Lifting the lid on contemporary Chinese art with Die 8 der Wege

He Xiangyu, The Death of Marat, 2011. Silicon, hair, textile. 175 x 50 x 35 cm. Courtesy Alexander Ochs Galleries Berlin I Beijing
He Xiangyu, The Death of Marat, 2011. Silicon, hair, textile. 175 x 50 x 35 cm. Courtesy Alexander Ochs Galleries Berlin I Beijing

Sino-German relations are currently having a moment, with the Hauptstadt celebrating the 20th anniversary of the cooperation between Berlin and Beijing. This week, to make the most the current love for Chinese culture in Berlin, we’re focusing on artists and designers hailing from the People’s Republic.

Most people, when they think of contemporary Chinese, think of one name, and the German capital’s celebration of Chinese art this Spring started with his opening: Ai Weiwei‘s Evidence at Martin-Gropius Bau. However, a plethora of exhibitions around Berlin (Momentum’s Pandamonium, for example) are striving to show that there’s more to the Beijing art scene than one man. A broader look at the art of the Chinese capital is on show at Die 8 der Wege, a group show that was set up specifically with the 20 year relationship between Beijing and Berlin in mind. 

The organiser of the show, Yu Zhang, is positive about the similarities and possibility of exchange between the two cities: “Both capital cities are the political and cultural centres of China and Germany, and both are metropoles for art as well. It is therefore very important for the relationship of both cities, that Berlin and Beijing intensify the dialogue with each other, and benefit from each other.” The exhibition, which mainly highlights artists unknown in the West, attempts an overview of the real and current concerns of Beijing artists. The last exhibition of its kind was 20 years ago, and one of its curators, Andreas Schmid, was also one of the curators of Die 8 der Wege. 

Kan Xuan, Meng Huang You, 2010. Single channel video. 6’. Courtesy Kan Xuan

“There have been a lot of changes in the last 20 years, because Chinese society has changed so much, as well as our attitude – both inside and outside of China. The whole situation of the artist has changed so much. Communication methods for example, were limited at that time. The artists were just trying to get to an equal level to  Western artists, and had a real idealism about it. This has totally changed: they are now proud to talk for themselves. It’s a process of individualisation.”

Though the curators of the show, Die 8 Der Wege co-curator Thomas Eller is clear that a topical approach to curating was never in mind, there are certain concerns of the artists’ works on show that are developed throughout the exhibition to create thematic progressions. “We chose by work, not by artist, in order to create that field where one artwork would relate to the other, so you’d get a smooth transition from one work to another. At the entrance there is a threshold you have to cross before you even go into the exhibition: the tunnel with sounds from Ancient Beijing by Colin Chinnery. Then you come into the room with laser installations by Li Hui. When you put those two together, you experience a metaphorical journey, like when you get on a plane.  Each work connects to the other.”

Installation shot. Li Hui, Die 8 der Wege

One practical trend among young Beijing that both curators point out is their artistic expression through the full variety of media. As the curators went on their studio visits around Beijing to meet potential artists for the show, they were often surprised to hear that there was only one artist working there, instead of three. However, this highlights an important structural issue about the process of creating art, that does not solely focus on method. “How many research tools does an artist really have? They are always dabbling in something they don’t really understand and trying to make something meaningful out of it. What is really interesting about artists is how do they deal with the information we all have,” says Eller.

Schmid says: “One topic that is important is that they look at perception itself, for example, Liu Wei or Wang Sishun.” Liu’s works on perception are some of the most striking in the exhibition, especially his chainsawed kitchen appliances, cut along the frame of a photograph taken of them that is displayed alongside. “You see what injustice, what violence, photography inflicts on reality. In another rather funny way this criticism is slid under the doorway, into your consciousness,” adds Eller.  His other works include huge paintings that appear almost digitised and videos of a scene from different vantage points – a good example of the  multimedia approach at play.

Liu Wei, Truth Dimension No. 10, 2013. Oil on canvas. Copyright Liu Wei

However, it is not just perception whose boundaries are criticised; often the works comment on a deeper societal issue. Here, again, the figure of Ai Weiwei looms larger than ever. But the approach of younger artists is somewhat more nuanced, Schmid stresses. “It is parallel to the eighties movement because it was political too, but it had a very strong confrontation with the government at that time. Now, they are more relaxed, but not in a way that says “We don’t care about it”, but in another way. Heading towards Ai Weiwei language is a mistake, because Chinese society acts in so many different ways. It’s a richness of voices. It’s a mistake to shorten it to just one.”

What is clear is how much further this cultural scene can develop, given the multitude of voices in the city. As Yu emphasises: “There are endless possibilities and diversities in the art scene in Beijing: I am really curious about the future development in the next 10 years.” As Chinese art becomes more and more prominent in the West, this chorus of voices can only get louder.


Die 8 der Wege is on show at Uferhallen until 13 July 2014

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