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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spring in the 'Jing

Classic Beijing wiring
How to describe Beijing in Spring? I have just walked home to the apartment where I am staying in Tuanjiehu in the late evening light, pondering just why it is that I love this city. It's filthy - and I mean really filthy. It's pretty ugly, let's be honest. The razing of the old courtyards and lanes has resulted in a city of enormous 8-lane highways lined by pink apartment blocks and the occasional "statement" building, which is often either unfinished or in a state of collapse. Everything is covered with dust. The air is foul, with many days of particulate pollution beyond actual measuring. People can be pretty rude and brusque in a way with which New Yorkers would be familiar. Some westerners find this hard to take, but I tend to like Chinese directness. There is no bullshit and no beating around the bush. There certainly are many things that are disconcerting, for example the constant public hawking and spitting, the piles and piles of rubbish around the roads of the villages where the artists have their studios - and the tendency for women of a certain age to see no necessity to close public toilet doors whilst squatting. This disconcerts me every time I come here. Public toilets in China are much improved even in the few years that I have been visiting, but the traditional style ones do take some getting used to - one moment of absent-mindedness and you forget that there is step down outside the door and fall embarrassingly into the arms of a startled cleaner. Beijing traffic jams are also legendary. The words for "traffic jam" and "air pollution" are now in all Chinese language textbooks. So, what's to like?

Well, here are a few things:
A girl just sailed past me on her bicycle, dressed entirely in gold lame including her Roman sandals, her waist-length black hair flying behind her as she effortlessly threaded her way through the cacophony of honking, swearing taxi drivers, BMWs and Mercs with tinted windows, three-wheeled carts laden with enormous piles of mattresses; recycled cardboard; stacks of timber; watermelons and, in one case an entire family and a refrigerator. Bicycles of every possible shape, size and degree of decrepitude ridden by people of every age, shape (and degree of decrepitude) followed random paths across the 8 lanes of the intersection, taking no apparent notice of the kamikaze taxis and trucks. I have never seen a helmet on anyone riding a bicycle or a motor bike. Most have several passengers riding side-saddle. Pedestrians dart into the middle of all of this chaos whenever there is the most minute gap in the traffic, holding up one hand like King Canute parting the waves. And it works! I take my life in my hands and stick close to old ladies and people carrying children, hoping that the magic talisman of holding up one hand against the streams of traffic will work for me too. So far so good, but I had better not try it in Sydney!

Towards me along Gongti Beilu come hordes of walkers in the late evening light. Hipsters in weird matching skin-tight suits with digital prints and geometric haircuts; a girl wearing a Union Jack poncho with a Louis Vuitton - maybe - bag dangling with Hello Kitty accessories; and tiny old ladies and men wearing cloth shoes. The sellers of "Tibetan" jewellery are out in force. A snack cart is selling pineapples scored into beautiful swirling shapes and weird sausages on sticks. A family group sits on stools around a brazier next to the subway entrance eating chuan'r (lamb - maybe - grilled on a skewer) and squid. A young woman in head-to-toe pink throws a massive hissy fit and storms away from her sullenly resigned boyfriend, throwing invective back over her shoulder. He trudges behind, carrying her shopping bags. In the park the older women - aunties and grandmas - are dancing in unison in the fading light and the water calligraphers are intent on their beautiful transient characters. There is pink blossom on the trees, musicians playing in all the pavilions - some beautiful and skilful, some not so very - and tiny children are everywhere.
Solitary Musician in Tuanjiehu Park
Evening in the Park
Really - what's NOT to like? It's endlessly fascinating, amusing and intriguing, despite all the very real issues and concerns, and despite the fact that it's a tough, tough city to live in. An old man in a blue suit followed the girl in gold lame across the intersection and rode his bike up along the sidewalk, singing loudly to himself. All humanity is here, in all its guises. Such a cliche, I know, to talk about contrasts and juxtapositions but this is what makes Beijing fascinating - it's a place in flux, reinventing itself constantly.On the one hand, Tuanjiehu Park and its "renao" frenetic activity, and on the other hand, the new suburbs on the outskirts where I met artist Dong Yuan today. In one block I saw a mock Tudor half timbered complex of houses and apartments, a grandiose and enormous building under construction - part ancient Rome and part Las Vegas - called the Hot Springs Resort, and an apartment complex called Hawaiian Hacienda. Talk about postmodern pastiche!

And - there's the art! I have seen an exhibition of Ma Yanling at 798 - an unexpected discovery. You can find my previous article about her work on Creative Asia here:

Ma Yanling exhibition "Ethereal Conclusions"

So far I have spent time with artists Lin Jingjing, Hu Qinwu, Tony Scott, and Gao Ping and today I drove so far out of Beijing that we were actually in Hebei Province to see the extraordinary Dong Yuan. Her new work to be shown at Art Basel Hong Kong next month continues her elegiac memorialisation of her grandmother's house beside the sea near  Dalian. She told me she is too sad to return - the sea is polluted - even the groundwater in her home village is polluted and toxic and all the landscapes that she loved have gone. Her new paintings are constructed like cabinets of curiosity, with doors and drawers that open, revealing paintings within the painting. A world of secrets.

More about these artists later, but here are some links to my previous writings about their work.
Hu Qinwu in his Beijing studio, photo Luise Guest April 2014
Lin Jingjing in her studio, Photo Luise Guest April 2014
Hu Qinwu
Gao Ping
Lin Jingjing
Dong Yuan:
Dong Yuan with her work 'Grandmother's Cupboard', photo Luise Guest April 2014
The extraordinary trompe l'oeil of Dong Yuan's painting (detail)
photo Luise Guest reproduced with the permission of the artist
The work in progress on the easel in the artist's studio, reproduced with permission of Dong Yuan
Meanwhile, pink is the colour du jour: on the shoes of an extraordinarily dolled up middle-aged woman in the park, worn with electric blue tights - she was ballroom dancing with another woman wearing a saggy tracksuit - and on the handbags of numerous women seen in Sanlitun, and pretty much everywhere I look. Tomorrow, I meet Li Tingting, who does some surprising things with pink ink. Watch this space.
Snack window in Caochangdi

Sunday, April 6, 2014

China Syndrome: just what is it that makes Chinese contemporary art so different, so appealing?

