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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Mapping Time: Zhang Peili and Yuan Goang-Ming in Canberra

Entry to Zhang Peili: Painting to Video, at Australia Centre on China in the World, Canberra
I've just returned from a weekend in Canberra, which always feels to me as if I have somehow just missed the Zombie Apocalypse - wide, silent, startlingly empty streets devoid of people and cars. It's eerie. At least, it felt like that until I got out of the lift in my hotel on the wrong floor last night and found myself in a dense crowd of broad men in dinner suits and thin, fake-tanned young women in very tight evening frocks. They looked at me as if I was an intruder from another planet. I was so disconcerted, and so inappropriately attired, wearing jeans and a padded jacket bought in a Beijing street market, that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that I was not in fact in the lobby, and push my way through the perfumed crowd back to the elevators.

Later, in my room, I had cause to reflect on what a sheltered life I have obviously led thus far - never before has the mini bar in my hotel room included, next to the over-priced Kit-Kat bar and expensive water, both a bow tie in a box (for emergencies of the cocktail party kind) and 2 condoms in a tin (for a different kind of emergency.) Suffering from an excess of self-conscious postmodernism, the hotel design featured every possible visual trope relating to politics and politicians, from portraits of Obama to Margaret Thatcher and everyone in between, and giant mirrored murals of paparazzi in the elevators. My room card featured the famous image of Gough Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House after the dismissal of his government. Mysteriously, overlaying the image were the words of quite another Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, after Australia won the America's Cup. Deliberate pastiche or millennial ignorance on the part of the marketing team? I was relieved not to be issued a room card featuring Tony Abbott, which might possibly have come with a Paul Keating quote about Australia being the ''arse-end of the world".
Zhang Peili 張 培力, 30X30 (Set of 3 Screenshots), 1988, Single channel video installation
I was in the nation's capital (sorry, Canberra, but it's hard not to laugh a bit when you say that - beautiful clear air and a bit of Brutalist architecture notwithstanding) for a conference at the Australian National University, 'Moving Image Cultures in Asian Art', and the opening of an exhibition of works by Zhang Peili at the Australia Centre on China in the World. The big attraction was that both Zhang Peili (often called, perhaps to his annoyance, the father of Chinese video art) and Yuan Goang-Ming, the very significant video artist from Taiwan, were both speaking, and the conference featured interesting papers from scholars and artists including eminent Australians Claire Roberts and John Clarke, Omuku Toshiharu from the University of Tsukuba, and Kathrine Grube from New York University. .

In the end, apart from the anticipated themes of fluidity, hybridity and transnational discourse, the unexpected narratives that emerged were of friendship (between artists both within and across national borders, between artists and curators/critics, between scholars, between teachers and their students) and of education - dear to my heart but so often disregarded. Both Zhang Peili and Yuan Goang-Ming stressed their role as teachers. More of that in a moment.
Zhang Peili 張 培力, 30X30 (Set of 3 Screenshots), 1988, Single channel video installation
Image source: Asia Art Archive
Zhang Peili spoke about his work since the mid 1980s, his humorous and thoughtful delivery beautifully translated by Linda Jaivin. He emerged as a whimsical figure with a finely honed sense of the absurd. '30x30', usually described as the first Chinese video work, was three hours long, he revealed, because 180 minutes was at that time the longest VHS tape you could purchase. Zhang repeatedly dropped a mirror onto the terrazzo floor of an empty office, glued the shards together, then dropped it again, often interrupted by passing office workers wanting to know what on earth he was doing.

He knew it would be excruciatingly boring to watch, and this was intentional - after a long series of fruitless meetings throughout 1987 planning a retrospective of the '85 New Wave Movement, Zhang wanted to make a video that would be as boring and pointless as the meetings. The retrospective never happened. One may ask - and indeed, some at the conference did - why he chose a mirror, and whether there is a deeper, perhaps Freudian or Lacanian significance there, but I suspect this would be to miss the point. After years of Socialist Realism, followed by the Sichuan school (rather sentimental) and Scar Art, Zhang Peili wanted an art that denied narrative.

Zhang Peili 張 培力, WATER — Standard Version from the Dictionary Ci Hai (Screenshot), 1993, Video installation with single channel on TV screen. Image Source: Asia Art Archive
A work from 1993 features a famous news reader from CCTV, the official state television channel, reading all the words relating to water from the dictionary, in the manner and style of the official news broadcast - for 9 minutes and 35 seconds. It's both funny and (deliberately) tedious, and quite hypnotic. Deadpan, refusing narrative and deliberately avoiding any political commentary, works such as this become nevertheless a sardonic commentary on the absurdity of the artist's world. When it was shown at Huangshan, curator Gao Minglu insisted that it be run on fast forward.

