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

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Shen Shaomin: Handle with Care

Shen Shaomin, "Handle with Care No. 29," 2014, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches (91.5 x 91.5 cm)
Image Courtesy the artist and Klein Sun Gallery
What kind of artist makes a legally binding agreement to ensure that after his demise his own skeleton becomes an artwork?  Who plans to have his teeth engraved with sentences in English and Chinese as an interactive performance work? Who has previously created works using animal bones and bone-meal, and rocket fragments from China’s space program? Yes, it’s the audacious Shen Shaomin. Part theatrical showman/magician; part Duchampian iconoclast; part sardonic social commentator; creator of disturbingly beautiful installations, Shen is best known for his impossible Jurassic-like creatures made of real and fake bones. Having seen his tortured, chained bonsai installations at the 2010 Sydney Biennale; his monstrous bone creations in a number of exhibitions including ‘Serve the People’ at the White Rabbit Gallery and an eerie installation of apparently living, breathing, hairless creatures lying on mounds of salt in a major exhibition of his work at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art , I had long wanted to interview this artist. After a frustrating series of emails and aborted encounters, we finally met at his Qiaozi Town studios outside Beijing almost a year ago. While we spoke, behind the artist, and the two film-makers who were disconcertingly circling us, recording our conversation for a documentary, his young assistants were working on a series of drawings and paintings inspired by the erotic bondage photographs of Japanese photographer Araki - but with a twist: the women are escaping their chains and ropes. What he didn't tell me about was another series of paintings, shown last month at Klein Sun Gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea gallery district, that subvert the familiar tropes of mid-century Pop Art. More of Shen Shaomin in a minute...

Shen Shaomin, April 2014, photograph Luise Guest
Its been a while between posts. Working at breakneck speed to get my book finished, managing a full-time teaching load and organising a family wedding are responsible for my lengthy absence from this blog. That, and an absence of especially interesting exhibitions to prod me into writing.  So - apart from my obsessive focus on the forthcoming book (October!) - what have I seen that might inspire me to open a blank new  page and begin to write?

The offerings in Sydney's commercial galleries over this summer just past have been a little lacklustre. Other than Zhang Huan's impressive and moving Buddha of ash, and the chaotic and anarchic visit of those Duchampian jokers, The Yangjiang Group, there hasn't been a lot to get excited about. The new exhibition at White Rabbit, 'State of Play', is provocative and interesting - quite a different curatorial "take" on works from Judith Neilson's collection, with a dark interpretation of the notion of play. Memorable works include MadeIn Company's leather and chain, bondage and discipline, spiky Gothic cathedral, Zhang Dali's beautifully ethereal cyanotype, and Yang Yongliang's giant cigarette, which is suspended from the ceiling (in fact, from a hole cut into the floor above), ashing layers and layers of multi-storey towers, referencing what Yang sees as the destruction of the unique character of his home city of Shanghai, and his sadness at the way that globalisation and modernity have made everyplace the same place.

The big blockbuster show over the Sydney summer was 'Pop to Popism' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, by all accounts a financial success of a somewhat limited kind. I must confess I enjoyed it immensely: it reminded me forcibly of the excitement of being seventeen and discovering Warhol, Hockney, Jim Dine, Nike de Saint Phalle and Marisol. I went to Europe at eighteen and thought I had arrived in heaven in the Pompidou, in a room with George Segal and Ed Kienholz. The artworks, not the artists. Apart from nostalgically visiting my long-lost girlhood, though, I liked the connections established between the original Pop artists and the latter day inheritors of Pop. But where, I wondered, were the Chinese Political Pop painters? This seemed a most bizarre exclusion from what was otherwise a very comprehensive show. Much too important to simply ignore without explanation, their absence left a weird hole in the narrative.

When Robert Rauschenberg showed in Beijing in 1985 (a triumph of American soft diplomacy) it was one of those ground-breaking exhibitions that changes the course of art history. He met with the avant-garde artists of the day, in  a series of rather frustrating conversations characterised by misunderstanding and mutual incomprehension, but the effect on Beijing's nascent contemporary art scene was explosive. In combination with the opening-up of China to Western ideas, and the influences of Duchamp, Warhol and Beuys, this exhibition is the influential experience that almost every Chinese artist of that generation refers to. Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol and the cool ironic stance of American Pop was perfectly suited to artists emerging from the traumas of the Cultural Revolution. Artists such as Fang Lijun, Zhang Xioagang and the much-copied Yue Minjun, among others, developed two influential movements, Political Pop and Cynical Realism, perfect expressions of the zeitgeist ("Shidai Jinsheng" in Chinese.) After his years in New York's East Village, even Ai Weiwei wanted to be "yige Beijing de Andy Warhol."
Shen Shaomin, Summit (Castro), 2010,  silica gel and mechanical breathing system,image courtesy the artist 
So my smooth-as-silk segue here is to a show that I wish I had seen, but haven't. Shen Shaomin  presented a new series of paintings at Klein Sun Gallery in New York last month. A change of direction in his work, and one which this prolific artist didn't even hint at when I interviewed him last April, the works challenge the notion of artistic originality and the ways in which audiences usually encounter works in art galleries. The exhibition is called 'Handle with Care' - highlighting the temporality, instability and fragility of what we define as "art". Twenty oil paintings depict archetypal Pop Art paintings wrapped in translucent plastic bubble wrap - we can see they are by Warhol, and recognise the famous soup cans, and iconic figures such as Mao, John Lennon and Monroe, but we are frustrated by seeing them through wrapping, as if they have just been delivered to the gallery.
Shen Shaomin, Handle with Care #10,2014, oil on canvas, 35 x 23 1/4 inches (89 x 59 cm)
image courtesy of the artist and Klein Sun Gallery
The gallery says, "Shen Shaomin probes the nature of artistic creation through the appropriation of Warhol’s pieces which occupy important territory in the historical discourse concerning individuality and authenticity. Leaning against the wall of the gallery, furnished with veneers that deliver a deceptive effect, paintings from the Handle with Care series represent a pre-installation state, a transitional condition of artwork. The unconventional “hanging” method of this group also breaks the boundaries between painting and sculpture. The setting subverts the traditional manner in which one interacts with artworks inside a museum or gallery, further issuing a subtle statement of institutional critique."

Shen Shaomin, "Handle with Care No. 19," 2014, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches (91.5 x 91.5 cm)
image courtesy the artist and Klein Sun Gallery
As with much of his earlier work, Shen Shaomin challenges us to think about the distinction between the real and the ideal; the real and the fake. His earlier works of hybrid creatures made of real animal bones and bone meal, his tortured bonsai plants chained in their ceramic pots, and most particularly the work previously shown at the same New York gallery, 'I heard the voice of God' all reveal an artist who is dealing with the big issues. That installation, made from the nose cone of a rocket from the Chinese space program which had fallen to earth ("You can buy anything in China!" Shen told me) engraved with text from the Book of Revelations - in Braille - suggests a darkly pessimistic view of the world. At first you might be inclined to dismiss these new works as a clever, but slightly facile art joke. You would be wrong to do so. An artist with a team of assistants to fabricate his works, Shen is asking us to consider whether contemporary art is any more than another branded luxury good, and whether the art market is different to any other market.
Shen Shaomin, "Handle with Care No. 15," 2014, oil on canvas, 35 x 23 1/4 inches (89 x 59 cm)
Image Courtesy the Artist and Klein Sun Gallery
Like Wang Luyan, Ai Weiwei, Guan Wei and Wang Gongxin, all of whom spent years living outside China, Shen’s work today emerges from his own particular generational experience. In the early 1980s there were no commercial galleries and no art market. Artists met in each other’s homes to discuss ideas and to make experimental work with limited resources. There was much excitement and a growing awareness of western contemporary art practices including performance and installation art. I asked Shen what unites the artists of his generation - what makes them different from younger artists: “The difference for my generation of artists is they are idealistic, but for young artists they are more commercial. In our time there was no market for our art so we never even thought about making money. Now it is very different. For the young artists, even just after graduation, or from their graduation exhibition, they can sell their work and make lots of money. Then they just keep doing the same kind of work.” He thought for a minute, then laughed and said, “But maybe they are smarter than our generation.”

