BACKIdea and Emptiness:Youth in the Post-Ideological Age--An Interpretation of He Sen’s Works | Zhu Qi


From 1998 He Sen’s paintings began to deal with themes of youth and growing up, themes that bore

some relation to the spiritual state of Chinese youth in the late 1990s. The works he produced just

before and after 1998 typically depict fashionable young people sitting in empty rooms, dimly lit

and furnished only with a sofa. Facing the camera, these stylish boys and girls are momentarily terror

stricken, faces blurred featureless by a flash of white light as they lean forward, not knowing what to

do with themselves. He Sen’s painting expressed the empty feeling of a new generation.

In the late 1990s, He Sen was one of a number of young painters who started to use the ideas of

photography to express an individual and personal psychological reality. The visual content of their

works focussed on themes related to youth, reflecting their inner predicaments in an allegorical way.

And so the phenomenon of ‘Cruel Youth’ painting appeared.

He Sen describes the inner state of a generation of young people during a period of transformation

in Chinese society; however, he gives no hint of the social influences that lie in the background,

but expresses the spiritual sickness of this generation through allegorical images. He Sen’s young

people are fashionably dressed and physically attractive, but they are sitting in an atmosphere of dark

depression and monotonous boredom. There is a sense not only of lethargy but also of emptiness.

They seem a bit innocent, also slightly decadent, and although intelligent they apparently have

no enthusiasm for anything, no utopian fantasises. They seem to bear no hatred for anything, but

neither do they love anything, there is nothing that can arouse their emotions and impulses. They

sit in completely empty rooms, feeling that sort of nihilism that is peculiar to youth, an emptiness

devoid of any illusions other than youth itself and material ideals. What He Sen’s canvases convey

is a sad mood and an anxiety linked to the period in which this new generation grew up, a time

when globalisation and capitalism entered China, when Chinese society started to be influenced by

materialism and commercial culture and began to display post-ideological cultural qualities.

In their approach to painting, He Sen’s generation of painters began to explore a relationship between

painting and photography, an exploration similar to German painter Gerhard Richter’s imitation of

photographic images. Visually, He Sen’s paintings are for the most part a depiction of a certain level

of ideas relating to photography; the idea is not to portray an external social reality, but to reflect the

escapist feelings present in the hearts of this generation through allegorical photograph style images.

On these two levels, the idea of photography and the idea of allegory, He Sen has found a visual

continuity, which is that the ideas of photography can be turned into painted images. It is a fabricated

photographic visual style, designed to express a kind of fabricated reality. This method is really a kind

of psychological realism that uses psychologically realistic images to convey the new ego subjectivity

experienced during the late 90s by the generation born around 1970. So He Sen’s paintings could be

said to be a form of psychoanalysis through painting.

Looking at He Sen’s recent works, we can see that his style is becoming slightly more expressionistic;

this can be seen in the backgrounds, large expanses of warm red or cool blue, and also in the

sexy details of the female body; these aspects intensify a hedonistic quality that typifies the post–

ideological age. Visually, these works are no longer an imitation of photography. He Sen has started

to lay special emphasis on the depiction of realistic facial details, psychoanalysing his female subjects.

In his new works, the idea of the female body mainly serves the idea of psychoanalysis through

painting; it is not a dissection of the reality of the female body, but an allegoric collective symbol. He

Sen uses some of the physical and emotional characteristics of the alternative young women of this
 age, in order to convey the pessimism and nihilism of a whole generation growing up in the era of


In a certain sense, through his painting He Sen tries to express the idea of the self-construction of the

younger generation in the late 90s. For this generation, who were born in the late 60s or early 70s, the

idea of self is mixed up and contradictory, a combination of youthful melancholy, post-ideological

nihilism, hedonism and consumer materialism.

Several of these new works show young men or women cuddling soft toys, caught between the sense

of safety given by the toy and the sense of terror that accompanies growing up. But these are merely

visual clues that He Sen uses to lead the viewer into the world of meaning that he wants to create.

The world that can be entered by following this path is in actual fact the predicament of youth, or to

put it another way, the crisis of self experienced by the new generation, brought about by nihilistic

psychology and bearing the marks of globalism.

In He Sen’s paintings, this predicament is neither criticised nor condemned, and this in itself is where

He Sen shows his post–ideological mentality, because he is a member of this new generation, unable

to find a definite critical standard amid this period of social transformation. Under these conditions,

painting as He Sen practises it serves more as an aesthetic form of self-redemption, something that

can open up an aesthetic window through which to overcome and escape the emptiness of youth. In

a certain sense, using painting as a form of individual escapism seems to be the sole doctrine followed

by the art of this period.