Yan Cong, I don't want to do Anything, 2018, 38 x 28 cm, Acrylic on Paper
“In college I had lots of spare time, no girlfriend, and was very lonely every day and brooding. Other than the required classes in the Chinese Ink Painting department and my mandatory homework, most of the time I stayed in my dorm room, sleeping, surfing the web and reading comics. The process of drawing comics was also sterile and boring and it was also difficult for me to find any joy in that activity. My happiest moments were posting my drawings to the web after I finished with them and then reading the comments left by friends online, looking for comfort. There were many comic lovers online, they understood me, encouraged me and I was willing to be with them online every single day to read the comment they left for me. The passion I experienced on the internet and my boredom with reality made me lose interest completely in college and I wished I could get out, but of course, I had no chance of graduating early. So, with my friends’ support online, I finished one comic after another, without ever paying attention to how it all happened.”
Artist Yan Cong wrote this description of the publications of his early work “Harry Totter” in his zine Narrative Addiction in 2013. The emergence of the underground comic scene in China coincided with the rise of the internet in the late 90s to early 2000s. The first generation of Chinese comic artists were all frequent contributors to the online graffiti boards and forums at the time, and the act of posting drawings and comics for them was a form of intimate conversation with strangers. This was neither a popularity contest, nor a way to become famous, and many artists posted works anonymously but still felt rewarded by the growing sense of an engaged community.
Offline, two equally important factors bonded the artists and pushed them towards more ambitious projects. One was Lv Xiao (Green School), founded in 2002 by four artists, Wen Ling, Lanlan, Lv and Breath. Lv Xiao made exhibitions that consciously promoted Chinese comics as different from Japanese Cartoon production, and highlighted amateur and self-taught forms of expression. The exhibitions that Lv Xiao organized over the years served as a meeting place for new media artists from all over China and a think tank for the burgeoning comic scene. In two years, their exhibitions quickly grew from twenty artist to one hundred artists. Eventually, their success was their demise – the organizing members could not deal with the increasing demands of making and supporting these large exhibitions. The Lv Xiao exhibitions from 2002 – 2004 occurred during the height of the Chinese contemporary art market and work was sold but, in many cases, not enough to sustain careers. However, through the work of Lv Xiao, artists felt encouraged to pursue this kind of work and the contemporary underground Chinese comic book scene was born.
The other major factor in the development of underground Chinese comics was SC (Special Comics ), the most comprehensive publication of Chinese independent comics, first published in 2003. SC was started by Tang Yan around the same time of Lv Xiao. Later the artists Hu Xiaojiang, Yan Cong and others joined as funders, editors, and producers of the magazine. SC was true independent publishing and each issue was a huge compilation filled with passionate efforts by artist from all over China. It was so large a book that one editor joked that “you could really use it in a fight.” SC ’s major contribution to the Chinese comic scene was that it encouraged artists to focus more on creating narratives, which represented a step up from the early Internet‑posted drawings that were often discrete images or single panel stories. SC has produced six issues since 2003, all of which have sold out and are now expensive and difficult to find. SC published the work of almost every first‑generation Chinese comic artist and made more independent and DIY publishing possible around the country.
Today, the underground Chinese comic scene has become larger, more diverse and mostly self-sustaining, but it is still not widely known. In many cases, the narratives and subject matter are scatological, sexual, puerile and generally anti-conformist and cannot be sold or distributed through traditional channels in China. In many cases, in order to purchase these comics, one must visit the artists’ studios, where the books are printed out on demand and pay for them there using WeChat or cash.
In this special exhibition for the 2019 Outsider Art Fair, ten artists—Yan Cong , Gantea, Andor Genesis, Wen Ling, Newliu, Zuo Ma, Jin Ningning, T.K.L, Xiang Yata and Leng Zhiwen—who are all currently active in the Chinese underground comic scene, will be represented by their comic books and/or their original drawings. There will also be a selection of SC publications and other reference books at the booth to give fair visitors a greater historical context of the underground Chinese comic scene.
Brett Littman is the director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York. He was executive director of The Drawing Center from 2007–2018; the deputy director of MoMA PS1 from 2003–2007; the co‑director of Dieu Donn. Papermill from 2001–2003 and the associate director of UrbanGlass from 1996–2001. His interests are multi-disciplinary. Over the last two decades, he has curated twenty-five and overseen more than seventy-five exhibitions dealing with visual art, craft, design, architecture, poetry, music, science, and literature. Littman is also an art critic and lecturer, an active essayist for museum and gallery catalogues and has written articles for a wide range of American and international art, fashion, and design magazines.
Zhou Yi is partner and curator of C5Art Gallery in Beijing, China. Aside from curating exhibitions, he has worked with artists, designers and educators to initiate a series of experimental projects such as Food Theater, Conceptual Las Vegas and Re-creation Project, that extend the gallery program into the fields of performance and public involvement.