How Chinese creative disciplines are evolving and responding to such an urge

China owns a profound, sophisticated culture rooted in the mists of time, which is working hard to re-emerge from the depletion of the industrial age with a revitalized contemporary identity. In searching for material and occasions to understand how Chinese creative disciplines are evolving and responding to such an urge, I came across an astonishing and delicate exhibition at the Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning. The show is in Chinese, from the introductive colophon to the works’ captions. Still, the creations spoke to me in a global language of materiality, abstraction, and refined handcraft to bring evidence of the vigorous contemporary Chinese aesthetic vocabulary. However, the exhibition catalog, written in English, helped me navigate the works.


01. Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning (MoCAUP), Shenzhen, China

The Exhibition name, or its translation from Chinese, is quite long and explicative: Root in Profound Culture, Lead Influential Spirit of Era, Commit to Artistic Masterwork, Explore with Sublime Pursuit - Traditional Chinese Culture and Contemporary Art Creation. It is supported by the National Art Foundation and curated by Professors Wang Shaojun, Zhang Wei, and Wu Yongping from the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

This exhibition has invited 31 contemporary art masters and young artists to showcase their works of modern transformation of traditional culture in four exhibition areas: "Wan Wu Zi Bin" (embracing all things), "Li Yun Da Tong" (harmony through ritual), "Chong Ya Chu Fu" (elegance over vulgarity), and "Jian Ji Shang Yi" (skill and art).

This thematic exhibition highlights the innovative evolution of contemporary art in the modern era. It vividly portrays the current dynamism of Chinese culture, showcasing the constructive impact of contemporary art in advancing the propagation and growth of traditional culture.

China has a rich intangible cultural heritage reflecting its national customs and traditions. Transforming and evolving culture involves preserving its core while embracing global diversity. The artworks on display in this exhibition represent the modern era's distinct qualities. They introduce new themes that reflect society's changes. These artworks blend contemporary art with traditional culture, showing how the latter remains rooted in local origins while looking to the future. They also explore different materials and forms, combining tradition with innovation.

Over its 5,000-year history, China has built a solid moral and etiquette culture. Etiquette is deeply ingrained in historical and modern life, with objects embodying moral values. The exhibition showcases ritual objects with grace and significance, exploring how etiquette shapes things, from individual value to collective unity. This exploration has philosophical implications, shedding light on the relationship between metaphysical concepts and tangible objects.

The selected artists primarily use traditional Chinese materials like jade, lacquer, ceramics, and metal. They combine these with innovative forms derived from classical techniques. Some young artists also bring contemporary perspectives to traditional culture. Their use of new media, materials, and ideas might resemble Western art, yet they remain deeply influenced by local culture. The message the curatorial team wants to convey is the inheritance of cultural roots in art and the distinctiveness of Chinese contemporary art. Chinese culture is experiencing significant change and diversity. Faced with Chinese and foreign cultural influences, artists must define their understanding of tradition while avoiding superficial and extravagant artistic expressions.

The curators also discuss the rising role of new technologies in art, particularly Artificial Intelligence. They point out the constructive role of art in averting the adverse effects of the fast-consuming, short-sighted popular culture, advocating for a wise, meaningful balance between tradition and modernity, for example, making the connection between innovative technologies and traditional crafting and materials.

Chapter I: All Things Subject to Rule in Laws

This section explores ancient philosophers' study of Ontology and Cosmogony, mirroring modern artistic thought. Contemporary art's visual language must be shielded from cultural narratives, connotations, and formal influences. Chinese artists use direct expressions to metaphorically convey the concept "All things transform according to the law of nature" from Chinese philosophy.

Art possesses an independent formal language and expression, embodying its essence. Beyond visual perception, form and color evolve into distinct spiritual expressions, detached from creators and viewers. "Form" evolves through history, while principles remain consistent. Changes affect shape and color; "Principle" embodies art's purpose.

Rooted in culture, Chinese art respects natural order and inspiration. Artistic dynamics reflect existence's meaning or cultural perspective: "All things adhere to laws; understanding prevents harm." (from traditional Chinese literature in the exhibition catalog). Thus, Chinese contemporary art thrives amidst complex cultural dynamics, yielding intricate manifestations in orientation, purpose, exclusion, and submission. When works surpass commodification and time, they reveal distinct forms, souls, and expressions.


02. Lin Gang, Philosophers, 2019, Stainless Steel, 55cm×35cm×180cm.
Lin Gang, Flying Spring, 2013, Stone, Metal, 258cm×60cm×55cm.
"When I hear the sound of the spring in the cave, a drop for a long time, clear as stone."


03. Wu Yongping, Cambrian, 2015-2016, Chinese Lacquer, Metal, and Wood Variable size.


04. LU Mingyue, New Utensils No.1, New Utensils No. 2, New Utensils No.4, New Utensils No.7, 2019, Marble.


05. LU Mingyue, New Utensils No.1, New Utensils No. 2, New Utensils No.4, New Utensils No.7, 2019, zoom-in.

Chapter II: The Great Harmony

"The Great Harmony" chapter, delving into rites' origins, offers contemporary philosophical insight. Discussions across history have explored ideal societies harmonizing art, technique, form, and quality.

