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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Magician of Paper: Li Hongbo

Li Hongbo makes extraordinary, moveable, stretchable, slinky-like sculptural installations from paper: here is the start of my profile for The Art Life based on a long conversation with the artist held in his Beijing studio in 2015. I have to say, I've been in an awful lot of freezing cold artists' studios in China in the last few years, but Li Hongbo's rural barn was definitely the most frigid - I dropped my notebook and voice recorder on the floor several times because without my gloves, my fingers were so numb.

As a little boy in rural Jilin Province, in China’s far north-east –– closer to North Korea and Russia than to Beijing –– Li Hongbo made his own simple playthings from paper, taking pages out of school exercise books to construct toy planes, trucks and trains. Now, as an artist working in Beijing, exhibiting across the globe, he is known for extraordinary large-scale installations such as the two life-sized expanding figures held in the White Rabbit Collection, or ‘Ocean of Flowers’, an installation of brightly-coloured paper guns and weaponry seen on Cockatoo Island at the 18th Biennale of Sydney in 2012. The intimacy of handling paper resonates with childhood memories of folk art traditions and his own hand-made toys. Today, having mastered the art of cutting, gluing and carving thousands of sheets of cheap brown paper to transform this humble material into intricately designed kinetic forms, Li Hongbo says that what he enjoys most, apart from the endless possibilities of the medium, is its accessibility. He believes that Chinese people have a special bond with paper that comes from a deep cultural memory.
Li Hongbo, Paper, 2010, dimensions variable, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
Li’s concertina-like expandable sculptures begin as stacks of paper; until they are stretched and pulled into new shapes they appear as if carved from stone or wood. As a student Li Hongbo researched how paper was used in Chinese folk art, influenced by the significant artist and teacher, Lü Shengzhong, who revived a Chinese craft tradition with his own contemporary papercut installations. Lü’s emphasis on the importance of folk art inspired his students to undertake field research in remote areas of rural China, recording obscure and endangered arts and crafts and learning their techniques. Returning to Beijing, Li Hongbo and his contemporaries sought new ways to embed these traditions into their own art practice: Li experimented with the Chinese ‘honeycomb’ paper folding technique.
In late 2015, I spoke with Li Hongbo in his Beijing studio and asked him what it is about paper that he finds so endlessly fascinating. What follows is an edited extract of that conversation:
Li Hongbo: Firstly, it is because it is very cheap and very common, and accessible to everyone. And it is everywhere, it has a special bond with people. Secondly, Chinese traditional culture has a lot to do with paper. It’s about cultural memory and tradition. People have never stopped their investigation into the endless possibilities of paper. I love paper.
Luise Guest: When, and how, did your interest in the magical possibilities and properties of paper originate?
LH: When we were little a lot of toys were made of paper; toys at that time were very expensive so children would use paper to make things like aeroplanes. They would even tear their textbooks to use that paper to make toys. My handmade toys were very popular with my classmates so I had very good relationships with them! Then later I was a book designer, and I also studied ancient Chinese Buddhist books and wood block printing. So, paper was created long before the Tang Dynasty – more than 4000 years ago – and when I studied the ancient traditions and religious paintings I discovered that paper was a medium that carried history and carried stories. All of this led to my fascination with the endless possibilities of paper.
LG: How did you develop the skills needed to make these extraordinary sculptures?
LH: Originally, I studied Chinese folk art and I am also an expert on Chinese paper culture. The ancient Chinese were very clever; they could make various toys with one sheet of paper that can take various forms. So, I learned how to make my own works in this traditional way.
LG: Is this ‘honeycomb’ gourd technique that you use similar to the method used to make traditional lanterns?
LH: Yes, very much so.
LG: Can you tell me a little about your background – your childhood and student years in Jilin Province before you came to Beijing? I am curious to know about your earliest experiences of art.
LH: When I was young I was very naughty and I liked making toys with my own hands – toys were very expensive so my parents would not buy me toys, and I became very good at it. I liked painting, so I grew very confident in these things. I never stopped painting. At Spring Festival in 2013 I discovered that my mother had collected every artwork I had made since I was a small child, from primary school to college. All of those exercise books were filled with sketches and drawings – but very few notes! In senior high school, I began to learn things and in college I majored in art education. I did not work as a teacher, though, because I wanted a career as an artist, so after graduation I came to Beijing. [In Beijing, Li completed two Masters Degrees at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, in Folk Art and in Experimental Art, over a period of ten years.]
Li Hongbo, Paper, detail.
Read more: Click HERE

