Twinned with Shanghai, and home to the oldest Chinese community in the UK, Liverpool has always maintained an active dialogue with China. This historical legacy is reflected in The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China, which brings to Liverpool art from one of the world’s most dynamic and culturally sophisticated countries at a time of unprecedented interest in the country.
Despite the proliferation of exhibitions internationally of contemporary Chinese art, this is the first major exhibition in the UK, and distinguishes itself from other exhibitions, not only in the depth and range of work shown in presenting some of the most interesting and important art to be made since 2000, but in the unusual degree of collaboration established between the co-curators and the artists. The Real Thing comprises a majority of works that are either shown for the first time outside of China, or were specially commissioned for the exhibition.
The energy of the Chinese arts world is not contained, codified, and confined like a lot of work elsewhere; there is a plurality of practice and style, none of which can be said to represent Chinese art. Any idea of a unitary or coherent identity, for the country as much as for the art, has collapsed into an open space of possibility and opportunity. It would seem that now is a good time to be an artist from China: with the extraordinary international interest in China's contemporary art, and with ready access to labour and materials, perhaps at no other time, and from no other country, are there so many opportunities to make works of such variety and ambition.
The exhibition therefore does not seek to be exhaustive, but instead focuses either on those works made since 2000 that are of especial interest, or those artists at the forefront of the contemporary scene, either through their continuing relevance and influence, if older, or the power and interest of their ideas and work, if younger.
The title, ‘The Real Thing’, can be taken straight, as an indication that the exhibition is a true reflection of contemporary art in China today. These predominantly young contemporary artists, largely based around Beijing and Shanghai, have chosen to remain in China, unlike many of the generation before them, and are moving towards a self-confidence and maturity that stems from an understanding of the contemporary world, China’s place within it, as well as the contemplation of their own individual positions within a society at a time of rapid, and profound cultural change.
"The Real Thing" can also be taken ironically – humour and irony continue to characterise much of the art currently made in China. The sheer scale, range and ambition of many of the works, demonstrate the vivacity, energy, skill, and imagination of these artists.
Thirty Minutes 2007
He An is a young artist, a fact he is keen to emphasise, as if being ‘young’ is key to what his art represents: “It is my aim to arrive at a manner of expression that can reflect both myself as a young Chinese and the contemporary environment of China.”
The impetus behind He An’s work for The Real Thing was the death of his father in July 2006. He An had originally intended to explore the darker side of China’s recent astonishing economic growth, which his father’s demise had forced him to witness. In the final piece, however, he has chosen to produce two parallel works to reinforce the gravity and pervasiveness of the hardships suffered. Removing it from a purely subjective and personal experience, he has universalized the experience by focusing on a typical family from his neighbourhood, and their interaction with a local fortune-teller. By looking at two typical stories He An believes, “it is possible to say something about the fundamental essence of this society.”
2007, 3, 30 (Light Funnel) 2007
Mixed media, light and sound installation
Gu Dexin brings an immense level of intuition to his work, producing results that are idiosyncratic, often disturbing and bizarre, and completely original. The majority of his works are site-specific projects relevant to the time and place of the exhibitions in which he participates.
For The Real Thing, fascinated with the idea of the flashing lights and bold red surface of the industrial structure, Gu Dexin has chosen to recreate the grand funnel of the boat that served as the last working mobile lighthouse in Liverpool. A team of factory workers from a steel plant in the northern port city of Tianjin worked from archived engineering plans to achieve an exact replication of the original. The only modification the artist has elected to make is to add the element of sound. The conjoining of humorous, childlike sounds with such a potently virile form as the boat funnel, reveals the artist’s understanding of how the juxtaposition of opposites contributes to a consummately powerful whole.
Whose Utopia? 2006
Born in 1978, Cao Fei is one of the youngest and best-known artists in the exhibition. Working in performance, photography, writing, sound, short and feature length film, she is widely regarded as the leading figure of the ‘new generation’. Whose Utopia? was produced as part of the Siemen’s Art Program, ‘What are they doing here?’, in which artists were invited to make work as part of a residency in a factory. Cao Fei chose the Osram lighting factory located in Foshan, near her home in southern China.
