The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Home and Away: A Conversation with Chen Qiulin

Wearing a sparkly baseball cap and expressing a surprisingly enthusiastic interest in trying a pie floater from Sydney institution Harry's Cafe de Wheels (and if you are not an Australian reading this, don't even ask!) Chen Qiulin seemed very young, and initially rather shy, when we met before the opening of her first Australian solo show at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Once in conversation about her work, however, despite the inevitable slight awkwardness of doing an interview with a translator, she was articulate and thoughtful, revealing why she had chosen the unlikely material of tofu as a metaphor for contemporary China. My conversation with this significant contemporary artist was published this week, in The Art Life:

Chen Qiulin. A Hundred Surnames in Tofu, 2010; still from video installation. Courtesy of the Artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.
In the last few weeks Sydney has been filled with red lanterns, and lunar new year festivities of all kinds to usher in the year of the monkey. Amidst all the imagery of zodiac animals, lion dances and red papercuts, an exhibition currently showing at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is centred around the unlikely material of tofu. The first solo exhibition in Australia of significant Chinese conceptual artist Chen Qiulin is definitely something to be celebrated.
Chen Qiulin, 'Scent' Installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, image courtesy the artist and 4A

Chen Qiulin’s hometown of Wanzhou, in Sichuan Province (home of fabulously spicy tofu dishes) was partially submerged during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, a massive infrastructure project that caused more than a million people living on the banks of the Yangtze to be relocated, their lives – and often their livelihoods – disrupted. For many years her work has documented the impact of the dramatic physical, cultural, social and economic transformation of China upon ordinary people, the “lao bai xing”, or “old hundred names”. Her ongoing‘One Hundred Names’ project involved carving the most common Chinese surnames into blocks of firm tofu, documenting their disintegration and decay. Her solo exhibition at 4A features a number of earlier works and a new commissioned project, ‘One Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong’. Together with curator Toby Chapman and the 4A team, Chen researched the history of the Chinese diaspora in Sydney, specifically focusing on the Haymarket precinct where the gallery is located. She found the names and stories of some of the earliest Chinese migrants, discovering that ‘Kwong Wah Chong’ was Sydney’s first Chinese-owned and operated business.
I spoke with Chen Qiulin at 4A, prior to the opening of the exhibition, to find out more about this intriguing connection between Sydney’s Chinatown and the inhabitants of Chongqing and Chengdu. To the sound of the trams passing outside, and with the smells of her installation of Chinese market aromas (think star anise, ginger, Sichuan pepper) wafting through the gallery, the artist explained why tofu is the perfect metaphor for contemporary China:
Luise Guest: I saw your earlier video work, ‘Garden’ and your reconstructed timber traditional house at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2009, and I found them very sad and elegiac. With those earlier works, and again now, with ‘One Hundred Names’, you seem to focus on experiences of change, loss and displacement. To what extent do your own feelings about the disruption and dislocation experienced by Chinese citizens due to China’s rapid social change motivate you in making your work?
Chen Qiulin: I entered this field as an artist at a very early stage because I had experienced so many changes in my hometown, and generally in China, so that’s why I am so interested in this topic of change. It’s the starting point, as well as the reason, that I am consistently doing so many different things, exploring different practices. I focus a lot on individuals. My work extends to the micro level of individuals, not just cities, or the whole country, but individuals and how their lives change. And in this work I have used tofu because it is such a delicate, soft, fragile medium. It doesn’t last long. It’s a kind of symbol for society’s upheaval, and for China itself.
LG: I want to ask you about the process of decay and disintegration, how your carved tofu changes, rots, decays and then eventually disappears. Why is that significant?
CQ: The process of decay is slow but natural. It’s a symbol of China’s ancient culture and traditional values, things that once upon a time were praised and applauded by people, but now are really not valued and are being forgotten.
LG: Is this a source of some sadness for you, this loss of tradition, and increasingly the sense that everywhere is the same in this globalised world?
CQ: Yes, it makes me very sad.
LG: In the past your work has often been highly specific to your own experiences in Sichuan Province, and to the changes wrought on cities and towns by the Three Gorges Dam construction. This iteration of your ongoing ‘One Hundred Names’ project here at 4A is a little different, as it has such an interesting connection with Sydney, and the Chinese diaspora who first settled here in the 19th century. Do you see this as marking a change in your work, a new direction from your previous work?
CQ: I think my practice is constantly expanding throughout different cities and towns in China, and slowly, slowly it has spread to Sydney and Australia. It is expanding now to a global reach.
LG: Is your ongoing project ‘One Hundred Names’ very specifically Chinese or does it have a more universal significance?