The twenty paintings in 'Handle with Care', wrapped in their trompe l'oeil bubble wrap, are presented leaning against the wall as if propped there before or after the install of the show, subverting our expectations of the seamless experience of viewing art hung at eye level in the white cube of the gallery. He alludes to the fact that artworks are just another commodity, globally traded, and shipped around the world. Yes, packed in bubble wrap.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

'Zombie Formalism': Art imitates life in Beijing

I wrote this piece for Daily Serving after my experience of two dramatically different exhibitions in Beijing. Firstly, Zhang Xiaotao at Pekin Fine Arts - work which was technically extraordinary, skilful and refined, highly engaging and accessible on many levels - and emanating from a sincere engagement by the artist with important ideas. (Although. when my husband read my earlier interview with Zhang he said, "Hmmm. He seems to have some curious ideas about what quantum physics is.") The second exhibition seemed to me cynical and derivative - and deeply disappointing. Here's an extract from my review:
There has been noise of late about the supposedly derivative nature of contemporary art, about questionable curatorial practices, and about the piratical behavior of the art market. “Zombie Formalism” and “Crapstraction” are glib, voguish—although, it must be said, amusing—terms that have been thrown around. Whatever you may think about this critique of current tendencies in abstract painting, it seems that all is not well in the world of contemporary practice. There is a growing sense that contemporary art has entered a swirling vortex of derivative quotations from the past—a Mannerist phase, perhaps. But is any of this relevant to contemporary art practices in China? After a disappointing exhibition across three major Beijing galleries, Zhang Xiaotao’s solo show at Pékin Fine Arts makes me believe that art still matters.

Zhang Xiaotao believes that artists are "like alchemists"

Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya, Still Image, 80 x 144 cm, 2010 - 2011, image courtesy Pekin Fine Arts
Zhang Xiaotao. Sakya, 2010-2011; still image; 80 x 144 cm. Courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts Beijing.
For the last few years, in regular visits to Beijing, I have been delighted to encounter work that seems to have escaped the dead hand of suffocating theory. Certainly Beijing has seen its share of the “art as spectacle” phenomenon, with artists tempted by the accessibility of large spaces, cheap labor, and cheaper fabrication costs to make works that are bigger and shinier than they need to be. But that’s the world we are living in now—a world of giant rubber ducks everywhere and butt-plug sculptures in the center of Paris. Art as entertainment. An evaluation of 2014 exhibitions in a Sydney newspaper pointed out that these days “you can’t just put stuff on the wall and expect that lots of people will come see.” People expect something momentous, something extraordinary; they want their perceptions altered. In short, they want art to be magic.
And, sometimes, just sometimes, it is. My most enduring memories of the all-too-rare transcendent art experience include Cai Guo-Qiang in Brisbane, Xu Bing’s magnificent Phoenix in New York, and Huang Yong Pingat Beijing’s Red Brick Art Museum. Which is not to say that I haven’t also seen some wonderful painting, most particularly in Beijing and Shanghai. No “Zombie Formalism” there. To my list of the extraordinary I can now add Zhang Xiaotao’s digital 3D animations at Pékin Fine Arts, in his solo exhibition In the Realm of Microcosmic. Two works, Sakya (2010–2011) and The Adventures of Liang Liang (2012–2013), were exhibited in the 55th Venice Biennale, in the China National Pavilion’s Transfiguration curated by Wang Chunchen...Read more HERE
And now its polar opposite, an exhibition that made me wonder what on earth I was doing teaching and writing about contemporary art in the first place...
A major event on the Beijing calendar each year at Pace Beijing has been Beijing Voice, which showcases current discourses and directions in contemporary Chinese art. This iteration, the fifth, was curated by artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu with independent curator Cui Cancan. For their project Unlived By What Is Seen, they had 2,000 square meters of exhibition space to play with in Pace Beijing alone, as well as two other major Beijing galleries—Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art. The curators selected twenty-eight artists and three artist collectives to participate in an exhibition intended to interrogate relationships between the artist, the art object, and the audience.
Beijing Voice 'Unlived by What is Seen' Installation View image courtesy Pace Beijing
Beijing Voice: Unlived By What Is Seen; installation view. Courtesy of Pace Beijing.
They present works in support of a theoretical position: that there is a shift in focus from making art to taking action; a move away from the production of images and objects. Instead, the artists are “developing modes of existence that interrogate life itself,” according to the somewhat opaque publicity material. In many instances the result of this is an artist-as-talking-head narrating personal stories or aspects of daily life to a video camera. Unsurprisingly, some of these are much more interesting than others. The documentation of performance works offered little that seems new. Sun Yuan volunteered to allow the artist Zhao Zhao to stab him once in the back with a knife. I think we may have seen this once or twice before.....
Young artists have always questioned the nature and purpose of art—where would the 20th century avant-garde have been without that? While there is no doubting the sincerity of the curators, or the artists, in their belief that they are challenging the hegemony of the art market and what they deem “ossified modes of making art,” by the time I left the last of the three galleries I was beginning to feel that Joseph Beuys has a lot to answer for. For me, at least, the base metals had not turned into gold.
And read the rest of the article HERE

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wizardry, Quantum Physics and Contemporary Art: Zhang Xiaotao at Pékin Fine Arts

