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

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Spring in Beijing

I'm back in Beijing, almost exactly twelve months after my last visit, to interview artists Ma Yanling, Tao Aimin, Bingyi and Xiao Lu about how they are using Chinese ink as a material imbued with many meanings, some of them subversively feminist in intent. Beijing in Spring is lovely, although the blue skies of the past weekend had sadly returned to the familiar haze by the time I arrived.
Beijing wiring: scary sky calligraphy
Exhausted from 12 hours on a packed flight, I needed a day just to wander in what remains of the hutongs before the intensity of my conversations with the artists. And to begin using my rusty and limited Chinese, which I imagine sometimes sounds like the first attempts at lucid speech by a toddler: 'This machine broken!' (when my yi ka tong subway card inexplicably fails to let me out of the subway after working perfectly to let me in) or 'Do not want!' to every pedicab driver, ever. At other times I know I'm making sense but getting the word order backwards so I sound like a cliched Middle European character speaking English in a novel: 'Please to me a menu bring'. Speaking Chinese is like a rusty spring that needs oiling, and after a few days it gets better - but I despair of any possibility of fluency. And as for reading, forget it!

But every little successful exchange, from recharging subway cards to asking passers-by which street you are standing on in a maze of grey alleys, to negotiating times and days with a driver, builds confidence. And at least this time around I didn't ask him to pick me up the day before yesterday! ('Houtian' - always so confusing. 'Hou' is behind so how can it mean the day after tomorrow for heavens sake?)
painting attached to hutong alley wall
And those hutongs are always a delight, from the large lady in her flanny pyjamas and curled hair taking a tiny ancient dog for a walk, the father helping his staggering toddler to take his first steps, the wizened old men who have a good laugh at me when I say hello, the lovely paintings adorning many walls, and the nut sellers from Xinjiang hoarsely yelling their wares. Am I romanticising? No doubt, a little, but the Beijing hutongs and their courtyard houses are a unique and threatened form of architecture and social organisation, one that is worthy of preservation.

Love the KFC advertisement on the bottom of the Spring Festival calligraphy!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Lin Yan: Ink and Paper

Lin Yan,'Sky 2', 2016, installation view in Taipei, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection

Last week I interviewed artist Lin Yan about her life and work. She is the daughter and grand-daughter (and wife) of artists, born into one of those extraordinary dynasties of artists that you find more often in China than elsewhere. She reflected on her life of journeying, from Beijing, to Paris to New York where she now lives and works. Her beautiful ink and paper installation Sky 2 is currently installed for 'The Dark Matters' exhibition at Sydney's White Rabbit Gallery. Soon I will post the video of our interview. In the meantime, here is part of the abridged version published today, very appopriately in time for International Women's Day in the Northern Hemisphere:

Three cities, three histories, and three artistic languages co-exist in the work of Chinese artist Lin Yan, who was raised in Beijing and studied in Paris before moving to the USA, where she now lives and works in New York.
Lin was born in 1961 to a family with a distinguished artistic lineage —both her parents and two grandparents were famous artists. Like other intellectuals, writers, artists and teachers, they suffered through the changing political winds of twentieth century China. Lin studied at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, entering in 1980, only two years after it had re-opened at the end of the Cultural Revolution. After graduation, she followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandfather, studying in Paris before moving to the United States in 1986. Today, she works in her Long Island City studio, travelling back and forth between New York and Beijing several times each year.
Lin Yan's parents, Lin Gang and Pang Tao, in 1958, image courtesy the artist

Best known for working with paper, Lin Yan bridges the divide between two and three dimensions (she calls it working in ‘two and a half dimensions’), and between Chinese and Western philosophies and aesthetics. She blurs boundaries, embraces paradox, and juxtaposes past and present. I wanted to learn more about her journey from one culture and visual language to another, and to discover how her beautiful, fragile works encompass past and present. While the artist was in Sydney to install her work at the White Rabbit Gallery we spoke about her early life in Beijing, and how she thinks about her practice: what follows is an abridged and edited account of a much longer conversation.
Luise Guest: I’d like to ask about your early life, growing up in a family of artists in Beijing. Your parents were modernist artists and influential teachers; I know that your mother, a printmaker who had also studied in Paris, at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, was Xu Bing’s teacher, for example, and your father, Lin Gang, had studied in the Soviet Union. Your grandfather, Pang Xunqin, was a very famous modernist artist. How do you think these early experiences influenced you? And what are some of your most vivid memories of your early childhood growing up in this artistic milieu?
Lin Yan with her mother, artist Pang Tao, in Beijing in 1963, image courtesy the artist

Lin Yan: I saw my parents doing paintings a lot when I was young, but not my grandfather, because he was accused of being a Rightist in 1957 before I was born. [Mao’s Anti-Rightist campaigns began in 1957: more than half a million intellectuals, students, artists and ‘dissidents’ were persecuted. Many were executed, imprisoned or sent to labour camps. Lin Yan’s grandfather was made to clean toilets and forbidden to make art, blacklisted for more than twenty years.] Actually, I didn’t really meet him until I was ten or eleven years old. Of course, I had met him when I was a baby, but I couldn’t remember that, I just saw the pictures. My earliest memory of him is from the time during the Cultural Revolution when my parents had been sent to a labour camp along with all the other professors from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and I was staying behind in Beijing, living with neighbours. On my way home from school one day I saw an old man with white hair standing in front of the gate … he was staring at me. I asked if he was looking for someone, or if he wanted to come into the yard, and he said, ‘Are you Pang Tao’s daughter? I am your grandfather.’
Lin Yan as a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, in 1982, image courtesy the artist