Chen Qiulin. The Garden No. 1, 2007; C-type print; 100 x 82 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.
CQ: This new connection with 4A is majorly based on Sydney’s Chinese history and this specific location of Haymarket and Chinatown. I focused on specific individuals and interviewed some second and third generation residents who live in Sydney, and their feelings and opinions. The concept of ‘home’ kept coming up in those conversations. So there is a significance globally.
[After researching Sydney’s early Chinese residents, Chen Qiulin found inhabitants of Chengdu with the same surnames as people in Sydney. She asked them for their favourite tofu recipes, and filmed them cooking while they spoke about their family histories and the stories of the recipes, in their kitchens.]
LG: Through the device of the surnames, when you film people in Chengdu cooking and eating tofu, and telling the stories of their favourite recipes, you are creating a link, are you not, between people living in China and Chinese people living in Sydney?
CQ: I am interested to learn about new places, new cultures, new histories. So that is why I am here in Sydney working on this commission. The ‘One Hundred Names’ project might continue, and eventually go beyond Australia.
LG: I wondered if the development of this project made you see any commonalities between Chinese people living here in Australia and those people in Chengdu (with the same names) that you filmed cooking in their kitchens. What commonalities did you find?
CQ: I think that the boundaries and the concept of ‘hometown’ have been blurred, both inside and outside of China.
LG: Is this concept of ‘hometown’ core to Chinese people’s sense of identity?
CQ: Yes, but it is to do with the constant rapid change in China. People don’t really have a clear concept of home anymore because everyone is moving around and society has changed so rapidly. So maybe the word ‘hometown’ is more conceptual now, more than a real location, a real ‘home’. It’s not necessarily a physical place.
 Image #3 Chen Qiulin
Chen Qiulin. One Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong, 2015, installation view, image courtesy the artist, A Thousand Plateaus Art Space Chengdu, and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
LG: If you go back to your own hometown of Wanzhou now, how is it different from when you were a child?
CQ: Yes, it is very different. In my opinion it’s not only the appearance of the town that is different, but the people living there too. When I went back I felt such a strong disconnect between my memories and the reality.
LG: With ‘One Hundred Names’ obviously you are focused on Chinese history and culture, including food culture. But in your work generally you have a focus on the ‘Lao Bai Xing’, the ordinary people, common people who are caught up in the processes of globalisation. Why do you concentrate in your work on every-day, ordinary individual people, such as the workers in your new video project, or the porters in Chongqing in your earlier work, ‘Garden’?
CQ: Because they are the real China. They are how China and the Chinese people really are.
LG: We talked about the disruption and dislocation of change. But does the dramatic pace of change in China actually make it a very exciting place for an artist to work?
CQ: In the last three decades contemporary Chinese art just started. Over that thirty years it has developed so rapidly and has now reached an international audience. The exciting part might be that within China people are now beginning to accept all kinds of art as art – no longer just painting and drawing. So in China, people’s ideas about contemporary art are changing.
LG: You yourself trained as a printmaker at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, making woodblock prints in the traditional techniques. That’s a long way from the work you are doing now as a new media and installation artist. What do you think is the most significant change in your own work?
CQ: When I was studying at the art college, what I gained was just skills and techniques. Slowly I realised that I had to learn more about the world and come up with new ideas, and concepts, beyond just skills. That is why I want to learn more, and try new media. After I leave Sydney I will fly back to Chengdu and go to a ‘Dong’ minority village and collaborate with a contemporary dancer based in France to make a documentary.
[The Dong ethnic minority live primarily in the border regions between Guizhou, Hunan and Hubei Provinces.]
LG: So, no more tofu?
CQ: No!

One Hundred Names is on view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, until February 27, 2016. It will be on view at the Shepparton Art Museum, Victoria, from June 4 to July 31, 2016.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Art Of Tofu: Chen Qiulin and 'One Hundred Names'

Since when has tofu been an art material? I have a particular fondness for the spicy Sichuan dish, "Mapo Doufu". Sadly it's usually rather bland and sloppy in Australia, without the requisite fiery kick of authentic Sichuan "numb pepper". And I fear that I may never, ever forget the taste memory of eating Stinky Tofu in a Shanghai back-alley restaurant in 2011, with a Chinese friend who was either oblivious to my distress or meanly amused. But using tofu to make art? Is that a thing?

Just ask Chen Qiulin, who grew up near Chongqing and now lives in Chengdu, and hence is more than a little familiar with its culinary possibilities. Over the last several years she has been continuing her '100 Names' Project, using blocks of firm tofu as she once used timber panels to carve woodcuts as a printmaking student at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. The latest iteration of this project is showing now at Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, and I reviewed the show for Daily Serving:

What’s in a name? In ancient China, surnames represented clans and ancestral lineage, a highly significant aspect of identity and filial obligation. In contemporary parlance, the Chinese phrase “Lao Bai Xing” (literally, “the old hundred names”) translates as “the ordinary people” or “the common folk.” It often refers to the voiceless, those who are most powerless in the face of social forces. For many years, Chen Qiulin has been documenting how the dramatic transformations of China’s physical, cultural, and social landscapes have impacted the lives of these ordinary people. Her hometown of Wanzhou was affected by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, in which whole villages and towns along the Yangtze River were submerged, and more than a million people were relocated. In recent years, her One Hundred Names project has been representing that concern in an unexpected medium, as she carves the most common Chinese surnames into blocks of firm tofu and then documents their decay and disintegration over time. For her first solo exhibition in Australia, at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, these earlier works, together with a commissioned project, explore themes of ancestry, diaspora, and displacement in a broader historical and geographic context. To read more, click HERE.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The List: Ten Moments that Mattered

Cruising lazily out of the choppy seas of 2015 and into the uncharted waters of 2016 I have been reviewing experiences of Chinese art, and China, and doing that very cliched thing: making a list. I've read so many of these in the last few days. Lists of the best and worst of the year are metastastizing everywhere, from movies and music to food fads (kale is gone, you'll be glad to know) to the most over-used words of 2015 (''bae'', apparently, and I am sadly so out of touch with popular culture that I could not tell you what it even means) The list mania appears to be contagious. I decided to launch into my own "best of" compilation of art highlights - and a few lowlights. It's entirely personal; my retrospective musings over a year filled with art, mostly Chinese.

