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Chinese Art (PDF download)




Chinese Art
             Rises Again

Chen Ke
Chen Ke, one of China’s new generation of young
artists discusses her work, the dichotomies
of identity, personal tastes and cultural
significance in the flux of modern China.

                hina is by far, one of the most intriguing countries in
                the world. For decades it was closed, creating an air of
                mystery and becoming somewhat of an enigma. What
                did we know? It was big, it was communist, and that
                was about all. After the end of the Cultural Revolution
                and the death of Mao Zedong, China had experienced a
decade (1966 – 1976) of social, political, economic chaos and disarray.
  Collectivisation and forced labour lead to tens of thousands of
displaced individuals, communities and consequentially values, history
and heritage – many factors that infuse a culture’s sense of identity. One
of the main concerns of the Cultural Revolution was the abolishment of
the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. As a
result of the Destruction of the Four Olds campaign, churches, temples,
mosques, monasteries and cemeteries were closed, books, artefacts,
historical archives and antiques destroyed; throughout the ten-year
period, education came to a virtual halt.
  Much of China’s past was erased. As the country began to recover from
the Cultural Revolution and make sense of past events, another shift in
Chinese society occurred, the overwhelming power of globalisation
and urbanization. In 1979, Coca-Cola enters the market, the 1980s
introduces American cartoons such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
and Mickey Mouse, 1987 sees Kentucky Fried Chicken open its doors
in Beijing, the 1990s brings imported films like Forrest Gump, while in
2001 China enters the World Trade Organization.
  With such an awe-inspiring transformation within a generation, China
has become a major player in the world economy in both production
and consumption. This position is not to be taken lightly, in only 50
years there have been two extremes, resulting in nothing happening
organically. In one corner, a society loses its cultural past, and in the
other, the shift from agriculture to urbanization has occurred virtually
  The art that a society produces says much about its inner-dynamic.
Chen Ke (detail of ) If I`m not working, I lose confidence and the feeling of security, 2008. Oil, acrylic medium and thread on printed calico. 100 x 130cm. Courtesy of artist.

       Above: Chen Ke Alice, 2008. Oil and acrylic medium on linen. 160 x 200cm. Courtesy of artist.
       Top Right: Chen Ke Cocoon, 2006. Oil on canvas 130 x 100cm. Courtesy of artist and Burger Collection, Hong Kong.
       Right: Chen Ke Clockwork, 2009. Oil, acrylic medium and thread on printed calico. 73 x 90cm.
       Courtesy of artist and The Ministry of Art.

  “The ever-increasing interest in contemporary Chinese certainly
influences the speed of production by the artists. Knowing that
there is a high market demand, a lot of artists are trying to quickly                                                     influences come from the 19th Century
fulfil this demand and deliver artworks. Also, you can observe that if                                                    German painter, Caspar David Friedrich, but
some artists are successful, their style or elements of their style will                                                  also, “classical Chinese masters from earlier
be copied, or to put it more neutrally – inspire younger artists. “                                                       times, for example, Zhao Ji, one of the
                                                                                                                          emperors in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1127)
Along with China’s economic boom through manufacturing and                                      who had an important influence on Chinese classical art.”
industry, its art market has rocked the imagination of collectors and                             Ke is an innovator. Not only does she manufacture her own paper,
enthusiasts. Aesthetica had the chance to catch up with one of China’s                          embroider canvases with beads, but she also applies oil colour on
most prominent and emerging artists. Chen Ke is a woman of her times,                           stretched cotton fabrics, which were popular in her childhood days.
while her images of young girls represent the multiple dimensions of                           “Most often I work with canvases and linen, but I have also worked on
human nature.                                                                                   a variety of other materials. Once I created a series where I painted
  Born in Tongjiang in 1978, Chen Ke grew up as only child, in a small                          on furniture from the 1970s, which I purchased at flea markets. I have
town in the southwest province of Sichuan. In 1993 at the age of 15, she                        also painted with watercolours on stones or used modelling paste and
moved to Chongqing to study painting formally at the Middle School                              colour on shells. For paintings like If I’m not working, I lose confidence
of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. This was also the same year that for                        and the feeling of security (2008) or Clockwork (2009) I used printed
the first time Chinese artists were selected for the Venice Biennale. Like                      calico fabrics that show motifs that I have liked since I was a child.
many young people, Ke went on to university, and finished her studies                           Researching different materials is part of my creating process and full
in 2005 with an MFA. An exciting year for Ke, she also married artist, Cao                      of pleasant surprises.”
Jingping, and moved to Beijing, where she now currently lives. Beijing                            One manifestation of China’s economic transformation is the power
is a powerful force for contemporary Chinese art, Ke says: “My move to                          of its contemporary art market. Contemporary art is soaring; the first
Beijing was motivated by the lack of an arts scene in Chongqing. I am                           commercial gallery to open was in the 798 district in Beijing in 2002,
now accustomed to living in Beijing and feel lucky to be working here                           now there are over 200 galleries in Beijing and Shanghai, giving artists
as a free artist.”                                                                              more opportunities to exhibit and sell their work. Chinese artists are
  Ke’s references to cartoon art are obvious when analysing her works                           leading the way, taking Chinese culture and critique around the world.
in more detail, elements of Western masters and that of traditional                             The tension that exists between socialist ideals and the new wave of
Chinese paintings become visible, which creates an exciting tension.                            consumerism, the result of many capitalist reforms, is present in much
Keen to experiment, Ke often surprises her viewers. Reminiscing back                            of contemporary Chinese art; it resonates in the global context and
to childhood, Ke’s mother worked in a bookstore where “she gave me                              leaves a lasting legacy. Ke’s work debates with this idea. “The China I
a series of 15 comic books based on well-known Western fairy tales                              grew up in is completely different from the China I live in today. China
and fantasy stories. There were stories included like Alice in Wonderland.                      has changed in many aspects ranging from politics to economics and
With these illustrated stories, I learned to read. For me, it’s incredibly                      a change in the Chinese culture is no exception. However, things are
interesting how words and images come together.” Ke’s other great                               connected to each other and it’s not always easy to narrow it down
Below: Chen Ke Anorexia, 2005. Oil on canvas 150 x 140cm. Courtesy of artist.
Right: Chen Ke Another me in the world, 2007. Oil and modeling paste on silk board
170 x 120cm. Courtesy of artist and Private Collection, Zurich.

