Portrait of the Times - 30 Years of Contemporary Art

Curator Li Xu
Artists Zhu Xinjian、Zhou Tiehai、Zhou Chunya、Zhong Biao、Zheng Guogu、Zhao Nengzhi
Organizer PSA

Since the end of the 1970s, Chinese contemporary art has experienced a rocky voyage lasting more than three decades. From the 85 New Wave movement of the 1980s, to international recognition in the next decade, to commercial success in the new millennium to today's vibrant scene, the new cultural form that is contemporary art in China has secured the support of people within the country and internationally, both among the public and at the official level. The growth of contemporary art over the past three decades is a fitting symbol for the tremendous changes that the Chinese people and their country have seen over the same period. The artwork on display reflects a multitude of changes, from the Chinese economy to national culture, to individuals' altered perceptions of themselves and their position in society. We hope that this exhibition will act as an introduction to a general definition of "portrait", not only showing portrait-themed paintings, but also sculpture, installations, videos, photographs, and performances related to the body. These will offer a range of interpretations of the theme through a diverse range of media, and give the public access to these different interpretations.

As the first independently curated large-scale exhibition since the opening of the PSA, Portrait of the Times - 30 Years of Contemporary Art incorporates drawing, sculpture, installations, video and photography around the central 'portrait' theme. Together with an overview of parallel- and sub-culture including literature, film, drama and music, the exhibition offers a comprehensive look at the development of Chinese contemporary art in the 30 years since the post-Mao reforms.

The exhibition is divided into the main themed exhibition and special projects. The former comprises five units: Specific Individual, the World Within, Body Language, Images of Society, and Future Existence. The three special projects are Portrait of Dafen, Record of Small Events of 30 Years, and China of Culture and Art. There are 117 exhibiting artists/groups for the themed exhibitions, with 212 pieces/groups, and almost 1000 works in total.

Exhibition Layout

Exhibiting artists are aged almost 50 years apart; the pieces on display represent over three decades of work. Strictly speaking, the exhibition does not trace the history of Chinese contemporary portraits but is a themed exhibition of visual art tailored for the space at the Power Station of Art and with a particular academic theme. This exhibition is divided into themed and special segments, with the themed exhibition composed of 5 parts and then 3 special projects:

Themed exhibitions

1. Specific Individual

 From “the people” to the “person”, from “we” to “I”, from the plural to the singular, from the collective to the individual—this section aims to show the processes involved in people’s exploration and self-awareness of their identities, thereby revealing the evolution from concepts of the abstract collective to more independent, individualized self-definitions in the present.  For people in China, Reform and Opening Up was a major historical turning point. The value and dignity of the individual were once again awakened and affirmed, and the genuine demands of the personal have begun to be respected and listened to. Dissenting voices and behavior have become more tolerated and accepted. The history of the last 30 years has been the history of Chinese society on the path of modernization and internationalization; it has, moreover, been the history of the Chinese actively portraying themselves.  Experiences in China and abroad from the past to present inform us that only genuine respect for the individual will nurture good creativity, and only by making the first move to accept differences can a stable civil society be brought into being. For every individual, only a country that allows unity in diversity can become a homeland inspiring the greatest love and adoration.

2. Body Language

The body is the abode of the soul and the thinking self, the home of the intellect and emotions, the battleground between good and evil.  The body is also the external manifestation of a worldview, a philosophy of life, a system of values.  Through the various representations of the human body and its specific details, which reveal the secrets inside and outside the flesh by means of a objectivized narration of the physical body, this section allows the viewer to experience the breathing, the heartbeat, and the warmth of the works from the perspective of the artists’ sensitivity and intelligence, and from there on appreciate the depth of meaning possible within the body.  The true form of the human body is in fact at once strange and familiar for every individual. This section stakes out a point of view through different artistic interpretations of the portrait, and teaches about the mystery and complexity intrinsic to the language of the body. The modern Chinese perception and awareness of the body is continually evolving and changing along with the opening up of the society. The forms of expression related to the language of the body will necessarily forge ahead once feudal consciousness and traditional taboos have been broken.

3. The World Within

Every human lifespan is finite, but the mind is infinite. The spirit is far greater than the virtual existence of the body, and constitutes the most important source of human self-depiction. This section aims to explore the inner world of every individual, and presents the complexity of the spiritual space along with its lively transformations. In an age where society is in a state of flux and urbanization is picking up pace, every person in China, whether male, female, old or young, constantly takes on completely new tasks and responsibilities; precisely due to this struggle forward, everyone is under enormous psychological pressure.  Through realist, expressionist, symbolic, as well as surrealist and magical realist techniques, among others, artists pay close attention to people’s spiritual yearning as well as their psychological conditions in contemporary China. Artists forge one portrait after the other, delighting, moving, or astonishing, inspiring grief or deep reflection—portraits that tell tangled tales and vent indescribable desires, that measure the weight of life, sickness, and death, or probe the span between dreams and reality. 

