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Chinese Artists Beyond China, 1989-2008: A journey through the ‘spotlight’ and ‘shadow’ of archive collections by Yang Li

Yang Li with Cites on the Move 2

Yang Li with the publication Cites on the Move in Stuart Hall Library, 2023

Our archive volunteer Yang Li reflects on her research into Chinese artists beyond China through her volunteering work in iniva’s archives.

My research on Chinese Artists Beyond China began when I worked as a Research Assistant at Asia Art Archive during the summer of 2021. Over three months, I was responsible for organizing the archive collection for the ‘Cities on the Move’ exhibition. Given the large number of participating artists that changed during the touring of the exhibition, I started my research by creating spreadsheets to analyze the artists based on their place of birth and current living location. This sparked my interest in the exhibition which includes Contemporary Chinese Art Beyond China[1], and how these Chinese artists connect themselves with the Western art world. After moving to London, I sought to continue my research – through volunteering in iniva’s archives.

The term ‘Sinophone’[2] refers to a connection to Chinese language and culture, either through ancestry, ethnicity, or personal identification. Whereas, the term ‘Chinese artists’ can be narrowed down to a group of artists who live and work in China. Through the process of repackaging artist files at iniva, I have been able to explore the diversity and complexity of the term ‘Chineseness’ in the British cultural context back to the 90s and early 2000s which goes beyond discourse around ‘Chinese artists’ who were born and live in China. The exhibitions I explored that took place during the time, addressed not only ‘Chinese’ artists born and living in China but also those who have a much broader Chinese heritage outside China. An exploration of different artist communities provided insights into the fact that when we refer to someone as a ‘Chinese artist,’ we need to realize that it may be circulating several ‘parallel community’[3] dating back to different periods of time.

In iniva’s archives, I found a group of British-Chinese artists who participated in ‘Chinese artists’ exhibitions in the UK during the 90s. This included first and second-generation immigrants who struggled with their identity and embedded their concerns in their artistic practice. Due to the lack of writers and archival documents, this group of Chinese artists have been featured less prominently in the Chinese contemporary discourse, and their contributions were discussed more so in the local British art community rather than within the ‘Chinese art’ scene.

The New Trend

Throughout the 1990s, Chinese official art institutions prohibited the exhibition of contemporary art forms that were experimental in nature after the ’China/Avant-Garde‘ exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing in 1989.  This forced art practitioners to explore exhibition possibilities beyond the nation, in search of opportunities to expand their perspectives, or, at the very least, to become a component of this ‘new world’, as Melissa Chiu (2006) states that “for much of the nineties their [expatriate] artists played a decisive role in defining Chinese art to audiences outside China”[4].

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Western world experienced a new phase of acceptance towards what Hanru Hou (2014) describes as ‘the Other’[5], both within and outside the Western world. Neoliberal capitalism began to extend its influence beyond the Western countries, while simultaneously dismantling social welfare systems within the West. During this period, there was a rejection of the nation-state as a means of comprehending artistic and exhibition making due to the ‘global’[6] vision prevalent at the time. For instance, Adam Jasper (2014) states that ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ is one of the most significant group exhibitions from 1989, attempting cross cultural dialogue between artists[7]. During the preparation of this exhibition, the curator Jean-Hubert Martin visited China, which presented a rare opportunity for the contemporary Chinese art community to directly engage in dialogue with a Western curator. In a sense, these expeditions by Western professionals had a significant impact on the local art scene in China by facilitating direct conversations, which opened doors to further exchanges. This appeared to align with the trajectory of the ‘global contemporary’ and brings attention to the changing situations in which regional perceptions of the ‘global contemporary’ may have developed.

From the British perspective, Sonia Boyce (2000)[8] states that the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive (AAVAA) is the most extensive collection of contemporary art slides by artists of African and Asian descent who have been working in the UK since the post-war era. From the early 1900s to the present day, African and Asian art has played a significant role in shaping and defining what is considered modern art. The current global attention on Britain as an artistic hub has resulted in a belated acknowledgment of the cultural diversity and richness of Britain’s post-colonial metropolitan society, characterized by an overlapping richness of artistic forms and cultural practices.