 to only one factor. Specifically regarding culture, I think that for many           emotions; that of loneliness, sadness and despair. These negative
 years there was a strong focus on Western culture and that everything               emotions have a greater impact in the context of the modern world.
 that came from the West was considered as new, exciting and good.                   Symbolically they reflect the current state of affairs, the economy, fear,
 I think this attitude has changed, as people re-orientate themselves                isolation and the sentiment that although the “world is smaller”, we
 towards the Chinese culture and tradition. We are getting more and                  have never been more alone.
 more proud of our own centuries of culture.”                                          One of Ke’s most striking images is Another me in the world. It’s
   With the ever-increasing interest in contemporary Chinese art with                reasonable to muse, what it must be like to have a double – to be
 artists achieving lucrative sales at auction, and even Zhang Xiaogang,              you, but someone else at the same time. Of this paradox Ke says: “I
 joining the millionaire club with the likes of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons,         felt lonely growing up as an only child. I think there is something
 there is something inherently different about contemporary Chinese                  funny and magical about having a twin. In order to not feel so lonely, I
 art. It strikes a chord, opens a door, analyses the present and looks               created another me in the world.” The glance from self to self is utterly
 incredibly inward, however it’s unassuming, powerful and at the same                compelling. She wants viewers to look within themselves: “I take the
 time universal. But how does this effect the type of art being produced?            inspiration from my heart. I believe my pictures develop from the
“It certainly influences the speed of production by the artists. Knowing             inside out. It’s an exploration of my inner-self.” It would be easy to
 that there is a high market demand, a lot of artists are trying to quickly          dismiss such overt sentimentality, but Ke’s genuine approach makes
 fulfil this demand and deliver artworks. Also, you can observe that if              her work more precious with every gaze.
 some (older) artists are successful, their style or elements of their style           If I’m not working, I lose confidence and the feeling of security (2008) is
 will be copied, or to put it more neutrally – inspire younger artists.              existential, capturing the essence of modern living. “I like the contrast
 Maybe this is not so different to what happened with the Leipzig                    of the fragile girl mixed with this rough machine. The machine is used
 School. Neo Rauch’s style became very obvious in the works of other                 to make handy-works, and in the past, artists created these works with
 artists. For me, I am very happy that I can follow my style and ideas.”             their hands. This is my understanding of being an artist; perhaps it’s
   This surge wasn’t always the case, as Ke remembers, “there wasn’t                 a bit old-fashioned. This work, in a way, depicts the tight relationship
 always so much attention on the Chinese art scene. When I began, or                 between myself and my art,” enthuses Ke. With her candid approach
 even still during my studies, we never could have imagined that the                 and reflective aesthetic, Chen Ke’s work exists in that space between
 situation would develop to how it is today. I think the attention on                the subjective and the objective, always exploring and conquering
 Chinese art is also connected to the general attention on China. With               new things.
 China’s development in economics, a greater interest in China emerged,                Another me in the world is Chen Ke’s first solo exhibition outside of
 but also in particular on Chinese art. This field was neglected for many            China. Opening at Kunstverein Viernheim, Germany, from 19 June -18
 years, and then in 2004 people realised that there were exciting things             July. The exhibition includes 20 paintings ranging from 2004 to most
 happening in the Chinese contemporary art scene.”                                   recent works. For details visit:
   Ke’s work is dreamlike, mystical and enigmatic. Her visual language is
 profoundly subjective, while aesthetically, her work provokes certain                                                                           Cherie Federico

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