Last month I spoke to the disarmingly delightful Zhang Xiaotao in the beautiful surroundings of Pékin Fine Arts, the gallery in Beijing's Caochangdi run by an icon of contemporary art in China, the indefatigable Meg Maggio. Our conversation ranged across many topics: Zhang's desire for a Buddhist Renaissance in China, his thoughts about Chinese art education, his love for the work of Xu Bing, his influence from advances in Quantum Physics, and his belief that artists should be like "wizards in the lab of the future." My account of that conversation was published today on The Art Life. Here is the start of the article, "In the Realm of the Microcosmos: A Conversation with Zhang Xiaotao"
With Zhang Xiaotao in front of his animation 'The Adventures of Liang Liang' at Pekin Fine Arts
Visitors to Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery are likely to have encountered Zhang Xiaotao’s paintings of rotting garbage, swarming ants and used condoms. Depicted with meticulous realism, and with such a fabulous palette of viridian greens and lurid, glowing yellows and purples that they somehow make his abject and repellant subject matter appear beautiful, they are an indictment of a decadent society focused on obsessive consumption. Zhang has said that we live in an “age of lust” and in the past the major themes of his work were sex and death. Trained at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, one of the powerhouses of Chinese art education, he has reinvented himself as a new media artist of extraordinary ambition, using the new possibilities of 3D animation software to create allegories of our time on a dramatic scale. Zhang Xiaotao co-founded and now heads the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy’s New Media Studies Department. And in an equally dramatic shift, he has turned from a darkly satirical skewering of modern desires to a deep engagement with Buddhist theory and practice.
Image #1 Liang Liang
Zhang Xiaotao, The Adventures of Liang Liang, Animation, 11’49”, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts
For the China National Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, uber-curator Wang Chunchen selected two of Zhang’s 3D animations. I met the artist in Beijing during his solo show at Pékin Fine Arts and we talked about the dramatic developments in his life and art. “Zhang Xiaotao: In the realm of Microcosmic” presents three full-length video animation works. Sakya is centred upon the reconstruction of an important Buddhist temple in Tibet, partially destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang has blended traditional Buddhist thangka painting and mandalas with live action film, video gaming imagery and lushly layered effects to produce a hypnotically beautiful and immersive experience. The Adventures of Liang Liang animates the charmingly eccentric drawings of the artist’s little son, creating an allegorical journey through heaven and hell blending traditional Chinese classical imagery of mountains and water with the contemporary world of traffic jams and airport security checks. Three Thousand Words attempts to visually represent the Buddhist notion of the three realms of our existence, a multi-level, multi-spatial exploration of human heart and universe as one. Photographic still images in the exhibition reinforce the themes found in all elements of Zhang’s practice.
Image #2 .PekinFineArts.ZhangXiaotao.SakyaNo.4.StillImage 80x144cm.Edition10.2010-2011
Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya No.4, Still Image, 80x144cm, Edition10 2010-2011, image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts
I watched each animation with the artist, while he provided a commentary about his thinking. They draw inspiration from the contemporary visual language of video-gaming as much as from traditional Tibetan Buddhist iconography and the ancient Chinese tradition of ink painting. The Adventures of Liang Liang features cartoon characters, superheroes, and Buddhist deities in a joyfully eccentric visual cacophony. Characters ranging from Snoopy (in the red scarf of a Chinese “young pioneer) to cartoon monsters and the protagonists of traditional Chinese stories merge and overlap. It is wonderfully charming and thought provoking - and I for one totally get the analogy between airport security and the realms of the damned. Zhang is influenced by new theories in quantum physics and the way they challenge accepted notions of time and space and by the philosophies of Xu Bing, his mentor, and the artist he most admires. Zhang Xiaotao believes an artist should be “like an alchemist.” Over many cups of fragrant tea, I asked Zhang to tell me about his metamorphosis since 2005 from painter to new media artist working at the cutting edge of technology. What follows is an extract from a longer conversation, which took place in Chinese with an interpreter assisting.
ZX: In my view, we are now in an age of images, internet and technology. So we must learn new techniques and new languages. New media has changed my destiny. My work went to the Venice Biennale and the Asia Pacific Triennial in Queensland. I think it is an artist’s calling to study and implement new techniques and new languages. An artist must continue to learn and to transform. He has to do this every day. But I still paint! I like traditional material as well as new visual languages. So I spend half the time painting, half the time doing animation.
Click HERE to read the rest of my conversation with the artist.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ten Artists, Ten Conversations, Ten Stories

My most recent article for The Culture Trip introduces ten of the fascinating artists that I have interviewed for my book, "Half the Sky: Conversations with Contemporary Women Artists in China". Here are the first three.

Ten Contemporary Chinese Women Artists You Should Know

Chinese contemporary art is ‘the flavour of the month’ in the West, but there are fascinating stories as yet insufficiently told: the stories of contemporary women artists. The ten artists introduced here are members of a generation who grew to adulthood in the 1980s and 1990s. Born into a post-Mao China that was entirely and disconcertingly different from the world of their parents, they have been forced to adjust to a tsunami of change.

Bu Hua Beijing Babe Loves Freedom No 6, 2008, Giclee Print, Image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery

Bu Hua

Bu Hua was born in 1973, graduating from the Institute of Fine Art, Tsinghua University, Beijing, (formerly the Central Academy of Fine Art and Design) in 1995. In her strong imagery and flat, decorative backgrounds we can see a trace of the traditional woodblock prints of the revolutionary period, and also her love of Japanese art and design. Often described as a pioneer of digital animation in China, Bu Hua was one of the first to use animation software in an art context, creating surreal narratives about contemporary life. Her animations and still images often feature a feisty, sassy pigtailed child dressed in the uniform of the Young Pioneers, a Communist Party youth group. A clever combination of innocence and knowing, cuteness and cunning, playfulness and cynical parody, she swaggers through Bu Hua’s invented world. ‘I felt that this character is an actual person living in real life but [she] is really also an idealised version of myself. She knows this universe and the rules of this society like the back of her hand,’ says the artist. ‘Savage Growth’ employs her characteristically crisp graphic style to create an allegory of industrialisation, pollution and militarisation. Her heroine, armed only with a slingshot, takes aim at flocks of white birds which prove, on closer examination, to be military aircraft. Twisted trees grow out of pools of oil, and a row of sexy foxes (‘fox spirits’, in Chinese lore, are dangerous seductresses) sway backwards and forwards to a mechanical sound track like the rhythmic metallic noise of a factory assembly line. Bu Hua says, ‘people in China pay a lot of attention to the past and the future, but it’s really kind of forbidden to pay a lot of attention to what is happening now, in real life…I am showing what is happening in China at this exact moment, what is happening now.’

Cui Xiuwen, Existential Emptiness No. 3, 2009 C-Print, (85 x 450 cm) Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Cui Xiuwen

Cui Xiuwen

Cui Xiuwen’s 2002 ‘Lady’s Room’ caused the first lawsuit in Chinese contemporary art, when a professor in Guangzhou took exception to its frank documentation of prostitution in the ‘new’ China. With a hidden video camera in the bathroom of a swanky Beijing nightclub she recorded young hostesses changing their clothes, counting their money and arranging their next liaisons with their clients, exposing the seedy underbelly of China’s economic miracle. Born in 1970 near Harbin, Cui Xiuwen trained as a painter, graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1995. In the mid-2000s Cui produced a body of work featuring young girls dressed as Young Pioneers and posed in the Forbidden City, dwarfed by claustrophobic walls and gates representing Chinese tradition. ‘Angel no. 3’ features the same girl, nightmarishly replicated as a crowd of adolescent clones, sleepwalking towards us with arms outstretched. The work evokes the deliberate erasure of bitter memories – a collective amnesia. ‘This is about my own life experience,’ Cui says. ‘I would wake up and see the sky filled with this huge grey cloud which made me feel as if there was no hope.’ Cui Xiuwen returned to the countryside near Harbin to shoot ‘Existential Emptiness’. Like misty ink and wash ‘shan shui’ scrolls the series depicts a living girl and a life-sized doll, a shadow version of the living girl, a puppet figure. The figures are tiny in the vast landscape, like solitary scholars in the mists of a literati painting.
Dong Yuan, Grandma’s House and Bosch’s Garden, installation view, oil on separate canvases, image courtesy the artist