The exhibition, in the very beautiful surroundings of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), features seven carefully chosen works. Zhang Peili: From Painting to Video is a collaboration between CIW and MAAP (Media Art Asia Pacific, in Brisbane.) The project is built around the generous gift to CIW, in 2014, of one of Zhang’s final paintings from the 1990s - perhaps even the last painting - before he shifted his focus to video and media installation art. Newly restored, never before exhibited, Flying Machine (1994) is a gift from Zhang’s friend and fellow artist, Lois Conner. The presentation of the painting provided an opportunity to explore this significant transition from painting to video, to reflect on the development of media art in China. 

I will write further about other works in the exhibition in a future post - including an extraordinary work, new to me, in which Zhang recorded interviews between police officers and two petty thieves. Real and unscripted, these interrogations are both alarming and absurd as the dishevelled, hapless pair admit trying to rob their victims armed with fruit knives.
Zhang Peili, Q & A & Q & A, 2012
6 Channel with 6 images, video installation, Edition: Colour, sound, 20' 37", photo: Luise Guest
Here is a link to an interesting interview with Zhang Peili, who now, in addition to being director of OCAT Shanghai, still teaches in the influential New Media Art Department that he established in the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he himself studied oil painting in the early 1980s:

Yuan Goang-Ming  Fish On Dish, 1992 Video Projection Installation 
© Courtesy of the Artist & IT PARK 
In Taiwan, video emerged in the early '80s, kick-started after a show of French video art from the Pompidou Centre at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1984, and by artists returning to Taiwan from study in Japan: they introduced video art into the curriculum of tertiary art education. Yuan Goang-Ming made his first video work, 'About Millet's The Angelus' in 1985. Here it is:

I first encountered work by Yuan Goang-Ming in an exhibition at Hanart TZ in Hong Kong last year. It's not an exaggeration to say that it blew me away. Later, I realised that I had in fact seen another of his works before, in the Asia Pacific Triennial, and had been deeply moved by it. In a review of the Hong Kong show, 'Dwelling', I wrote this: In the gallery space, an elegant table is laid as if for a dinner party, with crystal glasses and an ornate dinner service. Every now and then a loud clanking noise disrupts the silence, and the table shakes as if the building has been hit by an earthquake. The real sense of disquiet comes when you enter the next room, where three short videos are screened on a loop. You sit on a domestic sofa, lit dimly by a standard lamp, and reality begins to unravel entirely. In the title work, Dwelling, (2014) the focus is a blandly modern living room, the only oddity the rather slow riffling pages of a magazine on the chair, a book on the coffee table. A breeze wafts the curtains. Suddenly, and without warning, the entire room explodes. Slowly, languidly, the wreckage of the room drifts back until the room once again regains its ordinary appearance. Filmed underwater, although it takes one a while to realise this, the movement of every object seems dreamlike. Yuan suggests that what we accept as stable and fixed is in fact entirely unpredictable. In a split second, the apparently impossible can disrupt everything we take for granted. Of course, we know this is true, but it is profoundly disturbing to see.

The article from which this is excerpted, Exploding Realities: Three Video Artists in China, can be found HERE on The Art Life website.

YUAN GOANG-MING Dwelling - Moment III 2014. Digital Photography / Colour Photograph. 120 x 180 cm Edition of 8. Image Courtesy of the Artist and Hanart TZ Gallery.
Like Zhang Peili, Yuan Goang-Ming was trained as a painter, studying Chinese painting and calligraphy, then western painting. And like Zhang Peili, he too is an educator and influential teacher. Zhang Peili has mentored many young artists who have emerged from the school of New Media in Hangzhou, not least the often outrageously transgressive Lu Yang, whose recent work, Delusional Mandala, reveals the increasing influence of science and technology. Read about Lu Yang, Zhang Peili's enfant terrible pupil HERE. (And see her work in 'Vile Bodies', opening September 9 at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.)

The ANU conference made clear, among much else, the hugely important role of the teacher. In a room populated by scholars, artists and curators who are also teachers (and for whom, frequently, all these roles overlap) I reflected on why art education matters. Just as Zhang Peili reconstructed his 30 x 30 mirror over and over again, so too do teachers reconstruct, reflect and re-reflect in dialogue with their students, in a conversation that continues down the generations. They (we) make meaning - just as do artists, art historians and curators.

