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

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

上海日记 Shanghai Diary: two artists, a curator, and a revolutionary martyr

West Lake, Hangzhou, photograph Luise Guest

On the website of the Shanghai Biennale: "Free of charge for active army men, retired cadres, and dependents of martyrs, visitors with disabilities, and seniors over 70"

I have arrived in this exciting city of Jetsons-style futuristic overhead freeways, and flyovers, a veritable  concrete spaghetti, after the increasingly usual unexplained flight delays out of Beijing. Colonial and art deco buildings poke their heads above the freeway walls, and apartments with gold domes and cupolas gleam in the sun. At Hongqiao airport an exhibition of traditional ink painting sits side by side with a Chrysler show-room full of gleaming vehicles. This too is "socialism with Chinese characteristics." I have to get used to taxi drivers saying "Qu nali? " (where are you going?) Instead of the Beijing "Qu narrrrrr?" Immediate observation: Shanghai street style is very cool indeed compared with the more pragmatic and prosaic Beijing. The streets of the French Concession district are full of young guys in big overcoats with designer glasses and geometrically sharp haircuts. The notable exception to the high style aesthetic is that truly eccentric Shanghainese habit of wearing pyjamas - often bright pink flanellette, printed with Hello Kitty or Snoopy characters - in the street. They are sometimes paired with high heeled shoes and ankle socks. The addition of a puffy down jacket in a virulent shade of electric blue is often a notable feature as well. 


In Beijing it is rare in most places outside the diplomatic area or 798 to see another Westerner - Shanghai is much more ethnically diverse. On my very first visit to this city in 2011, after spending a month in Beijing, I was surprised to see multi-racial couples. This is generally a Western man with a Chinese woman, almost never the other way around. My young postgrad student translators, however, (mostly girls) talk to me about the pressure from their parents to find a good Chinese husband. In Beijing last week "Shirley" told me that every time she returns home to Shanghai her mother sets up  a series of blind dates with eligible bachelors, worrying that she is leaving it too late. She is 22. She thinks her mother chooses a "better quality" man than the rock musicians with whom she has had disappointing romantic experiences, and says she would never, never marry a man that her parents disapproved of. "Family is the most important thing of all," she says, and as an only child she must not disappoint the parents who have lavished her with love and educational opportunities.

In the French Concession, Shanghai, Photos Luise Guest
Since I arrived in Shanghai I have had a fascinating conversation with independent curator Shasha Liu about the Chinese art market in the odd surroundings of the Marks and Spencer coffee shop - more of that in a later post. Two artist studio visits took up my first two days - the first an interview with young sculptor Yu Ji, whose work is currently showing in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. She is pushing sculpture into the realms of performance art, and she won my heart when she confided her early love for the work of Wolfgang Laib. I later discovered she has worked with Grass Stage Theater Director and art historian Zhao Chuan whom I interviewed with his wife, the performance artist Wu Meng, back in 2012. There is a distinctly more theoretical approach - and perhaps a more polemical one too - to art practice in Shanghai as compared with Beijing. Yu Ji is interested in the body in quite an abstract way - her work is not about sentiment or feelings, but explores the body taking up space, moving in space, and the experience of physical sensation. 

An early work in her student days used the bars of soap which a range of different people had used to wash their bodies, making plaster casts of these worn humble objects. Arte Povera interests her - the use of simple and humble materials such as concrete and plaster. This has been partly out of necessity, as a poor student and a young impoverished artist just beginning to make her way, but it is also a distinct aesthetic and conceptual choice. It is something seen in the work of other Shanghai based artists, too, such as Shi Qing, and again represents a distinct contrast with the grand ambitions and enormous scale of many Beijing-based artists. Yu Ji loves the amputated limbs and battered torsos of = Classical sculpture from the ancient world, and was also inspired by the Buddhist statuary of the Mogao caves along the silk route. She is interested too in the connection between art and daily life, and one of the works currently showing in Paris is based on the very particularly Chinese experience (outside the big "first-tier" cities) of the communal public toilet. For more about this interesting sculptor you can read my forthcoming article about ten interesting emerging Chinese artists in The Culture Trip!
Yu Ji December 2014 Photograph Luise Guest

