Contemporary Artists in China: how they operate between freedom and restriction

Edmund Capon, art curator in conversation with contemporary Chinese artists Shen Jiawei and Lindy Lee

Co-presented with the China Studies Centre, at the University of Sydney

30 July, 2015

Art scholar Edmund Capon joins contemporary Chinese artists Shen Jiawei and Lindy Lee for a conversation chaired by Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the China Studies Centre.

"The first time I visited China, in September-October 1972, the last thing that was on anybody’s mind was art. The Cultural Revolution was past its most lunatic phase but nonetheless alive and well; most schools, certainly universities, museums and any institutions of higher and cultural value were absolutely and firmly closed. The streets were filled with sullen masses of Mao-suited citizens and the overbearing sense of leaden morosity was only lifted by the regular interventions of noisy but well-drilled little red guards whose red scarves were a memorable and welcome relief to the eternal drabness of the fashion of the day.

In a mere 40 years the transformation has been remarkable… as remarkable as China’s tumultuous history of the last 150 years. Art has been and is a potent chronicler of change and evolution and revolution – and the journey of contemporary art in China over the last 3 decades is not just evidence of that journey, art was a participant. Inevitably it has been a journey of frequent controversy and confrontation – contemporary art in China is in many ways rather like a one man band – a solitary if noisy voice shouting at the bewildered masses and admonishing the obduracy of the political status quo. Art in China has never been in the mould of that Western conceit of ‘art for art’s sake’; art has always had its purpose and never more so than today as her contemporary artists seek to evoke the will and the spirit for change – a change that invariably is enshrined in the pursuit of political and social liberation.

Little surprise therefore that art in China today is as combative, confronting, often cynical, and seldom humorous and re-affirming. It is I think also worth just touching on the current attitude to the past – in a nation that is obsessively investing in reconstruction and modern infrastructure with it might seem little regard for its incredible inheritance of material culture there is, nonetheless, a growing, if pragmatic obsession with that inheritance."


Edmund Capon was Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1978 to 2011 2011. In that time he opened the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ newly rebuilt Asian galleries, creating two levels of greatly exhibition space for the Gallery’s Asian collection, as well as space for touring exhibitions of Asian art. He has a Master of Philosophy Degree in Chinese Art and Archaeology (including language) from London University’s Department of Oriental and African Studies with his thesis entitled: 'The Inter-dependence of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture in Bronze and Stone from AD386 to 581', and is a recognised world expert in his particular field. He has written extensively on the arts of China, and written and presented a 3-part ABCTV-China Central Television co-produced documentary entitled Meishu: Travels in Chinese Art which has been distributed worldwide. He has curated exhibitions encompassing Asian, European and Australian art.

Jiawei Shen Jiawei Shen was born in Shanghai in 1948. Largely self-taught he became a well-known artist in China in mid 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution era. His painting Standing Guard for our Great Motherland (1974) became an icon during that years in China. He moved to Australia in 1989, and since 1993 Jiawei’s paintings have been selected for the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales thirteen times. He won the People’s Choice Prize twice ( 2003, 2007) in the Salon des Refuse in the S.H.Eirvin Gallery. He has been a finalist in the Doug Moran Portrait Prize (1994, 1996, 2006,2007) In 2014 his Chinese historical epic Brothers & Sisters was first exhibiting in Sydney, it was 30m long with 422 figures.

Guo Jian is a Chinese Australian artist whose work has been exhibited and collected in Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden, USA, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and China. He is part of a movement ofcontemporaryChinese artists whose work is characterised asCynical Realism, which began in the 1990s in Beijing. Born a year after theGreat Leap Forward, his art is heavily influenced by the last fifty years of political upheaval in China, a period that included theGreat Proletarian Cultural Revolutionin the 1960s and 70s. Guojian’s art is not about preaching or converting others but rather a reflection of his observations from both sides of propaganda and art. As a result of his firsthand perspective both from within the propaganda function, as well as from the outside looking in, he also sees abundant commonalities in the Chinese and Western approaches topersuasion.