|With Zhang Xiaotao in front of his animation 'The Adventures of Liang Liang' at Pekin Fine Arts|
Visitors to Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery are likely to have encountered Zhang Xiaotao’s paintings of rotting garbage, swarming ants and used condoms. Depicted with meticulous realism, and with such a fabulous palette of viridian greens and lurid, glowing yellows and purples that they somehow make his abject and repellant subject matter appear beautiful, they are an indictment of a decadent society focused on obsessive consumption. Zhang has said that we live in an “age of lust” and in the past the major themes of his work were sex and death. Trained at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, one of the powerhouses of Chinese art education, he has reinvented himself as a new media artist of extraordinary ambition, using the new possibilities of 3D animation software to create allegories of our time on a dramatic scale. Zhang Xiaotao co-founded and now heads the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy’s New Media Studies Department. And in an equally dramatic shift, he has turned from a darkly satirical skewering of modern desires to a deep engagement with Buddhist theory and practice.
Zhang Xiaotao, The Adventures of Liang Liang, Animation, 11’49”, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts
For the China National Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, uber-curator Wang Chunchen selected two of Zhang’s 3D animations. I met the artist in Beijing during his solo show at Pékin Fine Arts and we talked about the dramatic developments in his life and art. “Zhang Xiaotao: In the realm of Microcosmic” presents three full-length video animation works. Sakya is centred upon the reconstruction of an important Buddhist temple in Tibet, partially destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang has blended traditional Buddhist thangka painting and mandalas with live action film, video gaming imagery and lushly layered effects to produce a hypnotically beautiful and immersive experience. The Adventures of Liang Liang animates the charmingly eccentric drawings of the artist’s little son, creating an allegorical journey through heaven and hell blending traditional Chinese classical imagery of mountains and water with the contemporary world of traffic jams and airport security checks. Three Thousand Words attempts to visually represent the Buddhist notion of the three realms of our existence, a multi-level, multi-spatial exploration of human heart and universe as one. Photographic still images in the exhibition reinforce the themes found in all elements of Zhang’s practice.
Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya No.4, Still Image, 80x144cm, Edition10 2010-2011, image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts
I watched each animation with the artist, while he provided a commentary about his thinking. They draw inspiration from the contemporary visual language of video-gaming as much as from traditional Tibetan Buddhist iconography and the ancient Chinese tradition of ink painting. The Adventures of Liang Liang features cartoon characters, superheroes, and Buddhist deities in a joyfully eccentric visual cacophony. Characters ranging from Snoopy (in the red scarf of a Chinese “young pioneer) to cartoon monsters and the protagonists of traditional Chinese stories merge and overlap. It is wonderfully charming and thought provoking - and I for one totally get the analogy between airport security and the realms of the damned. Zhang is influenced by new theories in quantum physics and the way they challenge accepted notions of time and space and by the philosophies of Xu Bing, his mentor, and the artist he most admires. Zhang Xiaotao believes an artist should be “like an alchemist.” Over many cups of fragrant tea, I asked Zhang to tell me about his metamorphosis since 2005 from painter to new media artist working at the cutting edge of technology. What follows is an extract from a longer conversation, which took place in Chinese with an interpreter assisting.
ZX: In my view, we are now in an age of images, internet and technology. So we must learn new techniques and new languages. New media has changed my destiny. My work went to the Venice Biennale and the Asia Pacific Triennial in Queensland. I think it is an artist’s calling to study and implement new techniques and new languages. An artist must continue to learn and to transform. He has to do this every day. But I still paint! I like traditional material as well as new visual languages. So I spend half the time painting, half the time doing animation.