Yu Ji, image courtesy the artist
My second interview was with painter Wang Zhibo, whose work was seen in Sydney this year in "Wondermountainat Sydney's Penrith Regional Gallery, an exhibition curated by Joanna Bayndrian of contemporary artists both Chinese and Australian who draw in some way upon the traditions of scholar painting and "shan shui" ink and brush landscape painting. You can read my review of that exhibition if you click HERE. Zhibo lives and works in Hangzhou, so I had a grand Chinese travel adventure, leaving my hotel at 7.00am in order to get to Hangzhou's West Lake with at least a little time for a walk around its famed circumference before going to the studio she shares with her husband,  painter Yuan Yuan. The visit was worth it in every way - these highly landscaped vistas punctuated with red maple leaves and willows drooping into the water are so reminiscent of Chinese painting. I loved it despite the battered vans tearing around the lake with tourist touts screaming out the windows into hand-held loudspeakers, and hordes of people taking photographs of their wives and daughters leaning winsomely against trees or looking flirtatiously through pavilion windows.
Local officials on a West Lake junket? Photograph Luise Guest
West Lake Vista, Photograph Luise Guest
My conversation with Wang Zhibo took place amidst the constant noise of drills and jackhammers, as the old factory area is being "upgraded" to become fancy expensive design studios, shops and galleries - "like a little 798" said Zhibo. Her work is cool and metaphysical, dealing in imagined and remembered landscapes which blend east and west, past and present. She is currently working on a series of paintings of security guard houses (like those in the gated estates of the newly wealthy Chinese, always given grandiose names such as "Florida Heaven" or "European Mansions") sited in imaginary gardens inspired by Renaissance painters such as Botticelli. I like this idea, which combines whimsy with savage satire. Zhibo loves Masaccio and Piero della Francesca for how they make the difficult appear easy and inevitable, and there is a similar cool architectural eye on the world in her own work.
Wang Zhibo in her Hangzhou studio, December 2014, Photograph Luise Guest

Images courtesy the artist
After two hours talking with Zhibo and her young assistant, Bing Er (studying English languageat university but desperately wanting to be a photographer and work with Yang Fudong!) came an exhausting trip back to Shanghai. Firstly a cab from studio to station with, as is usual, no suspension. The cheerful driver made up songs for me based on our stilted conversation (sample words, translated from the Chinese, "Hangzhou traffic is terrible every day, every day, every dayl Traffic jams every day, traffic is shit!" Then he would turn to me and say, "Hao bu hao?" (Good or not good?) "Very good!" I assured him, hoping we would eventually arrive unscathed at our destination, which seemed more likely if he faced the road than swivelled around grinning at me. Then almost an hour in the grim, very cold waiting room of the railway station. Then an hour on the fast train, on which many people were standing, as they had sold more tickets than seats, with a man snoring more loudly than I would have believed possible next to me. Then one hour and ten minutes in a taxi line at Hongqiao Station, into which a Russian woman in a fur coat pushed ahead of hundreds of people and leaped into a cab with her child.Nobody protested. I wanted to punch her. Then 50 minutes in the taxi crawling through the stalled traffic, interspersed with burst of maniacal speed and heart-stopping near misses. Like so many of my China days, it was exhausting and wonderful at the same time. If only the mythical revolutionary martyr Lei Feng, who is like a socialist saint in China, much satirised by cynical youth,  HAD been there to help me get a taxi, as this sign in the railway station appeared to promise....

