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

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Show and Tell: Cao Yu’s Gendered Embodiment

Back in March, finding myself cut adrift from all certainty and from what I had foolishly assumed to be a continuing professional identity, I was catapulted like so many others across the globe into a time of uncertainty and fear. One of the things that has held me together is my conversations with artists, and my interest in writing about the work of women artists in particular. In the last six months I've written about the practice of some extraordinary women, including Liu Xi, Pixy Yijun Liao, and most recently, young rising star Cao Yu. Of necessity our conversations have been conducted online, via email and WeChat, and it's sad not to be physically present in their studios for these conversations. But even given this restriction, our dialogues have been richly rewarding and I'm delighted by the trust they've shown me to represent their work in my words.

My article about the very transgressive and courageous work of Cao Yu, one of the most interesting young artists emerging from the Sculpture Department of Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. was published in Ran Dian this month. 

All images reproduced courtesy of the artist and Urs Meile Gallery, Beijing and Lucerne.

Here's an excerpt:

Show and Tell: Cao Yu’s Gendered Embodiment

A naked female torso is half obscured by shadow. We cannot see her face. As her hands rhythmically squeeze her pale breasts, jets of milk shoot into the air. ‘Fountain’ (2015), a video first exhibited at her graduation show in 2016, brought young artist Cao Yu instant notoriety. Viewers reacted viscerally – some with outrage and disgust, some with anger, some with fascination and delight, and some with bewilderment. Was it pornography? Was it a joke? Was it a feminist statement about motherhood? Reactions to this work, including an attempt by authorities to remove it from the exhibition, reveal so much about how women’s bodies and their sexuality are perceived. Cao Yu’s transgressive work issued a defiant challenge to ingrained cultural taboos, that is for sure.

Minimalist, conceptual, and deliberately provocative, Cao’s work reflects upon and exploits the physicality of her materials, from the conventional – marble, stretched linen and canvas – to unexpected, even transgressive, substances including the artist’s own hair, breastmilk and urine, and their various significations. Cao graduated from the academically rigorous Sculpture Department of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts and cites Sui Jianguo and Zhan Wang as influential teachers and mentors. In a recent interview Cao Yu said it was Zhan Wang, whose own work is deeply conceptual and uncompromising in its refined physicality (1), who encouraged her to realise her potential when she began postgraduate study.(2)

Font of Wisdom

Despite dramatic lighting that creates a Caravaggesque chiaroscuro, ‘Fountain’ is no art historical Madonna. It is real and a bit disturbing. For me, it evokes memories of breastfeeding two babies, of painfully engorged, inflamed or leaking breasts. Lactation makes people uneasy. Bizarrely, it often evokes disgust. Even today, breastfeeding women in public are required to cover themselves discreetly with precarious arrangements of shawls, and are often pressured to remove themselves completely from the public gaze. Cao Yu’s video bravely defies such patriarchal, squeamish nonsense, forcing us to watch her female body doing its thing.

Obviously, the title refers to Marcel Duchamp’s notorious challenge to the art establishment in 1917. ‘Fountain’, a porcelain urinal turned on its side, is a sly reference to gendered sexualities, a hand grenade thrown into art history and over a century later it is still the subject of contested interpretations. Cao Yu also references Bruce Nauman’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Fountain’ (1966–1967), in which he spits out an arc of water (with obvious ejaculatory symbolism). Cao’s breastmilk fountain satirises the phallic subtexts of both works.

Cao Yu’s uncompromising chutzpah in confronting the masculinist history of modern and contemporary sculpture and performance art – so much testosterone! – echoes the similarly audacious work of a Chinese performance and transdisciplinary artist of the previous generation. In 2001, He Chengyao removed her shirt to stride bare breasted along the Great Wall. It was, she says, an impromptu performance during the public exhibition of German artist H. A. Schult’s installation of life-sized figures constructed of consumer waste.(3) When the semi-naked He Chengyao suddenly appeared in the midst of the crowd, attention was immediately diverted towards her. Because her spontaneous action was so public, and because it took place at this site – a potent symbol of Chinese nationhood – the considerable media attention was mostly negative.(4) She was accused of being an immoral attention-seeker, a judgement rooted in a misogynist view of ‘good womanhood’ that has not noticeably abated in the twenty years since. Some years ago, reflecting on her motivation for this transgressive action, He Chengyao told me, “Faced with all this hostility I tried to figure out the reason behind my performance. It was as if I was being controlled by a supernatural power of some kind. I decided to look inside for answers instead of outside.”(5)

