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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Years of Living Dangerously: Brothers and Sisters Making History in the narrative painting of Shen Jiawei

The notion of a painter of epic, narrative realist history paintings working away in his studio in Bundeena, a small beach community on the southernmost edge of Sydney, seems absurd. Yet this is the life of Shen Jiawei, the Chinese artist who has made Sydney his home since 1989.

His monumental mural of 422 significant people who helped to shape China's modern history, focused on the years 1936 and 1937, is currently on display in the somewhat weird and unsympathetic location of the Everest Foyer of the Seymour Centre, the least appealing of Sydney's theatrical venues.

Here is my response, published in The Art Life today:

Brothers and Sisters Making History

The year 1937 was not just any old year in world history, nor in art history. In the Soviet Union Stalin was conducting his great purges. The Spanish Civil War was causing untold misery. In April of that year German and Italian planes bombed a Basque town at the behest of the Nationalist Government, resulting in the deaths of (perhaps) more than a thousand civilians. Picasso painted ‘Guernica’ to commemorate this horror. Later that year, Hitler organised his ‘Exhibition of Degenerate Art’ in Munich, vilifying Modernism and its practitioners as "incompetents, cheats and madmen". In China, the Communists were holed up in their mountainous Yan’an stronghold after the Long March of 1934 - 35, in which they had traversed over 9,000 kilometres of incredibly rough terrain. The American journalist Edgar Snow visited them there, working on his book ‘Red Star Over China’. The first resistance was formed against the Japanese occupation. In December that year, in Nanjing, somewhere between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese citizens were brutally slaughtered by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army.
Resized Shen Jiawei Exhibition_Image 1
Shen Jiawei, China 1936 – 1937: Years of Change, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist and China Studies Centre, University of Sydney
This is rich material for a history painter such as Shen Jiawei. He has produced a monumental mural representing 422 influential people who shaped events in China in the twelve months prior to the Japanese invasion. Thirty metres in length, ‘China 1936 – 37, Years of Change’ has been a labour of love for Shen, who taught himself to paint during the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution. Before he arrived in Australia in 1989, where at first he struggled to eke out a living drawing tourist portraits at Darling Harbour, he was well-known in China for a painting which became a famous propaganda poster, ‘Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland.’ Later, when the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing re-opened after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Shen Jiawei trained in that powerhouse of academic realist painting, grounded in Soviet Socialist Realism, honing his virtuoso figurative technique. Despite his successful Archibald Prize entries and his portraits of luminaries such as Pope Francis, Princess Mary of Denmark and Dame Marie Bashir (who opened the exhibition of his work at the Seymour Centre’s Everest Foyer this week) epic history painting is his passion. His ambition is Renaissance in its scale and scope.
Shen Jiawei, "Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland", 1974. (The face was considered insufficiently heroic by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, so she ordered it to be altered by another artist.)
One panel includes many of the same characters found in his earlier (1987) 6-panelled work ‘Red Star Over China’ which he completed two years before he came to live in Australia, and before he lost his faith in Communism. The title of the painting borrows the title of Edgar Snow’s account of the beginnings of the revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic, a book banned for thirty years in China. Both paintings include Snow and his wife Helen among their massive casts of characters. Another feature common to both works is the group of small boys who dance in red-starred singlets and caps in the foreground, representing the optimism of that particular moment in time. One of the Shaanxi revolutionaries included in ‘Red Star over China’ is Xi Zhong Xun, whose son Xi Jinping is the current Chinese President. Shen Jiawei said of this painting, “What is painted here is the first act of a tragedy…the youthfulness and ideals will be destroyed by later acts which are yet to be painted.”
Shen Jiawei with "Red Star Over China", photo Andrew Sheargold, source Sydney Morning Herald
The alternative title of Shen’s new work in Chinese, ‘Brothers and Sisters’, suggests another reading of history. Siblings may quarrel within the family but they will join together in the face of a common enemy. Professor Jeffrey Riegel, Head of the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney, described Shen Jiawei as a “serious scholar of history.” Certainly he has taken some liberties with historical accuracy in the interests of dramatic compositional groupings. Not all of these people were physically in the same place at the same time. But at an extraordinary moment in human history there were at most one or two degrees of separation between them. Shen paints with a moral imperative – to tell the truth and to represent historical events as he sees them, through his own view of the world.
The artist has carefully selected photographs from the period in order to paint each of the 422 portraits as convincingly as possible. Their faces gaze out at us. We are forced to see his dramatis personae, not as remote historical figures, but as complicated people with hopes, desires and disappointments. Riegel compared their serried eyes to the ranks of deities and immortals in the great Buddhist frescoes in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, with their grave and discomfiting gaze. Unlike Picasso, searching for visual metaphors to create his cry of outrage, ‘Guernica’, as a pacifist response to war, Shen’s vision of this period in Chinese history is more literal. But despite any reservations one may have about the contrariness of continuing to paint like a Renaissance master (who, let’s face it, would have had a team of assistants to paint the boring bits) it is similarly profoundly humanist in its intention. We begin to understand just how complex this history is. Opposing forces, contradictory ideologies, divergent points of view and, as a consequence, different memories of the same events. For anyone with an interest in China today, and how the Middle Kingdom became a powerful force to be reckoned with on the world stage, this is fascinating.
The exhibition of the work continues in the Everest Foyer of the Seymour Centre until November 11.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Terracotta Daughters

