Art and China after 1989: New Perspectives


This Friday I will be presenting a talk at a symposium organised by the Guggenheim Museum NY, and the NYU Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. Unfortunately I won’t be able to deliver the talk in person but Dr. Wenny Teo, of the Courtauld Institute of Art, has kindly agreed to read the paper on my behalf. The symposium is part of a larger programme of events which will coincide with a major exhibition of contemporary art from China which is slated to open next Autumn at the Guggenheim.

The symposium features an impressive lineup of emerging scholars, curators and museum professionals and tackles issues ranging from public art in the 1990s to consumer culture in Shanghai, institutional critique to contemporary Chinese art history in a global age. My talk will focus on a series of photographic works by the artist Liu Gang 刘刚 (b. 1983) entitled ‘Paper Dreams.’ I have a chapter devoted to these works in my book manuscript, but in this talk I will be focusing specifically on their portrayal of new consumer identities and increasingly globalised patterns of consumption, examining how these developments are amplifying the exchange of visual aesthetics across national and cultural boundaries.

I have included the full symposium programme below, apparently the event is currently sold out, although it may be possible to gain entrance on the day.


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The Art of the QR Code



This post is devoted to exploring a digital phenomenon that seems to have largely eluded audiences in Europe and America despite its pervasive presence within the art world in China: the QR (Quick Response) code 二维码.

QR codes are a ubiquitous feature of daily life in China. Plastered on newspaper adverts, restaurant flyers, giant billboards, subway posters, supermarket counters, buses and even business cards, the omnipresence of this seemingly mundane digital marker speaks volumes about the dominance of mobile networks, social media and communication technologies in contemporary China.


The functionality of QR codes within China has been significantly bolstered as a result of the majority of the country’s inhabitants accessing the internet via their mobile phones rather than through personal computers. According to recent statistics, 89% of China’s 700 million internet users go online using a mobile. Mobile online networks have therefore dovetailed with the convenience of QR codes, enabling a range of activities which might seem unthinkable to users outside of China. As this recently released video demonstrates, the simple scanning of a code can be used to make online payments, join social networks, access consumer discounts, attain online information, send digital money to friends and family, as well as countless other activities and services. In short, QR codes in China go far beyond the capabilities of their QR cousins in Europe or elsewhere, where they predominantly function as a means of digital ticketing including online boarding passes etc. Continue reading

UCL Press launches a series of free ebooks that explore the uses and consequences of social media around the world


UCL Press has just launched a great series of eleven free open access volumes of ethnographic research based on the ‘Why we Post’ project, a global anthropological research project on the uses and consequences of social media. Most of the books are available for download in pdf format, on epub or as paperback or hardback options.

For more information on the project, visit For an overview, take a look at the comparative book ‘How the World Changed Social Media’. For those with a particular interest in social media and China, Xinyuan Wang’s ‘Social Media in Industrial China’ shown below, contains fascinating chapters on ‘Visual Material on Social Media’ and ‘The Social Media Landscape in China’. Tom McDonald’s ‘Social Media in Rural China’ also has a great section on ‘Visual postings: Idealising family- love, marriage and ‘little treasures’. A full list of the titles in the series is shown below.

Why We Post

Why do we post on social media? Is it true that we are replacing face-to-face relationships with on-screen life? Are we becoming more narcissistic with the rise of selfies? Does social media create or suppress political action, destroy privacy or become the only way to sell something? And are these claims equally true for a factory worker in China and an IT professional in India? With these questions in mind, nine anthropologists each spent 15 months living in communities in China, Brazil, Turkey, Chile, India, England, Italy and Trinidad. They studied not only platforms but the content of social media to understand both why we post and the consequences of social media on our lives. Their findings indicate that social media is more than communication – it is also a place where we now live.

This series explores and compares the results in a collection of ground-breaking and accessible ethnographic studies. As with all UCL Press titles, they will be available as free PDF downloads, and a in low-cost print.

