Reinventing Characters: Word-related Artworks in Chinese Contemporary Art Since 2000


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date11 Feb 2022


This dissertation features a comprehensive analysis of word-related artworks in Chinese contemporary art over the last two decades. In particular, it focuses on how artists engage in sociopolitical critique through reinventing Chinese characters in their artworks. These artworks are Image Series (2005-2007) by He Chongyue, Revolutionary Slogans of the Successive Dynasties (2006-2007) by Qiu Zhijie, 2009.05.02 (2009) by Gu Dexin, and Do You Think That You Can Help Her, Brother? (2008-2009) by He An. This interdisciplinary art historical research project uses theories from cultural studies, ethnography, and linguistics. Based on the methodology of case studies, the approach of this project is interdisciplinary, involving visual analysis, historical readings, contextualizing, and re-contextualizing. The cases are examined against the cultural, ethnographical, political, and social texts of their time and beyond. A key idea of the dissertation is the strange similarity between Chinese character and the human figure. Chinese characters are square in form, with a sense of spatial separation and individual existence. Chinese characters are also structured with strokes, thus they produce an instant visual effect of wholeness, as the human body does.

The dissertation has three main chapters. Chapter One discusses the slogan-related artworks created by Qiu Zhijie and He Chongyue to delineate how the practices of these artists are infused with a historical consciousness. The main focus of Chapter Two is Gu Dexin’s 2009.05.02; I study Gu’s cannibalism wall text together with Gu’s other artworks to elaborate on Gu’s idea of humanness and how the rectangular framed text could evoke confrontational tension like that of a uniformed military parade. Chapter Three is about the neon installations created by He An. The artist collected broken Chinese character radicals from street shop signs and assembled them into grotesque but unique and remarkable character installations, just as Dr. Frankenstein made his monster piece by piece. These neon installations, I argue, are visual metaphors for urban marginal social groups, of their alienated feelings and experiences, and for their solidarity and bravery.

    Research areas

  • Chinese contemporary art, Chinese language art, Chinese characters, Gu Dexin, He Chongyue, He An(1970-), Qiu Zhijie