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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Between Memory and Metaphor: Qing Qing

One of my most treasured recent encounters in my journeying through the Chinese artworld was with the somewhat reclusive (but completely delightful) Qing Qing. From the moment she appeared at her gate with her dogs to welcome me, then insisting on making various different herbal teas to cure my persistent (and no doubt very annoying) Beijing cough, she could not have been more engaging and straightforward. Her work is fascinating, and her house is a treasure trove of artifacts, of sculptural tableaux owing something to Cornell, something to Rauschenberg and dada, and something (disturbingly) to Hans Bellmer; but also retaining something absolutely Chinese and Buddhist shrine-like. Her life story is frankly astonishing. My interview with her was published today on The Culture Trip.
With Qing Qing in Songzhuang, April 2014
Here it is:

Chen Qing Qing (usually known simply as Qing Qing) layers past and present in her surreal sculptural installations. Best known for her beautiful, ethereal imperial robes made of grass and hemp, she also creates diorama-like works inspired by her early love for Joseph Cornell’s magical box sculptures, and more recently she has branched out into fibreglass figurative sculpture. Luise Guest talks to Qing Qing in her Songzhuang studio near Beijing.

Chen Qing Qing
Qing Qing in her studio, image courtesy the artist and Red Gate Gallery
Memory and metaphor are everywhere in Qing Qing’s work – some of her own earliest recollections are of hearing the shouts of the Red Guards outside her parents’ courtyard home in Beijing, trembling with fear of what was to come. Today, she lives and works in a beautiful, tranquil house and studio (designed by an architect friend to her own specifications in a spiralling shape behind high walls) in the artistic enclave of Songzhuang, on Beijing’s outskirts. It is a treasure trove of her remarkable tableaux sculptures, and all the work she has completed since becoming a practising artist at the relatively late age of forty.

Qing Qing “9 mansion”
Qing Qing “9 mansion” 34.5x80x58cm device 2010 image courtesy the artist
Qing Qing’s earlier life is like a capsule containing all the miseries and dramas of 20th century Chinese history. She remembers being in middle school at the start of the Cultural Revolution, when at the centre of every classroom a big collage of coloured paper with a red sun at the centre took pride of place, often with a portrait of Chairman Mao or one of Mao’s poems as its focal point. If you were late to school you had to stand in front of it by yourself and sing patriotic songs, with the entire class watching you. ‘Very shameful,’ says the artist. Later, Qing Qing and her mother were exiled to the countryside and her father was imprisoned. In one of her sculptures I spy an old black and white photograph of a pigtailed teenaged Qing Qing, driving a tractor. She became a barefoot doctor, studied traditional Chinese medicine, survived the traumatic deaths of her parents, and somehow ended up on the other side of the world, in Vienna, working as an executive for a global corporation. With the opening up of China she returned to her home city of Beijing, opened a hutong café as an intellectual, artistic salon, and then found her passion and metier as an artist. Qing Qing was one of the first artists to have a studio in 798, at a time when it was still a shabby rundown site of bankrupt factories and parking lots.
I asked her, ‘When you look back at the dramatic events and transformations that you have experienced, does it feel as if it all happened to someone else? Does it seem like another world?’ She replies, simply, ‘No. It is my life.’
Her empty, transparent hemp robes, incorporating dried flowers and grasses, are exquisite creations suspended in Perspex box frames, evoking the Imperial past and all the generations of Chinese women imprisoned in various ways – from concubines and Imperial wives to rural peasant women - by the conventions and dictates of the times. Qing Qing uses hemp because it appears delicate and fragile but in fact is immensely tough and strong – ‘Like women,’ she says. ‘I choose this material because it can stretch, it is flexible, like the character of a woman. Women are not supposed to have power or express strength but they have more tenacity and more character than men.’ Referencing imperial robes worn by women in the Han, Ming and Qing Dynasties, she is also using hemp because it was used in ropes and in the floor coverings of traditional Chinese houses, and is a natural material redolent with history.

Qing Qing 拷贝出土文物— “Artificial Artifact-Han”
Qing Qing 拷贝出土文物— “Artificial Artifact-Han” 250x200x8cm image courtesy the artist and Red Gate Gallery
The significance of the robe is also a reflection on political symbolism. ‘Women in China, even today, but especially in the past, were placed in second position. Robes for women were not just a decoration but also expressed their place in the hierarchy and their social status. The importance of robes for women is very significant,’ she says. Women can express themselves through their clothes, but sometimes the beautiful bride in the richly embroidered robes becomes merely an accessory to her powerful husband. Yes, even today, and not just in China, the artist laughs, acknowledging the contemporary image of the trophy wife. She worries that young women in China today are too prepared to swap their hard-won independence for marriage to a man with a ‘fat wallet.’ Essentially, however, these works represent what Qing Qing sees as the essence of femininity: beauty and malleability, but also tensile strength and endurance.
Qing Qing, Ant Kingdom, Image courtesy the artist
An ongoing element in her practice is the creation of tiny, mysterious worlds enclosed in box-like forms. Sometimes they are like altars or Buddhist shrines, sometimes like a museum diorama or a Surrealist tableau. Sometimes they are beautiful, sometimes horrifying. They stem from the very first one she made, whilst still living in Vienna and reflecting on her Chinese past and identity from a position of exile. Of necessity it was simple and restrained, as she did not have access to many materials. This first body of work is entitled The Black Memory Series. An antique wooden box is lined by old book pages, with faded Chinese characters. A gilded pair of ears is pinned in place by multiple surgical clamps, a reflection, explains the artist, on her operation under acupuncture ‘anaesthesia’ carried out on a table during the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution. She has said, ‘Whenever I look at that scar…I cannot help but think of the rows of red flags waving along Sunflower Lake, revolutionary slogans pouring from high frequency loudspeakers. That is what I recall of my ‘radiant’ girlhood.’

