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Zhang Huan, Foam 1998
"Foam", 1998, Beijing, ChinaCourtesy Zhang Huan

The radical Chinese artists challenging the status quo

As Ai Weiwei’s exhibition opens this week in London, we cast an eye over the fellow art rebels from the maestro’s home country

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.

BIRDHEAD

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.

WANG QINGSONG 

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.

LIU DING

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.

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.

YANG FUDONG

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.

XU ZHEN

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 and were often slammed by censors. He’s been quick to admit he’s no Weiwei, though, but like many Chinese artists working now, Zhen is concerned with production processes, how art is made and distributed, and the larger political systems that distribute art. With the swelling appeal and desirability of contemporary Chinese art in the West, Zhen cut his teeth with satirical works that lampoon art buyers: a supermarket selling empty products, or an exhibition of ‘Middle Eastern art’, organised by Zhen’s collective MadeIn – in which no work by any Middle Eastern artists appeared.

ZHANG HUAN

Within the current landscape of Chinese art, it’s impossible to ignore Zhang Huan, one of China’s monumental artists. His painting, sculpture, photography and performance always carry a provocative social commentary, more recently mediated through spirituality, such as the giant Buddhas, made of 20 tonnes of incense ash that he brought to the Sydney Festival this year. Huan rose to fame in the 1990s with his durational performances inspired by monastic rituals, often extreme or masochistic acts involving his own body. In one of his most famous pieces, “12 Square Metres”, Huan revisits a childhood incident, growing up in an overcrowded village, by covering himself in a sticky fishy liquid to attract flies, and sitting on a toilet for an hour as thousands settled on his body.

LIU WEI

Waste is Wei’s medium. Like Weiwei, the Beijing-based artist has a propensity for ready-mades, collecting and repurposing found objects, trash, urban scrap – arranged geometrically, with a precise and rigid structure – a direct statement about the physical transformation of the cityscape as a consequence of poorly planned development. For many city-dwellers in China the space they live in has been built up chaotically accelerated period of urbanisation, and with his sculptures and installations, Wei tries to reinstate architectural order, pointing to a lack in the way construction happens in reality.

HUANG YULONG

For China’s emerging artists, mixing old and new is an instinctual response to their surroundings, and rather than proposing a straight critique, the current generation, increasingly open to the world, is attempting to reconcile influences of east and west. The results, in sculptor Huang Yulong’s works, are bling Buddhas, which relate more to the 29-year-old artist’s life and interests – breakdancing, and hip hop. His bronze and aluminum sculptures take the Buddha shape, the most popular statue in China, and dress them in golden and silvered hoodies and crystals.

LI LIHONG

Weiwei’s iconic “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” comes to mind when you encounter Li Lihong’s work. Lihong hails from Dezhen Jin, the Jiangxi province where China’s royal porcelain is produced. In his village, Lihong studied traditional ceramics with great masters, but – like his more established contemporary Liu Jianhua – he has experimented with the possibilities of Chinese ceramics. In the 80s, during Lihong’s formative years, global conglomerates such as McDonald's and Coca Cola arrived in China for the first time. These two major influences in the artist’s environment – ancient tradition and the brash iconography of global consumer culture – are evident in Lihong’s visual language, and symbolic of the conflicts inherent in China’s ideology.

Ai Weiwei's exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts opens 19 September, 2015