Yang Yongliang, A Bowl of Taipei, Digital Image
With apologies to Richard Hamilton's iconic Pop Art image and its highly memorable title, I have been pondering this question over the course of the last (long) school term. In the last few months back in Sydney, teaching students aged 12 to 18, after an extended stay in China, I've been struck anew by what I am calling 'The China Syndrome': the way in which kids are so instantly fully engaged with, and fascinated by, contemporary Chinese art. My Year 8 students are incorporating Wang Guangyi, the Luo Brothers, Pu Jie and Feng Zhengjie into their investigation of how the Pop art of the '50s and '60s has continued to play out in the work of artists in every subsequent decade, in the process discovering what the Cultural Revolution was and (hopefully) learning just a little about the wider world beyond their immediate teenage horizons.
Luo Brothers, Welcome Famous Brand Pepsi, image courtesy Hughes Gallery
Pu Jie ,’Feeding’, 2010, oil on canvas, 200 x 250cm, image reproduced courtesy of Ausin Tung Gallery.
Year 11 loved 'Waste Not' by Song Dong and were able to connect its nostalgic memorial atmosphere to their own family's memories. And (thank goodness - what a relief!) - my Year 12 students have written some very insightful essays about the way in which Xu Bing's 'Phoenix' installation, currently installed in Manhattan's St John the Divine Cathedral, uses the materials he collected on Beijing construction sites to make a profoundly humanist statement about the way in which China's shiny new cities are built on the backs of migrant labourers who live and work in pretty appalling conditions. In the process they, too, have learned about a part of the world that most of them previously had no knowledge of. and have also discovered the way in which artists can cleverly embed layers of meaning into the very materiality of their work.

Song Dong, Waste Not, image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Carriageworks
Next up - Gao Rong's fabulous fake designer handbags, embroidered with stains and filled with surprising sculptured objects will be an interesting comparison for Year 8 with Japanese Yuken Teruya's exquisite tiny worlds created by cutting into shopping bags.
Gao Rong, Designer Bag, Image Courtesy the artist
Year 10 will find out about the painter Han Yajuan and sculptor Li Hongbo, Year 11 will discover Liu Zhuoquan and his fabulous "neihua" inside bottle painting installations, comparing his practice with that of Cai Guo-qiang and his use of gunpowder as an art material, and Year 12 are taking flight and selecting their own contemporary artists for a major research project,from a list including Liang Yuanwei, Lin Tianmiao, Li Hongbo, Gu Wenda and Cao Fei, among others.

Liu Zhuoquan, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist and China Art Projects
I have been pondering anew just why it is that my students are so enthused and engaged with this material. Partly, of course, it is because I am so passionately interested and my enthusiasm is a little bit infectious! But more importantly, I think it's that contemporary art in China - and, more broadly, the Asian region in general - is like nothing else anywhere in the world. Artists who in many cases came late to modernism, and to postmodernism as well, have been freely inventive, applying (particularly in the case of the Chinese) their extraordinary technical skills to make work on a scale of ambition that just doesn't happen in the same way elsewhere. Labour and materials are cheap, spaces are available that artists here in Australia would kill for. And, just perhaps, the necessity over many years of dealing with, shall we say, a level of political scrutiny, has made artists very adept at creating works embedded with subtle coded layers of meaning. Whatever the combination of reasons, it makes for an exciting classroom full of animated discussion and engaged students - and that's got to be a good thing.
Liu Zhuoquan, image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects
Meanwhile, I'm about to get on a plane and head back to Beijing. On my agenda: interviews with 13 artists in 13 days. Am I insane? Quite possibly, but I am incredibly excited to be meeting Cao Fei, Yu Hong, Li Shi Rui and Shen Shaomin as well as re-interviewing a number of the fabulous artists that I met on my previous three visits to this extraordinary city. So- watch this space!
Li Hongbo, 'Paper Man', image from
And meanwhile - check this out!

Friday, March 21, 2014

改良: Reformation at White Rabbit Gallery

The wonderful White Rabbit Gallery has done it again!

For an account of their new show - more than 50 new works and an eccentrically wonderful curatorial decision to create a "salon hang" of 37 paintings from the collection (a Great Wall of China!) - you can read my review at The Art Life. And I did get it in a week before the esteemed SMH critic, John McDonald. Just saying!

