Pin It
© Zhang Huan Studio_Courtesy Pace Gallery_Foam 9,
Foam 9, 1998Photography Zhang Huan

The trailblazing rebels of contemporary Chinese photography

A Window Suddenly Opens is the exhibition showcasing the work of boundary-breaking Chinese image-makers from the last three decades

The work in A Window Suddenly Opens at the Hirshhorn Museum follows a complex path, fraught with repression undercut by a creeping sense of creative freedom that came after decades of struggle against the Chinese state. The exhibition – which runs until January 2024 – displays 186 artworks produced by 25 Chinese artists created between 1993 and 2022, including images by names such as Zhang Huan, Zhang Peili, LuYang, Ma Liuming, and Wang Qingsong. “At this moment in our century, it has become clear that the late 20th century, beginning in the early 1990s, was a pivotal moment for art in China,” says Melissa Chiu, Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “This exhibition captures that moment and allows us to reflect on what will be the most important geopolitical relationship of the 21st century, that of China and the United States.”

Prior to General Mao’s death in 1976, much of the art in China was produced with the sole intention of distributing the message of his cultural revolution. Most photographers were state-approved, meaning the work was dominated by a socialist realism style, romanticising life under the CCP to serve the state. After Mao’s death, however, the artistic landscape began to shift. Though China remained a country still defined by censorship, the introduction of Deng Xiaoping’s leadership allowed for some state criticism and freedom of expression for the first time in decades. This burgeoning liberation coincided with the point-and-shoot camera becoming readily available to Chinese citizens and, while for many this meant simply capturing everyday life, a new artistic revolution began to emerge.

The early artwork in A Window Suddenly Opens reflects a time of rebellion for the artists of China. “[It was] a moment when artists were coming to terms with many of the restrictions imposed after the June 4th Tiananmen Square protests,” Chiu explains. The protests brought in a new wave of censorship, and artists who had begun to enjoy the loosening of the state’s grip were forced to find other ways to present their work. “Their works weren’t able to be shown in the public sphere, but instead they showed their works in their modest apartments and homes in the outskirts of the city.”

In the early 1990s, eastern Beijing became a hub for many of the city’s experimental artists, in a community that came to be known as East Village. “Beijing’s East Village was a group of radical and dissident artists who gathered on the outskirts of the city, naming it thus after New York’s East Village,” Chiu explains. “They learned about [it] from Ai Weiwei, who had recently returned from living there.” Artists who took up residence there included the highly influential Rong Rong, whose work features heavily throughout the exhibition and whose 1997 publication ended up being the inspiration for the exhibition’s title.

“Rong Rong’s photos of the East Village chronicle many of the most important artists – Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, Cang Xin and others – creating works in earnest,” Chiu explains. The East Village era marked an important time for contemporary Chinese art, as it was when “the artists were testing the limits of what was not only physically possible, but also possible within society at that time,” says Chiu. Zhang Huan’s work is particularly striking including (captured by Rong Rong) portraits from his “12 Square Metres” performance in which the artist protests against the city’s living conditions by sitting in a public toilet covered in fish oil and honey, enticing flies to cover him.

Their constant hunger to push boundaries and innovate eventually led to the fall of the East Village movement, when Ma Liuming was arrested after being found naked in public (a move typical of his performance work) leading the police to shut the collective down.

The more recent works displayed within the exhibition were created by artists such as Shanghai-based LuYang and Beijing-based Cao. Their maximalist and hyper-futuristic cyberart pieces reflect the ever-changing and evolving approaches to multi-media art through the introduction of new technologies. “You can see in the exhibition the evolution of photography as documentation of performance like Zhang Huan to a more digitally manipulated technique, like Wang Qingsong,” says Chiu. “Art continues to change. The younger generation, artists such as LuYang or Cao Fei use digital and virtual technology to create their work.” 

All of the 186 artworks featured within the exhibition come from the collection of Larry Warsh, a longtime collector of other iconic artists such as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. “Larry Warsh and I travelled to China at the beginning of his collecting, and the Hirshhorn is honoured that he decided to gift his collection to the museum,” says Chiu. “It’s important to the museum’s permanent collection because his promised gift represents a generation of artists who changed our understanding of art in China.” 

A Window Suddenly Opens captures the uniqueness of contemporary Chinese photography, in that the development of the movement has grown so rapidly and become so varied in a relatively short period of time. The art, born from such unique circumstances, captures and showcases the work of some of China’s greatest artistic innovators. Though the practice of censorship and also closing artistic communities is still present within the country, A Window Suddenly Opens allows for a glimpse into a community of artists unafraid of defying the laws and expectations imposed upon them, to create art without boundaries.

For a closer look, take a look through the gallery above.

A Window Suddenly Opens is running at the Hirshhorn Museum until January 7 2024.

Join Dazed Club and be part of our world! You get exclusive access to events, parties, festivals and our editors, as well as a free subscription to Dazed for a year. Join for £5/month today.