1 January saw Sydney audiences enthralled by the ever-so-slowly crumbling face of a giant Buddha made of ash from the burned prayers of temple worshippers in China and Taiwan. Zhang Huan, having reinvented himself entirely from his earlier persona as the bad boy of '90s violently masochistic performance art, presented this latest iteration at Carriageworks. And it was rather wonderful. I wrote about meeting the artist and encountering the silent presence of 'Sydney Buddha' for The Art Life. Click HERE for the story.
sydney buddha 3
Zhang Huan, 'Sydney Buddha'' installed at Carriageworks, image courtesy the artist and Carriageworks

2 January also saw some younger Chinese bad boys hit town - the Yangjiang Group arrived with their unique brand of artistic anarchy for a crowd-funded project, 'Áctions for Tomorrow',  at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Along with a bunch of other bemused scribes I had tea with the artists. So. Much. Tea. It was an artwork, and we were part of the art. Previously their performances of 'Fan Hou Shu Fa' (After Dinner Calligraphy) had involved prodigious feats of alcohol consumption, but they now stick mainly to tea, which they had brought with them from their home in Guangdong Province. What did we see in the gallery? Wax dripped over a shop full of mass produced clothing to create a frozen monument to retail therapy? Check. An installation of the remains of 7,000 sheets of paper covered with text from Marx’s Das Kapital in Chinese calligraphy, over which simultaneous games of soccer had been played? Check. A 24-metre mural juxtaposing expressive Chinese characters with scrawled English text reading “God is Dead! Long Live the RMB!”? Check. When I presumptuously asked if this last had a connection with their views about a materialistic new China, Zheng Guogu shook his head sadly at my outdated desire to find meaning. That's entirely beside the point, he said. Anti-art? To misquote the Chinese Communist Party’s description of socialism in the global marketplace, perhaps this was “dada with Chinese characteristics.” I wrote about my interview in Daily Serving. Click HERE for the story.
The Yangjiang Group at 4 A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Zheng Guogu in centre) photo: Luise Guest

3 In February I was a little bit preoccupied with arranging a wedding, and I have zero recollection of March to April. May brought the Sherman Foundation exhibition of Yang Zhichao's 'Chinese Bible'. Yang is another Chinese performance artist becoming a little less inclined in middle age to punish his own body with the surgical insertion of various objects - reputedly at the insistence of his daughter. Chinese Bible is a beautiful and important installation - part art, part anthropology, part social action. Not unlike his good friend Ai Weiwei, Yang Zhichao made a formalist, minimalist arrangement of found objects, some dating from the Cultural Revolution. 

Historical experience is written in iron and blood,” said Mao Zedong. In Chinese Bible, historical experience is written in thousands of humble, mass-produced notebooks once owned by ordinary Chinese people, their worn covers testament to the weathering of time and the vicissitudes of social change. Ai Weiwei says, “Everything is art. Everything is politics,” and Chinese Bible reveals a similar approach to art as a form of social engagement. I interviewed Yang Zhichao at SCAF with the translation assistance of Claire Roberts, who curated the show and had written a most wonderful catalogue essay. They told me that after the installation, on their way to a celebratory lunch in Chinatown, they asked their Chinese taxi driver if he would like to see the exhibition. He said he could not possibly, his memories are so painful it would make him weep. Later, in October, I met sculptor Shi Jindian at his home and studio in the mountains outside Chengdu. Disarmingly humble, polite and hospitable, as the day wore on he was becoming monosyllabic and I was worrying about why my interview with this artist was proving to be such hard going. He suddenly said, "I have lived through every period of recent Chinese history, and it was all terrible. I don't want to talk about the past." Like the Sydney taxi driver, and for so many others of his generation, there are just too many bitter memories. You can read the article and my interview with Yang Zhichao  HERE.
Yang Zhichao Chinese Bible, 2009 (detail) 3,000 found books Dimensions variable Image courtesy: the Gene and Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney Photo: Jenni Carter AGNSW
Yang Zhichao, Chinese Bible, 2009 (detail, 3,000 found books, Dimensions variable
Image courtesy: the Gene and Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney
Photo: Jenni Carter AGNSW
Lin Tianmiao, Badges 2009 White silk satin, coloured silk threads, gold embroidery frames made of stainless steel; sound component: 4 speakers with amplifier. Dimensions variable, diameters range from 25 cm - 120 cm, 266 badges total. Image courtesy: The Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Photo: Jenny Carter
4 In the second part of this exhibition, 'Go East' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, curated from the Sherman collection by Suhanya Raffel, it was wonderful to finally see Lin Tianmiao's 'Badges' hanging in the imposing domed vestibule. Visiting her studio in 2013, I had watched her assistants stitching the texts, words describing women in Chinese and English, onto embroidery hoops. I had wondered what they were thinking as their nimble fingers stitched words like "Slut", "Whore" and "Fox Spirit" (a terrible name for a woman in Chinese.) I was amused in Sydney, where all the badges were Chinese,  to encounter shocked groups of Mandarin speaking tourists making their children look the other way. In this show, in addition to works by Zhang Huan and Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen's 'Suitcase Cities' were a highlight. A newly commissioned work by Ai Weiwei intrigued my students. An Archive’ is a collection of the artist’s blog posts, banned since his efforts to name the children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake attracted the attention of the authorities, presented in the form of traditional Chinese books in a beautiful timber box. A clever and more than usually subtle representation of Ai's resistance to the censorship and constraint that saw him confined to Beijing without possession of his passport, constantly under surveillance, until 22 July this year.

