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

Sunday, April 24, 2016

半 边 天 : Half the Beijing Sky Part 2

Ming City Wall Park, Beijing
 Blue sky continues, the air is fresh(ish), and trees are in green leaf everywhere you look. Three reasons to be cheerful in Beijing. Only the apocalyptic traffic today could put a dampener on my mood, the day after the big book launch and "Half the Sky" exhibition opening at Red Gate Gallery. The exhibition is causing a bit of a buzz around town, I hear, and I am hoping there will be at least a few people turn up for my talk tomorrow evening at the Beijing Bookworm. It seems that "Half the Sky" has hit some kind of zeitgeist - people are definitely interested, and warmly enthusiastic.

Half the Sky opens at Red Gate Gallery
How interesting that shows of women artists are in the news again, with Hauser and Wirth in LA re-writing the history of abstract sculpture in America in Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016. Despite the apparent success of individual women - in that case Louise Bourgeois, or Lee Bontecou; in the Chinese context Cao Fei or Lin Tianmiao - they are still an absence in the larger narrative. The debate about the rightness or wrongness of all-women shows continues, and I must admit I had secret worries about whether it was a good strategy. But in the end, writing the book was a curatorial process, and an exhibition was a logical move.
Dong Yuan, Grandmother's Cabinet, installation view
When I began writing "Half the Sky" there were many anxious moments when I thought I must be mad. I continued to succumb to moments of doubt and despair throughout the process: was it a kind of hubris that made me think that I could - or should - write a book about artists in another culture, another language? But I really was determined to tell the story of this particular group of artists, representative in so many ways of the extraordinary phenomenon that is contemporary Chinese art.

Installing Gao Rong's "Sitting in a Chair and Thinking About My Future" - an armchair covered in embroidered mould, and lamp with knitted light rays
Installing Li Tingting works

Tao Aimin and Ma Yanling with Tao's "In an Instant" installation

In conversation with Lin Jingjing before the opening begins

  Visitors examining Dong Yuan's "Grandmother's Cabinet"

Tao Aimin, "In an Instant"

Brian Wallace, Red Gate director, with Xiao Lu and Guo Chen

With Dong Yuan

Gao Rong signs a copy of the book

Looking at Cui Xiuwen's "Existential Emptiness"

With Lin Jingjing

Brian Wallace introduces the Australian Ambassador at the opening

Australian Ambassador Jan Adams and a line-up of Chinese artists: 
L to R Zhou Hongbin, Cui Xiuwen, Li Tingting, Xie Qi, Jan Adams, Ma Yanling, myself, Bu Hua, Tony Scott, Bingyi, Xiao Lu, Lin Jingjing, Han Yajuan, Gao Ping. Not pictured: Gao Rong, Tao Aimin, Dong Yuan and Huang Yajuan

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Half the Beijing Sky

Bu Hua, Beijing Babe Loves Freedom, Giclee Print, 60cm diameter, courtesy White Rabbit Collection
Back in Beijing after six months, I am listening to a cacophany of shouting and car horns on Chunxiu Lu outside my window. The horn, otherwise known as the Chinese brake pedal, is a form of catharsis for drivers going nowhere on the choked Beijing roads. It's been a tough few days, but finally I've got my Beijing mojo back and I'm loving it again. Spring makes grey Beijing beautiful, and softens its harsh contours.

After disastrously losing my cell phone in a mad race to the gate to board my Beijing-bound flight in Hong Kong last Wednesday, thrown into a state of panic at being cut off from the world, I was then further horrified to discover that my previously reliable means of clambering over the Great Firewall of Chinese internet censorship was no longer working. No Facebook! No Gmail! No Twitter! And with no phone, there could be no Wechat or text messages to and from friends and family. Horrible! It's been an enforced "digital detox" and I don't recommend it, despite my growing anxiety about my own dependence on social media and the pressure we now feel to be a constant online presence.

So imagine my surprise tonight to find this blog working just fine - it's never been accessible in China before without a VPN. The censorship here is nothing if not unpredictable - it keeps us on our toes and is a source of constant frustration, a game of cat and mouse between the censors and the providers of VPN services. A game you can't win, a bit like Bu Hua's Beijing Babe taking shots at fighter jets with her slingshot. Or this, my favourite Beijing translated signage:

In China there is always, always suddenness. I should be used to it by now.

Red Gate Gallery, Beijing
Here in Beijing to launch my book, "Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China" with an exhibition of works by 16 of the 32 artists at Red Gate Gallery, I have been so frustrated by not being able to upload and share photographs of the installation process and the opening itself. Today, with blue skies and sunshine - never to be taken for granted in Beijing - a big crowd arrived and climbed the stairs to the city wall and the old watchtower that houses Red Gate Gallery. The newly arrived Australian ambassador, Jan Adams, launched the book, and it was wonderful to see  the artists again.