Qing Qing ”勿“和”吭“No and Keng”
Qing Qing ”勿“和”吭“No and Keng” 80X50X25Cm2011 image courtesy the artist and Red Gate Gallery
The rigidity and conformity of the Chinese education system is remembered in another work in this series, ‘The Great Epoch’. Wooden clothes pegs (to hold you rigid) and chicken bones are juxtaposed with a Mao medal symbolising the cult-like reverence afforded ‘The Great Helmsman’ during her girlhood. ‘I used chicken bones (because) education instils ideas into your mind, whatever they give you, you have to take it. When I went to Europe I saw parents asking children, ‘What do you want to eat?’ I was very surprised! In China the parents put the food in your bowl. In Europe people are much more independent. The painting in the background is an ancient Chinese painting of herding the cows. The passage is about how to herd the cows and make them bend to your will.’
Another, ‘Story of Women’, recalls an operation at which the young barefoot doctor assisted. An old woman with bound feet had her necrotised toes amputated, a memory which fills the artist with horror even today. A hinged box like an antique ‘shadow box’ for the display of treasures contains a tiny pair of red shoes, for bound ‘lotus feet.’ The artist says, ‘To me, they represent such a horrific aspect of Chinese culture: absurd and distorted.’ Qing Qing uses found objects – tiny dolls, toys, shells, twigs, flowers and bones – to express her thoughts about past and present in China and about her own life. She is interested in yin and yang, and Chinese classical stories about life and death and the traditions of Buddhism. Tiny allegories, they are at once personal and universal.

Qing Qing Copy relics series – “Qing 4”
Qing Qing Copy relics series – “Qing 4” 150X140CM image courtesy the artist and Red Gate Gallery
Her most recent sculptures, fibreglass figures of faceless child-like figures in baby pink, blue and pastel colours, are an interesting departure. The artist began to make these after a period of illness, and a time of regaining her strength and energy. She says they do not represent her, but asks me if I have perhaps noticed that each female figure has only one breast. They are not self-portraits, nor autobiographies, she stresses, but are a reflection on how Tai Ji is used to re-position bodily energy flow and ‘deal with things.’ Qing Qing muses about what she feels now about being female in China. ‘Young women today are much stronger in their character, they have more power and strength. It is very different than from the past, this power we have. No means no. We have learned to refuse, not to accept. And sometimes you have to push.’ She points to the figures entitled ‘No’ and ‘Pushing Hard’. Her figurative sculptures, like her diaphanous grass robes, possess a strength which is disguised by their aesthetic appeal.
See the article on The Culture Trip site HERE

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Are You My Mother? Reflections on Mothers and Daughters

Zhang Xiaogang Big Family 1995 oil on canvas. source: Saatchi Gallery
I have been thinking a lot about mothers and daughters. Unsurprising - my own mother is in a state of advanced dementia, and while I adore her, and she sometimes recognises me and is still fabulously feisty (and funny) the relationship has always been, shall we say, "complicated". And my eldest daughter is about to be married, which feels both happy and strange. I have flashes in my dreams of my daughters as babies; the sheer pleasurable physicality of tiny children. I remember lying beside them as they slept; the exhaustion overlaid by that fierce love that is quite overwhelming. 

Ridiculously, I was almost reduced to tears the other day when I read somewhere an account of the Dr Seuss book 'Are You My Mother?' which I must have read a thousand times to my own small daughters. A baby bird falls out of the nest and goes exploring, asking every creature - and thing - it sees, "Are you my mother?" The reply is always, "No. I am not your mother. I am a horse/pig/cow/truck," etc etc. Of course there is a happy ending, anticipated with great satisfaction by the children who chanted along with me, "Yes! I am a bird and I am your mother!"

I recently saw again a charming Chinese animation for children, called 'Tadpoles Looking for their Mother' or ‘Where is Mama?’. Created in 1960 at Shanghai Film Studios under the guidance of the legendary animator Te Wei, it tells the story of a group of tadpoles searching for their mother. They plaintively question goldfish, shrimp, turtles and other creatures on their journey through a watery landscape, "Women de Mama, Zai Nali?" Each frame is rendered in deft, minimal brushstrokes with ink and wash, influenced by the watercolour paintings of Qi Baishi. In these digital days its artistry and simplicity are a revelation.



But why on earth have memories of my own childhood, and my children's, been haunting me? Why now? It began when I started to write an article about the artist Gao Rong for 'Artist Profile' magazine. As I listened once again to my taped interviews with Gao, I heard echoes of the stories told to me by so many of the female artists I have been meeting in China. There is a great closeness between Gao and her mother - although much untold bitterness, I am sure, in the story of her grandmother. Sent away into exile in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, far from her native Shaanxi Province, she and her seven children would have starved had she not been able to barter her exquisite embroidery for food. I began to think of all the tragic separations and the broken families resulting from ten years of utter madness. 


