Thursday, June 04, 2009

Chinese Art and Animation

Matthew White
June 1, 2009
Contemporary Art & New Media in China
Final Paper

Chinese Art and Animation

New technology has, in recent decades, allowed for a
plethora of new and innovative methods to create as well as display
art. Artists today aren't limited to static images hung on walls or
placed on the floor, and instead take advantage of entire spaces with
sound, light and movement. One such medium that utilizes all three of
these elements while still possessing an emphasis on technical
drafting skill would be animation. Still seen as somewhat commercial
in China's contemporary art world, a number of artists have been
working with animation, and in turn are slowly legitimizing a highly
fertile art form that's potential has only begun to be investigated.
Much like its immobile cousin, illustration, animation is
still struggling to assert itself into the world of high art. Despite
many artists primarily working with illustration and/or animation, it
is still more aligned with design as opposed to painting. Whether or
not this is where it belongs is up for debate, and a number of Chinese
artists, specifically Shanghai-born artist Tang Maohong, are using
their unique take to catapult the medium into the galleries and
museums, right alongside traditional oil landscapes and marble
sculpted-figures. Unfortunately, animation, both in its commercial and
fine art form, is locked in an uphill battle, fighting its label as
"cartoons," which in turn applies an arbitrary naiveté to the work,
regardless of the actual content and themes being presented and
explored. Although this can certainly be a disadvantage, there are
also benefits. Animation allows for a certain amount of playfulness
and can often slip by being too heady as a video or documentary may
be, simultaneously putting forth the same questions and discussing the
same issues. It can also create any scenario with unlimited
possibilities which would be impossible for a live action video. This
sort of ambivalent space is where many artists are working, especially
young tech-savvy Chinese artists such as Wu Junyong, Bu Hua, Tang
Maohong, Qiu Anxiong, Chen Shaoxiong, Sun Xun and others. In fact it
is mostly artists born after 1970 (and after most of the Cultural
Revolution) that have taken to animation to the point where it is its
own emerging and growing movement (along with digital works) in
contemporary Chinese art. Each artist contributes to this movement
through their own individual styles and processes, as well as methods
of exhibition.

Ranging from manual hand drawn images to computer generated objects,
animation, in a way, less an art movement within itself and more of an
extension or "upgrade" to pre-existing art forms like painting and
drawing. There are many features animation has over other art forms.
Obviously the major difference is the presence of movement. Animation
is, simply, moving pictures so motion is vital to a piece of animated
work. What movement also brings is the element of time, something an
unmoving piece of work doesn't possess in of itself. To watch an
animation, one must stop and watch the screen or projected image for
the full duration of the piece. Thus, the viewing process is
transformed into an experience where the viewer and work are
interacting rather than the viewer just gazing upon a piece. To
elevate or enhance this experience, music and sound are often included
in animation. While little static artwork incorporate sound or music,
it is one of the key characteristics of animation that set it apart
from other art forms. So with the addition of sound, viewing animation
takes on a cinematic feel, drawing the audience in more completely,
thus allowing for a more satisfying viewing. As an added perk, many
popular musicians or sound artists collaborate with animators, and a
melding of art scenes occur. In the case of China, with the art world
still somewhat small I comparison to either the US or Europe, cross-
overs such as this are possible, with the result far outweighing the
sum of its parts. However there are also some downsides to animation,
such as the time and money required to produce it. To hire a studio or
use professional equipment to produce a work would be far too costly,
especially since many animation artists are young and not as
established. Their solutions are as inventive as they are frugal such
as Bu Hua using Flash and showing much of her work online, Sun Xun
using newspaper or Qiu Anxiong who hand paints every frame himself.
Another obstacle is time. Animating takes a long time since each frame
(usually around 12 a second) must be created by the artist. It is
unlikely that an artist would devote years of their life to create one
animated feature, therefore they opt for shorts over full-length
features. In terms of artistic value, animation has few flaws, and
they mostly occur upon viewing the work. While mostly a problem for
longer works, watching an animation forces the viewer to see exactly
what the artist intends, thus eliminating any self-discovery or
interpretation. In addition, an animation exists in its fully realized
form, with little room for potential or change. It is in its final
state and rarely takes into account the environment in which it is in.
Whereas a painting or sculpture can interact with the room or viewer
in terms of space, animation forces the audience to stay in front of a
screen or projection and watch the images on the screen. The visual
alone harkens a sort of Orwellian propaganda or that old Apple
advertisement. Although early Chinese animation dealt with shadow
puppets, today all animation is displayed on a screen, thus needing
electricity, viewing space and a number of other requirements. While
this may seem limiting to some, many young Chinese artists have been
able to capitalize on animations unique strengths and weaknesses to
create very exciting modern works.