Recently Published

How the World Changed Social Media

How the World Changed Social Media

 A summary of the findings of ethnographic research undertaken in eight countries around the world.

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Social Media in Industrial China

Groundbreaking ethnographic study that examines social media usage in a factory town in southeast China.

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Social Media in Rural China

Absorbing ethnographic study by Tom McDonald that examines social media use in a small rural Chinese community.

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Titles in the Why We Post series include:

September 12th, 2016

More Than Ever

By: Colin Siyuan Chinnery            Date: 7/9/2016         Source:

Despite years of sexual inequality in China a positive gender-shift seems to be taking place in the art world.


Upon being asked to recommend five or six shows in Beijing for another section of this website, there was one editorial criterion that was all but impossible to fulfill: finding a balance between exhibitions by male and female artists. It reminded me of a common complaint of visiting Western curators to China: that I and other local curators do not introduce them to enough female artists. I share their frustration. (Although they probably suspect us of sexist gatekeeping, given that most curators in China are also male). An examination of the gender breakdown of artists represented by China’s best-known commercial galleries illustrates the current situation: Long March Space (Beijing) represents 14 male artists and three female artists (of which one is a deceased shaman and another is part of a partnership with a male artist); ShanghART (Beijing and Shanghai) works with 46 male artists and two female artists (one of whom is part of an artist-duo, the other half of which is a man); and Vitamin Creative Space (Guangzhou) shows 19 male artists and three female artists. Shanghai’s hippest new galleries don’t fare much better: Aike-Dellarco’s male-female balance is 14–2, Antenna Space 7–2 (plus one genderqueer artist), Leo Gallery 13–3 and Leo Xu Projects 10–2.

Zhu Tian, 600 RMB A Go, video still, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Gallery, Shanghai


Zhu Tian, 600 RMB A Go, video still, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Gallery, Shanghai.


However, a number of current group shows suggest that a new narrative is developing. A major international group show of female artists, ‘She’, is on show at Shanghai’s Long Museum until the end of October, while across town, at Leo Gallery, there is a smaller all-women group show titled ‘Instant Image’. Pace Beijing’s summer show, ‘Not Early Not Late’, features video works by nine female artists and the art museum at Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (CAFA) has co-organized ‘Fire Within: A New Generation of Chinese Women Artists’, which opened in late August at the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum at Michigan State University. Curators seem to be noticing a new phenomenon: more and more women artists are emerging from Chinese art schools and coming back from studying abroad. This spring, when Shanghai’s MadeIn Gallery organized ‘Extravagant Imagination, the Wonder of Idleness’ – a show of the youngest generation of artists to emerge from art school – they invited curator Lu Mingjun to organize the exhibition. Six of the seven participating artists were women. The gallery claimed to be exasperated by the lack of male talent. Lu, who teaches at the Sichuan Academy of Art, said that two-thirds of his students are female and that this has been a trend for some years now. We appear to be on the cusp of a major change in the Chinese art world. Why is this?

The most obvious approach is to look at issues relating to sexual equality in China. However, these alone cannot explain the positive gender-shift taking place in the art world. In fact, there are indications that women are becoming worse off as conservative government policies are reviving traditional values in all levels of Chinese society. Mao Zedong had sexual equality written into the constitution and stated that women ‘hold up half the sky’ but, in the mid-2000s, President Hu Jintao’s government borrowed from Confucian political theory to develop its idea of ‘harmonious society’, embracing a patriarchal view of society and politics. Xi Jinping may have a new slogan, but the expansion of Confucian Institutes all over the world demonstrates his commitment to this ideology. The World Economic Forum also reports a drop in women’s equality at the work place, with China dropping from 61st out of 134 countries in 2010 to 91st out of 145 in 2015. China’s arrest, last year, of five women’s rights activists for trying to start a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation also confirms this worrying trend. On the other hand, depending on whose statistics you believe, China has one of the highest ratios of women CEOs in the world, ahead of the US and EU.