More on Shanghai art, and more of my random #OnlyinChina observations in a later post. Off to the Shanghai Biennale now, followed by more art, as much as I can cram into the day. I will give a few museums a miss, though, including the mysterious but terribly dull-sounding "Exhibition of Deeds of Good Eighth Company of PLA on the Nanjing Road."
From Chinese Posters site: The following example from early 2001 may serve as an illustration of the continuous redefinition of Lei's exemplary status. Falun Gong members undergoing "re-education through labor" were taken to the Lei Feng Memorial Hall in Liaoning Province, in order to learn from Lei's self-sacrifices. According to the report in the Liberation Army Daily [Jiefangjun ribao], the visitors "spontaneously repeated and copied down inscriptions" from his diary.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Blue Skies and Buddhism in Beijing

Solitary Tai Ji Quan under a rare blue sky in Tuanjiehu Park\
I write this preparing to leave Beijing today, after a week so filled with studio visits, galleries, and interesting conversations with artists that it seems much longer. The skies have been miraculously blue every single day this week, which hardly seems possible in this city of "airpocalypse" - and without even an APEC conference of world leaders to explain it. The term "APEC Blue" entered the language last month, with phrases such as "He's not that into you, it's just an APEC blue" flying around the internet. In a city where the posh international schools have all erected air-filtered domes over their sports fields and playgrounds, I have loved walking around the city streets this week without a mask. For people like me who wear glasses, the addition of a mask often results in walking blindly into lamp posts with fogged up lenses obscuring the little vision that remains through the grey enshrouding fog.

Yesterday I spent almost two hours at Pekin Fine Arts talking with Zhang Xiaotao about his extraordinary, immersive and very beautiful video and 3-D animation works, which he showed at last year's Venice Biennale. A delightfully unpretentious interviewee, he spoke of his idealistic hopes that China could experience a Buddhist Renaissance, and return to its historical and spiritual roots, something he conveys to his students at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts where he is Director of the New Media Department. Unlike many other contemporary Chinese artists, who tend to dismiss out of hand the idea that they might be informed or influenced by the work of other artists, he spoke movingly of how much he admired his teacher and "master", Xu Bing, currently his PhD advisor. We talked about Xu Bing's work "Phoenix" (Huang Feng) which I recently saw in New York, and how the central element of Xu's work is the conceptual basis - in this case his admiration for the lowly, badly treated migrant workers on whose toil the modern cities and the wealth of China are built.
Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya, (still image) courtesy the artist and Pekin Fine Arts
Zhang told me that despite the massive technology and big teams of assistants working on his projects, it is the ideas behind the work that really matter. Joseph Beuys' notion of "social sculpture" lies somewhere behind his practice in new media and his earlier (and continuing) practice as a painter. He is something of a visionary, and a futurist. His work Sakya, (2010-2011) depicts most directly the struggle to retain spirituality and religious devotion within the context of China’s urbanised and consumerist present day. Based on an important Tibetan temple partially destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Sakya combines the imagery of video games, science and science fiction, Buddhist mandalas and thangka paintings and sutras. It is meditative and very beautiful.

With Zhang Xiaotao
 In China, despite all the hoopla of the art market, there is still a strong belief that art actually matters. In a world in which, increasingly, art is simply another branded luxury commodity, I so much enjoy the earnest sincerity with which Chinese artists speak about their practice. I also appreciate the sheer technical virtuosity of their work, whether it takes the form of painting, video, or sculpture. Look out for my full interview with Zhang in The Art Life in January. Liang Liang,in which he animated his little son's whimsical drawings to create a fabulous allegorical narrative in which China's past and present are interwoven, together with elements from video games, "Journey to the West" and cartoon monsters, is a wonderful thing. And the airport as a metaphor for hell - that I can relate to!
Tao Aimin, Photo Luise Guest
Another highlight of this visit was finally meeting an artist I have admired for a long time, Tao Aimin. Tao's "Book of Women" series uses the washboards traditional in rural China as sculptural found objects and also as "collagraph plates" to create prints and paintings, combined with characters from the ancient secret women's script 'Nushu'. This was one of the works that originally intrigued me and prompted me to begin this extended research project investigating the work of Chinese women artists. Originally from a farming family in rural Hunan Province, she spoke of living with her grandparents on their orchard, collecting eggs and feeding chickens. As was traditional, her grandparents made their own coffins, which stood in the house and became like big black pieces of furniture. Now, she says, they haunt her dreams. The first washboard was given to her by a 93-year-old woman with bound feet who became her landlady, and her friend. Now, she has more than one thousand, and has collected the stories, recorded on video, of the women to whom they belonged. Like many other Chinese women I speak to, she denies that she is a feminist, identifying feminism as a western thing of no relevance to Chinese culture. As for me, I think that if artists like Tao Aimin, Lin Tianmiao, Gao Rong and Yin Xiuzhen, to name a few, are not feminists then nobody is!

