Four years ago, an anonymous artist created an installation of Sunflower seeds on the floor of the Tate Modern.In 2015, Ai Weiwei is an international phenomenon: his face is known worldwide, his name is known as much for his human rights activism as for his politically pointed readymades. He has suffered a severe head injury at the hands of the Chinese police; his studio has been demolished; he has been imprisoned and interrogated. The world has protested passionately on his behalf – with memorable silent sit-ins at museums and embassies, 90,000-strong petitions, open letters signed by pre-eminent intellectuals.Yet Weiwei wasn’t privy to all the seismic efforts on the other side of the world. In 2011, police apprehended Weiwei at Beijing airport, and he has been detained in China since then. He missed hundreds of his exhibitions and events including receiving his award as Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience, and has had limited time with his son and wife, who live in Berlin.When his exhibition opens this week at the Royal Academy, Weiwei will be in attendance. It will be the first time the British public will get to explore Weiwei’s art in breadth and depth. His presence, in person and in his art, is a proof, of our basic rights to speak freely, but more so, it is a proof of his indestructible activism.In celebration of Weiwei’s work, we look at his most prominent peers and heirs living and working in China now, each distributing their own message fearlessly through their art.
The work of Shanghai-based photo duo Birdhead (Ji Weiyu, a former Central St Martin’s student, and Song Tao) is rooted in the rapidly changing urban scenery of their hometown: they compulsively capture their friends, strangers, detritus, foliage, buildings, themselves; building a rich social document of life from their perspective in contemporary China. But as each apparently desultory image builds quantitatively to a meaningful whole, the universality of their work also becomes apparent – in our image culture, no single shot can even present a full truth. Their work feels like the impulse of a young generation of Chinese artists who want to be part of the world: when you come from China, radicalism is simply wanting to behave like outsiders.
Qingsong’s early training as a painter is visible in the quality of his photographic work, which he has focused on since the 90s. More like static performances, his works take on the apocryphal nature of Chinese post-Mao consumerism. Like Weiwei, there is a feeling of an artistic responsibility in Qingsong’s output, to question the political and cultural status quo. There’s humour in his work, but it’s perforated with the feeling that laughter is only the best coping mechanism, a way to be able to look at the senselessness of a system in thrall of products where the individual struggles to keep up.
“Safe Milk”, 2009Courtesy of Wang Qingsong
Liu Ding has dedicated his entire practice to questioning conventional approaches to art and life. He challenges the artist’s symbiotic relationship with history – an unreliable framework by which we measure and fix meaning and value, in both the commercial and intellectual space. Ding’s subversive practice includes the creation of rooms, immersive 360 installations of paint, paper, photographs, mirrors, coat hangers, cups, carpet.
Installation shot of “Traces of Sperm”, 2008 at MOT International, LondonCourtesy of Liu Ding and MOT International, London
RONG RONG AND INRI
Husband and wife duo Rong Rong (China) and inri (Japan) are radicals in many ways: against a fast-paced and rapidly changing environment, time stands still in the couple’s black and white photographs. The epic romanticism and irreducible beauty of their self-portraits depicts 15 years of their relationship as a couple, and as a family (they have three sons) shifting settings from ancient to modern, rural to urban. Their vision has compelled them to support the next generation of Chinese photographers through their nonprofit space in Beijing, established in 2007 – designed by their friend Ai Weiwei – Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.
Fen-Ma Liuming, “Lunch II”, 1995Photography Rong Rong and Inri
Yang Fudong is cherished as one of China’s best moving image artists. His lens is like a seeking-soul, trying to identify the spiritual world, or find out if indeed it exists at all. Like many contemporary Chinese artists, the past and present meet in Fudong’s work, that is characteristically Chinese but combines influences from the tropes of international cinema. Illusory, multi-screen projections embody the psyche of a new generation in China, displaced by the huge social changes the country has seen in their lifetime.
“International Hotel 8”, 2010Marian Goodman via Art Basel Hong Kong
Xu Zhen doesn’t shy away from subject matter that will land him in trouble in China – his early works were loaded with sex and violence a