Review: Zhongguo 2185
A look at ten young Chinese artists who are mixing up the scene.
Throughout the 1990s experiments in Afrofuturism were at the forefront of aesthetic innovation. Melding the new social, psychic and philosophical desires of technoculture and science fiction with the ongoing concerns of the African diaspora, the eclectic movement produced some of the decade’s most exciting works: Butler’s Xenogenesis, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, Eshun’s More Brilliant Than the Sun.
Over the last decade or so, as the world’s global power structure shifts and morphs, we have seen a proliferation of new ethno-futurisms find their way into the cultural matrix. The artificial cosmologies of Lawrence Lek eponymous Sinofuturism. The speculative post-oil eschatologies of Sophia Al Maria’s ‘Gulf-Futurism’. Or the rewiring of New Mexican Santos in the decolonialised altars of Marion Martinez’s Chicanafuturism.
Zhongguo 2185, an exhibition of ten young Chinese artists at Sadie Coles — all born after the Cultural Revolution’s end in ’76 — follows in a similar vein. Using Science Fiction as the lens through which to address shifts in the cultural temporalities of China, curator Victor Wang aims to deconstruct uniform aesthetic tropes of Chinese contemporaneity — ones that deploy a reductionist fetishisation of a kitsch, over-populated smog-state, full of technophilic video-game nuts, gambling addicts and suicide nets.
However, contrary to Lek’s articulation, that Sinofuturism is to be found in the knowing affirmation of both Orientalist and domestic false narratives which pit China in an oxymoronic discourse of both exoticism and boredom, heroism and monotony, archaism and the future, Wang’s intention is a more nuanced and heterogeneous display of contemporary Chinese art practice. Bringing together site-specific installations, video, sculpture and painting, Wang looks to address how the accelerating aspects of Chinese life are affecting their different relations to past, present and future.
Taking its title from the still-unpublished online sci-fi novel of Liu Cixin — in which, among many, Mao Zedong’s virtually-resurrected cryogenic brain attempts a cybernetic populist insurgency against the new democratically-elected female leader of China — the exhibition engages with similar themes of ‘gerontocracy, the impact of digital information and the Internet on society, and the complicated relationships between tradition and ‘progress’, gender equality and post-humanism.’
Upon entering the exhibition, you are immediately confronted by the overwhelming pneumatic air-head of Lu Yang’s digitally-rendered personal avatar. The screaming abstract head is complimented with several video streams documenting the cranium-come-kite as it inflates and soars above a vast landing-strip, and an animated vision of Yang’s slow medico-somatic disintegration into early ornamentalised interment.
Coupled with the recognisable pop-cult nightmares of Tianzhuo Chen, whose opulent subaquatic catacomb houses the decaying corpse of his video’s lecherous prince, Yang employs the most readily identifiable aesthetic recourses to the accelerating condition of a globalised, consumer-based China. One where the rising geopolitical power of East Asia meets new economic and social models of information technology and the speculative futures of artificial intelligence.
Yet, beyond the formal aesthetic tropes that have become so associative with the posthuman rhetoric of young artists now faced with a vertiginous descent into a world of 3D modelling, quantum computing and bio-hacking, the exhibition does well not to present China as a technological runaway alien (as is often done in the contemporary market). And its focus on a more personal, anxiety-inducing mood does well to differentiate from the homogeny of current Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei or Zhang Dali.
Indeed, Xu Qu’s monumental prayer beads hang limply to the left-hand side of the room — created using the carcasses of disused police surveillance cameras, their meditative and devout function is replaced by an evocative, silent noose. Behind which lies Chen Zhe’s stark diaristic commentary of China’s issues with mental health, depression and self-harm. At points this work feels almost voyeuristic, with its subtle nods to the aesthetic forms these distressing images often take when circulated online, but it is nonetheless powerful and arresting.
Site-specific installations from Nabuqi, Zhang Ruyi and Yu Ji question China’s current socio-economic shift to marketization and the problems it poses for the nation’s architecture, ecology and industry. Xu Zhen’s telling phantasmagoria, XUZHEN Supermarket (2007/2017) — housed downstairs in the Sadie Coles shop space — invites the audience to purchase from a continually-restocked supermarket of authentic, yet entirely empty Chinese consumer products. ‘Available for purchase, if not for consumption’, this work signals a clear manifestation of the all-encompassing and historically-cleansing power of global capitalism.
Whilst at points lacking some conceptual coherency, the China on show in this exhibition is one un-Otherised. The typical pitfalls of techno-Orientalism that are prevalent in the West’s conception of post-Maoist China are replaced by a mutual concern over the new challenges and anxieties we all face under the current global system: surveillance, isolation, beauty and freedom. The show does well to articulate how these fears and hopes are equally felt by our Chinese counterparts, and elucidating the specific cultural challenges they face as a nation.