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

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. 


HU QINWU

(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. 

HU QINWU

(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.


HU QINWU

(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


天下:胡勤武的抽象画

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
在毛主席领导的三十年间,中国画家只能因袭前苏联的社会主义写实主义。他们在俄罗斯和法国接受现实主义绘画的理论方法培训,时至今日,这一做法的影响仍在。然而,画家们对抽象主义的兴趣渐浓,并且承认,事实上中国曾经有过抽象画的历史。遍览整个二十世纪及至进入二十一世纪,中西方的现代主义艺术家在抽象画方面一直有着相互交流。国与国之间的艺术对话形成了一段复杂的
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。
在中文中,“天下”即“普天之下”之意,但是它的含义远不止于此。植根于佛教、道教以及儒家思想,“天下”意为万物的秩序、宇宙的完整性以及自然地理和凡人的玄学研究。“天下”的含义远远超出肉眼可见的物质世界,它暗指蕴含天、地以及天地间万物(包括社会、心里和政治领域)的宇宙学。考古学家已经发现中国古代的艺术品、玉雕、寺庙建筑以及祭坛(以象征宇宙的方和圆为指导思想而建成)。而古代北京城的对称轴就来源于天圆地方的原型理论。据学者推测,
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
2016年5月





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: https://ocula.com/magazine/conversations/zhang-peili/

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:  https://vimeo.com/142410200

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."