In June 2012 artist Prune Nourry travelled to Xi'an to interview Professor Li Shuzhuo, a leading academic whose specialisation in sociology is the study of gender preference in China. The preference for sons has a long, long history. Long before the One Child Policy and its (no doubt unintended) consequence of an over-abundance of unmarried young men, female babies were often killed at birth.  Nourry's work always begins with a research project, investigating an issue of social significance. Having worked in India, she became fascinated by the results of this gender imbalance, so deeply embedded in culture, history and social policy, and the resulting misery and social instability it causes.

Nourry decided to work with traditional skilled artisans in Xi'an, home of the original Entombed Warriors - and the gazillion reproductions sold with unrelenting fervour in every corner of that city. Those damn warriors are everywhere in Xi'an, from the doors of restaurants to the lobbies of hotels; from Starbucks, and department stores to the most run-down of tiny local shops and noodle stalls. They come in every conceivable size, in terracotta, fibreglass and plastic, and their images adorn every possible surface. You might think that by the time you have made it past the souvenir stalls with their (expensive) warrior replicas, and ignored the local government harridan who tries to force you to buy a copy of a guidebook signed by the old farmer who originally found the site (whilst digging for a well) and then survived the onslaught of hundreds of people trying to sell you touristic tat, that the real buried army may seem utterly diminished. You would be wrong. Despite being crowded in with hordes of tour groups from every corner of China, and a few hardy souls from elsewhere; even in the loud chatter and constant flash of cameras  and people taking smartphone selfies, you cannot help but be awe-struck.

Nourry selected the powerful image of that buried army as her equally potent metaphor for the army of unwanted girl children in China  - aborted, abandoned, orphaned, kidnapped and sold, forced into marriage or prostitution. There are more  tragic stories than there were soldiers and courtiers serving the Qin Emperor. She has created an army of lost daughters. 

All photos of the Terracotta Daughters shot by Luise Guest in the NYC China Institute
I saw the installation in the new downtown building of the China Institute in New York two weeks ago. The building is so new that it is still under construction and I was asked to sign a waiver indemnifying the owners before I entered the space. As someone familiar with Chinese electrical wiring and construction codes (generally notable by their absence) I found this pretty amusing. The raw concrete and dim lighting of the space, a block from Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial, was oddly appropriate for wandering through the army of girls, so touching in their silence and stillness.

Nourry met the 8 orphan Chinese girls that inspired her work through the non-profit organization The Children of Madaifu, which was founded in 1999 by Marcel Roux, former Vice-President of Doctors without Borders. She photographed the girls during her visit to their respective villages in August 2012, and uses the portraits as models for the sculptures.
She then asked the craftsmen to make the moulds for combinations of 108 terracotta daughters. One of these artisans skilled in the traditional terracotta techniques, Wen Xian Feng, individualised each face based on Nourry's originals to ensure that each girl is unique. The artist works with The Children of Madaifu to support the education of the 8 little girls with the sale of the 8 original sculptures. 
The installation has been shown in Shanghai, Paris, Zurich and now in New York. After taking it to Mexico City Nourry plans to return the work to China to be buried in 2015, creating a contemporary archaeological site for future excavation in 2030, when sociologists predict the Chinese gender imbalance will be at its peak.
I found the Terracotta Daughters very beautiful, and very evocative despite - or perhaps because of - its simple treatment of a complex and tragic social issue. The girls in their rows are reminiscent of children lined up for compulsory collective exercises in an elementary school playground, or the mass singing of revolutionary songs in the past. They possess the same gravity as those long-ago archers and warriors. Their Young Pioneer scarves, contemporary ponytails  and clothing are treated in a similar way to the Qin army, as engraved surfaces. They gaze past you with sightless eyes.