Kawayan De Guia. Bomba, 2011; installation comprising 18 mirror bombs, sputnik sound sculpture; dimensions variable. Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum
5 In July, in Singapore, I saw 'After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art ' at the Singapore Art Museum, confirming my suspicion that after 'the sublime', 'Utopia' was THE buzzword of the 2015 artworld. It was an excellent and intriguing riff on the theme, featuring familiar works by Shen Shaomin and The Propellor Group with others that were new and wonderful discoveries. I loved 'Bomba': Eighteen sparkling 'bombs' hung in a darkened space. Terrifying disco balls promising destruction, they cast shards of light onto the Stations of the Cross that still adorn the walls of what was once the chapel of a Catholic school. Beautiful and menacing, Kawayan De Guia’s installation specifically references the bombing of Manila in World War II, but it also evokes the horrors of more recent conflicts, contrasting the glittery lure of hedonism with a dance of death. After that, Shen Shaomin's embalmed dictators lying in their glass coffins were an added bonus.
Shen Shaomin. Summit (detail) silica gel simulation, acrylic and fabric, dimensions variable, Singapore Art Museum collection, image courtesy Singapore Art Museum
Shen Shaomin. Summit (detail – Ho Chi Minh), 2009; silica gel simulation, acrylic, and fabric; dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum collection. Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.
6 August was about planning and organising my own reinvention, from one kind of life to another, and in September I went to China for 5 weeks, to interview artists for a new project, which (of course) provided more highlights. Of these, perhaps the most remarkable was my visit to the studio/manufacturing hub of Xu Zhen and the MadeIn Company, in Shanghai. You would have to have been wearing a blindfold or lived in a cave to remain unaware of Xu Zhen, who appears to have taken on the mantle of Andy Warhol (although he told me that his favourite artists are Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney.) His enormous installations merge art and commerce, art and design, east and west, past and present, and any other form of post-internet hybridity you care to mention. He will feature in the 2016 Biennale of Sydney, and the work of the artist and his company of assistants and employees has been seen simultaneously in almost as many locations as the ubiquitous Ai Weiwei. (Although Xu Zhen himself does not fly, so everything is arranged and organised, and all research outside of China completed, by teams of MadeIn employees.) A focus artist at the 2014 New York Armory Show, and one of my top picks of last year for the spectacle of his retrospective exhibition at Beijing's Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Xu Zhen is given to gnomic Warhol-like utterances. "Chinese contemporary art nowadays is a farce filled with surprises," he told Ocula. 'Eternity' has been wowing audiences at the White Rabbit Gallery since early September. And watch out Sydney, there is a promise of more to come! 
Xu Zhen by MadeIn Company, Eternity, 2013-2014, glass-fibre-reinforced concrete, artificial stone, steel, mineral pigments, 15 m x 1 m x 3.4 m image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
7 And so to Shanghai in late September, and a major highlight of my year: the exhibition of an artist who should be a household name. Chen Zhen died (much too young) in Paris in 2000. Although after 1986 he essentially lived and worked in Paris, his personal history and deep cultural roots lay in China, and specifically in Shanghai. From the mid-1990s he returned over and over to a city on fast-forward. Shanghai was undergoing a massive, controversial transformation, in the process of becoming the global megalopolis it is today. The exhibition at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum presented works from this period. Sometimes witty, sometimes profoundly beautiful and melancholy, Chen Zhen’s works are steeped in his identity as a Chinese artist at a historical “tipping point.” As the artist said in his online project Shanghai Investigations, “without going to New York and Paris, life could be internationalized.” To finally see 'Crystal Landscape of the Inner Body' was a revelation - both sad and beautiful. HERE is the whole story.
Chen Zhen, Crystal Landscape of Inner Body, 2000, crystal, iron, glass, 95 x 70 x 190cm, image courtesy Rockbund Museum and Galleria Continua San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins
Chen Zhen. Crystal Landscape of Inner Body, 2000; crystal, iron, glass; 95 x 70 x 190 cm. 
Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum and Galleria Continua San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins.
With Wang Qingsong in his Studio, October 2015, Caochangdi, Beijing

