QIU XIAOFEI & HU XIAOYUAN
Qiu Xiaofei and Hu Xiaoyuan have been living together for fifteen years now. Best not to think about how long it’s been, Hu says. “It gets scary.” They grew up with no access to computers, and didn’t find out about the Internet until after university. Today, Qiu has little faith in digital images. The aversion isn’t mere nostalgia, but rather an expression of their distaste for the crudeness of rapid social changes and the wholesale destruction of personal memory.
Unlike most artists of their generation, they prefer a quiet, uncomplicated life. This isn’t conscious, Qiu says; it’s just that “a quiet life helps clear the mind.” Hu Xiaoyuan’s work in progress is an exploration of what she calls “the distance of closeness.” “If there are any doubts about closeness,” she asks, “then does that distance still need to be maintained?”
When she works on her “things,” as she calls them, Hu is in the habit of gradually sorting through the questions she accumulates, until she discovers a new perspective. For his part, Qiu’s recent work maintains a healthy distance from “the present.” “I’m trying to look at the source of certain spiritual and physical things,” he says, “it’s an important step in evaluating the present.”
Regarding his participation in this magazine’s feature on young artists, Qiu expresses his strong skepticism of the concept of “progressive youth” put forth by late nineteenth and early twentieth century Enlightenment thinkers. “It’s a purely political strategy,” he says. “From the perspective of culture, what do you mean by ‘progress?’ You look at China in recent years and it’s all been that discourse of cultural revolution, except now they’ve transcended culture and focused on revolution. True ‘youth’ isn’t based on other people’s appraisal— people should judge it for themselves. And whether or not people are ‘young’ isn’t just about age.” Hu’s take on youth, meanwhile, calls to mind her artworks: “The value of a baby bird or the value of a young seedling is based on the fact that it still has time to be tamed, time to grow. Youth is just a stage of life.”
We all know, of course, that there is no need to insist on the distinctions between “young” and “non-young” artists. If the wheel of time could turn backwards, we would see scenes replaying before us: at 19, Hu Xiaoyuan sees a shavenheaded young girl playing basketball with a boy at their high school, and Qiu Xiaofei throws an empty bottle and a bicycle he found by the side of the road into Houhai lake. At 20, they rent a small single-story shack near their college and spend their last RMB 1.50 on tomatoes, eggs, and noodles for dinner. Qiu says he wouldn’t mind travelling back or forward in time to scare himself—but quickly notes that this is impossible: “No visits from myself so far,” he says, “and I’ve been waiting.” Hu isn’t interested in hypotheticals. “I don’t want to go anywhere,” she says. The present is enough for her.
After finishing college, Yan Cong (a self-chosen nickname which means “Chimney”) signed an agreement with an art gallery that gave him a steady income and turned him from a manga artist sitting in front of a computer to a figure in the contemporary art industry. His paintings haven’t been selling well, he tells me, and the gallery has told him to produce more framed works or start looking for another job.
Yan Cong would vanish into any real-life crowd, but he is a cult figure in the realm of online comic enthusiasts, where he is a moderator on the popular website MyTuya.com and has gained a loyal following through posting his works and recommendations on forums and blogs. Special Comix, the collection he produced with forty-four other indie Chinese comic artists, recently won the “Alternative Comic” award at Angouleme.
“Green is very active online, very friendly,” says Yan Cong of “Green,” a fellow founder of Yan Cong’s art site LvXiao. com, “but if you talk to him offline, he stutters and doesn’t really deal well with people.” Although the two live in neighboring housing developments, they correspond only online, or through courier mail. They feel freer to be themselves online than in real life, and their artworks and online chats are the forms of expression with which they are most comfortable.
Their site LvXiao.com has amassed more than 318,000 readers since launching in 2005, and members of the site’s growing readership have gone on to become prominent figures in advertising, design, and illustration, and on online art forums. The site’s membership includes artists, designers, and people from all walks of life, with differences of class, age, and gender coming a distant second to members’ unifying love of comics.
After waking up around noon, Yan Cong kills several hours online before finally starting to draw, watch movies, and chat online until two or three o’clock in the morning. Most of the young people around him in the Hubei county seat where he grew up didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives, he said, because there was a dearth of information and options. “But I liked drawing,” he says, “and so I was always drawing, and then I went to college so I could keep drawing.” After Japanese manga became popular in the early 1990s, a number of new Chinese comic magazines encouraged domestic artists to submit their work. For Yan Cong, who had never been a model student, the approval he got from fellow artists online was a source of self-confidence, and now he and many others are making the move from online galleries to physical ones.