Whose Utopia? documents the conditions faced by an increasing number of workers, as factories like Osram move their production to China, further integrating the country into the global economy. The repetitive work is contrasted with dreamlike episodes in which the workers act out their private dreams. The work is lyrical in its portrayal of subjective dreams within a working context, and of individual subjectivity in a rapidly mechanized world, in which individuality has traditionally been subordinate to class or other abstract and generic groupings.
East of Que Village 2007
Yang Fudong is perhaps the most famous of the younger generation of artists currently working in China. Although trained as a painter, he is recognised internationally as a remarkable film-maker, whose films explore the tension between the myth and actuality of Chinese culture.
East of Que Village centres on an untamed and untethered pack of dogs, surviving at the most basic level of existence, in an arid, desolate, and unforgiving expanse of northern Chinese landscape. A handful of humans also appear, engaged in their own dogged battle for survival. The work questions the value of life in contemporary China, and the desires an individual has a right to expect from his or her existence. It is perhaps Fudong’s most personal film to date, drawing on the bitter and cold feelings that he associates with the rural China of his childhood, and which embody for him a sense of isolation and loss that is increasingly present within society.
Our Sky is Falling in! 2007
The development of new media art in China owes an enormous debt to the pioneering experiments undertaken by Wang Gongxin in the late 1990s, when contemporary art in China was barely a decade old and video still an emergent medium. The first to experiment with video beyond being a mere recording tool and the first to engage with visual effects, his new work for The Real Thing reflects the anxieties many feel in a rapidly changing society.
Our Sky is Falling In! is powerful in its simple narrative and staged scenario, in which an everyday family scene is unexpectedly disrupted as the ceiling begins to collapse upon them. Whilst a distinctly personal take on the vulnerability of contemporary existence, it is also an obvious and ominous reference to the continued helplessness of the individual against the global forces of progress and modernisation that are progressively shaping the social and economic realities of the New China.
Factory Floor Installation 2007
Zhuang Hui has always been motivated by humanist as well as aesthetic concerns. While his body of work spans a diverse range of materials and approaches, almost all engage with real events and places. Central to his work is firsthand experience of the political ideals that underpin the New China era, and which are slowly unravelling in the face of modernity.
Factory Floor is an astonishingly realistic reproduction of the machinery from ‘The East is Red Tractor Factory’ where the artist once worked. This silent factory floor has been deserted by the workers who have gone to the aid of an injured colleague. Hui uses this real interior “to speak about the new reality of the social climate today for the people it affects most.” Workers from the factory created the individual components of this work, which are constructed from Polystyrene. “I love the idea of the final parts not being that which on the surface they appeared to be.”
An Unapologetic Act of Sabotage 2007
One of the most interesting conceptual artists at work in China today, Geng Jianyi is not content to accept anything at face value. It is not arrogance, but uncertainty born of curiosity that leads him to question the world he inhabits, its customs and rituals, as much as the art he makes.
Identity has been one of the most important subjects for artists in China, and is a subject Jianyi has analysed for almost two decades. This work explores the effect of consciousness upon the largely unconscious and familiar actions that come to define us. The work focuses on the behaviour of four people in a foot massage parlour, captured on film by six CCTV cameras. Jianyi then wrote a script for each of the six scenes recorded, based upon the actions of the four people in the footage, for them to learn so that they could re-enact their original behaviour. Divided into three groups of six screens, the work shows the unconscious footage and the rehearsed action, with the script. The act of observing the conscious recreation of a set of unconscious actions undermines the sense of self constructed through habit, which is as funny as it is profoundly unsettling.
Passing Through: Beijing 2006
Passing Through: New York 1997
Wang Peng enacted the very first-known performance work in China, in 1984. His work is underpinned by a steadfast resolve to challenge the conventions and boundaries of art.