8 is for Beijing, in October, and meetings over three action-packed weeks with a ridiculous number of interesting artists, all represented in the White Rabbit Collection. Old friends and new faces: Bu Hua, Bingyi, Li Hongbo, Zhu Jia, Wang Qingsong, Wang Guofeng, Liu Zhuoquan, Qiu Xiaofei, Lin Zhi, Huang Jingyuan, and Zhou Jinhua. Dinners with friends, long walks through the hutongs and the never-ending struggles of language learning. I journeyed through the smog to studios on Beijing's far outskirts, collecting stories and looking at extraordinary work, as I had done the previous week in Shanghai and Hangzhou. I left China with a kaleidoscope of impressions that are just starting to crystallise into the possibility of words. I saw Liu Xiaodong at the Faurschou Foundation and Ai Weiwei at Continua, but disappointingly missed Liu Shiyuan in Shanghai at the Yuz Museum. One of the youngest artists I interviewed in 2013 and 2014, her work will next show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, in an exhibition curated by Philip Tinari, among others, called 'Bentu: Chinese Artists in a Time of Turbulence and Transformation.'

9 is another repeat of one of my 2014 picks. The rather bizarre Red Brick Museum (practically empty on each occasion I have visited) on Beijing's northern outskirts was showing work by the artist who first inspired me to make Chinese art my focus of research, teaching and writing. Huang Yong Ping's fabulous thousand armed goddess of mercy was an unexpected delight when I visited in December of 2014. Again, in 2015, a new exhibition, curated by Hou Hanru (also the curator of the Chen Zhen show in Shanghai) presented a version of Baton - Serpent, seen in a previous Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. Not quite the 'words fail me' experience of seeing Leviathanation at Tang Gallery in 2011, or the 'Thousand Armed Guanyin' at the Shanghai Biennale in 2012, but nonetheless extraordinary. And all the more wonderful for being encountered in the deserted echoing spaces of one of China's newest museums.

10 And here we are, washed up on shore, arrived at the final, dog days of 2015. 

November to December, hmmm. What to pick? NOT 'Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol' at the NGV. If you have read my review (Click HERE if you want to) you know I had some issues with that exhibition - although I wish I had seen the London show at the Royal Academy. I admire Ai enormously for his genuine commitment - particularly his establishment of a studio on Lesbos to make art relating to the current refugee crisis. But boy oh boy did I hate those Lego portraits. And absolutely NOT the 'Rain Room' at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai - an empty spectacle. Nor anything at the major Sydney galleries - I cannot get excited about a few Renaissance works from Scotland, and Grayson Perry, whilst interesting, does not float my boat. 

Image 1 [Digital Photography_Colour Photograph] Dwelling - Moment III small file

YUAN GOANG-MING Dwelling - Moment III 2014. Digital Photography / Colour Photograph. 
120 x 180 cm Edition of 8. Image Courtesy of the Artist and Hanart TZ Gallery.

 I'm giving my Number 10 highlight spot to Yuan Goang-ming at Hanart TZ in Hong Kong. In this show, entitled Dwelling, we were presented with the uncomfortable intersection of the real and the apparently impossible. In the gallery space, an elegant table was laid as if for a dinner party, with crystal glasses and an ornate dinner service. Every now and then a loud clanking noise disrupted the silence, and the table shook as if the building had been hit by an earthquake. In the title work, Dwelling, (2014) the focus is a blandly modern living room, the only oddity the rather slow riffling pages of a magazine on the chair, a book on the coffee table. A breeze wafts the curtains. Suddenly, and without warning, the entire room explodes. Slowly, languidly, the wreckage of the room drifts back until the room once again regains its ordinary appearance. Filmed 
underwater, although it takes a while to realise this, the movement of every object seems dreamlike. Yuan suggests that what we accept as stable and fixed is in fact entirely unpredictable. In a split second, the apparently impossible can disrupt everything we take for granted. 

In my own 2015 version of the impossible becoming possible, I have changed careers, started new research and writing projects, and - in a total triumph of optimism over bitter experience, I enrolled in a new term of Chinese language classes.

Oh. And I have written a book. Out in February. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Global Art with Chinese Characteristics: Ai Weiwei (and Warhol) at the NGV

Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall
2015, Over 1,300 pieces of various wooden building elements from late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with original carvings and painted replacements, 2100 x 1680 x 942 cm, image courtesy Galleria Continua, Beijing
Interviewed before the opening of his exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, asked to consider the importance of the ready-made in his practice, Ai Weiwei said, "China itself is a sort of readymade... Its history, its current struggle, its painful struggle – I make works relating to that." Musing over this flawed but fascinating exhibition, there is just so much that I could have said. The exhibition did little to allay my doubts and questions about this polarising figure, a colossus of the contemporary artworld. Critic Jonathan Jones called him, ''an artist who makes art matter." My students see him, simply, as some kind of saint sprinkled with the glitter dust of celebrity. Other artists in China feel, with some justification, that he "breathes up all the oxygen" in Beijing's artworld. Despite my own reservations about his sanctification in the western press, I believed the artworks were powerful, subtle and poetic, that is, until he unveiled the Lego portraits at the major installation on Alcatraz, Ai Weiwei '@Large' late last year. And now, with the portraits of various Australian human rights activists made with knock-off Lego in a badly designed space in the NGV my doubts are even stronger. Insubstantial as the endless cat photographs on Ai's Instagram account, this is colour-by-numbers art. It is a bizarre contrast with so many of his more nuanced and powerfully arresting works, and perhaps simply reveals the pitfalls of producing art on an industrial scale of mass production. 

