China's Me-Generation Artists Turn Inward

Until recently, the way Chinese artists got famous was to talk politics. The generation that grew up during the Cultural Revolution and the difficult years that followed was highly politicized and gained global recognition for its tongue-in-cheek images of Mao Zedong and Tiananmen Square, often rendered in eye-popping color. Wang Guangyi's kitschy communist-style propaganda posters incorporated iconic consumer logos, such as Coca-Cola and Porsche, and Yue Minjun mocked the fast-changing world with his paintings of large-mouthed men grinning relentlessly.

Though still hot, those new-wave artists are giving way to a very different group: the "me-first" generation, whose members talk about each other and themselves. Born in the 1980s under China's one-child policy, they were still children during Tiananmen and are much less interested in politics and far more concerned with individuality. Unlike their elders, who use art to criticize the growing commercialism and inequality of post-Mao China, the younger generation is a product of that rapid economic transformation. Their parents doted on them. They've been exposed to a broader range of media, including the Internet, videogames, Japanese manga and Korean soap operas. Coffee rather than tea drinkers, they are as comfortable listening to American rock and hip-hop as to Cantonese pop.

Their work reflects their experience, informed by global fashion, technology and media. What they lack in edginess they make up for in innovation and an openness to experimentation with new media, like video and electronic art. "Whereas their parents were raised to listen to their superiors and to respect tradition, the 'me' generation are primarily concerned with themselves," says Nicole Schoeni, director of Hong Kong–based Schoeni Art Gallery. "It's about the individuals, about consuming, about having fun. A lot of the artists like to work with mixed media. They're much more willing to be more adventurous with the medium they are using."

Many embrace cartoons, using an imaginary world of cute, simplified characters, often with exaggerated features, clearly influenced by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Victoria Lu, creative director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, calls the style Animamix, combining the words "animation" and "comics" to describe this new esthetic, which idolizes youth and play and ignores adult politics. "These artists and their artworks are like surfers in the vast ocean, rising and falling with the waves of the times. Unable to hold to a fixed position or direction," Lu says, "they often create shifting worlds which invite the viewers to traverse space and time, and construct a reality and meanings that closely reflect one's embedded desires and fantasy."

Beijing-based artist Yang Na, 27, paints doll-like, seductive women who resemble avatars in online chat rooms. With out-of-proportion heads, false eyelashes, pouty mouths and perfect porcelain skin, her characters appear sprung from sexual fantasy and convey a message of seduction, but also one of superficiality and emptiness. "These women are a symbol of our era of consumption," Yang explains. "Enveloped in a lifestyle of greed and excessive materialism, these girls look alike. But their interest in the latest fashion masks inner confusion and obsession, a kind of emotion only youth has. Being young means being both perfect and imperfect, gorgeous and sick, happy and despondent."

Han Yajuan, 29, plays off the appetite of young Chinese girls for the latest fashion accessories with her cartoon-style images of newly empowered women rendered as cute characters. Her figures have all the trappings of contemporary city girls: flashy cars, designer sunglasses and bulging shopping bags. They appear to live guilt-free lives of consumption, which the artist says embodies the dreams and aspirations of her generation. "Han clearly shows empowered females that are benefiting from the economic boom," says Mila Bollansee, a curator based in Beijing. "Yet if her theme is that of a strong, independent woman, she's also fully aware that women in China are not on an equal footing with men. Her message is for each individual to take responsibility for him or herself in this new society."

Some observers note that for all their cuteness and flippant humor, these cartoonlike characters evoke a sense of loneliness, anxiety and spiritual emptiness. Karen Smith, a well-known Beijing art critic, believes the "me" generation is struggling with being single children who marry single children, overindulged by parents and in-laws but expected to one day support them. Many artists are thus escaping into fantasy worlds, such as the dreamscapes of Wu Dinglong, 27, or Sun Lei, 24, an animation artist who in Smith's words creates "evocative interpretations of modern life from the perspective of youth today" using hand-drawn animation cells that are then photographed and fed into a computer to create moving images. It's perhaps the greatest sign of progress that through such works young Chinese artists are observing their worlds but have gone from criticizing their country to examining, and criticizing, themselves.