Gate is the record of an event in 2001. Invited to an exhibition, Gate: An Exhibition of Wang Peng’s Performance and Video Art, guests were ushered into a large space only to find it empty, except for a monitor. As we see in the final work that documents the action, once everybody is inside, Wang Peng secures the gallery doors with the strongest chain and padlock he can find, but leaves the key with the mystified shop keeper. The monitor inside the space shows images of those outside trying to get in, whilst a monitor outside shows the increasing fury of those inside who begin to realise that they have been locked in the gallery, as well as their mounting panic and violence, directed at the artist as much as at the door, in their attempts to escape. The performance only ended after the door had finally been violently broken down by the audience. Many of his contemporaries have never forgiven him for the work.
Peng originally conceived Passing Through as a performance piece about the state of ‘passing through’ while a transitory visitor on an artist residency in Vermont in 1996. Passing Through New York is the first version and engages with the high public profile contemporary art enjoyed in New York. Struck by the respectful acceptance of artistic practice and the right to freedom of expression, Peng set out to illustrate this by taking a line for a walk in a literal sense. Concealing a ball of string in his jacket, the video shows Peng as he walks seemingly oblivious to the confusion he leaves in his wake as the string unravels behind him. Passers-by regard Peng with curiosity, surprise, very occasionally with irritation, but no one makes any attempt to interfere with the string, or to question what he is doing.
The reworking of Passing Through New York, almost a decade later, in Beijing, is timely. On the surface, contemporary art has acquired a degree of legitimacy that could not have been imagined in 1997. To his surprise, Beijing residents reacted in many ways similar to the New Yorkers. Yet, looking beyond the superficial similarities in their responses, the lack of direct interference or confrontation – which surprised Wang Peng most of all – relates to an aspect of Chinese social behaviour that has nothing to do with an understanding of art. Had they been asked, not one of the Beijing passers-by would have conceived of Wang Peng’s piece of string as a work of art. Instead, their reaction was entirely in keeping with the boundaries of interpersonal relationships. By placing these two versions of Passing Through side by side, it is possible to understand the subtle nuances that are less about differences between people than the social conditioning to which they are subject.
Miners! 800 Metres, No.8 2006
Oil on canvas
An extraordinarily instinctive and innovative painter, Yang Shaobin is one of the few well-known painters from the 1990s to continue to experiment and take risks. Distancing himself from the Cynical Realism with which he is most commonly associated, 800 Metres Below is a deeply personal reflection upon the brutal conditions that coalminers face in China. Coal production in China today accounts for almost 40% of the world’s supply, and it also claims 80% of deaths worldwide from mining accidents; often described as the ‘deadliest job’, it remains a sensitive issue for China.
800 Metres Below are painted in the style of Socialist Realism with which Yang Shaobin grew up, and is more normally associated with an era of epic optimism. However, in these works, the artist uses a distinctively drab palette, different from the seductive colours of his earlier works. Although the workers are painted with compassion and dignity, the artist offers an ironic comment upon the utopian allegorical idealism that underpinned Mao’s pre-eminent brand of Social Realism. 800 Metres Below invokes an accurate, if harsh portrait of a contemporary industrial poverty trap from which there is little escape.
Le Juge, Le Ministre, Le Diplomate 2007
Installation at St Ives
Zhou Tiehai positions himself as an outsider, an independent commentator who eschews all local trends. One of China’s most visible artists for his paintings that faithfully reproduce classics of Western art, only to replace the central figure with a portrait of Joe Camel, his art is an ongoing enquiry into notions of authenticity.
For The Real Thing Zhou Tiehai commissioned a top chef to prepare three French desserts that were then served at the dinner to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, and which are represented here in wax. Zhou Tiehai chose France because the nation is synonymous with cuisine, producing the desserts according to the innovative combinations of flavours and textures for which French food is famed. The sheer accumulation of facts, anecdotes, presumptions, histories, theories and rumour presented as historic justification for each of the three desserts, whose ever-widening sphere of references threatens to take in the whole of French history, undermines the authenticity of the desserts as they seek the firmer to embed them in the authority of a definitive history. They were, however, delicious.
Temporary Space 2004-2007
Installation at St Ives
Lightbox installation and video
Wang Wei is one of a younger generation of artists whose work combines political comment and formal concerns. His large scale installations and architectural interventions form a progressive investigation into space, as both a physical and a psychological experience, and raise profound questions about the nature of freedom.
