[Essay] Wang Zijun and the Involution of Chinese Art — Shu Hu

Wang Zijun and the Involution of Chinese Art

The road travelled by contemporary Chinese artists is uncertain and, at times, perilous. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the rapid growth in China’s GDP has peaked and slowed and the first ‘demographic dividend’ has gradually dissipated.[1] As the country has begun to stagnate economically, so too has the development of its contemporary art scene; one way to understand this torpor is through the conception of ‘involution’. Coined by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his 1963 book Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia, ‘involution’ describes a state of inertia during a period of rapid social change.[2] Geertz used it to examine how external demands from Dutch colonists and internal pressures due to population increases led not to innovation and change but rather to intensification and consolidation of centuries-old methods and traditions of rice cultivation.

In the context of China today, involution runs deep – and art is no exception. In major exhibitions, Chinese contemporary artists have made great efforts in the form of expression. However, the content of Chinese contemporary art remains tied to the nation’s grand narrative, with the few deviations merely exceptions that prove the rule. This is not only related to political and cultural factors, but also social and economic circumstances. The market for entrance examinations to Chinese art colleges reached nearly 100 billion yuan (about 11.2 billion pounds) in 2019, as the desirability of art education and training has grown. However, aesthetic appreciation, for most people, remains relatively superficial, stuck—or involuted—at the level of “whether I like the painting or not”, or how accurately the artist represents objects on the canvas.

This hardly makes for fertile ground for the survival of some of the excellent contemporary works produced by some leading art schools. If people want to break involution, they have to jump out of the circle. Wang Zijun is one artist attempting to move Chinese art forward. Educated abroad at the Royal College of Art in London, Wang graduated with an MRes in Fine Art and Humanities in 2021.

On September 12 2020, Wang Zijun’s first solo exhibition Illusion opened in Xinghui Contemporary Art Museum, Chongqing, China. Consisting of eight works, Illusion was held in Wang’s hometown after returning from the UK, and was curated by Li Yong, a professor at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing.

Wang’s artistic style is obviously different from Chongqing’s traditional art. As one of only eight recognized art colleges in Southwest China, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute has been acting as the art capital of the whole region for a long time. It has a profound impact on the regional art market, dominates the local discourse, and has strong local and regional characteristics. Sichuan Fine Arts Institute has a strong interest in rural collective life and secularization. ‘Scar Art’, ‘Rural Painting’ and other artistic trends which emerged after the ‘Economic Reform and open up’ period (known in the West as the ‘Opening up of China’) in the 1970s remain significant influences in the field of Chinese painting.

Wang’s works, however, focus more on contemporary modernity and urban themes and tend towards the dialogic. The comprehensive material work Blind Sidewalk (pictured, below) shows Wang’s concern for the urban life of minority groups. This work extended from the entrance of the exhibition hall to the wall of the indoor art gallery, forming a 104 cm × 182 cm rectangle composed of 28 bricks. The blind sidewalk is a tactile paving designed for use by vision-impaired people, using touch as the guiding direction. It is always painted bright yellow and has a unique stripe pattern. In Wang’s work, the blind sidewalk became the boundary of visual guidance and part of the exhibition space. The raised stripes are like the static eyes of the blind. The moment they touch is a challenge to the border between reality and fantasy. With this kind of tracking layout, and in making art enter a preexisting space, this work connected the vertical and horizontal planes of three-dimensional space, challenged the established artistic thinking, and provided the possibility for the construction of a new aesthetic relationship based on inclusivity.

Wang Zijun, Blind Sidewalk (2020)

Blind Sidewalk speaks profoundly to the involution of the contemporary Chinese art market. Since the early 2000s, China’s art market has been dominated by a stronghold of politically established galleries, making it very difficult for new art galleries and museums to succeed. Being more human-focused and paying closer attention to inclusivity and the visitor experience would be a way for galleries to modernise and move forward. Because, in most cases, museums and art galleries require visitors to use the visual sense, their eyes. The possibility of blind people and other special groups participating in art activities is rarely considered. Wang’s work alerts the institution and the wider Chinese art world to this disparity and stimulates discussion around the implementation of inclusive measures.