Tao Aimin, works from the Book of Women series, images courtesy the artist
Almost without exception, each artist I have spoken to this year has wanted to talk about Buddhism. From the painter Hu Qinwu whose abstract paintings are like Buddhist sutras,to Liu Zhuoquan and his worlds painted inside bottles and containers,  to Gao Ping who wanted to ask me what I thought about the comparison between Buddhism and Christianity, to Cui Xiuwen who has returned to a study of Buddhist belief to inform her new abstract video and digital works, to He Chengyao who came back to Beijing completely changed after a year in Tibet, each is preoccupied with seeking the spiritual dimension in their life and work.  It seems that like so many people in China today these artists (and so many others) are sensing a hollowness at the heart of the new Chinese society wrought by Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms after the death of Mao, and the embrace of a market economy. Whether there will be a "Buddhist renaissance" as Zhang Xiaotao wishes is another matter - the genie is perhaps too far out of the bottle.
Cui Xiuwen, Reincarnation, 2014, image courtesy the artist
An unexpected delight was the opportunity to see Huang Yong Ping's extraordinary "Thousand Armed Guanyin" at the Red Brick Art Museum. I had seen it before at the last Shanghai Biennale, but it was somehow more impressive in three sections in the almost deserted new museum on Beijing's outskirts, rather than the Shanghai Powerhouse of Art.





Now, on my way to Shanghai, here are some more of my random #onlyinChina observations:
  1. Best Chinglish shop name seen on this visit: A hairdresser in Tuanjiehu called "Moist Beauty" ("eeeew, gross!" as my students would say)
  2. Food mysteries: "Wang Pangzi Donkey Burger" chain restaurant - really? I have avoided the donkey pastrami sandwiches on past visits but there is something too sad about a donkey burger, illogical though that may be.
  3. I love watching the young girls riding their motorscooters in the Beijing winter - they often have hot pink furry ear-muffs, hot pink sheepskin or fur-lined gloves attached to their handlebars, and ingenious padded blankets that attach over the head and tie like an apron to cover the entire front of their bodies whilst riding. They look like pink armchairs with heads.
  4. Despite the fact that in my youth in Australia and England, everybody smoked everywhere, including on buses and in cinemas (and even as a young teacher I remember everyone having an ashtray on their desks) it is hard to get used to entering a cafe filled with cigarette, cigar and even (in the art district) pipe smoke. And I am always amused by the fact that ashtrays are conveniently positioned at squatting height in Chinese public toilets. But there is much to be said for a city where there IS a public toilet on practically every corner, a reminder of the recent past when people did not have their own bathrooms. Having navigated New York, where there are almost none, and developed the ability to walk confidently into restaurants and 5 star hotels purely in search of the conveniences, I think the Chinese pragmatism about all bodily functions is great. The spitting is still an issue, though!
  5.  I am always mystified when expats talk about the "rudeness" of the Chinese. In contrast, I am always struck anew by the helpfulness, friendliness and general cheerfulness of most people I encounter. I am always dropping gloves, leaving books on bus seats, forgetting to take my change and invariably someone comes running after me.I must admit I have seen arguments which have turned into half-hearted punch-ups over car accidents, but even these often seem more for the sake of it than seriously aggressive. (except the collision between a new Porsche and a three-wheeled cycle laden with recycling, witnessed outside the Central Academy of Fine Arts yesterday - now that was nasty!) You almost never see a child being shouted at or smacked. Children are doted on, most especially by their grandparents. The ballroom dancers in the park pose good-naturedly for my photographs, and the dancing grannies invite me to join them.

