chinese contemporary artists, some shunned by the state, and others simply misunderstood.
Who are these mainland artists? Some have immigrated to Berlin, others New York and London. Each and every one, born into an exciting time in China’s history, and every one given a wand for expression, a voice for criticism. These are the contemporary artists shaking up China’s rather traditionally formal art scene.
1. Zhang Xiaogang 张晓刚
In 1958 two government officials welcomed into their Kunming home Zhang Xiaogang, who later became one of China’s first and most influential contemporary artists. Having grown up during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang later graduated from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1982.
Since the mid-90s Zhang has been expressing through his work, facial portraits of the revolutionary era; he learned Revolutionary Realism at university. Later in his life, Zhang had difficulties fitting into society and suffered for a time from alcoholism. After emerging from this dark period, Zhang joined the New Wave movement. Zhang’s work explores the contrast between the individual and the collective.
2. Yue Minjun 岳敏君
While deep-sea oil drilling during the early 80s, Yue Minjun began painting the smiling faces of his colleagues. After graduating from the Hebei Normal University Fine Arts department, he later moved into the artistic hub of downtown Beijing, where he stretched his Cynical Realist muscle. His work “laughing man” was a major success and is what helped shape Yue into one of China’s most influential contemporary artists. Yue was born in Daqing, Heilongjiang, 1962.
3. Luo Zhongli 罗中立
Born in 1984, Luo Zhongli is highly praised by the Chinese people and government for his contemporary pieces. Primarily focused on peasants as his “biggest subject”, Luo looks at the realities of life in the countryside. Now, Luo enjoys sitting in positions of influence, as an example he is President of the Chinese Contemporary Arts Academy. Luo studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium.
4. Nabuqi 娜布其
Also born in 1984, the contemporary artist Nabuqi comes from Inner Mongolia and now lives in Beijing. This artist is focused on both the physical and psychological nature of objects and material. Exploring human perception through sculpture, it’s easy to see why Nabuqi is a shining example of what it means to be a contemporary artist in today’s world.
5. Wang Guangyi 王广义
Born in 1957 Harbin, Wang Guangyi is considered one of China’s main players in the Art nouveau movement. Since the 1980s Wang has been producing Andy Warhol-esque images that criticised China’s conflicting values of his time. His work Great Criticism, drew worldwide attention. As the son of a railway worker, Wang grew up during the Cultural Revolution his images often depict revolutionary images crossed with modern-day influence. Wang graduated from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts.
6. Cao Fei 曹斐
As an artist who was born into the new technological era, Cao Fei born in 1978, and is one of China’s greatest multimedia artists. She looks closely at the daily lives of citizens born after the Cultural Revolution. Cao’s work examines internet culture and the “border between dream and reality”. In her work, she highlights the impact of foreign influences. Cao graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. She now produces videos about human nature, psychology, and sex.
7. Qiu Zhijie 邱志杰
As a trained calligraphy artist, Qiu Zhijie graduated from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, which is where he began printmaking. Interested in language, philosophy, and cultural anthropology, Qiu examines society, self-criticism, and the control and power of the media. He has been known to talk about “falseness” and “concepts of identity”. Qiu’s work mainly includes installations, photography, and video. He is heavily influenced by western language and Buddhism. Qiu was born in 1969, Zhangzhou, Fujian.
8. Zhang Huan 張洹
When it comes to contemporary Chinese performance art, it is perhaps non-other than Zhang Huan that is most prominent in this field. Born in 1965 Anyang, Henan, Zhang now lives between New York City and Shanghai.
In China, Zhang studied oil painting, but early in his career began swapping a canvas for his body as an artistic expression. During the mid-90s Zhang began focusing on conveying self inflicted emotions through performance. His “disturbing” art is said to have caused unsavoury reviews and raised government concern. One such performance saw him sat in a dirty Beijing public toilet for an hour covered in fish oil and honey.
9. Xu Bing 徐冰
Xu Bing is a famous Chinese printmaker from Chongqing. Born in 1955 he graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1981. After the Tiananmen incident, Xu’s work came under fire by Chinese government officials; he has lived abroad since the early 90s and is now best known for his huge sculptures. Xu is an internationally acclaimed creator who makes art out of language, words and text.
10. Cai Guo Qiang 蔡国强
This electrifying Chinese artist began his career painting with gun powder. Fusing eastern philosophy with international social issues, Cai Guo Qiang makes large-scale installations and explosion events. Cai was born in Quanzhou, Fujian province in 1957, and graduated from the Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1985. He moved to NYC in 1995.
11. Yang Fudong 杨福东
As China’s contemporary scene moves into the millennial era, it is Yang Fudong, who is looked up to as one of China’s most important contemporary artists. Born in 1971 Beijing, Yang graduated from the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou in 1995, where he began working with film. Exploring history, politics, and society, Yang creates video and installations. Look out for Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forrest.
12. Fan Popo 范坡坡
Perhaps one of China’s most outspoken LGBT activists, Fan Popo now lives in the artistic hotspot, Berlin. Among other works, he is most famous for his legal case against state media for the censoring of his documentary Mama Rainbow. Born in 1985 Shandong, Fan studied at the Beijing Film Academy and now produces documentary films.
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