Presenting Atm-Art: Chinese artists and photorealism of China

Photorealist painting created by Michael and Thor.

Michael Van Den Heuvel is Dutch and Thor Selander is Danish, and they are combining elements of painting and sculpture to depict China – especially China’s present in contrast to its future, and Chinese artists from angles that are not traditionally examined. They wrote to ChinaHush looking for a platform to expose their art to a greater audience. We found their artwork to be engaging and confrontational, truthful and personal. Also, we thought that the sporadic nature of their decision to work together and backgrounds before going into art to be fascinating. Below, you will find an interview that ChinaHush conducted with Michael, where he goes into the motivations, inspirations and process of their art. Also, there is a digital gallery of their work at the end, so please enjoy!

For any inquiries about the work, please e-mail Michael and Thor at Also, the whole series will soon be displayed at a gallery in Amsterdam (link:


ChinaHush: What is the history of Atm-art?


Michael: Neither of us have a classical background in art. As a matter of fact, Thor used to work as a lifeguard for the Danish queen and I used to be responsible for removing landmines.


ChinaHush: What is Atm-art?


Michael: Atm-art started with just the two of us, Thor and I (Michael). We are two friends who met each other in China working as part-time guides while taking groups of tourists around China. One day sitting on the back of a cruise on the Yangtze River, we found each other as artists. One mostly by means of painting and the other by sculptures , but more important they both had a feeling that art should make people think and provoke them in a subtle way. Not necessarily kicking them in the nuts, but just giving them a sort of itch. We both had some background in South Africa so we decided that our first show should be there, but we also wanted to have a show in the parliament building.  And, well, with some bribes we got our way. One late night, we invited 53 guests and officially had our first showing. In 2007, we decided to have a moving exhibition and we chose the Trans-Siberian Express to have our showing. We made 26 rail paintings to hang in the train and to hang in some stations where the train would stop. The show was a success, in a way. Before the train got to Ulan Bator, all the paintings had been stolen.

ChinaHush: What kind of art do you consider your paintings are? Any specific styles?

Michael: Photorealism is our preferred style, but we also work with sculptures.

How did your exhibition in Beijing in 2009 go? What kind of feedback did you get?

Michael: We could not get official permission to show our art in China , so we smuggled them into China and then had a small and selective exhibition for invited guests only. But the ones who came were impressed an happy.

ChinaHush: Talk abut the upcoming exhibition.

Michael: In a way, our upcoming show in Amsterdam is a message to the people of China. In the years that we have been traveling and working in China, we have seen that China is very fast changing – there are buildings everywhere, people talk more and more about money, there is pollution all over China, and somehow we felt that this was a pity, and we felt that it would be ok if we made some paintings that showed how people from the outside see China. But our paintings were not made to mock people than to make people aware that they should not lose this great culture they already had and not lose that.

One way of doing that is by making paintings of the future of China, the way we see it. However, we have not been able to post any onto a BBS forum without them being deleted in a few minutes.

ChinaHush: What do you mean by “the future of China” and how do you depict this in your paintings?

Michael: For example, if you look at Qianmen Square, that is a very important historical building, but you can see that in China advertising is moving in all over the place. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC are everywhere. There is no place in CHina where one can be without advertising, so we made the entrance to the Forbidden City with lots of advertising to reflect this.

ChinaHush: What attracted you to China in the first place?

Michael: What attracted me to China is the diversity, the growth, the positive attitude that most Chinese people have, and their ability to hope for and work for a better future.

ChinaHush: What are your future plans?

Michael: Besides the the “Look at China now” show in Amsterdam, we are also part of a group show in the Netherlands that will take place in a few months, then we have a short period where we will concentrate on making sculptures. We are currently negotiating with some of the major libraries in Europe to put up sculptures that will focus on banned books, and we will also create a few paintings that are related.

ChinaHush: How do you feel about your interactions with Chinese people who are not necessarily artists?

Michael: During our travels, we of course met lots of people. These people generally fell into two groups. One group will try to sell you something and bother you for a while about this, and the other group is very interested in who you are and often very friendly. Eventually, and especially in small towns, we found that getting stopped to drink some tea became very normal, even though we could not speak with many of them.

ChinaHush: In your artwork, there are Chinese artists depicted from the front and the back. Who are these Chinese artists and what is their relationship to you?

Michael: The Chinese artists are Sheng Qi, Miao Xiaochun, Wang Qingsong, Chen Wenbo and Qiu Shijie. We wrote to them and now we are friends with some of them.

ChinaHush: What do you think about them? Why did you pick these artists?