Michael Lin, Deng Pao, 2011, acrylic on canvas, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
Here is my review - "Chinese Dream"
If you go along to the White Rabbit Gallery expecting Chinese contemporary art to consist of Pop-inspired Mao imagery or Cultural Revolution horror, you are in for quite a surprise. The new exhibition, the gallery’s tenth, is “Reformation”, which my dictionary defines as “the act or process of improving something or someone by removing or correcting faults, or problems.” In a Chinese context there are some dark connotations here – people with inconvenient opinions may find themselves sent away to be “reformed” in deeply unpleasant ways, for example. However, what we see in many works in this show is post “reform and opening” China in all its infuriatingly contradictory complexity, its joyfully creative inventiveness, and its manic energy. Optimism and confidence; urban decay and reconstruction; business deals and the 21st century language of globalisation; sex and commerce; the role of religious belief; and the courage to speak uncomfortable truths: all these are here. But so too is an appreciation of the fragile beauty of nature, the humour and pathos of desire, and the malleability of language.
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Madein Company, Play 201301, 2013, genuine and artificial leather, BDSM accessories, foam, metal, wood 545 (L) x 300 (W) x 330cm (H) image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
Eminent Chinese artist Xu Bing, speaking about his “Phoenix” project - two monumental suspended birds made from Beijing construction site debris, currently installed in the nave of Manhattan’s St John the Divine Cathedral – said, “China is an incredibly experimental place. China’s methods, its momentum, and its vitality, all these things – no-one in the world understands. Not even the Chinese.” ( ) It is precisely this hyper-drive vitality, fast-forward momentum and restless creativity that is revealed once again at White Rabbit. More than 50 new works, together with a number of old favourites from Judith Nielson’s impressive collection, create a narrative that has much to tell us about contemporary China.
The first thing you see is a dramatic “salon hang” of 37 paintings from the collection, a visual feast hanging ceiling to (almost) floor in the atrium. Wang Luyan’s Global Watch is a giant’s timepiece bearing the flags of China, the United States, Iran, Korea and other nations in a wry comment on the inevitability of global conflict. Above this hangs a 2006 work by his wife, Qin FenglingRed, with her characteristic technique of tiny sculpted figures covering the entire surface, referencing submerging of individual desires to the collective, the overwhelming mass of the Chinese population. Lu Xinjian’s City DNA Beijing, part of a larger series representing numerous world cities, emerges from an examination of aerial views from Google Earth, revealing the sameness of the contemporary urban hub. A seemingly flat pictorial space, and a surface that appears to be an impenetrable code, or a diagrammatic representation of a flickering electrical charge, on closer examination reveals some of the distinguishing features of each singular place. In this work, the grid of Beijing, with the Forbidden City at its central meridian, merges into an incoherent jumble like every other place in the developed and developing world. Mondrian’s Modernist grid has become the language with which to expose the homogenising impact of globalisation.
#2  Shi Zhiying High Seas 2008, oil on canvas, 200 x 800 (sml)
Shi Zhiying, High Seas, 2008, oil on canvas, 200 x 800, shown here in an earlier exhibition at White Rabbit, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.
As an antidote to works exploring the stresses and strains of the contemporary world, Shi Zhiying’s glorious monochrome ocean vastness, her sea sutra, evokes the sublime, a meditation upon Buddhist notions of emptiness. Ma Yanling’s delicate portraits of Shanghai actresses of the 1930s, including Jiang Qing (Madam Mao) reveal her interest in the hidden history of women in China. Other works are more personal. Bingyi’I Watch Myself Dying, painted after the artist suffered an appalling accident resulting in serious burns and multiple surgeries, is a compelling, raw work which reveals her interest in European painters such as the Symbolist Odilon Redon as well as Chinese ink painting masters. Bingyi described her painting practice to me as “Intensely primal. It raises questions about our fundamental being – what is pain, what is suffering, what is loneliness?”
Strangely, this visual tapestry of paintings is not incoherent. Somehow it is still possible to appreciate each individual painting, just as on a Beijing street, amongst the kamikaze traffic and advertising signage one can still notice the ancient surface of the hutong doorway, or the birdcage hanging on the power-lines. It’s a clever way to incorporate old favourites from the collection in an exhibition that presents so much that is completely new.
#3 Shy-Ruey-Shiann-Eight-Drunken-Immortals-2012-metal-wheels-electronics
Shyu Ruey-Shiann (Taiwan) Eight Drunken Immortals, 2012, metal, wheels, wires, ink, motors, transformers, sensors 480 (L) x 240 (W) x 250cm (H) image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
On the first floor there is great humour in Shyu Ruey-Shiann’s Eight Drunken Immortals, a set of small, busy robots zooming about erratically on shopping trolley wheels, inspired by the apparently intoxicated moves of certain martial arts disciplines, and the Taoist story of the immortals who defeated their enemies in unarmed combat whilst staggering about as if drunk. As they move around the floor they “draw” with ink on sheets of paper, in an entertaining parody of the art of calligraphy. In contrast to the whimsical nature of these drunken immortals, powerful works on this level including Wang Zhiyuan’s Close to the Warm, an installation of Chinese characters on tiny strips of paper attached to the wall, swarming like little insects around an incandescent light bulb. It’s a reflection on the malleability of meaning and the ways in which language can be distorted and corrupted by authority, and a far cry from Wang’s huge fibreglass pink knickers in the previous show, although both works have something to say about the state of the contemporary world. Wang Qingsong’s enormous staged photographFollow You is the kind of HSC exam nightmare that haunts the dreams of many of us well into adulthood. Hundreds of students sit at tiny desks behind stacks of textbooks in both Chinese and English, the walls of the vast space papered with Mao-era quotations exhorting hard work and study – “Progress Every Day!” They are all fast asleep, as if a spell has been cast over the entire nation. In the centre the artist sits, wearing a fake grey beard and long hair like an ancient scholar, the only figure awake in the slumbering masses. Then we realise it is because he is connected to an IV line, hooked up to goodness knows what stimulant. Wang Qingsong specialises in large-scale ambitious allegories, commenting on the most pressing issues facing contemporary China. Here, he makes a wry comment about the factory assembly-line that is the education system, a grind of rote-learning with no incentive for independent thought, a highly stressful “gaokao” examination at the end of the line, and the very real prospect of unemployment unless you have family connections - the all-important “good guanxi”.
He Yunchang’s One Metre of Democracy is a challenge for audiences. Not for the fainthearted, the video records surgery carried out (without anaesthesia) on the artist – a metre-long cut from his shoulder to his knee. He asked 25 “voters” to make a democratic decision about whether he should go ahead with this bloody and painful event. They are photographed with the artist before and afterwards, looking decidedly less carefree in the latter images. In previous works this artist has cast himself inside concrete for 24 hours, and has had a rib surgically removed and made into a piece of jewellery with the addition of 400 grams of gold. This kind of ‘endurance’ performance emerged in China in the late 1980s and 1990s as artists explored new freedoms and responded to artworld events such as the Sensation Exhibition. Damien Hirst has a lot to answer for, some might say. In “Performance Art in China” Thomas Berghuis proposes that Chinese performance artists have "acted out" their art, often in opposition to the principles governing correct behaviour in the public domain. The use of the artist’s own body, sometimes in extreme ways, has numerous precedents, from the ‘Fuck Off’ exhibition in 2000 to the work of Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan. In a Chinese context in which artists are reflecting on bitter and tragic events, ‘endurance performance’ practice such as this has a particularity and resonance that it lacks in other contexts. It was after all a young Mao Zedong who said, “In order to civilize the mind one must first make savage the body.” (Although performance art was probably not exactly what Mao had in mind.)