In Beijing, in October, I saw the work for which he cut open the wall between two of the city's most prestigious galleries, Continua and Tang Contemporary. Ai Weiwei reassembled a Ming Dynasty ancestral hall in the gallery space. The ancient building was disassembled into more than 1500 pieces and meticulously re-built, crossing the wall that divides the two galleries. Walking into the gallery space one felt very small beneath the ancient wooden beams and columns. He wanted to create an installation with 'imposing structure, cultural importance and aesthetic beauty... aimed at setting conditions of “totality” where the environment, which is no longer physical but also temporal and social, becomes an essential aspect of the work.' The audience becomes a part of the artwork, but can only ever see a partial view of the whole structure. Like the early 20th century readymades of Marcel Duchamp, a pre-existing object (in this case, an entire building) was deprived of its original use, acquiring a new shape and, potentially, new meanings that are dependent upon those entering the space. It raised questions about Chinese history, social behaviour, the preservation of antiquity (always a hot button issue in China) and of art as physical experience.

The NGV show, sadly, raises no such interesting questions, and some of the quieter and more subtle works are lost amidst the most hectically over-designed exhibition spaces I have ever seen.

Here is my review of the show, published on The Art Life site this week:

Mass produced, ubiquitous: Warhol + Weiwei

Two ghosts loom over the bicycle frames, Lego bricks, Han Dynasty urns and screen-prints in Melbourne’s NGV. One is the spirit of Marcel Duchamp, who casts his long shadow over what we see there; the other is a spectral Mao Zedong. It must have seemed an inspired idea, to juxtapose the two giant figures of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei: they each took the Duchampian ready-made and ran with it, making it (and themselves) into a new kind of global brand. Taking unexpected and irreverent positions on the world in which they found themselves, they each reinvented the identity of the artist in significant and substantial ways. Both were shaped by their arrival in New York, too, the gay boy from Pittsburgh, and the son of the famous Chinese poet. There are so many rich possibilities in bringing together two colossal figures, so significant to the 20th century and the start of the 21st. It’s a comprehensive overview of their work, featuring 200 works by Warhol and 120 by Ai. And yet…the exhibition disappoints in a number of ways.
1. Warhol Mao
Andy Warhol, Mao, 1972, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Center for the Arts. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney
In part it is because Warhol and Ai Weiwei are just too damn ubiquitous. Obsessively recording every aspect of their daily lives (Warhol in film and Polaroids, Ai Weiwei on video, Twitter and Instagram), they democratised, appropriated, outsourced and demystified the practice of art like no-one else since Marcel himself. The result is, ironically, that in many cases the actual works have lost much of their power, reproduced just too often. The myth is bigger than the artworks: Nico and the Velvet Underground; a naked Joe Dallesandro and a fey Edie Sedgwick; Lou Reed at the Factory; cigarette smoke and crushed velvet, the apotheosis of cool. Ai Weiwei, undoubtedly brave and resolute, continues his crusade against the repressions of the Chinese regime: 181,000 followers on social media joined his ‘#flowersforfreedom’ campaign for the return of his confiscated passport. He has become a global superstar of dissidence. And yet… as I wandered through the NGV exhibition, I pondered why it fails to provide quite the anticipated big bang.
There are memorable moments. The installation of steel bicycle frames that soars in the foyer, glinting in the sun, makes us remember that Ai Weiwei’s earlier works were often poetic and multi-layered. The frames of the famous ‘Forever’ bicycle brand of his Cultural Revolution childhood are stacked in a spectacular tower. These bicycles are going nowhere, in a sardonic jab at both revolutionary socialism and the overwhelming scale of Chinese manufacturing. At the same time, they memorialise a 1960s Chinese childhood that is gone forever, much as his famous ‘Sunflower Seeds’ referenced a humble snack shared in very lean times. The dismembered feet of ancient Buddha statues, almost lost in the corner of a hectic and self-consciously over-designed space, remind us that much of Ai Weiwei’s work has focused on the destruction wrought upon China in the name of revolutionary ideology, ‘progress’ and modernisation. An installation of traditional wooden stools (a smaller version of the 886 shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013) continues his use of ancient artefacts as found objects. Like many other contemporary Chinese artists in the 1990s and early 2000s, Ai began to incorporate previously forbidden elements of traditional culture into his work, addressing the big questions of what we value, and why. The simple three-legged stool, once owned by every family and used for a multitude of purposes, has been superseded by mass-produced plastic.
2. Warhol Tiananmen
Christopher Makos, Andy Warhol in Tiananmen Square, 1982. © Christopher Makos 1982,
Surprises and moments of wit are woven amongst the familiar images, although some might argue that the famous ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ photographs re-made in Lego are entirely too self-referential, and the portraits of human rights activists made with knock-off Lego are, sadly, as insubstantial as one of Ai’s tweets. Two walls are papered with images of the flower-filled bicycle basket outside Ai’s Beijing studio. He placed a bunch of flowers for every day that the Chinese government refused to return his passport after his release from 81 days of detention in 2011. The bicycle itself is propped against the wall in a mute symbol of resistance – and resilience.
A field of white porcelain flowers evokes the past suppression of individual desires and aspirations into the collectivist masses. Unfortunately, the exhibition text for this work refers only to the artist’s ‘Flowers for Freedom’ campaign, reducing it to a slogan. ‘Blossom’ is far more nuanced and multi-layered, referencing Chinese history, and Ai Weiwei’s own story. In the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign of 1956, Mao invited criticism of his policies with the dictum, ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.’ A year later, those who had accepted the invitation to express their views found themselves targeted in a purge. Up to 550,000 intellectuals, artists and writers were publicly discredited, some sent into exile and forced labour. Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, was one of these. The fragility of porcelain, that most Chinese of materials, testifies to the courage of those who spoke out.
Ai Weiwei, At the Museum of Modern Art, 1987 (detail), from the New York Photographs series,1983–93, collection of Ai Weiwei. © Ai Weiwei
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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

