Yin Xiuzhen inside her installation Heterotopic Cavity, 2009

Yin Xiuzhen and the Chinese art revolution

How the hopeful mid-Eighties years helped shape one of China's greatest contemporary artists

Yin Xiuzhen has lived through interesting times. The 51-year-old Chinese artist can remember the collective farms of the Cultural Revolution, and knows how it feels to have genuine commercial success, as a contemporary artist in today's free-market China.

Her work reflects this social change as our new monograph makes clear. Yin’s art takes a highly critical stance on the homogenization and gentrification of China during recent decades. Her numerous installations, sculptural documents and “public interventions” such as 1996’s Ruined City have both enhanced her reputation and acted as a reproach to a society whose drive towards modernization has not been matched by its spiritual growth. 


Ruined City (1996) by Yin Xiuzhen
Ruined City (1996) by Yin Xiuzhen

Yet there was one brief period in Chinese history that truly changed her work. As Yin explains in an extensive conversation with the curator and critic Hou Hanru, reproduced in our book, she took inspiration as a student from what became known as the 85 New Wave movement, which flourished in the late 1980s and took Chinese art in a more provocative and avant-garde direction.

When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 with the death of Chairman Mao, artistic institutions swept away in this violent, anti-bourgeois period took some time to re-establish themselves. 85 New Wave, which lasted from 1985 until 1989, was a period when, having recovered from the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese contemporary art community flourished, expressing itself as freely as possible.

For Yin, this was a revelation. She had first become interested in art as a child, having visited her sister at a rural production site she had been sent to during the Cultural Revolution. She was moved by nothing more radical than the desire to depict nature in painting, and it was with this ambition that she was later accepted at the Beijing Normal University. However, the university art department in which she studied was a drearily orthodox affair, primarily teaching Soviet School painting techniques and Socialist Realist art. 


Washing River, 1995, performance, Funan River, Chengdu, China, by Yin Xiuzhen
Washing River, 1995, performance, Funan River, Chengdu, China, by Yin Xiuzhen

All of this changed with the 85 New Wave movement, which “shook our stilted classrooms” as she recalls in the monograph. This, coupled with exposure to the US avant-garde artist Robert Rauschenberg's exhibition at the National Art Museum, blew Yin’s mind open. Revolutionised, she would move in a more conceptual direction.

She graduated in 1989, when the violent repression of protests in Tiananmen Square brought the 85 New Wave period to an end. Nevertheless, these formative years had only stiffened Yin's desire to leave behind nature paintings and confront Chinese society head-on through contemporary art. And it is a desire she has largely fulfilled during her career, making works that keep the spirit of 85 New Wave alive.

Come back soon for more on this important Chinese artist, and check out our new Yin Xiuzhen Contemporary Artist Series book in the store.