Click HERE to read the rest of my conversation with the artist.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
Last month I spoke to the disarmingly delightful Zhang Xiaotao in the beautiful surroundings of Pékin Fine Arts, the gallery in Beijing's Caochangdi run by an icon of contemporary art in China, the indefatigable Meg Maggio. Our conversation ranged across many topics: Zhang's desire for a Buddhist Renaissance in China, his thoughts about Chinese art education, his love for the work of Xu Bing, his influence from advances in Quantum Physics, and his belief that artists should be like "wizards in the lab of the future." My account of that conversation was published today on The Art Life. Here is the start of the article, "In the Realm of the Microcosmos: A Conversation with Zhang Xiaotao"
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
My most recent article for The Culture Trip introduces ten of the fascinating artists that I have interviewed for my book, "Half the Sky: Conversations with Contemporary Women Artists in China". Here are the first three.
Ten Contemporary Chinese Women Artists You Should Know
Chinese contemporary art is ‘the flavour of the month’ in the West, but there are fascinating stories as yet insufficiently told: the stories of contemporary women artists. The ten artists introduced here are members of a generation who grew to adulthood in the 1980s and 1990s. Born into a post-Mao China that was entirely and disconcertingly different from the world of their parents, they have been forced to adjust to a tsunami of change.
Friday, January 9, 2015
|Tuanjiehu Window - looking at the Beijing Youth Daily|
|With He Chengyao in her studio, a converted greenhouse|
|With Gao Ping in her new studio|
I veer from despairing that I shall never finish the damn book to elation when I think that finally I have found the right way to express an idea about one of the artists. I have a gazillion windows open on the computer at any one time, with frequent shameful episodes of resorting to Google Translate when I need to send an artist yet another email because their works appear to have multiple titles. I have enormous tottering stacks of books and journals piled on and around my desk, and frequently realise I am muttering to myself: "I know it's in here, come on Wu Hung, where did you write that?!" Every day begins with essentially re-writing what I have written the day before. I really truly am trying to cut down my adjective habit. Truly. That moment of awful clarity when you open your computer and think, "My God that's terrible" happens every day at the same time. Writing is an excruciatingly slow shuffle forwards, like a very, very old person trying to cross a busy road clutching a walking frame. Continuing the forward movement must indicate either great optimism or blind obstinacy. I imagine my friends and family might think - both.
In the midst of all this OCD stuff, there has been room for some other things - although inevitably they are also connected with China and Chinese art. I have enrolled in yet another Chinese language course, with a New Year's Resolution that it's time to get serious or give up. My improvement in fluency is glacier-like, which is hard to accept when I want it so badly. I have read Sheng Keyi's new book 'Death Fugue', an allegory about an imaginary land - a thinly disguised China - and the struggle of her characters to deal with an incident 25 years ago in which an enormous pile of shit appeared in the centre of the city of "Beiping" - a veiled reference to Tiananmen. Sheng Keyi is trying to understand the dichotomy between China then, in the nascent struggle for democracy, and China now. I found the book awfully hard going. Her brand of magic realism is not for me, I have decided. However, stylistic reservations aside, her intentions are interesting and any attempt by Chinese writers to deal with that time is a fascinating development. Click HERE for a very intelligent and considered review by Nicholas Jose, who knows a thing or two about China.
As proof that Chinese art really is everywhere, Zhang Huan is here in Sydney to install his monumental installation of two Buddhas at Carriageworks for the Sydney Festival. Next week the Yangjiang Group arrive for a major project at 4A Gallery for Contemporary Asian Art. Watch out for my piece in Daily Serving following what promises to be an interesting encounter with the artists!
My response to Zhang Huan and his installation was published in The Art Life today. Here is the start of my article:
Zhang Huan and 'Sydney Buddha'
|Portrait of Zhang Huan with Sydney Buddha, 2015. Image: Zan Wimberley.|
Zhang Huan, Sydney Buddha, 2015, ash and aluminium. Presented by Carriageworks in association with Sydney Festival, courtesy PACE Gallery, New York. Image: Zan Wimberley.
