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

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

Thursday, 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!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Art superstars and Postmodern Literati: It's Spring in Beijing

Here is my second of four articles resulting from my April in Beijing, published today on

It’s spring in Beijing. Despite the smog (apocalyptic) and the traffic (makes Manhattan look bucolic) and the general grittiness of a place which is in a continual process of flux and reinvention, this city is inherently beguiling and seductive. In addition to willow and flowering cherry trees, the weight of imperial and revolutionary history, and the ever-surprising inventiveness and enterprise of its inhabitants, there is, of course, the art. This is a city of art superstars and art mavericks, of postmodern literati and of traditionalists, of hyper-inflated prices (and egos) and of sheer hard work in thousands and thousands of studios. From Songzhuang to Feijiacun, from Beigao to Qiaozi Town, in studios ranging from the large and palatial to the humble, artists are working. Artists from all over China and, indeed all over the world, flock to Beijing. Why? Perhaps this question is best answered by an account of some exhibitions I have seen in the last two weeks of April.
Xu Zhen 1 Installation View
Xu Zhen, Installation View, Photo by Eric Powell | Image Courtesy UCCA
Chinese contemporary art (‘Zhongguo Dangdai Yishu’) is like nothing else on the planet. For sheer bravura spectacle, artistic bravery, and innovation it is hard to beat. The unique historical accident which resulted in artists encountering every phase of Western Modernism and Postmodernism all at once, during the 1980s reform era, provided them with the freedom to invent, reinvent and transform historical conventions unburdened by reference points which western artists take for granted. They are often iconoclasts, as well as inheritors of a valued and treasured tradition. This apparent paradox plays out in surprising ways.
Xu Zhen 4 installation view photo Eric Powell image courtesy UCCA
Installation view of Xu Zhen, Photo by Eric Powell | Image courtesy of UCCA
At Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, the mid-career retrospective of Xu Zhen (though perhaps we should call him ‘the artist formerly known as Xu Zhen’ as he now operates as a corporation, ‘MadeIn Company’) is sheer spectacle. 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.
Described by curator Philip Tinari as the key figure of the Shanghai art scene, Xu is a significant influence for Chinese artists born since 1980. The UCCA show includes 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) and spans his oeuvre from the late 1990s.
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.
To read the rest of this article, click HERE

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Six Exhibitions in Beijing

The first of my articles based on my most recent trip to China has been published today on Daily Serving. I found, amidst some awful and pedestrian shows in the 798 art district -which is really suffering from a push to make the entire space over to the sale of products and "design" (mostly tacky in the extreme) - some wonderful exhibitions. Indeed on my first visit an exhibition by an artist I have met several times, Ma Yanling, was an unexpected delight. Later, Xu Zhen at Ullens and Xiao Yu at Pace were thrilling in the way that one always hopes for, but is so rare an experience. At Redgate and at several of the Caochangdi galleries, interesting shows abounded. Here are some of my impressions:
Beijing is exhausting, exhilarating, infuriating, appalling, and wonderful, all at the same time. The energy of the city, undefeated by its weight of imperial and revolutionary history, or by the dead hand of contemporary politics and power struggles, is encapsulated in the lively diversity of its art scene. In the late 1990s and the early years of this century, Chinese artists were rock stars, earning big money fast. Chinese and international galleries opened large and palatial premises. Every property developer wanted a museum, and artists posed for fashion shoots in Chinese Vogue. Today things are not quite so upbeat, but there is still a palpable sense of optimism about China itself, and about the role of art and artists in this fast-mutating society.
Xie Qi. So Green (Mao on 50 Yuan) 2012, oil on canvas, 200 x 180 cm, courtesy the artist and Pekin Fine Arts
Xie Qi. So Green (Mao on 50 Yuan), 2012; oil on canvas; 200 x 180 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Pekin Fine Arts.
Recent exhibitions in Beijing reveal how Chinese contemporary art combines a mastery of technique (learned in the rigid academic tradition of the powerhouse art academies such as the Central Academy of Fine Arts) with a willingness to innovate. Artists who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s discovered western Modernism and post-Modernism all at once, resulting in an art devoid of the overwhelming layer of theory that infects much contemporary art in the West.
Li Shirui
Li Shurui, Beijing, 2014. Photo: Luise Guest.
Li Shurui at White Space Beijing continues to paint in her characteristically psychedelic manner, using an airbrush to create monumental three-dimensional canvases. The blurred, softened edges of her forms make us question our perception of reality. Li was startled when someone told her she was making “Optical” art like Bridget Riley, as she had never heard of this style. Her training at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts provided her with almost no awareness of  Modernist or contemporary art, which paradoxically allowed her the freedom to invent a visual language entirely her own. She is interested in the color spectrum and in creating paintings that provide an experience so physically immersive that it becomes emotive as well as perceptual. The shimmering uncertainties of her large paintings pierce the illusion that we inhabit a rational world. The sculptural pieces in this show blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture. They lie on the ground like shards broken from an extraterrestrial machine, their matte-gray knife-blade surfaces punctuated by sky-blue edges.
Li Shurui. Lights No.95 2009, Acrylic on canvas 210x210cm, Courtesy of Li Shurui
Li Shurui. Lights No.95, 2009; acrylic on canvas, 210 x 210 cm. Courtesy of Li Shurui.
Painting continues to be a vital force in Chinese contemporary art. It was the Political Pop and Cynical Realist painters, after all, who burst onto the international art scene like flamethrowers in the mid-1990s and continue to be influential today.
To read the rest of this article, click HERE 