 Gao Rong The Static Eternity 2012 cloth wire sponge, cotton, steel, board, 516 x 460 x 270 cm detail
image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
Perhaps because that time coincided with my own childhood and teenage years, as I look at photographs of my mother with her two children in 1966, I inevitably compare our lives with those of  Chinese artists of my own age. No doubt it's also because now, increasingly often, my mother has no idea who is in those photographs. Nevertheless, I think of Qing Qing, who was sent away with her mother to Xinjiang Province to drive a tractor in her early teens, the family's house seized, books burned and father imprisoned. I think of Lin Jingjing, whose mother was left behind "to take care of things" when the rest of the family escaped overseas. She was sixteen. The family's property was confiscated and she was sent to prison and then into rural exile.It was thirty years before she saw her mother again, by which time her father was dead. And there are so many others who allude obliquely to suffering, fragmentation, betrayal and disconnection as they tell me about their lives. 

Dong Yuan told me recently that she continues to make artworks about her grandma's house on the coast near Dalian because that was the place where she learned what family was, and where she felt safe. Her own parents, she didn't need to elaborate, were of the generation when "everything was for the country." Artists of a much younger generation find it hard to relate to their parents' and grandparents' experiences, and their parents in turn cannot understand the new pressures of a materialist and frighteningly dog-eat-dog (in Chinese, "ren chi ren" - man eat man) world. I think about Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline" series, and reflect on the tenacity - but also the tenuousness - of family ties. They can be destroyed by the fraying and crumbling of cognition and memory as much as by the ramifications of political ideology.
Dong Yuan Grandma's House, multiple canvases, oil and acrylic, 2013, image courtesy the artist
Yet it is interesting to me that so far every single Chinese female artist I have interviewed (about twenty five now) mentions their mother somewhere in their narrative. Sometimes memories are bitter and the stories oblique, sometimes they are enormously loving and positive. Some mothers are proud of their artist daughters, some mystified, and some are frankly disapproving. But those mother/daughter bonds, so complicated and so strong, are always a part of the daughter's story. Many women, I admit myself included, are still hoping for that motherly approval, that affirmation, and continue to long for it into middle age and beyond. My mother at eighty nine sees her own mother in the room, and sometimes cries for her, which breaks my heart.

So the story of Gao Rong learning to sew from her mother and grandmother, in turn teaching her Shaanxi stitching to rural women who can then earn money assisting her in her sculptural projects, struck a chord with me. It seemed a healing kind of story, in a country where the scars of the past are all too visible. And it spoke to me in a way about my own wounds too. Gao says, “Heritage is not just a technique, but a spirit of survival handed down from one Chinese woman to another.” Gao Rong is the same age as my daughter, and so I loved her telling me that she missed her mother terribly when she was alone studying in Beijing, and that she then took her mother with her to New York for her solo show last year. 

And now, when my own mother sometimes asks me,"Who are you? Are you my mother?" I have learned to say, "Yes I am, and you are safe."

The full interview with Gao Rong is in the current (August 2014) issue of Artist Profile.




Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bingyi: The Postmodern Literati

I have visited Bingyi twice, in her converted Yuan Dynasty temple near the Drum and Bell. I have written about her practice before, but following a long conversation in April, which really just left me open-mouthed in astonishment at the scale of her ambition and the scope of her thinking - and the extent of her self-assurance - I have written an article for Creative Asia, published today.
Bingyi performing in her site-specific installation. 'The Cave" 2013, Beijing, image courtesy the artist
Here is the start of the piece:

When you think of Chinese ink painting the image which comes to mind is a delicate scroll, perhaps a misty mountain landscape - washes and gestural marks applied in an infinitely subtle practice of the art of bimo (brush and ink.) You probably won’t imagine a painting 160 metres in length, its black ink applied with tools and machinery modified to blow, spray, brush and pool ink across the vast surface, laid out in the landscape itself, documented with video and photography before becoming an enormous site-specific installation. Yet this is the art practice of Beijing painter Bingyi Huang, usually known simply as Bingyi (冰逸). 
Bingyi’s work is sometimes defined as “contemporary ink”, a description that leaves her cold. She sees the recent global interest in ink painting as a market-driven curatorial and critical exercise that has little connection with her own motivation to work in this most traditional of Chinese media. Her paintings reveal a deep understanding of an expressive language inextricably bound up with Chinese cultural identity. Bingyi herself describes her work as “Walter de Maria inverted” and this is much closer to the mark. Painting, conceptual art, installation and land art are combined in a performative practice which often includes music, theatre, poetry and costume.
Bingyi, Cascade (installation view with performers), 2010, ink on paper, 42 feet 7 ¾ inches x 65 feet 7 ½ inches, David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago.
 Image courtesy the artist 
In the imperial past paper, brush, ink, and ink-slab were considered the ‘four precious things’ of a scholar's study; a means of committing thoughts to writing, but also how the scholar/artist could visually represent his world. This scholarly ideal lives on in the work of contemporary artists such as Bingyi, but the forms that result would be unrecognisable to the literati.
 