...Lin Yan pleats, drapes, folds, sheaves, crumples, cuts and layers soft handmade Xuan paper. Sometimes stained, even saturated, with black ink, her works remind us that ink and paper are the essential Chinese materials for both art and writing. Floating in the gallery space, suspended by fragile threads, the crumpled, twisted, grey and black forms of Sky 2 evoke brooding grey skies over polluted Chinese cities. They contrast with sheaves of pleated white paper that hang behind them, a curtain that shifts gently in every current of air, as if breathing. Overhead, the soft, hollow forms of paper stained with black ink loom like storm clouds.
Lin Yan, Inhale, 2014, ink, plastic bag, light and Xuan paper installation, 765x508x190cm, image courtesy the artist, photo: Jiaxi Yang

Lin Yan with her work Sky 2 at White Rabbit Gallery, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection, photograph: David Roche

O read the rest of the article on The Art Life website, click HERE

Monday, March 6, 2017

Shelter from the Storm: Before the Rain at 4A

Reproduced items and images from The Umbrella Movement Visual Archive, 2014; installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Courtesy of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive.
Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art continues to do interesting and often provocative work that expands our ideas about what's contemporary, what's Asian and even, occasionally, challenges preconceptions about the boundaries between 'art' and 'not art'. They work with artists from across the Asia region, often in socially engaged, long-term projects. Most recently the exhibition 'Before the Rain' explores Hong Kong after the Umbrella Revolution of 2014. Although much of the work, and the curatorial imperative for the show, emerged from the way that contemporary art in Hong Kong has really been given a shot in the arm by events in that city, and the continuing discontent, and even despair at heavy handed control from across the border, the issues are not specific to that locus. I kept thinking about the resurgence of political satire in the US in recent weeks, and the activism of artists. Will it continue? Can it ever be effective? Big questions without simple answers.
Left: Yuan Goang-Ming. The 561st Hour of Occupation, 2014; single-channel video. Courtesy of the Artist.
Right: Reproduced items and image from The Umbrella Movement Visual Archive, 2014; installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Courtesy of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive
Here is my review of the show, published last week in Daily Serving.

Partly an archive of ephemera, mementos of a time already vanished into history, and partly an investigation of the role of the artist at historical flash points of social and political crisis, Before the Rain at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is also an exploration of present-day shifts in geopolitical currents and tensions in Asia. The exhibition gathers an intergenerational group of artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China to explore moments of change and reaction. Why “Before the Rain”? Curator and 4A director Mikala Tai says that in the humid air of Hong Kong, there is a particular moment when you know the skies are about to open and the deluge will arrive. As with barometric pressure, so too with human systems and political tipping points.

Luke Ching. 150 Lost Items, 2014; mixed media. Courtesy of the Artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian A

If pink “pussy hats” are the artifacts by which the 2017 Women’s March on Washington will be remembered, what are the objects that signify Hong Kong’s brief moment of revolutionary fervor, the Umbrella Revolution of 2014?[1] The yellow umbrellas used by the protesters to shield themselves from tear gas, and the yellow Post-it notes used in impromptu art installations around the city, come to mind immediately. Not included in 
Before the Rain, but significant as a comparison, is the work of Hong Kong artist Samson Young. Young’s Stanley (2015) is a large, neon-pink text work that reads, “NOTHING WE DID COULD HAVE SAVED HONG KONG IT WAS ALL WASTED.” This work proclaims the despair felt by many around the globe right now: an unnerving and destabilizing sense that taken-for-granted democratic foundations may be less secure than we assumed. The work of the nine artists in Before the Rain, however, represents a rather different view. They reflect on possibilities of resistance and a sense of exhilaration, albeit at times mixed with sadness.

To read the rest of the review, click HERE

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Year of Transformation

Jingdezhen Chinaware Hotel Courtyard
"So this is Christmas and what have you done/Another year over, a new one just begun..."
I have been intending to write a post covering my most recent experiences in China for some weeks, but the frantic busyness of the year's end  has conspired against me. Now, as I sit at my kitchen table, with food ready to go into the oven in the heat and humidity of an Australian Christmas - yes, we truly are insane - bright parrots noisily swoop on the red flowering gum tree in front of our house, their cries mixed with the noise of neighbourhood children in swimming pools, lawnmowers and the thrum of cicadas, I finally have a moment to look back at the year just past.

Artist residency outside Jingdezhen - clear air and mountains in the distance
And what a year of change it has been.

The first year away from teaching since my second daughter was born in 1990. 

The year of the first grandchild - such joy!

The year my first book was published - a mixture of joy and terror.

The year of my first curated exhibition - ''Half the Sky'' - in Hong Kong and Beijing, and speaking about my book to a packed house at the Beijing Bookworm bookshop.

The year of navigating a new job that challenges me every day, and allows me to focus entirely on contemporary Chinese art.

The year of starting a second graduate research degree - oldest student in captivity?

And a year of three trips to China and my first trip to Taiwan to interview artists who think and work in very different ways to those on the Mainland.

First, my best #onlyinChina moment of 2016:
In a Jingdezhen restaurant we had almost finished eating a wonderfully spicy meal, and had progressed to the too-much-drinking phase of the evening, when I began to hear the word, "laoshu" - ''mouse" (老鼠). Looking up towards the beam running between wall and ceiling, where a few diners had begun pointing, I saw a very long tail disappearing into a crevice in the wall. Then another creature ran along the timber beam above the table. Then another. Then another. And they were not mice. After some amused conversation about what would happen in Australia if large rats were seen running through a restaurant, it was decided to call the waitresses and express some degree of dismay. The Chinese members of our group were completely unperturbed, as were the assembled flowery-aproned fuwuyuan. Their response: "What's your problem? They didn't eat YOUR dinner!"

