Like just about everything else in China, its video art has exploded in the last few years. In 1998, when Vancouver hosted a city-wide Chinese contemporary art show, the movement was in its infancy. Now, the series of exhibitions called Yellow Signal: New Media in China illustrates that video and digital art have become a major force, the result of economic growth – and access to technology.
"Twenty years ago, there was zero. There were no artists working in this field. Now every art academy [has]a department of new media," said Shengtian Zheng.
The British Columbia-based curator and contemporary Chinese art expert, who taught art in China for more than 30 years before coming to Canada, is the driver behind the Yellow Signal project.
"I'm still very surprised to see the changes – the changes in artists' lives and experience, and the quality of their work," Zheng said. "It's kind of unbelievable, in a way."
Yellow Signal encompasses exhibitions at galleries across the Lower Mainland. It will showcase new media works by 12 Chinese artists, including Zhang Peili, often referred to as the "father" of video art in China.
Born in 1957, Zhang produced his first work – the pioneering 30 x 30 – in 1988, with a video camera borrowed from a local TV station. The work shows Zhang breaking a 30-by-30-centimetre piece of glass, then piecing it back together. The performance concludes after three hours, when he runs out of tape – an inauspicious end to something that turned out to be an important beginning.
"From then on, new-media art has been growing very fast in China," said Zheng. Now, "there's a group of young artists that are recognized by [the]international art community."
One example: The 1998 art show here, Jiangnan Project, was for many Chinese artists a rare chance to exhibit their work abroad; now these artists are so busy only one has so far confirmed attendance in Vancouver for these shows.
There's even been significant progress since 2004, when Zheng was one of the curators of the Shanghai Biennale. He invited Vancouver artists Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas to exhibit works, but had to fly Wall's assistant over from London both to install and de-install his light boxes. "We couldn't find a technician with that kind of experience," said Zheng. For other international works, equipment had to be hunted down from Beijing.
This time around, the tables have turned: For Wang Jianwei's installation, Centre A: Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art did not have the high-quality projectors required. Meanwhile in China, "they now have the best equipment and very experienced teams," said Zheng. "They can do almost anything there now."
Wall and Douglas, by the way, are familiar names to Chinese art students, who take a great interest in the so-called Vancouver School, according to Zheng.
"They studied and they grew up with these Canadian artists' work," Zheng said. "So we felt it's necessary to bring the new-media art from China to Vancouver. It's like a homecoming. Because they are students of Canadian artists."
The term "Yellow Signal" comes from the Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Le, who said in 2010 that many Vietnamese artists look at government policy toward contemporary art as a "yellow signal," unsure whether they'll be allowed to proceed with the art, or forced to stop.
In response, Chinese artist Wang proposed the idea of a "yellow-signal commonwealth" connecting all artists who are stuck between stopping and going. Last year, he called his groundbreaking Beijing exhibition Yellow Signal.
An adaptation of part of that exhibition, originally titled Go to the Conference Room on the 13th Floor for Free Films, is now at Centre A, reconceived as a silent four-channel video installation and re-named Position.
Zheng is also guest-curating the show at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, which will include Zhang's multimedia installation A Gust of Wind. A large video screen – almost 20 metres wide – depicts what begins as a gentle breeze, but builds until it becomes a destructive force, turning a domestic utopia into a scene of destruction. In the gallery, the viewer is confronted with the physical ruins of what once was a living room.
This 2008 work can be viewed as a commentary on contemporary urban Chinese life. Billowing curtains are beautiful, but a collapsed roof is terrifying. Zhang seems to be questioning whether so much change so quickly is sustainable and healthy – even if it's that very change that has allowed him to ask these questions in the first place, in this provocative, public way.
Yellow Signal includes exhibitions and events over the next few months at Centre A, the Belkin, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Surrey Art Gallery, Republic Gallery, Pacific Cinémathèque, and the Charles H. Scott Gallery.