4. Images of Society

Everyone, upon leaving their parents and family, is displaced from a private space and becomes a real, ordinary, individual member of society. We all have roles to play and self-worth to realize. With the growth of the market economy, China’s social structures have improved and society has become more diversified; at the same time all kinds of social identities have had life breathed into them.  This section aims to highlight the myriad representations of the individual and the group in different social spaces, and thereby draw attention to the establishment of a civic identity, the awakening of social consciousness, the yearning for pluralistic values, and the pursuit of new identities at different stages of human life.  Aside from objectively reflecting social reality, artists also employ documentaries, personal expression, fiction as well as ridicule, portraying individuals from all walks of life in extremely imaginative ways. The viewer can therefore appreciate the astonishing differences, the amazing diversity, and exhilarating vitality in contemporary Chinese society.

5. Future Existence

On the inside, are you still really a child who doesn't want to grow up? Is how we are what we hoped to become? What will the future of humanity be like? How many different sorts of life are possible? What about the different forms of existence? In the chains of time linking the past, present, and the future, which are ephemeral, and which eternal? This section gathers together a series of works particularly focused on the future, placing together artists with huge differences in age and life experience. The portrait is the medium used to explore issues concerning childhood memories, coming-of-age sensibilities, and future dreams, all discussed within an open and uncertain narrative space.  Contemporary art most often evinces a strong connection to a particular era; yet in this section, while some portraits are intimately connected to a specific environment and era, others transcend identity, history, and space.  The future is an eternal subject, and each of us must become the authors of the self-portrait of life.

Special Projects

In addition to the five sections, there are 3 special projects: 'Portrait of Dafen', 'Record of Small Events in 30 Years', and 'China of Culture and Art' all incorporate historical perspective, cultural context and social concern into the exhibition, making Portrait of the Times more meaningful and diverse.

1. Portrait of Dafen

A special project of this grand exhibition, 60 professional painters from Dafen oil painting village, Longgang District, Shenzhen, have been nominated and invited to create self-portraits, to be presented in the final section of the exhibition of “Portrait of the Times” as a group portrait.  These painters are cultural workers on the front line in Dafen village.  Although they have worked hard on different projects for many years, their own faces have never appeared on their own paintings, nor have their own works been showcasedat large-scale professional exhibitions.  This is an egalitarian, interdisciplinary effort where a professional art museum is officially accepting portraits created by folk painters in a key academic project, while open-mindedly exploring a whole new context for contemporary art.

2. Record of Small Events in 30 Years

New Weekly has been invited to co-organize this special project, as a concise but comprehensive review about the history of contemporary culture. This will revolve around important events in visual art during 30 years, drawing together diverse culture and art including literature, music, film, and drama, offering a panorama of the development of contemporary Chinese culture and art over the 30 years since Reform and Opening Up, and describing truthfully and rationally the transformation, internal and external, of people in contemporary China.

3. China of Culture and Art

This is an interview-style documentary of 48 episodes planned and conducted by Weng Ling, with celebrities in contemporary Chinese culture and art including Cui Jian, Xu Bing, Zhang Xiaogang, Xu Jiang, Cai Guoqiang, Tan Dun, and Ding Yi.   These interviews with iconic figures in the contemporary art world present a more realistic picture of the last 30 years. The interview series was broadcast on the Travel Channel. The videos shown in this exhibition are complete, newly-edited versions, and will be reeled in a special space in the exhibition hall.

The subject of a portrait will always be people: they are the eternal subject of art. This is an exhibition about people; curator Li Xu hopes that this event, focused on portraying the Chinese over the past three decades, can spark interest in history and the past in the minds of every visitor. He says, "This exhibition should be an opportunity to observe and reflect. I hope this kind of event can trigger deeper discussion in academia across philosophers, historians, and researchers of politics, social sciences and psychology.”

In concert with the exhibition will be a series of educational events. Leading cultural and art figures including curator Li Xu, literary critic Wu Liang, film critic Gu Zheng, music critic Sun Mengjin and film scholar Zhang Zhen among others will be present to reflect and discuss with the public how Chinese contemporary art and culture have developed over the past three decades.


Exhibition Works


Installation Views