Young Chinese artists have a lot to say

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Art is big money and big business in China.

The most populous nation on Earth has rapidly emerged as the second-largest art market in the world. Hundreds of galleries and museums have sprouted up in the past decade. International collectors and auction houses are snapping up the latest hot creations from China. And a new generation of Chinese artists is making art that reflects the massive changes taking place in the homeland, as well as abroad.

So why haven’t many Americans been paying attention?

Through Oct. 11, the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach is presenting “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists.” The group show features 25 Chinese artists born after 1976 — the year Mao Tse-tung died and the Cultural Revolution ended. The Newport stop marks the only West Coast appearance for this traveling exhibition.

The curator of “My Generation” is Barbara Pollack, an arts journalist, college instructor and leading authority on Chinese contemporary art.


“China is emerging as a superpower,” Pollack said during a recent visit to OCMA to help kick off the exhibit. “It is going to emerge as one of the major sources of art in the 21st century. If you’re interested in contemporary art, you should be curious about what’s going on China. This is a train that is gathering steam.”

Pollack spent four to five years on this show, making multiple trips to China and visiting with more than 100 artists in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou — the centers of art in China, and also the cities where the major art schools are located.

She conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with a translator, viewed thousands of artworks and did tons of research.

“The view in China is that art is a great money-making machine,” Pollack said. “It is actually more secure to invest in buying art than in real estate. So an awful lot of wealthy people are buying art for one reason or another.”

Thus, art is actually considered a viable way to make a living in China, perhaps even more so than in the U.S.

“This young generation of artists doesn’t feel bound to the past or tradition,” Pollack continued. “They’re totally familiar with the Internet, so they know what’s out there, and they’re not making work that’s stereotypically Chinese.”

Artists in the show include Birdhead, Chi Peng, Double Fly Art Center, Guo Hongwei, Huang Ran, Qiu Xiaofei, Song Kun, Sun Xun, Zhang Ding, Zhao Zhao, Zhou Yilun and Irrelevant Commission.

They’re not exactly household names in America, but they’re artists on the rise.

Todd DeShields Smith, the director and chief executive of OCMA, is largely responsible for the exhibition’s debut in Florida, as well as its final stop in Orange County. He collaborated with Pollack in the early stages when he was executive director at the Tampa Museum of Art, where “My Generation” originated last year. (The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg co-presented the exhibit.)

Smith was recruited to lead OCMA last year, starting in August. When he became director and CEO, he noticed an opening in the summer 2015 schedule and booked “My Generation.”

“Given what I was learning about this community, and the strong Chinese American population here, we thought, ‘What a great opportunity, if possible, to bring this show here,’” Smith said.

The 53-year-old museum has also been looking toward Asia recently, having organized a major California-Pacific Triennial in 2013.

“As an institution, we have always championed emerging artists, from the early days,” Smith said. “This fit the DNA of the organization so well that it seemed an obvious choice for us.”


Addressing issues, avoiding censors

China is still a communist country with a certain degree of censorship, so “My Generation” is not overtly political. But the artists do address the issues of their day: the country’s one-child policy, rapid urbanization, gender and sexuality matters, family and religion.

Chi Peng, born in 1981, creates poignant photographs of himself set against gleaming new buildings and cityscapes. His images reflect the isolation young people feel with China’s one-child population-control policy, which officially started in 1980.

Zhao Zhao’s “Constellation No. 4” (2013) consists of a mirror riddled with bullet holes. The piece, reminiscent of the late California artist Chris Burden’s work, seems to represent violence and the retaliatory nature of Chinese authorities, as well as the notion that that the viewer can be both victim and aggressor.

Qiu Xiaofei’s epic oil on canvas, “Utopia” (2010), illustrates what portions of Beijing must have looked like as hundreds of buildings were leveled to prepare for the 2008 summer Olympics.

Many artists in this show convey the intense pressure on them to succeed. Given that most are only children, they are responsible not only for themselves but for taking care of their aging parents.n

Early in the exhibit, a video features a rather shocking video of Ma Qiusha lamenting her torturous childhood. She has a razor blade in her mouth as she speaks, and her mouth and teeth get redder with blood as the soliloquy progresses.

Not all of the artists in this show are dead serious. Double Fly Art Center is a nine-artist collective that makes hyperactive, sometimes hilarious videos of themselves pretending to be superheroes and enacting fake bedroom scenes.

The organizers of “My Generation” have also created a free iPad app that features in-depth interviews with many of the artists in the exhibit. You can also call a number on your cellphone for an audio tour as you walk through the galleries.

“I think it’s a pretty important show,” said Nanjing resident Jin Shan, 38, one of the participating artists. His gallery-size sculpture “No Man City” (2014) is made of Tyvek, or the tough, waterproof, paper-like material used by FedEx and other overnight delivery companies.

“Nobody is doing this in the United States,” Jin said. “Chinese exhibits are popular in Europe, but not in the United States. China’s been an open country for only 30 years. It’s really not so long. It’s important for Barbara to show this new phenomenon to the United States.”

If You Go

What: “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists”

Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays until Oct. 11

Cost: $10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and students, free for children 12 and younger and also free on Fridays

Information: (949) 759-1122 or