Of the handful of Chinese animation artists, there are a few whose
work stands out for both its form and content. Tang Maohong is a
native Chinese artist in his early 30s who has been working almost
exclusively in animation for the last few years. He studied
traditional styles in school and dabbled with photography and video
before moving on to animation. Currently based in Shanghai, Tang
Maohong has been exhibiting his animated shorts at a number of places
including Shanghart Gallery, BizArt and the Zendai Museum of Modern
Art. His 2005 show, Orchid Finger, was quite well received and is an
accurate example of Tang's work. By combining traditional Chinese
forms with absurd and often perverse content, Tang's animations border
on the humorous, critical and surreal. By utilizing a light box and
recognizable subject matter, Tang's works show technical skill, while
at the same time commenting on China's constantly moving modern
culture. Most of Tang's pieces are displayed in a circular format,
echoing Song Dynasty era paintings of flowers and birds. Many of his
pieces contain things such as animals, plants and fruit that are
always subverted in some way. Alongside these traditional elements,
are usually two or three figures, interacting with the oversized fruit
and animals in a comedic way. The figures almost consistently faceless
and are engaged in perverse acts, juxtaposing repressed sexual
thoughts with serious matters including revolution, the environment
and human interaction. Tang takes full advantage of animation's
ability to be both meaningfully significant and tongue and cheek. So a
figure may be dressed in a Chinese military uniform holding a rifle,
but his pants are pulled down around his ankles. Tang describes his
work as being a way of expressing his thoughts and emotions, but also
making the viewer laugh. By using essentially cartoon characters, Tang
can break certain social taboos and avoid any negative backlash or
having his work being labeled as "shock art." Tang also enjoys being
able to do anything he wants within a certain set of guides, such as
the size of the work, the style, etc. For the time he is content with
his short animated works, but would still be open to creating longer,
more extensive cycles. His main focus is to raise animation and
cartooning to the level of high art by referencing art history in
addition to popular culture in a lighthearted yet mature way, in order
to explore the kinds of issues a painting or a performance would

Similar to Tang Maohong's work is that of Wu Junyong, particularly his
animated works. Known internationally due to a 2006 solo show at the
Chinese Contemporary Art gallery in New York, Wu uses software such as
flash to create his animated music videos such as "When We Are Rich,"
a flash movie aimed at critiquing China's ever-increasing
materialistic mentality with inane images and music. Wu also includes
undressed figures in his pieces, but they are the majority of the
content. The figures are always naked and wearing red cone hats acting
in a goofy manner, and the animations are also short clips looped over
and over into a hypnotizing repetition of colors and line (something
unreachable for regular drawing). Wu work is often labeled as
unintelligible or nonsense, however the inherent silliness of his
pieces exist to soften the true social content being discussed. The
similarities between Wu and Tang's works show a sort of universal
animation language, using simple gestures and movements, sometimes
along with quick sound clips, endlessly looped. The lack of a plot or
even a loose narrative moves the artists' works away from commercial
animation and more towards fine art. Since nearly all commercial
animation exists in the form of cartoons for either TV or movies, the
removal of specific events or characters undermines one of the
characteristics that keeps animation in the realm of popular culture
as opposed to the contemporary Chinese art world.

