China's Art Factory; A Bold New Generation of Artists Is Less Interested in Politics Than in Making Money. and There Is Plenty to Be Made

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Byline: Jessica Au

Wander through Beijing's crowded Tiananmen Square and you may come across Han Bing walking a cabbage on a leash. Han's cabbage is not a one-act vegetable; it's walked on the Great Wall, along the beach at the resort town of Qinhuangdao, and in the idyllic village of Suzhou. "Walking the Cabbage"--like all the works by Han, a performance artist--is a pointed commentary on China's rush to modernize and its captive embrace of rampant materialism. "I want people to see how much of our daily lives are routines that we've blindly absorbed," says the 31-year-old graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China's top art school.

Han is part of a new generation of Chinese artists seeking novel and vibrant ways to make sense of their country's economic boom. They are rejecting the political pop imagery and satirical portraits of Mao that propelled their predecessors into the global spotlight, instead choosing to present China as a pluralistic, capitalistic society. Products of the go-go generation, these twenty- and thirtysomething artists are too young to remember the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Nor have they had to live in fear of being persecuted or imprisoned for their art, like many of their creative forebears, including Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi. "China's young creators have gained the self-confidence to express a brand-new China," says Chinese contemporary art dealer Michael Goedhuis.

And the world is eating it up. Last year Sotheby's and Christie's together sold more than $210 million worth of contemporary Asian, predominantly Chinese, art--a record sum for both auction houses. At a contemporary-art sale at Christie's London last month, a 2006 portrait by newcomer Zeng Chuanxing of a young bride dressed in a paper gown attracted ferocious bidding, eventually bringing the hammer down at [pounds sterling]164,800--more than seven times the auction house's estimate. "We had close to 30 people on the line competing for Zeng's piece," says Pilar Ordovas, a specialist in Chinese contemporary art at Christie's. "It just had such a universal appeal."

Art critics and gallery owners agree that China's young artists are addressing unexplored social themes--including the greedy consumerism of post-Tiananmen China. Greater openness and the spread of technology mean that photography, video and performance art are also quickly becoming accepted mediums for China's multimedia "click, click" generation, just as they are for contemporary artists the world over. Photographer Yang Yong's saturated portraits of bored urban youth hang in galleries from London to New York. "The vapidness of urban life is very much a dominant imagery in the works by younger artists," says the editor of Art Asia Pacific magazine, Elaine Ng. "It's very reflective of what's going on in China now."

Other artists come at this theme from a different angle; Cui Xiuwen's paintings depict a wounded schoolgirl in the Forbidden City, whose glazed eyes hint at lost innocence and isolation in the bustle of contemporary China. China's burgeoning art scene has much to do with the country's growing liberalization, which has allowed visual arts, in particular, greater freedom of expression. …