Running alongside the history of contemporary art inside China is a parallel history of Chinese artists working and exhibiting abroad. In the 1990s and early 2000s, international biennials and exhibitions of global contemporary art staged sweeping narratives engaged with topical themes such as identity, diaspora, and globalization.

Works by Chinese artists were often prominent exemplars in these exhibitions. Some artists came to understand the new ways in which they were being presented, conscious of both what this system might expect from them, and how, using art, they might subvert it. Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen, Shen Yuan, and Yang Jiechang recouped traditional Chinese aesthetics and philosophy, along with culturally charged mediums like gunpowder and ink, to cast themselves as shamans of an alternative reality that could counter the modern West’s ills. They reveled in what Chen called the “transexperience” of living in between multiple temporalities, cultures, and worldviews. They sought to give that unruly condition fantastic form.

By the mid-1990s other artists had turned their critical lenses to the ways their work was used to serve the multicultural demands of a newly global art world, even as they depended on these international exhibition opportunities in the absence of a well-developed museum and gallery system inside China. Artists such as Yan Lei and Zhou Tiehai expressed their anxiety about this interface by using hoaxes and satire to expose the distorting influence foreign curators and critics were wielding over the Chinese art world.

Real-world events, which increasingly involved China, also began to intervene. In 2001 a U.S. spy plane nicknamed “The Bat” was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island. Huang Yong Ping’s Bat Project shows how art explored the nuanced complexity of the shifting geopolitical realities around the turn of the millennium.