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Feature Story: Outsider Art

Three expat artists who are building their own platforms for expression in Shanghai

Gregor Koerting, "Colony" (Real Big City Series), screen print (2015), courtesy the artist

Expatriates, immigrants, foreign adventurers, economic refugees—whatever you want to call them—have a unique perspective on their adopted homes. In fact, one of the great expat artworks was made by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who was living in New York when passenger jets brought down the Twin Towers. Zhang witnessed a huge increase in the number of New Yorkers bulking up, armoring themselves in muscle against a threat that was more psychological than substantive. In “My New York” (2002) he created his own hypertrophied muscle suit out of fresh meat, looking strong as a silverback but without skin and yet so raw, exposed and vulnerable. Perceptive and visually impactful, the work anticipated the US military response in Iraq—geopolitical roid rage, tough and irrational.


But in Shanghai, there’s an emerging artists group show on now at Qiao Space and Tank Space, two West Bund galleries separated by a three-minute Mobike ride. In her introduction to the show, curator Miao Zijin says, “It is problematic to identify an artist according to his or her age, gender, race or nationality.” To circumvent this problem, she exhibits not just young Chinese artists but young Chinese artists who have studied abroad. Thanks to this shift, she says, the exhibition instead “emphasizes the dynamics of each artist’s global position.” 

 

Expat artists also don’t seem to fit into collectors’ narratives and investment strategies.


There’s another group of artists who occupy a “global position” that Miao might have included in her show: foreign artists who have studied or are practicing art in China. It’s not surprising that she didn’t. Galleries, museums and art fairs tend to show works by Chinese artists about China or by top-tier foreign artists about other places. What you don’t often see at these shows—something you come to expect in more multicultural countries—is an outsider’s perspective, an immigrant song. 


There are several reasons why this might be. Rebecca Catching, former director of OV Gallery and a curator who works for Chinese museums, says, “Artists from abroad are still not really integrated very well within the scene. A lot of that is language and a lot is cultural. The Chinese art scene is very dependent on guanxi, and even female Chinese artists are frequently marginalized because their networks within this largely male-dominated old-boys network are not as strong.”


Expat artists also don’t seem to fit into collectors’ narratives and investment strategies. Qiao Zhibing, one of the Shanghai’s biggest art buyers, for instance, says he hasn’t collected any works made in China by foreign artists, preferring not to explain why.  


Perhaps foreign artists don’t stay long enough to build relationships with galleries and curators. And perhaps, as one gallery director we spoke to posits, they just aren’t good enough. But that last reason is the least persuasive. There are some excellent visual artists who have lived in Shanghai long-term and have found ways to share their creations, inside and outside of established art institutions. 

 

Silk Road Silk Screens 


While the trend in China is moving toward conceptual work, Shanghai is also home to artists who inspire raw retinal joy with what are essentially illustrations. Ying Yefu’s ink brush paintings and Yang Yongliang’s digital urban shanshui paintings both sell well in gallery shows. Not being a gallery artist, however, opens up other opportunities.


“I never had this pure art approach,” says Gregor Koerting, who started out making punk rock and techno posters in his home town of Dresden, Germany drawing them freehand, pasting the black and white photocopies around town. He later incorporated color into his work through screen printing. When he moved to Shanghai in 2008, he quickly connected with Chinese artist Nini Sum to found screen print studio IdleBeats.

 

Gregor Koerting, "SubChase" (Real Big City Series), screen print (2015) Gregor Koerting, "SubChase" (Real Big City Series), screen print (2015) courtesy the artist


Early on he experimented with overtly Chinese motifs as a way of studying them, but he knew he could never understand them as deeply as Chinese artists. Instead he took an interest in the “cyberpunk appearance of the city,” which is beautifully observed in his “Really Big City (真大的城市)” series.


As in Dresden, Koerting found work making gig posters in Shanghai, this time for Subculture, a regular night at The Shelter. Since then, IdleBeats has built a following, hosting annual exhibitions of art prints, participating in group shows from Belgium to Indonesia, and giving a solo show at Newsagency Gallery in Sydney earlier this year. IdleBeats has also been commissioned to create work by International brands such as Vans.

 

Screen print artist Gregor Koerting in his studioScreen print artist Gregor Koerting in his studio


Screen printing began as a cheap way to make many copies of an image — Mattel still uses the technique here in Shanghai to slap faces on Barbie dolls. In the digital age, though, screen printing remains tellingly tactile, the visual equivalent of vinyl records.  “Now I really want to emphasize things you can only do in screen printing, mixing new colors into the process to create more unique images,” Koerting says. 

 

Performance Art on The Radio


Katy Roseland is one of the founders of Basement6, a non-profit art center for performances, parties and exhibitions. Earlier this year, she took part in the WeChat art show “Moments and More” at OCAT Shanghai, using WeChat’s "people nearby" function to recycle the thirsty pick-up lines of dudes nearby, making them the object of each other’s attentions. 


It’s a great piece, and one that would work well in dialogue with Zhu Tian’s “Selling the Worthless,” included in the Qiao Space show. Zhu hosted a WeChat auction where friends competed for A4 prints of parts of her body, resulting in a bidding war for her chrysanthemum, a Chinese euphemism for "anus." (Keep that in mind next time you order juhua cha at dim sum).

 

"I’m obsessed with garbage. I love spam. I love trash. Now when people ask where I’m from I just say the garbage, because no one feels threatened."

 

Though she has made headway in the Shanghai art world, Roseland says it can feel forced showing in art institutions, where audiences can be small and engagement limited. “Really where I feel alive is nightlife. I've always been a ‘party girl’ whether I wanted to or not. But I want to bring that same critical mentality that you have in the art world to night life,” she says.