Back to the art-related highlights of 2016.

In February my book ''Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China" was published by Piper Press after a 5-year labour of love, researching and writing. The launch at Kinokuniya Bookshop in Sydney, a Q & A with curator Suhanya Raffel, was a moment that I had feared might never eventuate in the end-game struggle to complete the project. More than 40 female Chinese artists invited me into their studios and their lives, and we shared conversations about art, men, children, mothers, Chinese history, and everything else under the sun. I am so grateful to them for their honesty, fearlessness and humour, and regretful that I couldn't include every artist I interviewed. In the end, the book featured 32 of them - and one day I would surely love to produce Volume 2!

In April an exhibition of works by women in the book was shown, firstly at Art Hotel Stage in Hong Kong, and then in a different iteration at Red Gate Gallery, Beijing, curated in collaboration with Tony Scott of China Art Projects.

A Line-Up of Artists at the Opening and Book Launch at Red Gate Gallery: L to R Zhou Hongbin, Cui Xiuwen, Li Tingting, Xie Qi, Australian Ambassador to China Frances Adams, Ma Yanling, me, Bu Hua, Tony Scott, Bingyi, Xiao Lu, Lin Jingjing, Han Yajuan, Gao Ping. Not shown: Gao Rong, Dong Yuan, Tao Aimin, Huang Jingyuan

Gao Rong signs a copy of ''Half the Sky"
In October I travelled to Taiwan to interview artists in the White Rabbit Collection. I especially loved visiting the studio of HsuYung-Hsu, and meeting artists Peng Hung-Chih, Shyu Ruey-Shiann and Mia Wen-Hsuan Liu. I discovered a very different Chinese culture and history, reflecting diverse influences from Portugal, Japan, Hakka culture and indigenous Taiwanese histories. It's not 'China-lite', as some had led me to imagine, but something completely unique, despite all the current ongoing tensions.

A work laid out in Hsu Yung-Hsu's studio

In December I was invited to join a research team for the first phase of fieldwork, for a Leverhulme Trust-funded project called 'Everyday Legend', exploring endangered traditional Chinese craft practices and their reinvention and renewal in contemporary art. The week began at Shanghai's Minsheng Art Museum with the exhibition curated by Jiang Jiehong. 'Everyday Legend' included works by many artists represented in Sydney's White Rabbit collection, including Liang Yuanwei, Zheng Guogu, Shi Jinsong, Sun Xun, He Xiangyu and Zhao Zhao. It was tightly curated and engaging, from He Xiangu's alarming installation of teeth to Liang Yuanwei's simulations of textiles in oil paint, from Liang Shaoji's collaboration with silkworms to Yu Ji's dismembered body parts, as if hacked from ancient sculptures.

Liang Shaoji's chains covered and enrobed by silkworms in Everyday Legend, Minsheng Art Museum
 Zheng Guogu's carved marble, mostly unreadable, text iinstallation n 'Everyday Legend' at Minsheng Art Museum
Installation View, 'Everyday Legend' at Minsheng Art Museum, with Yu Ji's cement body parts on the wall
We travelled from Shanghai to Suzhou to meet weavers and embroiderers, and then to Jingdezhen, where our itinerary was arranged by conceptual artist Liu Jianhua, recently returned to China after installing his work at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco - earlier in 2016 his work was shown at the V&A and in Tate Modern's Herzog and de Meuron-designed Switch House. As a young boy Liu was apprenticed to his uncle in a Jingdezhen porcelain factory before eventually attending university at the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute, later teaching in Yunnan earlier in his career. Like many significant Chinese artists, including Zhang Peili, Liu Jianhua still teaches in Shanghai, where he is a professor in the Fine Arts School of Shanghai University. 
''Colouring Tiananmen Square" - porcelain from the 1960s
In Jingdezhen we visited studios, artist residencies, factories, museums and a bizarre ''Cultural Relics Theme Park', as well as the fake market where new wares are carefully aged to appear ancient. Over spicy Jiangxi food we discussed art and Chinese history, and shared ideas for the next phase of the project. We were accompanied by Lv Shengzhong, whose own artistic innovations and profound influence on the curriculum of the Experimental Arts Department at Beijing's Central Academy of FIne Art changed the way that many Chinese artists thought about connections between folk art and contemporary practice. Like a wrinkled grey-bearded elf, wearing a felt hat traditional to Shandong Province, and with an accent so thick you could cut it with a knife, his views on the project and on what we were seeing were fascinating. 
Working a loom exactly the same as those used in the Ming Dynasty

Hiu Man Chan, Jiang Jiehong and Sebastian Liang watch Mr Wang in his embroidery workshop

The group was led by Jiang Jiehong, a professor at Birmingham City University's Centre for Chinese Visual Art, and included Sebastian Liang and Nan Nan from the New Century Art Foundation in Beijing, and Professor Oliver Moore from Groningen University in the Netherlands. The trip finished with a discussion/workshop at Minsheng Art Museum focusing on contemporary art in China and whether artists could or should incorporate material practices from China's past. We were joined by artists Yang Zhenzhong, Zhou Xiaohu and Jin Feng, who were more inclined to dismiss the past than to repeat it, taking a refreshingly idiosyncratic standpoint.