Michael: Of course, they are different from us, but all of them are very special in their field. The way we seet it, Wang Qingsong is definitely the best art photographer in the world, and then there are few people that master the light in paintings as well as Chen Wenbo. So we really admire them and like I wrote before, in the future we might collaborate with them and we also felt that they are very open to listen to how we see things.

The Artwork

Wang Qingsong (front)
Wang Qingsong (back)
Chen Wenbo (front)

Chen Wenbo (back)
Gao brothers (front)
Gao brothers (back)
Sheng Qi (front)
Sheng Qi (back)
Qiu Shijie (front)
Qiu Zhijie (back)
Miao Xiaochun (front)
Miao Xiaochun (back)
China Dream
  1. Given the subjects at hand, I see why they did not get permission – not exactly seeing warm smiles on the Minister’s faces when they saw Mao’s Portrait sharing space with Colonel Sander’s Mug – regardless how revered the two of them around the Asian Rim.

  2. Matthew , atm-art did not get permission for the first series , the one with the other artists on it , most likely because it included paintings of Sheng qi and Gao brothers.

    The second series with among others Tienanmen square , Chinese dream, and Opera , has been deleted from popular BBS forums in china , normally within a few minutes , i think that this maybe, has something to do with that censorship people do not like kfc

    1. Mc, KFC are both, in my eyes, WC. Yes, they are free restrooms in China. When I was in China, I often went into Mc or KFC and did not buy anything. Just for a free restroom, because you know KFC sell trash. Those trash will hurt your health though some Chinese people do not care their health. When I got to the US, a child of an American couple asked his parents, “What is KFC?” The reply is “that’s a place you will never go to in your life”

      Haha, what an extraordinary similarity between my opinion and yours!

      1. Fuck you! I spent half my professional life work at KFC, now you said it’s trash
        and WC, how dare you!

        1. Well, look at yourself. This is a typical symptom for those who ate too much trash. In Chinese idiom, this is called “A dog’s mouth cannot show ivory”. I strongly recommend you to see a dietitian before you get heart disease.

        2. Jinshi , when i am in china i will sometimes eat at KFC and MC , it is clean and easy short waiting time . When i am in Denmark or the Netherlands i will never go and eat at MC or KFC , simply because if i would eat there i would become very round and thick , now as you may know many western countries have problems with obesity. One of the mayor problems in the USA , but the last couple of years it is also becoming a problem in china . This is among others because of fast food , and this is one of the important reasons why many people will never take there kids to kfc or mc. Another reason is that the way the chickens are treated is also not appreciated by many people

          1. This is the story of my life: immediately after hatching I was moved with lots of other chicks in crates to a poultry farm. There I was put with my many others at a density of 20 chicks per square metre in a darkened barn. Normal chicken behavior is unthinkable, but we were fed by the breeding company. After six weeks, we had turned into a homp of more than two kilos of meat. This is at least two times our normal size. This unnatural growth provides a lot of problems such as very painful joints and breast blisters. Millions of us die before the age of slaughter, because we actually eat ourselves to death. Those of us that are lucky enough to make it to our final destination, will end up on a plate as fastfood. Cheap and easy. Extra crispy or grilled. At your service. Enjoy your meal!

  3. I think chinese are very sensitive, they don’t like foreigner put finger on their leadership even though they also conplain a lot themselv. Changing something of forbiden city’s wall, they may feel it connected to political reason, that’s why the bbs’s administor delete this kind of picture. But from the artist eyes, they might want to give some friendly warning.

  4. …I really like your paintings of the Chinese artists alot, but the the whole perspective of putting commercial entities like Carrefour and KFC in a visual juxtaposition is just not clever enough for me visually.

    Having lived in China since 2003, i’ve often said that while there is many talented local artists here, the one subject I found increasingly cliched and boring is this kind of culture jamming – Mao with mickey mouse, Mao with McDonalds, communism vs commercialism etc – which was so prevalent for a while among some of the artists here. So while your artworks of these nature are technically sound, i don’t find them conceptually engaging. The artworks of the artists I do….

  5. If anyone would to know more of the real KFC, pls go read my book regarding KFC in China! It’s on sale everywhere.

    1. I guess that if somebody would have painted , van Gogh, van Meer and van Rijn from the front and from behind that you also would have felt it was boring. what we tryed to do was to show the artist from a differend view , so we painted front and back and a interpretation of how we saw there art , you can see our interpretation on .

  6. I like the Tiananmen painting, which is quite sophisticated. Danshi, shuo ju bu hao ting de: ‘China Dream’ and ‘Opera’ just seem too unprofessional to me. Futhermore, ‘China Dream’ lacks a set of car keys, preferrably beloning to a swanky Mercedes or Audi. Verder niks te melden.

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