Chinese Contemporary Art

Forever Bicycles by Ai Wei Wei. Photo:

The history of contemporary Chinese art begins with a socio-political movement that took place in China from 1966 to 1976 called the Chinese Cultural Revolution. At the end of this, Chinese artists were suddenly confronted with the history of Western art. This produced a change of artistic styles and the birth of some new ones.

Contamporary Art from the west

Ma Yuan: Man walking on the road in spring.

The effects of the Cultural Revolution on the contemporary art of China is a topic in which the historians still disagree and there are different opinions on this. One of the biggest problems that experts encounter when they try to define the beginning of Chinese Contemporary Art is the difficulty in understanding this subject from the Western point of view.

Jonathan Hay says in his essay Double Modernity, Para-Modernity that China’s modernity does not come from Europe or America, but may have emerged a long time ago in China and put a tentative date in the 17th century. Most historians seem to agree that Chinese art has its mighty logic, that it is not comparable with the Western model, and that it has been developing for thousands of years.

The West exercised great cultural, economic, and military pressure and influence on China at the end of the 20th century. Chinese artists were no strangers to this phenomenon and found in the modern Western world a revitalizing force for what was an archaic and weakened artistic tradition.

Modern Western art and the cultural enlightenment

Zhou Lu born: The Return of Superman. Photo:

Modern Western art managed to enter China as a new movement of cultural enlightenment. Among experts who deal with this subject, it is believed that the Maoism that existed between the 1960s and 1970s helped break the supremacy of traditional art in China and allowed a new generation of contemporary Chinese artists born in the 1950s to be formed.

In the 1980s, after Mao’s death, a radical, avant-garde contemporary art movement appeared in China that strongly embraced modern Western art. These artists were true pioneers with the conviction of having a mission, that of achieving a social reform that would reveal itself against the old traditions and against the pressure of the state that for decades repressed the expression of citizens as individuals.

In the 1990s, with the failure of the democratic movement, many artists abandoned more humanistic currents to turn to the movements of Political Pop and Cynical Realism. During this time the avant-garde painters lost an audience that moved towards the realistic painters who achieved greater recognition.

Three Major Narratives Behind the Contemporary Chinese Art

Yue Minjun: Birds of Peace. Photo:

According to Xiao Faria da Cunha in her article Three Major Narratives Behind the Contemporary Chinese Art there are three major narratives that can be useful in understanding contemporary Chinese art. The first is about the beauty of individuals and explains that individualism in Western countries is heroic and glorious, but individualism in China has always been condemned and stigmatized.

The second is about a new wave of experimentation. The new contemporary art is based on experimentation, but this is something very difficult to achieve in countries with a conservative culture where art academies focus their teaching on traditional media.

Third and finally, the Chinese Renaissance. For decades, Chinese art has been divided into two parts, one leaning towards the traditional and the other towards the new and innovative. But history does not have to be abandoned and one can learn to link cultural heritage with the modern world.

Chinese art splendor

Artist Zhang Huan : My Boston, 2005, Performance. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA

In recent decades there has been a growing wave of new Chinese artists who have managed to enter the Western scene. China’s art scene has never stopped growing. Chinese art is experiencing a period of splendor as China’s economy expands globally. Many contemporary Chinese artists have managed to break old taboos, even within a country with no freedom of expression and no respect for human rights.

Yue Minjun is a contemporary artist born in China in 1962. Very characteristic of his works is that he appears continuously laughing out loud. He has become a prominent member of the Cynical Realist Movement developed in China since 1989, although he prefers not to fall into this classification and does not label himself anywhere.

Zhang Huan is internationally known as one of the leading Chinese conceptual artists. Born in China in 1965, he graduated from the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts in 1993. He passed through painting and then turned to the arts of performance and photography. His work combines criticism with a reflection on the body and its use as a means of artistic expression.

Art & Human Rights

Ai Weiwei: Forever. Photo:

At present Ai Weiwei is one of the most recognized artists worldwide in contemporary Chinese art. Born in Beijing in 1957, he is known as an artist and activist. He is the son of a famous Chinese poet who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. His actions in political activism have led to beatings, arrests, and prison time. He won the “Václav Havel Award for Creative Dissent from the New York Human Rights Foundation” in 2012.

He is known for having collaborated as an artistic advisor with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron in the design of the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games. He is a critic of the Chinese government’s stance on human rights and has investigated several cases of corruption and cover-ups.

His artistic work includes sculpture, woodwork, photography, and video. In 2018 he opened a permanent exhibition in the garden of the Artz Pedregal shopping center in Mexico City where he presented his sculpture “Forever”. In this art piece he worked with the reuse of bicycles for the assembly of his sculpture.

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