Dong Yuan

Dong Yuan paints objects which represent cultural and personal memory with meticulous realism, creating installations of multiple separate canvases. Born near Dalian in 1984, Dong studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. As a student, inspired by Western still life painting and Giorgio Morandi, she painted literally everything she owned. Small canvases depict her shoes, rolled up quilts, books, a rice cooker, a bath towel hanging on the back of a door, a teapot, even a box of tissues. ‘Home of Paintings’ and ‘Sketch of Family Belongings’ record, on 59 and 186 canvases respectively, the tiny apartments in which she lived as a student. ‘Grandma’s House and Bosch’s Garden’ consists of 855 canvases, a surreal juxtaposition of the fantasy world imagined by Hieronymus Bosch and the rural Chinese world of her grandmother. The gods of happiness, prosperity and longevity are juxtaposed with images of Mao and the stars of TV game shows. Furniture, teacups, textiles, traditional New Year hanging scrolls and everyday possessions intermingle. The humble courtyard house where Dong Yuan had been happy as a child would, inevitably, be demolished. Dong Yuan believes it is her duty and obligation to paint these memories, slowly and intensively completing one room at a time. The project took the artist more than two years. She describes the process as ‘fixing it in memory,’ - an elegy to a lost world. ‘It’s hard to know how many things have to disappear before people find their hearts settled down,’ says the artist.
To find out about the other 7 - click HERE

Friday, January 9, 2015

Two Buddhas in Sydney and Some Thoughts About Writing

Tuanjiehu Window - looking at the Beijing Youth Daily
In the sweaty midst of a Sydney summer, to the shrill backdrop of children shrieking in neighbourhood swimming pools, droning cicadas, barking dogs and the inevitable inner-west renovation sound track of drills and hammers, I am writing the final chapters of my book. It is hard to believe that just three weeks ago I was in the bitter cold of Beijing, driving from artist studio to frigid artist studio, completing the last interviews for 'Half the Sky: Conversations with Contemporary Women Artists in China.' This quixotic - some might say utterly mad - project has occupied me since the middle of 2013. I have now interviewed 34 female artists, covering the alphabet from Bingyi to Zhou Hongbin. And it does seem a bit surreal, transcribing those final interviews and being transported back to those studios. Often the recorded conversation is punctuated by barking dogs (they roam the villages on Beijing's outskirts) and the sound of pouring tea. Never have I drunk so much tea as in my meetings with Chinese artists! And never have I been so cold as in unheated studios in Shanghai and Hangzhou.
With He Chengyao in her studio, a converted greenhouse
With Gao Ping in her new studio
For these few final weeks before the beginning of a new school term I have developed a routine that suits me perfectly: a walk around Blackwattle Bay or a swim in the morning, then writing for the rest of the day. A break for dinner is followed by more writing till as late as I can manage. OK, I confess, there is time for an episode or two of 'Southland', my current favourite gritty LA cop show. It's a weirdly solitary hiatus from the frenzy of real life. I go to sleep reading books that relate to my research - and have been known to almost knock myself unconscious by dropping my i-pad on my face - I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of better turns of phrase, I decide on opening paragraphs while I am walking in the park or floating in the harbour, and I find it hard to concentrate on conversations. I am a bad friend and an even worse mother right now. (Well, they are grown-up. So I think that's OK.)

I veer from despairing that I shall never finish the damn book to elation when I think that finally I have found the right way to express an idea about one of the artists. I have a gazillion windows open on the computer at any one time, with frequent shameful episodes of resorting to Google Translate when I need to send an artist yet another email because their works appear to have multiple titles. I have enormous tottering stacks of books and journals piled on and around my desk, and frequently realise I am muttering to myself: "I know it's in here, come on Wu Hung, where did you write that?!" Every day begins with essentially re-writing what I have written the day before. I really truly am trying to cut down my adjective habit. Truly. That moment of awful clarity when you open your computer and think, "My God that's terrible" happens every day at the same time. Writing is an excruciatingly slow shuffle forwards, like a very, very old person trying to cross a busy road clutching a walking frame. Continuing the forward movement must indicate either great optimism or blind obstinacy. I imagine my friends and family might think - both.

In the midst of all this OCD stuff, there has been room for some other things - although inevitably they are also connected with China and Chinese art. I have enrolled in yet another Chinese language course, with a New Year's Resolution that it's time to get serious or give up. My improvement in fluency is glacier-like, which is hard to accept when I want it so badly. I have read Sheng Keyi's new book 'Death Fugue', an allegory about an imaginary land - a thinly disguised China - and the struggle of her characters to deal with an incident 25 years ago in which an enormous pile of shit appeared in the centre of the city of "Beiping" - a veiled reference to Tiananmen. Sheng Keyi is trying to understand the dichotomy between China then, in the nascent struggle for democracy, and China now. I found the book awfully hard going. Her brand of magic realism is not for me, I have decided. However, stylistic reservations aside, her intentions are interesting and any attempt by Chinese writers to deal with that time is a fascinating development. Click HERE for a very intelligent and considered review by Nicholas Jose, who knows a thing or two about China.

 As proof that Chinese art really is everywhere, Zhang Huan is here in Sydney to install his monumental installation of two Buddhas at Carriageworks for the Sydney Festival. Next week the Yangjiang Group arrive for a major project at 4A Gallery for Contemporary Asian Art. Watch out for my piece in Daily Serving following what promises to be an interesting encounter with the artists!

My response to Zhang Huan and his installation was published in The Art Life today. Here is the start of my article:

Zhang Huan and 'Sydney Buddha'

Portrait of Zhang Huan with Sydney Buddha, 2015. Image: Zan Wimberley.
Two weeks ago, in Beijing, new media artist Zhang Xiaotao told me that he is hoping for a “Buddhist Renaissance” in China, as an antidote to the sickness of materialism and the headlong rush to acquire wealth that has overwhelmed traditional values. In the same week, in separate conversations, three other contemporary artists – a painter, a photographer, and a performance artist – spoke of their immersion in Buddhist practice and philosophy. It seems there is something in the zeitgeist (in Chinese “shidai jingshen” – the spirit of the times.) Today Zhang Huan’s installation for the Sydney Festival was unveiled. ‘Sydney Buddha’ looms out of the shadows of the vast industrial spaces of Carriageworks with an undeniable presence. Like its previous iterations in Taiwan and Florence, the work consists of two giant Buddha figures, each over 5 metres tall, facing each other. The first is constructed of aluminium, the second of ash. The ash Buddha will gradually disintegrate over the course of the exhibition, evoking permanence and transience, life and death, past and present. The work is still, solemn, and very beautiful.
sydney buddha 3
Zhang Huan, Sydney Buddha, 2015, ash and aluminium. Presented by Carriageworks in association with Sydney Festival, courtesy PACE Gallery, New York. Image: Zan Wimberley.
The hollow aluminium Buddha figure acts as a mould to form the second Buddha, created from 20 tonnes of ash collected from temples in Shanghai, Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province over three years. Two of Zhang Huan’s studio assistants supervised the construction and installation of the piece at Carriageworks. The ash, mixed only with water, was pushed into the mould, compressed as tightly as possible, a painstaking and physically challenging process which took days. At the opening of the exhibition the final supports and the mould covering Buddha’s face will be removed by the artist. He suspects that the face will immediately fall away, releasing all the prayers and wishes embodied in the ash into the air. Often connected with the veneration of ancestors and with funerary ritual, the incense and paper burned in the temples which creates the ash is sacred. Zhang Huan says it embodies “the collective memories and hopes of all Chinese people.”
Zhang Huan, Sydney Buddha, 2015, ash and aluminium. Presented by Carriageworks in association with Sydney Festival, courtesy PACE Gallery, New York. Image: Zan Wimberley.
In 1994, as a radical young performance artist in Beijing’s Bohemian East Village artists’ community, Zhang Huan covered himself in fish oil and honey to attract flies, and sat naked in the foul stench of the communal latrine in a feat of endurance called ‘Twelve Square Metres’. In the same year, Zhang suspended himself in metal chains from the ceiling of an East Village hut, while his blood from a cut on his body dripped into a heated metal bowl. These provocative works arose out of the experiences of his generation, who had emerged from the madness of the Cultural Revolution into a very different China. It seems hard to reconcile the author of those transgressive early works with the gentle and softly spoken artist who arrived from Shanghai this morning and went straight to Carriageworks to check on the installation of his monumental installation. I asked Zhang Huan to comment on the dramatic change in his practice. “This change is natural – and also destiny,” he replied through a translator. “Like the philosopher says, you cannot stand in the same river twice. When I was young I was afraid of many things. But now I fear [even] more – I can see my destiny. There is a Confucian doctrine which states that at the age of 50 you know your destiny. I am 50 now!” He is thinking about mortality, memory and the revival of important spiritual traditions in China.
Click HERE to read the rest.



