Miao Ying and Chinese Contemporary Art

In the exhibition titled “SLEEPING WITH A VENGEANCE, DREAMING OF A LIFE” held at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart (Germany) from October 19, 2019 to January 12, 2020, visitors encounter a sketch of an artwork created by Miao Ying. It is titled “You Can’t Wake A Person Who Is Pretending To Be Asleep” (fig. 1). As one of a few Chinese artists, who created artworks on this topic, the sketch proposes an intervention with the intension to hypnotize visitors with or into the “Chinese Dream”. The black-and-white graded sketch schematically depicts a room in which we see several people lying on what seems to be mattresses on the floor, partially supported and surrounded by antique looking pillars or columns, which seem to symbolize relicts of perished Western democracies. The sketch’s title and her proposition obviously satirizes the “Chinese Dream”, an ideology popularized under Xi Jinping calling for young people to dare dream and revitalize the nation. However, in Stuttgart, Miao Ying’s provocative suggestion remained a mere sketch, one however that makes the visitor wonder about what exactly would be the result of Miao Ying’s artistic dream and how it relates her to recent developments of contemporary Chinese art.

Miao Ying 苗颖 was born in 1985 in the People’s Republic of China and can be considered part of the first generation of Chinese internet artists. She is best known for her projects dealing with Chinese internet and online culture as related with the policy nicknamed ‘The Great Firewall of China’ [1]. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the China Academy of Art’s New Media Art department in Hangzhou in 2007, she received a master’s degree in Fine Arts and Electronic Integrated Arts from Alfred State College’s New York State College of Ceramics in the United States in 2009. [2] She uses various media for her works, thus emphasizing the great impact that mainstream technology and contemporary consciousness have on our daily lives, along with new modes of politics, aesthetics, and consciousness created through the representation of reality by technology. Miao Ying deliberately includes humor into her works and addresses her Stockholm syndrome relationship with the Chinese cultural and socio-political power today; i.e. a subconscious acceptance of the authoritarian state that holds its citizens captive with the promise of ever growing prosperity and discourages to look into its violation of their freedom of expression etc. The artist’s favorite topics include censorship and self-censorship, algorithmic filter bubbles, political lifestyle branding, and ideologies in general.
Prompted by her dormant proposition to hypnotize me as a visitor of the Stuttgart exhibition, I began looking at one of her other, not exhibited artworks called “God, Goddess and God father” in order to discern some characteristics of Chinese contemporary art, which is tightly related to the history and reality of Chinese politics and society.

My overall impression of this work, that took the form of a portable exhibition stand in 2016, is that its composition resembles a collage: a combination of various components, which contain multiple symbolic meanings. The illustration features a laptop on the middle left-hand side of the depiction, referring to computers and internet technology, which can be interpreted as the “God” of our era in resonance with the title. The portrait in the upper right hand corner depicts Jack Ma ⻢云, one of the most successful Chinese businessmen in contemporary China thanks to the rise of his internet commercial empire, including Taobao (淘宝) [3] and Alipay. He and his company represent a complete change in the traditional business mode and lifestyle of Chinese people in China. In this piece, he is regarded as “God father” or creator of the internet technological innovation. In the lower left corner we see Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-1506), which seem to represent “the Goddess” of art or at least a canonical Western representation of beauty. Interestingly, Mona Lisa’s reproduction looks quite dark and small compared with the large and shining figure of Jack Ma. I consider this an artistic expression of the technological impact overshadowing traditions in general and Chinese values in particular. The wolf in the middle ground may suggest the power of nature or even nature itself shown against and suppressed by the great power of human technology. The cloned sheep Dolly in the middle of the left-hand side of the composition represents another significant event: humans beginning to possess the power of creation, i.e. acting like a god. All these components are connected to lighting, which may represent the idea that our contemporary society is generated and connected by electricity. Miao Ying’s collage thus suggests how technology changes forms of life, including the human society and natural world, and generally reflects on the relations between technology and our humanity and consciousness.

In order to understand Miao Ying’s position and the latest generation of Chinese artists, it is helpful to briefly discuss contemporary Chinese art and politics. Given the end of the rigid Maoist era the art and visual culture of which was dominated by socialist realism, the beginning of contemporary Chinese art is commonly dated to the beginning of the 1980s. The economic reform since 1978, also known as “Open Door” policy, brought significant changes also in the fields of art, including the change from state employed artists subject to the governance of a Party controlled art bureaucracy to a capitalist art market, where independently working artists have to find their niche, if they want to live off their art. The freedom of artistic creation, which released artists from strict political restriction, became a driving force of artistic innovation regarding form and content. Abundant knowledge of Western (contemporary) art was introduced to China and direct exchanges in academic and artistic fields had a strong impact on the artists. Many began to experiment with various forms of Western modern and contemporary art such as Dada and art forms such as installations or performance art. However, their contents remained related to Chinese concerns, especially Chinese politics. 