Too late I discovered that Nourry was having a simultaneous exhibition in a Chinatown foot massage centre, where she was showing another series of works based on reflexology, traditional Chinese medecine and philosophy. And you could get 20% off a massage. Now that's art for the people!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Cloaks of Invisibility: Liu Bolin in New York

I have just returned from two weeks in New York, where somehow I still managed to be immersed in all things Chinese, from the Liu Bolin exhibition at Klein Sun Gallery, to the very beautiful exhibition of Chinese albums at the Metropolitan Museum, to Prune Nourry's 'Terracotta Daughters' showing in the new downtown China Institute and a fabulous and fascinating show entitled 'Mao's Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution' at the older uptown China Institute. More of these in a later post. Meanwhile, here is my review of the Liu Bolin show, published this week on 'The Art Life'.

Cloaks of Invisibility: Liu Bolin in New York

Invisibility, erasure, disappearance, camouflage. This is the preferred territory of Chinese artist Liu Bolin (Liu Bolin at Klein Sun Gallery for more images of his work), whose ambiguous works make us question the “real” world, revealing it to be a mere painted illusion.
Best known for his ‘Hiding in the City’ series, in which he literally paints himself into various backgrounds, in cityscapes as diverse as Beijing, New York, London and Paris, Liu Bolin is sometimes called “The Invisible Man”. He is a master of a complex trompe l’oeil technique which allows him to examine the paradoxes and slippages of the contemporary world. Wearing a specially designed suit, the artist is painted by a team of assistants, in a painstaking and sometimes physically challenging ordeal, to merge almost seamlessly with his background. A disappearing trick; the artist as conjurer. No mere pop culture gimmickry, Liu Bolin’s process of erasure examines issues of contemporary culture and social justice, never more so than in his most recent exhibition in New York, at Klein Sun Gallery, ‘A Colorful World?’ In the lyrics of pop diva Cece Winans, “It’s a colorful world, it’s a beautiful world that we live in/ It’s a colorful world…” Well, perhaps, but Liu Bolin is interested in what happens when saccharine sentiments are juxtaposed with contemporary realities.
Image 1 Liu_Bolin_In_Junk_Food_No.5_Acrylic_on_copper_36x36x26cm_2014
Liu Bolin ‘In Junk Food No.5, 2014. Acrylic on copper 36x36x26cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
Here we see works from the ongoing ‘Hiding in the City’ series, and new works created for the show. Liu also involved New Yorkers - 100 volunteers - who spent many excruciating hours being painted by the artist and his assistants for a new ‘Target’ series. Camouflaged into backgrounds of new $100 bills and a traditional Chinese ink painting, they were required to hold poses inspired by Renaissance paintings. The artist questions the ways in which people are made the passive recipients of consumerism, and the victims of political forces beyond their control. Underlying ‘Hiding in the City’, too, is the omnipresent smog and haze of pollution in Chinese cities, which Liu sees as rendering their inhabitants partially invisible, both literally and metaphorically.
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Liu Bolin Head Portrait’ 2012. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
The first works in this series, created in Beijing, in Tiananmen Square or in the rubble of his studio, overtly reference to the need for artists to “camouflage” themselves in order to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the authorities. Ideas about appearance and disappearance inform all his work. Artists in China, including Liu himself, engage in a delicate game of cat and mouse, due to the unpredictable and sometimes apparently random nature of political censorship. Liu began this series after his studio in a Beijing artist village was forcibly demolished, creating photographic documentation of his performances.  He represented hidden stories of Chinese history, and more recent inversions and varnishings of the truth. Blurring the boundaries between performance, painting and photography, the stillness which is such a striking feature of these images creates a silent protest. Later works in which he has painted himself into scenes of supermarket shelves displaying packaged food or plastic bottles of soft drink refer to issues of food safety and corruption in China.
More recently, Liu’s concerns have become global in their scope. A key image from this show is a life-size standing sculpture, cast from the artist’s own body and covered with brightly coloured food packaging logos. The figure assumes the submissive pose required by airport security in the full body scanner. The posture is one of surrender, capitulation. What is more symbolic of the contemporary world (and the international world of the contemporary artist, in particular) than the airport, that liminal zone of ever more authoritarian surveillance juxtaposed with ever more shiny shopping opportunities? What pose could be more appropriate for the current moment? Klein Sun assistant director, Willem Molesworth, pointed out to me that the pose is also the bitterly ironic “Don’t shoot” stance of black youth protesting in Ferguson, a viral internet phenomenon and a new cultural trope which instantly traversed the globe. In subsequent weeks it was to be echoed by the Occupy Central demonstrators facing police teargas in Hong Kong.