Porcelain worker painting the Immortals, Jongdezhen

San Bao Artist Residency and Studios, Jingdezhen

Porcelain emerging from the kiln, Jingdezhen
Apart from the incident of the rat in the dining room, in Jingdezhen I added to my growing collection of Chinese hotel names in English: the "Waiting Hotel", the "Fishing Post Hotel"(in the middle of the city), the ''Continents La Grande Large Hotel" and my favourite, "The OK Hotel" - which may or may not be truth in advertising. In our own hotel, the Jingdezhen Chinaware Hotel ( excellent by the way) a notice in my room advised that by calling reception I could be provided with red wine, coffee, Red Bull, dried beef, shredded squid, chicken feet with pickled peppers, poker and cigarettes. 

Meats drying from the eaves, Jingdezhen

In the workshop of Mr Wang - Sebastian Liang, Jiang Jiehong, Mr Wang, Lv Shengzhong, Oliver Moore and myself
As for art seen and experienced in 2016, I won't mention the disappointments - but there were a few. My exhibition highlights this year include, in no particular order:

  • Hu Qinwu at Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
  • Liu Zhuoquan at Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
  • 'Ink Remix', a travelling exhibition of works from the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan, seen at UNSW Galleries, Sydney
  • Charwei Tsai's installation of incense in the evocative surrounds of Mortuary Station for the Biennale
  • Lee Mingwei's poetic Guernica of sand - and its sweeping away - at Carriageworks during the Biennale
  • Bharti Kher and Chiharu Shiota on Cockatoo Island for the Biennale - although much of the rest here and elsewhere belonged in the disappointments category
  • Zhang Peili at Australia Centre on China in the World, ANU, Canberra
  • The Kuandu Biennale, 'Slaying Monsters' in Taipei, and the Taiwan Biennial in Taichung, well-curated shows that excited and challenged the viewer
  • 'Everyday Legend' at Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai
  • And, of course, (my partisanship as a newish member of the team freely acknowledged) 'Heavy Artillery' and 'Vile Bodies' at Sydney's White Rabbit Gallery, curated by David Williams from Judith Neilson's extraordinary collection of Chinese contemporary art.
Zhang-Xu Zhan. Inferiority Bat (Hsin Hsin Joss Paper Store Series–Room 003), 2014-2015; 6-channel video animation installation; 5 min. Courtesy of the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts
In all the misery this year has brought the world, and the fear and despair that many across the globe are now feeling, I look to artists to continue to speak "uncomfortable truths" and to art educators to continue their undervalued work teaching students to think critically and apply their creative minds in unconventional ways. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

一个人 One Man: Liu Zhuoquan

Liu Zhuoquan in his Beijing studio, 2015, Photo: Luise Gues
If you've followed this blog for a while you will have come across Liu Zhuoquan before. He's the man who paints inside bottles, appropriating the ancient Qing Dynasty art of 'nei hua' or 'inside snuff bottle painting'. A new exhibition of his work is currently showing at Niagara Galleries in Melbourne, where his departure from previous imagery focused largely on the natural world - beautifully painted fish, birds, insects and plant forms inhabit many of his glass vessels - have made audiences look anew at a suddenly much more hard-edged artistic practice. The artist is careful to point out that his work is not about China in particular; in fact these misuses and abuses of power could be - and are - happening anywhere in the world. And with a painting of prisoners and guards behind barbed wire he could just as easily have been depicting unfortunate asylum seekers trapped by Australia's viciously cruel border security program in the offshore prisons of Manus Island or Nauru. Here is an extract from my catalogue essay for "一个人" (One Man).

Liu Zhuoquan
Self portraits - reading, 2016
four glass bottles, mineral pigments, rubber stoppers

One Man, With Courage…’ Liu Zhuoquan

Beijing-based artist Liu Zhuoquan is best known for beautiful installations of glass vessels in which delicately painted objects, animals and people are captured, suspended like specimens floating in formaldehyde. The walls of his Beijing studio are lined with shelves; on every shelf is an array of glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. Inside their curved surfaces the artist has depicted every conceivable aspect of his world. It’s like a cabinet of curiosities or a museum of specimens: as you turn your head your vision fills with crawling insects, leaping fish, fluttering birds and a vast panoply of flora and fauna. More disturbingly, though, other bottles contain coiled black snakes, human body parts and internal organs, screaming faces, and images of beaten or executed prisoners.

Liu Zhuoquan
Sparrow, 2016
four glass bottles, mineral pigments, rubber stoppers
Height - 18.5cm
A debate earlier this year at the National Gallery of Victoria asked whether artists have a moral responsibility to speak out about political and social issues. Should artists actively address issues of power, of corruption, of oppression? Can art actually make a difference? The omnipresence of social media and technology allows ordinary people to access information on an immediate and unprecedented scale, even in highly censored societies. Many citizens, artists most particularly, feel an obligation to address the uncomfortable truths thus revealed, bringing to the surface things that would otherwise remain hidden.  In a measured and nuanced way, Liu Zhuoquan does exactly this. Since his earliest childhood in Wuhan he has witnessed and experienced the misuse and abuse of power, and he applies a unique ancient Chinese craft practice to reveal some of the most troubling aspects of his world.
Liu Zhuoquan
Self portraits - drinking, 2016
four glass bottles, minera
On my first visit to Liu’s studio some years ago, amongst a profusion of painted plants, insects and birds, I noticed a pair of bottles slightly set apart on a small shelf. The larger of the two contained a portrait of a pony-tailed young woman in jeans and T-shirt standing awkwardly with her hands behind her back, the smaller contained just her head. I asked the artist about their significance. He told me the bottles belonged to a series, portraits of executed prisoners. The awkward young woman had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, her photograph published in the newspaper. It has been estimated that up until 2010, almost 5000 people were executed each year in China; since 2014 that figure has halved, although the precise statistics are a state secret. Liu Zhuoquan’s growing disquiet about the state apparatus of crime and punishment in China resulted in a recent series of bottles featuring police and their prisoners, but his preoccupation with the subject is not new, and one may look to incidents in the artist’s own life and family history for an explanation.

