A black performer, muzzled and chained, lay crucified in a lamb carcass. Half-naked dancers laughed demonically as they hacked at the meat, then cooked raw chunks of it with a blowtorch.
It was just one of many surreal scenes from Chinese artist Chen Tianzhuo’s three-hour-long performance “Ishvara,” a work that highlighted a growing generation gap between China’s new and old guard artists.
A 20-foot-tall inflatable doll hung from a noose, a lone naked breast juddering as a performer humped its leg, and Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist iconography mixed with emblems of hip hop and rave culture.
As part of a new generation of Chinese artists, Chen, 31, seeks to portray himself as part of a globalized, post-internet world, where the words “east” and “west” have become increasingly meaningless.
Chen says his cohort have “moved beyond” questions of identity and do not need to define themselves in a Chinese context.
They have a more subtle and complex relationship with authority and politics than previous generations – or are indifferent to them – and often ignore such concerns in favor of self-expression.
“Nowadays, other than on a very political level, there’s no real difference between living in China and anywhere else,” he said.
Chen’s ideas are not to everyone’s liking: ink painter Lan Zhenghui, best known for black-and-white works that draw on traditional Chinese techniques, stormed out halfway through the performance, dubbing the spectacle “absolutely meaningless.”
Though Lan is himself an abstract painter, he found the show, with its gender-bending cast blending dance styles from Japanese butoh to swing, “more abstract than abstraction.”
A pioneer of the “’85 New Wave” movement, he was among the first in China to experiment with conceptual art as the country moved out of the isolationist, anti-intellectual years of the Cultural Revolution.
He and his contemporaries fought back against decades of socialist realism, at a time when no market existed for their works.
“Our generation was interested in revolution for the sake of something; we spoke about principles, we wanted our art to tell people if they were right or wrong,” he said, describing the years of political idealism before the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Now the Communist regime has encouraged people to replace destabilizing political aspirations with material ambitions, and the stakes have changed, with the work of contemporary artists widely sought and sometimes selling for astronomical prices.
“These post-’80s and ‘90s kids have nothing to fight against, no struggle,” Lan scoffed.
“They have enough to eat and drink, and can always run home to their mothers.”
Other ’85 New Wave luminaries are less dismissive.
Xu Bing, one of the movement’s most renowned artists, said the new generation had a “truly different” way of observing the world, and less of a social and political mission, having come of age in a richer, more geopolitically prominent China.
“We paid attention to society and politics and expressed our opinions on it, whereas their approach is one that emerges out of a much more personal, individual place – their relationships with their friends, or to their own small, private worlds,” he said.
“We can’t claim that they don’t have anything to say just because they’re only making that sort of work,” he added.
“Soon we’ll all be dead, and this world will be theirs.”
The older generation is like a father looking down on an immature, misbehaving kid
Chen, a slight and bespectacled Buddhist, described his show as an exploration of mortality and the commonalities of religions.
He dismissed criticisms of his generation’s art as self-absorbed and devoid of social and political context.
The older generation, he says, was “like a father looking down on an immature, misbehaving kid” – suspicious of what he called the “inevitable changes” to China’s art scene driven by economic and political development.
“Unlike in ’85, when artists were pretty much all engaging with the same topics, there’s no one thing that unites young artists now,” he said. “And that diversity’s a really good thing.”
His performance eclectically drew from youth subcultures across the globe, mixing a soundtrack of live electronica, sitars and Britney Spears.
Asked what it all meant, Chen was confident in its worth.
“My work is a reflection on the lifestyles, predicaments and attitudes of a big portion of today’s young people,” he said.
“You can’t say that it’s not also socially engaged and political.”