The hollow aluminium Buddha figure acts as a mould to form the second Buddha, created from 20 tonnes of ash collected from temples in Shanghai, Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province over three years. Two of Zhang Huan’s studio assistants supervised the construction and installation of the piece at Carriageworks. The ash, mixed only with water, was pushed into the mould, compressed as tightly as possible, a painstaking and physically challenging process which took days. At the opening of the exhibition the final supports and the mould covering Buddha’s face will be removed by the artist. He suspects that the face will immediately fall away, releasing all the prayers and wishes embodied in the ash into the air. Often connected with the veneration of ancestors and with funerary ritual, the incense and paper burned in the temples which creates the ash is sacred. Zhang Huan says it embodies “the collective memories and hopes of all Chinese people.”
|Zhang Huan, Sydney Buddha, 2015, ash and aluminium. Presented by Carriageworks in association with Sydney Festival, courtesy PACE Gallery, New York. Image: Zan Wimberley.|
In 1994, as a radical young performance artist in Beijing’s Bohemian East Village artists’ community, Zhang Huan covered himself in fish oil and honey to attract flies, and sat naked in the foul stench of the communal latrine in a feat of endurance called ‘Twelve Square Metres’. In the same year, Zhang suspended himself in metal chains from the ceiling of an East Village hut, while his blood from a cut on his body dripped into a heated metal bowl. These provocative works arose out of the experiences of his generation, who had emerged from the madness of the Cultural Revolution into a very different China. It seems hard to reconcile the author of those transgressive early works with the gentle and softly spoken artist who arrived from Shanghai this morning and went straight to Carriageworks to check on the installation of his monumental installation. I asked Zhang Huan to comment on the dramatic change in his practice. “This change is natural – and also destiny,” he replied through a translator. “Like the philosopher says, you cannot stand in the same river twice. When I was young I was afraid of many things. But now I fear [even] more – I can see my destiny. There is a Confucian doctrine which states that at the age of 50 you know your destiny. I am 50 now!” He is thinking about mortality, memory and the revival of important spiritual traditions in China.
Click HERE to read the rest.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
|Huang Yong Ping, Thousand Armed Guanyin (detail), at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing|
photograph Luise Guest
So, here is my entirely personal list of the ten best art experiences of 2014. It was a year of art as spectacle, in many memorable instances, and of art dominated - sometimes entirely suffocated - by theory, in other far less memorable and disappointing instances. It's MY list, so naturally there is a major focus on China - what else would you expect? I had originally intended it to be the typical "Best and Worst of..." list, but then decided I would much prefer to write about what I loved. Yes, I was disappointed in Christian Boltanski at Carriageworks in January - despite my admiration for this artist I found the installation underwhelming. The current exhibition curated by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu at three major Beijing galleries, Pace, Galleria Continua, and Tang, disappointed and annoyed me. "Unlived by What is Seen" (um, what?) reveals a triumph of rather obvious and frankly half-baked theory over any visual, visceral or rigorously intellectual engagement. I loved Qiu Zhijie's 2012 Shanghai Biennale but this year's iteration curated by Anselm Franke was a dry theoretical exegisis that made me not want to see it. And the exhibition of figurative painting at Shanghai's Long Museum curated by Xu Zhen (of whom more later in this post) was just plain incoherent. I loved Pop to Popism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales but I did wonder, in this massive survey of the influence of Pop on artists through the 1980s and beyond, where were the Chinese Political Pop and Cynical Realist artists? But enough of the complaints - on with the Shock and Awe! And there was plenty of that, and spectacle, too, to delight and surprise me in exhibitions from Beijing to Shanghai, from Brisbane to New York. Not so much in Sydney, sadly, with the notable exception of the White Rabbit Gallery.