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Magic Carpet Ride: Lin Tianmiao's Protruding Patterns at Galerie Lelong, New York

Lin Tianmiao, Protruding Patterns, 2014, wool thread, yarn, acrylic, dimensions variable, installation view at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, Image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co, New York
Imagine my disappointment to be invited to the solo New York show of Lin Tianmiao - and to know that there is no way in the world that I can be there. However, I was lucky enough to be in New York when her major retrospective at Asia Society was showing, and I count myself VERY lucky indeed to have been able to interview Lin Tianmiao twice at her Beijing studio, and see for myself the spaces in which her extraordinary textile installations are produced.

It seems that this show continues her fascination, last seen in her embroidered 'Badges',  with language and how it delimits - and limits - women. The Galerie Lelong Press Release states:
"Over the past six years, Lin has collected around 2,000 words and expressions about women in various languages. Pulling from popular novels, newspapers, the internet, and colloquial dialogues, she has gathered phrases such as “divinité,” “Mori girl,” and “leftover women.” Some are predictably derogatory to women, demonstrating the continued ubiquity of sexist attitudes reinforced by language, while others are directly recovered from obsolescence, representing the nuanced mix of confusion, humor, self-deprecation, and empowerment that accompanies the shifting consciousness of women. This lexicon is woven into thickly raised wool forms so that viewers can feel the visceral and literal protruding patterns while touching and walking on the carpets."

As with the 'Badges' works which include familiar English terms including the entirely predictable tramp, whore and slut along with terms very specific to the Chinese context such as 'phoenix lady' and 'xiao san er' (a 'little third' is a mistress) these works too combine terms such as 'ghetto bird'  and 'Beauty Queen' with, as seen below, 'Zhongguo Da Ma'. Literally "Chinese Aunties" the term refers to middle-aged Chinese women who rushed to invest in gold in 2013 when gold prices plunged,
Lin Tianmiao, F + You No. 1, 2017, Black velvet, woolen yarn, silk thread, cotton thread, 100 x 100 cm, image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co, New York
In my first interview with Lin Tianmiao, in the bitterly cold Beijing winter of 2012, she was extremely definite discussing her views on feminism and feminist art.
 “How do you feel about being called a feminist artist?” I am emboldened to ask. Lin thinks for a moment, then says, “I don’t think there is any feminism in China. Mao said that women hold up half the sky but we have not reached that level.” She denies making her own works in any kind of a conscious response to her reading of feminist theory. “In fact I think feminism is from the west,” she says."

Click HERE for a link to the interview, published on The Culture Trip

This fall, Lin will also be featured in Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Lin will present a solo exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Glass, which will simultaneously feature her work in the group exhibition Annealing. In Spring 2018, Lin will also present a solo exhibition at the Bund Art Museum, Shanghai. Her work is in many prestigious institutions worldwide including the Brooklyn Museum, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Hong Kong Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Art Museum of China, Beijing; National Museum of Australia, Canberra; M+ Museum, Hong Kong; Seattle Art Museum; Shanghai Museum of Glass; Sherman Foundation, Sydney; and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing. 
And to this list must also be added Sydney's own White Rabbit Gallery, where two works from her early 'Focus' series have just been showing in the recently concluded exhibition 'The Dark Matters'.

The New York show at Galerie Lelong New York September 9 through October 21. If you're in Manhattan, check it out.

Lin Tianmiao, Bound and Unbound, image courtesy the artist

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

From the Bones of the Fish: Narrating Desire and Beauty in the Work of Monika Lin

Walnut shells, miniature monsters, nail polish, mirrors, plastic debris and the beauty myth - how does all that coalesce in a socially engaged, multi-disciplinary body of work?