Temporary Space was first made in 2003 and consisted of the construction and deconstruction within a gallery of a brick room 100m2, and four metres in height, from 20,000 reclaimed bricks, by a team of migrant labourers over a three week period. The workers employed were those who had come to Beijing during its rapid expansion around 2000, who collected bricks from derelict or demolished buildings, and took them away to clean and sell on. However, with the rapid changes in construction techniques and materials used, the demand for bricks has greatly reduced at the same time as the bricks themselves are becoming scarce as the majority of the older buildings have now been demolished.
Ai Weiwei and Fake Studio
Working Progress (Fountain of Light) 2007
Mixed media light installation
The spectacular structure floating in the Albert Dock has been designed by Ai Weiwei (b.1957). Perhaps the most important artist working today in China, he has also developed innovative design and architectural projects for buildings and public spaces - including the Beijing Olympic Stadium.
Designed especially for Liverpool, Working Progress (Fountain of Light) takes the form of a spectacular chandelier, inspired by Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International 1919. Had Tatlin’s steel and iron glass-clad structure been built, it would have been a taller and more magnificent symbol of modernity than the Eiffel Tower. It was also a product of the era of industrialisation across Europe that shaped the modern world – and Liverpool especially. In referencing Tatlin’s iconic work, Ai Weiwei reminds us of the Constructivists’ Utopian ambitions for a brave new world, embodied in physical structures and amazing feats of architecture that would match the new age. The work can be seen as a symbol of the radical change currently taking place in China, as much as of the cultural and utopian ambitions that are transforming the city of Liverpool.
The Gooey Gentleman 2001
Self Defence 2007
Live Action Animation
Zhou Xiaohu is a pioneer of video animation in China. His work is infused with a keen humour and delight in visual play and punning. Although originally trained as an oil painter, he began using computers as an artistic tool in 1997. He has since experimented with stop-frame video animation, video installation and computer gaming software; the element of creating layers of images between moving pictures and real objects has become his signature style.
The Gooey Gentleman is a fantasy featuring the artist’s own body as the stage upon which a hand-drawn story unfolds. Playing with the theme of fatal attraction between the sexes, Xiaohu tells a tale of sexual chemistry via an animated drawing that is alternately inscribed across his chest and that of a female counterpart. In presenting a Barbie-like ideal of womankind, Xiaohu makes no apology for the natural urges and fantasies of his sex. To the deliberately stilted soundtrack of a famous Shanghainese love song, he humorously illustrates the timeless antics of lovers engaged in the mating game. Deceptively simple, this immensely charming work remains one of Xiaohu’s most accomplished pieces.
In the new work Self Defence, Xiaohu references a leading topic of our times, and one that has direct implications for at least fifty per cent of the population—the female half. It reflects, like The Gooey Gentleman, on personal experiences that, whilst articulated in a specifically Chinese context, have a universal reach. In his inimitable fashion, Xiaohu uses humour in the work to articulate weighty issues in ways that are both familiar and easily understood. Although the new work is not addressed exclusively to womankind, it is highly sensitive to the issue that Self-Defence seeks to expose, including societal change and what is considered acceptable behaviour for the female sex. In this sense, the expert trouncing of the male offenders by the ‘star’ of the work is very much a contemporary story. Whilst the work appears to play for laughs, the artist’s intention and choice of media is more serious, as Xiaohu explains: “Consumerism and entertainment have overtaken the political nature of the body, so by adopting familiar forms of entertainment and images of hedonism, my goal is to transform these figures into perfect examples of body politics.”
Art Class 2006
Painting and object installation
Although young, Qiu Xiaofei has already defined a unique style of painting. Finding his subject matter in his personal memories, his paintings depict the places and objects of his past, in a na？ve but realistic style, such as seem the more accurately to reflect a child’s vision. Similarly, he makes installations of objects so carefully worked and weathered that it is difficult to tell if they are fake or genuine.