 I had plenty of time on the long drive back to Sydney, under huge sweeping skies, to consider the significance of time - even, in the words of John Clark, "epistemically broken time."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bu Hua: Beijing Babe Loves Freedom

Bu Hua, Beijing Babe Loves Freedom No. 2, 2008, giclee print, 100 cm diameter,
image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
With the arrival of my first grandchild (4 weeks old and, of course, completely gorgeous) I have been in a reflective frame of mind. A new baby throws you back forcibly to the long nights you spent cradling your own infant children, and even much further back in time to your earliest memories. Waving knitted toys and rattles at my tiny grand-daughter to amuse her (or, perhaps, just to entertain me), I began thinking about the power of childhood objects to evoke primal responses. 

Before language, before logical thought, these things are imprinted. Digging through cupboards I found rattles, teething rings and slightly moth-eaten teddy bears from the childhoods of my two daughters, and even an antique doll of  my own, with a 1950s plastic perm, eyes fallen back inside its head. It's a kind of time travel, this generational remembering, and it recalled my experience of visiting Bu Hua's extraordinary studio last year, where every wall and flat surface is crowded with old dolls, mechanical and wind-up tin toys, train sets and puzzles. Every conceivable childhood totem is here somewhere, arrayed like devotional objects in a shrine. Indeed, it is a shrine - to the artist's memories of a Beijing long gone, before eight-lane highways tore through the city and the hutongs were almost entirely demolished. 

In Bu Hua's studio, 2015, photo Luise Guest
I have wanted to write a piece about Bu Hua for a while, with a focus on her use of memory, and her nostalgia for her Beijing childhood.

Bu Hua in Beijing, 2015, photograph Luise Guest
1960s meets 1990s in Bu Hua's studio, photograph Luise Guest

Bu Hua was born in 1973, during the Cultural Revolution, but her focus is on a Beijing of memory: bicycles and willow trees; hutong laneways and tight communities. There are certainly dangers in romanticising the past , and Bu Hua's teenage years were times of dramatic change as China opened to the world marketplace, but like many Chinese people, she now sees an unrecognisable place of monstrous greed and unstoppable corruption. It is not surprising that people look back to a time of greater simplicity with a degree of regret.
Bu Hua, Sami, giclee print, 100cm diameter, image courtesy the artist
(I chose this work for an exhibition 'Half the Sky: Chinese Women Artists' shown in Hong Kong and Beijing in April 2016. The Hong Kong Gallery were most upset at the subject matter, but in Beijing it didn't raise an eyebrow!)

Growing up surrounded by artists, Bu Hua ‘learned the language of lines’ from earliest childhood. Her father was a printmaker, painter, and a professor of Fine Arts in Beijing. Connected to the renaissance of printmaking that took place in the years following the Cultural Revolution, influenced by German Expressionists such as Kirchner and Kollwitz, he expected his children to follow in his footsteps. Bu Hua studied the techniques of ‘shui mo’ (water and ink) painting, and attended a specialist art high school before studying at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Fine Art. After her father’s death, she travelled to Germany for a major exhibition of his work. During her European travels, visiting galleries and exhibitions, she discovered the work of international contemporary artists, completing postgraduate study in the Netherlands.
Bu Hua, World 6, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas, 120 x 360 cm, image courtesy the artist
Japanese cartoons were newly available to Chinese TV audiences in her childhood, and Bu Hua loves the vintage nostalgia of ‘Astroboy’, and the wonderful animations made at the Shanghai Film Studios during the 1960s, such as ‘Havoc in Heaven’, an adaptation of the traditional tale of the Monkey King. One of her favourite films is ‘Fantastic Planet’, a French/Czech stop motion animation about a planet ruled by giant humanoid aliens. Now recognised as a significant figure in the vanguard of digital animation in China, an innovator with vector graphics software, she adapts and blends influences from Surrealism, Japanese anime and manga illustration with the strong flat planes and linear qualities of woodblock prints and traditional Chinese folk art. Bu Hua’s practice adroitly navigates the sometimes perilous boundaries between ‘high art’ and popular culture, fine art and graphic design, cuteness and satire. 
Bu Hua, As Soon as China has a Space Station on the Moon, it can Begin to Consider Establishing a Communist Party There, No.3, 2008, giclee print, 100 cm diameter, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
Bu Hua’s happy memories of a secure Beijing childhood provide the source of much of her imagery today. The red corridors and grey walls of traditional architecture, and the white bridges and willow trees of her city recur in her paintings, digital prints and animations. The same protagonist appears in many of her works: a defiantly sassy, pigtailed ‘Young Pioneer’, with her red scarf flying as she navigates a strangely dystopian universe, she represents the artist herself as a child. In Beijing dialect this character is ‘sa mi’ () – a feisty girl with kick-ass attitude. She swaggers and pouts through animations such as Anxiety (2009) and LV Forest (2010), confronting monstrous machines and strange hybrid beasts. Sometimes she takes aim with a slingshot at flocks of birds that morph into fighter jets, sometimes she rides a dinosaur through lush jungles, and in other works she stares into the middle distance, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.