Liu Zhuoquan
Policemen in a bottle, 2016
giclee print
edition of 5
A saying attributed to Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, has particular resonance in the context of this brave body of work: ‘One man with courage makes a majority.’ The notion of the singular brave individual wielding the moral power to create change is, of course, highly problematic in China today, where the authoritarian collectivism of the socialist past collides with a new aspirational individualism. Tensions and conflicts are the inevitable result, seen in recent covert Smartphone videos showing rebellious villagers protesting land seizures or potentially toxic industrial developments battling armed police.  Other videos circulating on Chinese social media show the violence of the feared ‘Chengguan’ municipal law and order cops against marginalised street vendors and rural migrant workers on construction sites. Together with the recently renewed phenomenon of nightly televised ‘confessions’ from human rights lawyers, journalists – even Hong Kong book sellers – these images are a significant aspect of Liu’s world and contribute to his sense that there is a darkness at the heart of Chinese society.

Liu’s painted glass vessels reveal these often-hidden aspects of today’s China, as well as stories from the past. He has adapted the ‘nei hua’ (inside bottle painting) technique, an exquisite tradition dating from the Qing Dynasty, used to ornament decorative snuff bottles. Tiny curved brushes inserted into the bottles apply mineral pigments to the roughened inside surface, reversing the usual painting technique by painting from front to back. Like many other art and craft practices seen as relics of the feudal past, this was largely forbidden during the years of Mao’s rule. Appropriating this imperial tradition, often using images sourced from newspapers or social media, Liu combines his contemporary sense of irony with acute observation of people, and the fragile beauty of nature. He once described his studio as a scientific laboratory where he is recording the ‘ten thousand things’ of Taoist philosophy. In ancient China this phrase meant ‘everything that exists in the world’, the simultaneous sameness and difference of every element of the universe, the beautiful and the terrible alike.
Liu Zhuoquan
Bullet, 2016
three glass bottles, mineral pigments, rubber stoppers
Height - 18.5cm

A work such as Bullet (2016) recalls stories from the not-so-distant past – maybe urban myth, or maybe not – of families sent a bill for five fen to offset the cost of the bullet used to end the life of their husband or wife, son or daughter. Liu’s painted bullet, floating in its stoppered bottle, evokes forensic science and the aftermath of violence.  A narrative told with such economy of means emphasises rather than diminishes the horror. Two miniaturised police officers stand with their backs to us inside similar bottles, suggesting that they too are trapped in a system over which they have no control: they are just obeying orders, a chilling phrase we have heard too often before. These anonymous authority figures also make an appearance in Two policemen (2007), an earlier oil on canvas work, but the larger scale of the painting changes the meaning – seen from behind, against a 
loosely painted, greenish-white background, we are starkly reminded of their power.

To read the rest of the essay, the catalogue is available from Niagara Galleries: HERE

I love the glass bottles, but I think after long consideration my favourite work in the exhibition is a painting on more conventional canvas. Two policemen in ill-fitting baggy uniforms are seen from behind, in the characteristic bored pose of soldiers or police officers with sore feet who've been standing for a long time. They are also victims of a system that seeks (and sees) dangerous dissent everywhere.
Liu Zhuoquan
Two policemen, 2007
oil on canvas
99.5 x 70cm

Friday, September 23, 2016

Zhang Peili: China and the World

Preparing to write a piece for Daily Serving about the Zhang Peili exhibition at the Australian Centre on China in the World, at Canberra's Australian National University, I was thinking about the aspects of Chinese contemporary art that I find most compelling. In the end, I decided, it comes down to the sheer audacity of scale and ambition, the sense that nothing is impossible, even in a tightly controlled society. Chinese artists are adept at walking that tightrope, evading heavy-handed and clumsy attempts at censorship; they use metaphor in such clever and poetic ways. Even, as in the case of Zhang Peili, when they have been insistent on a desire to avoid narrative altogether. 

Here, for example, is Zhang Peili's 'Elegant Semicircles', in ‘HARMONIOUS SOCIETY 天下無事’, curated by Jiang Jiehong as part of Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 (with a work by He An in the foreground. Six large, single-colour flags on mechanised flagpoles sweep the floor as they move from side-to-side, gathering dust throughout the exhibition. 

One of the things I thought about was the hugely significant role of new media and time based work in an artworld still dominated by painting - the impact of one man on that development is very significant. Zhang Peili was the founder of the New Media Department at Hangzhou's China Academy of Art, and he still teaches there - his pupils are now making waves internationally.

Writing for Daily Serving, I said: 

''Sometimes—perhaps not often enough—viewing video art is a profoundly immersive experience of the kind that only a time-based medium can provide. Bill Viola describes this magic: “…it’s not an intellectual experience, it’s a physical experience. It’s coming at your body.” At other times, while peering at a small screen in a darkened gallery, the only possible response is an overwhelming ennui. Zhang Peili provides audiences with both these seemingly mutually exclusive states. In the 1980s and 1990s, he employed an aesthetic of deadpan banality, repeating nonsensical rituals that created intentional slippages of language and meaning. Although these and his recent video installations might frustrate a 21st-century audience grown overly reliant on spectacle, this glimpse of Zhang’s work over more than twenty-five years is satisfyingly thought-provoking and often surprisingly poetic. 