The title of my blog also gives the game away. For me so much of the excitement of contemporary art comes from introducing my students to particular artists and works. This was the year of Xu Bing for my senior high school students. To see them enthralled by "Phoenix"; to listen to their impassioned discussions of the way in which his choices of materials embody complex meanings; and to read their critical writing, with interesting links to works by other artists ranging from Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, to Claire Healey and Sean Cordeiro, to Liu Zhuoquan, and to Fiona Hall was wonderfully exciting for me. With my resourceful assistant I spent a long time tracking down permission to show them a fantastic documentary made by Daniel Traub which deserves a general release. Traub very generously allowed me to show it to my students as long as I promised faithfully never to disclose the password - to anybody, ever. The kids, of course, loved that bit of cloak and dagger secrecy. I have since discovered that it is now available for purchase by educational institutions and I highly recommend it - here is the link to Magic Lantern Films.
|One of Xu Bing's Phoenixes soars over Beijing, outside the Today Art Museum|
In September I saw the work for myself. Xu's two giant Chinese phoenixes, Huang and Feng, are entirely constructed from the junk and rubbish he collected from building sites in Beijing's rapidly transforming CBD, the detritus left behind by the migrant workers who are the unsung (and often openly despised) heroes of China's transformation and growing wealth. When Xu Bing was commissioned by the developers of new financial towers, connected by a glass atrium, he visited the site and was shocked by the conditions in which these rural migrants lived and worked. He saw them as heroic, and decided at that point that his work would be constructed to honour their labour, The glass atrium reminded him of a birdcage, and the Phoenix of course is redolent with symbolism in Chinese history and culture. The developers were not too impressed with giant sculptures made, essentially, with rubbish, and asked the artist to cover them with crystals. Xu Bing refused, and then the project languished for years, in part due to the global financial crisis. Later purchased by a millionaire after its rejection by the Hong Kong developer who had just wanted an auspicious symbol for his building (oh, the irony!) it is currently still installed in the magnificent echoing nave of St John the Divine Cathedral on New York's Upper West Side, a sacramental space which provides new layers of meaning for the work. Describing his process, Xu Bing said, “The method is unsophisticated, like Chinese lanterns. At the same time it is also in keeping with the Western concept of ready-made assemblage. The entire process of creation forms an interactive relationship with the environment and Chinese society.”The two monumental birds "bear witness to the complex interconnection between labor, history, commercial development, and the rapid accumulation of wealth in today's China." In the cathedral, they evoke the back-breaking labour of poor workers globally, who provide the comforts and material goods that we in the developed world take entirely for granted.
|Xu Bing, 'Phoenix' 2008 - 2011, in Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York, image source www.xubing.com|
My second most awe-inspiring art experience this year took place just two weeks ago, in Beijing. Zhang Xiaotao credits Xu Bing as his most significant influence, his "master" in the old Chinese scholarly tradition. Zhang Xiaotao was trained as an oil painter but now heads the New Media Department of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, and Xu Bing is his PhD advisor. His extraordinary animations shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale in the China Pavilion's "Transfiguration", curated by Wang Chunchen, were on exhibition at Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing's Caochangdi. It was there that I spent a couple of hours with Zhang, discussing his works and his ideas about contemporary art and culture in China. "Sakya" (2010-2011) represents the struggle to retain spirituality in today's China, and is focused on a major Tibetan temple which was partially destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
|Zhang Xiaotao, still from Sakya, image courtesy the artist and Pekin Fine Arts|
|With Zhang Xiaotao in front of his work "Liang Liang" at Pekin Fine Arts, December 2014|
Xu Zhen is a key figure in Shanghai's art scene and his individual identity is now subsumed by his “contemporary art creation company” MadeIn Company which he founded in 2009, as well as his newly launched brand “Xu Zhen.” A witty comment on the inevitability of branding in the contemporary (especially the Chinese contemporary) artworld and the triumph of marketing and globalisation everywhere. The exhibition was curated by UCCA Director Philip Tinari and UCCA Chief Curator Paula Tsai and it was nothing if not spectacular. I reviewed the show for The Culture Trip: Beijing’s Best Spring Exhibitions: City of Artistic Spectacle
|Xu Zhen, installation view, UCCA Beijing, Photo Eric Powell courtesy UCCA|
The thousand arms of the Goddess of Mercy protrude like mannequins in a shop window bearing unlikely objects – a tortoise, a broom, an apple, a skull, a mop, a book, a lantern. Despite being dismissed by Arts Asia Pacific as an ‘old monster’ the result is mesmerising. The artist himself has said that when invited to participate in a Sculpture Project in Germany he cane across an astonishing statue of Christ in Munster Cathedral, which had lost both its arms during WWII. A line scribbled next to the statue read "Your hands are my hands." Responding to the armless Christ, Huang decided to make his "Guanyin of a Thousand Hands", a Buddhist deity, 18 meters high (although here shown in three separate segments due to the height of the ceilings.) The artist said, "I have 'reproduced' the famous work in Western art history [the bottle rack] into an Oriental Buddhist Guanyin. The sense of detachment and indifference associated with the ready-made Bottle Rack is complicated and shrouded by various figures and symbols."