This sense of looking ‘inside’, feeling an uncontrollable imperative to use her body as a means of artistic expression, is familiar to Cao Yu, too. Cao gave birth to her first child in 2014. Childbirth and motherhood changed her view of her own body and herself; a visceral female physicality found its way into her work. ‘Fountain’, Cao says, was a work that she had to make. After her child was born, for the duration of her lactation, she had frequent bouts of mastitis that caused high fevers and almost unbearable pain:

Although it caused me pain, it also brought nutrition and life energy to my child, so my milk became this wonder substance that I [both] loved and hated. So, in the process of fighting this pain, I was sensitively aware that my body at this moment was full of endless life energy and explosive force. I felt for the first time as a woman that my body could have an even more violent power to release tension than a man’s. And [if] my body was gradually turning into a masculine fountain monument, then it [also] became a container for life-giving and spraying milk. The white milk was imbued with the memory of love and hate.(6)

The video is shot from the point of view of the artist as she gazes down at her own body, experiencing its power. Undoubtedly there is an erotic charge in the work – certainly the physical closeness of breastfeeding an infant can be intensely pleasurable as well as sometimes extremely painful. But in a contemporary culture in which the breast is commodified as an erotic object, and sexuality and motherhood are often seen as incompatible, ‘Fountain’ issues a challenge to the pornographic gaze that reinforces this binary. Cao Yu wanted all attention to be focused on the jets of liquid shooting into the air and the power of her body to expel it with great force. The milk fell into her eyes, almost blinding her. Cao carefully directed the lighting, camera angle and the positioning of her body:

We chose to shoot this video with the brightest light exposure possible, which created a clear contrast between the white milk and the dark background. The details of the breasts were gone, instead, it showed a beautiful landscape of two active volcanoes.

Cao was in so much pain from her engorged breasts by the time the video was shot that she felt they would explode. She experienced exquisite relief as she began pumping, until the last drops of milk were gone. Tension and release, and that strange mixture of joy and sorrow familiar to all new parents, are communicated so powerfully in this work. Cao Yu knew that ‘Fountain’ would evoke strong reactions (undoubtedly, at least in part, her intention) but her video is not merely subversive, it is also aesthetically beautiful.

Such candid representations of motherhood are rare. We are more accustomed to saccharine depictions of selfless maternal sacrifice, or airbrushed, Instagram-perfect imagery that belies the bloody reality of childbirth, the delirious exhaustion and pain of new motherhood and lactation, or the endless, repetitive labour of raising a child. It is no surprise that the work excited controversy when it was exhibited – indeed, Cao Yu says she suddenly knew what it was like to be an overnight sensation. Some members of the art academy’s administration tried to prevent the work being shown at all, declaring it to be pornographic. Her name was abruptly withdrawn from an awards list. Members of her family were embarrassed. Audience reaction was mixed, and she was attacked online, in terms reminiscent of those used to attack He Chengyao almost twenty years earlier. Cao described the scene:

In the museum, someone was whispering in front of the work, someone called friends to come back and watch it again and again, some people were pointing fingers with bad intentions, there was also someone bursting into tears during the viewing.

I wondered whether the references to Duchamp, Nauman, and the problematically masculinist narratives of art history were at the forefront of Cao Yu’s mind as she planned this work, or whether they had revealed themselves only once she saw the video. In response, Cao quoted the Chinese idiom ‘to paint a dragon and dot the eyes’ (huà lóng diǎn jīng 画龙点睛) meaning ‘to add the final finishing touch’ to something. From the moment she decided to make the work, Cao realised that she was entering a dialogue with art history, not just with Duchamp and Nauman, but also with earlier works such as Ingres’ ‘La Source’ (1856), a neo-Classical painting depicting an idealised nude woman holding an urn spilling water balanced on her shoulder. The Chinese title of Cao’s video ‘泉’ may be translated as ‘Fountain’ but also refers to a spring or source of water. She says:

These classics have one thing in common, namely, they all came from the interpretation of ‘Fountain’ by the great male artists in art history. Therefore, the video work Fountain, created using new media, and from the perspective of a female artist from a younger generation, launched a new understanding and interpretation of the classic works in history, which was a leap forward, and that really excited me.