I've written about Monika Lin's work before -- she was one of the female artists I encountered on my first, 2011, research trip to China, when it was beginning to dawn on me that the research question I'd set myself, and on the basis of which I had been lucky enough to win a coveted travelling scholarship, was not really the one that I wanted to find answers to. Instead of producing general teaching and learning materials about how contemporary Chinese artists envisaged their practice, I had become far more interested in the work of women artists, and how they positioned themselves in a still, sadly, testosterone-fuelled Chinese artworld. I met Monika in a Shanghai cafe -- she rode up on her bicycle and we talked about the difficulties faced by women artists, about her practice-led research, about art and motherhood, and how her own position as an American/Chinese artist gave her a unique perspective on the art scene in Shanghai. Her performance in which she wrote the character for 'rice' 10,000 times featured in my article for The Culture Trip, 'The Power of the Word: Calligraphy in Contemporary Chinese Art''

Here's my catalogue essay for her intriguing new body of work, 'From the Bones of the Fish', shown in New York this month:

‘She was very lonely in this sealed-off place. Actually, she was cursed by a witch because of her beauty.’ (Wu Siying, aged 11)

Around the year 700 CE, during the Tang Dynasty in China, a folk tale pre-dated European versions of the story of Cinderella by at least one thousand years. In this earlier version, the protagonist Ye Xian (叶限) was similarly mistreated by an evil stepmother. Her only friend was a pet fish, which her wicked stepmother served for dinner, in an act of vengeful spite. The bones of this fish were magical, recalling the oracle bones used for divination in ancient China. They replace the role of the fairy godmother in the western version of this morality tale, but other elements are depressingly constant: tiny feet, golden slippers, feminine duty, self-sacrifice, and a prince seeking a woman both beautiful and compliant.

The form of this story, like so many others in which women are punishedRapunzel locked in her tower, Sleeping Beauty cast into a coma, or Snow White slumbering in her glass coffinare, artist Monika Lin believes, deeply entrenched in the collective psyche. They cut across cultures and historical periods, representing notions of class, gender and sexuality in highly problematic ways. The consistent thread underlying all these stories, and other fairy-tales from many cultures, is the punishment of women for imagined transgressions. Too beautiful? Not beautiful enough? Too proud? Too independent? The narrative arc will ensure that women will learn their place, only to be saved by the grace and favour of a powerful man.
The essential role of women in such punishing mythologies is one of waiting: to be rescued, to be awoken, to be chosen, to be judged as beautiful and therefore worthy. ‘Those who are not judged beautiful are not beautiful’ pointed out John Berger in his 1972 analysis of the female nude in western art history. Women in fairy tales, and indeed in European oil paintings (think of Giorgione’s ‘Sleeping Venus’, for example), are reduced to a passivity that borders on narcolepsy. British writer Angela Carter likened this to a death sentence in her 1978 text, The Sadeian Woman. Add a more explicitly pornographic element to these tales of women waiting to be activated by being chosen, and we end up with The Story of O.

Where is female agency in these stories, so ingrained in us from earliest childhood? If women tell their own real and imagined stories, might they be different? In her latest body of work Lin has engineered an opportunity for us to hear stories told by 147 women and girls – their voices echo through the gallery space, their stories are written in Chinese and English, and the images they created to illustrate them are exhibited as relief prints. The participants in these oral story-telling workshops were inhabitants of Shanghai: migrant workers, retirees, school children and middle class women alike assuming authorship and agency. In the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the Little Mermaid must sacrifice her voice in order to be seen and desired by the Prince; Lin’s project invited women to speak and be heard.

‘The Bones of the Fish’ interrogates the cultural constructs found in fairy tales as historically powerful, enduring myths that constrain women. Even now. Today. And everywhere. As I walked to meet the artist in Shanghai, I passed a cosmetic surgery hospital. The large banner across its façade said, ‘You too can be a beautiful woman.’ In China, to be ‘bai fu mei’ (white, rich, pretty) is a contemporary aspiration, and Chinese beauty standards are even more stringent than in the west. Women trying to raise daughters free to be their authentic selves must negotiate a Disneyfied global minefield of candy pink. Adult women are marketed versions of the consolatory princess myth as ‘empowerment’. All women judge themselves and each other by impossible standards of beauty and behaviour. Lin’s work investigates this conscious and unconscious consumerism and dares to consider alternatives.

Monika Lin’s work has consistently focused on the marginalised, on those absent from the grand narratives of history. In ‘Double Happiness’ (2011) she explored the impact of pharmaceutical companies and the ‘medicalisation’ of ordinary life. ‘Exemplars’ (2013) used the medium of the woodcut — making a reappearance here in her new work — to deconstruct patriarchal Confucian allegories of filial duty. She works at the intersections of gender, class and race, examining the lives of Shanghai courtesans in ‘flower house’ brothels, and the exclusion of women from the Imperial Examinations system that produced Chinese literati painters and poets. In innovative multi-disciplinary bodies of work, underpinned by deep research, she presents us with alternative, hidden histories, and with the voices of those who were expected to be silent.

