Three years of isolation, three years of not knowing when restrictions will be lifted, let alone how life would look like when that finally happens. We find out how it affected artists in China, who were effectively immobilised by zero-Covid policies.
In early January, China announced it was opening its borders to international travel, dismantling one of the few remaining pillars of a zero-Covid policy that had confined 1.4 billion people from the rest of the world for three long years. In the same month, Gagosian Hong Kong opened Uncanny Valley, a group exhibition featuring new works by 11 Chinese contemporary artists and organised by the independent Beijing-based curator Yang Zi. The title was inspired by Japanese roboticist Mashiro Mori’s theory of the “uncanny valley” which hypothesises how an object’s degree of resemblance to a human being determines the emotional response to said object. In other words, a humanoid object bearing either a high or low level of resemblance to a real person will prompt feelings of affinity, while one with a close but flawed similarity may instead provoke agitation and revulsion.
The works on display, ranging from paintings to sculptures and videos, offer a glimpse into a world of turbulent emotions resulting from a time of isolation and uncertainty. Mirroring the uneasiness spotlighted by Mori’s theory, the art pieces explore how the powerful connection between humans – or, pointedly, the lack thereof – impact the wellbeing of an individual. “When you look at the pieces from afar, they might seem perfect at first glance,” Yang explains. “But if you look closer, you’ll feel this creepiness. Every work in this exhibition shares this quality when studied in detail.
“It reflects the anxiety shared by the artists in the past three years when they had to spend time alone with their own thoughts and imaginations while the country waged its war against the virus.” In works by Li Hei Di, Nabuqi, and Wang Xiaoqu, anatomical fragments evoke both the physical limitations of flesh and the boundlessness of desire, while in Li Weiyi’s Panorama Study (2021), the members of a crowd mimic each other in an apparent surrender of volition.
While the assembled works illustrate a seemingly overwhelming sense of despair and anxiety, what they really represent is the strength and resilience of an aggrieved community and a gleaming ray of hope. Physical restrictions didn’t cripple artists: on the contrary they inspired and empowered creativity.
But that’s no news to us: history is evidence that the most difficult times fuel creative expression; the hardship and horror experienced during and between the two world wars threw up a plethora of modern art movements, with Dada, Surrealism, Suprematism and Constructivism spreading around the world from their beginnings in Europe, while Cubism established Picasso as one of the most important artists in human history – his 1937 masterpiece Guernica remains one of the most moving and powerful anti-war statements ever.
In many ways the physical and mental distress felt in China during Covid is comparable. By early 2022, a time when much of the rest of the world was choosing to live with the virus, feelings of crushing loneliness had become overpowering, leaving many in China segregated and alienated.
And that got the creative juices flowing. “Artists are always sensitive to social changes,” says Catherine Kwai, founder of Kwai Fung Hin Gallery. “Political change and economic restructuring provoke new thoughts, ideas and philosophy. I believe the unstable global situation and conflict resulting from the imbalance in wealth will stimulate new artistic movements and genres. Recently we’ve seen a surge in artworks depicting themes of life and death, showing figures and characters wearing masks within scenes of social unrest.”
Art during hard times also sees its creators triumphing through adaptability and innovation. Kwai cites the case of the artist Xue Song in Anhui during lockdown: “He went back to his hometown of Dangshan, which is close to the place of origin of Daoism. Resonating with the teachings of this school of Chinese philosophy, he was inspired to shift from figurative to abstract expression and spent three years creating his latest The Dao from Nature series, which is completely different from his previous creation.”
“Liu Wei’s show Over at the Long Museum Shanghai in 2020 is another great example,” says Lehmann Maupin Hong Kong director Shasha Tittmann. “He completely changed the concept of his exhibition when the world was starting to shut down in March. His new works explore the new world order in a very philosophical way.”
Transforming more than 30,000 square feet of the Long Museum into a theatre for social commentary, Over shares Liu’s personal reflections on the unique moment in human history that was the year 2020. A fearful and unsettling moment burned into our collective memory. Yet the exhibition statement on the Long Museum website claims that “ultimately, the exhibition points to a path of transcendence: transcending the material world, time, space, the body, senses and self-consciousness”.
And perhaps transcendence is exactly what best describes art in Covid and post-Covid China. The idea of bidding farewell to a world of the past, with the end heralding a new beginning. In addition to Covid-themed art, young Chinese artists are already adding to the cultural dialogue with new narratives. “Y-generation Chinese artists such as Zhang Zipiao are making a name for themselves for their unique take on current and popular social subjects,” observes Vincent Wu, founder of CURATOR Group. “Represented by LGDR and Salon 94, and named Forbes 30 under 30 in 2019, Zhang explores themes of the perception of beauty and online personas – a common topic nowadays in social-media life in China.”
And the market stays afloat by staying flexible, just like the artists its existence depends on. “The contemporary art market has remained quite stable over the past two years despite Covid,” says Marcello Kwan, Bonham’s Asia head of modern and contemporary Art. “Digital is becoming dominant, with more collectors buying online. At Bonhams, almost 50 percent of our total hammer price in 2022 was sold online, so that paints a telling picture. If there’s one thing the pandemic has done well, it’s that it’s accelerated the industry’s digital development, and collectors’ habit to buy digitally and remotely.”
So let’s dust ourselves off and embrace this new beginning, already beaming with confidence from healthy market performance.