Wang Qingsong, ‘Follow You’, 2013, C-print, 180 x 300cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
MadeIn Company’s Play 201301 is a Gothic cathedral, all flying buttresses and gargoyles, squeezed into black leather and zippers like an architectural Madam Lash, suspended from the ceiling by bondage ropes. The challenge posed for audiences by “the artist formerly known as Xu Zhen” (now reinvented as a corporation rather than an individual) is the myriad interpretations that can be applied to works which emerge from a setting not unlike Warhol’s “Factory”.  Reminiscent of Brook Andrew’s Wiradjuri zig-zag patterned jumping castles, the work is at once playful and deeply sinister, and is already proving a big attraction for audiences at the gallery. Faith tethered to the earthly realm by human desire? Spiritual elevation corrupted? Perhaps the work is about religion as yet another “brand” in the modern world, another marker of identity and tribe. However one may interpret this work its physical presence is undeniable – it seems to hover above the floor as if the ropes are holding it down rather than supporting it, as if it might float away, defying gravity like Magritte’Castle of the Pyrenees.
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Huang Jingyuan, ‘I Am Your Agency No 22’ 2013, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.
I last saw Huang Jingyuan’s paintings in Beijing, in the artist’s studio and later, in her solo show in the 798 art district. Her series I Am Your Agency, five of which are shown here next to her earlier series Gossip from Confucius City, reflects her interest in the role of photography as an instrument of both social control and self-actualisation. She creates her meticulous oil paintings by selecting random amateur photographs from websites – a plate of somebody’s dumplings, a cheesy photograph of a government official, a still from a movie, an advertisement for chairs, somebody else’s chicken. Random, poorly composed, these vernacular photographs provide a rich source of images which can be juxtaposed to create new and surprising meanings, satirising Chinese society no less than an artist such as Wang Qingsong. “I am definitely someone very interested in the logic of how governments want to be seen and how individuals want to be seen,” she told me. Another painter of great technical virtuosity with a unique approach to adapting western painting conventions is Dong Yuan. We have seen her paintings of her entire apartment, with each object on a single small canvas, at White Rabbit in previous shows. This time she is represented by Repeated Illusion, a series of works on canvas inspired by old master paintings. Repeated Illusion Number 1, for example is the vase of a 17th century still life painting, in all its trompe l’oeil hyper-realism. The flowers have been removed, however, and they hang pegged whimsically on a line above, flat cut-outs which entirely defeat the intention of the original and add a quirky humour to the weight of the western canon. When we spoke at her studio in Beijing in late 2012, Dong Yuan told me that when she was studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts she became obsessed by the skills of old master painting, including the tiny, incidental details in the backgrounds of such works, always painted with extraordinary clarity and precision. She felt that these Renaissance and 17th century paintings elevated the mundane to something of great significance. Beside her painted vase in this show, instead of the cut flowers and fruits of the traditional still life, a tiny seed is sprouting.
Another work which speaks powerfully of “reform” is a large, almost white painting by Zhou ZixiDawn – Light Fog 09. At first it seems to be an abstract work, perhaps a reference to Malevich, or to Rauschenberg’s “white” series – after all his 1985 exhibition in Beijing was one of the most significant in the history of contemporary art in China. Look more closely and it begins to look familiar. Recognisable shapes emerge from the mist. The iconic vista of Tiananmen Square is slowly revealed, shrouded in fog. For a moment you wonder if it is a reference to the terrible air pollution which has left the streets of the capital in a Dickensian gloom. Then you see the rows of tanks. It’s about the way in which recent history has been “reformed”. Erased, wiped away. The artist wants the events of June 4 1989, at which he himself was present, remembered. I recommend standing in front of this work for a while – for me it is the highlight of the exhibition.
A lyrical video work by Yi LianUndercurrent, Is likewise strangely compelling. A young child sleepwalks through a night landscape. Water in brooks and ponds flows rhythmically, eddying around rocks, rippling over stones, inhabited by foraging ducks and turtles. Small, cold-looking naked children lie half submerged in shallow water running over pebbles. The sound of the water creates a trance-like state in the viewer. Suddenly the camera shifts and we see a row of men, roped together, eyes closed, stumbling through the darkness. They enter the water and are quickly submerged. In another sequence they float – fast – downstream, their white shirts billowing under the water. In fact, the young child is the artist’s nephew, who sleepwalks regularly. But perhaps, beyond any literal reading, sleepwalking is a metaphor for living in today’s China. The world you see when you wake is not the world you knew when you fell asleep. Everything is different, and continually changing, in ways that alter everything and challenge every assumption. What dream is this? Every billboard on every construction site in Beijing proclaims, “This is my Chinese dream.”
Wang Zhiyuan, Close to the Warm, lightbulb, electric wire, paper stickers, dimensions variable,
 image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
See the article on the website at
Later, on another visit to the gallery, I took more notice of some subtle works which I had not included in my account.
Yang Zhenzhong, whom I met in Shanghai in 2011 is perhaps most famous for his massive video project I Will Die, in which he asked people in Shanghai, New York, Rome, Tokyo, Seoul, Beirut and beyond to speak those words into the camera. Watching this, seeing his subjects giggle and shuffle, one sees the dawning reality hit them as they speak. Here he is represented by Exam, a video which one views through a long tunnel in the wall, like a voyeur. Two girls loll about in a teenage bedroom in their nighties, rote learning a Marxist text. “Proletarian revolution is socialist revolution aimed at the abolition of private property,” they intone in bored voices, leaning on each other in a tangle of long legs and sweeping hair. I was initially tempted to dismiss the work as a tired lesbian fantasy cliché, but I decided it actually is very funny. It certainly speaks of the cynicism of large sections of the Chinese population and the tired exasperation with which they view the Communist Party. It is juxtaposed with a series of wistful and subtle photographs by Hu Weyi of the marks left his girlfriend’s body by the elastic of her underwear, jewellery, stockings and bra straps. Traces on the skin are like a text which reveals enormous vulnerability. Flesh inscribed by social convention. Nearby Li Ming’s video XX shows two boys in a forest setting attempting to exchange singlets without their torsos losing contact. They do not speak but silently writhe and wriggle in an exquisite agony of self-consciousness, the awkwardness of male friendship which verges on desire. In China homosexuality is still by and large a shameful secret – there are many marriages of convenience between gay men and lesbians to avoid bringing disgrace to families. As an aside, though, and an indication of the rapid social change this exhibition reveals, the term “comrade” is now a slang term for gay men. “Reform” in this area is overdue, one might think.