Saturday, December 27, 2014

Shock and Awe: my ten best exhibitions of 2014

Huang Yong Ping, Thousand Armed Guanyin (detail), at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing
photograph Luise Guest
It is that time of year once again, when every form of media is filled with lists. What to buy, what to see, what to do, what to read, how to lose all the weight gained from what you ate, how to restore your finances from the impact of what you spent, and now, of course, what was good and bad in 2014. Why should this blog be any different? 

So, here is my entirely personal list of the ten best art experiences of 2014. It was a year of art as spectacle, in many memorable instances, and of art dominated -  sometimes entirely suffocated - by theory, in other far less memorable and disappointing instances. It's MY list, so naturally there is a major focus on China - what else would you expect? I had originally intended it to be the typical "Best and Worst of..." list, but then decided I would much prefer to write about what I loved. Yes, I was disappointed in Christian Boltanski at Carriageworks in January - despite my admiration for this artist I found the installation underwhelming. The current exhibition curated by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu at three major Beijing galleries, Pace, Galleria Continua, and Tang, disappointed and annoyed me. "Unlived by What is Seen" (um, what?) reveals a triumph of rather obvious and frankly half-baked theory over any visual, visceral or rigorously intellectual engagement. I loved Qiu Zhijie's 2012 Shanghai Biennale but this year's iteration curated by Anselm Franke was a dry theoretical exegisis that made me not want to see it. And the exhibition of figurative painting at Shanghai's Long Museum curated by Xu Zhen (of whom more later in this post) was just plain incoherent. I loved Pop to Popism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales but I did wonder, in this massive survey of the influence of Pop on artists through the 1980s and beyond, where were the Chinese Political Pop and Cynical Realist artists? But enough of the complaints - on with the Shock and Awe! And there was plenty of that, and spectacle, too, to delight and surprise me in exhibitions from Beijing to Shanghai, from Brisbane to New York. Not so much in Sydney, sadly, with the notable exception of the White Rabbit Gallery.

The title of my blog also gives the game away. For me so much of the excitement of contemporary art comes from introducing my students to particular artists and works. This was the year of Xu Bing for my senior high school students. To see them enthralled by "Phoenix"; to listen to their impassioned discussions of the way in which his choices of materials embody complex meanings; and to read their critical writing, with interesting links to works by other artists ranging from Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, to Claire Healey and Sean Cordeiro, to Liu Zhuoquan, and to Fiona Hall was wonderfully exciting for me. With my resourceful assistant I spent a long time tracking down permission to show them a fantastic documentary made by Daniel Traub which deserves a general release. Traub very generously allowed me to show it to my students as long as I promised faithfully never to disclose the password - to anybody, ever. The kids, of course, loved that bit of cloak and dagger secrecy. I have since discovered that it is now available for purchase by educational institutions and I highly recommend it - here is the link to Magic Lantern Films.
One of Xu Bing's Phoenixes soars over Beijing, outside the Today Art Museum
#1: Xu Bing, "Phoenix" in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, NYC, September 2014
In September I saw the work for myself. Xu's two giant Chinese phoenixes, Huang and Feng, are entirely constructed from the junk and rubbish he collected from building sites in Beijing's rapidly transforming CBD, the detritus left behind by the migrant workers who are the unsung (and often openly despised) heroes of China's transformation and growing wealth. When Xu Bing was commissioned by the developers of new financial towers, connected by a glass atrium, he visited the site and was shocked by the conditions in which these rural migrants lived and worked. He saw them as heroic, and decided at that point that his work would be constructed to honour their labour, The glass atrium reminded him of a birdcage, and the Phoenix of course is redolent with symbolism in Chinese history and culture. The developers were not too impressed with giant sculptures made, essentially, with rubbish, and asked the artist to cover them with crystals. Xu Bing refused, and then the project languished for years, in part due to the global financial crisis. Later purchased by a millionaire after its rejection by the Hong Kong developer who had just wanted an auspicious symbol for his building (oh, the irony!) it is currently still installed in the magnificent echoing nave of St John the Divine Cathedral on New York's Upper West Side, a sacramental space which provides new layers of meaning for the work. Describing his process, Xu Bing said, “The method is unsophisticated, like Chinese lanterns. At the same time it is also in keeping with the Western concept of ready-made assemblage. The entire process of creation forms an interactive relationship with the environment and Chinese society.”The two monumental birds "bear witness to the complex interconnection between labor, history, commercial development, and the rapid accumulation of wealth in today's China." In the cathedral, they evoke the back-breaking labour of poor workers globally, who provide the comforts and material goods that we in the developed world take entirely for granted.
Xu Bing, 'Phoenix' 2008 - 2011, in Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York, image source www.xubing.com
#2: Zhang Xiaotao "In the Realm of Microcosmic" at Pékin Fine Arts , December 2014


My second most awe-inspiring art experience this year took place just two weeks ago, in Beijing. Zhang Xiaotao credits Xu Bing as his most significant influence, his "master" in the old Chinese scholarly tradition. Zhang Xiaotao was trained as an oil painter but now heads the New Media Department of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, and Xu Bing is his PhD advisor. His extraordinary animations shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale in the China Pavilion's "Transfiguration", curated by Wang Chunchen, were on exhibition at Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing's Caochangdi. It was there that I spent a couple of hours with Zhang, discussing his works and his ideas about contemporary art and culture in China. "Sakya" (2010-2011) represents the struggle to retain spirituality in today's China, and is focused on a major Tibetan temple which was partially destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. 
Zhang Xiaotao, still from Sakya, image courtesy the artist and Pekin Fine Arts
 "The Adventures of Liang Liang" (2012-2013) is particularly charming, as he and his team animated the fantastic drawings of his eight-year-old son to create a sweeping allegorical adventure which blends Chinese traditional folk tales and mythology with video games and cartoons, and a child's-eye view of the world, from horrendous traffic jams to  transiting through airports (represented as a zone of hell) as he accompanies his father on his travels.His command of the new language of 3D animation creates an experience which is entirely immersive. Spectacular, yes, but never for its own sake, as his works are profound and thought-provoking. Like Xu Bing, the artist whom he most admires, he says that the conceptual intentions are the most important thing, and the technologies, whether of oil painting, photography, video or 3D animation, are just the tools with which an artist can convey his or her ideas.