The Internet has offered a safe haven for twenty-something artists to interact and speak their mind. Virtual though it may be, the emotions and encouragement it has instilled in young artists are very much real. No matter what style or format they use, young artists now have the opportunity to gain recognition and enjoy their moment in the spotlight.
“It’s one o’clock in the afternoon,” A Bu shouts at Bighead, who holds a beer bottle in one hand and waves a styrofoam sword with the other. “How many have you had?” Chen Zhou, Bighead’s roommate, opens the door for me in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. Their living room floor is strewn with empties, and their friends sit there chatting before walking out without fanfare at the end of the conversation.
Chen Zhou and Bighead—whose real name is Yu Yao— host film-viewing events drawing up to thirty visitors at their home. “3 Min,” their group on the social-networking site Douban, hosts monthly uploads of their short films. As to what their events say about society today, they profess disinterest. Their reason for the get-togethers is simple, they say: “we’re just looking to have fun.”
They started their Douban group in order to make friends, share their short films, and announce the dates and locations of their get-togethers. The members of the group are all offline friends of theirs. Membership in their group is restricted to users invited by group moderators. “We’re not interested in hanging out with dipshits,” A Bu explains.
Chen Zhou, Yu Yao, and A Bu are all graduates of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Chen and Yu both majored in digital media. Chen focuses on artistic and experimental video works, and the two men occasionally accept commercial film jobs, providing a source of income, albeit an irregular one. A Bu, who is younger than Chen and Yu, studied cultural heritage at CAFA, and is currently a graduate student in anthropology at Peking University.
The three of them come from affluent family backgrounds and received formal artistic training, leading one to wonder where their anti-intellectual protestations of being “a bunch of slackers” come from. Then again, anti-intellectualism is a common phenomenon among twenty-something artists. Their generation has little experience of material want, yet lacks for cultural nourishment. The rapid social development, collective amnesia, and unstable values that have characterized their experience lead many young people to opt to live for the moment and for their own satisfaction; an excess of perception and a dearth of reflection. Their rebelliousness is rooted in nihilism, and for all that they seek to break down, they have yet to build anything up.
Chen Zhou names Godard as his favorite director, citing his technique and style, but quickly adds that he is less of a fan of the political activism to be found in the director’s later work. The rise of DVDs has accompanied the generation’s artistic development, and the spread of DV cameras has afforded them a means to express themselves. More and more enthusiast groups like 3 Min are sure to emerge, comprised of people who, like the three young people before me, will be endearing despite their immaturity, and will reflect the vibrancy and potential of their generation.
“What do you think of the Beats,” I ask towards the end of the interview.
“Who?” says Yu Yao.
Zafka Zhang discovered art during the mid-1990s minirenaissance at Fudan University in Shanghai, where he made friends, played music, and took part in poetry and drama clubs. Although he had once believed that the young listeners of the troubadours Hong Kong Beyond and college folk ballads were the fashion leaders of their generation, Zafka learned after going to university that music was more than a simple outlet for emotions, that there existed behind it a complex mass of stories and traditions.
Zafka picked up the guitar and formed a band in school, later attending graduate school abroad and returning to China to work in the media and Internet industries before ultimately establishing his own research firm. One of the more “successful” young artists, he has scored music for filmmaker Cao Fei, released his own musical pieces, and taken part in multiple Chinese and foreign exhibitions.
Two years ago, Zafka and his wife Lisa Li founded China Youthology, a consultancy that has offered insight into Chinese youth for brands including Nike and Pepsi. Since then, the company has grown to employ about ten people and run up monthly operations costs of about RMB 100,000. In addition to their business activities, the China Youthology team actively participates in and organizes youth culture events, including their periodical “Butter Youth” conferences, at which young people can discuss their experiences and concerns.
“The problem with ‘art youth,’” Zafka says, “is that they don’t have the courage to free themselves. Say someone likes photography—will he go and really give it his best shot? No. Someone likes movies; will she go and read up on film? No. The truth is that they’re consumers, and these things are cheap and easy to consume. They’ll find a safe space and create an identity for themselves, but they won’t actually put too much effort into doing the things they like, and they don’t have the urge to really understand the relationship between themselves and the things they like—much less to actually create something.” Zafka encourages young people to hold on to their dreams, and has established a China Youthology fund to help gifted young people record and release music.
He has his own conflicts, too. He doesn’t want to be a businessman. He says he hopes to earn enough money to leave business behind, go down to Guangzhou, and play music with his friends – but a moment later, he admits that he’s not quite so pure. When he talks about his views, he tends to make neat, three-part statements that convey more a sense of logic and rationality than of idealism. He has sampled the multiple possibilities of life, written his own rules wherever possible, and tried to reassure the young people around him that holding onto one’s dreams isn’t necessarily a burden. At the same time, he has the sociologist’s ability to look at the big picture—meaning, as he says, that things change when you actually do them.