As usual the exhibition is cleverly curated, exciting, thought-provoking and highly recommended!

Tu Wei-Cheng, Optical Trick, 2011, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Secret Script

Here is my article based on 2 interviews with a most interesting artist, A Secret Script: the painting and performance work of Ma Yanling, published last week on a new website, 'Creative Asia', which promises to be a really interesting source of articles, information about events and galleries, and a generally Beijing / Shanghai arts focus: 

(I have added a couple of additional photographs.)

Ma Yanling in her studio, Songzhuang, Beijing, photograph Luise Guest
When I visited Beijing-based painter and performance artist Ma Yanling I didn’t expect to find a connection with a mysterious aspect of Chinese history – an ancient secret female language. Ma is known for her paintings, in which she covers her portraits of glamorous women with a fine mesh of calligraphic lines. She is less well-known for her performance art, more explicitly focused on female experience. As we talked, however, she revealed that “Nüshu (literally, “women’s writing”) is the conceptual basis for much of her work, connecting these apparently disparate elements of her practice. The history of Nüshu is obscure and contested, but we know that women in Hunan Province used this script to communicate secretly, when women were denied education and confined to the home. It was taught to female children by mothers and grandmothers, after their feet were bound and before they married. Messages from mother to daughter were often embroidered into gifts and dowry items. “Nüshu is like a Morse Code used only by women,” says Ma. In a performance work presented in Japan she wrote Nüshu characters on sanitary towels and handed them to the audience, who were, she says, very reluctant to take them. In another performance Ma and her daughter wrote in this secret script on each other’s skin. “We read it and then wiped it away – so it is like you wipe away the language and then you wipe away the possibility to inherit this language.” In yet another work the clothes worn by the artist and her daughter were stitched together. “I sew people together, then cut them apart,” she says. Ma explores the profound relationships between women, most particularly between mothers and daughters.

Before we met I had failed to see the connection between her delicate paintings of women (1930s Shanghai beauties, Western movie stars, and significant female figures including the notorious Jiang Qing) and her more obviously confronting performances. In our conversation it became clear that the theme of “secrets” threads through her work: the secret ways in which women were forced to operate in a world which confined them to the domestic sphere and denied them a voice in public discourse; the secrecy which pervades politics and public life in China even today; and the coded communications – and miscommunications - between generations of Chinese women. Inspired by her love for the works of ink-painting masters, Ma applies extraordinarily fine brush strokes derived from the 18 styles of traditional calligraphy over the entire surface of her acrylic or oil on canvas works, a veil partially shrouding their features. This may be read as a net, capturing and imprisoning the woman thus contained, or as a screen, behind which the painful realities of their lives remain obscured. Ma explains that she sees her subjects as captive commodities - they are not in control of their own destiny, but subjected by the power of others. “Even Madam Mao?” I ask. “Yes, actually I think she was brainwashed by Mao. Before she knew him she was just an actress – she was politically brainwashed,” says Ma. The result is a meditation on the darkness underlying glamour and desire.

Ma Yanling, Jiang Qing, 2008, acrylic and Chinese ink on canvas. Image courtesy the artist and the White Rabbit Collection, Sydney 

A series of large photographs reveals the other element of this artist’s practice, in which she focuses more explicitly on uncomfortable ideas about femininity and social control. Theatrically staged interventions in the public sphere, these performance works reflect Ma’s interest in the work of Joseph Beuys and, most particularly, Marina Abramovic’s ‘endurance’ performances. After the horrors of 9/11 and, later, the anger of many in China at the destruction wrought upon Beijing by demolition and development leading up to the 2008 Olympics, Ma saw how sudden violence could transform ordinary urban space into a locus of tragedy. She covertly brought a convincing replica gun into crowded public spaces including buses, the subway and, with the inevitable result of her arrest, subsequent detention and release, Tiananmen Square. The resulting photographs of the artist holding the gun to her own head, surrounded by crowds, reveal the anxiety evident in public spaces everywhere post 9/11. A claustrophobic awareness of surveillance, and the symbolically loaded significance of Tiananmen, with the events of 1989 so shrouded in secrecy and denial, are particularly Chinese elements of the imagery. One cannot avoid the connection with the 1989 ‘China Avant-garde’ exhibition, closed by authorities after Xiao Lu shot her own sculpture with a gun she brought into the gallery.
Ma sees this body of work, in which she performs the role of “the terrorist”, and another series in which she photographed women on an abandoned movie set representing Tiananmen in the pre-1949 past, as part of her ongoing investigation of a secret female Chinese history. Like her paintings these images reveal a paradox: despair underlying beauty and grace. In another work the artist’s own naked body is tightly bound with plastic tape, creating grotesque patterns in her flesh, and crammed into small spaces – cupboards and suitcases – in a meditation upon the violence meted out to uncooperative women everywhere.  Ma Yanling is, above all, concerned with the female body and the ways in which femininity is “performed”. Her female forms inhabit a ghostly, insubstantial painted space; or else are actors in a drama of constraint and sadness.