Her latest project is Shanghai Community Radio (SHCR), live DJ sessions run out of Basement6 and streamed on Facebook and Chinese video sharing website bilibili. Working alongside the radio team, FUPA troupe and Mute Studios, Roseland provides visuals for the video stream. It’s performance art as live music video.

 

A Shanghai Community Radio performance, courtesy Shanghai Community RadioA Shanghai Community Radio performance, courtesy Shanghai Community Radio


Other Shanghai artists who make party art that wouldn’t be out of place in a museum include Kim Laughton, who creates 3-D graphics for gig posters and VJ sets, and Touch Our Buttons, a group founded by Weini Tey, Bryan Fisher and Mike Ren, who make totally ludicrous, ludic installations. Their four player pong game SPORTZ is reminiscent of works by Feng Mengbo, whose video game installation “Long March: Restart” was collected by MoMA.


In helping set up SHCR, Roseland eked out her own space, removing rocks hidden away after unlicensed wall demolitions. These “illegal rocks” got her thinking about disputed territory and her status as an artist in China. “I’m obsessed with garbage. I love spam. I love trash. Now when people ask where I’m from I just say the garbage, because no one feels threatened.”

 

Performance artist Katy Roseland in her element at Basement6Performance artist Katy Roseland in her element at Basement6


“The Internet is its own territory,” she says. That’s a sentiment shared by one of China’s rising talents, Miao Ying, who says she “resides on the Internet, the Chinese Internet and her smartphone.” Miao uses what she calls “tacky Taobao style” graphics and badly translated Chinese internet user quotes to create animated poems alluding to blocked websites.


Roseland has been developing her own trash fashion aesthetic that anticipates a future when our social credit scores are defined by how harmoniously we behave. “Show me ur outfit without Taobao lil mama” she captions one pic on her Instagram, killerweixin.

 


Will the Real Tao Hongjing Please Stand Up?


Foreign artists in Shanghai have made inroads as illustrators instead of as artists and online avatars instead of foreign nationals. But perhaps the most audacious strategy for breaking into the Chinese art world is to become Chinese. The way Rachel Dolezal passed as black, Frenchman Alexandre Ouairy passed as Chinese. Ouairy arrived in Shanghai as a student in 2000. The Chinese art market was booming, and speculation was rampant. “Ninety-five percent of collectors were foreign, and they were looking almost exclusively for works by Chinese artists,” he says.


The Chinese owner of 1918 Art Space, the gallery that represented Ouairy at the time, lamented that he was a foreigner, knowing he would sell more works if he were Chinese. In 2005, Ouairy took the hint and began producing works as Tao Hongjing, a name he took from a fifth century artist-philosopher. “The result was instantaneous,” Ouairy says. Prices for his works rocketed up from RMB1,500 to RMB200,000.

 

Tao Hongjing, "Places I've Have Never Been", silk-screen print on archive paper (2006), courtesy Alexandre OuairyTao Hongjing, "Places I've Have Never Been", silk-screen print on archive paper (2006), courtesy Alexandre Ouairy

 

Ouairy describes Tao Hongjing as a conceptual project, in line with his other works, which are “all about perception and reality, what it means to make an image, to make an art work.”
As Tao, he made overtly “Chinese” work, tailoring pieces to foreign collectors just as many Chinese artists were doing at the time. But he also dropped hints that he was an outsider, titling his screen prints of the landscapes that appear on Chinese bank notes “Places I’ve Never Been To.” 


Ouairy ultimately killed Tao off at a show called “Death is Going Home” on April 4, 2015. Works included prints of hell money with the imagery inverted, as if painted from the other side, the great beyond. When he finally revealed publicly that he had masqueraded as Tao, AFP wrote up the story, and news agencies around the world —including The Independent and The New York Times —picked up the story.

 

Tao Hongjing, "To Get Rich is Glorious", neon mounted on board (2006-2015), courtesy Alexandre Ouairy

Tao Hongjing, "To Get Rich is Glorious", neon mounted on board (2006-2015), courtesy Alexandre Ouairy


Inevitably, a post on Medium accused Ouairy of benefitting from an “Asian” identity without inhabiting a body viewed as “special and exotic,” or being referred to by a word “that was not even created by the cultures to which it refers.”


As any hairy, big-nosed waiguoren knows, American notions of identity politics don’t map all that neatly onto life in China, and the response to Ouairy’s deception here was very different. “Chinese liked the idea,” he says. “They thought it was funny.”

 

Artist Alexandre Ouairy, aka Tao Hongjing pictured with "Buddha (Amitabha Series), porcelain with gold leaf (2012)Artist Alexandre Ouairy, aka Tao Hongjing pictured with "Buddha (Amitabha Series), porcelain with gold leaf (2012)


Prices for works Ouairy makes under his own name have now caught up with those sold by Tao Hongjing, but he says that wasn’t the motivation for killing off his alter-ego. It’s more that Chinese art has moved on. According to Ouairy, “Chinese artists are studying at Central Saint Martins and getting more conceptual and less focused on China.”


Miao Zijin, curator of the show about Chinese artists who have studied abroad, sees scope for the Chinese art system and foreign artists ultimately coming closer together.
“I am interested in artists’ fluid identities and the criticality and continuity in their individual practices and projects,” she says. “I guess in the future, [this] exhibition could be realized in several chapters which could include artists, whether Chinese artists who studied or worked abroad, ‘foreign artists who live in China’, or simply both of them.”

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