‘The Bones of the Fish’ is shaped through connected elements, like the chapters of a book. ‘Lacquered’ is the most explicitly polemical. Nail polish contains highly toxic chemicals that leach into the body and have been found in international samples of breast milk. Lin interviewed manicurists in Shanghai nail salons—young women from the countryside seeking a better life and the promised intoxicating glamour of the big city—engaging them in conversation about their working lives far from their hometowns. Twelve portraits resulted from these lengthy conversations, painted with glossy nail polish on mirrored surfaces. It’s a dangerous glamour: the seductively luscious surfaces of lacquered nails can be likened to the shiny poisoned apple given to Snow White by the wicked queen. 
‘Philosopher’s Walnuts’ consists of 1,000 gilded walnut shells, each containing a tiny, part-human figure. Arranged on square tiles of gold leaf, they recall religious iconography. These miniature hybrid creatures reference a Japanese erotic print, Hokusai’s 1814 ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’ (also known as ‘Girl Diver and Two Octopuses’) that shows an ecstatic sexual encounter between a woman and two octopi. These works possess an element of the uncanny, a suggestion of the cyborg, of an impending post-human dystopia.  The walnut shell itself is imbued with magical possibilities of transformation. Alternately representing fecundity or masculinity, walnut shell bracelets are prized male accessories in China, with links to Buddhist practice and to the imperial past. Signifiers of status. In the early twenty-first century, for a while walnuts were artefacts of trade worth more than gold. Lin cleverly interweaves a gendered narrative with theories of labour and capital.
With great prescience, Roland Barthes suggested in his 1957 text ‘Mythologies’ that ‘the whole world can be plasticised, and even life itself.’ ‘Plastic River’ is an installation made of rubbish salvaged from the streets – recycled advertising signs, acrylic, Tyvek bags and LED signs. Here Lin connects the toxicity of the beauty myth to the vast waste dumps of plastic and garbage surrounding Chinese cities and polluting the oceans, a result of our reliance on the endless cycle of production and consumption, and the repetitive labour of millions. Culture subsumes nature.
In ‘The Bones of the Fish’, Monika Lin suggests that the shiny, seductive allure of advertising is a siren song of desire, as toxic and false in the end as the beauty myth and the fairy tale.
Luise Guest, May 2017
All images courtesy of the artist

 The artist's book may be seen HERE, and click HERE for Monika Lin's website

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Heaven's Mandate: Song Dong at Rockbund

Song Dong, Wisdom of the Poor: Song Dong’s Para-Pavilion, Old house, old furniture, steel, Dimensions variable. 2011. Photograph, LG
This week The Art Life published my review of Song Dong's survey show at Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum, which was absolutely a highlight of my April immersion in Chinese contemporary art.
As you will see, I loved this show.

The Getting of Wisdom: Song Dong’s ‘I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven’