With Zhang Xiaotao in front of his work "Liang Liang" at Pekin Fine Arts, December 2014
#3: "Xu Zhen, a MadeIn Company Production" at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, April 2014
Xu Zhen is a key figure in Shanghai's art scene and his individual identity is now subsumed by his “contemporary art creation company” MadeIn Company which he founded in 2009, as well as his newly launched brand “Xu Zhen.” A witty comment on the inevitability of branding in the contemporary (especially the Chinese contemporary) artworld and the triumph of marketing and globalisation everywhere. The exhibition was curated by UCCA Director Philip Tinari and UCCA Chief Curator Paula Tsai and it was nothing if not spectacular. I reviewed the show for The Culture Trip: Beijing’s Best Spring Exhibitions: City of Artistic Spectacle











Xu Zhen 4 installation view photo Eric Powell image courtesy UCCA
Installation view of Xu Zhen, Photo by Eric Powell | Image courtesy of UCCA
An extraordinary diversity of installations, performances and objects across multiple platforms and media makes for a very powerful experience, sadly not always the case in the contemporary art museum. The exhibition as a whole, and individual works within it, pack quite a punch. Surprise, delight, awe at the artist’s sheer inventiveness is the initial audience response, followed by a growing awareness of Xu’s thoughtful representation of some of the big issues of our times. The Duchampian wit and irreverent Pop sensibility is underpinned by the artist’s critical gaze on both Chinese society and the international art world. The UCCA show included more than 50 installation pieces, 10 videos, 40 painting and collage works and several performances (including slipper clad grandmothers who followed audiences around the gallery.)





Xu Zhen 2 Installation View
Xu Zhen, Installation View, Photo by Eric Powell | Image Courtesy of UCCA
One enters the museum to encounter a monumental sculpture in which the heads of Ancient Greek gods and goddesses have been replaced by inverted Buddhist statuary. In Xu’s hands this literal overlapping of East and West, the continuing concern of so many Chinese artists, becomes parodic. A multi-coloured Goddess Guanyin presides over the ‘ShanghArt Supermarket’, a replica of a convenience store, staffed by cashiers at the cash registers, in which the contents of every package have been removed – and are for sale. This is the literal embodiment of consumerist emptiness. In an interview with Ocula the artist said ‘We consider that exhibitions nowadays are a product, and that art is being sold…’ You wander through rooms containing museum vitrines showing the cross-cultural connections of bodily gestures, or witty replica oil paintings complete with carefully rendered camera flash. Courbet’s notorious La Source with camera flash obscuring – of course – the very source of the painting’s controversy cleverly skewers the phenomenon of art tourism whereby people experience artworks only through the lens of their camera. Images like these may be found in many vernacular Chinese photographs of the 1990s as citizens took up the opportunity for travel outside China.
Smaller versions of Play, the architectural construction of black leather, ropes and bondage items now in the collection of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery reveals another aspect of the work of Xu and his art corporation. These works, and the upside down be-feathered tribal people hanging, bound, in contorted poses from the ceiling above us, are deeply sinister and to some extent defy interpretation. Their sheer physical presence is enormously powerful. They suggest the ways in which religion and tribal identities are merely another brand in today’s world.



Xu Zhen, installation view, UCCA Beijing, Photo Eric Powell courtesy UCCA
#4: Huang Yong Ping at the Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, December 2014
Huang Yong Ping is a member of the Chinese diaspora who has lived in Paris since 1989. This exhibition, in the vast almost deserted spaces of the Red Brick Art Museum is called 'The Conclusion of Tales from the Taiping Era - the Arrival of the Circus', a title which alludes to the notion of spectacle and also includes suggestions of cruelty and control. I have been interested in Huang's practice since  encountering "Leviathanation" at Beijing's Tang Gallery in 2011 and being completely overwhelmed by the scale of his ambition, and then again awe-struck by his Thousand Armed Guanyin at the 2012 Shanghai Biennale. At the same time Shanghai's  Rockbund Museum showed 'Two Baits', an installation of giant fiberglass fish lures with enormous stainless steel hooks protruding from their mouths. Hidden in the cavity cut into the belly of one fish are books, in the other, a large knife. Writing about the exhibition for The Art Life, I said: 
"The work does not give up its meaning easily, but it evokes a sense of unease and of impending disaster, a sensation which lingers. Huang questions prevailing norms and social systems, including art ‘systems’ such as the organisation of the museum and curatorial practices. In the 1980s, as a member of the radically nihilist "Xiamen Dada"group, he carried out a series of actions in which works of art were damaged, burnt and reconfigured, posing some big questions about the necessity for works of art to exist in a physical form. Once in Paris, his work became concerned with the deconstruction of history, religion, myth and philosophy. Click on the link to read the complete article, "Time Travelling in Shanghai" Before I went to the Red Brick Art Museum I read a review in a Beijing magazine which described his "Thousand Armed Guanyin" as a disturbing work consisting of severed, amputated arms, evoking mutilation and violence. This is clearly nonsense. The work is beautiful, meditative, deeply spiritual, and also witty and irreverant - quite a feat. An intentional homage to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Bottle Rack’ blown up to Brobdingnagian dimensions, the work is also a nod to Tatlin’s unfinished ‘Monument to the Third International’, and a lament for the notion of a failed socialist Utopia.



The thousand arms of the Goddess of Mercy protrude like mannequins in a shop window bearing unlikely objects – a tortoise, a broom, an apple, a skull, a mop, a book, a lantern. Despite being dismissed by Arts Asia Pacific as an ‘old monster’ the result is mesmerising. The artist himself has said that when invited to participate in a Sculpture Project in Germany he cane across an astonishing statue of Christ in Munster Cathedral, which had lost both its arms during WWII. A line scribbled next to the statue read "Your hands are my hands." Responding to the armless Christ, Huang decided to make his "Guanyin of a Thousand Hands", a Buddhist deity, 18 meters high (although here shown in three separate segments due to the height of the ceilings.) The artist said, "I have 'reproduced' the famous work in Western art history [the bottle rack] into an Oriental Buddhist Guanyin. The sense of detachment and indifference associated with the ready-made Bottle Rack is complicated and shrouded by various figures and symbols."


I was much less enamoured of "Circus" which appeared less refined and resolved than other works. Two giant wooden hands - one hanging from the ceiling and the other broken in pieces on the floor - reference marionettes and social control. A circus of headless animals encircle the space. The artist, always elusive and given to gnomically ambiguous utterances, has suggested that the work is about faith. It is also about control, and free will, or the lack of it.


