Art of Change: exhibition preview

'In Just A Blink Of An Eye' (2005/2012) by Xu Zhen. Courtesy Long March Space 'In Just A Blink Of An Eye' (2005/2012) by Xu Zhen. Courtesy Long March Space - © Xu Xhen
Posted: Tue Aug 28 2012

As the Hayward Gallery prepares to showcase China's pioneering performance and installation artists, Time Out investigates the country's radical art avant-garde

Rotting meat, bloodied foetuses and live lab mice stitched together at the hip - all examples of contemporary Chinese art that, with its preoccupation with shock value, the grotesque and the macabre, might seem to be echoing the loud, abrasive spirit of the YBAs. But in a country where artistic heritage lies in intricate woodcuts, calligraphy scrolls and ink-wash painting, this is genuinely subversive stuff. China's charge forward to become the world's most dominant superpower is a familiar story, but is its art also revolutionary?

The Hayward Gallery's forthcoming big autumn exhibition, titled 'Art of Change: New Directions from China', suggests so. Spanning 30 years, it will spotlight nine radical contemporary Chinese artists whose work focuses on installation and performance, and will include works that have both captivated and scandalised audiences in China and the West.

Some of the artists are known for their humour as well as their ability to shock. Beijing-based couple Peng Yu and Sun Yuan's experiments with cadavers and foetuses resulted in them being censored in the 1990s, but they are probably best known in this country for their installation 'Old Person's Home', shown in the 2008 exhibition 'New Art from China' at the Saatchi Gallery. The installation featured hyperrealist sculptures of world leaders as decrepit geriatrics, slowly manoeuvring around the basement on motorised wheelchairs. It was a triumphant, hellish parody of the participants of a United Nations conference - doddering and dithering till the bitter end. At the Hayward, the duo will be presenting a new work featuring rhino and dinosaur sculptures, called 'I Didn't Notice What I Am Doing', as well as their older piece 'Freedom' (2009), in which a high-pressure hose installed on the gallery terrace will spray water around as if from the trunk of an over-excited elephant.

The Hayward intends the show to challenge preconceived ideas of what Chinese art is and can be, and also to rebutt any criticism that work by Chinese artists can lack complexity and be overly market-savvy. Gu Dexin's art certainly wouldn't appeal to your average collector. One of the pioneers of the guerilla art installations that appeared in China in the late 1980s, Dexin has worked with pigs' brains, insects, fruit and raw meat in his obsessive exploration of impermanence and decay. He remains highly influential, despite essentially 'quitting' the art world in 2009. His main installation at the Hayward, '16-06-1997-13-06-1998', comes in two parts: photographs documenting bloody hunks of pork, which the artist kneaded and pummelled each day for almost a year, and the queasy end result - samples of the dessicated flesh, packaged in plastic food containers, and put on display.

If there's an artist who might seem conspicuous by his absence it's Ai Weiwei. Ai has been key in pushing the art scene forward, and his landmark show 'Fuck Off', co-curated with Feng Boyi and put on as an unofficial satellite of the third Shanghai Biennial in 2000, provided many of China's avant-garde artists with a major platform to present their work. Exhibition curator Stephanie Rosenthal is keen to point out that he will have a presence. 'I felt that showing Ai Weiwei would mean everyone would only talk about him,' she explains. 'He will be here, but in the archive section as a thinker and an initiator.'

Liang Shaoji is another revered pioneer. His tactile architectural sculptures, taken from his 'Nature Series', are living, breathing embodiments of the experimental principles behind the show. Silkworms spin away covering miniature chairs and beds to create sculptures that look like fluffy cobweb veils - delicate, transient and wholly compelling.

Similar in spirit is 'Happy Yingmei', Yingmei Duan's interactive performance piece, that is staged in a set that looks like a twisted forest fairyland, and contains the artist, who will be present handing out wishes to be enacted both inside and outside the gallery. Duan trained with respected performance artist Marina Abramovic, and has also produced much more brutal actions, including lying in a naked mound of bodies on top of a mountain in 'To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain', or being drenched repeatedly with freezing water while standing statue still in a red wedding dress.

'There will be a lot of people who still associate Chinese art with big, beautiful, lavish paintings,' Rosenthal continues. 'But what we're hoping to show is that the most experimental and exciting works being made right now are in installation and performance art - and that, internationally, Chinese artists are leading the way.'

'Art of Change: New Directions from China' will be at the Hayward Gallery Sept 7-Dec 9.