‘Fountain’ transformed the milk produced by Cao Yu’s body into an art material. ‘Artist Manufacturing’ (2016) makes this intention even more explicit. Cao condensed eighteen litres of her breast milk into a malleable, clay-like material, and used it to mould abstract forms. Unmediated by the distancing of video camera and screen, they bear the marks of the artist’s kneading fingers and are redolent of sour milk. Described by Rachel Rits-Volloch as an ‘extrusion of her own bodily fluids, an inversion of herself from inside to outside, signed with her own fingerprints’(7), Cao has made the product of her own body into art. This is not unprecedented; in 1961 Piero Manzoni filled 90 cans with his own faeces. Each was numbered and labelled in Italian, English, French and German, identifying the contents as ‘”Artist’s Shit”, contents 30gr net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961’.(8) Thus, in a neat comment about the aesthetic judgement and intellectual acuity of the artworld, the product of the artist’s body became a commodity.

Cao Yu’s work is quite different, however, and arguably more interesting. Although she says, very emphatically, that she is not a feminist,(9) ‘Fountain’ and ‘Artist Manufacturing’ align more readily with works by feminist artists who challenged taboos around menstruation, pregnancy and birth and refused to hide the realities of the female body – its inconvenient leakiness, as well as its sexual and maternal power. Carolee Schneeman’s 1975 ‘Interior Scroll’, a performance in which she drew a long, narrow scroll of paper from her vagina and read aloud from it comes to mind.(10) So, too, do the performance works of Patty Chang, such as ‘Melons’ (1998) in which she wears a large bra with the cups filled with cantaloupes that resemble prosthetic breasts. Chang slices through bra and melons with a sharp knife and scoops out the flesh with her hand, enacting an imaginary ritual at the death of her aunt from breast cancer. Chang also used her own breastmilk in ‘Letdown (Milk)’ (2017), photographs of the discarded milk she had expressed into cups and any other available receptacles as she documented an arduous journey through Uzbekistan. The double meaning of her title references both the physical sensation when milk begins to flow, prompted by the sucking of the infant on the nipple, and an emotional state of disappointment.(11)

To read more about Cao Yu, click on the Ran Dian article HERE

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Experimental Material: Desire and Intimacy in the work of Pixy Liao

 My article about Pixy Yijun Liao's challenge to binaries of gender, race and heteronormativity was published in the most recent issue of 'Yishu' journal. To say I was thrilled to be published in Yishu would be an understatement. I picked up a back issue of this important journal in the shop of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum many years ago, and have subscribed ever since - both for myself and for the research library at the White Rabbit Collection, which now holds an impressive collection of back issues that were very kindly donated to them. Yishu has consistently published interesting voices in the field of contemporary art from China. To have the opportunity to interview Pixy Liao in April (by email, from her home in lockdown in New York and my home in lockdown in Sydney) was a delight, and to then have the article published in Yishu buoyed my spirits at a very dark time in my life. So I encourage you to read the journal in full, and I post a short excerpt here.

Desire, intimacy, and the performative nature of sexuality—this is the complicated, gendered territory of Pixy Liao’s photographic practice. When the Shanghai-born, Brooklyn-based artist moved from China to the United States in 2006 to study photography in Memphis, a chance encounter with a Japanese musician and fellow student inspired a continuing body of work. He became her boyfriend, her model, and her muse, appearing in a series of staged photographs enacting an exaggerated, heightened version of their partnership.

Pixy Liao, Photography, Chinese Contemporary Art

Pixy Liao’s much-anticipated first solo Canadian show, curated by Henry Heng Lu at Vancouver’s Centre A Gallery, was a victim of the novel coronavirus, opening only in virtual form on April 3, 2020. The exhibition, Pixy Liao: Experimental Relationship (for your eyes only, or maybe mine, too), features her ongoing (since 2007) Experimental Relationships project and the more explicitly erotic For Your Eyes Only series (2012–ongoing).[i] Pixy Liao examines the dynamics of her romantic relationship with her partner, subverting expectations of gender and heterosexuality in images that are sometimes playful, sometimes touching, sometimes erotic—and occasionally a little disturbing. These photographs, in which the artist herself often appears with her boyfriend, Moro, are generally shot in interior domestic spaces with a cool, high-key aesthetic. A couple, shut away from the world, focused only on each other and their relationship? In a pre-pandemic world this may have seemed a somewhat obsessive, inward-looking practice. But as COVID-19 swept across the globe, introversion became a way of life for many and Pixy Liao’s unsettling photographs seem more poignantly representative of the zeitgeist than ever.