ART LIFE , REVIEWS Jul 14, 2017 
Song Dong, Mirror Hall, Mirrors, old wooden window frames, mirror boards, Dimensions variable. 2016–2017. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum
‘I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven’ is a mature artist’s reflection on life’s joys, dreams, fears and disappointments. Beijing-based conceptual artist, Song Dong, responds to one of the Analects of Confucius, in which the sage suggests that by the age of 50, one ought to be sure of one’s place in the universe, should know ‘the mandate of heaven’. The getting of wisdom, if you like, should be done and dusted. Across six floors of Shanghai’s Rockbund Museum, and across its façade, rooftop balcony, stairwells and elevators, Song Dong responds to Confucius with all the uncertainty and anxiety of a more complicated age: ‘At 10, I was not worried. At 20, I was not restrained. At 30, I wasn’t established. At 40, I was perplexed and at 50, I don’t know the mandate of heaven.’
The exhibition is divided into seven ‘chapters’, one for each floor of the museum and the seventh for the exterior. Each chapter is represented by a Chinese character; together they form a line of a verse:
Jing (mirror), Ying (shadow), Yan (word), Jue (revelation),
Li (experience), Wo (self), and Ming (illumination).
Entering, you are immersed in a structure of re-purposed window frames and mirrors, a (literal) Daoist reflection on the fleeting nature of the physical world, beautiful and unsettling. Within the structure you find Song’s homage to Duchamp’s first readymade. The Use of Uselessness: Bottle Rack Big Brother (2016) is an enlarged version of Duchamp’s inverted bottle rack; on its prongs are discarded bottles that once held whiskey or powerful Chinese baijiu. Lit to resemble a fallen chandelier, they have been cleverly arranged to look a lot like the ubiquitous surveillance cameras that watch our every waking moment. This modern day panopticon has particularly chilling connotations in China, and the work reminds us that surveillance has been a recurring theme in Song’s work. Another work that hints at the heavy hand of the state is found on the third floor. ‘Slogans’ is a maze of fencing and the red banners with white text that you see everywhere in Chinese cities, hanging on fences, outside schools and across the entrance to apartment buildings. Visitors were forced to follow a narrow, circumscribed path through the fences, with the most popular political slogans of the last century and today looming over them – there was no possible alternative route. Sixteen watchful fibreglass policeman with Song Dong’s face are positioned throughout the exhibition.

Song Dong, Mirror Hall, installation view, Mirrors, old wooden window frames, mirror boards, Dimensions variable. 2016–2017. With policeman figure from the series Policemen. Fiberglass, acrylic painting, 170 cm in height, 16 pieces. 2000–2004. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum
To read more, click HERE

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

All Under Heaven: the painted world of Dong Yuan

Dong Yuan, Painted objects, acrylic on multiple canvases, image courtesy the artist
I've interviewed Dong Yuan twice in Beijing (with one attempt abruptly aborted when I was robbed on the subway whilst on my way to her studio, left without even the 2 yuan needed to get through the turnstiles at the other end - a disaster story for another time.) Each time we met, in two different small apartments in enormous complexes of high rises on Beijing's furthest outskirts, I was charmed by her total lack of pretension. She is entirely, unselfconsciously herself. The second time we met, on a cold winter afternoon, I was befuddled by the incomprehensible numbering system of tower blocks, wandering helplessly, leaving her  ever more plaintive voice mail messages. Suddenly she appeared on the road beside me with her dog, wearing pyjamas. With red cheeks and with her hair roughly pulled back, she looked like a heroic girl farmer from a propaganda poster. And, in fact, she told me on both occasions that if she wasn't an artist, she'd like to be a farmer or a gardener.

Just this week my profile of Dong was published on The Art Life website. It starts this way:

A Short History of Everything: the painted world of Dong Yuan

ART LIFE , STUFF Jul 03, 201
As a student in the Experimental Arts Department at Beijing’s renowned Central Academy of Fine Arts, Dong Yuan began to document the mundane objects of daily life. She decided to paint, literally, everything she owned. Home of Paintings and Sketch of Family Belongings (2008) record, on fifty-nine and one hundred and eighty-six canvases respectively, the two apartments in which she lived as a student.