I did wonder, "What is it about Chinese artists and Taxidermy?" as I encountered Cai Guo-Qiang's installations "Head On" and "Heritage" in Brisbane last summer. I wrote about this experience for The Art Life and Daily Serving.
‘Falling Back to Earth’ consists of three monumental installations. Two new projects were inspired by his immersion in the Australian landscape and in his themes of humanity’s connection to the natural world. The third has a different resonance in an Australian context. ‘Head On’ was originally created for an exhibition in Germany, inspired by the dramatic, divided history of Berlin. ‘Heritage’, with its 99 replica creatures (polystyrene casts covered in hyper-real fur made from goatskin) gathered around a waterhole was inspired by Cai’s visit to the pristine environment of Stradbroke Island, and the fact that he considers Australia to be a kind of paradise. The title of the exhibition – his first solo show in Australia – evokes the traditional Chinese literati scholars’ yearning for nature and was inspired by a fourth century poem by Tao Yuanming. Why 99 animals? In Chinese numerology and in Taoist philosophy the number 9 is highly significant, representing completion, perfection and regeneration. 99 to Cai represents something that is yet to be completed.
This is the first time that the entire 3000 square metres of GOMA ground floor space has been given over to the work of a single living artist, and due to Cai Guo-Qiang’s global reputation international media – in particular Chinese language media – were targeted by the gallery, so expectations were high. ‘Heritage’ is the big drawcard and it is as spectacular as the gallery’s publicists would have us believe. There is a stillness that somehow transcends the crowds with their strollers and fidgety small children, and a feeling that you have entered a fairy-tale world where natural enemies can peaceably coexist. The enormous waterhole is surrounded by every conceivable kind of animal – zebras, giraffes, a horse, pandas, kangaroos, tigers, a lion, antelope - all creatures great and small. Their relative sizes and forms are exaggerated, enhancing the sense of unreality. They are rendered equal in their vulnerability as they drink, heads bent, from a huge pool of water. As you circumnavigate the pond, watching the animals and their reflections on the surface of the water, you slowly begin to think about the implications of this impossible scene. Cai has moved from the extra-terrestrial to the terrestrial, and invites us to think about our relationship with nature.
In ‘Head On’ 99 replica wolves appear as if in a freeze frame, arcing through the space in a graceful curve, only to hit the glass wall and slide to the floor, slinking back to begin the process all over again. In its original German setting this work had very particular connotations. Shown here, in conjunction with ‘Heritage’ it could be seen as an allegory of heroism, or as terrible misguided foolishness – a warning that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, perhaps. I thought about climate change deniers and the disastrous consequences of human decisions made in the interests of political expediency or short term greed. ‘Eucalyptus’ relocates a vast native gum, earmarked for clearing, to the gallery. Placed on its side it fills the architectural space and forces us to contemplate at close quarters its ancient, gnarled surface. Roots and branches stretch out like capillaries, touching the walls and inviting the visitor to walk underneath and look more closely at what we often take for granted. Cai visited Lamington National Park and was inspired by the giant Antarctic beeches and the primeval power of the landscape. Like the Chinese literati painters who found solace and a sense of the sublime in nature, Cai suggests there is both a moral and a spiritual dimension in our relationship to the land. We need to consider our place in the universe, our interconnectedness, and “fall back to earth.”