  6. And it's a rare huge metropolis where women can safely walk around in any streets, day or night, without fear or harrassment. As I navigated the pitch dark corridors of my Beijing apartment building (lights never work - in fact I ran into my own front door with my head, the darkness is so complete) I thought that in Sydney, or New York, or London I would have been incredibly fearful. The stairwells of Beijing apartments are "gritty" to say the least, but I have never had a single qualm. The streets are busy till late into the night, and girls walk freely, arm-in-arm, laughing. That is not to be diminished.
In Shanghai this week I will meet the sculptor Yu Ji, go the the opening of Fang Lu's new work at OCAT, and the Shanghai Biennale, and travel to Hangzhou to meet the painter Wang Zhibo. Watch this space!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Winter Palimpsest

Beijing Palimpsest #1 - outside my front door in Tuanjiehu
I write this post sitting in my apartment high above the noise of the Third Ring Road insanity and the Tuanjiehu Subway Station, at 8.30 on a Saturday night after returning from a gallery opening at 798. My dinner tonight consists of the red wine left in the cupboard by a previous resident (many thanks!) and some peanuts with Sichuan pepper, the resulting combination numbing both brain and body. I may decide to follow this up with some "Bimbo" brand bread spread with delicious "Kewpie" brand jam. Why? Because I can. And because after three days in Beijing I am completely exhausted.The thought of going out and seeking dinner requires way too much energy at this point.

Here are some things that I forget about Beijing and which come back to me in a flood of sensation every time I return to this unforgiving but marvellous beast of a city:

  1. The fabulous rolled "r" of the Beijing accent. When I hear the first taxi driver or workman on the street I just cannot help smiling. What's not to like about a place where every day is "talk like a pirate" day?
  2. The not so wonderful smell of Beijing drains and plumbing. Utterly unique and unmistakeable.
  3. The dry, dry air and the dustiness of the city - leafless trees stand forlornly in grey, bleak, apparently barren fields of dust, and many are covered for winter with tarpaulins or shrouds of plastic. The first time I came to Beijing and drove to the artist villages on the city outskirts I thought I had arrived in a post-apocalyptic landscape of rubble and rubbish. You expect to see Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot. There is ugliness to be sure, but now I know what it is like in other seasons, the beauty of the willow trees and fabulous flower beds in the park, I know the greyness is a temporary phenomenon. Still, a Beijing winter is a harsh thing.
  4. The faces of people in the market - old people wrinkled as the walnuts sold from tricycles and gorgeously red-cheeked babies in hilarious hats with a variety of animal ears. I particularly admire the fashion sense of the old ladies, decked out in heavy padded pants and long quilted coats with extraordinarily eccentric hats - some sequinned, lots of leopard skin pattern, some with enormous crocheted flowers. They have whatever the Chinese word for "chutzpah" might be.



5. Tastes - the "xiao bing" pancake cooked with egg and shallots on a griddle in the market and the jiaozi stuffed with meat or vegetables. Noodles shaved off a huge lump of dough and cooked in front of you. Pineapples cut into swirling sculptural shapes. Tiny intensely sweet mandarins. Pomelos from the south. The market is a sensation - beans and sunflower seeds, black sesame being ground into paste as you watch, incredible mushrooms, fish and meat and eggs and amazingly beautiful vegetables.

6. The craziness of the traffic - I know, I know it's a cliche, but a Beijing traffic jam has to be seen to be believed. As a passenger, though, I can look out the window and marvel at the old man riding a three-wheeled bike with leopardskin-look gloves attached to the handlebars, the young man with the cool haircut talking on his cell phone while he navigates nonchalantly through a traffic tsunami, and the guy with an entire household of furniture strapped to the back of a motorcycle.
7. Again a cliche, but the juxtapositions of wealth and poverty in this city are breathtaking, Yesterday I drove past the gates of a very swish condominium called, without irony, "Capital Mansions." Outside the gate a stooped old man in a PLA greatcoat swept the street with a straw broom. This is "Socialism with Chinese characteristics."
8. The fact that everything appears to be held together with Scotch tape and string, including my hot water system. Everything sort of works but nothing quite works. A test of patience for spoiled Westerners and a cause of shrugs from the Chinese. When will things be fixed? "Mashang!"- immediately! You discover quickly in China that this is a very elastic term, meaning many things, such as "I have no idea but I don't want to tell you that because I might lose face" to "Maybe next month, but quite possibly never" to "Well, life is shit so what do you expect?"