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Liu Bolin, Security Check No.2, 2014, 205x95x55cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
Sculpted clenched fists, ‘Junk food’ No. 3 and No. 5, are copper painted with acrylic, covered in garish Pop Art junk food packaging. An echo of his massive steel fist shown at the Paris Art Fair – monumental, authoritarian, repressive – these smaller versions may be read as inverted symbols of triumph or protest. Liu Bolin was trained as a sculptor, turning to his practice of photographic documentation only after the demolition of his studio. He has been at pains to point out that his work is not a Warholian celebration of glamour and consumerist desire. Rather, he is driven by the rapid transformation of his world – and ours. He examines issues of food safety, environmental destruction, the transformation of China into the world’s factory – and the world’s shopping mall – and the inscribing of global brands onto our bodies and our psyches.
Amongst a number of powerful works in this show the most compelling is ‘Cancer Village.’ This large photograph shows twenty three people, rural villagers from one of China’s notorious “cancer villages”, where industrial pollutants have created unprecedented rates of cancer, even among children. These sites are considered so politically sensitive that they are absolutely off-limits to journalists, artists and film-makers. The villagers (who all willingly volunteered to take part, at considerable personal risk of retribution from local authorities) have been rendered invisible, painted into their toxic fields, and thereby written out of the official story of China’s remarkable economic success. A chemical factory in the background is the source of the 100% increase in the rate of cancer within this rural area. By concealing these people in the contaminated landscape, Liu reveals their plight, and the great cost of China’s rapid industrialisation and wealth.
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Liu Bolin, Cancer Village, 2013. Photograph. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
Liu Bolin is interested in the ways in which our identity is hostage to the interests of global corporations, transcending all previous notions of nationhood and culture. A series of relief works in which a cast of the artist’s head is layered with magazine mastheads is a literal representation of the post-structuralist notion that we exist as a web of texts. These texts, he suggests, are the brands of media barons.  We are what we consume, and the notion of “truth” becomes infinitely flexible. In ‘Red Door’ the artist disappears into what seems to be a traditional Chinese timber door, studded with brass spheres. A closer look reveals both the hidden figure of Liu and also the padlock and hasp which show the door to be a modern metal imitation. The individual subsumed by the overwhelming conformity of Chinese tradition and the weight of cultural history? Perhaps the subversive suggestion here is that this history and culture are in themselves suspect – faked - much as the famous tourist sites of Beijing such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace are repainted every year, in garish colours.
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Liu Bolin, Red Door, 2012. Photograph. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
Hiding in the City: Art No. 1’ camouflages the artist in a Jackson Pollock painting. In actual fact the work in the background is a reproduction. Liu has said that he wanted to pay tribute to the oeuvre of a great master, and yet in the context of his practice we are irresistibly drawn to conclusions about the branding of art and the insatiability of the market. He is also represented “hidden” in a monumental mural of Chairman Mao, in the General Assembly at the United Nations, and in Tiananmen Square, with all its dark connotations. A photograph depicting Liu camouflaged in a wall of meat cleavers references very recent events. After the terrifying attacks carried out in Kunming in March this year, allegedly by Xinjiang separatists, Chinese citizens are now prevented from purchasing these previously ubiquitous utensils, a staple of every kitchen. These works deal with fear. In a world in which terror can appear suddenly amidst the banal environs of the railway station, the shopping mall and the airport, we all experience constant mistrust and a heightened level of anxiety. It’s fertile ground for the artist. The title of his show, complete with its question mark, is darkly ironic.
Liu Bolin, Kitchen Knives, 2012. Photograph. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
Liu Bolin: A Colorful World? continues through to November 1 at Klein Sun Gallery, 525 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, New York.