To the left of Blind Sidewalk were three acrylic paintings hung on the wall to form a series: 19999.99, 3999 2999 and 998. Wang painted a string of price numbers directly onto the bright orange canvas with black paint and set up a POS machine on the floor next to 19999.99 (pictured, below), inviting the spectator to reflect on the commercial logic and consumerism of the art world.

Wang Zijun, 1999.99 (2020)

In the exhibition notes, Wang said this series aimed to challenge the institutionalized art market, disrupt its existing personnel structures and highlight a concern with patterns within the art industry. In other words, Wang is attempting to push back against the involution of Chinese art. In 2020, the number of Chinese students taking art exams continued to increase, reaching 1.17 million. A large number of art practitioners are flooding the industry. But in the Chinese art world, successful older artists rarely ever truly ‘retire’ and, even when they are old, continue to take a large part of the cake in the art market, making it difficult for new art practitioners to become established. When a new artist does achieve renown, they tend to create more works similar to their breakthrough ‘masterpiece’, thus falling into the trap of self-involution. Wang’s exhibition poses questions about this status quo: who controls the price of art?  and What influence do those at the top have on the reception and dissemination of art?

His interactive sculpture Echo Kiln (pictured, below) was an interdisciplinary work, drawing on lessons from modern science and technology and intervening in debates around the involution of contemporary Chinese art. Three grey-green sculptures produced by a 3D printer were displayed on three 1.5-metre-high white stands. By scanning an accompanying QR code and photographing the grey-green sculptures, the audience hears different kinds of sounds recorded by the author, such as broken or beaten porcelain. Sounds and images are the media for people to transmit information and exchange; they constitute thought and shape daily life. Transforming sound into tangible sculptures, intentionally creating a bridge between the two media and blurring the viewer’s understanding of both, Wang provides a new way of thinking about the relationship between the two.

Wang Zijun, Echo Kiln (2020)

Chinese contemporary art has been deeply influenced by western post-modern and contemporary art, especially imported ideas of gender, the concept of the ready-made, tailoring, collage, life experience, depression, urban space, performance, and installation. The so-called new ideas and new artistic languages are mostly ‘borrowed’ from twentieth-century western theories, and domestic exhibitions evince an discernible “Western Scent” in ideas and forms. This suggests a new form of involution as Chinese art is locked in the sphere of western influence.

As a new international artist, Wang has a unique cultural background and an interdisciplinary perspective that might hold the key to breaking the inertia of involution in contemporary Chinese art. He is an independent individual with a distinctive practice. But Wang is also part of a new generation of Chinese international students, educated abroad but returning home, bringing innovative, interdisciplinary ideas and methods with them, and  combining not just Western and Chinese fine art influences but drawing on computing and life sciences. Does interdisciplinary practice open the way to a new era of art and offer a viable solution to the involution of contemporary art in China? The future remains to be seen. After returning home, Chinese students are left with a series of harsh and difficult challenges. But it will be up to the new generation of returning overseas students to break involution and pave the way forwards for Chinese contemporary art.

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Shu Hu is an artist from Chongqing, China. He is completing an MA at Royal College of Art, London, investigating the relationship between access to information and power, class and capital, and focused on the conflict between private information and the public sphere. His artworks have been displayed in the UK, Italy, Nepal and China.

Published in partnership with Everything Forever, organised by Contemporary Art Practice at the Royal College of Art.


[1] Feng Wang and Andrew Mason, ‘Demographic Dividend And Prospects For Economic Development In China’, United Nations < https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/ageing/egm-mex-wang.pdf> 2007, 141–154

[2] Clifford Geertz, Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1963)