All of that aside - there is the art. And it is amazing. Despite the fact that I have just returned from the opening of a major exhibition with lots of hoopla that, frankly, left me cold (have we not moved on from a "performance" by a guy with a needle in his arm collecting his blood in a cup which spilled onto the floor? I mean, really? Have we not?) there are so many extraordinary artists here.
He Chengyao in her studio, photo Luise Guest December 2014
Today I spent an hour with the pioneering performance artist He Chengyao, who lives and works in a converted greenhouse (surprisingly warm, and somewhat like a hobbit house with its curved roof) on the city's northeastern outskirts. She is known for works which stem from her very difficult memories of childhood and family, using her body in confronting and painful ways. From the moment when she spontaneously removed her clothes and walked on the Great Wall, to her  naked "conversation" and virtual chess game with Marcel Duchamp, she has always been interesting and transgressive. To those who might be tempted to dismiss this as an imitation of 1970s performative practice, I would say: find out about her background, and her struggles with the mental illness of her mother, a result of the Cultural Revolution. Today, however, she told me about the year she has just spent in Tibet, teaching Chinese language in a monastery, and how this has changed her life and her art. She showed me very beautiful scrolls which she pierces every second with an acupuncture needle, creating rhythms of 60 second intervals, as a form of meditation and of measuring time. It requires enormous focus and great control. The resulting works on paper are extremely beautiful and restrained. From there I went to an entirely different kind of space to meet Cui Xiuwen. Cui, whose work "Lady's Room" caused the first court case in the history of contemporary Chinese art, has shifted from digital works featuring her altar-ego, a beauiful "Young Pioneer" who represents her childhood memories and the pressures of being a good Chinese child, loving the Motherland. She is now developing abstract works exploring the spiritual dimension, resulting from her study of Buddhism.
Cui Xiuwen in her studio, photograph Luise Guest 2014
Yesterday Ma Qiusha spoke to me about her performance works and how they represent the pressures experienced by the '80s generation. For a child of parents who had lost their education in the madness of the Cultural Revolution, the pressure to succeed both materially and in every other way is enormous. Later, in the car, my young translator said she was thinking of her mother, who had to give up her education in order that her younger brother could be educated - or else the family would have considered giving him away. The consequence of these bitter family stories is a huge pressure not to disappoint or shame parents who have struggled so much and experienced so much hardship.
Ma Qiusha in her studio, photo Luise Guest December 2014
More about Zhou Hongbin, Huang Jingyuan and Fang Lu in a later post. I continue to be humbled by the openness and honesty of the artists that I meet, and their willingness to discuss their practice with a western outsider with such intelligence and thoughtfulness. I half expect someone to suddenly shout "The game is up! You have no business here!"  Their eagerness to communicate despite all barriers of language and culture is a wonderful thing.
Zhou Hongbin with her work, photo Luise Guest December 2014

Zhou Hongbin, detail, reproduced with the permission of the artist, photo Luise Guest
And, I have to tell you, in the latest instalment of my #OnlyinChina wonderment series, today I watched a dentist in the market extracting the teeth of two patients with what appeared to be a pair of pliers. They were sitting in chairs in between the fish and the vegetables on one side, and the underpants and thermal vests on the other, with crowds of shoppers pushing past, and me stopped in my tracks in astonishment. In the next block was a big hoarding for a dental clinic, with a glossy photograph of a rather creepy looking western dentist in a white coat. "He must have failed all his exams," said my friend who has lived in China for a long time.
Beijing Palimpsest #2 Tuanjiehu Lu

Saturday, November 29, 2014

北京日记激活 Beijing Diary Reactivated

Zhou Hongbin, Utopia, image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects
I am getting myself organised to go to China in just over a week, my second trip this year. My last visit was in April, and Beijing was leafy and warm, mitigating the overall greyness of the city, which I must admit I have come to love. This time, in December, I am preparing for the cold. The last time I spent part of December in Beijing, back in 2012, I had never been quite so cold before in my soft Australian life.