Zhang Peili. Q + A + Q, 2012. 2-channel video projection installation; 20:37; installation view, Q + A + Q, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist and Australian Centre on China in the World.
'Zhang Peili: From Painting to Video' is curated around a work gifted to the Australian Centre on China in the World at ANU. In 2014, Zhang’s friend and fellow artist Lois Conner donated one of the artist’s final paintings, Flying Machine (1994). The exhibition of this newly restored work provided an opportunity to explore Zhang’s transition from painting to video, and to reflect on the development of new media art in China toward the end of the 20th century. The exhibition also presents eight of Zhang Peili’s pioneering video works dating from 1988 to 2012, starting with 30 x 30 (1988), generally considered to be the first video work in the history of contemporary Chinese art.

Zhang Peili. Uncertain Pleasures, 1996; six-channel video, twelve CRT monitors; 5:04. Courtesy of the Artist and Australian Centre on China in the World.
30 x 30 (1988) was later followed by Zhang’s experiments with performative, durational, and text-based installations. In the piece, Zhang films his own hands in surgical gloves, breaking a thirty-by-thirty-centimeter mirror, painstakingly gluing the shards together, and then breaking and gluing it again and again against the terrazzo-tiled floor of an empty office. The video was filmed over three hours (the longest VHS tape available at the time); Zhang’s intention was to lock viewers into the exhibition space for the entirety of the piece. This absurdist representation of a banal and incomprehensible action reflected the artist’s determination to avoid political imagery and easy narratives. He intended it to be excruciating to watch: After a series of fruitless meetings planning a retrospective of the avant-garde ’85 New Wave Movement that had surged across China in the mid-1980s, Zhang wanted to make a video that would be as boring and pointless as these meetings.
Zhang Peili, 30 x 30, 1988, single channel video, 32 min 9 secs

The first 5 minutes of 30 x 30

To read the rest of the article, click HERE

Monday, September 12, 2016

Hu Qinwu: 天下All Under Heaven

Earlier this year I wrote a catalogue essay for an exhibition of paintings by Hu Qinwu at Melbourne's Niagara Galleries. I have loved Hu's work since visiting his studio on my first trip to China at the start of 2011, my first encounter with this softly spoken and gentle artist. Here is the essay, in both English and Chinese versions, with thanks to Niagara Galleries, China Art Projects and my wonderful translator in Beijing, Xu Yining:
Hu Qinwu in his Beijing studio, 2011, photograph Luise Guest
Can painting be a form of meditation, even of prayer? In the work of Beijing-based painter Hu Qinwu we find a cosmos teeming with energy, like constellations seen through a powerful telescope, or the unseen worlds beneath the ocean’s surface. Hu works in an idiom that seems at first glance to echo western modernist conventions of abstraction – fields of rich colour are activated with a grid of lines and marks that appear to shimmer and float across large canvases like echoes of Rothko, immersive and profoundly beautiful. Almost minimalist, they are stained in grey, gold, crimson, viridian or jade. 


(untitled 20161), 2016

acrylic, pigment on canvas 150 x 120 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Unlike the mid-century American colour field and gestural abstractionists, however, Hu Qinwu’s abstraction emerges from a particularly Chinese art historical moment. The abstract painting that emerged at the end of the twentieth century in China is the antithesis of western minimalism; art historian Gao Minglu coined the term ‘Maximalism’ to define their particular character: anti-theatrical, consisting of both interior and exterior space, imbued with philosophical and spiritual notions of temporality, these works reflect the conceptual space within the artist. Inheriting this specifically Chinese history, every work in Hu Qinwu’s oeuvre is an expression of his Buddhist practice – slow, deliberate, reflective and spare. Not a mark is wasted; there is no excess. This is painting that has been pared back over time, stripped of all that is inessential, reduced to its essence. 

For thirty years under Mao the only permissible style for Chinese painters was Soviet Socialist Realism. Painters were trained in Russian and French methods of academic realist painting, and even today figuration dominates. There is a growing interest in abstraction, however, and an acknowledgement that there is indeed a history of abstract painting in China. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first there have been reciprocal exchanges between Chinese and western modernist artists in relation to abstraction. A complex history of transnational discourse that defies easy codification, this has not been a one-way influence, or a kind of artworld colonialism. In post-war New York artists such as Rothko, Motherwell, Kline and Tobey were fascinated by ink painting and calligraphy, and by Zen Buddhist thought. In post-Mao China, a late twentieth century revival of ink painting took western abstraction as a visual language of line and mark and adapted it to a very different philosophical paradigm. To view Hu Qinwu’s paintings as an adaptation of high modernist ‘all-over’ painting would be to entirely miss the point. His practice is grounded in Buddhist philosophy, Chinese history, and his life in Beijing, far from his home town in Shandong Province. To understand his paintings as a form of prayer is closer to the artist’s intentions. 


(untitled 13021), 2016

acrylic, pigment on canvas 150 x 120 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Hu Qinwu describes his careful layering of wash, stain and glaze as ‘a process of alternative confirmation and disavowal’ in which a repeated brushing away and re-drawing ultimately creates harmony. Lined up against the walls of his studio, his canvases seem to be texts that could be read if only you could decipher the script. Braille-like, these paintings are a coded language of dots, dashes and marks. Like Buddhist sutras, you imagine them chanted aloud. Acrylic works on paper are stacked on tables; deep red, cobalt or ultramarine pigment is layered over black, or sometimes reveals itself from underneath darker shades of aubergine and dark grey. The surface patterning of dots and marks is made by the artist’s practice of dropping water carefully and methodically onto the surface of the work. Sometimes Hu uses a soldering iron to burn holes into the surface, evoking natural processes of weathering and decay. In the past he has burned into the pages of Buddhist sutra books to obliterate certain characters on each page, rendering the text unreadable. To the artist, this is not a nihilist absence of meaning, but an action embedded in a Buddhist theology in which language is just one possible means of labelling and defining the world. In the ‘Buddhist Volume’ series a fine gold grid overlays Chinese characters partially revealed through a patterning of dots in darker and lighter washes of ink on heavy paper. They seem to shimmer and dissolve, disappearing and reappearing under the patterns of tiny repeated circular forms. 

