Dr Linzhi Zhang

British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow

I was trained as a sociologist but then drawn to arts during my time spent in Europe/European museums. Hence, I am happily pursuing my passions for both sociology and art. My doctoral research is the first comprehensive sociological investigation of contemporary Chinese art. Instead of studying the societal or political conditions surrounding the art world, it focuses on the immediate institutional environment that affects directly the majority of Chinese contemporary artists. I call this environment “the exhibitionary system”. It refers to art institutions that have exhibition-making as their primary task (e.g. museums, commercial galleries and biennials) and the personal networks between artistic directors, curators and artists that connect these institutions. Since exhibition-making has become, beyond its traditional role of showcasing art, an integral way of producing art, my doctoral thesis explains how art is produced in the exhibitionary system in China. In particular, I highlight how artists’ careers and ways of production are conditioned by the requirements of exhibitions and the art-historiographic consciousness.

My new research project, funded by the British Academy, is titled Unrecognised Bodies: Migrant Workers in Contemporary Chinese Art. This project concerns a unique but much neglected fact about contemporary Chinese art: the faces and bodies we see in the images and videos are mostly from migrant workers. As cheap labour provided by the mass migration in the Chinese urbanisation process, migrant workers are widely used in contemporary Chinese art as performers and models. Their identities and contribution, however, remain largely unrecognised. I seek to reveal the aesthetic consequences, intended or unintended by the artists, arising from workers’ participation in the production of contemporary Chinese art. Through ethnographic research in artists’ studios in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, I will uncover the interactive process in which artists and migrant workers have jointly produced artworks. In a systematic analysis of major artworks produced since the 1990s that employed migrant workers, I will identify the role of migrant workers’ bodies as corporeal material and artistic medium for contemporary Chinese art.

Apart from my research, I also enjoy writing (mostly in Chinese) to a general public. I have been running a WeChat official account named Arts-Sociology for 6 years, introducing research and fun facts related to the sociological studies of art. I also write for art magazines.

Research Interests

Social theories of art, The social process of artistic production, The Exhibitionary System, The art market (commercial galleries in particular), Postcolonialism, Art historiography


2013 – 2018: PhD in Sociology. University of Cambridge. Dissertation title: Contemporary Art and the Exhibitionary System: China as a Case Study

2010 – 2013: M.A in sociology. Heidelberg University

2006 – 2010: B.A. in Social sciences. Tsinghua University


Zhang, L. (2020). Interview with Wang Huangsheng. Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 7(1), pp. 149-163. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/jcca_00023_7

Zhang L. (2020) The Diffusion of Galleries in China (1991–2016). In: Glauser A., Holder P., Mazzurana T., Moeschler O., Rolle V., Schultheis F. (eds) The Sociology of Arts and Markets. Sociology of the Arts. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-39013-6_12

Zhang, L. (2016). Book Review: Between State and Market: Chinese Contemporary Art in the Post-Mao Era, by J. DeBevoise. China Information, 30(1), 101-102. https://doi.org/10.1177/0920203X16629738

Zhang, L., Qu, Y., Cao, X., and Guo, K. (2013). Rural migrants as marginalised citizens: a report on dealers in fake invoices near Xizhimen metro station, in Q. Li & H. Wang (Ed.), Urban Sociology: Beijing City Social Life Survey (pp. 378 – 388). Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press. (in Chinese)