Cai Guo-Qiang China b.1957 Head On 2006, 99 life-sized replicas of wolves and glass wall. Wolves: gauze, resin, and hide
Photo by Yuyu Chen, courtesy Cai Studio.
|Lu Xinjian, City DNA Beijing, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 400 cm, |
image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
|Wang Qingsong, "Follow You" 2008 C-Print, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery|
|Do Ho Suh at Lehmann Maupin, Chelsea, installation view|
|Liu Bolin Head Portrait’ 2012. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin|
|Liu Bolin, Security Check No.2, 2014, 205x95x55cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin|
|Liu Bolin ‘In Junk Food No.5, 2014. Acrylic on copper 36x36x26cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin|
Li Tai Po, 1987.10 antique wooden TV cabinets, 1 antique radio cabinet, antique Korean printing block, antique Korean book, 11 color TVs. 96 x 62 x 24 in. (243.8 x 157.5 x 61 cm). Asia Society, New York: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold and Ruth Newman, 2008.2. Photo credit: © 2007 John Bigelow Taylor Photography, courtesy of Asia Society, New York
I must confess a particular affection and partisanship here. Nam June Paik’s collaboration with cellist Charlotte Moorman was my introduction to the playful possibilities of contemporary art, and its debt to Duchamp, when I was a young art student. Who can forget a nude Moorman playing a cello made of Perspex TVs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales? Or wearing them, in ‘TV Bra for Living Sculpture’? And this at a far more prudish time, in 1976, when vice cops had only relatively recently removed copies of Michelangelo’s David from David Jones Department Store on a charge of public indecency!
‘TV Buddha’, also seen in Sydney in the 1970s (thanks to John Kaldor) and in other versions since, has always seemed to beautifully encapsulate his mix of seriousness and play; absurdity and moral purpose. There is a version here at the Asia Society and amidst more theatrical works, later readymades, and video footage from the 1980s (which does, it must be said, look seriously dated) it retains a compelling power and stillness. A closed circuit television camera and a seated Buddha figure face each other on a white plinth. The Buddha is engaged in silent contemplation of himself. Walk into the frame and you too become a part of the work’s circular navel gazing. Past and present, East and West, sacred and secular, stillness and busy-ness. A Zen wake-up call to mindfulness? It echoes Paik’s interest in Zen philosophy, shared with his friend and collaborator John Cage. Unlike some of the other works in the exhibition such as the roughly hand-painted TV sets of the artist’s late practice, charming though they are, ‘TV Buddha’ lingers in the mind.
The New York show provides a new context for these works, and adds a contemporary spin to all the well-known details of his life and work: the collaborations with John Cage and Joseph Beuys; the philosophies of the Fluxus Movement and the blurring of boundaries between art, performance, music and what was called “electromedia” back in the ‘70s, in those heady days of experimentation. ‘Becoming Robot’ suggests that Paik predicted the kind of world we now inhabit; our constant interaction with screens of various kinds, the relentless connectivity, the overload of information, and the tension between controlling technology and being controlled by it. Paik himself said, “Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life.” Click HERE for the full review of the exhibition.
Transistor Television, 2005.Permanent oil marker and acrylic paint on vintage transistor television. 12½ x 9½ x 16 in. (31.8 x 24.1 x 40.6 cm). Nam June Paik Estate Photo credit: Ben Blackwell
|Xiao Yu "Ground" 2014 image courtesy Pace Beijing|