Bingyi’s paper in the mountains. Image courtesy the artist 
Much of her work is on a vast scale. Becoming an artist only in 2006, after earlier incarnations as scientist, musician, biomedical engineer, computer programmer, and art historian (with a PhD from Yale), her academic research into the Han Dynasty has informed her practice as it developed. “I lived with the Han for seven years,” she says, “I was them!” And what she learned from the years researching her dissertation was that through art, “one can embody the notion of eternity. If you can feel and express eternity and transience, then you are approaching a much higher level of metaphysics.” 
With monumental ink paintings often presented to audiences in a theatrical manner that includes operatic performances, dance and the reading of her own poetry, she is transforming the tradition of the scholar painters and poets. “I am not dealing with classicism. I am not dealing with the schools or the processes (of historical painting). No! That’s not what I am interested in at all. I paint an entire world view… In my case it’s not about reinterpreting Chinese traditional ink painting. If you are truly ‘shanshui' you don’t need to think about it. If you are the being, you don’t need to think about the being. You just are.”
Are there echoes of Jackson Pollock’s High Modernist romanticism here? “I don’t paint nature, I am nature,” Pollock said. And the scale and gestural mark-making of Bingyi’s works, created on the ground, in nature, are somehow reminiscent of that famous Hans Namuth film of Pollock expertly flicking and pouring skeins of glistening black paint onto a sheet of glass, moving in a crouching dance around his “canvas”. Bingyi doesn’t entirely deny the connection, but points out that in her case, as with the apparently spontaneous gestures of literati painting, there is in fact nothing random or accidental. Everything is controlled and deliberate.
Bingyi painting in situ, image courtesy the artist
“Of course I see that connection,” she says. “But in the work of Jackson Pollock what’s important is… that horizontal plane as opposed to the vertical. It’s the gesture, the speed, the expression. In my work it’s really the image. My work is not abstract.” Cascade, commissioned by Wu Hung for the lobby of the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, and thought to be the largest ink-on-paper work ever created to that point, depicts a giant waterfall flowing backwards from earth to heaven. It references a Buddhist temple namedzhihuihai (The Ocean of Wisdom) in Beijing’s Summer Palace, with similar proportions to the Chicago site. The work represents wind, fire, mountains, earth and water, as well as human and animal DNA.
- To read more click HERE

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Home and Away at SCAF: Chien-chi Chang and Chen Chieh-jen

Chen Chieh-jen. Realm of Reverberations, 2014; installation view from the exhibition HOME; multimedia installation; dimensions variable. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. Photo: Brett Boardman.
I saw the extraordinary photographs of Magnum photographer Chang Chien-Chi in an exhibition at the Singapore Museum in 2008. I had never heard of him and stumbled on the exhibition by the purest of serendipitous accident. I was blown away by his compelling and tragic photographs of chained mentally ill people at a so-called Buddhist "sanctuary" and temple complex in Taiwan, and just as much by his documentation of Chinese immigrant workers in New York and their families left behind in Fujian Province. And then a third series, documenting Vietnamese mail order brides in search of citizenship papers, and their sad weddings to Taiwanese bachelors was as powerful an artistic and social document again. An extraordinary body of work.
Chien-chi Chang. The Chain, 1993-99; installation view from the exhibition HOME; 45 works; silver gelatin photographs; each 157.8 x 107.3 cm. Photo: Brett Boardman.
And now Gene Sherman has brought his series "The Chain" to Sydney where it can be seen at the National Art School. The other half of the exhibition, by an artist that she mistakenly assumed to be the same person, is showing at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Paddington. A  must-see. Here is the start of my review of the exhibition from Daily Serving:

The word “home” has elusive, slippery connotations. In Chinese, the character “jia” (家) also means “family.” It suggests notions of sanctuary, shelter, belonging. But for some the meanings are more complicated. For the marginalized, the outsiders, the lost ones in our midst, it reminds them of all that is missing. For others, in a world crisscrossed by a diaspora of dislocated people seeking safety and security, “home” is a fragile memory.

HOME is an exhibition of works by two Taiwanese artists, Chien-chi Chang and Chen Chieh-jen, that explores this complex and nuanced territory. Entering Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, you encounter a darkened and almost silent space filled with minimalist wheeled “wagons,” cabin-like boxes made of recycled timbers from construction sites. The very materials are redolent of memory, the passage of time, the transformation of one kind of world to another. They are beautiful objects, and in their resemblance to caravans, they evoke journeying. Inside each is a video or audio work by Chen Chieh-jen. Four filmic works focus on the Losheng Sanitorium in Taipei, a decommissioned leprosy hospital built during the period of Japanese rule and controversially slated for demolition. In 2007, thousands of people demonstrated against the forced removal of the last forty-five patients, who had spent their entire lives at Losheng and for whom it was “home.” Chen is interested in bodily memories and elusive states of mind. He documents histories—and people—that would otherwise go unremarked.
To read more, click HERE

Saturday, June 7, 2014

When too much China is never enough

Bu Hua, AD 302, image courtesy the artist

So here's a shameless plug for my website 'Teaching Chinese Art', designed to be a portal connecting teachers and students (and anyone else interested) with the world of contemporary Chinese art - reviews, interviews, articles, links to interesting websites etc.

Click HERE to find my website!