Friday, May 2, 2014

北京日记 Beijing Thoughts from Home

I have been home from China for only 2 days, and while it is very good to be home with friends and family in a place where you can drink the water and breathe the air, I am already missing the palpable excitement - and strange unexpected beauty - of Beijing. Grey and red are the memorable colours. Grey streets, grey courtyard walls and grey skies, punctuated by flashes of red everywhere - lanterns, signs, clothing, courtyard doors....I asked for a red bag and the shop assistant said, "You are like us - we Chinese love red." It is of course the colour word that I most remember. "Hongsi de" falls easily out of my mouth when I am trying and failing to remember the words for other colours. This is why I have ended up with red socks, tights, hats, gloves and notebooks when really I may have preferred black, grey or purple.

Here are more of my unanswered questions about Beijing life, eternal mysteries:
  • How can Beijing men ride their bicycles and motor scooters with a cigarette permanently attached at a rakish angle to their lips? I never see them remove it - it's like an appendage. In fact I saw one guy riding through the insanity of the Third Ring Road, on a motor scooter that was literally (and I do mean literally) held together with gaffer tape, smoking a cigarette whilst talking loudly on his cell phone and steering with one elbow
  • Why on earth do people ride their motor bikes without lights? And sometimes also drive their cars without lights? This has scared the hell out of me on many occasions. Do they believe it saves on fuel?
  • How  are people not regularly electrocuted by the idiosyncratic nature of Beijing electricity cabling? This is a truly astonishing feature of the city!

  • Why do elderly ladies wait until they have exited the cubicle of a public toilet before pulling up their pants? This is always tremendously disconcerting to the newly arrived westerner.
  • Why, in a city full of workers cleaning, sweeping dusty roads with straw brooms and removing litter from public spaces, is Beijing one of the most garbage-strewn cities I have ever encountered? Plastic bags fly through the air and litter the ground everywhere. No wonder the artist Huang Xu has turned plastic bags into objects of beauty in his lush seductive photographs!
Huang Xu, Plastic Bag 20, image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects
But on the upside - and what an upside - where else can you walk in 2 minutes from restraint and serenity to cheerful chaos and life lived amongst rubble and disintegration? And yet there is always beauty - whether the bamboo bird cage or the texture of a wall scrawled with hasty characters, the unexpected willow tree, the weathered red door of a courtyard, or a small child playing happily in the dust.

Where else can you see quite such a collision between two worlds? The beautiful studios and galleries designed by Ai Weiwei (including his own) in Caochangdi are set amidst village streets teeming with life, where migrant workers and taxi drivers live in tiny houses and apartments above a jumble of shops and stalls, and vibrant street markets sell everything from electrical goods to vegetables, from car parts to underpants.

Where else can you see so many people dancing and singing in public? The life and leisure lived publicly in the parks is my favourite feature of Beijing - and Chinese cities generally. Every walk brings with it some new event to wonder at - from beautifully fluid Tai Qi to fan and sword dancing; from rollerskaters to mahjong and card players; from men with their beloved birds to vigorously exercising octogenarians. Endlessly fascinating.

Where else can you eat a huge bowl of hand-shaved noodles - with a bottle of Yanjing beer - for less than $2? You must of course be willing to not look too closely at the surroundings or the crockery. Delicious!

Where else can you find, within a single city block, swanky hotels and international shops (Nike, Apple, American Apparel, Prada, Miu Miu) jostled against cheap bars, local markets, sellers of street snacks of all descriptions, and old apartment blocks? Very expensive new cars push their way through intersections but are often cut off by pedicabs and tiny steel "beng beng" taxis - essentially a three-wheeled motor scooter with a cabin.