Miraculously now the car horns have died down and drivers have stopped leaning out of their windows to shout at each other. No - I spoke too soon! But nevertheless, exhaustion has overtaken me.

Photographs and more Beijing stories soon.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

''Water Flows Downhill, Man Struggles Upwards": The End of the Chinese Miracle?

Cao Fei, My Future is Not a Dream, 2006, from the series Whose Utopia,
digital video 20 min 6 sec, image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space
The urbanisation of China and its entry into world markets in recent decades has resulted in the largest migration in human history. Young - and not so young - workers from the impoverished countryside flocked to the big cities, especially to the manufacturing centres of southern China. The Pearl River Delta became the world's factory. Cities like Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, were populated almost entirely by rural teenagers and young parents who had been forced to leave their children back in their villages to be raised by grandparents, creating a generation of 'left behind children'. Despite the complex social issues that resulted, millions of resourceful and resilient migrants sought a secure financial future, and until recently it seemed most unlikely that many would return to the much-despised countryside and hard-scrabble rural poverty they had left behind. Except, of course, at Spring Festival time, when they returned home en masse for the holiday, bringing gifts and money to their families. 

This social revolution has been documented in Leslie T. Chang's wonderful book 'Factory Girls'; in the documentary film, 'Last Train Home', that recounts the arduous journeys of some of the 130 million workers travelling home for Spring Festival, and in contemporary art. Cao Fei's  award-winning SIEMENS Art Project of 2006, What Are You Doing Here? traced the daily lives of workers at the Osram Light Bulb Factory in Foshan. One element of her ambitious work is a video entitled Whose Utopia, for which she invited the workers to perform a dance to the music of their choice, against the background clatter of the assembly line. The video closes with portraits of individual workers gazing straight at the camera, defying us to see them as mere cogs in the machinery of China’s economic miracle.

Now, however, the 'miracle' is souring. The London Financial Times has produced a powerful series, 'The End of the Chinese Miracle', examining the impacts of a slowing economy, an aging population, and a dwindling labour force. After three decades of economic growth, and carefully targeted social and economic policy, China has completed its transformation from an essentially agrarian nation to an almost entirely urban society. But now, with factories closing (or relocating to Vietnam) due to changing markets and the pressures of higher wages, some of these migrant workers are returning to their hometowns. The implications of this metamorphosis, for China and for the world, are enormous. Check out the series HERE. And watch this fascinating and timely doco.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Invisible Ink: The Ink Tradition Remixed and Reclaimed

Charwei TSAI, Incense Mantra, 2013, single channel video. In collaboration with Tsering Tashi Gyalthang.

The ink tradition in Chinese art continues to fascinate the art market and international curators, as well as being a political hot potato inside the Chinese artworld. To some, it's a regressive artform manipulated in the interests of bolstering nationalism. To others, it's part of the reinvention and reclamation of Chinese tradition after thirty years of Maoist suppression. Whatever your stance, contemporary variations on ink painting are not vanishing any time soon. The current exhibition at UNSW Galleries illustrates all the possible variations employed by contemporary artists who are deeply invested in the philosophy of the tradition, but not necessarily in the physical medium itself. 

Here is my review, published today in The Art Life after two visits to the exhibition and an illuminating chat with its curator, Sophie McIntyre, in which she explained the long gestation of her research, her interest in the ink phenomenon, and why she chose these particular artists, all of a younger generation than some of those who first began the ink revival in the 1980s and 1990s. We are lucky to see this exhibition in Sydney after its successful launch in Canberra and a second showing in Bendigo. Don't miss it while it's here!