Coming up soon - interviews with Xiao Lu (yes, she who shot that gun in the National Art Museum of China in 1989!) and Bingyi, and a review of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation exhibition 'Home' which features the disturbing photographs of Chien-Chi Chang.

Meanwhile, because too much China is never enough, I have been working on my book, writing a paper about Ma Yanling and her use of the "secret women's script" of Nushu, reading Louisa Lim's excellent "The People's Republic of Amnesia", booking tickets for all the Chinese language films at the Sydney Film Festival, and feeling miserably aware that my gains in speaking more fluently after my intensive two weeks at the language school in Beijing are fading fast now I am back in Sydney. It's the necessity of communicating with taxi-drivers, shop assistants and just getting around that really forces you out of your lethargy. "Zenmeban?" What's to be done? I shall just have to book a ticket to return!

Meanwhile, I have been working with groups of teachers introducing them to contemporary Chinese art, and enjoying the reactions of my own students. They loved Liu Bolin and his disappearing act, and were able to discern the political intent, as well as the humour, behind his practice. His TED talk illuminates what he does and why he does it.



I've been exploring Xu Bing and, in particular, his most recent work, 'Phoenix', currently installed in the nave of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, with my Year 11 students. They are fascinated and enthralled by discovering a world and a history about which they (sadly) know little, asking eager questions about the Cultural Revolution and finding out about 1989 just in time for the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of those events. It's always a wonderful experience for a teacher to be in a room full of students who are actually discussing the topic of the lesson rather then their plans for the weekend, and I have been enjoying it immensely. I've just read 20 essays about Xu Bing and they're actually all pretty good - a testament to their interest in the artist and the multiple layers of meaning in his work.
Xu Bing, Phoenix, as installed outside the Today Art Museum in Beijing
My students and I love the Smarthistory site, with its quick yet intelligent grabs and a modelling of the way in which you might talk about artworks in their context. Below is their video discussion of 'Book from the Sky'.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Life, the universe and everything: a conversation with Shen Shaomin


Shen Shaomin, Laboratory, Three-headed Six-armed Superhuman, 2005, Bone, Bonemeal, Glass, Dimensions Variable, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
My interview with the very wonderful Shen Shaomin was published this week on The Culture Trip
Having been intrigued by his work since first seeing his tortured bonsai installations in the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, then sculptures made of bone and bone-meal in the 'Zhongjian' exhibition in 2011 and the White Rabbit Gallery more recently, I was keen to visit his studio in Qiaozi Town, in the countryside outside Beijing. Together with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art he provides residencies for young Australian artists, giving them the opportunity to work in China, meet with Chinese artists and experience something entirely new. He is a man with a big heart and an indomitable spirit. And who knew that he is quite the Masterchef?  At the end of lunch he briefly left the table on the terrace of his studio complex and could be seen through the window whipping up noodles to end the procession of dishes that had emerged from his industrial-scale kitchen. The production of a bottle of Baijiu in the middle of the day was a bit alarming, but his sense of humour came to the fore after he had poured (thankfully) thimble-sized drinks for me, for the Australian film-maker who had filmed my interview, and for her cameraman. "Where's yours?" I asked. In response he poured a great slug into his empty noodle bowl, laughing uproariously.
Shen Shaomin outside his studio, April 2014, photograph Luise Guest
Here is the longer version of the published article, as written, which provides more of the flavour of our conversation and a sense of the artist's larger than life personality.

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 meet this artist. We had been exchanging emails over many months but it was not until this last April that I was able to make the trip into the bleak countryside outside Beijing to visit Shen at his studio complex in Qiaozi Town.

Interior View, Shen Shaomin Studios
Vast spaces in the brutalist concrete buildings constructed to his own design contain only a few works, including his enormous model of the Tiananmen Gate, sliced in half like a Damien Hirst animal carcass. Shen has created a virtual Tiananmen, featuring secret underground tunnels that are bullet-proof, radiation proof, poisonous gas proof and in which are stationed military forces and armed police. On top, he decided to place public showrooms and foot massage centres. Like much of his work a dada-inspired humour masks a quiet rage. Much of his work is fabricated in other parts of China, but there are assistants working at computers and at easels in different spaces. The large complex, constructed some years ago after the demolition of his previous studios in Beigao, contains a full scale cinema as well as studios for assistants and visiting artists. There are also residency studios and living quarters where selected Australian artists will have the opportunity to work for a two month period each year in a program supported by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, giving young artists the opportunity to make work in China.
Studio View, Tiananmen Gate installation, photo Luise Guest
Shen Shaomin is an influential figure regarded with great affection and admiration both in Australia and in China, underlined by the unexpected presence of a film crew making a documentary for Australian television, who recorded my interview with the artist. Shen, his daughter and I sat on three chairs in the middle of a large space, with two cameras circling us throughout our entire conversation, adding to the somewhat surreal nature of the encounter. Behind us, an assistant worked on drawings for a series of new paintings appropriated from the Japanese photographer Araki, famous for his erotic images of women tied up with ropes and chains. In these works Shen wants to untie them, thus subverting the meaning of the originals, a characteristically quirky endeavour, and one which made me immediately warm to him as I find Araki’s photographs border on misogyny.