I have a ridiculously big line-up of artists to meet, including Tao Aimin, Cui Xiuwen and Ma Qiusha, as well as photographer Zhou Hongbin, all of whom I have admired for a long time. Tao Aimin's work, 'Book of Women' resonates with the research I have been doing about the ancient secret women's script of 'Nushu'.
Tao Aimin, Book of Women

Cui Xiuwen's video work 'Lady's Room' was the cause of the first lawsuit in contemporary Chinese art. It shattered many taboos - about prostitution in the "new" China, about the boundaries between public and private space, and about notions of femininity and the expectations of "good" women. Her later works in video and digital media layer past and present, memory and dreams, in the way we have come to expect in Chinese contemporary art. 
Cui Xiuwen, One Day in 2004, image courtesy the artist and Klein Sun Gallery
Cui Xiuwen, San Jie, image courtesy the artist
Ma Qiusha is one of a number of performance artists I will be interviewing on this trip. The theme of bodily inscription, physical challenge, and various enactments upon and by the body is a powerful continuing thread in Chinese contemporary art, ever since the experimental days of the Beijing East Village artists in the late '80s and early '90s, and the iconoclastic performances of Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming. It's a kind of endurance which, although owing something of a debt to Beuys, and something more to Marina Abramovic, is peculiarly Chinese. Stoicism in the face of suffering - akin to "eating bitterness" perhaps. Ma Yanling told me about her interest in Ma Qiusha last year, when we were talking about her own "Nushu" performance pieces, in which she and her daughter wrote on each other's bodies in the ancient script. You can read my interview with her, 'A Secret Script: The Painting and Performance Work of Ma Yanling' on the Creative Asia website. (Click HERE for that article.)

She described seeing a performance in which a young artist spoke with razor blades in her mouth, interpreted by Yanling as a metaphor for the powerlessness of young women in the face of parental and societal pressures. This turned out to be a very significant work, From Pingyuanli No.4 to Tianqiaobeili No.4 (2007) "Ma Qiusha’s career was born through pain... the camera records her as she removes a bloody razor blade from her mouth after she finishes narrating her experiences." (Randian.) Art critic Iona Whittaker described her early work as possessing "a spiky intimacy paired with a girlish aspect (like a kitten with needle-like claws)" - a bizarrely intriguing description which makes me eager to find out how the artist herself thinks of her practice.

So, for accounts of my meetings with these artists, and many others, watch this space! 

I am returning to the part of Beijing where I feel most at home. In Tuanjiehu Park I look forward to new encounters with the dancing grannies, the water calligraphers, the choirs singing revolutionary songs, the ballroom dancers, erhu players, kite flyers, Tai Ji Quan practitioners and vigorous octogenarian exercisers. No time for more Chinese classes this time, so I shall have to bumble through as best I can with my broken and ungrammatical Mandarin, hoping that I don't make too many shocking faux pas and relying as always on the good nature of the Chinese. Beijing taxi drivers have been amongst my best language instructors to date, although they occasionally teach me swear words and then appear shocked and horrified if I repeat them.

From Beijing I go to Shanghai, again for meetings with artists including the wonderful painter Wang Zhibo in Hangzhou, where I wish I could stay longer. And for the Shanghai Biennale in the Power Station of Art, always a mixture of awe, astonishment and bemusement for a whole range of reasons.

So, amidst all the usual end of year stress, Christmas shopping and ticking of lists, I am checking the VPN to bypass that Great Firewall,emailing artists, figuring out how to use "wechat" instead of Facebook (it's great!), lining up translators and drivers, purchasing the obligatory antibiotics (because I seem to get sick every single time - that Beijing "airpocalypse" no doubt to blame) and - finally - packing the bags. 

北京我来了! Beijing here I come!

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.