#5: Cai Guo Qiang at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art "Falling Back to Earth", January 2014
I did wonder, "What is it about Chinese artists and Taxidermy?" as I encountered Cai Guo-Qiang's installations "Head On" and "Heritage" in Brisbane last summer. I wrote about this experience for The Art Life and Daily Serving.
Cai Guo-Qiang, Heritage, 2013. 99 life-sized replicas of animals, water, sand, drip mechanism; installed dimensions variable;
commissioned for the exhibition Falling Back to Earth, 2013; proposed for the Queensland Art Gallery collection with funds from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation through and with the assistance of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation.
Falling Back to Earth’ consists of three monumental installations. Two new projects were inspired by his immersion in the Australian landscape and in his themes of humanity’s connection to the natural world. The third has a different resonance in an Australian context. ‘Head On’ was originally created for an exhibition in Germany, inspired by the dramatic, divided history of Berlin. ‘Heritage’, with its 99 replica creatures (polystyrene casts covered in hyper-real fur made from goatskin) gathered around a waterhole was inspired by Cai’s visit to the pristine environment of Stradbroke Island, and the fact that he considers Australia to be a kind of paradise. The title of the exhibition – his first solo show in Australia – evokes the traditional Chinese literati scholars’ yearning for nature and was inspired by a fourth century poem by Tao Yuanming. Why 99 animals? In Chinese numerology and in Taoist philosophy the number 9 is highly significant, representing completion, perfection and regeneration. 99 to Cai represents something that is yet to be completed.
This is the first time that the entire 3000 square metres of GOMA ground floor space has been given over to the work of a single living artist, and due to Cai Guo-Qiang’s global reputation international media – in particular Chinese language media – were targeted by the gallery, so expectations were high. ‘Heritage’ is the big drawcard and it is as spectacular as the gallery’s publicists would have us believe. There is a stillness that somehow transcends the crowds with their strollers and fidgety small children, and a feeling that you have entered a fairy-tale world where natural enemies can peaceably coexist. The enormous waterhole is surrounded by every conceivable kind of animal – zebras, giraffes, a horse, pandas, kangaroos, tigers, a lion, antelope - all creatures great and small. Their relative sizes and forms are exaggerated, enhancing the sense of unreality. They are rendered equal in their vulnerability as they drink, heads bent, from a huge pool of water. As you circumnavigate the pond, watching the animals and their reflections on the surface of the water, you slowly begin to think about the implications of this impossible scene. Cai has moved from the extra-terrestrial to the terrestrial, and invites us to think about our relationship with nature.
In ‘Head On’ 99 replica wolves appear as if in a freeze frame, arcing through the space in a graceful curve, only to hit the glass wall and slide to the floor, slinking back to begin the process all over again. In its original German setting this work had very particular connotations. Shown here, in conjunction with ‘Heritage’ it could be seen as an allegory of heroism, or as terrible misguided foolishness – a warning that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, perhaps. I thought about climate change deniers and the disastrous consequences of human decisions made in the interests of political expediency or short term greed. ‘Eucalyptus’ relocates a vast native gum, earmarked for clearing, to the gallery. Placed on its side it fills the architectural space and forces us to contemplate at close quarters its ancient, gnarled surface. Roots and branches stretch out like capillaries, touching the walls and inviting the visitor to walk underneath and look more closely at what we often take for granted. Cai visited Lamington National Park and was inspired by the giant Antarctic beeches and the primeval power of the landscape. Like the Chinese literati painters who found solace and a sense of the sublime in nature, Cai suggests there is both a moral and a spiritual dimension in our relationship to the land. We need to consider our place in the universe, our interconnectedness, and “fall back to earth.”

Cai Guo-Qiang China b.1957 Head On 2006, 99 life-sized replicas of wolves and glass wall. Wolves: gauze, resin, and hide  
                    Photo by Yuyu Chen, courtesy Cai Studio.
#6 and #7: "Reformation" and "Commune" at White Rabbit Gallery
My 6th and 7th selections are two shows at White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. Perhaps this is cheating, but too bad, I am making up my own rules. "Reformation" early in the year, followed by "Commune" in the latter part of 2014 presented us with entirely different, and entirely fascinating, views of contemporary China. In writing about Reformation for The Art Life I noted the clever - and unexpected - "salon hang" of paintings from the collection. 
"The first thing you see is a dramatic “salon hang” of 37 paintings from the collection, a visual feast hanging ceiling to (almost) floor in the atrium. Wang Luyan’s Global Watch is a giant’s timepiece bearing the flags of China, the United States, Iran, Korea and other nations in a wry comment on the inevitability of global conflict. Above this hangs a 2006 work by his wife, Qin Fengling, Red, with her characteristic technique of tiny sculpted figures covering the entire surface, referencing submerging of individual desires to the collective, the overwhelming mass of the Chinese population. Lu Xinjian’s City DNA Beijing, part of a larger series representing numerous world cities, emerges from an examination of aerial views from Google Earth, revealing the sameness of the contemporary urban hub. A seemingly flat pictorial space, and a surface that appears to be an impenetrable code, or a diagrammatic representation of a flickering electrical charge, on closer examination reveals some of the distinguishing features of each singular place. In this work, the grid of Beijing, with the Forbidden City at its central meridian, merges into an incoherent jumble like every other place in the developed and developing world. Mondrian’s Modernist grid has become the language with which to expose the homogenising impact of globalisation." 
Lu Xinjian, City DNA Beijing, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 400 cm,
image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
As an antidote to works exploring the stresses and strains of the contemporary world, Shi Zhiying’s glorious monochrome ocean vastness, her sea sutra, evokes the sublime, a meditation upon Buddhist notions of emptiness. Ma Yanling’s delicate portraits of Shanghai actresses of the 1930s, including Jiang Qing (Madam Mao) reveal her interest in the hidden history of women in China. Other works are more personal. Bingyi’I Watch Myself Dying, painted after the artist suffered an appalling accident resulting in serious burns and multiple surgeries, is a compelling, raw work which reveals her interest in European painters such as the Symbolist Odilon Redon as well as Chinese ink painting masters. Bingyi described her painting practice to me as “Intensely primal. It raises questions about our fundamental being – what is pain, what is suffering, what is loneliness?” Other highlights in this show were Wang Qingsong's cinematic allegorical staged photograph, "Follow You" and the evocative and clever paintings of young Beijing artist Huang Jingyuan.
Wang Qingsong, "Follow You" 2008 C-Print, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
Huang Jing Yuan "I Am Your Agency" 2013, image courtesy the artist
For me, the major highlight of "Commune" was the opportunity to see once again Gao Rong's extraordinary embroidered installation, a hyper-realist simulation of the simple house of her beloved grandparents, with whom she grew up in Inner Mongolia. This lifesize simulacrum, "The Static Eternity" is a way of freezing memory and stopping time.