Blind beggars on Gongti Bei Lu play the erhu as the newly wealthy climb out of their BMWs and chat loudly on their phones. In one block there is both a Daimler showroom and - yes, really - a showroom selling private planes. The juxtapositions may be uncomfortable but they are certainly interesting - and so revealing of a society in flux and transition. The young real estate agents line up outside the Homelink Office and sing the Homelink song each morning with their heads thrown back like footballers singing the national anthem."I promise I will strive for excellence and have no fear of difficulty," they solemnly chant, "We need to cooperate with each other and work together to make a brighter future." Outside shops and restaurants workers stand to attention and are harangued by managers. Every morning. And I thought meetings in my workplace were boring!

Restaurant workers in Sanlitun having a pep talk before they start work
And, above all else, for me the fascination is always the art. Where else can you be invited into the enormous studio of an extremely well-known artist and have him cook noodles for your lunch? In 13 days I met and interviewed 15 fascinating and very different artists, and once the richness of the experience has had a chance to "percolate" for a little while I will write an account of some of these meetings in a future post.

Highlights so far are too numerous to mention, but they include:
  • Finally, after years of negotiations, getting an interview with Xiao Lu - the iconic figure who became notorious when she took a gun and shot her own sculpture at the seminal 1989 China Avant-Garde exhibition. This was a little nerve-racking but was one of my most interesting conversations. As women of "a certain age" we made a connection that allowed her to speak freely and with a surprising degree of frankness.
Xiao Lu, photograph Luise Guest
  • Meeting the extraordinary and delightful Qing Qing and being shown so many so far unexhibited Joseph Cornell-style boxes, dioramas and shrines in every room and every corner of her beautiful Songzhuang house and studio. Surreal and very wonderful. One includes a pigtailed photograph of the artist as a schoolgirl and then one of her driving a tractor when she was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. She insisted on giving me some particular flower tea to cure my cough - so kind!
  • Interviewing Shen Shaomin - and rather unnervingly being filmed whilst doing so by an Australian documentary maker - and finding out about his plans to donate his own skeleton to a younger artist to transform it into an artwork in the manner of his own bone and bonemeal installations. He is also currently planning to have his teeth engraved with sentences in Chinese and English for a performance piece later in the year at 798.
With Shen Shaomin at Qiaozi Town Beijing
  • In fact, every meeting with every artist was fascinating, from the youngest (Liu Shiyuan, who divides her time between Beijing and Denmark) to highly respected painters such as Yu Hong, who entered CAFA when it first re-opened after the Cultural Revolution and now teaches there. I feel so privileged to have been invited into their studios and to have listened to them speak about their lives and their artistic practice. Watch this space for more details
  • And, of course, every walk in Tuanjiehu Park just made me feel that it was good to be alive. 

Beijing, wo hui lai! 北京我会回来 I will return!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

北京日记: Beijing nights, Beijing days

Beijing, such a grey, grey city by day becomes a fairyland at night. Red lanterns swing in the breeze at every tiny restaurant - a cab ride across the city is a blur of neon and red. Last night I walked home by a circuitous route down unfamiliar back lanes and through hutongs and found a different world behind the big roads with their clogged traffic. Hundreds of people sat at makeshift tables on small chairs and stools, eating in happy, noisy "renao" family groups - pavement hot pot, pavement barbeque, food of every description being cooked and consumed outdoors in the warm evening air. Inside the steamy windows of small local restaurants were more big groups. Children chased each other up and down the street between the tables, one of them calling, "Watch out for the 'waiguoren' (foreigner)" - me! From the moment I left my apartment and encountered the busy mobile bicycle repair man and felt the breeze, walking behind laughing, chattering girls arm-in-arm as they left the subway, I was in a good mood.

And tonight again, waiting for my cappuccino in a Costa Coffee before meeting an artist friend for a walk in Ditan Park, I stood next to a Buddhist Monk from the Lama Temple who was perusing French mineral water at 50 kuai per bottle, and watching an old man with a waist-length grey ponytail carry his birds in their bamboo cages for a stroll along the busy road. A cyclist cut across his path, another elderly man with a small poodle in the basket of his bike, the ends of its ears dyed bright green. Beijing, where cognitive dissonance is everywhere. You've got to love this city! After dinner in a vegetarian restaurant near the Confucius Temple we walk to visit another artist, and music emanates from every quarter - the shops selling Buddhist paraphernalia, a group of women dancing in unison to a disco track on the footpath outside KFC and then a much bigger group of women dancing in the pitch dark of Ditan Park. In my taxi back to Tuanjiehu, stopped at lights next to a small park in the centre of the city, I hear a clashing of cymbals and drums, and massed voices singing revolutionary songs from the past - in complete darkness, with barely even a streetlight.

In fact, I could have been singing James Brown to myself - "I feel GOOD!" Or perhaps more appropriately, Pharrell Williams' "Happy". If I stay here any longer I might actually catch the habit of many Beijingers of singing in public, Imagine the horror of my daughters - and my students! I have emerged from a few days of feeling sick with flu and constant coughing, not helped at all by the legendary Beijing air pollution, feeling anxious about why on earth I am here at the other side of the earth, away from my family and engaged on this quixotic enterprise of writing a book about people whose language I don't speak, indulging in self-doubt.