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

In her examination of the shifting power plays in her relationship, Pixy Liao also explores broader themes of cultural identity, the representation of masculinity, and the fetishization of the Asian woman. For the Experimental Relationships series, posed by the couple using a self-timer that is generally visible in the shot—a broad hint at the “meta” nature of her allusive practice—the mundane domestic interiors in which they act out their desires are a significant element of her mise-en-scène. She invites us to imagine what lies behind the bland facades of suburban houses, the dramas taking place around the IKEA furniture. In ordinary, unglamorous kitchens and bedrooms, Pixy Liao inverts the misogyny of the art historical male gaze, posing the pale body of her younger partner like a flexible prop. She wraps him, folded over bedclothes like a piece of human sushi, dresses him in her own clothes, or drapes his naked body over her shoulders like a shawl. Liao is generally clothed, or wearing a nude bodysuit, and Moro is often naked, thus overturning centuries of objectification of the female nude. In his 1972 book and television series, Ways of Seeing, John Berger pointed out what later seemed so blindingly obvious: In (Western) art history, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.”[ii] Here, it is Pixy Liao who is doing the looking.

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

The “determining male gaze” proposed by film theorist Laura Mulvey entered Chinese critical discourses in the late twentieth century.[iii] Lara Blanchard explains how Mulvey’s psychoanalytic theorizing of desire was adapted to analyze pre-modern Chinese images of women. However, in her discussion of feminist art practices in China, Blanchard argues that the theory cannot apply to gazes that fall outside the familiar trajectory of the male desiring gaze directed at the female subject, nor to the mutual gaze between women.[iv] Where does this place an artist such as Pixy Liao, who directs her frankly desiring gaze toward her male subject while at the same time positioning herself for the objectifying gaze of the camera lens? She is author, participant, observer, and observed, occupying a complicated space in which she fetishizes her own body as well as Moro’s.  

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place (2008) shows the fully dressed artist pinching Moro’s nipple while she gazes blankly at the camera in a witty parody of the famously ambiguous sixteenth-century French painting Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters. Art historian Rebecca Zorach speaks of a “libidinal economy” of possession and collection in relation to this painting, and she might equally well be speaking of Pixy Liao’s semi-parodic allusions to fetishism and voyeurism. Zorach describes an intersection between desire and possession that is “mimetic, producing a likeness in the desirer of the thing desired.”[v] The For Your Eyes Only series makes this playful intention explicit. Pixy Liao describes it as “a combination of daily life and performance with a naughty attitude.”[vi] Images of body parts are fragmented and closely cropped: a close-up of Moro’s crotch in tight underpants, for example, or Pixy Liao’s buttocks poking through a vulva-shaped opening between deep-red curtains. Laura Mulvey argued that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,”[vii] In the light of more recent theoretical analysis of the performative nature of gender and sexuality, Pixy Liao’s work clearly establishes the pleasure inherent in the female gaze revealed through the distancing lens of her camera—at the body of her lover, at herself, and at their physical (and emotional) connection.

And to read the rest of the article, you'll need to download the PDF from Yishu Online!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Porcelain and Paradox: the work of Liu Xi

Liu Xi, Low to Earth stoneware, raw clay, 2018, Photo: Eric Set © Gaya Ceramic Arts Center, Bali

In my newly reinvented identity as an independent researcher and writer, I've had the enormous pleasure during this weird and fragmented time of the pandemic lockdown to interview three interesting Chinese artists. Thank goodness for the technology that allows us to break out of our lonely isolation and continue transcultural dialogues! I am beyond delighted that my conversations with the three -- Shanghai-based Liu Xi, Brooklyn-based Pixy Liao, and Cao Yu, who lives and works in Beijing -- will appear over the coming months in Yishu and Ran Dian.

