Chinese Contemporary Art: Where Old World Meets New

This article was originally published on Christie’s International Real Estate’s blog Luxury Defined


In 2019, the Greater China region accounted for just under a quarter of the global spend on art and is now the third largest art market in the world. With Shanghai at the epicenter of its rapidly expanding contemporary art scene, collectives like Liu Dao (also known as island6) are spearheading the fashionable expressions of a younger demographic.


“Everything is a product of collaboration” is the motto of Liu Dao, which speaks with a single collective voice. Established by three artists and curators—Thomas Charvériat, Zheng Guoyang, and Kang Jingfang—in 2006, the group produces art that “constantly contemplates the future of Asia, engages sights and scenes from old and new China, and always involves fresh takes on modern technology.”


Sanlunche, an artwork by contemporary art collective Liu Dao

Liu Dao’s current artwork Sanlunche, 2020, is a prime example of how the group fuses traditional mediums with interactive technology, and records the viewer via built-in cameras in a commentary on CCTV.


“The island6 center originally hosted residencies for international artists, inviting them to produce art and exhibit locally,” Liu Dao explains. “Everyone was curious about opportunities in China at the time and, over the course of two years, 120 foreign artists took part.”


That process continued until 2008, when the decision was made to look closer to home. “The talent was foreign, but very few in Shanghai wanted to buy foreign art.” So, the group picked 10 of their best local artists and formed the Liu Dao collective, taking an inward-looking approach.


Today, Liu Dao embraces the technological constructs of modern-day life as an opportunity for artistic expression and freedom of thought, and works with performers, painters, sculptors, and many other disciplines. Its art is always the result of a collaboration and challenges the status quo.


Liu Dao wearing rat masks in their group photograph

Liu Dao wishes to be viewed only as a collective, with no one individual talent singled out above others. It’s for this reason that members of the collective donned masks in its annual group photo—2020’s gives a nod to the year of the rat.


“We write most of the music we play during our openings of our exhibitions. If we need a certain noise, such as the one imitating thunder in our artwork Hippocampus Sabotage, we’ll look for a sound designer who can create it. It’s all authentic.”


This immersive ethos often features an interactive element that invites audience participation. Past collections exhibited at Miami Art Basel have included live phone numbers that people can call or text, while in All Along the Wires, animated LED birds in hand-painted trees fly away when they hear the sound of clapping.


All Along The Wires, 2020, highlights that, like us, birds are conditioned by the constructs in their environments and urges viewers to “break the spell, give us a clap.”


“We’re sharing a different vocabulary because you don’t need a brush to express yourself as an artist,” says Liu Dao. “We push the art scene by recognizing that what we’re doing is different to what’s being done anywhere else. We’re trying to influence people to use different mediums that are maybe more specific to China.”

Case in point: the collective’s recent exhibition Bright Lights, Flashy Lifestyles, which centers on Shanghai’s iconic LED lights—and carves out a niche for the group within the broader context of Chinese contemporary art. The aim of the works’ arresting colors, says Liu Dao, is to “peacock the way into the hearts and minds of consumers across the continent.”
Hypnotizing Panda Pops, 2020 by Liu Dao
In Hypnotizing Panda Pops, 2020, Shanghai’s ubiquitous LED lights act as commentary on the figure of the panda in Chinese history—“nothing is as black and white as it seems,” says Liu Dao.

This shift in contemporary Chinese art—from painters in the ’90s who focused on portraiture or figurative work, to artists today who use video, photography, and installation—is affirmed by Marcello Kwan, Christie’s Vice President, Senior Specialist and Head of Sales for Modern & Contemporary Art in Asia Pacific. “Some important artists like Cai Guoqiang use unusual mediums, such as gunpowder, to create performance/painting,” he says.


Along with Liu Dao, Kwan namechecks Liu Wei as an artist to watch. “His abstract Purple Air D1 is a strong example of Chinese modern art, valued for its composition and rich palette.”

We Love Nature by Liu Wei 
We Love Nature, 1999, by artist Liu Wei will be on offer at upcoming Christie’s Hong Kong auction. Wei famously said “I use my hands to paint my heart,” and his work is lauded for eschewing concepts or ideologies.

The upcoming Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s Hong Kong on July 10 will feature Wei’s influential We Love Nature. Also on offer: an early work on paper by Liu Xiaodong, widely recognized as one of the most revered Chinese contemporary artist of our times, and major works by younger artists Chen Fei and Chen Ke.


“These artists are among the key names of early Chinese contemporary art,” says Kwan, “representing the beliefs, personality, and the dreams of a generation that hasn’t experienced the cultural revolution.”