Dong Yuan, Sketch of Family Belongings, 2008, acrylic on 186 separate canvases, dimensions variable, image courtesy of White Rabbit Collection
With obsessive attention to detail, she rendered mundane objects on flat surfaces. Our gaze travels across a pair of shoes, a box of tissues, empty coat hangers, a striped towel hanging on the back of the door, an electric kettle and tea thermos, umbrellas leaning in a corner, books piled haphazardly on wonky shelves, stacks of papers, and a teapot. Some are painted with a Cézanne-inspired aerial perspective, others with meticulous trompe l’oeil illusionism. The canvases are then arranged in real space, in three dimensions: to enter the installation is to have sense of intruding on a private, domestic space. These works provide a glimpse into the world of a stranger, the same voyeuristic frisson as witnessing alternate lives in the blue light of a television screen through an un-curtained window.
Dong Yuan, 2014, with ‘Grandmother’s Cabinet’ painting, photograph Luise Guest
Dong Yuan’s installations of multiple paintings challenge the boundaries and limitations of the medium as it’s conventionally understood. Some are steeped in nostalgia, others are wryly observed representations of the everyday, and some are purely fantastical imaginings. As a student, inspired by her discovery of the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, she was fascinated by the historical genre of the still life. Later, she immersed herself in a study of Renaissance and Flemish painting: Hieronymous Bosch, Hendrick Avercamp and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with their sharply focused gaze on every detail of a scene, near and far, especially delighted her.
Dong Yuan, Daily Scenes, 2009, oil on canvas, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
Dong found living in Beijing alienating and stressful. Her practice of painting the minutiae of daily life grounded her, and helped her to adjust. Daily Scenes (2009) consists of forty-two separate canvases arranged in a grid, recording the view from every stairwell window in her apartment block. Windows were an important element in traditional Chinese architecture, garden design and painting, always placed to reveal a beautiful vista for contemplation and meditation. Dong Yuan’s utilitarian windows, in contrast, reveal a bleak view of endlessly repeated apartment blocks, cars, trucks and bicycles – the sprawling suburban periphery of Beijing. There is beauty, however, in her careful variation of partly-opened windows, a rhythm evoking the comforting familiarity of everyday routines and repetitions. The sky is an unlikely blue, the trees are in leaf and not yet covered by Beijing’s yellow dust, and the typically orange and salmon pink colour of the buildings seems cheerful rather than austere. The bottom row of canvases depicts open doorways, vignettes revealing glimpses of the life of the neighbourhood: a stout man unselfconsciously scratches himself, women look after small children and hang washing amongst haphazardly parked cars. A vista that at first seems sterile is filled with the parallel lives of others.

Dong Yuan, Painted Kitchen2010, (detail) acrylic on canvas, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
Painted Kitchen (2010) takes us back into the domestic interior world: a cluttered kitchen lit by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Rows of canvases depict bottles of cooking oil and soy sauce, stacks of noodle and rice bowls, teacups, hanging spoons and spatulas, plates of food, the porcelain sink and the stove. It is as if the inhabitants of this tiny domestic space have stepped out for a moment, and we are peering into their lit apartment, envious observers of a family meal being prepared and consumed.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Romantic Revolutionary: Guo Jian

With a certain significant date earlier this week and a new exhibition just opened at Sydney's Art Atrium gallery, it seemed timely to re-post my profile and video interview with Chinese/Australian artist Guo Jian, published in The Art Life just before I went to China in April. He is brave, resolute, astonishingly outspoken, and continues to make interesting work and push the boundaries of practice:
In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong called upon artists to combine ‘revolutionary realism with revolutionary romanticism’ in order that art should serve the people. In a very different 21st century context, by recording the impacts of globalisation, industrialisation and urbanisation on Chinese society, the current work of Chinese/Australian artist Guo Jian comments fearlessly on the ills of his — and our —society. In several conversations over the last year, and an interview filmed for White Rabbit Collection, he has spoken to me about his life and work.
His dramatic life story would make a great movie script. In 1979, as a seventeen-year old small town boy in poverty-stricken Guizhou Province, keen for adventure and escape from what seemed a dreary future, Guo Jian enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. His romantic illusions about becoming a revolutionary hero — and his hopes for a secure future as an army-trained artist — were very quickly shattered. Far from home in a grim military camp during the tense build-up of the Sino-Vietnamese war, the way that groups of lonely young men could be manipulated into a state of hysterical blood-lust struck him with horror.
His experiences of the tumultuous events of China’s recent history—his childhood during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, military service, and first-hand experience of the events of 1989—influenced his autobiographical approach to painting. He became known for savagely satirical Pop-inspired realist works: populated by ‘Entertainment Soldiers’, the seductive dancers and singers deployed to motivate and mollify the troops, his paintings examine the sexualisation of propaganda.
Guo Jian, The Day Before I Went Away, 2003, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist
Returning to his home town after his time in the army, Guo Jian worked as a propaganda officer: he was given a camera and charged with taking photographs of model workers in state-owned factories and workplaces. Bored and increasingly cynical, he seized the opportunity to apply for art school in Beijing; from thousands of ‘ethnic minority’ applicants — Guo is a member of the Boyi minority —only three from Guizhou were accepted. In 1985 Guo Jian arrived in the capital to take his place at the ‘Minzu’ National Minorities University. It was a time of great change and excitement: after the repression of the Cultural Revolution, artists were abandoning Soviet-style socialist realism and seeking new, experimental visual languages. They organised exhibitions and conferences, staged events and underground exhibitions, and wrote manifestos. The student movement for democracy appeared to herald the birth of a more open society, but this period of optimism ended abruptly in June 1989. Together with so many other artists, writers, teachers, students and ordinary citizens, Guo Jian watched as the tanks rolled into Beijing, manned by fearful young recruits from the far provinces, boys just like he had been ten years earlier.
Guo Jian is a compelling storyteller, and his tales of how events unfolded as those involved in the democracy movement fled Beijing by any means possible make a tragicomic narrative. He made his way to Australia in 1992, and for years he tried to put all those experiences behind him. But dark memories have a way of re-surfacing. Guo’s boyhood experiences — watching ‘struggle sessions’ and executions during the Cultural Revolution; the suffering of his family during that period of collective madness; his army years; and, most particularly, the events of June 1989 began to preoccupy him more and more. In 2014, these memories would culminate in a subversive installation and a newspaper interview that led to his arrest, imprisonment and deportation.
Guo Jian in Conversation with White Rabbit from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo

Guo Jian had returned to China in 2005 and he was profoundly shocked by what he found— the rush to modernisation left so much destruction in its wake as traditional architecture in Beijing was replaced by eight-lane roads and tower blocks, and whole neighbourhoods were demolished....
Read the rest of the article.HERE

Note that all photographs were provided by the artist and are reproduced with his permission.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

九牛一毛: The Nine and the One: Art in Shanghai

A group of young photographers shoot the work of Liang Shaoji at ShanghART, photo:LG
It's taken a while for the art I saw in Shanghai last month to percolate and for the sediment to settle: images and moments continue to drift in my mind. Meeting artists Lu Xinjian and Shi Yong, and talking with Monika Lin over coffee at the Old China Hand Reading Room about her new body of work, 'From the Bones of the Fish' (watch this space!) Walking to galleries through the tree-lined streets of the former French Concession. The shock of the new on the West Bund. A (somewhat) revitalized M50. Some spaces have closed, some were mysteriously dark, with rumours buzzing like flies, but Shanghai shows every sign of being at the centre of contemporary art in China - at least, at the centre of where the money is right now.
Lu Yang, Uterus Man installation, K11 Art Mall, Shanghai 2017

A classic China moment: I wanted to see a curated group show at a certain very high-profile commercial gallery. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it should have been open. Arriving at the address, I found the door mysteriously locked. A bored guard, dozing over his jar of tea, got up and opened the door, and realised I was in the middle of a fashion shoot, with the paintings as backdrops. The guard assumed that any strange foreigner arriving at the door (no matter my less than fashionista appearance) must somehow be connected. The models, photographers, lighting technicians, make-up artists, hairdressers and runners completely ignored me, so I stayed tolook at the paintings by the light from my mobile phone.
My inadvertent participation in a fashion shoot - as a witness
Now, though, to the sublime, the wonderful, the surprising -- and, frankly, the absolutely awful:

The sublime category absolutely belongs to Song Dong and his survey show, 'I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven', at Rockbund Museum. Five floors of work from the last four decades was quite stunning - and often very moving. Song's re-purposing of architectural fragments and obsolete objects was much in evidence - an insistence, as Rauschenberg said, on working in ''the gap between art and life.'' More about this important exhibition later.

Tiny wooden stools like those that Song Dong and his friends sat on as children to watch movies shown in the Beijing hutongs - but here they are arranged behind the screen not in front of it.
Another iteration of ''Eating the City" - I overheard a boy strongly (and wisely) advise his girlfriend not to eat the stale cake

The top floor of Rockbund is filled with an installation featuring these tiny mannequins, representing Song Dong's childhood self, engaged in every activity imaginable, including peeing, sleeping, and lying face down in a reference to his famous performance lying in a wintry Tiananmen Square and breathing on the frozen ground
While not quite at the Song Dong level of jaw-dropping wonderment, six other shows/artists/galleries provided intrigue, curiosity, astonishment, and moments of reflection.
He Xiangyu, 'Turtle, Lion and Bear' at Qiao Space was a disconcerting and very moving installation of 25 screens in a darkened space, featuring people in the act of yawning. It's infectious - you cannot not respond with your own yawns - the link between artist, artwork and viewer is complete. There was something quite magical about this sense of shared humanity.
Two exhibitions at ShanghART's new West Bund space fof work by Liang Shaoji and Hu Liu were filled with young student photographers on a Saturday afternoon. These two artists, on the surface so different, are linked by their focus on a very limited and highly specific choice of materials: Liang Shaoji works with silkworms and their silken cocoons, creating immersive sculptural installations,while Hu Liu works with pencil and graphite. Every work takes months, and she uses thousands of pencils on a single large drawing. When you look from different angles they catch the light and what at first appeared as entirely black and featureless reveals itself to be immensely detailed.
Student photographers engage with Liang Shaoji's work at ShanghART
At Bank/Mabsociety Chen Yujun's exhibition was intriguingly titled 'The River Never Remembers, the House Cannot Forget'. Working across multiple forms and navigating different conventions, Chen's work is focused on diasporic experience and personal memory. Like Song Dong, he is interested in the connections between people and the architecture they inhabit, often vernacular and makeshift, even chaotic, yet imbued with the experiences of generations.