Ink Remix at UNSW Galleries
The term ‘ink painting’ evokes mental images of delicately rendered misty mountains, waterfalls, peonies and bamboo. In China today this category of art production does include artists whose work falls within the boundaries of historical conventions, but it has also come to include a younger generation of artists who challenge and subvert the tradition in surprising ways. The highly politicised ‘Contemporary Ink’ movement includes artists with extraordinarily diverse practices. And some of them don’t use ink at all.
YAO Jui-chung 2015 -complete work small file
Yao Jui-chung, Yao's Journey to Australia, 2015, biro, oil pen with gold leaf on Indian handmade paper, 200 x 546 x 6cm. Courtesy of the artist and Tina Keng Gallery.
The use of ink is deeply embedded in the Chinese sense of nationhood. Fundamental to Chinese calligraphy and painting for more than two millennia, the unique properties of Chinese ink allow artists to produce works of great expressive power with limited means. Whether diluted or ‘black as lacquer’, it is capable of infinitely nuanced and subtle mark-making. Reinventing and transforming traditional modes of expression, artists in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan brought the philosophy and aesthetics of Shui Mo (‘water and ink’ painting) to their sculpture, drawing, video and performance practices, a fresh approach revealed in ‘Ink Remix’ at UNSW Galleries. From a Buddhist prayer written with ink on tofu by Charwei Tsai to Ni Youyu’s reimagined Chinese cosmology made of flattened coins, the exhibition reveals how contemporary artists ensure the ink tradition remains vital and alive.
YangYongliang_ABowlofTaipeiNo 4
YANG Yongliang, A Bowl of Taipei no. 4, 2012, photographs (Epson Ultragiclee print on Hahnemuhle paper), 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Sophie McIntyre brings her deep knowledge of contemporary art from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to the curation of the exhibition. Two years in the making, ‘Ink Remix’ was intended to examine the work of a younger generation of artists, born after 1960. McIntyre says, ‘I was curious about why a lot of young contemporary artists were turning to this phenomenon of ink. But I was most interested in those artists who were critically interrogating an ink tradition and what that means in contemporary society.’ McIntyre was curious to see how artists in the three locations respond differently to this revitalisation of an ancient art practice. What she discovered, in many conversations with many artists, was their desire to reconnect with the tradition in a philosophical sense, rather than as technique, style or medium. And not just to reconnect, but to reinterpret.
Just as a musical remix could include sampling of tracks by multiple artists, many of the artists in ‘Ink Remix’appropriate the tropes of traditional ink works. Misty mountains do appear, albeit in a much altered form. In Yang Yongliang’s ‘Bowl of Taipei’ series (2012) they are crammed into noodle bowls, suggesting the ‘bonsai-ing’ of nature, squeezed into a new urban world of consumerism and mass production. Yang’s clever animations respond to China’s environmental crisis and the pace of urbanisation. ‘Rising Mist’ (2014) at first appears to emulate a traditional scholar painting of mountains and water. On closer inspection you realise that the mountains are formed by the towering steel and concrete high-rises of an enormous city; construction cranes and electric stanchions rather than pine trees punctuate the horizon line. The entire urban landscape is adrift in a miasma of pollution.
He Xiangyu learned how to paint like masters of the Song Dynasty in order to produce works that appear similar to classical paintings. His vistas of mist-shrouded mountains, tiny temples and tumbling waterfalls, however, are painted with ink mixed with Coca-Cola, a satirical jab at the unstoppable march of globalisation and consumer culture. Part of a much larger project shown at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in 2012, ‘Cola Project’ also involved the boiling down of 135,000 litres of the soft drink into a smelly tar-like sludge, and the carving of two jade skeletons (made to the exact dimensions of the artist’s, with the assistance of MRI imaging and X-rays) that were then partially simmered in Coca-Cola. The paintings make more sense in the context of that larger body of work, but in pondering their materiality we are forced to consider whether Chinese culture is being overwritten in a destructive process of what used to be called ‘Coca-Colonisation’, or whether, in contrast, they show the enduring nature of those traditions, outlasting the sweet product of consumer desire.
TSAI Charwei, Tofu Mantra, 2005, video still. Courtesy the artist and TKG+
The act of writing is central to the practice of Charwei Tsai, born in Taipei and currently living and working between Taiwan and Vietnam. For many years her work has explored relationships between spirituality and the natural world, using performance, photography and video. She conveys the transience of the physical world in the ‘Mantra’ series, writing a Buddhist prayer onto lotus leaves, mushrooms, flowers and other organic materials. Tsai memorised the important Heart Sutra when she was growing up in Taiwan, and its meditation upon the impermanence of all things continues to inform her practice. For ‘Tofu Mantra’ (2005) she wrote its 260 Chinese characters onto a large piece of tofu. The video documents the process of decay, the tofu liquefying, surrounded by falling insects, an arresting memento mori.
Her choice of tofu, a material so symbolic of Chinese culture globally, has particular significance for an artist straddling cultures and languages. (As, incidentally, was also seen recently in Chen Qiulin’s ‘One Hundred Names’ project at 4A, in which the artist carved the most common Chinese surnames into large blocks of firm tofu.) ‘Incense Mantra’ (2013) is a site-specific work produced in Hong Kong in collaboration with Tibetan Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, inspired by the enormous conical joss sticks burned in the Man Mo Temple. The incense, densely covered with characters written in black ink, slowly burns, turns to ash and crumbles. A soundtrack of chanting monks and the noise of waves (Hong Kong, so closely associated with the maritime world, translates from the Chinese as ‘Fragrant Harbour’) produces a genuinely stilling and meditative experience.
To read more, click HERE
To see exhibition details, Click HERE

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Home and Away: A Conversation with Chen Qiulin

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The List: Ten Moments that Mattered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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