Bu Hua, What is Left Belongs to You, Acrylic on Canvas, image courtesy the artist
Bu Hua communicates her anxiety about the social transformation and ecological destruction of China, and what she sees as the growing selfishness and narcissism of its citizens, fusing western and eastern traditions of art and design. The rising or setting sun is a recurring motif, reminding us that Mao Zedong was often depicted in propaganda posters, framed by the rays of the rising sun. In Bu Hua’s ironic vision, though, darkness is coming. Her fearless young protagonist, a lonely child in a terrifying universe, confronts a nightmare landscape of marauding machines and hideous skeletal beasts. In Vowing not to Attain Buddhahood until all are salvaged from Hell No.3 (2008) she stands astride the skeleton of a deer in a desolate landscape lit as if by the flash of a nuclear explosion. Red fronds of foliage hang from above like tentacles. Birds, beasts and insects dart around the circular composition, an ironic inversion of the traditional Chinese moon window, designed to frame the serene beauty of a scholar’s garden. In this work only the naked child is calm and unmoved, a witness to the apocalypse.
Bu Hua, Vowing Not to Attain Buddhahood Until All Are Salvaged from Hell No. 3, giclee print, image courtesy the artist
Savage Growth (2008) is an animated allegory of industrialisation, pollution and militarisation. Bu Hua’s Young Pioneer stands atop a building, conducting a flock of birds that morph into pairs of white gloves, flying above a devastated landscape in which distorted trees grow out of pools of oil. Other birds become military aircraft, casting ominous shadows over an abandoned amusement park as they shoot down the flapping hands. A row of sexy foxes (fox spirits, in Chinese folklore, are dangerous seductresses) dance backwards and forwards to a sound track that evokes the rhythmic metallic noise of a factory assembly line. Bu Hua represents the environmental devastation wrought by rapid development in China, the unintended consequences of urbanisation and greed. In contrast, Bu Hua also wants to show beauty and tenderness, through the innocence of a world of memory, of small animals and clockwork toys, harking back to a simpler time.

You can read more about Bu Hua in my book ''Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China", Piper Press, Sydney, 2016. A detail of her feisty protagonist graces the cover, beautifully designed by John Dunn, an unmistakeable representation of the power of female ambition and achievement against a sometimes stacked deck. 

The book is available in selected bookstores in Sydney and Melbourne, in Beijing through Beijing Bookworm ( and online through the Queensland Art Gallery HERE

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Four Women Went to China

‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself...'
Beihai, Beijing, October 2015, photo Luise Guest
When I was asked to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of works by three Australian artists, Suzanne Archer, Hanna Kay and Sarah Tomasetti, it was their exhibition title that first grabbed me. 'Three Women Went to China': those five words possess a magical, mytho-poetic resonance. I couldn't stop thinking about them. And as I began to ask each artist how her experiences of China had changed her, and influenced her practice, I began to think about how China has changed me, too. The fourth woman in the title of this post is me.
Near Gulou Daijie, Beijing, October 2015, Photo Luise Guest
I first travelled to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong at the start of 2011, the recipient of a scholarship through the New South Wales Premier's Office, sponsored by a Chinese company. I thank my lucky stars every day for that opportunity, which literally changed my life. I had been teaching students about contemporary Chinese art for some years, but it had never really crossed my mind that I could actually go there. My plan was to visit artists' studios, galleries, university Fine Arts Departments and schools, and to interview 20 Chinese artists in order to develop teaching and learning materials for senior Visual Arts students. Just before I left Australia, the enormity of my chutzpah hit me and I suddenly felt terrified. But having accepted a largeish sum of the government's money I had to pretend a confidence I did not feel.

I began to study Chinese, and by the time I left Sydney in March I could stumble through a few phrases of limited usefulness. 'I am an Australian.' 'I am a teacher.' 'I would like to buy this.' 'How much is this?' 'I don't want this.' 'Please give me a receipt.' 'Give me a cup of coffee.' I began to have an inkling that these phrases, plus my wobbly ability to count up to ten, would only get me so far. I hired translators for my interviews, and arranged an itinerary of meetings with artists in each city, visits to international schools, galleries and museums, to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and (the most difficult to organise of all) a visit to a local high school in Shanghai.