He is a member of the artistic diaspora who left China in the wake of Tiananmen after 1989 and dispersed to the four winds - Huang Yong Ping to Paris, Xu Bing and many others to New York, and a sizeable group of artists to Australia, where they mostly settled in Sydney and worked as waiters, dishwashers, taxi drivers and labourers, struggling to learn the language and survive in an alien culture. It was a shock to move from the “iron rice bowl” culture of China in the ‘80s, where although artists had few if any opportunities to show or sell their work, they were nevertheless assured of an income from teaching or other state-sanctioned occupations, to a culture where it was a struggle to survive and put food on the table. “In China we had political pressure and no freedom to create work, so we really hoped for western freedom. But when we got to the western world we realised a different type of pressure, the pressure of making a living. In China even though we were very poor we could live. I think almost all of the people who went to western countries after the Tiananmen event were artists, because they are the people most longing for freedom.” He recalled the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in the lead-up to June 4. “The artists were the most active group of people, making statues, making banners, but when the gunfire started the people who ran the fastest were the artists!” Shen laughs his infectious throaty smoker’s laugh, a laugh which punctuates our conversation. “A revolution cannot be made by artists!” he says.

Shen Shaomin, Bonsai No. 13, 2007, plant, iron tools, image courtesy the artist

Like many other exiles, including the painter Guan Wei, a homesick Shen Shaomin returned to Beijing in 2001, wanting to be part of the excitement and energy of a transforming China. He says, “During that time the development of China was so fast, and there was such a shift in society becoming more open. There were lots of changes, the whole world was looking at China, so I wanted to be here while everything is happening.” He returned to what seemed a completely different country. “There were huge changes in China – so many cities where I had been before, and when I returned I could not recognise them. It’s like many people’s memories were erased in only a few years. Very scary. There was not enough time to memorise things, and then they were gone and forgotten.” “But this has provided you with a lot of ideas for your work,” I suggest. He laughs again. “Artists are very shifty – where there is a problem or chaos they will be there, they want to have a look.  But if there is danger they will run away very fast!” In English he adds, “Just joking!”

His work is compelling, crossing all boundaries of media and artistic convention. The 2011 exhibition at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, consisted in part of an installation of small pink hairless creatures lying on mounds of salt crystals. The naked breathing animals in I Sleep on Top of Myself are forced to lie on what remains of their fur and feathers in order to survive. Shen is suggesting that once we humans have depleted all of nature we too will exist in a half-life on the tattered remnants of our past glories. In another part of the gallery, a tiny, shrivelled, naked old lady lay back in a deckchair; and a nude man slumped in a dark corner. It was at least a half-hour into the crowded vernissage when a young woman, encouraged by giggling friends, poked this naked body and then shrieked when she realised that unlike the silica form of the old woman, he was a living performer. This mixture of playfulness and trickery overlaying darker themes turned out to be a feature of our conversation.
Shen Shaomin, 'The Day After Tomorrow', installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney,
 image courtesy the artist
Like his compatriots Wang Luyan, Ai Weiwei, Guan Wei and Wang Qingsong, all of whom spent years living outside China, Shen’s work today emerges from his own very 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 thinks for a minute, then laughs again and says, “But maybe they are smarter than our generation.”

His work today maintains that idealism, forged in the optimistic and heady days of the period before the Tiananmen crackdown, using visual metaphors to make us think about the human condition. He was planning his large-scale creatures made of bones whilst still in Australia, but was prevented from realising these projects, due to Australian animal protection and other legislation, and the consequent expense and difficulty of procuring the raw materials. That was another reason for his decision to return to China, where, as he says, there is very little regard for nature or for animal welfare. “Chinese eat anything,” he says with a shrug, “And that is one reason that after I returned to China I became a vegetarian.” 
Shen Shaomin, Summit (Castro) 2010, Silica Gel and Mechanical Breathing System, image courtesy the artist

“I spent quite a few years in Australia just making drafts and sketches but it was very painful. I had all those ideas but could not make them into a real work. When I returned to China I realised that labour and resources were so cheap that suddenly I could make large scale works.” For Shen Shaomin bones represent the embodiment of life itself – primal, biological. He sourced the bones from slaughterhouses, making works which evoke Frankenstein’s monster, suggesting that human hubris is likely to end badly. His creatures are a warning to us all about the consequences of environmental destruction and the madder frontiers of scientific experimentation. Laboratory – Three- Headed Six-Armed Superman’ (2005) consists of three skulls fused together with multiple arms in a bell jar, like a freakish embryonic creature floating in a 19th century cabinet of scientific curiosities.