In Sydney, Liu Bolin is represented by McLemoi Gallery. Works from the ‘Hiding in the City’ series can be viewed by appointment between October 24 and December 8.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Noun or Verb? "COMMUNE" at the White Rabbit Gallery

I must have really loved the new curated show of Judith Neilson's collection of contemporary Chinese art because I have managed to write two different reviews for two very different publications published within a week of each other.
Bai Yiluo. Spring and Autumn 1, 2007; wood, metal, farm tools. Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.
Here is an extract from the article now up on the Daily Serving website:

COMMUNE at White Rabbit Gallery of Contemporary Chinese Art

The word commune, whether used as a noun or a verb, has complex connotations. From earnest Utopianism to grim, state-enforced collectivism; from familial relationships and networks to our connection with the natural world—all of these possible associations are present in the new show at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery of Contemporary Chinese Art. From Judith Neilson’s impressive collection, curator Bonnie Hudson has selected works by twenty-three artists. They include representatives of the older generation that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s, characterized by transgressive experimentation and a merging of the local and global in their practice, through to young (in some cases, very young) artists whose work reflects their experiences growing up in the “new China.” Theirs is a world of chaotic energy, the newly globalised world into which Chinese people were catapulted by Deng Xiaoping’s socio-economic reforms, the transformative effects of which continue to convulse every aspect of Chinese life. As you might expect, an exhibition that explores this world has moments of both darkness and light. The artists examine the complex, shifting realities of contemporary China, including changing structures of family life, relationships between old and young, and the conflict between self-actualization and the collective past.
Xia Xing. 2010, 2010-2011; oil on canvas; 35 x 50 cm (x 60). Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.
A series of paintings by Xia Xing embodies these paradoxes. The artist collects press photographs from the Beijing News, a mass daily with a circulation of 450,000. In 2007 he was working as a reporter at the paper and became fascinated with how it shaped public opinion and represented only selected aspects of daily life in a time of flux and change. Trained as an oil painter, Xia had found his subject. He began to paint the images he saw on the front page of the newspaper. For 2010, he reproduced one photograph for every day of the year, emulating the commercial printing process in a painstaking application of layers of cyan, magenta, and yellow. There is no caption, no headline; from the sixty closely cropped paintings shown here, we must guess what the images represent. Each alludes to a private joy, tragedy, or conflict that has been made—all too fleetingly—public. By preserving these ephemeral images, Xia Xing documents a particular time in China’s history, structured as a series of apparently unconnected fragments. We encounter the man whose hands were amputated by a criminal against whom he had given evidence, the parents of missing children, the forced demolitions and removal of people from their homes, the polluted rivers and lakes. We sense the artist’s horror at a never-ending catalog of disaster and anguish. The artist as witness—a continuing theme in China’s contemporary art.
Ai Weiwei. Sunflower Seeds, 2010; porcelain, 500 kg. Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.
Bai Yiluo’s Spring and Autumn 1 (2007)  is juxtaposed with these paintings. A life-size tree with branches fashioned from old farming implements, with outstretched rakes, shovels, and pitchforks poignantly evoking the dependence on the seasons, the rhythms of nature, the times of planting and harvesting that dictate the lives of those who farm the land. One is also reminded of the obsession with rural agriculture of Mao’s revolutionaries: the ill-fated campaigns to eradicate the sparrows during the Great Leap Forward that caused enormous hunger and hardship; the rustication programs that sent urban “educated youth” to toil on communal farms and “learn from the peasants.” The work is very beautiful, and in its restrained use of weathered, rusted found objects, it is reminiscent of Ai Weiwei’s continued use of the “things” that evoke China, from ancient urns to three-legged stools and Qing Dynasty tables. Ai himself is represented by a pile of his porcelain sunflower seeds, that street snack shared among friends in hungry times in the past. These sunflower seeds have multiple meanings. They may be read as a comment on the ancient traditions of porcelain manufacture and its significance in trade with the West, or as a critique of mass production in China, “the world’s factory.” The realization that each seed, apparently identical, is actually different, reminds us of the weight of China’s population. The seeds also allude to Maoist iconography, which represented Mao as the sun, the Chinese people as sunflowers turning toward him. This is a subtle and clever acknowledgement of the tensions even today between individualism and collectivism.
Click HERE to read more

Saturday, September 6, 2014

COMMUNE-ing at the White Rabbit Gallery

人民 公社 (Renmin Gongshe) is what my Chinese dictionary suggests as the most appropriate translation for the word "Commune". A "People's Collective" of the kind introduced in China in the later 1950s as amalgamations of collective farms. This is the title of the new exhibition at Sydney's White Rabbit Gallery, although the curator is playing her cards close to her chest about whether her intention was to think of the term as a noun or a verb, or possibly both. As is usual with shows at this Sydney gallery, a museum privately funded by the Neilson Foundation and exhibiting works drawn from Judith Neilson's impressive (and growing) collection of contemporary Chinese art, the works and their juxtapositions have much to tell us about China.