Ma Yanling, untitled, 2004, documentation of performance. Image courtesy the artist

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

山水 Shan Shui - musings on mountains, water and all things Chinese

Hua Tunan. Fluorescent Impression Shanshui, 2013; spray paint; 300 x 500 cm. Image courtesy of the Artist.
There is a small mountain of stacked books beside my bed and another on my desk. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them have some relationship to China or to Chinese art. As is my usual habit I have been immersing myself in all things Chinese, from books to art to political news  - in fact pretty much everything except doing my Chinese language homework. I have managed to avoid this every night this week. It consists of re-writing, in characters I barely understand and won't remember by tomorrow night's class, a riveting text about the history of the bicycle in China, and the construction of sentences using words such as 'bicycle lane', 'air pollution' and 'health and fitness'. Currently I just cannot force myself to do this. Maybe after some junk TV, and a stern talking to - of myself, by myself....Add to this the fact that my new teacher has (to my ear) a somewhat impenetrable Shanghai accent and continually corrects my Beijing pronunciation, and it's all a recipe for a demoralising Wednesday evening. Eating bitterness, one might say. However he does like to interrupt the lesson to provide us with new "4 character idioms" and Chinese stories, including one about the Emperor being astride sky, mountain and river at the one time - and some very bad Chinese jokes about how much women like to shop. "Tongyi bu tongyi?" (Agree or disagree?) he says. I didn't endear myself by saying loudly "Bu tongyi!" (A lie, really, as I am quite partial to a bit of retail therapy - especially in China!)

I have been reading two books written by travellers to China in the late1980s, and marvelling over the dramatic changes in the last thirty five years. Paul Theroux (grumpy old thing) riding the Iron Rooster is invariably cynically disappointed in pretty much everything, and the British writer Colin Thubron is even more disapproving. And I frankly don't believe that all the detailed conversations that both writers report were carried out in fluent Mandarin without any minders or interpreters, especially as Thubron says in Chapter 1 that he spent the year (ONE year!!! Ha ha!) learning Chinese before his journey. That puts me in my place - three years on and my spoken Mandarin is still essentially "taxi Chinese." I have decided that they are clearly both fantasists of the first order. However, both books are fascinating in their own way as the writers observe at  first-hand the impact of Deng's "reform and opening" and the flourishing of markets and small businesses, as well as the human cost of the ending of the "iron rice bowl" and its cradle to grave guarantee of income (albeit small) and health care.

I have also re-read John Garnaut's account of the machinations of Bo Xilai in Chongqing, "The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo." It was rushed hastily into print before what were essentially two show trials - of Bo himself and of his wife Gu Kailai (or, was she? So many conspiracty theories about the identity of the woman who actually faced the court.) However, his obvious knowledge of the way that the system of reciprocal obligation and corruption has played out in recent years in a way surely little different to imperial times makes for a riveting read. And essentially it is a dynastic story - his account of the Cultural Revolution tribulations of Bo Xilai's father, Bo Yibo, who, with Xi Jinping's father, was one of the "eight immortals" of the Communist Revolution, is especially fascinating.

Meanwhile, I have been writing about the revival and reinvention of ink painting, and seeing it in various guises and places including, perhaps surprisingly, the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest, in an exhibition of Chinese and Australian artists entitled 'Wondermountain.' The exhibition was curated by Joanna Bayndrian, who is also responsible for an interesting new website (for which, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say I am a contributor of articles about Chinese contemporary art) Creative Asia. Apart from new work by Shoufay Derz, my favourite works in Wondermountain were by Yang Yongliang, Wang Zhibo and the surreal fog-filled landscapes of Svetlana Bailey. My review of the show (for Daily Serving) was published today. Here is the start of the article.

Subverting the Sublime: 'Wondermountain at the Penrith Regional Gallery'

Liu Yuan, In the Likeness of a Mountain, Digital Print, image courtesy the artist
It seemed entirely appropriate that my journey to see Wondermountain at the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest was through rain, a concrete landscape of freeways and overpasses obscured by my windscreen wipers. I arrived beside the swollen Nepean River, the Blue Mountains shrouded in mist, reflecting on the continuing importance of shanshui (mountain/water) painting. A poetic approach to representing landscape evolving from the Tang Dynasty, the genre has continuing currency in the work of contemporary artists responding to dramatic changes in the natural environment, in China and elsewhere. Subtitled Landscapes of Artifice and the Imagination, the exhibition brings together works by thirteen Chinese and Australian artists, exploring curator Joanna Bayndrian’s interest in the endurance of some of shanshui’s core principles and  “the transient spaces of supermodernity.” Bayndrian wanted to explore the relationship between humans and the natural environment, the artistic appropriation of signs and symbols that have come before, and the visualization of imagined landscapes. These things, so central to traditions of Chinese art, are all relevant to young artists working today.

A number of works depict dystopian landscapes, rather than the sublime vistas imagined by the literati painters in their gardens, or wandering scholars traveling in misty mountains. Yang Yongliang’s animated Phantom Landscape, at first sight a Song Dynasty scroll painting, is a melancholy vision of the fate of Chinese mega-cities. The mountains are actually stacked skyscrapers surmounted by cranes and pylons, while a torrential waterfall becomes a river of cars. Philjames appropriates a picturesque landscape into an image of the Three Gorges Dam in a comment on development and “progress.” Hua Tunan uses the language of street art and spray-can graffiti to reimagine shanshui in vivid fluorescent color far from the restraint and serenity associated with the conventions.
Cindy Yuen Zhe Chen, 'Soundscape Karaniya Metta Sutta (detail) 2012 ink on wen zhou paper 72x230.5cm
Cindy Yuen Zhe Chen. Soundscape Karaniya Metta Sutta (detail), 2012; ink on wen zhou paper; 72 x 230.5 cm.
Shoufay Derz explores the sublime and ephemeral in works that focus on liminal states. Ash Upon the Moon documents the act of throwing ash into the mountainscape of Taiwan’s Caoshan. The artist describes her process as akin to traditional Chinese stories of the wandering scholar “looking, but not finding.” Her photographs record a kind of drawing in which she references the calligraphic mark of the ink painter. She says, “The ash is to the landscape what ink is to paper.” Jason Wing’s Xucun Village, an installation of recycled bricks with gold leaf, leads us to contemplate the continuing cycle of destruction in China. Not new, of course—each successive dynasty destroyed the temples, tombs, and palaces of the previous rulers—but unparalleled in its scope and impact. To read on, click HERE
Shoufay Derz, Ash Upon the Moon, 2014, Pigment Print on Cotton Rag Paper, 67 x 82cm Image courtesy the artist and Penrith Regional Gallery
Shoufay Derz. Ash Upon the Moon, 2014; pigment print on cotton rag paper; 67 x 82 cm. Image courtesy of the Artist and Penrith Regional Gallery.