Shen Shaomin, I Touched the Voice of God, Kiev Biennial, Ukraine, image courtesy the artist
 I Touched the Voice of God is made from fragments of metal which fell to earth from the rockets that launched the second Chinese manned space flight. The metal is embossed with text written in Braille, made by driving round-headed rivets into the thick curved steel of the spent fuel tanks. Only the blind can read this work, and when they do, the text turns out to be from the Book of Revelations, about the end of the world. Is it our “normal” sighted perception that renders us blind to the destructive consequences of our actions? In reply to my questioning Shen tells me the old folk tale of the blind men trying to describe an elephant by feeling a part of its body. The one who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a fan. “I think we are all like the blind people in relation to the universe. We can see a tiny little piece but we can’t see the whole,” says Shen.  We all struggle to “read” a text which is obscured from us, and which ultimately we have no chance of de-coding. “Are you a pessimist?” I ask. Shen says, “Yes. I am. For the whole world. I think it doesn’t matter whether a country is communist or capitalist… we can only compare in terms of which is worst. So as an artist I am a pessimist but I still need to live my life optimistically. An artist can only bring out the questions but cannot solve anything.”
I Touched the Voice of God, exhibition scene, Eli Klein Gallery New York, image courtesy the artist
I Touched the Voice of God, exhibition scene, Eli Klein Gallery New York, image courtesy the artist

In 2007 the critic Li Xianting, a pivotal figure of the Chinese avant-garde,  interviewed Shen Shaomin and asked why he had stopped the bone series. The artist’s response is now well-known but no less astonishing for that: “There will be at least one more piece to make, that is to use my own bones to bring my artistic journey to a finale. But since I am still enjoying my life, it will have to wait. When it’s time, I will make my assistant construct something with my own skeleton, using the same method and engraving my life experiences on my own bones.” I asked Shen to tell me more about this rather creepy scenario. Ever the idealist, he stopped making works using bone precisely because they were so popular, and collected by so many people and museums, that he feared they would become just a commercial money-making proposition. “But it’s not the end of the bone series, the final one will be my own skeleton,” he assured me. His daughter continued her translation of my questions and Shen’s replies, apparently unfazed by the prospect of her father’s skeleton being displayed as a museum artefact. He is still working out the details. “It’s different from what I originally planned. I am going to appoint a young artist born in the 1980s to complete this work, and I will draw up legal documents which will be a part of the exhibition. The work will use the same method as I used in the bone series… and also there is one point that will be specified – what happens if this young artist dies first? The organisation (which manages the project) will have the right to appoint another young artist! But of course I hope the young artist doesn’t die before me!” “So,” I say, “you are going to direct your final artwork from beyond the grave!” Shen agrees, saying, “I will also create legal documents to donate my cornea to a blind person, on the proviso that they agree that on their death they will then donate it to another blind person. Theoretically, by that time, this should be possible. So the concept is that even though the artist has passed away, through the donated cornea and through someone else’s eye he can continue to observe. I will also put my heart into preservative liquid and put a pump inside the heart, so as long as there is electricity in the world my heart will continue to beat.”
Shen Shaomin, 'I Want to Know What Infinity Is (Detail) from exhibition The Day After Tomorrow'
at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, image courtesy the artist
It seems that the idealist who began studying art history in Harbin, and later began his artistic practice as a printmaker at the end of the Cultural Revolution before achieving success with his ambitious installations will find a kind of immortality despite his deep cynicism about the state of the world  – a “body of work” in the most literal sense.
I Touched the Voice of God was recently exhibited at Hong Kong Art Basel in ‘Encounters’ (curated for the second time by Yuko Hasegawa, the chief curator of Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art.) The writer interviewed Shen Shaomin at his Beijing studio in April 2014. Shen’s daughter translated our conversation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Zombies in Beijing: Cao Fei's Haze and Fog

As soon as I heard that Cao Fei had made a zombie movie I was intrigued and amused - what else could we expect, after all, from the artist who created her own Utopian city on Second Life, complete with her avatar 'China Tracy'?

I had wanted to meet and interview Cao Fei for a long time, although the journey to her studio almost defeated me - and brought my driver to new extremes of exasperated swearing. With a text message of instructions in Chinese and an address (essentially entirely meaningless in most of Beijing, especially in hutong neighbourhoods and outlying villages) we circled around for over an hour, pulling over to ask taxi drivers, women with prams, security guards and anyone else who looked local. Eventually we pulled off the main road (steel and glass structures under construction, factories, new apartments, shopping malls) and instantly were back in winding narrow lanes with chickens wandering in front of the car and skinny dogs slinking along in the shadows or lying scratching themselves in the middle of the road. After emails and phone calls we eventually found the elusive courtyard with the red door. 

The article resulting from that interview was published last week in Creative Asia - here it is.


Cao Fei, Haze and Fog (still), 2013, High Definition Digital Video, 16:9, colour, with sound, 46 min 3 sec (end credit starting from 44 min 24 sec) image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space


In 1959 when Hollywood diva Ava Gardner was shooting the post-apocalyptic drama “On the Beach”, she famously declared that Melbourne was the perfect place to make a movie about the end of the world. Anyone who has spent time in Beijing might be forgiven for thinking the same, as they navigate through a blanketing fog of pollution, glimpsing masked people through the ever-present haze. Artist Cao Fei (曹斐), best known for her love of popular culture, performance, cos-play and the exploration of virtual realities, has given the Chinese capital the “Apocalypse” treatment, with an ambitious new 47-minute drama set in Beijing’s north-eastern suburbs - a zombie movie, with a twist.

With a cast of characters including real estate agents, cleaners and maids, security guards, delivery boys, bored housewives and nouveau riche apartment buyers, as well as a sex-worker who changes costumes quickly in apartment block fire-stairs in between clients, Haze and Fog examines the alienation of a society in which traditional Confucian values and revolutionary collectivism are being transformed by growing wealth and materialism. Class divisions are ever more glaringly obvious, underlined in the film through the relationships between those who are served (by an army of maids, cleaners, delivery boys, manicurists, guards and sex-workers) and those who serve them. The presence of a peacock and a tiger, repeated motifs suggesting the dissonance between nature and culture, are strange and unsettling. Together with a magical realist mise-en-scene and languid cinematography they place the work firmly in the realm of allegory, linking her narrative with Chinese tradition and mythology.