Firstly, I had a fascinating emailed Q&A with Liu Xi, whose porcelain installations convey her ideas about the historical position of women -- in China and globally -- in her frank exploration of gender and sexuality, including explicit representations of female genitalia. Her work also examines hidden female histories, and the sometimes fraught and complex relationship between the individual and society. She challenges conventions of porcelain and ceramics production with unorthodox combinations of materials and methods of display, revealing both technical virtuosity and her willingness to engage with difficult ideas. The material of clay in its very physicality is paradoxical – soft and malleable, it becomes hard and brittle once fired. Porcelain is imbued with associations of Chinese history, its imperial prestige and status, yet clay is dug from the earth. Liu Xi’s work encompasses these binaries, just as she explores paradoxes of female strength and vulnerability.

Vaginal imagery became something of a leitmotif of feminist art of the 1970s. From Niki de Saint Phalle to Judy Chicago and Carolee Schneemann, women artists were reclaiming the vagina as a symbol of female power and fecundity. Georgia O’Keeffe’s fleshy floral paintings were identified with this cause too, despite the artist’s consistent denial of any such intention. To misquote Freud’s probably apocryphal disclaimer, perhaps sometimes a flower is just a flower. Yet imagery of female genitalia can, even now, and despite its twenty-first century pornification, be powerfully transgressive.

Liu Xi, Our God is Great (2018-2019) porcelain, 52 pieces, dimensions variable, 
Image courtesy the artist

'Liu Xi's Paradox' was published by Ran Dian earlier this month. It begins this way:
During the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, Chinese avant-garde artists were challenging previous taboos on representations of nudity and sexuality. A number of women artists began to make work from a feminist standpoint, using their own bodies, or the bodies of other women, to explore female subjectivities. Examples include Chen Lingyang’s photography series Twelve Flower Months (1999-2000) depicting the artist’s bleeding genitals during her menstrual cycle, Cui Xiuwen’s notorious video of sex-workers filmed in the toilets of a Beijing nightclub, “Ladies Room” (2000), and performance artist He Chengyao’s bare-breasted walk along the Great Wall in 2001, “Opening Up the Great Wall” (1). All these works received varying degrees of public opprobrium at the time, and work by women artists (nüxing yishu) came to be characterised, rather, as focused on private, domestic and emotional concerns in contrast to the public and the political – an essentialist view that persisted until very recently.

The relationship between Chinese women artists and feminism is an ambivalent one, shadowed by memories of the state-sponsored feminism of the past, and their awareness that the concerns of women in China are distinct from those of Euro-American feminists. Attempted transcultural dialogues have often been thwarted by mutual misunderstandings. Despite the flurry of translated feminist texts and theoretical positions that entered the discourse in China from the late 1980s (thoroughly documented by Min Dongchao) (2) , and despite significant women-only exhibitions in the 1990s and early 2000s that have been analysed in the work of scholars such as Peggy Wang, Tao Yongbai, Shuqin Cui and Sasha Su-Ling Welland, few mid-career women artists today overtly identify with feminism, even those whose work examines aspects of gendered experience. (3)

Read the whole article HERE:

Liu Xi, Boundless Night No. 2, 2016, Porcelain, 54 x 34 x 9cm, Photo; Tao Min,
Image courtesy the artist

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Doing the Cha-Cha with Marx and Engels: an Ode to Shanghai

Fuxing Park, Shanghai, April 2019. Photo: Luise Guest
In a pre-pandemic world I would have been in Shanghai with my daughters right now, introducing them to the city I have grown to love over the last ten years. Such plans we had, for wandering the streets of the former French Concession, watching the dancers in the park, exploring the tiny shops and all the art galleries, and - of course - eating amazing food. In this grim and fractured time it may seem frivolous or self-indulgent to be remembering an era when travel to China was a (relatively) simple matter of getting a visa and booking a flight: in our new parallel universe that will likely be unthinkable for a long time to come. But in a period of growing xenophobia everywhere across the globe, it's more than ever necessary that we hold on to our dreams of trans-cultural encounters and our hopes that in the future our borders will open and our horizons will expand once more. And my nostalgia helps me with that, in a bittersweet way.
Shanghai laneway, April 2019. Photo: Luise Guest
Instead of being a Shanghai flâneur exploring ever-widening arcs around Maoming Nan Lu, I'm 'sheltering in place' like most people across the planet and wondering whether our world will ever be the same. One year ago I was in Shanghai after a week in Beijing, interviewing artists, visiting exhibitions, and enjoying the frenetic pace of this city with its complicated history. I've been thinking about what it is that I most enjoy about Shanghai, and how it is so different to Beijing. My affection was far from instant - it took quite a few years of learning the rhythms of this mega-city with its population of more than 24 million people before I suddenly realised one day that I had fallen in love with it.
Shanghai street scene, 2017. Photograph Luise Guest. 
On my first visit, arriving by high-speed train after a month spent in Beijing, I became instantly lost in the multiple exits from the station, and found it utterly alienating. I had unwittingly booked a hotel in exactly the wrong part of the city, all 8-lane highways and concrete and glass, impossible to walk around and in a construction zone difficult for taxis to navigate. It was the end of winter, and still bitterly cold and damp. On my second visit the following year, and just slightly more savvy, the taxi driver from the airport decided that a foreigner was just too much mafan and tried to make me get out on the side of the elevated expressway off ramp. Fortunately, by this time my Chinese was just barely good enough to argue, and by midnight I'd arrived at the right (very odd) hotel. Although only after he had tried to drop me at three others, apparently randomly selected.

