I was trained as a sociologist but then drawn to arts during my time spent in Europe/European museums, so I am now happily pursuing my passions in both sociology and art.
My ongoing research project, funded by the British Academy, explores the work conditions of contemporary Chinese artists and their critique of capitalist labour in the shadow of China’s prevailing productivist ideology. Tentatively titled ‘Artists as Labouring Bodies in a Productivist China,’ the forthcoming monograph from this project uncovers the inherent ambivalence between the artists’ labour and the dominant work ethic they actively challenge and seek to escape. Marx believed that artistic labour is not fully subsumed under capital, whereas the work conditions of artists have been revealed to deviate from the Marxist ideal of ‘unalienated labour’. Artists may critique capitalist labour but struggle to achieve their desired refusal of work, as work is mandated by capitalism. This ambivalent relationship between artistic labour and the dominant ideology of work is the leitmotif of my book. It probes into these questions: How do artists rebel against productivism in their artistic practices and daily lives? To what extend do they remain ensnared by the prevailing ideology that mandates more work? What can artists’ work tell us about the struggle for better/less work in China? Each chapter of the book, beginning with an artwork addressing labour issues in China, presents a coupled exploration that seamlessly blends sociological and art-historical perspectives. Art is viewed as a product of labour and, simultaneously, as the artist’s critique of labour.
This project emerges from my Marxist belief in the liberation of humans from work, coupled with my research interest in arts. 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, I focused 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 creative paradigms are conditioned and informed by the requirements of exhibitions and art historiography.
I love sharing my research with a wider audience, having been invited to deliver public lectures, write for art magazines, and participate in podcasts. Over the past decade, I’ve curated an official WeChat account titled ‘Arts-Sociology,’ where I share sociological insights, research findings, and anecdotes about the arts. Beyond being a Marxist feminist researcher, I am also an amateur ballet dancer.
The Exhibitionary System, Artistic Labour, Marxist Feminism, The Refusal of Work
2013 – 2018: PhD in Sociology. University of Cambridge. Dissertation title: Contemporary Art and the Exhibitionary System: China as a Case Study
2010 – 2013: MA in Sociology. Heidelberg University
2006 – 2010: BA in Social Sciences. Tsinghua University
Zhang, L. (2022). Scenography and the Production of Artworks in Contemporary Art. Cultural Sociology. 1-25
Zhang, L. (2022). Book Review: YAPP, Hentyle. 2021. Minor China: Method, Materialisms, and the Aesthetic. Durham: Duke University Press., China Perspectives, 80- 81. https://doi.org/10.4000/chinaperspectives.13350
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)
- Co-convener of the Sociology of Art Study Group, British Sociological Association, 2023.
- Organiser of the Decolonising Reading Group (online), The Courtauld Institute of Art, 2020–2021
- Reviewer, Cultural Sociology; International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society