Art Class is an installation of assembled painted objects, a recreation of Qiu Xiaofei’s teenage art classes, derived from memory. Leaving one side of the easels deliberately bare reveals his technical skill, as well as wit, and teases us into mistaking an object for the ‘real thing’ rather than the contemporary reworking it is. In depicting his past Qiu Xiaofei is recalling a personal experience that is also political, in recording the lost history which has defined him. Art Class is a striking example of the turn in contemporary art towards an apparently genuine attempt to reflect upon one’s personal place in the world, whilst at the same time humorously undermining the very nature of the real.
Yangjiang Group (Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin)
b.1970, b.1971, b.1974
If I knew the danger ahead, I’d have stayed well clear 2007
Photo Phil Olson
The Yangjiang Group’s projects are largely tied to calligraphy, which was the starting point for the structure and form of their opening-night firework project for The Real Thing.
The work consisted of a spectacular firework display on the River Mersey, with over 20,000 rockets fired in just six minutes. Combining sound and laser elements, the display took the form of a battle with volleys of fireworks being fired from two barges on the river, and organised in six distinct phases – Battle Stations, Intelligence Gathering, War at Sea, Sea-to-Air Missile Interceptors, Air Raid, Sea-to-Ground-to-Air: The Final Battle. With the victory finally won the words “If I knew the danger ahead, I’d have stayed well clear” ignited across the battlefield. In referencing the ‘gunpowder’ works of the Chinese master Cai Guo Qiang, the Yangjiang Group is making a bold statement about the younger generation’s power to unsettle and usurp the older generation. A film of the event can be seen on the screen in this room.
Read the script for the firework display's sequence of events
Face V 1999-2001
Li Yongbin belongs to the first generation of artistic innovators of the post-Mao era. Self taught, he gave up painting in the late 1990s to work exclusively with video. Using the barest of means and the simplest of techniques, he creates work of great, and often disturbing, power. Often using his own face, or simple shadows, duration and repetition introduce a strongly psychological dimension to his work.
Face V takes the form of an installation, and like most of his work, appears to relate directly to a powerful memory or experience from childhood. We are given a moment of fear and uncertainty provoked by the approach of an unfamiliar shadow at the window of a child’s bedroom. It shares, with all of Li Yongbin’s work, a psychological sense of menace and dread, articulated with the minimum of means, as powerful as it is inexplicable.
8848 Minus 1.86 2005
Video and mixed media installation
Xu Zhen is the maverick of the Chinese art world. With no patience for conventional, out-moded ways, his urgent desire to confront every value of a society he perceives as banal, hypocritical, or plain conventional, extends to his own approach and practice as an artist. Combining a critical intelligence with fierce humour, his works in many media are often unsettling, with an undertone of violence that delight as they provoke
8848 Minus 1.86 combines these elements in an ambitious work focusing on Mount Everest. The British claimed in 1856 that the summit was 8,848 metres in height, a measurement that despite new and conflicting data still officially stands. In May 2005, Xu Zhen led an ascent on Everest, and to test the veracity of the measurements, succeeded in removing the summit of the mountain, reducing its height by 186cm, Xu Zhen’s own height. Various official and independent surveys since have consistently shown that Everest is not as high as had been thought, pointing, perhaps, to evidence of global warming, or a shift in the tectonic plates, though its cause still remains unproven.
Railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu 2007
Video and mixed media installation
Qiu Zhijie’s work reconciles traditional Chinese aesthetics and contemporary expression to create works of international relevance. Provocative and articulate, he is as much art critic, philosopher, social historian, and curator as visual artist. His works encompass painting, calligraphy, video, installation and performance.
The work is an homage to Nain Singh, a 33 year-old Indian man who, in 1863, was given the task of journeying across Tibet in carefully measured 33 inch strides, to accurately map the territory as part of the British Survey. Qiu Zhijie walks the route in the opposite direction following exactly the same protocols as Nain. Along the way, he asks for metal objects which he then melts down to forge the iron rail, in recognition of the opening, in 2006, of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway along the same route. Qiu Zhijie states, “nothing the British could have done back then, nor even the imposition of Chinese sovereignty (in 1959), will have as much impact upon Tibet and the traditional way of life.”