The group of artists who left China during the 1990s is extensive and comprises of significant figures such as Huang Yong Ping, Chen Zhen, Yang Jiechang and Shen Yuan, as Hou (2017) states[9]. Their works frequently address migration, identity and geopolitics and their participation in the global art world has become crucial. Yung and DeBevoise (2017)  state that Chinese artwork has been represented in a vast array of exhibitions, which went beyond the conventional norms of academic realism and ink painting, to include conceptual, installation, performance, and video art, in group exhibitions all around the world[10].

Chinese Artists on the Move

The groundbreaking touring exhibitions of ‘Cities on the Move’ showcased a considerable number of Asian and related artists over four years, traveling globally, which created a discourse for the global community to access the idea of Asian modernity, in both economic and cultural terms. In response to curators Hou Hanru and Hans-Ulrich Obrist observations during a trip to Asian cities with architect Yong Ho Chang, the exhibition began at the Vienna Secession in 1997 with the construction of a chaotic ‘Asian Town’ within the Vienna Secession exhibition hall. The exhibition sought to raise and represent issues related to globalization and the massive expansion of urbanization during the economic boom in the early 90s. The exhibition provided a space for architects, urban planners, and artists to communicate and inspire one another, and the resulting ‘temporary city’ served as a thought-provoking space that challenged the conventional white box paradigm of traditional museums.

Sassen (2001) states that Touring global cities such as London and New York enriched the contributions of immigrants from diverse regions making them multicultural hubs for artistic experiences[11]. As Julia Diamantis (1999) mentioned in ‘Cities on the Move’ in the Hayward Gallery’s catalogue, London is renowned as a multicultural city evolving from multicultural background people, offering a multitude of artistic experiences and art forms[12]. ‘Cities on the Move’ London exhibition showcased not only the artists who participated in previous exhibitions venues, but also further developed both the exhibition setting and theme within the local community, which continued within the cities the exhibition traveled. As Hou and Obrist (1999) mentioned in a conversation on the ‘global + local = glocal’[13] model, “Every time the exhibition arrives in a new place, it also gathers something from the local context. It is local and global simultaneously, because we want to show the dynamics between these two concepts. We also want to bring forth the internal currents of a city.”[14]  In Hou’s own words , “Cities on the Move was talking not only about different urban forms but also about such community building, the possibility of being open to absorbing other possibilities.”[15]

The design of the Hayward Gallery created five interconnected spaces including street, building, commerce, protest and decay, that were intended to guide and direct the movement of visitors in the exhibition through a predetermined sequence.[16] Hou challenged the dominant exhibition model of the white cube by creating an intermediary or ‘Third Space’ that promoted cultural fusion and ‘mid-ground’[17] condition, effectively erasing the boundaries between the East and West, as Homi K. Bhabha (2006) characterizes as “an ambivalent space of enunciation.”[18]

London as a multicultural city offers a multitude of artistic experiences and art forms from  people of diverse cultural backgrounds. One of the ‘Cities on the Move’ exhibited artwork was Japanese artist Ozawa Tsuyoshi’s ‘Nasubi Galleries’ (1999) which consisted of individual wall-mounted galleries in milk boxes. Tsuyoshi’s work in the Hayward Gallery chose to co-curate and collaborate with iniva to feature artists such as Philip Lai, susan pui san lok, Erika Tan, Cai Yuan, Jian Jun Xi, and Mayling To to fulfill the milk boxes. Thereafter, the artwork created a space where a group of Chinese artists encountered the British-Chinese artists in the exhibition. This demonstrated a focused shift away from exhibiting Chinese artists living in China, indicating a broader understanding of globalization as a process that extends beyond the definition of Chinese art.