Friday, February 21, 2014

中国梦: My Chinese Dream / Dreaming in Chinese

Changing China, from Yu Gardens Shanghai, photographed in 2012
Yesterday a friend asked if I sometimes dream in Chinese. I don't, of course, my Chinese is far too limited for that. But I do often wake up with Chinese words and phrases drifting through my head, and sometimes in those dark waking hours in the middle of the night I find myself going over and over Chinese sentences, or translating mundane conversations into Chinese. I find myself tempted to say "Wei, nihao" when I answer the phone. I want to ask people "Zenmeyang?" "OK?" or say "Wo mashang lai" instead of "Yes, I'm coming now". I'd like to tell my friends to "Man zou" instead of "Take care." The mental image of the horrified faces of my daughters stops me attempting Chinese in restaurants, or when ordering dim sum. Also the knowledge of how annoying and irritating that would be for people just trying to get through their shift without western wankers using them as language tutors.

 I am slowly, belatedly, coming to the unwelcome realisation that I am unlikely ever to be able to speak fluently - I left my run far too late. In my Eurocentric youth I learned French, then Italian, and naiively and optimistically believed that I was "good at languages." Oh boy, what a humbling experience awaited when I began to learn Chinese three years ago at the age of 54! And oh for a youthfully elastic brain to soak up this difficult syntax, these impossibly subtle tones, and to remember the damn vocabulary, much less to  help my quixotic attempt to learn to read characters. I sat in class in Beijing last year with 19 and 20-year old German and Dutch boys who began with no Chinese at all and soon outstripped me. I watched them soak up the language like sponges and learn to communicate pretty effectively. Perhaps in part because they went out drinking every night in attempts to meet Chinese girls. Also perhaps because they all had the hots for the very sexy young teacher, Yumi,  and wanted to talk to her about bars and nightclubs and try (in vain) to persuade her to go drinking with them. Each lesson began with a discussion in Chinese about who had drunk what and how much the night before - with the frequent absence of the American boy who was too hungover to come to class at all most mornings. Memorably, one day they discovered they had all coincidentally been at the same cocktail bar the night before and Yumi confided "Zuotian wanshang wo he le wu ge 'sex-on-the-beach.'" Five 'sex-on-the-beach' cocktails and the girl still rode her motorbike home to the outer suburbs!
My Chinese Dream: Tuanjiehu Park on an unpolluted weekend morning
After a period of being depressed and demoralised by the minuscule progress made after attending classes daily over 2 months in Beijing, I have decided to stop being so hard on myself and celebrate the small achievements. I should feel pleased that I can navigate the city, catch taxis and converse with shopkeepers. I should be amazed that I can remember any characters at all! So I shall persevere....and shall soon find myself back in Beijing, and back looking over the intersection of Gongti Bei Lu and Sanlitun Lu from the windows of the language school. Meanwhile, the new teacher of my Chinese class here (Level 8 - how ridiculous, what a sham!) is from Shanghai and continually corrects my Beijing accent.

Luckily, art is a universal language (at least to some extent) and with the help of my young translators from Beijing Foreign Languages University (who tell me that you can graduate from there either as a diplomat or a spy) I have managed to have fascinating and complex conversations with artists in my visits to studios. Here is my interview with Shanghai-based performance artist Wu Meng, published today in Daily Serving.
Wu Meng with her husband, Grass Stage Theatre director Zhao Chuan, photograph LG 2012
The Song of the Shirt
In her 2013 performance work And They Chat (also called Chat with Women), Wu Meng walked the streets of the old city of Haikou in a wedding dress made of newspaper, tying discarded domestic objects such as pots and pans, a broom, and a large mosquito net onto her body as she went. Her load became heavier and heavier as she dragged herself down the road, followed by small children and curious onlookers. The performance concluded with a reading from Engels on marriage and monogamy. A new collaborative work, Metamorphosis Garden, reveals her consistent interest in exploring aspects of women’s lived experience. “… sweet fairy tales, strange, even bloody little allegories, interwoven with real-life female stories. How should women view themselves and respond to this complex and lonely world?” In asking this question, Wu Meng creates a body of work that explores the contested territory of gender in today’s China.
Wu Meng, 'Gravity 1' 2010. Image courtesy of the Artist and OV Gallery Shanghai.
The contemporary Chinese art scene is exciting and dynamic, but at times seems fueled by a heady mixture of testosterone and “baijiu,” the Chinese white spirit that fells unsuspecting foreigners like rocket fuel. In my quest to meet women artists, I had been told by numerous people in Shanghai that I must interview Wu Meng: performance artist, freelance writer, and founding member of Grass Stage experimental theater collective. In addition to her work with Grass Stage, Wu has created solo works in Hong Kong, the German Pavilion at Shanghai EXPO (2010), Hamburg (2011), Leipzig (2012), and throughout China.
To read more, click HERE