Trained in oil painting in his native Shandong Province, Hu Qinwu came to Beijing to pursue a Master’s Degree in Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 2008. Today, he lives and works in the capital, in a peaceful studio far from the city centre, and his practice extends from painting into photography, printmaking and sculpture. His immersion in the traditional practices of ink painting, his own personal history and the recent history of China have all had a profound impact on his work. ‘Chinese history and culture are in my blood’, he says. Austere, yet lyrical, his paintings convey tranquillity, as well as a determination to create order from the constant change and frenzied re-invention that characterises life in Beijing.


(untitled <<13006>>), 2013

acrylic, pigment on canvas
80 x 90 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Works such as ‘Untitled 13006’ and ‘Untitled 13008’ (2013) feature veils of rich red pigment over darker underpainting. The characteristic grid of dots in these works makes them appear weightless, floating, suggesting the rhythmic pulsing of blood in the veins. In ‘Untitled 13021’ (2013) a myriad of dots and marks vibrate across rich grounds of black and grey, at once dramatic and subtle. Abstract and yet also not abstract, they are immersively meditative. On careful viewing these works reveal elaborate and sophisticated variations of colour, shape and texture; every mark and subtle transition of tone is carefully considered. There are no accidents here. The authoritative presence of Hu Qinwu’s large canvases are underpinned by his deep knowledge of ink painting.

The term ‘tian xia’ in Chinese literally translates as ‘under heaven’, but its meaning is far more complex. Rooted in Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian philosophies, it refers to the order of things, the wholeness of the universe, as well as to physical geography and the metaphysical realm of mortals. Far beyond the visible and physical world, ‘tian xia’ implies a cosmology covering earth, heaven and everything in between, including the social, psychological and political worlds. Archaeologists have discovered ancient Chinese artefacts, jade carvings, temple structures and sacrificial platforms which employ the square (‘cong’) and the circle (‘bi’) in a symbology of the cosmos. The archetype of round heavens above and square earth beneath also formed the ancient symmetrical axis of the design of Beijing. Scholars speculate that, as far back as the ancient Neolithic period, these abstract designs functioned as astronomic and magical instruments to create magical connections between human and supra-human worlds.

Now, in a time of doubt and chaos, this ancient cosmological symmetry is seductively appealing. In works such as ‘Untitled 15001’ (2015) the darker vertical lines and streaks of paint make up a grid that echoes the brutal concrete, glass and steel structures of hypermodernity, the edifices that have replaced the grey courtyard houses and lanes of old Beijing, surrounded by eight-lane ring-roads. Punctuated by the circular forms made by the slow, deliberately controlled dripping of water onto the wet surface of the canvas, these paintings also evoke rainfall, weathering and the cyclical process of the natural world. Hu Qinwu has been profoundly affected by the transformation of his society in the last twenty years, and the dramatic changes in China’s economic, cultural and political landscape. He turns inwards, he says, to find ‘a quiet, calm place’ in which he can reflect on true and enduring values amidst the turbulence of rapid social change. 
Hu Qinwu (untitled 15002), 2015
acrylic, pigment on canvas 90 x 80cm
image courtesy Niagara Galleries

The startlingly vivid turquoise surface of ‘Untitled 15002’ (2015) is interrupted by long vertical drips and dribbles that intersect with wave like chains of droplets, suggesting light on water. Hu Qinwu presents us with a paradox. Dropping water onto his canvases from above, he apparently opens himself to the vagaries of chance. At the same time, he controls the process as much as any painter of the literati creating fluid calligraphy with ink and brush. Mass and void, control and release, simplicity and complexity, light and dark, order and chaos – Hu Qinwu’s practice deals with apparent contradictions. Relying on the repetition of forms to create rhythmic harmonies, he creates works of great complexity with simple means. Yin and yang: the heavens above and the earth below.

 Luise Guest May 2016


Hu Qinwu, Untitled 12007, 2012, acrylic and pigment on canvas, image courtesy Niagara Galleries