Liu Qianyi, Post-work Epoch, 2015, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Liu Qianyi, Post-work Epoch, 2015, video still. Courtesy: the artist.


How directly these figures relate to the status of women artists is difficult to gauge. Artists in China are often defined by their generation in a way that doesn’t necessarily apply to their Western counterparts. This is because the political movements of recent Chinese history have affected every level of Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 attempted to eradicate traditional culture; in 1978, Deng Xiaoping’s policies opened the country’s doors to the outside world for the first time since 1949; and further reform during the 1990s launched China’s ‘economic miracle’.

The reason for the current surge in the number of female artists is closely related to government policy decisions made decades ago: specifically the one-child policy introduced between 1978–80 and the economic reforms of the 1990s. While is it arguable whether the one-child policy, which began to be formally phased out last year, did, in fact, limit the rise of China’s massive population, its social consequences have been huge. Millions of people born since the policy came into effect have grown up without siblings, giving them special status in the family and resulting in the much-discussed ‘little emperor syndrome’. While there is a plethora of research and literature criticizing the effects of this phenomenon, there have also been positive reverberations, especially with regard to the status of women. In the past, the traditional multi-child family often allocated a disproportionate amount of family resources to boys over girls; the one-child family, on the other hand, faces no such dilemma. Girls, at last, have been able to have their way – and many of them have decided to study art. That being an artist has become a viable profession for so many is largely down to the economic reforms of the 1990s, which have enabled people to earn far more money than ever before, fuelling the explosion of the Chinese art scene and market in the past decade.

Yin Xiuzhen, Silent, 2013, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Pace, Beijing

Yin Xiuzhen, Silent, 2013, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Pace, Beijing.


If there is one issue that has typically held back female artists in China, it’s conservative social values, which have meant that many women artists gave up their careers in order to build families. It is too soon to tell whether this still holds true for the more confident new generation, many of who have been educated in the art schools of London and New York and, as a result, have a different outlook to their predecessors. What is certain is that China’s contemporary art landscape is changing and perhaps, in a few years, I’ll still have a problem reporting on Beijing’s exhibition scene: not enough shows by male artists to recommend.

Lead image: Zhu Tian, Cling To A Curator, video still, 2015

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September 8th, 2016

青年圆桌会议徵文 | 第一届網絡社會年会 ─ “网络化的力量”

Call for Papers of Youth Round Table | The First Annual Conference of Network Society “Forces of Reticulation”

(English language version below- this might be an interesting conference to attend, especially as it’s open to young artists and aims to address the ‘aesthetic’ aspects of networked societies). Hosted by the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou.


主办:中国美院跨媒体学院 网络社会研究所



The Internet as Global Usage: 2009 (left), 2011, 2013 (right). The dots are websites and the lines represent the existence of significant traffic overlap between them. These show that global Web usage clusters itself into many communities of websites based on shared traffic. What the member websites of these clusters have in common with each other allows us to identify them as expressions of online regional cultures (see legend).



年会除了理论主题演讲外,另筹划了青年圆桌论坛,以研究交流与艺术实践观摩为主。在微信用户高达5.7亿,支付宝成为日常经济工具,小米手环成为智能穿戴市场的中国第一,世界第二的现实条件下,我们应该有新的研究来指出既有之网络理论的不足,事实是:没有含括中国网络现实的研究是不可能成为网络理论的。没有比这个时刻更需要我们自己的经验研究了。我们需要浸泡在中国网络环境中的青年学者来交流自己的田野观察和批判;我们需要年青艺术家来超越理论术语的限制,带来希望与创造性破坏。这是国内首次有关网络社会实践之青年的圆桌会议,是国内首次“数码原住民”(digital nativism)火炬晚会,是创新交流聚会和思想实践之电子舞会。现在你唯一要作的事情,就是跟参加舞会前的准备一样,物色对象与装扮自己。 Continue reading