Australia-China Council

Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture

China's Faces, Figures and Transformations

The importance of the figure in contemporary Chinese art and the vibrant spirit expressed in the work of experimental artists living and working in China inform the exhibition Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture, a collaborative partnership between the National Portrait Gallery and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, supported by the Australia-China Council.

Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture reflects on the place of the individual in Chinese society. The exhibition of some 60 works includes painting, drawing, mixed media, sculpture, photography, video and installation works made by Chinese artists living and working in China during the period from 1979 to the present.

The exhibition will explore the idea of play that is present in much experimental Chinese art, including artists’ use of humour, irony (things are often not what they seem) and the absurd. The title, Go Figure!, can be understood as an affirmation of figuration and portraiture, albeit of a new kind, or interpreted as a provocation to viewers to understand the art works in their own way. The exhibition seeks to open up conversations about the connections between art and society, and artists’ relationships with the global art market. Viewers will be prompted to consider questions such as why the body, why humour, why ambiguity?

The exhibition is drawn from the Swiss-based Uli Sigg Collection, the largest and most significant collection of contemporary Chinese art anywhere in the world assembled over the past 20 years. 

Go Figure! will feature iconic works by major artists who were included in the ground-breaking China Avant/garde exhibition (1989) and subsequent influential exhibitions held in China and elsewhere, including Ai Weiwei, Diao Wei, Weng Fen, Fang Lijun, Geng Jianyi, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang, and recent works by some of China’s most exciting emerging artists.

Themes will include ‘About Face’, referring to a changed attitude to conventional portrait traditions, both Chinese and Western, evident from the late 1970s; the ‘Body Politic’ focusing on artists’ reinterpretations of historic figures such as Mao Zedong, and iconic national sites; ‘Self Reflex’ exploring artistic reflections on social and urban transformations, and ‘Skin Deep’ which brings together works that make use of the figure, and the idea of skin or surface, and hair, probing the relationship between the individual and society, and the individual and the natural environment.

The exhibition will be shown in Australia at two venues simultaneously — in Canberra at the National Portrait Gallery and in Sydney at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. Guest curator, Dr Claire Roberts has a long and intimate connection with Chinese contemporary art and currently lectures at the University of South Australia.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue with essays by Dr Claire Roberts, Professor Eugene Wang, Harvard University and Zhang Letian, who lives and works in Shanghai as an independent writer. To enhance access to the exhibition and afford learning opportunities, the National Portrait Gallery and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation intend to bring out some of the artists to Australia to give talks and workshops.

More information about the exhibition: National Portrait Gallery website.

Oil painting of seven men wearing suits walking down a street with the Great Wall of China atop the hills in the background.
Jing Kewen, No clouds at the Great Wall, oil on canvas, 2010. 350 x 200 cm M+ Sigg Collection