Here is an excerpt of my review of the show, published in The Art Life yesterday:
The unveiling of a new exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery is always an eagerly anticipated event. After the sombre mood of ‘Serve the People’, curated last year by Edmund Capon, and this year’s thought-provoking ‘Reformation’ the new show provides quite a different experience. Curator Bonnie Hudson has selected works which create a complex narrative about collectivism versus individualism; about the joys and sorrows of family; and about the ways in which the past pervades the present.
In the Imperial past, the Confucian ideal of filial piety placed family at the centre of Chinese life. Duty to family was far more important than the desires or freedoms of an individual. Under Mao, collectivism defined each person as a member of their group, whether that was a rural communal farm or an industrial “danwei” or work unit. From the cradle to the grave, the well-being of the group took precedence – people were told who to marry, what university course they were permitted to study and where they could work. Today, very few of those strictures remain. Even the much-hated “hukou” - the household registration system which dictates where people can live and work - is being dismantled, and so is the one-child policy.
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Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010, ceramic, dimensions variable, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
Despite the greater freedom today it can sometimes appear as if the idealism of the revolutionary past has been replaced by a cynical belief in the inevitability of corruption; collectivism by a competitive culture of crass materialism. Young people have no experience of the hardships suffered by their parents and grandparents, and as a consequence there is more than the usual tension between generations. COMMUNE features twenty-three artists, from significant international figures now aged in their fifties, such as Ai Weiwei and Hu Jieming, to younger practitioners such as Gao Rong and Wang Cheng. Together, in clever curatorial juxtapositions, they explore some of the tensions and contradictions of contemporary China. Beyond that, though, the exhibition weaves a narrative about family, belonging, and connectedness. There is a bitter-sweet character to this show that I found immensely moving.
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Bai Yiluo, Spring and Autumn 1, 2007, wood, metal, farm-tools, 400 x 350 x 350 cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
On the top floor of the gallery, new media pioneer Hu Jieming’s ‘Remnant of Images’ fills the gallery space with the sound of filing cabinet drawers and doors sliding open and closed again, symbolising the selective and transient nature of memory. Institutional metal cabinets are filled with flickering animated photographs from China’s past and present. Hu Jieming uses new technologies and media to reveal how we are all now inter-connected in a digital world. “It’s like a socialism of the future,” he told me when we met in his Shanghai studio. His work often reflects China’s past and its uncomfortable and dramatic trajectory into an entirely new society. By combining his own photographs of friends and family with iconic Mao-era imagery, and adding random photographs found on the internet, Hu evokes the presence of history in the now, the interrelatedness of past and present.
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Hu Jieming, The Remnant of Images, 2013, cabinets, LED screens, photographs, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
What unites the diverse artists represented in this exhibition is an awareness that the past is not “another country” - although it often seems that way – in fact, it shapes our current reality and the ways in which we connect and re-connect with others. Whether you choose to interpret the title of the exhibition as a noun or a verb; as a reminder of the socialist past or as an exhortation, COMMUNE is profoundly moving. Don’t miss it!
To read the whole review, click HERE!
The show includes one of my current favourite artists, Gao Rong, and a beautifully elegiac video by Zhu Jia entitled 'Waltz', embodying in one clever, absorbing and beautifully cinematic work so many of the themes I find in contemporary art from China: a pervasive melancholy, a layering of  past and present, a mixture of nostalgia with an acknowledgement of the betrayal of idealism, a deep cynicism.  There is joy too of course, and it is present here in many works. But 'Waltz' is just beautiful and it haunted me long after I had left the gallery and was walking the currently bleakly rainswept Sydney streets.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Between Memory and Metaphor: Qing Qing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Are You My Mother? Reflections on Mothers and Daughters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bingyi: The Postmodern Literati

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

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