Chen Shaoxiong courtesy of Pekin Fine Arts"
Chen Shaoxiong courtesy of Pekin Fine Arts

No museum in China has offered him this opportunity. Chen Shaoxiong, a conceptual artist from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, has a solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum‘s (SAM) Asian Art Museum. The exhibition opened on July 19 and runs until December 7.

For Chen, to hold a solo show at the Asian Art Museum is an exciting experience that delves into “unknown territory.” Most of Chen’s work is exhibited internationally, including at other locations in the United States, but the show at the Asian Art Museum really provides him with the chance to show his art at a scale that is unavailable to him in his home country. Since the 1980s it has been clear to Chen that no such opportunity would ever arise in China.

“The state museums of China are more focused on large-scale exhibits, international relations and cultural exchange,” Chen said. “There are many ways to get a solo exhibit in a Chinese museum: using personal relations, public relations, paying money. I’ve never been interested in following those paths.”

While government censorship can be stifling, Chen said it hasn’t affected his level of creativity; he creates what he wants, but gets a smaller audience in China because of it.

“[It has] no impact on my creativity. The main impact is on my opportunities to do exhibits,” he said. “I have the choice not to participate in exhibits that may be overly controlled or censored. I don’t need to be a part of these exhibits.”

Artist Chen Shaoxiong. •  Photo from
Artist Chen Shaoxiong. • Photo from

For many artists in China, they feel the government pressure, but find ways to be subtle about their messages and evade the censors, said Xiaojin Wu, SAM’s curator for East Asian Art. She usually focuses on Japanese and Korean art but recently made a trip to China to visit galleries and facilitate a presence for Chinese art at SAM. In China she visited several galleries and came across Chen through Pekin Fine Arts in Beijing. They got the ball rolling to bring his work over to Seattle.

“We want to give the visitors of the museum an idea of what modern art in China is like,” Wu said. “In particular for Chen it’s great because there is more than one medium of art that is being displayed.”

The exhibition presents Chen’s two recent video works, Ink History and Ink Media, and their accompanying drawings. Chen created over 150 ink drawings of historic photos from major events in China between 1909 and 2009 for Ink History. He then put the drawings together to form a three-minute video of modern Chinese history. Ink Media is Chen’s most recent work, and for it he downloaded photos from protests around the world found from online news outlets. He then took ink to paper and re-enacted these scenes.

Ink Media reflects what I’ve observed in my life and what I’ve read and observed on Internet news,” Chen said. “I see the body on the street as a dialogue; a form of forceful communication used to express different things.”

In the 1990s Chen was a founding member of the Big Tail Elephant Group in Guangzhou, which brought together conceptual artists. The 1990s in China were a time that saw many changes following events such as Tiananmen Square, but Chen says it was easier then to be an artist than present day China.

“We were fairly free to do so-called underground exhibits; no one paid attention to us, and the cost of living was low enough that there were few economic constraints,” Chen said. “China had very little in the way of a contemporary art system, no art industry, no art market. In many ways, we were free of the heavy art market influences. Today, we are supposed to be more free as artists in China, but the economic pressures of the art market in many ways give us more pressure than we had in the 1990s.”

Since he is the first Chinese artist to have a solo exhibition of this nature at SAM, Chen said he hopes the museum’s visitors will remember that each individual has his or her own character and that they won’t generalize from his work.

“China is a massive country with diverse talents and I can only represent myself,” Chen said. “I hope Americans take time to learn more about China, and don’t generalize and assume that the country is homogenous. There is every type of person in China, just as there is in the USA.”

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Editor’s Note (7/22/14 at 11:34 a.m.): Edits were made to clarify that the exhibit is at SAM’s Asian Art Museum.

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