Contrary to this is the work of Qiu Anxiong, which relies on a
narrative and story and has a clear beginning and end. More like a
short film, Qiu's works draw heavily upon cinematic traditions and
techniques to create a sort of short (roughly thirty minutes) animated
art movie. Qiu admits that normal, non-moving mediums are "not enough"
to get his point across and he prefers the meditative act of painting
each frame by hand. The resulting piece is a beautiful, flowing
display of what only animation can do including music, in order to
evoke an emotional response from the viewer. The subject matter Qiu
uses in his work is very controversial such as war, rapid
modernization and urbanization, as well as biological issues such as
cloning. While watching one of Qiu's works, the viewer is deeply drawn
into the constant movement of the ink and paint, which transforms from
one frame to the next. To Qiu Anxiong, a narrative is a necessity,
there in order to bring the viewer into the dystopic painted world he
has created. Qiu's work exists as a warning towards the rapid
industrialization of the world and the possible consequences that may
arise because of it. But unlike Wu and Tang's works which deal almost
exclusively with traditional Chinese imagery, Qiu's animations,
specifically "The New Book of Mountains and Oceans," a two-part black
and white film, seems to function on a more global scale, referencing
both the 9/11 attacks as well as the chaotic situation in the Middle
East. In the videos, technology and machines are replaced with
nightmarish creatures with Qiu treating the modernization of China as
an insectoid invasion. Displayed at the 2006 Shanghai Bienniale, Qiu's
animations have achieved the level of reverence often reserved for
more traditional high art forms. Perhaps it is because Qiu's work is
basically a series of paintings and is not so different from existing
Chinese ink paintings. But instead of representing one school of
thought within animation, Qiu, along with Tang and Wu, are of a small
group of artists using today's technology to create a set of works
aimed to entertain as well as educate.

Aside from the aforementioned artists, there are a number of Chinese
artists whose work broadens animation in terms of both production and
presentation. Bu Hua, a female artist originally born in Beijing in
1975, uses vector images and flash to create modern animations about
life in a constantly growing and changing urban landscape. Bu Hua then
uses the internet as her main form of exhibiting and already has a
following online. Trained as a painter, Bu's style is very much a
product of her traditional upbringing combined with today's technology
to create work similar to Qiu Anxiong, but with a focus on young
people. Perhaps Bu blurs the line between high art and popular
consumption animation the most by displaying her works online for
free, yet achieving a level of sophistication and maturity that
resonates with both the average viewer and the seasoned art critic.
Sux Xun is another animator who's interesting style has inserted him
into today's foremost Chinese animators. Xun's work incorporates text
and outside images, amongst his own renderings, as he mixes
traditional art techniques with new media. Often political or
historical, Xun's work address the world today, which he accomplishes
by creating his animation on newspapers. The viewer sees the date,
images and headlines that immediately place a context around the Xun's
moving images. While not as revolutionary or innovative as Bu's work,
Xun tackles sensitive subject matter within his animations.

Similarities are obvious between many of China's young artist
animators who present absurd surrealist images always with a dash of
humor and fun. Perhaps because animation makes this possible, most of
the above artists ingeniously employ ridiculous content in order to
discuss serious issues in China today including censorship, military,
aggressive modernization, etc. By using a cartoon, the viewer is not
seeing a realistic representation of say a person with their head
blown off, or little naked men in red hats dancing, but instead a
illustrative rendering that can achieve the same effect, without the
starkness and controversy of a real picture. In this way animation's
potential is far higher than photography or even video, which is why
so many young artists choose to work in it. With computers being more
and more integrated into daily life, digital animation seems to be the
way of the future. Instead of spending hours in a studio slaving over
a canvas with oils and brushes, the new generation of Chinese artists
is in front of the monitor, seamlessly moving the mouse to create new
digitally generated imagery. Artists like Feng Mengbo utilize 3-D
imaging programs to create work that exists as data rather than
tangible materials. Feng's work, while not really considered animation
as much as digital art, seems to made with the same perspective – one
driven by the irony and wit of youth culture.

For now animation art in China is in a youthful state with its leading
figures experimenting and having fun with a relatively new medium. The
movement's leading artists are varied, but with one common language
consisting of moving images, sound and experience. Through their
works, animation can exist as both high art and commercial
entertainment, with occasional sublime overlap. Currently entering a
stage of adolescence, the next step of Chinese animation art seems to
be getting through puberty. A hectic time of changes and upheaval, but
with animation being considered high art as the end result. But
perhaps where animation exists now is its true place within the art
world. Forever skirting the line between animation art and popular
cartoons, animation in China seems to be coming into its own, creating
a language of visuals and audio, marrying the two to envelope the
viewer in a unique artistic, yet entertaining experience.

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