BEIJING — Above rows of assembly line workers, a mix of provocative slogans and abstract paintings adorns the corrugated metal walls of the Bernard Controls factory in southern Beijing.
In this unlikely setting, local artists and employees of the factory have spent the last six years producing artworks and performance pieces as part of a project managed by an Italian artist, Alessandro Rolandi. Called Social Sensibility, it is dedicated to injecting spontaneity and random exploration into the workplace.
“I have no artistic aspirations. I just like fresh things and to gain more knowledge,” Wu Shuqing, 37, a worker on the assembly line, said about her participation. Despite having no previous film experience, she shot a 24-hour, black-and-white film called “Sensual Love of the Fingertips,” depicting her hands performing dexterous, repetitive tasks.
Social Sensibility is just one example of a growing wave in China of so-called social practice art — work that is community-oriented, involves a high degree of participation by nonartists and has a strong focus on social issues.
The artists behind these projects, frustrated by or even indifferent to the formal art world, often operate independently of galleries and museums, produce intangible or site-specific works that are not easily displayed, and embark on long-term undertakings that sometimes challenge what can be considered art.
Elements of social practice art are not new; artists have been producing highly participatory art since the Surrealists nearly a century ago, and such work still tends to cause a splash (think Marina Abramovic’s much-talked-about “The Artist Is Present”). But in more recent years, social practice art has slowly been gaining institutional recognition in North America and Europe, where museums and art foundations have begun encouraging more community-oriented art.
In 2005, the California College of the Arts in San Francisco started offering the first fine arts program with a concentration on social practice art, and the Guggenheim recently began a new social practice initiative. Amid much uproar, the prestigious Turner Prize was awarded in 2015 to Assemble, a British collective of architects who transform neglected public spaces through community engagement.
In China, critics and artists alike say that such art taps into both past and contemporary developments.
“The sense of equality that was installed in our consciousness by socialist revolution had a huge impact on these artists. Social practice art has a socialist legacy,” said Zheng Bo, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong whose online gallery, A Wall, documents social practice art in the greater China region. “But beginning in the 1990s, Chinese contemporary art went through an export-oriented era, addressed to a foreign audience. Now we’re going through a rebuilding of a local art language.”
That language has largely been devoted to describing China’s rapid transition from an agricultural country to an increasingly urban one. In the early 1980s, about 80 percent of people still lived in rural areas. Today, 56 percent of Chinese live in cities, while an additional 277 million rural residents travel to cities for work each year. National urbanization goals aim to move 100 million more people into cities by 2020.
This monumental shift of citizens and resources has raised the overall standard of living but brought with it corresponding losses, scattering families and disrupting old ways of life.
Themes of industrialization and urbanization, often symbolized by migrant workers, are not new to Chinese contemporary art. In 2001, the husband-and-wife team of Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen created “Dancing With Migrants,” hiring migrant workers to perform choreographed movements within gallery spaces. Another internationally recognized artist, Zhang Dali, made resin casts of migrant workers’ bodies that were hung upside down from rafters in his 2003 series “Chinese Offspring.”
“The subjects weren’t so much participants as they were treated like props to be used in the art pieces,” says Madeline Eschenburg, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh who studies contemporary Chinese art.
By contrast, today’s social practice artists engage with their subjects as collaborators, placing a premium on building a sense of community by attempting to counter the monotony of urban rhythms and ease the strains that contemporary life has put on interpersonal relationships.
“As society goes through demolition and urbanization, the biggest changes happen on the level of human relationships,” said the Shanghai-based artist Chen Yun. “Trust, care and mutual exchange: These are all created by how you see human relationships.”
For the last three years, Ms. Chen has been assembling a visual and textual record of Dinghaiqiao, a historic industrial district in Shanghai now on the verge of being demolished, a task that links her work to sociological research and investigative journalism. The interviews she has conducted inspired her to begin a “mutual aid” society staffed by volunteers who provide art lessons, cooking classes and discussion groups for community residents.
Yet she stresses that her project does not do the same sort of work as nongovernmental organizations. “We are not here to provide a community with services but rather to encourage collaboration, interaction and the accumulation of knowledge,” she said.
Through this continuing interaction, artists hope to have a positive effect on the lives of their collaborators.
“Art has given me self-confidence,” Li Baoyuan, 51, a resident of Shijiezi, a remote village in the northwestern Chinese province of Gansu, said by telephone. He was one of the first participants in “Fly Together,” a project managed by the artists Jin Le, a native of Shijiezi, and Qin Ga, which brings in artists to work with local residents in making site-specific artworks using local materials.
The project has attracted positive attention from county officials, who installed solar-powered street lighting in the village in 2010, as well as other artists, who in 2013 donated money to provide the village with running water. In October, Mr. Li came to Beijing as part of a talk about “Fly Together.”
“Art is the reason I am able to stand in front of you,” he told the audience. “Art is what has allowed me to meet so many talented people.”
Other artists, seeking to reconnect with hometowns they abandoned before those towns disappear, have sought to bridge the urban and rural worlds.
For the last five years, Chao Hewen has been traveling between Beijing and his hometown for his project “In Transit.” The village, located less than a mile from the capital of Yunnan Province, Kunming, has been pulled into the city’s orbit in recent years. Mr. Chao has tried to mirror the outbound migration that has emptied the village by bringing in a small group of artists each year to create works like “Intermittence,” a short film about women from the Naxi minority group, and “Bridge,” a sculptural piece assembled by villagers out of borrowed wooden chairs.
“Whether in villages or cities, everyone experiences issues of demolition, rapid changes to our communities, questions of memory,” Mr. Chao said. “But within Beijing art circles, we get caught up in our false problems, whereas in the countryside, we can have more authentic experiences and adjust our old ways of thinking anew.”
Not everything connected with these projects goes smoothly. The open-ended nature of social practice art means it is plagued by miscommunication and logistical glitches, its makers frequently facing skepticism from local people.
During the first year of “In Transit,” the Beijing-based artist He Congyue tried to gather the entire village for a portrait, but only about a tenth of the villagers showed up. Eventually, however, the photograph caused a buzz in the village when it was displayed, and the artist went door to door inviting residents to pose again. This time, twice as many people came, some even taking time off from their work elsewhere to travel home and participate.
It is precisely that kind of slow progress and relationship-building that is at the heart of social practice art, said Mr. Rolandi of Social Sensibility.
“I don’t think the art itself is really the point,” he said of his own project. “Radicalness and subversiveness today means creating something that grows and doesn’t just shock.”