From the exhibition catalogue[19], Chen Zhen’s artwork ‘Precipitous Parturition’ (1999) depicts the potential outcome of China’s stated ambition to replace bicycles with automobiles, which are symbolic of Western ideals of success and progress. Wang Du’s work ‘International Landscape’ (1997) showcases statues of Western prostitutes in Asian cityscapes as part of what he describes as the ‘landscape of the Other’.  Some ‘parallel community’ artists mentioned experiencing an identity crisis during their own lived experience and embedded their identity concerns into their work. For example, Erika Tan’s work ‘Fraudulent, Secret, Understanding (Collusion)’ (1999) was made with traditional Chinese motifs and materials including a Moon Gate and a Chinese silk screen with embroidery. Also Mayling To’s ‘Repertoire Dog’ (1999) explores the appeal of martial arts in the West[20] through film, often through the depiction of ambiguous hero-figures, and materializes cartoon-like abstractions and urban migrant mascots in her work. Lastly, artist and writer susan pui san lok’s ‘Space 1999’ (1999) served as an intermediary space for communication and interaction, as the milk box symbolizes a sentimental depiction of sub/urban life associated with ‘trust’, while the warning implies a present-day atmosphere of suspicion where the ‘home’ is considered a territory that requires protection, and where both the ‘community’ and its members are under surveillance[21].

‘Doing it for themselves’[22]

In Stuart Hall Library, I have found several exhibition catalogues demonstrating Erika Tan’s practice such as ‘Number Six’ (1998), ‘Deal’ (1999) and ‘Reassurance: Susan Pui San Lok, Erika Tan, Mayling To and Jen Wu’ (2005). Through these exhibition catalogues mentioned above, I found that during the late 90s to early 21 century, the organizers used ‘Chinese artists’ when they address the participating artists. As these artists engaged in conversations, based on the exhibition text or their statements, they began to question the diverse and broad nature of the works selected in exhibitions of British-Chinese artists, sparking a new critical and discursive relationship among them, and mostly they collectively expressed the importance of prioritizing artwork over cultural heritage. Like what Erika Tan states in the ‘Sites of Construction’[23] catalogue about her work ‘Passing’ (1993-1995), “Although my work often uses the notion ‘Chinese’ as a focus, it is not my intention to ‘introduce’ or ‘explain’ a culture, ethnicity or nation. I hope to question, explore and problematise representation itself, not provide new or more ‘correct’ classificatory systems.”

In the field of contemporary Chinese Art, there exists a discrepancy in the level of visibility granted to Chinese artists from the past. This phenomenon is largely attributed to the overexposure of a selected range of researchers and art publications that rely heavily on personal accounts of very limited projects. In order to rectify this issue, new textual material must move away from autobiographical narratives and instead focus on critical reflections of cultural exchange across various time periods, whilst also considering the potential future implications. An example, Erika Tan’s project ‘A Dialogue Still In The Making (2002/2018)’ with artist Bettina Fung[24], endeavours to do this. The project incorporates the perspectives of the artists contemporaries separated by a 16-year time gap. The outcome of such a project is a non-fictional dialogue publication between present-day Chinese artists and their 2000 predecessors. This initiative provides vital insights from the current generation of Chinese art practitioners, examining the development of Chinese art by their predecessors and relating this knowledge to their immediate contemporaries.

Some of the artists mentioned earlier played a crucial role in reflecting on the changes in artistic practice and shaping the development of the art world. They continue to hold significant influence today, being called ‘Chinese artist’ still, and the others might have already taken off this title as the local art in the UK changed throughout time. The term ‘Chinese artist’ started as a polysemy, threading these ‘parallel communities’ of ‘spotlight’ and ‘shadow’ in the historical social movement in my research. There is increasing prominence of those who played a pivotal role in documented history, casting a deeper shadow on the latter. The exploration of the impact generated by the artists is only the start of an effort with my exploration through archives to elucidate how Chinese artists beyond China have progressed in the past three decades.


Yang Li is a curator presently serving as a Curatorial Fellow at Goldsmiths CCA, and she has been volunteering atiniva since April 2022. In 2021, she co-founded a curatorial collective named ‘curating matters’, which communicates its work through the podcast ‘策展这门课’, as well as through exhibitions and publications. Li holds an MA in MFA Curating from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her curatorial practice focuses on time-based media works, polyphonic narrative structures, and the employment of archives in the production of knowledge and the process of exhibition creation.