In contrast, in the Chinese painting tradition political themes were rare, and artists’ political thoughts were not directly depicted in their artworks. Symbols and metaphors are commonly expressive methods to indicate an artist’s thoughts. Therefore, landscape paintings as well as bird and flower paintings must be seen from a completely different perspective. For example, the huge mountains in a typical Northern Song (11th century) landscape painting represent the dominating power of the monarchy; bamboos, pines or plum blossoms symbolize the virtues of a honorable man; animals and especially the horses painted by Zhao Mengfu 赵孟頫during the Yuan dynasty (13th-14th CE) represent his struggle between holding an official position and choosing retirement; or the scenes in genre paintings, like the famous “Along the River during the Qingming Festival (清明上河图)” could indicate and satirize the political reality and crisis of Northern Song Dynasty.

However, the artistic tradition of invisible political expression is completely subverted in present-day China. It is due to the strong impact of the Western ideas of modernity, democracy, freedom of speech and equality of civil rights. The emphasis on public political expression helps to emancipate themes present in artistic production to enable criticism of the political reality of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government in a more straightforward and open way. Art is used as a weapon against the autarchy and the ‘inappropriate policy’ of the government. For example, one popular artistic topic is the reflection and critique of the Cultural Revolution, which is also called “Scar Art”, since it showed the non-heroic part, traumatic memories, and lingering wounds created by the collectivizing mass campaign, in which people with educational backgrounds were persecuted, all educational institutions closed down, and visual culture severely limited. 

A critical approach to this campaign and similar events was however often been banned by the authorities and artists were persecuted. To these days authorities in China tend to regard critical art as harmful and threat to the official propaganda, the great images of the leader, the party, and the government in general. An extreme and famous example of such a case is doubtlessly Ai Weiwei 艾未未, who was temporarily imprisoned and still is very controversial artist an artist given his popularity in the international art scene that albels him as a dissident artist standing up against the CCP in contrast to his official reception in China where he was branded as an immoral person, violating tax restrictions, and the nation’s positive image. 

Chinese artists often translate the struggle with Chinese political reality into various creative and innovative ways. Even though many of these artworks are forbidden as “inappropriate” or exhibited only in private spaces within China, they can be exhibited on the international art stage in an open and public manner. However, to be able to understand the significance of these artworks, an abundant knowledge of Chinese contemporary political reality is required. This aspect can be a challenge for a non-Chinese audience who may not know the whole picture without detailed explanation. Therefore, the important position of context is crucial to understand the significance and the connotation of the artworks.

One way to enhance our mutual understanding of cultural, historical, and political entanglements as well as differences it to look into prominent writing about contemporary Chinese art by Chinese curator-cum-critics. One such instance is a book published in 1998 by Gao Minglu 高名潞 whose title reads as a metaphor to describe the post-Mao era art developments: Inside Out: New Chinese Art. It underlines that after Mao’s reign, formerly internal thoughts, which used to be invisible and metaphorical, were liberated and expressed in an open manner and in the public space. In recent years, Chinese artists have been reflecting on this process and phenomenon, and many of them have picked-up pre-modern Chinese artistic tradition again as a source of inspiration for artistic innovation, like Xu Bing 徐冰and Chen Qi 陈琦. Both artists are inspired by Chinese traditional calligraphy and painting, and use the form of ink art to express their thoughts. I think that it is delightful to see the return of contemporary Chinese artists to the ancient traditions of Chinese painting with the accumulation of thousands years of history, as it provides more inspiration and materials for Chinese artistic creation. The globalization of contemporary art brings Chinese artists abundant opportunities in multicultural contacts and communication with the international world. These aspects enable the production of more creative and multiple forms and contents of art under the influence of the global tendency. 

In conclusion, Miao Ying apparently follows another, more conceptual part when picking on long-standing motifs related with a more traditional, holistic understanding of men and nature, by means of very contemporary and global artistic media and art forms. Miao Ying’s approach possibly suggests that there is a new generation of Chinese artists who have left behind earlier transcultural works, which focused on how art negotiate pressing Chinese or other political issues of people in late capitalist societies, since public expression of political opinion is still a sensitive and controversial issue in contemporary China. Artists expect that through the critique of the political reality in China in divers forms of art, their thoughts and ideas can influence and promote political reforms especially from the aspects of democracy, freedom of speech and human rights.

Notes/Quoted Sources:
[1] The policy creates a system to prevent Chinese people from browsing freely on foreign websites on Internet, like Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on.
[2] “BIO: Miao-Ying.” miao. Accessed December 31, 2019. https://www.miaoyingstudio.com/about.
[3] A shopping website similar to Amazon.

Image Sources/copyrights:
Figure 1:
Photograph by Hai Yu.

Figure 2:
Courtesy of Miao Ying. Miao Ying, “HOME: Miao-Ying.”, Accessed December 31, 2019. https://www.miaoyingstudio.com/.