Contemporary Chinese Christian artists are the unique product of three cultural heritages, each with a complicated relationship and history with the others. One stream is comprised of Chinese culture, both traditional and revolutionary. This cultural heritage has a storied history of tension with the other two inherited traditions, namely contemporary art and Christianity. In turn, contemporary art and Christianity themselves have a complicated relationship with one another.
This article briefly charts the historical relationships between Chinese culture, contemporary art, and Christianity in order to elucidate the multifaceted terrain of contemporary Chinese Christian art.
Though contemporary art enjoys an increasingly positive position of relative esteem in China today, this was not always the case. The relationship between government authorities and the contemporary art community in China has a dramatic history.
The unique inception of contemporary art in China serves as an apt beginning to this story. The Western art world tends to associate contemporary art with postmodernity. Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement sowed the seeds of contemporary art in the 1920s, and these grew into what would become the mainstream by the 1960s and 1970s. In China, however, contemporary art was forged from an alloy of both modern and postmodern approaches.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the field of Chinese art began to throw off the yoke of decades of political usurpation. Simultaneously, Chinese artists and intellectuals set about embracing recently introduced postmodern revelations. However, because the socio-economic modernization of China came relatively late—beginning in the 1980s and continuing even at the time of this writing—the cultural transformation that drew inspiration from postmodern thought outpaced the nation’s material modernization. Chinese art historian, Gao Minglu, aptly explains, “Postmodernity was considered mostly as a set of concepts that served as the first step in a search for modernity.”
Chinese artists inherited communist idealism regarding social change. With the waning momentum of the errant Cultural Revolution, they perceived an imminent positive turn in national evolution. The catalyst for this new hope was thought to be the hybridization of Western innovation with Chinese traditional philosophy and culture.
In the field of art, Western influences include Dada, Surrealism, German Expressionism, and Pop art. Even though Chinese artists fully imbued their work with the strong emotions of their hope for China, the untamable, avant-garde style of their art provoked the ire of the government. The 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition—the first national-scale, Chinese, contemporary art exhibition, debuted in Beijing on February 5 of that year. The event’s provocative performance art was not viewed with favor by local police who shut down the art exhibition within a couple of hours on the opening day; the exhibition was closed for the next three days.
The Chinese contemporary art community was largely forced underground in the wake of this totalitarian eclipse of hopes, which was exacerbated by the immediately subsequent events of Tiananmen Square. They were further burdened with the legal requirement that all exhibitions receive government approval.
This government scrutiny was polarizing. Some artists backed away from their ambitions, while others boldly doubled-down, consciously resisting through wildly experimental work. Accordingly, the underground exhibitions initially blinked in and out of clandestine locations—apartments, deserted factories, or empty warehouses. Eventually, the events began to gain renown as symbols for trends in Chinese contemporary art, such as “Post Sensitivity” and “Supermarket.” Simultaneously, China began to open up to globalization in a nationally unprecedented fashion. The underground art scene was no exception. The international reputation of Chinese contemporary art began to flourish in such global art exhibition venues as the Venice Biennale and documenta.
Beginning in the early 2000s, in response to this positive press, the Chinese government gradually reversed its stance towards contemporary art. When Chinese contemporary artists, such as Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, and Yue Minjun, miraculously broke the ceiling in Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses in 2007, Chinese contemporary artists found themselves in an unfamiliar era of overt government sponsorship. International and domestic galleries sprang up across Beijing and Shanghai. The cultural influence, which emanated from these galleries, transformed surrounding neighborhoods into local art districts.
Around this time in 2007—during the height of the public emergence of contemporary art in urban China—Christian artists appeared on the scene. This had less to do with the success of the art industry than with the explosive growth of the Chinese church after the Cultural Revolution, especially the Chinese family (house / underground) churches.
Chinese family churches first took root mostly in rural areas, where household registration policies were less strictly enforced than in urban areas. This allowed for easier relocation and thus evangelism. However, when unprecedented numbers of Chinese students entered the university system as a result of the 1990s policy of college enrollment expansion, a loophole for campus ministry opened a floodgate to Christian influence among the urban, collegiate population. Western missionaries trickled into China by way of professional education in order to reach the next generation of intellectual elites on campus. These Western-led campus ministries reached art professors and young art students, who became the first generation of Chinese Christian artists, including Yang Feiyun, Zhu Qingsheng, and Daozi. These artists employed classic art media and strategies, such as traditional oil painting and Chinese ink painting, to create biblically influenced works of art.
As the new century dawned, these now Chinese-led campus ministries gradually reached a crop of young artists who were interested in pursuing contemporary art. Its international success and newfound acceptance in mainstream Chinese culture attracted the interest of many Chinese Christians as well. By 2010, a few young Christian artists had gravitated to the Chinese contemporary art scene. Many of them were driven by an understanding of themselves as Christ’s ambassadors within the art world and a desire to share the gospel with observers and colleagues by producing the world’s first Chinese, Christian-themed contemporary art.
This production of Chinese Christian art, however, did not follow a path devoid of difficulties. Unlike most classical art, contemporary artists commonly refrain from explicit presentation of the concepts behind their work. The multiple meanings of a visual element might elude the lay-observer in the absence of interpretative guidance from artists, curators, or art critics. Because Christianity has historically been a cultural institution in the West, Christian symbols and metaphors are disproportionately salient for the Western public. Precisely the opposite holds true for Chinese audiences; not only are subtle Christian symbols too often obscure, they also are not obviously or reflexively related to the contemporary issues and values of Chinese culture. The end result is that Chinese Christian artists must walk a knife’s edge of ambiguity. Otherwise, they must choose between creating either Christian-themed artwork that resonates with Christian audiences or connecting with wider audiences by suppressing the relatively obscure worldview of their faith.