北京日记 Beijing Diary: 一 日 千 秋 One Day a Thousand Autumns

I've left Beijing and I'm already missing it. Like many, both Chinese and non-Chinese, I have a love/hate relationship with that big bad city - I am already breathing a little more easily after 24 hours, but the "Beijing cough" is still with me. Each time, I leave with a sense of regret for all the exhibitions that I didn't have time to see, the places I didn't have time to explore, and the fluency in speaking Chinese that I failed to achieve. The month-long immersion certainly helped, although my language skills are still woeful. I am in Hong Kong now, and still stopping myself in taxis, shops and restaurants from speaking Putonghua, which does not generally go down well here, where tensions between Hong Kong citizens and mainlanders are high. I feel as if my brain is divided in two - one section is thinking in Chinese (slow, clumsy, yet definitely improving) and the other half is English. And there are just so many words and phrases where the Chinese seems more on-the-money, so a creole mixture is often spoken by expats. To feel a bit unwell is to be "bu shufu" - much more descriptive! Something annoying or troublesome is "mafan", and to do anything immediately (unlikely in China) is "mashang", literally meaning, "on horseback". Something so-so is "ma ma hu hu" (horse, horse, tiger, tiger) although I suspect this is a phrase more said by foreigners than by Chinese. And then there are all the fabulous 4 character idioms, or Chengyu, that in translation can be poetic (三人成虎, Three Men Make A Tiger, or if something nonsensical is repeated enough it is accepted as truth) or rather earthy. Something completely pointless or a waste of time is "like taking your trousers off to fart." New slang, too, usually spread via the internet, is often very revealing: a desirable woman is a "bai fu mei" (white rich pretty.) The insistence on whiteness is evident in the number of skin whitening creams sold in pharmacies, the use of umbrellas to shade your face from the sun, and in the universal contempt shown to the "nongmin" or country-side people (the peasants in the old socialist etymology). At an artist's studio in the mountains outside Chengdu his female assistants from the local village crowded around me exclaiming over the whiteness of my skin (and no doubt my white hair too!) And riches - to reverse the famous Jane Austen line, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in search of a wife must be possessed of a good fortune. And all the better if her family is rich too.

Beijing Walls - a palimpsest of erased phone numbers, October 2015, Photo LG
Beijing Hutong Doorway, October 2015, Photo LG
On the plane from Beijing to Hong Kong, I began reading The Porcelain Thief, the tale of an American Chinese journalist's search for the treasure trove of porcelain buried by his great grandfather before the family fled the advancing Japanese army, eventually ending up in Taiwan, then the United States. A bemused first-time traveller to Shanghai, he encounters the anarchy of the roads with a description that made me laugh in recognition. Each time I come to China (and in the last 2 years I have spent 5 months in the neighbourhoods of Tuanjiehu and Dongzhimen) by the second week I have forgotten all about the existence of seatbelts and have stopped flinching when taxis change lanes suddenly, forcing their way into non-existent gaps in fast moving streams of traffic. When I return to Sydney I have to remind myself to wait for the lights to change, to indicate when I change lanes, and not to just walk out into the traffic and expect that it will flow around me if I hold up one hand.

