Spring has long been celebrated in China as the end of the old and the beginning of the new. To coincide with the start of the Year of the Snake, Asia House is hosting the first Biennale of UK Chinese artists until 22 February, which celebrates Chinese artists who live and work outside of China.
Political events took their toll on Chinese artists in the twentieth century. Many artists featured in Re-growing experienced the Cultural Revolution first-hand, which sought to stamp out individual expression. The biennale shows that alongside economic growth, China has seen a cultural flowering in recent decades.
This fresh start has seen contemporary Chinese artists uniting the old with the new, as shown in Journey by Qu Lei Lei. One of the first artists to bring contemporary art to China after the Cultural Revolution, Qu creates modern work using a blend of classical Chinese and Western techniques. The simple beauty of Journey was created using traditional Chinese ink.
From Jin Cheng Liu’s Energy, to Yuan Cai’s One World, One Dream and Heng Cao’s flower sculptures, circular forms seem to quietly dominate the exhibition. Circles are significant in Chinese culture, representing the process of something coming full circle. Just as each harsh winter gives way to spring and a new year, so a period of hardship is ushers in a new beginning.
As expected, themes of internationalism and mixed identity are evident in many of the works. As stated in the Preface to the exhibition, living and working outside of mainland China lends a “special background” to the artists and their work. This distance has provided these artists with a fresh perspective on both the UK and China.
Sun Yinjie’s quiet and brooding piece Person Travelling Far from Home reflects the artist’s experience of living between the UK and China. The red ribbons, snarled up in a tree, flutter helplessly in the breeze. They reach out over an unidentified city towards the setting sun.
One of the most overtly politically charged artists to display at the biennale is Sheng Qi. Having left China for Europe following the 1989 Tiananmen incident, Qi returned to Beijing in 1998. His work subverts traditional imagery as a form of political protest. InMurdoch, the media tycoon poses in the manner of a 1920’s Shanghai advertorial, coquettishly fanning himself with a handful of renminbi.
Re-growing does not represent a uniform vision of China and the Chinese artist working in the UK. There is no single apparent theme or united perspective. What this biennale makes clear is that contemporary Chinese art is bursting with individualism and is filled with conflicting view points and agendas.
This new beginning in Chinese art has not meant an uprooting of the past. Artists today are the green shoots growing from the traditions of old, with new voices and new means of expression. The strength and variety of work show Chinese artists to be the art world’s next tour de force and make this biennale a must-see.
Re-growing – The first Biennale of UK Chinese artists runs at Asia House 12-22 February 2013.