Chinese Art

Exhibition, Despite Shadows, Is Light

China 8
The China 8 exhibition in Düsseldorf could do with more powerful works.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Exhibitions show a great breadth of work from China but does not show the country’s most powerful works; as many artists feel powerless, few create work that packs a punch.

  • Facts


    • The exhibition “China 8” runs until 13 September in Dusseldorf, Duisburg, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Hagen, Marl, Mülheim and Recklinghausen (
    • The exhibition does not show as many important works of Chinese art as it could, according to the author.
    • Ai Weiwei, arguably China’s most significant and original artist, refused to take part in the show.
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Fog hangs heavily on the swamp in a night-time scene; a boy lies sleeping peacefully beside the pool. The mist deepens, giving the dreamy scene a nightmare quality.

Two videos made by Chinese artist Yi Lian are being shown in the museum in a small town in Marl; both play in swamps.

Chinese artists have often used a world of rivers and lakes, Jiang Hu, as a place to flee from fears and dreams. In portrayals of these swamp lands, animals slink around and pained, angry faces peer through the gloom.

China is a country in contrasts, celebrating an upswing and at the same time deeply insecure: those who were on top yesterday may not be tomorrow. Laws can be as bendy as play dough.

Yi Lian’s work is part of an exhibition of art from China that is being shown in eight cities and nine museums. In total, 500 works by 120 Chinese artists are on show in a project which is as big as it is controversial.

The questions began even before the exhibition opened, surrounding the complex web of interests at play.

Video: Before the Rain, a landscape video art by Yang Yonglian.


Some asked whether the cultural manager Walter Smerling was the right person for the job. He was well connected to the political and financial world, but some doubted if he was adequately advised about the contemporary Chinese art scene. There was also some concern that he would shy away from the more controversial artists.

One controversial artist he did invite was Ai Weiwei. When Mr. Weiwei, an internationally renowned artist from China who is also a prominent critic of the country’s human rights record, declined the invitation to participate, many were upset.

Mr. Smerling said Mr. Weiwei isn’t a fan of big group exhibitions. But the reason could also be that Mr. Weiwei was unwilling to take part in a project which involved Chinese curator Fan Di’an, the president of the Central Academy of the Arts in Beijing.

Is censorship everything though?

Ai Weiwei is China’s most original artist – but surely it is still worth exploring the colorful cosmos of the Chinese art world. After all, whether an artist is censored or not isn’t necessarily a sign of quality, the Chinese authorities are arbitrary in whom they censor.

Now the exhibitions are open and the controversy rages on. Trouble is, it isn’t the right kind of controversy.

The exhibitions show many strong works; the installations in Duisburg and the videos in Marl are especially impressive.

There are the beautiful sculptures by the artist Shi Jinsong, whose studio in Beijing was taken down by city planners. What was left of it became his work of art – an allegory of the way city planning has taken over the whole country.

There are fantastic installations by Xu Bing, who made a whole tiger carpet out of cigarettes.

Video: Xu Bing’s cigarettes tiger carpet.


Zhou Xiaohus’ works deal with oil.

The viewer goes through a hallway in which many telephones ring at different intervals. Picking up the phone, you can listen to international politicians who try to solve a conflict which is then played out on a video screen whena  terrorist group in Darfur kidnapped a Chinese worker from an oil field belonging to a Chinese oil company.

China has become a global power operating mines, ports, factories and oil fields across the world and is exposed to such cross-cultural problems.

Other works look to the past: videos by Shanghai artist Yang Yonglian show landscapes which recall traditional Shan shui art.

Ai Wieiwei2
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei pulled out of the exhibition. Source: IMAGO


The work on display is not only by artists who are assimilated into the political system.

But many, too many are beautiful, dreamy and artistically insignificant. In Chinese galleries and museums, there are many artists who have a lot more to say.

The string of exhibitions in western Germany shows that Chinese art is varied. Given how powerless many feel in the one-party state and a general sense of insecurity, many artists withdraw into generalities or create works to please collectors.

So the few works that do show inner conflicts of Chinese society are very impressive.

For example, works by the young video artist Chen Xiaoyu, which show cruelty and ugliness. Viewers see a boot being pressed into the face of someone lying down. Another video shows a woman who is fed by a number of men until she cries. These images of human beings constrained, torn between instincts, societal pressures and political submission, are hard to look at. But they are good.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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