Chinese art, past and present: an interview with Liyu Yeo

   |  30 March 2014  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 30 March 2014, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Liyu Yeo is a Chinese art dealer and expert. From 2009 to 2012 he was the Director of Red Gate Gallery, the first contemporary art gallery in Beijing. For several years he has worked with the Chinese collective, “Island 6”,  which he is representing at Art Paris Art Fair. In light of China’s status as Guest of Honour at the fair, AMA went to meet him to find out his interpretation of China’s role on the contemporary art scene.

Could you present your stand?
We exhibit the work of the collective “Island 6”, comprising fifteen artists. The works on display are often humorous and are evidence of the willingness of Chinese artists to forge a link between traditional Chinese art — and its inherent techniques — and contemporary art. Our stand is a representation of the increasing symbiosis between contemporary and traditional Chinese art, which enlivens and modernises the works, mainly through the use of video, LEDs and artificial light.

How does the Chinese tradition manifest itself in the work?
One of the main motifs of traditional art is visible in the Chinese cut paper, a technique which is often seen in rural areas of China, applied to the doors and windows of houses.

Was it representative of popular art?
Absolutely, it was representative of great craftsmanship, truly artisanal in nature. Contemporary artists are increasingly returning to this tradition.
The artists are also strongly influenced by current Chinese affairs; a tendency which is evident in their artistic offering. Take, for example, this work displaying cut paper in the shape of a mini, the interior of the car brought to life with a video of a female police officer and dogs in a cityscape. Modern Chinese women have been party to a far greater emancipation than their Asian counterparts, a phenomenon which has been facilitated by the Communist government, which gives equal power to men and women. Chinese women are witnessing greater independence than ever before. The appearance of dogs in contemporary Chinese art is symbolic of their soaring popularity in China, particularly in the cities. The work employs traditional elements of Chinese art alongside contemporary methods and viewpoints.

What are the traditional elements of Chinese art?
There is a strong reliance on codes and rules in traditional Chinese art; notably the rule which ordains that the old masters of the genre have invented everything, therefore there is no capacity for invention or innovation. Contemporary artists are not expected to invent new techniques, but are instead given the freedom to take what has come before and approach it in a new light, imbuing it with a new sense of life. It is inherently modern, but nevertheless belongs to the tradition of imitation, suggesting that these artists are not wholly free in their artistic pursuit.
That said, there are two principal traditional techniques — one or the other is very liberating.
In China, we consider painting to be an extension of calligraphy, which is in turn a much more noble form of artistic expression, the most prestigious in fact. In light of this, if you are not a calligrapher, you cannot be considered to be a true artist. This is a phenomenon which arose in the 17th Century, when an art critic changed the perception of Chinese art through the introduction of the idea that a true artist was a calligrapher. Following this assertion, artists who defy the calligraphic trend have been pushed aside, no longer considered to be true artists, despite the fact that their technique can be very good. Figurative painting has also been significantly underappreciated in favour of calligraphy and landscapes, which were letter arts.

So where does that leave us today? Is contemporary Chinese art divided between the painters who perpetuate the Chinese tradition and contemporary artists who stray from it, or is there a positive dialogue between them present in the market?
Today, we perceive there to be two parallel universes. Official painters are rarely seen at fairs or in the context of international exhibitions. That said however, there is an increasing sense of dynamism, because there are numerous art schools whose input creates contemporary trends within classic painting. There are also lots of young people who practice calligraphy in the context of associations.
Contemporary art is more fashionable than traditional art, and therefore institutions which specialise in the former experience significant visitor numbers. For example, 798 Art Zone in Beijing situates contemporary Chinese art in a modern context.
That said, I think that we are seeing a return to tradition. Young people try to forge links between painting and the traditional aesthetic, such as painting in ink.
This style of painting is beginning to incite interest and we are increasingly seeing it represented in exhibitions, such as last year at the Musée Guimet or at the Met in New York. “Contemporary Ink” showed a great variety of artists – painters, photographers, performers – and the way in which they use ink to make contemporary art.

Do you think that Westerners discover this traditional art through their initial interest in contemporary art?
I think that it also stems from the fact that Chinese artists are willing to forge links with the past. In the 1980s, when contemporary Chinese art made its emergence, it embraced all the Western movements. It served as a violent rupture with ancient art. Today, Chinese artists are keen to remain faithful to their heritage and their cultural roots, whilst taking risks within their artistic pursuit.
There is growing confidence to make reference to the past, which is no longer considered to be a taboo subject. During the Cultural Revolution, everything which was linked with the past was denounced or rejected.
However, there are certain paradoxes which arise through the production of propaganda artworks which suitated themselves in the portraiture tradition,… Today artists such as Yue Mingjun paint the human figure, it is noteworthy to see that figurative art once considered a minor art form become the art of the moment, in part thanks to the communist regime

What does the future hold for Chinese art?
Personally, I think that the future of Chinese art functions is in continuum with contemporary art globally. Today, artists travel a lot, and as a result they are all connected. Art trends are represented globally. That isn’t to say that artists ignore their local identity: this is also increasingly inherent to Chinese artistic creation, whether through an exploration of the local environment or politics. There is a wide variety of local phenomena which continues to inspire.

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