But I have had a (small) breakthrough - a tipping point if you like - with the language. After the usual first few days of feeling as if my tongue had been cut out, I have been navigating the city in Chinese, and felt very smug yesterday after two days of negotiating with a non-English speaking driver, arranging times and places for pick up and drop off, prices, and general conversation about weather, traffic, artists being famous or not, and what he sees as the hopeless inadequacy of Australian medecine to cure my cold and cough. It has of course helped that he is an immensely patient young man, who simply keeps repeating everything over and over again until he thinks I have probably understood most of it. We have had a few comic set pieces where I constantly misunderstood "houtian" (the day after tomorrow) as "the day before yesterday" which did not help the fine-tuning of my complex arrangements. He was no doubt relieved that today I had a young translator with me so he could impress upon her the necessity for me to get myself to a Chinese doctor to get the right herbs for my cough. I imagine that to him I am a venerable grandma and he wonders what on earth I am doing gallivanting around Beijing on my own.

The other factor causing my more optimistic view of the world and my place within it is the three interviews I have completed in the last three days. Bingyi, with her complete radicalisation of ink painting conventions, and her refreshing and somewhat weird take on the world, is always a delight. She thinks the notion of gender is utterly insignificant, as we are all nothing but specks in the universe. However, she did tell me that feminism makes her a little bored, as she likes to have men around "for my amusement."
Bingyi, "The Shape of the Wind: Fuchun Mountains" image courtesy the artist

Bingyi writing calligraphy, photo Luise Guest, reproduced with permission of the artist
Yesterday I had a second conversation with the young and very successful painter, Han Yajuan, who told me that after our first meeting last October she has been reconsidering the notion of gender in her work, especially as it has played out for her generation, born in the 80s and coming to adulthood in the 90s, heirs to a completely transformed China. She thinks they had no education about gender, raised at the end of the Maoist period, and hence have struggled to form an identity and to find values. A searching, confused generation. Her new work returns to memories of childhood, creating allegories on circular and oval canvases which are both nostalgic and disturbing.
Han Yajuan in her studio, Photo Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
Han Yajuan, Cashmere Mafia, Image courtesy the artist
From Han Yajuan's studio on the 21st floor of an apartment building in Wangjing, looking over freeways, overpasses and more concrete towers, we drove to 798 and a studio at the back of this complex of galleries, shops and studios - once an East-German designed factory "work unit" where people lived, worked, went to school, gave birth, and spent their entire productive lives - now more often given over to fashion shows, wedding shoots, TV commercials and wandering tourists than to the business of serious art. Here the wonderful painter Yu Hong has her studio.

She found time for me amidst the apparent chaos of a fashion shoot for Tiffany, who have asked her to paint the tennis star Li Na and the most famous movie stars in China. I asked her if she saw any tension or conflict with her serious practice as one of China's best known figurative painters, and she seemed a little bemused. This willingness to challenge the conventional boundaries between fine art and design (or, the more cynical might say, between art and branding)  links her with other, younger artists such as Han Yajuan and Bu Hua, both of whom are interested in "derivatives" - product designs based on their works.  No different to Tracey Emin or Yayoi Kusama working with Louis Vuitton I guess. Interesting times, where boundaries are blurred. In fact Han Yajuan tells me that she thinks this is actually a Buddhist concept as it challenges the authority of the art masterpiece.
Yu Hong with her work in the studio, photo Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
I have long admired Yu Hong's work - and that of her husband, the great Liu Xiaodong - and the way in which she is able to meld Western and Eastern influences so seamlessly. The gold backgrounds in her paintings refer explicitly to Song Dynasty masterpieces but also to the canon of western Renaissance imagery and to notions of the sacred and sublime. Yu Hong tells me that, growing up during a period of great privation and austerity, she was lucky to have access to books with art images and to the Soviet tradition of painting, as her mother was a successful painter and professor. She felt she was on a pre-destined path to become an artist.

Today I went to see work in the Today Art Museum - some good, some not so very. And then to Vitamin Creative Space to watch Cao Fei's latest work, completed last year and collected by the Pompidou Centre, a 45 minute epic narrative video work called "Haze and Fog". It should be no surprise that this artist, with her love of popular culture, has been drawn to horror, and this, of all things, a zombie movie set in north east Beijing, with a large cast of characters including housewives, real estate agents, cleaners, security guards, a prostitute, a peacock and a tiger - and zombies! Ava Gardner once said that Melbourne was a great place to make a movie about the end of the world. Much as I love Beijing, there are days in the apocalyptic dust and smog haze when I think the same applies, But not tonight. Tonight I am "Happy in Beijing"