Here is Huan Hsu's description, so accurate that it's worth quoting the full paragraph: "Though the taxi fleets boasted high-tech touch screens built into their headrests with a recorded message reminding passengers (in English) to wear their seat belts, none of the taxis had seat belts in their back seats...City buses swerved into oncoming traffic and cut across two lanes to make their stops. Drivers used their horns so liberally that expats joked about it being the Chinese brake pedal. Drivers could, and did, disobey every explicit and implicit traffic rule on the books. Police, fire and medical vehicles enjoyed no special dispensation on the roads; nor did police seem interested in pursuing reckless drivers. It was common to see cars stopped in the middle of a freeway, crossing elevated medians, or driving long distances in reverse after they'd missed an exit, and in each case the rest of the cars simply purled around the offender like a stream around a boulder. The streets follow a design that can only have been created by someone who didn't drive. (The use of headlights was actually prohibited in China until the mid 1980s, when officials began going overseas and realised it was the norm.)" And now in Beijing, where the Lamborghini showroom on Xindong Lu also has a private plane in the window, the "Fu Er Dai" (second generation rich) drive expensive cars with utterly reckless abandon, often whilst talking on their cell phones, with an attitude of contempt for every other vehicle and pedestrian on the road.
Near Gulou Daijie, Beijing, October 2015, Photo LG
Old Hong Kong is still there! Causeway Bay, October 2015, Photo LG
I already miss Beijing but love Hong Kong too. English writer Fuchsia Dunlop memorably described is as like a "decompression chamber" for those returning to the west from China. Despite the increasing glitziness of the island - how many Gucci and Prada shops can one city possibly accommodate, and does anyone actually buy all this expensive crap? - I am always charmed. I love the rattly trams and the Star Ferry, the chaotic tumbledown streets around Yau Ma Tei and Jordan, and the flocks of schoolgirls in white dresses with coloured belts who fill the streets and MTR stations in the late afternoons. I like the "sitting out places" - tiny oases of calm in a frenetic city - where men sleep on benches with their shoes neatly arranged on newspaper beside them. I like the unexpected Buddhist shrines next to shops, under stairways and under the overpass on Canal Road. Today in the Nam June Paik exhibition in the hushed and tony surrounds of Gagosian Galleries, a cleaning lady bowed with folded hands in front of one his TV Buddha installations.

Each time I arrive from the mainland and see people actually waiting for traffic lights to turn green before they cross the road, I experience a slight shock. Entering a subway car is no longer a life-threatening push-and-shove survival of the fittest, people stand to one side on escalators and actually line up in shops and banks, and nobody is coughing up phlegm and spitting it onto the footpath directly beside you. It's a relief, and yet....

It's the sense of unpredictability in China, the sense that everyone is making it all up as they go along (and in the case of many drivers, that is exactly what they are doing) that is also the source of dynamic entrepreneurialism, creative energy and optimism. People reinvent themselves continually - from the rural teenagers travelling to the factory towns for work to the artists trained in one medium who decide to do something completely different and unexpected working in another. It's that sense that anything is possible, that anything can happen - and probably will - that makes me love China despite all the very real difficulties and the increasingly worrying crackdown on human rights lawyers, activists, journalists and NGOs. The artists' villages - Caochangdi, Heiqiao, Hege, Songzhuang, Feijiacun and Beigao, not to mention others so new that I haven't yet discovered them - are seething whirlpools of creation. Not everything is fabulous, of course, how could it be? But in a converted barn-like space in Songzhuang I found Li Hongbo working on his miraculous expanding paper sculptures for his New York show; in Heiqiao Liu Zhuoquan spoke of his plans to create an installation of more than 6,000 of his "inside bottle" paintings; and I met Wang Lei in a 798 cafe on my way to the airport for my flight to Chengdu. We spoke of his use of Chinese and English dictionaries sliced, shredded and spun to become a textile-like material that can be "knitted" into imperial robes. I told him he reminded me of the dark fairytale where a girl is kidnapped and forced to spin straw into gold - a metaphor for the alchemy performed by each of these artists.
Liu Zhuoquan in his studio, Beijing October 2015 Photo LG
In Hangzhou Jin Shi talked about his wonderfully witty yet poignant sculptures, creating the tiny spaces and makeshift worlds of the rural migrant workers who are building this "new China". In Shanghai Yang Yongliang explained his technique of working with thousands of photographs of the cityscapes of Chongqing and Shanghai in order to create his magically animated versions of  "shan shui" ink paintings. In Chengdu I spoke with Shi Jindian in his house up in the mountains about his intricate, painstaking reproductions in wire of mechanical and natural forms. In her converted Yuan Dynasty temple studio and living space in Beijing, Bingyi had just returned from an early morning photoshoot - she is working on a project that will combine film, drama, poetry, music, still photography and ink painting as a record of the lives and experiences of those living in the last, endangered traditional "hutongs" or courtyard houses of old Beijing. These are just 7 of the more than 20 artists I interviewed in the last month. Each represents an aspect of the vitality of contemporary Chinese art, and the ways in which many Chinese artists are adapting traditional forms to create a contemporary language. These are global artists - their work, and in many cases the artists themselves, regularly criss-cross the globe, participating in group and solo shows and Biennales in Venice, Paris, New York, London and Moscow. Yet their work remains distinctly Chinese.

The first time I went to China I realised I was witnessing something extraordinary and historically significant, and that feeling has only grown stronger in subsequent years. In the last five years I have seen dramatic change, and understood just a glimpse of the disorientation felt by Chinese people, especially those of an older generation. One artist, explaining his refusal to answer any questions about his youth, said, "I have experienced all of recent Chinese history, and it is all terrible." The pace of change is relentless, a source of both distress and excitement: the Chinese paradox. There is of course a chengyu for every occasion. "One Day A Thousand Autumns" (Yi Ri Qian Qiu) meaning that change comes so swiftly that it seems a thousand years passes in one day, fits the bill here: 
一   秋.

Bingyi with ink painting in her Beijing studio, a Yuan Dynasty temple near the Drum and Bell Towers,
October 2015 Photo LG