Sunday, January 26, 2014

马年吉祥! The Year of the Horse

I know it's Australia Day, but I am pretending that I never saw those teenage girls dressed in flag-adorned costumes, or the many people sporting temporary Australian flag tattoos - it has all become way too creepy. And, frankly,dare I say it, "un-Australian". What happened to our famously laconic and cynical national character? So this post is ignoring January 26 in favour of the lunar calendar.The Year of the Horse approaches. In fact 2014 is the Year of the Wooden Horse, which is regarded, I discovered in a rapid scroll through a few Googled web pages, as a year of quick victories, unexpected adventures, and surprising romances. Those born in a horse year are supposed to be strong, courageous, independent, creative free spirits. Possibly, as a monkey year person, I am a little envious. Sydney is currently filled with red lanterns, many opportunities to eat noodles and dumplings, and a plethora of events in the lead-up to the enormous street parade in celebration of Chinese New Year. In addition to Mahjong, food, music and lion dances, art is also getting a look-in, thank goodness. 'Crossing Boundaries' is an exhibition of Asian Australian artists - some young emerging artists and some, such as Guan Wei and Lindy Lee, who are extremely well-known and celebrated. Curated by Catherine Croll of Cultural Partnerships Australia, and currently showing at Sydney Town Hall, the exhibition is an important part of Sydney's Lunar New Year celebrations. And, appropriately, many of the works are equine and celebratory in flavour.
Hu Ming, Wishes for Every Success in the Year of the Horse, 2013, oil on canvas
This is the third consecutive year that the exhibition has been held to coincide with New Year celebrations, and this time around it includes a number of the same artists as last year, as well as a host of new, previously unknown artists. Not every work in this highly eclectic show is great, but most are at the very least interesting, and the exhibition as a whole suggests evocative connections and parallels between works by very different artists. Croll says, "Artists participating in Crossing Boundaries have created new work that reflects upon individual journeys undertaken, boundaries crossed and new territories explored to provide a dynamic exhibition with strong celebratory flavour for the Year of the Horse."

Hu Ming, represented by two works quite unlike her usual repertoire of voluptuous revolutionary soldiers, is an interesting case study of a diasporic Chinese artist. In fact the artist herself spent 20 years of her life in the People's Liberation Army, from 1970 to 1990, eventually becoming a major. During this time she saw the last bitter years of the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, the 'opening up' under Deng Xiaoping and the tragedy of Tiananmen. She was given leave to study art and learned the painstaking hyper-realism of the traditional Chinese 'gongbi' style in Tianjin. She arrived in Australia in 1999 and now lives and works in Sydney, producing works that, albeit in a Pop idiom, are thoroughly immersed in traditional imagery and techniques.

Two panels of black paper, pitted with burned holes and marks, form "1000 Blacks & Myriad White', created  by Lindy Lee in collaboration with Elizabeth Chang. For both artists black has deeply ancestral connections to Taoist traditions and the principle of Yin/Yang. Yin, the black, represents earth, darkness and the interior. Yang, the white, represents heaven, lightness and the exterior. One cannot exist without the other. Lee has long been interested in ways of making the immaterial,the evanescent, take on a  material form. In these works she and Chang have created a powerful and mysterious diptych.
Somchai Charoen, Landmind, 2013, ceramic installation (detail)
At the entrance of the space is a floor installation by Thai ceramic artist Somchai Charoen. Deceptively pretty, his field of ceramic flowers, sitting lotus-like on the polished floor, conceal in their midst weapons of terror and destruction. 'Landmind' was created following his visit to the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia. "Landmines are one of the most horrific inventions," he says in his catalogue statement. "The consequences of war on the landscape inflict a trauma for people who travel through the land where an unknown terror lies beneath the surface. This remains decades after the conflict subsides. I am fascinated by how the regeneration of land works to conceal the mines as part of the natural landscape." Certainly his invitation to audiences to walk through the installation was not being eagerly embraced yesterday - the installation is a sobering reminder of the appalling consequences of war and conflict.

Tianli Zu has contributed one of her characteristic paper-cut works celebrating Nuwa, a powerful creation figure in Chinese mythology. Around 179-122 BCE in remote antiquity, so the story goes, the four pillars that supported the universe collapsed. The world became dark and chaotic. Nüwa tempered five-coloured stones to repair the heavens and held up the sky with four legs that she cut off a tortoise. According to the Chinese myth Shanhaijing (山海经), she created the horse before she created humans. Sometimes this artist works with video, however in this installation she has chosen to add evocative forest sounds which echo around the space, so realistic that they apparently caused maintenance men from the Town Hall to investigate whether an owl was trapped in the ceiling.
Tianli Zu,  Nuwa Created Horses on the Sixth Day, 2013, Chinese ink and tea, Hand cut cotton rag paper,
and sound composition
My 2013 interview with Tianli Zu, in which she revealed the ways in which her Cultural Revolution childhood continue to impact her work today, can be found  HERE: Tianli Zu: The Power of the Shadow

Tianli Zu,  Nuwa Created Horses on the Sixth Day (detail), 2013, Chinese ink and tea, Hand cut cotton rag paper,
and sound composition
Other interesting works included Ahn Wells and Linda Wilson's 'Ten Thousand Horses' which consists of 60  rosewood tiles with wax painted symbols referencing the power of the horse moving en masse in Chinese military history, as well as shamanism and Ahn's Korean heritage.
Ahn Wells and Linda Wilson, Ten Thousand Horses, 2013, Rosewood and Wax installation
 Guan Wei's panels from his recent dark series of constellations, 'Twinkling Galaxies' are beautiful, of course. In my conversation with him at his Beijing studio in November he reflected on the contrast he sees between Australia and China, now that he divides his time more or less equally between Sydney and Beijing.  

And I did enjoy a work made entirely of used teabags. Born in Indonesia, Jayanto Damanik now lives and works in Sydney and has recently returned from a residency at Redgate Gallery in Beijing. He has been collecting teabags since 1997, seeing them as a memory of family, a reminder of ceremonies and as an offering for the dead. Tea has both mundane and spiritual connotations, and is both deeply personal and cultural. He said, "My current project is focused on the psychology of family and home... I collected my tea bags from family and friends and each tea bag contains a memory... every teabag tells a story of daily life’s grievances and joys."
Jayanto Damanik, Conversations, 2013, used teabags, Chinese paper, glue

In amongst the dragon boat races, night noodle markets and (I hope) a revival of the wonderfully funny Pandas on bicycles (panda costumes, OK, no animal cruelty!) in the Lunar New Year Parade, you should definitely make the time to walk round the side of the Town Hall and see what a very diverse range of Asian artists who now "call Australia home" - and Australian artists with links to Asian cultures - are doing. And on Australia Day, when increasingly there is way too much flag waving and scarily mindless jingoism, it's a salutary reminder that this nation is all the richer and more interesting due to the contributions of people who have arrived here from all corners of the globe.