Madi Ju is a young photographer from Wuhan whose works are permeated with a sense of weltschmerz and youthful alienation. Madi says she deals with her troubles by traveling, and over the past year she has been to France, India, and Japan, and within China to Yunnan, Shanghai, Xiamen, and Qingdao. After graduating university in 2005, Madi took a string of magazine jobs before becoming a freelance photographer. On her right arm, she has a tattoo of the logo for After 17, the e-magazine she started with friends.
Madi is in many ways a typical example of this generation’s “art youth”—a label she accepts but does not self-apply. “I don’t mind when people call me a Young Artist or an Art Youth or a Young Professional,” Madi says, “but I’ve never thought of myself that way.” Her photographic subjects are her friends, or people and places she knows well—subjects typical of what people expect of female photographers: a more feminine, personal, intimate, and apolitical perspective.
Madi says 2008 was her watershed year. After breaking up with the photographer boyfriend she had cooperated with for years, Madi “started thinking that my old pictures weren’t all that good,” she says. Resolving to do more meaningful things, Madi left her job last year and moved to Dali, where she met the “international residents” whose Bohemian lifestyles, music, and galleries form the subject of her photography. “I wouldn’t call the things I shot ‘works,’” she says, “but years from now I think that these people might reflect some of the aspects of what it is to be a young person today.”
Madi’s natural amiability can create the impression that she has no strong opinions of her own. “I believe that if you want to do art,” she says, “then you have to a lot of spend time alone with yourself. I don’t have that kind of courage, though; I just look for jobs that’ll help me live the life I want.”
“When I used to hang out with photographer friends, everyone always talked about what they thought of different works. These days, I feel like everything exists for a reason. If I focus on my own works, it doesn’t mean I have to criticize other people’s. If you can muster the courage to make your work public, then the public will come up with an opinion of it on its own.” When Madi she sees a work, it’s rare for her to have a strong reaction to it, one way or the other.
This sort of personality—whether you consider it conservative or middle-of-the-road—would seem at odds with Madi’s love of travel. Yet Madi has an innate idealism and drive, a desire to create works that break the restraints of convention. For Madi and young people like her, the disconnect between aspiration and actuality is ever-apparent, and even for someone with the social background and standing in society that Madi has, there is a sense of a lack of practical paths and options.
The animated works of Lei Lei all feature a similar theme: the protagonist finds himself in the midst of a new collective hallucination in which he is surrounded by a massive, slavish, indifferent public, and his recognition of himself as a distinct individual is met with anger and violence. This mistrust of the collective will is a common feeling among young people who grew up amidst the economic liberalism and consumerism that accompanied their maturation. They see themselves as heroic figures seeking to challenge the status quo.
A look at Lei Lei’s resume will reveal that he is 25 years old, a graduate student at Tsinghua University’s Academy of Arts and Design, and the winner of awards in domestic and international animation competitions. His blog features pictures of him at film festivals around the world. He has worked with major brands, taken part in numerous exhibitions, and spoken at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which named him a youth opinion leader.
Yet despite his steady advance along the path to success, Lei seems, like many people of his age, not to have lost the innocence of youth. He sits down on his living room floor as we talk, his small frame nearly disappearing amidst shelves of toys, comic books, and Nike sneakers.
Ten minutes ago he told me that he had started drawing pictures in blue and red ballpoint in his exercise books when he was a boy, filling up book after book, all of which his English teacher confiscated. Now that he has finished school, he is free to draw whatever he likes. Now, ten minutes later, he tells me distrustingly that the curator Ou Ning once said his work was “funny and artfully executed,” but that it “fails to leave any lasting impression.” Lei says he is planning to experiment with other creative elements—like a short piece about his father’s generation—but that he’s finding it difficult to progress beyond what he’s already done. Immediately afterward, he asks me: “If I really forced myself to do something that had a sense of social responsibility, wouldn’t it end up being insincere?”
Lei is full of complaints about arts education and the Chinese animation industry. Like the protagonist in his works, he imagines himself as a crusader against the system; production credit for his animations is assigned to “One Man Arts Production.” In his student years, he discovered underground rap, which he credits with giving him the confidence to explore his imagination without the restraints of his “phony lecturers and their bureaucracy.”
The conflict between individual freedoms and social responsibility is one that plagues many young artists. They long to break their bonds and seek genuine personal relationships and unfettered living, yet also look for more social ways to respond to the demands and desires of youth.