Art or junk? Student’s debatable artwork reflects plight of contemporary art
Published: May 29, 2024 11:30 PM
Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT

Made of a pile of flattened cardboard boxes two meters high, an art installation titled Super Hive has recently become a much debated internet sensation in China. 

Unfortunately, the piece has not made its creator a trend-setting conceptualist like Warhol or Cattelan, but a wronged contemporary artist who has had to explain why a paper box can be art to the public in an apology responding to some netizens' criticism. 

Super Hive was created by a graduate of China's prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and recently appeared at the institution's graduate exhibition. 

Judging by its appearance, at first glance it does appear like a wobbly tower of cardboard boxes that one could easily find at a recycling station. 

Yet, its symbolic narrative emerges when one notices the digital screens hidden in the "junk" displaying how a cardboard box is produced and destroyed for recycling in the blink of an eye. 

The tower's wobbly aesthetic was also deliberately structured by the artist to symbolize fragility. 

These details aim to prompt a viewer to reflect on the superficiality, dangers and potential collapse of uncontrolled consumerism.  

Although art critics like Xie Ying told the Global Times that the piece was done "nicely to deliver the artist's opinions," many netizens didn't seem to buy it, with some questioning on Sina Weibo, "Since when can everyday waste also be called art?"

How can an artistic opinion be represented by everyday waste?  Back in the 20th century, banality represented by metal parts on bicycles or urinals started to be used by artists to articulate their opinions on the social or cultural changes of the era. 

The tradition inspired the current art narrative that is tightly related to social phenomena and people's everyday lives. 

In other words, compared to classic movements like Rococo and Baroque's services to royalty and elites, modern art practices serve ordinary people; inspiring us to think through a familiar "language" like the cardboard boxes that we all know. 

For this reason, while wobbly cardboard boxes are not art, the Chinese artist's anti-consumerism reflection made it a work of art. 

Pleasing audiences with ideas and intellectual thinking rather than renaissance-like visual aesthetics, modern and contemporary art appears to be even harder for the public to access. 

This might have been the reason that later, the artist apologized for her work, and also explained the creative rationale behind the piece. 

She said that she was regretful the piece caused "public misunderstanding about contemporary art." 

Despite of the artist's humble attitude, it is obvious that people's "misunderstanding" of her work was rooted in the fact that there are not enough efforts being made to popularize contemporary art. 

In an optimistic sense, some netizens' criticism of Super Hive at least reflects an interest in discussing art. 

However, instead of pushing artists to the point they feel the need to apologize, what we need more may be to expose the public in more forms of contemporary art. 

Over the past few decades, the growing Chinese cultural market had led several established Chinese art platforms like Beijing Contemporary to take shape. 

Platforms like these have embraced world-class contemporary artists, and also helped Chinese artists to take part in international art circles with iconic pieces carrying traditional Chinese aesthetics. 

"Chinese contemporary art has become a major channel for the world to see our cultural ethos," said Xie. 

However, mutual appreciation between artists and galleries could be just the industry entertaining itself, if it does not engage the masses, and the industry will have no resources to feed its creativity and is sure to lose potential collectors. 

What can bring art closer to the people? The question might be answered through the crossover collaboration between the art and entertainment industries in China. 

Contemporary art has grown closer to the public through popular TV programs like Painting Boy's World

On TV, young artists with different specialties such as oil painting, sculpture and printmaking exhibit their works while also sharing their artistic stories. The show has made artists the new idols praised by fans.  

"Engaging the public with contemporary art doesn't mean asking everyone to learn how to create it, but to show them the charisma and diversity of art," Xie emphasized. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.