Yang Guowei's series Post-80 displays another side of the new generation of big city youths in a rapidly-changing China; their mentality, their material world. Those who were born after the 1970s are products of China's one-child policy. They grew up in entirely different material circumstances, and are the first Chinese internet and video game generation. Unlike their parents' generation, they do not shoulder the burdens of tradition, they put themselves first, are individualistic and rebellious. They put great stock in their appearance, are fashion-conscious, like to seek out the provocative and dare to be challenging. They openly encounter international popular culture and are in step with Japan, Korea and the West. They dye their hair, get tattoos, read manga, do street dance, go cosplaying and play video games on the net. Older Chinese see them and feel aged; the world has changed so much. Foreigners see them and think that China has changed so much; it's a small world.
They are called the "Chinese New Mankind", and the art that draws their attention and represents them is called "Cartoon Generation". This artistic direction or style (perhaps one should rather call it an artistic phenomenon or collective movement, like political pop or cynical realism) started in Canton, southern China, the city closest to Hong Kong. In the mid-90s, it quickly spread to other big cities, like Beijing and Shanghai. This art highlights how commercialism and consumer culture affect the young generation, and how they embody individual freedom and spiritual liberation.
Yang Guowei is a representative of this Cartoon Generation. His work combines documentation and artistic creation, showing up the attitudes and expectations of the new Chinese generation. Post-80: Rebel was used for the poster for the 2008 Australian Centre for Photography exhibition Generation C – New Chinese Photomedia in an Age of Change. In the picture, an eye-catching contrast is created between the fluttering red banners (the symbol of "The New China" under the direction of the Communist Party), the red kerchiefs all pupils wear around their necks (symbolising the well-behaved children who are to further the cause of the party) and the punks who dye their hair, pierced, tattooed, standing for a subculture outside the social mainstream.
"This generation has given me the impression that it's almost like a sudden genetic change. They shake up a kaleidoscope and display an entirely new condition, unfathomable to all those who, for decades, have been holding onto a simple, unaffected appearance. The older generations can't take in the images of the kaleidoscope, they gaze emptily and uncomprehendingly. The young show themselves off, enjoy themselves, and consume all the time. They seek the newest things, but these quickly get old. They want to renew themselves in the shortest possible time, become winners.
I asked Yang Guowei why he, who was born in the early 1970s, is so interested in them. He replied:
"I'm a decade before generation post-80. During my entire childhood, there were many demands on me to be a very well-behaved child; that was a great pressure on me. On the surface, I was kind and cute, but emotionally I was very disgruntled. I felt rebellious but didn't dare do anything. Generation post-80 dare to think, to say, to do, to be stubborn, have their own thoughts and have their own understanding. I envy them their courage and opportunities, which is why I'm so interested in them. They are the future of China, an opportunity I could have had."
Many don't want to accept the values that this Chinese New Mankind stands for, feeling that they are far too shallow and single-tracked. They place too much stock in appearance, in satisfying material needs, and their view on sexuality is too free and open. Yang only partly agrees with this criticism. His post-80 work also contains criticism, but his purpose is mainly that the series highlights successful New Mankind representatives.
"At first I photographed friends I knew well; in my social circle there were many who could appear cynical and indifferent, but were very serious and prominent in their fields – artists, stylists, designers, writers, orchestra musicians, video game geeks, street dance masters, cosplay celebs, singers. Many of them weren't well-behaved pupils in school, but succeeded in fulfilling themselves much more than most 'well-behaved' ones."
Yang Guowei is also a successful fashion photographer, and his work contains clear fashion photo aspects, which endows the art with new features. Smoke appears as a component in almost every piece. "The smoke symbolises hesitation. Something common I've seen in Chinese New Mankind is criticism and reflection. They have found and realised themselves in terms of appearance and desires – but then what? They are not alone in this confusion; it distinguishes all Chinese who live in this age."
Si Han, Curator
Yang Guowei 杨国伟
1972: Born in Chongqing
1996: graduated from Art and Design Dept., Yuzhou University, Chongqing
Works and lives in Beijing and Stockholm