Reference Notes

[1] Wu, Hung. “Contemporary Chinese Art Beyond China”, Contemporary Chinese Art : A History, 1970s>2000s / Wu Hung. 2014.

[2] SHIH, SHU-MEI. “The Concept of the Sinophone.” PMLA 126, no. 3 (2011): 709–18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41414144.

[3] Wu, Hung. “Contemporary Chinese Art Beyond China”, Contemporary Chinese Art : A History, 1970s>2000s / Wu Hung. 2014. p.278

[4] Chiu, Melissa. Breakout : Chinese Art Outside China / Melissa Chiu. Milano: Charta, 2006. p.8.

[5] Hou, Hanru, “In Defense of Difference: Notes on Magiciens de la terre, Twenty-five Years Later.” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, vol. 13, no. 3, 2014, pp. 7-18.

[6] Eschem, Charles; Morris, David and Steeds, Lucy, “Making Art Global.” Art and Its Worlds : Exhibitions, Institutions and Art Becoming Public, London: Afterall Books, 2021, p.25.

[7] Jasper, Adam. “Making Art Global (Part 2), ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art; Canberra Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2014, p.111.

[8] Boyce, Sonia. “Doing It for Themselves”, Re-verberations: tactics of resistance, forms of agency in trans/cultural practices, ed. Fisher Jean, Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Akademie, 2000, p.96.

[9] The list of artists who moved abroad also include Yan Pei Ming, Wang Du, Wenda Gu, Cai Guo-Qiang, Wu Shanzhuan, Ni Haifeng, Wang Gongxin, Lin Yilin, Yin Xiuzhen, and others. See Hou Hanru, “Théâtre due monde: to be unthought,” in Art and China after 1989, 2017. pp.69–77.

[10] Yung, Anthony and DeBevoise, Jane. “Exhibitions, Events and Projects”,  Art and China after 1989, 2017m. pp.289-305.

[11] Sassen, Saskia. “The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo”. REV-Revised. Princeton University Press, 2001. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt2jc93q.

[12] Diamantis, Julia. “London on the Move”, Cities on the Move, London: Hayward Gallery, 1999. p.75.

[13] Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru in conversation about “Cities on the Move,” Kiasma 2, no. 5 (1999), http://www.kiasma fi/kiasma-lehti/5.php?lang=en&id=11.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hou, Hanru. “Théâtre du monde: To Be Unthought”, Art and China after 1989, 2017.  p.72.

[16] Swinson, James. “Architects dream of nightmare cities”, Third Text, 1999, p. 103

[17] The term “Mid-ground” in his book “On the Mid-Ground,”(2022)  which is derived from Homi K Bhabha’s concept of the Third Space. The Third Space is an ambiguous area that enables the recognition of difference, cultural hybridity, and active production of meaning. Hou Hanru’s “Mid-ground” refers to an independent space for cultural hybridity that goes beyond the binary of “East and West.”

[18] Bhabha, Homi K. “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences,” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, H. Tiffin, New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 206-212.

[19] Bradley, Fiona, Hanru Hou, and Hans U. Obrist. Cities on the Move: Urban Chaos and Global Change, East Asian Art, Architecture and Film Now. London: Hayward Gallery, 1999. Print.

[20] Mayling To’s Repertoire Dog (1999), fabric, polyester, plastic guns, the title a pun on Quentin Tarantino’s film, Reservoir Dogs (US, 1992), colour, 99 minutes.

[21] ‘Space 1999’ (1999) was shown as a part of a solo exhibition, “LEAN TO” (2000) at East London Gallery, and a group show “Osawa Tsuyoshi: Answer with Yes and No!” (2004), Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

[22] Boyce, p.96.

[23] Tan, Erika. “Passing,” Site of Construction, 1995.

[24] Fung, Bettina and Tan, Erica. A Dialogue STILL In The Making: 2002/2018, 2002-2018