Only a small number of outstanding Chinese Christian artists have successfully traversed the tightrope which connects Christian narratives and values to contemporary Chinese realities and thereby generated meaningful art that is well received in both the secular art world and the Christian church. Needless to say, these diverse audiences sometimes receive such works from opposite angles of perception and sometimes even respond with antithetical reactions. It is precisely this refracted array—as the singular output of otherwise sundry beams of attention and dialogue—that testifies to the connective ingenuity required of the successful contemporary Chinese Christian artist.
In 2011, Gao Lei’s installation NS24 debuted in a group exhibition “Almost Tangible” (触摸) at the Arario Beijing Gallery. The installation is comprised of two rooms. In one room, a taxidermic goat lounges in dictatorial luxury in a bathtub of suds composed of white fleece. A bundle of microphones is suspended above the comfortable capra, and their white-thread cabling leads over to a Soviet-era loudspeaker in the neighboring room. In this room, the skull of a sheep on a human skeleton is laid out in an almost surgical posture in a barber’s chair. Hearkening back to the goat’s bubble bath, the same white fleece litters the floor around the barber’s chair as apparent evidence that the sheep was shorn to death.
The two rooms combine to form a powerful portrait of exploitation. The mundane objects of a bathtub or a barber’s chair hint at the ubiquity of systemic injustice. Likewise, the title draws one’s attention to these dynamics of exploitation across both space and time: “NS” suggests spatial dimensions as “north” and “south,” while 24 represents either 24 time zones or 24 hours in a day. Thus, the global connotation of “NS24” implies that this regrettable scene is a microcosm of our world.
On a theological level, NS24 clearly employs the symbolism of the eventual separation of the sheep from the goats described in Matthew 25:31-46. However, Gao’s installation does not depict that eschatological scene. Instead, it opens a window onto the “goats” and “sheep” as they live their lives on the earth. Gao Lei’s own interpretation of his work puts a finer point on the scene: the sheep is martyred in the act of joyful self-sacrifice. In contrast to the insatiable goat, the sheep is overjoyed to hear from the Lord, “...I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
Gao Lei went on to create another series of works of art that are biblically-themed but more abstract. Screen—The Saw of Manasseh (玛拿西之锯), a minimalistic triptych portraying a hacksaw, appeared in the Beijing Whitespace Gallery in 2016. It is based on a tradition about the death of the biblical prophet Isaiah from the Rabbinic Jewish Talmudic passage, Yevamot 49b. Isaiah, spuriously accused of false prophecy, was sawn in half by King Manasseh’s servants. The artist uses the complicity of the king’s servants in this tradition to implicate contemporary structural evils which compel us to participate in systemic injustice.
Another Chinese Christian contemporary artist, Li Ran, suffuses his art with church life and church history. In 2014, he made a video named Escape from the Scene—The Land of Mystery, in which footage of friends from church in an escape room is dubbed over with a testimony narrated by a young female Christian. Her testimony is centered on the exorcism of evil spirits. The escape room functions as a metaphor for salvation analogous to the testimonies of deliverance seen in Mark 5.
Three years later, in ShanghART Beijing, Li Ran held a solo exhibition entitled “Life of the Pilgrim.” All of the works of art in that exhibition were Christian-themed. A video creation of the same name was the centerpiece of the exhibition. The video features hundreds of old photographs of sheep which were shepherded in Xinjiang by a group of Chinese military construction workers in 1954. Li Ran employs the sheep as a symbol for Christians, weaving together the photographs in order to tell the story of Protestant church history. Simultaneously, the same story, told through the same footage of sheep photographs, conveys the past sixty years of Chinese political history. The “Life of the Pilgrim” is a work of self-expression in the context of the intersection of theology and sociology. It is a testimony to the dynamics of the interplay between society and faith.
Well-known Chinese contemporary Christian artists include the Gao Brothers, Deng Dafei and He Hai as well as Zeng Jianyong. Unlike Western Christian artists, whose practices might be subsidized by a church, the works of Chinese contemporary Christian artists have yet to garner widespread support from the church. One reason for this is that art education in China is not sufficiently popular to create a broad appreciation of contemporary art, either within the church or in society at large.
Still, Chinese churches face significant and, unfortunately, increasing opposition from the government. The task of survival in this climate is far more important than cultivating an appreciation for contemporary art. It is significant to note, however, that Chinese Christians, as a result of this persecution, have drawn increased attention in the contemporary art world due to its support for political and spiritual freedom. Contemporary Chinese Christian artists are creatively pioneering their liminal frontier, despite the exceedingly complex environment of the art world’s partial reconciliation with religion, the Chinese government’s partial reconciliation with the contemporary art scene, and the increasing government persecution of an ever faster growing Chinese church. These works of art express a love and a hope for the advancement of China, contemporary art, and Christianity.
Gao Li image credits: Arario Beijing Gallery and the artist.
Li Ran image credits: ShanghART Beijing Gallery and the artist.
Clover Xuesong Zhou is an art critic, art theologian, and visual artist. She is a longtime writer for ArtForum China, and has also been published extensively in other Chinese art journals such as The Art Newspaper China, The Art World, Randian, and Vision. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in theology at... View Full Bio
John Camden is a biblical scholar, author, musician, coder, and digital artist. He is best described as belonging to the global, ecumenical church, having travelled and lived abroad extensively and having served or studied with most every major Christian denomination—from the Greek Orthodox to the Assemblies of God. He is... View Full Bio