Capturing China’s sweeping changes, one brush stroke at a time

The sound of jackhammers reverberates through Yu Hong’s Beijing studio. Outside, men in blue uniform — shouting over the noise — wheel piles of red bricks, while others help clear debris.

The studio is located in the city’s 798 Art District, a sprawling Mao-era factory that once produced military equipment used as far away as North Korea. Today it’s a mix of galleries, art spaces, museums, cafes and trinket stores.

“China has changed a lot in recent decades, including our surroundings. The constant change has had an enormous impact,” said the 51-year-old artist, from her studio in Beijing, China. “People need to accept lots of new things every day and it’s stressful. It causes a lot of anxiety, confusion, indecisiveness and depression.”

As an artist, Yu has spent much of her career focused on the subtle interactions between individuals and their surroundings.

“Everyone I paint is very detailed, like real characters. But when grouped together, there’s a sense of absurdity,” Yu explained.

“(This reflects) the absurdity of our world. We observe real people and real events each day. Some are connected and some are not. Some are strange. But they do exist in our lives. The world is both realistic and fantastical.”

There is also a degree of anonymity. Many of her characters are drawn from photographs found online. She prefers candid, unaware shots that offer “genuine” moments.

Then, there are the characters she knows intimately. In her ongoing series “Witness to Growth,” she produces a self-portrait each year and pairs it with a blown-up image of a news article that illustrates an important political event from the same year.

One of the works from the series, depicting the year 1992, will show in the Guggenheim’s extensive survey of Chinese contemporary art, opening this month. The portrait is from a still of Yu cutting her hair, taken from “The Days,” the directorial debut of filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai. (The film starred Yu Hong and her real-life husband, the artist Liu Xiaodong, as young married artists.)

Accompanying the painting, is a newspaper image of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour of Guangdong Province, part of his reform and opening-up policy.

“By juxtaposing herself in this quotidian, everyday, lackadaisical moment of cutting her hair in her dormitory room, within this momentous event of the elder statesman of China unleashing a new era of economic reform that would transform China and the world, seemed like a very important threshold for what becomes the third section of our show (Capitalism, Urbanism and Realism),” explained Alexandra Munroe, the lead curator of the Guggenheim show.

Since 1994, Yu has added a portrait of her daughter to the series each year. Yu said it was only after giving birth that she understood the full impact of being a mother and the different expectations and pressures placed on women and men.

“Since my daughter’s birth, I’ve been observing her growth. It suddenly occurred to me that a baby is like a white piece of paper. Her growth is influenced by family and society. Everything leaves a mark on her,” Yu said.

“She was born in the 1990s and I was born in the 1960s. We grew up in starkly different social backgrounds. Through looking at her, I look back at myself wondering how I grew up. We grow day by day without much careful self-examination.”

Watch the video above to hear more of Yu Hong’s thoughts in her Beijing-based studio.

Momo Moussa and Jonas Schönstein, CNN contributed to this report.

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