Artistic harmony arises from resolving creation conflicts and fostering vibrant cultural communities through societal, natural, and temporal accord. Chinese contemporary art blends reverence for nature, social defiance, and artistic transcendence, embodying compassion, rationality, and worldly rhythm.

Diverse creation forms manifest art ecology, embodying the cultural ideal of "Acquire knowledge in great happiness (from the exhibition catalog)." Art's social ecology encompasses laws, mechanisms, values, and impacts, forming an intricate organic system. Contemporary art, critiquing aesthetics, bridges "Self-reflection" and "Self-inspiration," merging formal semantics and cultural gestures.

Contemporary artworks emphasize interpretation over encoding, rooted in deep Chinese cultural context. Millennia of Chinese art defies categorization due to diverse aesthetic tiers in calligraphy, painting, and sculpture. Sculpture's universal harmony transcends style, while contemporary sculpture lightens high-context culture's burden, becoming concise and radiant.


06. LU Pinchang, Golden Bricks No. 3, 2016, Corundum Ceramica, 71cmx71cm×10cm 2 pieces.


07. Qiao Jia, Handkerchief Series-Territory, Handkerchief Series-Red Knitting, 2021, Wood, Linen, Lacquer 30cmx30cm×5cm.


08. Tan Xun, Li Mingzhuang plan 26#27#28#, 2008, Aluminum Basin, Ф59 cm/37.5cm/59cm.


09. Tan Xun, Li Mingzhuang plan 26#27#28#, 2008, detail.


10. Wang Xuelei, Yongzi Bafa, No. 2, 3, 4, 5, 2018, Jade, Aluminum Alloy, 85cm×35cm×3cm.

Chapter III: Depose Pomp and Advocate Elegance

Promoting elegance over vulgarity is an artist's refined stance, reflected in the artwork's style and quality. While techniques and artistry differ, aesthetics unite through modeling, material, and craftsmanship. Chinese modeling art originates in materials like bronze vessels and jade carvings. Craftsmanship evaluation distinguishes ingenuity and clumsiness, with both valued. Traditional Chinese art balances pomp, plainness, ingenuity, and clumsiness, constrained by rituals and creators' pursuits.

Contemporary art's pursuit of elegance doesn't rigidly adhere to norms but extracts the best from tradition, shedding flashy styles. "Elegance" encompasses lively simplicity, solemnity, authenticity, and concept renewal. "Pomp" signifies impetuousness and shallow artistry. Amid today's chaos, Chinese culture combats worldly pomp with righteous creativity. While art's cultural heritage evolves, the quest for elegance and rejection of pomp remains constant.


11. Zhou Lei, Birds, 2016, Wood, Ink, 17cm×16cm×80cm. Zhou Lei, Unicorn, 2016, Wood. Ink, 25cm×25cm×75cm. Zhou Lei, The Twelve Constellations, 2021, Wood, Ink, 26cmX8cmX100cm.


12. Cai Zhisong, Soaring No.3, 2022, Stainless Steel, 69cm×52cmX123cm.

Chapter IV: Techniques and Artistry in Combination

In Chinese contemporary art, techniques and creativity meld seamlessly across diverse forms. Traditional art has evolved beyond ink painting and calligraphy, incorporating cultural genes into modern creations. Art serves as potent cultural dissemination and profound exploration. Artists focus on revitalizing Chinese culture, blending tradition and innovation, and harmonizing artistry and technique. Mutual promotion of techniques embodies cultural inheritance, integrating traditional essence with modern materials and technologies. Exhibitions reveal detailed refinement, echoing conventional methods in innovative works, presenting a collective image of Chinese tradition.

Modern creations with traditional techniques embrace inclusivity, using materials like jade, lacquer, pottery, and ceramics. Elegance and populism both possess unique allure. Technique and creativity are mutually reinforcing, with technique subtly enhancing style. Skill showcases technique, but principles and aesthetics are vital. The pinnacle of art is the natural fusion of technique and artistry.


13. Zhi Min, Four Astronomical Symbols - White Tiger, 231, 2017, Ceramic, Metal, 120cm×120cmx70cm.


14. Xie Yuning, Shen, 2023, Ceramic, Acrylic, 200cm×90cm×60 cm.


15. Shen Yongji, Accumulating Forces for Perseverance, 2022, Gold, Silver, Copper, Aluminum, Plexiglass, Crystal, Resin, 120cmx160cmx10 cm. Shen Yongii, Daybrea-Ebullition, 2022, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Plexiglass, Crystal Resin 120cmx120cm×10cm.


16. Shen Yongji, Accumulating Forces for Perseverance, 2022, detail.

Walking through the exhibition is like soaking in the Chinese emerging aesthetic and philosophical identity. The robust and archaic materiality of tradition, made of stone, lacquer, ceramics, porcelain, jade, metal, and wood, is forged with a revitalized abstraction that subtracts the cumbersome excess and superfluous to give space to the elegance and refinement of the noble principles of art. Chinese artists free their spirit and hands from the burden of a recent past of brutal commodification and cultural depletion and present their works as a celebration of harmony, handcraft, and updated techniques.