Two more phrases from my textbook struck fear into my heart. 'What is this that I am eating?' seemed to me the kind of question to which I may not wish to know the answer. And, 'Please take me to the American hospital!' appeared, just possibly, causally related to the first one. I expected China to be challenging, but in reality I had no idea what I would find. In retrospect, my ill-preparedness and sheer naivety is both hilarious and horrifying.

The thing that most struck me on that first visit, amidst the apocalyptic pollution,the terrifying traffic, the fact that I was constantly lost amidst the grey sameness of Beijing streets and incomprehensible signage, and the chaotic tangle of tumbledown artists' villages on the city outskirts, was the generosity and warmth of the artists, who welcomed me into their studios, took my project seriously, evinced great respect for teachers, and spoke honestly, at length (sometimes, it must be said, at almost unstoppable length), and with surprising frankness, about their lives and work.

I was constantly surprised by their accessibility and openness, and the way that in China one meeting automatically leads to more contacts. Each studio visit resulted in further serendipitous encounters, and through these chance contacts I met artists of a stature that I would not have dreamed of approaching. I had never interviewed anyone before, and with hindsight my earliest encounters make me cringe - poor Hanison Hok-shing Lau in Hong Kong, and Wu Junyong in Beijing were among the first of these L-plated interviews. But I think they could see my genuine interest and enthusiasm, and I find that people generally respond in kind. To date I have visited and interviewed more than 60 artists - adding Xi'an, Chengdu, and Hangzhou to the other cities. I continue to be humbled by these encounters, from Shi Jindian in Chengdu, Bai Ye in Xi'an, Wang Zhibo and Jin Shi in Hangzhou, to all the artists who agreed to feature in my book "Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China" and the recent exhibition curated for Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, featuring 16 of them. Most recently I have been meeting artists whose work is in the White Rabbit collection, including Zhang Dali, Xu Zhen and Wang Qingsong.

But it was not just the artists whose warmth has struck me and made me grateful - over the years following that first trip I have had so many encounters with Chinese people, in parks, in taxis, on buses and trains, in restaurants, shops and markets, that are genuinely kind and helpful. Sure, as a "laowai" you get scammed every now and then. But now my Chinese is sufficient to argue with pedicab drivers, and to bargain a bit harder in the market. I can even swear, and once shocked a taxi driver so much that he swerved right into oncoming traffic. I have danced with the 'aunties' in Tuanjiehu Park; eaten stinky tofu in Shanghai, donkey pastrami in Beijing, and ducks' tongues in a Chengdu hotpot restaurant whilst watching fire-eating opera performers; travelled across China alone by train; and negotiated my way around far-flung suburbs in black cabs to find obscure artist studios. Did I ever have cause to say "Please take me to the American hospital?" Yes, in fact, but not for myself - and my hair-raising experience of a Beijing ambulance ride in the middle of the night was not for the faint-hearted.
Kite flying at the city wall, Beijing, October 2015, photo Luise Guest
Now, after seven trips to China, both short and long, including a three month stay in 2013 that included a two month Red Gate Gallery residency, living in the local neighbourhood of Tuanjiehu, I can say without any hesitation that China has changed me. I can talk to anybody, anywhere, and I don't care in the least if my mangled Chinese syntax is causing them great amusement. I have become surprisingly adventurous, and would have to agree with Gloria Steinem that when a woman turns 50 she comes into her own, and becomes truly herself. China has given me a job that I love, research that fascinates and challenges me, and a passionate interest that extends beyond art to history, politics and language. China made me a writer.

I understand how the three artists in the exhibition (opening next week) feel they too have been 'imprinted' and changed irrevocably by their experience of China. I started the catalogue essay this way:

‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself,

It leads to transformation of dust into pure gold!’ (Rumi)

Suzanne Archer, Banquet, 2015, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist 

Three Women Went to China. These five words suggest a mythical journey: a crossing of mountains and oceans; the possibility of danger; adversity overcome and the getting of wisdom. It evokes legendary heroines. Pilgrimage. A fable, perhaps, or a metaphor. Alternatively, it’s a bald factual statement. Three women did go to China, together and separately, more than once. And returned, but not unchanged. 

You can read more, and see more of their work, HERE.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

半 边 天 : Half the Beijing Sky Part 2

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

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

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

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

In conversation with Lin Jingjing before the opening begins

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

Tao Aimin, "In an Instant"

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

With Dong Yuan

Gao Rong signs a copy of the book

Looking at Cui Xiuwen's "Existential Emptiness"

With Lin Jingjing

Brian Wallace introduces the Australian Ambassador at the opening

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

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Half the Beijing Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographs and more Beijing stories soon.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Invisible Ink: The Ink Tradition Remixed and Reclaimed

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

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

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

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