Contemporary Art and Political Ecology in Post-Socialist China

Project: Research

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Since 2004, artist Xu Bing has been working on the Forest Project, combiningdrawing lessons for children and fund-raising for forests in Kenya, Brazil, and Greater China.Since 2008, Wang Jiuliang has photographed hundreds of garbage sites in Beijing’s suburbs,documenting the waste predicament as well as the lives of an underclass of garbage pickers.Since 2010, a group of artists in Wuhan have been staging performances around the EastLake, raising public consciousness on the protection of the lake from real estate development.Since 2012, Guangzhou-based artist Xu Tan has been investigating the relation betweenurban residents and the botanical world in the Social Botany Project, through videos andinstallations. These and many other Chinese artists are responding to the intensifyingecological crisis, joining thinkers and activists in other disciplines to re-examine currentparadigms of power, knowledge, and aesthetics in relation to our ecological condition.The goal of this research project is to document contemporary Chinese artworks thataddress ecological issues, and to develop theoretical insights on the relation between art andpolitical ecology.1What role does aesthetics play in transforming our understanding ofecology? And how do ecological urgencies reshape our understanding of aesthetics? How doChinese artists negotiate between classical ideas of ziran and contemporary theories ofecology? How do they approach issues like social justice, participation, and representation intheir artistic interventions? I will try to answer these questions based on close analysis ofChinese artists’ eco-aesthetic practices.My interest in ecological art grows out of my research on socially engaged art.While working on my current project “Socially Engaged Art in Post-89 China,”2I have cometo realize that ecology is one of the most important themes in Chinese socially engaged art,and more and more Chinese artists are making works related to political ecology. Therefore, Isee this proposal as an appropriate continuation and extension of my current research. Toprepare for this new project, I have started to incorporate ecological discussions in mywritings (Zheng, 2015); I am also co-editing a journal special issue titled “Contemporary Artand Political Ecology in East Asia” with Dr. Sohl Lee (SUNY Stony Brook), to be publishedin March 2016.This research project will include two components. First, I will interview relevantartists in China and collect primary materials on 30 to 50 ecological art projects. Thesematerials will be digitized and uploaded onto an online database. (I will be able to leveragetechnologies we have already developed for the Chinese socially engaged art database.)Second, I will prepare a book-length manuscript on Chinese contemporary art and politicalecology, in dialogue with recent literature on ecology (Latour, 2004; Morton, 2009; Bennett,2010; Coole and Frost, 2010; etc.), on nature in classical Chinese art (Bush, 1985; Clunas,1996; Egan, 2004; etc.), and on art and ecology outside China (Demos, 2009; Demos, 2013;Lippard, 2013; Brown, 2014; Arns, 2015; etc.). Both the database and the book willcontribute to scholarship and teaching, and to the ecological movement beyond the academy.1I am using the term political ecology to emphasize that ecological problems are inherently political; notionslike power, equality, and justice need to kept alive in our thinking of nature, the environment, and ecosystems(Robbins, 2012).2Supported by an ECS Award, for 2014-16.


Project number9042419
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1725/06/21

    Research areas

  • Ecological Art , Chinese Contemporary Art , Political Ecology , Cultural Activism ,