At first glance, the 10 artists featured in the Asia Society’s We Chat: A Dialogue in Contemporary Chinese Art exhibition have very little in common. One, Pixy Yijun Liao, flips gender roles on its head with her younger partner, displaying him only in sneakers or briefs while she remains fully clothed. Another, Bo Wang, presents fog-laden cityscapes in photographs that look like screencaps from a film. All 10 show their upbringing in post-Cultural Revolution–era China through their work, debuting at the Asia Society Texas Center this Saturday.
The artists (Liao, Wang, Wei Chen, Xi Guo, Shan Jin, Chuang Liu, Yang Lu, Qiusha Ma, Zhiying Shi and Xun Sun) were all born in China and are all Gen Xers, born between 1977 and 1988. From there, they differ. Some are still in China, in cities like Shanghai and Hangzhou. Others have moved west for school.
Liao moved to the United States to seek a MFA at the University of Memphis. There, she met her now-partner—an undergraduate student at the time, five years her junior. The very existence of their relationship defies traditional Chinese expectations, where the older, dominant person in the relationship will be the man.
“In many photos, I would ask him to be there in the photo as if it’s not a portrait, but more like he’s an object or prop,” says Liao. “A lot of times I’ll ask him to play a dead body somewhere on the floor or in the bathtub. When I had a critique from my classmates and teachers, I noticed the interesting thing is the women are more concerned about how I’m treating my boyfriend than the photograph.”
“It’s a difference in thoughts. (They say), ‘How can you treat him like this?’ or ‘Is your boyfriend OK with this?’ I was kind of surprised. Since we started dating, it became natural that I (was) the person who has more power.”
Bridget Bray, Nancy C. Allen Curator and Director of Exhibitions with the Asia Society, calls Liao and her cohort the “second wave” of Chinese contemporary artists, following in the steps of the first wave; artists such as Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing. Unlike those artists, the second wave of artists hasn’t known China without a one-child policy and rampant economic change. This reflects in their work, Bray says, as they cover topics such as gender, sexuality, religion and feeling isolated among the noise of social media. The “We Chat” title comes from the hugely popular Chinese social media app; another product of modern Chinese culture.
“[These artists] have a different relationship to Chinese tradition—tradition in the sense of, they can practice their art globally, and in some cases, they choose to do it without an overt reference to their Chinese identity,” says Bray.
Thru July 3. Free for Asia Society members, $5 for non-members. Asia Society Texas, 1370 Southmore Blvd. 713-496-9901. asiasociety.org