Cao Fei, Haze and Fog (still), 2013, High Definition Digital Video, 16:9, colour, with sound, 46 min 3 sec (end credit starting from 44 min 24 sec) image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space
While Cao Fei was breastfeeding her second child she became obsessed with watching the American TV series The Walking Dead. In conversation with me last month she wryly observed that during this period of her life she had a lot of time on her hands to think and dream as she pushed a pram around her neighbourhood. “Why zombies?” I ask. “I think it’s quite interesting, the idea of a dead city,” she says.  “I like the idea of making a video about an anti- Utopia.” In fact, she says, this is really an “anti-anti-Utopia” as it reverses many of the commonly held assumptions and conventions of the genre. Unlike most zombie movies, “It’s about how the people are the living dead while the zombies are alive - more alive than the living people. This is my feeling, living in this city in the past few years.”

She has been observing Beijing with the clear gaze of the newcomer since she moved there in 2006 from her home in Guangzhou. Moving from the south of China was hard, and she has struggled to feel at home, in an unforgiving environment. “At the beginning I worked on the virtual project so I didn’t need to touch the ground. I was always floating in the virtual world. Then I had two kids. That brought me back to reality!” She slowed down and spent a lot of time at home, feeling a little lost in Beijing.  Her feelings are distilled into the film. “Some of it is my sad feelings about life. I watch different characters in in my district. I take my kids to the supermarket and watch the security guards, I watch people in the gardens. It wasn’t like research for a project, this was my life, and I slowed down and took lots of time. You can feel the heartbeat,” she tells me.

“Is this really how you see Beijing?” I ask. “Not just Beijing, but maybe the whole country,” she replies. “People are stuck. They are living statues. The people are all the same whatever (their) social class. In the film you can see the city like a ghost city - empty real estate, (full of) excess.” She doesn’t want to be too critical, she says, but despite moments of humour the film is a damning portrayal of a lost place full of lost people, none of whom seem able to connect with each other. There is no dialogue, but an evocative cello and tango soundtrack enhances the strange atmosphere. Surreal and disturbing, Haze and Fog is immediately compelling from its opening sequence.  Apartment buyers arrive at an empty, de Chirico-like plaza where real estate agents are spruiking newly built apartments. They run over a cyclist, who turns into a zombie and staggers away. The middle-class buyers are oblivious to his plight, and to the humanity of the bored real estate agents. In Cao Fei’s bleak vision old notions of a common humanity have given way to an individualism that leaves each of her characters utterly alone, alienated from each other.

The ‘haze’ of the work’s title refers to more than the perpetual haze of pollution in Beijing,  In fact, it mirrors the collective psychological ‘haze’ of its inhabitants – an inability to see clearly which impedes human connection, empathy or any vision for the future. Haze and fog are not just weather conditions, but rather an inevitable emotional state in the liminal spaces of the contemporary city. Her characters are trapped in a situation from which they can see no escape.

I met Cao Fei at her studio last month and we spoke about her practice as one of China’s foremost new media artists, and a pioneer of virtual reality. Born in Guangzhou to artist parents in 1978, she creates work which explores a fluid, rapidly changing world and the dissonance between fantasy and reality. Growing up through the period in which southern China transformed itself into the world’s factory provided rich material for her work. Previously she has explored the imaginary identities of factory workers and the seriously weird subculture of Cos Play. This early body of work found its ultimate expression in the digital universe of Second Life, and the design of her virtual Utopia, RMB City, in which her avatar, ‘China Tracy’ acts as guide. She identifies key influences on her early work: “Pop culture, Hong Kong TV, music, Japanese Anime – but less than for my kids! The impact of western culture at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s was just starting.”

Cao Fei, Live in RMB City, 2009, 3D Machinima, 24 min 49 sec (end credit starting from 21 min 15 sec) image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space
In this new work Cao Fei has created memorable characters: the isolated old man on his walking frame; the bored housewife who chops off her own finger in a moment of savagery and is then shown having a manicure, lying listlessly on her sofa; the maid trying on the stiletto heels of her employer – they each reveal aspects of the new China. She pays homage to cinematic conventions, from the bleak urban landscape of Jean Luc-Godard’s Alphaville to a parody of the Hollywood musical, in which her zombies dance through the deserted aisles of the supermarket. The work explores how people can live in what she describes as “magical metropolises”.  She is interested in fantasy lives, the “magic reality” in which we all really live, most especially perhaps those people inhabiting a city in such continual flux as Beijing. People in China reinvent themselves all the time, but in the process, says the artist, they risk losing important parts of their culture, their moral compass and their identity.
Cao Fei, RMB City, image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space

‘Haze and Fog’ is a joint commission produced by Eastside Projects and Vitamin Creative Space, commissioned by University of Salford and Chinese Art Centre, Eastside Projects, and Bath School of Art and Design, Bath Spa University, with Vitamin Creative Space.

Watch the trailer!