绘画作品能否成为冥想甚至祈祷的一种形式?来自北京的画家胡勤武为我们描绘了一个充满能量的宇宙,如同透过超级望远镜望见的一系列星座,又仿佛是世人无从窥见的海底世界。 乍一看去,胡勤武的作品似乎承袭了西方现代主义者的抽象画传统——线条和符号构成的网格赋予色彩缤纷的田野无限生机,而这些网格又闪烁不定,漂过大大的油画布,和罗斯科的画作如出一辙,让人身临其境,又富含深刻的美。如同一位简约主义者,他们将作品染成灰色、金色、深红色、青绿色以及翡翠色,它们散发出微弱的光和阵阵的悸动。然而,不似中世纪时美式的色视野和抽象主义者,胡勤武的抽象作品起源于中国艺术的特定历史性时刻。兴起于中国二十世纪末的油画是西方极简主义的对立;艺术史学家高名潞创造性地提出“极繁主义”这一术语用以定义它们独有的特性:反剧场性、兼具内部空间与外部空间、充满世俗的哲学和精神层面的意味,这些作品反映了艺术家内心的概念空间。基于中国历史的这一特殊时期,胡勤武的每一件作品都在表达着他的佛法修行——慢节奏、审慎、深思熟虑以及清心寡欲。符号的数量恰好,多一分则过,少一分则缺。随着时间流逝,他的作品不断浓缩,冗赘通通抛却,只留下精华部分。
Hu Qinwu, Untitled 20162, 2016, acrylic and pigment on canvas, image courtesy Niagara Galleries
历史,蔑视着肤浅的概念,这既非一种单向的影响,也不是艺术世界的殖民策略。战后,纽约艺术家如罗斯科、马瑟韦尔、克莱因以及托比,痴迷于水墨画、书法以及禅宗佛教思想。毛逝世以后,水墨画在二十世纪末的中国复苏,将西方的抽象主义视为线条和符号的视觉语言,并将其改造为极为迥异的哲学范式。如果将胡勤武的画作视为极盛现代主义的“去中心化”,那么将会完全不得要领。他的绘画植根于佛教哲学、中国历史以及他在北京的生活经历,而与他的故乡——山东——相去甚远。如若将胡的画作视为一种祈祷形式,才算是领略到了个中要义。 胡勤武认为,他精心地清洗、着色、上釉是“一个用另类方式加以确认和否认的过程”,在这一过程中,重复的刷洗和绘画最终成就了和谐。在他工作室的墙上,排列着一幅幅的油画,仿佛一篇篇待读的文章,而要读懂它们,你必须破译其中的密码。如同盲文一般,这些作品就是圆点、破折号和各种符号组成的密语。像佛经一般,你想象着人们将其高声咏唱。丙烯酸颜料绘就的作品在书桌上堆起;深红色、深蓝色或者青蓝色颜料涂在黑色之上,或者,有时这些颜色从底下紫红色和深灰色的暗影中显现出来。圆点和符号构成的表面图案是胡勤武小心翼翼而有条不紊地将水滴在作品表面形成的。有时,胡勤武会用烙铁在作品表面烙出几个洞,从而形成老化和衰败的自然现象。过去,他曾在圣经的书页上烧过洞,每一页上都会烧掉几个汉字,导致圣经失去了可读性。对胡勤武而言,这并非毫无意义,而是一种嵌入了佛教神学的行为,这其中,语言只是定义世界的其中一种方式。在圣经经卷中,厚厚的纸上点着或明或暗的水墨点,它们覆盖着汉字,而这些音乐可见的汉字纸上则覆着细腻的金色网格。这些网格似乎闪闪烁烁,似在溶解,在重重叠叠的圆形图案下消失、再现。
胡勤武在山东老家学习油画创作,而后来到北京就读于中央美术学院并于2008年毕业,获得油画系硕士学位。目前,胡勤武在北京生活和工作,他安静的工作室远离喧嚣的市中心,而他的工作领域也从绘画延伸到摄影、版画制作和雕塑。他对水墨画传统画法的痴迷、他自身的经历以及中国近代历史无一不对他的作品产生了深刻影响。“中国历史和文化就流淌在我的血液里”胡勤武如是说道。朴素而不失情调,他的作品传达出宁静以及他的决心,那就是从不断的变化和标榜北京生活的、狂热的再发明中创造出秩序。 胡勤武的作品,如《无题13006》以及《无题13008》(2013)是在较暗的底色上涂上一层浓浓的红色颜料。这些作品中独特的圆点组成的网格使它们看起来没有重量,似在漂浮,彰显着血管中血液的节律性搏动。在《无题13021》(2013)中,无数的圆点和符号在黑色和灰色之上颤动,透露出戏剧性和微妙之处。抽象而又不抽象,这些作品展现出冥想的意味。仔细审视,这些作品展现出色彩、形状以及结构的精细而复杂的变化;每一个符号和色调的微妙变幻都经过精心考量。在这里没有巧合。胡勤武对水墨画的深刻理解构成了他的大型油画存在的基础。
远在远古的新石器时代,这些抽象设计就以天文的、魔法般的工具角色在发挥作用,在人类和超级人类世界之间产生了奇妙的联系。 眼下,我们生活的时代充斥着怀疑和喧嚣,这一来自古代的宇宙对称性论愈发充满吸引力。在诸如《无题15001》(2015)等作品中,暗色的垂直线条形成网格,与颇具超级现代性的、冷冰冰的混凝土、玻璃以及钢铁建筑相呼应,摩天大楼将老北京灰色的天井院子和胡同取而代之,八条环形道路将北京围绕其中。 过去二十年间,社会变革、中国经济、文化以及政治面貌的巨大变化都对胡勤武产生了深刻的影响。他说,他试图从内心深处找到“一处宁静、祥和”,社会变化极其迅速,产生了种种混乱,而胡勤武希望能够其中真实而持久的价值观加以反省。《无题15001》(2015)惊艳的蓝绿色表面因垂直下落的水滴而断断续续,这些水滴又与波浪交织在一起,如同水滴形成的链条,形成一片波光粼粼。胡勤武向我们呈现出一个悖论。水滴从高空落下,落到他的油画上,而很明显,他将自己融入于奇思妙想之中。同时,又如同任何一位用笔墨创造流畅书法的骚人墨客一样,他控制住整个过程。巨大与虚无,控制与释放,简单与复杂,光明与黑暗,秩序与混乱——胡勤武的作品着眼于显而易见的矛盾。依托形式的反复出现创造出韵律的和谐,胡勤武的作品据此糅杂了巨大的复杂性和简单的方法。阴与阳:天与地。
Luise Guest