Chen Yujun, installation view at Bank/Mabscociety
Chen Yujun, collage, detail, at Bank/Mabsociety

Lu Yang, breaker of taboos and too cool for school, is always fabulous, and 'Delusional Mandala' in an exhibition of young new media artists 'Three Rooms' at Chronus Art Centre did not disappoint. I am rarely willing to stand in uncomfortable, cold gallery spaces on hard floors and watch long artist videos, but I watched this one twice, all the way through. Here's a snippet to tantalise, with commentary, from M Woods Museum in Beijing:

Yin Xiuzhen, Xu Bing, Hong Hao, Chen Yujun and a group of interesting artists in 'Collage: The Cards Players' (sic) at the Shanghai Gallery of Art, provided some strange and unexpected juxtapositions. I was delighted to see another iteration of Xu Bing's 'Background Story' series, where apparent traditional Chinese landscapes are created,not with ink and brush, but from rubbish and debris attached to a backlit screen.

Xu Bing, Background Story, the front and the back

Yin Xiuzhen's rockets - or missiles - parodying the kitsch Pearl Orient TV Tower, all made of old clothing and textiles
All the above artists are represented in the White Rabbit Collection of Contemporary Chinese art in Sydney - so here's a disclaimer: This blog is unconnected, it's a collection of my entirely personal views and general ramblings and ravings: my discovery of exhibitions featuring these artists was purely serendipitous. And how wonderful that Sydney audiences have the opportunity to see their work in the curated shows at White Rabbit Gallery.
Song Dong, "I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven"
Another discovery provided much needed balm for a great disappointment. On a previous visit the Yuz Museum had been closed, so I was hoping this time to see some of Budi Tek's reputedly very interesting collection. Instead, as perhaps I should have been able to guess from the surprising lines of teenagers and 20-somethings snaking around the block to buy tickets ("How wonderful that they love contemporary art!" I foolishly thought), I was confronted with a museum filled with the vapid 'sculptures' of American graffiti artist, product designer, graphic designer, sculptor and toymaker, KAWS described thus: "His art stands somewhere between fine art and global commerce. KAWS moved beyond the sphere of the exclusive art market to occupy a more complex global market." Really, enough said. This guy makes Damien Hirst look very, very deep. 

After this disappointment, I entered a dimly lit upstairs space to be immersed in the meditative abstract paintings of Zhao Li, in her first solo exhibition for many years. Floating shapes hover on soft grounds of grey, or vivid red and pink. Linear forms overlapping and coalescing suggesting the constant rhythms of the universe and the human body. Zhao is interested in Daoist thought, and the push and pull of yin/yang binaries are evident in the juxtaposition of line and form in these compelling paintings. I was seduced - and calmed - post KAWS. 

The exhibition text is, not unusually in China, full of emotive phrases like this: ''Reasonable romance and bold elegance can both be seen in her works.'' I may be obtuse, but I have no idea what reasonable romance is. But these paintings are absolutely, stunningly, beautiful. Painting in China is alive and well, and if April's crop of exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai are any indication, it is holding its own amongst the new media, photography, augmented/virtual reality, sculpture and installation.
A ratio of nine strong exhibitions to one that was just silly and shallow  - actually, that's not bad. And there's even a Chengyu, a four character idiom, that fits the situation: ''nine cows, one strand of hair'' 
(九牛一毛 - jiu niu yi mao) refers to something so small and insignificant that it's like one strand of hair in amongst nine cows. Or something.