#8: Liu Bolin, Jenny Holzer and Do Ho Suh
Cheating here (again) I am listing as number 8 three shows that I saw in one magical afternoon in Chelsea. Liu Bolin at Klein Sun Gallery, Jenny Holzer at Cheim & Reid and Do Ho Suh at Lehman Maupin gave me hope that globally, contemporary art is not moribund, despite what we might sometimes think after a visit to commercial galleries. And after some previously very dispiriting visits to the Chelsea galleries, this was a joyful experience despite the somewhat dark subject matter of some of the works. In the same afternoon I saw works by Mona Hatoum and Ai Weiwei. Do Ho Suh's fragile and evanescent recreations of his New York and Korean homes are just so damn beautiful. For this show, "Drawings" the artist used an intensive process of rubbing to record the physical space of every inch and every detail of his West 22nd Street apartment.  Art in America said, "By rubbing the skinlike surfaces with blue pencil, he creates a ghostly imprint of the most minute architectural details. The results fill both the gallery's venues, accompanied by a recent series of works featuring quasi-surrealist figurative images made of colorful threads embedded into paper."  
Do Ho Suh at Lehmann Maupin, Chelsea, installation view
Jenny Holzer's "Dust Paintings" were a whole other story. As is usual for Holzer, the works are textual, but the source of these sensually luscious paintings is declassified, highly redacted government documents recording acts of brutality and barbarism carried out by US forces in Afghanistan. Most of the text comes from  witness statements, transcribed with misspellings and other grammatical mistakes, concerning Jamal Naseer, an Afghan soldier who died in American custody. It is possible to lose oneself in the beauty of the painterly surfaces, to be brought up short by a sudden realisation of the import of the lushly painted brushmarks. Painting as document and as abstraction. Liu Bolin, too, is motivated to document aspects of his contemporary world, navigating the tricky terrain of avoiding polemic whilst taking a moral stance. 
Liu Bolin Head Portrait’ 2012. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
Best known for his ‘Hiding in the City’ series, in which he literally paints himself into various backgrounds, in cityscapes as diverse as Beijing, New York, London and Paris, Liu Bolin is sometimes called “The Invisible Man”. He is a master of a complex trompe l’oeil technique which allows him to examine the paradoxes and slippages of the contemporary world. Wearing a specially designed suit, the artist is painted by a team of assistants, in a painstaking and sometimes physically challenging ordeal, to merge almost seamlessly with his background. A disappearing trick; the artist as conjurer. No mere pop culture gimmickry, Liu Bolin’s process of erasure examines issues of contemporary culture and social justice, never more so than in his most recent exhibition in New York, at Klein Sun Gallery, ‘A Colorful World?’ In the lyrics of pop diva Cece Winans, “It’s a colorful world, it’s a beautiful world that we live in/ It’s a colorful world…” Well, perhaps, but Liu Bolin is interested in what happens when saccharine sentiments are juxtaposed with contemporary realities. Here we see works from the ongoing ‘Hiding in the City’ series, and new works created for the show. Liu also involved New Yorkers - 100 volunteers - who spent many excruciating hours being painted by the artist and his assistants for a new ‘Target’ series. Camouflaged into backgrounds of new $100 bills and a traditional Chinese ink painting, they were required to hold poses inspired by Renaissance paintings. The artist questions the ways in which people are made the passive recipients of consumerism, and the victims of political forces beyond their control. Underlying ‘Hiding in the City’, too, is the omnipresent smog and haze of pollution in Chinese cities, which Liu sees as rendering their inhabitants partially invisible, both literally and metaphorically.
Liu Bolin, Security Check No.2, 2014, 205x95x55cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
More recently, Liu’s concerns have become global in their scope. A key image from this show is a life-size standing sculpture, cast from the artist’s own body and covered with brightly coloured food packaging logos. The figure assumes the submissive pose required by airport security in the full body scanner. The posture is one of surrender, capitulation. What is more symbolic of the contemporary world (and the international world of the contemporary artist, in particular) than the airport, that liminal zone of ever more authoritarian surveillance juxtaposed with ever more shiny shopping opportunities? What pose could be more appropriate for the current moment? Klein Sun assistant director, Willem Molesworth, pointed out to me that the pose is also the bitterly ironic “Don’t shoot” stance of black youth protesting in Ferguson, a viral internet phenomenon and a new cultural trope which instantly traversed the globe. In subsequent weeks it was to be echoed by the Occupy Central demonstrators facing police teargas in Hong Kong. Click HERE for the full review of this exhibition.
Liu Bolin ‘In Junk Food No.5, 2014. Acrylic on copper 36x36x26cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
#9: Nam June Paik 'Becoming Robot' at Asia Society NYC
In the same week in New York I saw the Nam June Paik retrospective Becoming Robot at the Asia Society. The exhibition charmed and delighted me, suggesting that Paik was a kind of cultural boundary rider, an inter-galactic hitch-hiker.  New York Times critic Holland Cotter describes him as an “existential floater”, a visionary more comfortable with sound waves and satellites than with any terrestrial matters. The man who fell to earth, perhaps. He is often described as “the father of video art” and certainly he was one of the first artists to see the possibilities of working with very new technologies in a post-Dada re-framing of the readymade.
AS 048
Li Tai Po, 1987.10 antique wooden TV cabinets, 1 antique radio cabinet, antique Korean printing block, antique Korean book, 11 color TVs. 96 x 62 x 24 in. (243.8 x 157.5 x 61 cm). Asia Society, New York: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold and Ruth Newman, 2008.2. Photo credit: © 2007 John Bigelow Taylor Photography, courtesy of Asia Society, New York
I must confess a particular affection and partisanship here. Nam June Paik’s collaboration with cellist Charlotte Moorman was my introduction to the playful possibilities of contemporary art, and its debt to Duchamp, when I was a young art student. Who can forget a nude Moorman playing a cello made of Perspex TVs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales? Or wearing them, in ‘TV Bra for Living Sculpture’? And this at a far more prudish time, in 1976, when vice cops had only relatively recently removed copies of Michelangelo’s David from David Jones Department Store on a charge of public indecency!
TV Buddha’, also seen in Sydney in the 1970s (thanks to John Kaldor) and in other versions since, has always seemed to beautifully encapsulate his mix of seriousness and play; absurdity and moral purpose. There is a version here at the Asia Society and amidst more theatrical works, later readymades, and video footage from the 1980s (which does, it must be said, look seriously dated) it retains a compelling power and stillness. A closed circuit television camera and a seated Buddha figure face each other on a white plinth. The Buddha is engaged in silent contemplation of himself. Walk into the frame and you too become a part of the work’s circular navel gazing. Past and present, East and West, sacred and secular, stillness and busy-ness. A Zen wake-up call to mindfulness? It echoes Paik’s interest in Zen philosophy, shared with his friend and collaborator John Cage. Unlike some of the other works in the exhibition such as the roughly hand-painted TV sets of the artist’s late practice, charming though they are, ‘TV Buddha’ lingers in the mind.
The New York show provides a new context for these works, and adds a contemporary spin to all the well-known details of his life and work: the collaborations with John Cage and Joseph Beuys; the philosophies of the Fluxus Movement and the blurring of boundaries between art, performance, music and what was called “electromedia” back in the ‘70s, in those heady days of experimentation. ‘Becoming Robot’ suggests that Paik predicted the kind of world we now inhabit; our constant interaction with screens of various kinds, the relentless connectivity, the overload of information, and the tension between controlling technology and being controlled by it. Paik himself said, “Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life.” Click HERE for the full review of the exhibition.
2. NJP Transistor TV
Transistor Television, 2005.Permanent oil marker and acrylic paint on vintage transistor television. 12½ x 9½ x 16 in. (31.8 x 24.1 x 40.6 cm). Nam June Paik Estate Photo credit: Ben Blackwell
#10: Xiao Yu, "Ground" at Pace Beijing, April 2014
Xiao Yu "Ground" 2014 image courtesy Pace Beijing
My final choice is very different. Xiao Yu's "Ground" (which might also be translated as "Earth") was literally as described. The vast space of Pace Beijing's 798 gallery was filled with earth, the smell of rich loam and the earthiness of the farmyard. During the installation it had been ploughed by farmers with teams of cattle. but only the earth remained, with photographic documentation of the time-based performative elements. There are inescapable echoes of Walter de Maria’s ‘Earth Room’, yet in a Chinese context, at this time in history, there are other interpretations. The enormous divide in wealth and opportunity between rural and urban China is a growing source of tension and social unrest, and the contempt with which city-dwellers regard the countryside always surprises foreign visitors. Alienated from cycles of growth and renewal, fearful of food safety scandals and toxic contamination, Chinese consumers have come to regard their food, and the soil and water which produces it, with fear and suspicion. Is this a metaphor for the ‘nothingness’ within the artworld as pointed as Xu Zhen’s supermarket filled with empty packaging? It takes us full circle to Xu Bing and his admiration for the skilful labour of rural migrants, transplanted into big Chinese cities in search of a better life for their families. And to an idea, unfashionable in some circles, that art actually can and should matter.
In the interests of full disclosure, as they say, some of the artists in the exhibitions referred to above will be included in my forthcoming book "Half the Sky: Women Artists in China", published by Piper Press in 2015. Shi Zhiying, Bingyi, Huang Jingyuan, Ma Yanling, Qin Fengling and Gao Rong were all interviewed for that project, along with 25 other contemporary female artists.