I hired a young translator for my interviews with artists who introduced himself to me with his chosen English name as 'Troy Sailor'. He was certainly handsome and charming, but on our first trip to an artist's studio he unsmilingly told me that in China, old women like me stayed home to save their money to pass on to their children and didn't gallivant around the world on their own. A great start! But going back through my notebooks I am astonished to remember that on my very first trip, as the recipient of a travelling scholarship for art educators, in a single week I interviewed luminaries Hu Jieming, Yang Zhenzhong, Shi Qing and Pu Jie, as well as Shi Zhiying, Chen Hangfeng, performance artist Wu Meng and Monika Lin. And a very young Lu Yang, who had just recently graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. This is evidence of my own chutzpah, for sure, but also reveals the kindness and generosity of the artists and their galleries - I'm grateful to Shasha Liu and Martin Kemble from Art Labor, Lorenz Helbling from ShanghART, and to Art + Shanghai curator Diana Freundl, who had shown Shi Zhiying's beautiful paintings in a group show of women artists.
Lu Yang with 'Biological Strike Back', 2011. Photograph Luise Guest
Leaving the hotel to find somewhere to eat on my first night in Shanghai I remember being too terrified to cross the road, as hundreds of motor scooters revved their engines impatiently at every traffic light. Shanghai taxi drivers were not the chatty, chain smoking 'lao Beijingren'  with their leather jackets and buzzcuts listening to crosstalk on their radios that I had become used to, but surly characters who reversed terrifyingly, at speed, on the elevated freeway and zigzagged in and out of lanes, horns blaring and cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they swore at every other road user. Shanghai driving, it seemed, was a Darwinian exercise where only the most fearless survived. When I showed a Chinese address to one driver, he told me he didn't have his glasses so would have to borrow mine - then proceeded to hurtle down the highway, turned around to face me in the back of the cab, wearing my multifocals. At that point I truly thought I would never see my children again.

In 2012 I was still describing Shanghai as a savage beast of a city - a jabberwock with 'jaws that bite and claws that catch'. When did this change? Perhaps it was in 2013 when I had enough Chinese to feel more confidently independent, or arriving in the Spring of 2014 and realising just how beautiful the old streets are.

Former French Concession street scene, April  2019. Photograph Luise Guest

So what do I love?
The parks with their dancers and singers - of course.  I love the impromptu concerts by students in the tiny park across the road from the Shanghai Conservatorium. On each visit I try to make a very early morning visit to Fuxing Park with its staggering array of activity including the very loud, and often completely tone-deaf, amplified singers belting out anything from Chinese opera, to cheesy karaoke ballads, to Puccini.  I love watching the ballroom dancers doing rather stiff, upright, Latin moves under the watchful gaze of Marx and Engels.
Doing the cha-cha with Marx and Engels. April 2019. Photo Luise Guest
I love the tree-lined streets with their tiny shop windows where gaudy qipao and satin stilettos jostle against windows displaying rows of lacquered roast ducks or dusty mops and buckets in hardware stores. I love the lines of people waiting to buy baozi, pancakes and cakes at the famous places on Huaihai Road. I love the strange fashions in the windows of the 'Shanghai Lady' department  store. I love peering into beautiful but run-down gardens behind walls and fences. I love the sheets, towels, quilts and undies hanging from lines strung from windows, between trees, and on power lines, and the padded jackets waving in the wind on coat-hangers hooked onto street lights.
'Shanghai flags' in the French Concession. April 2019. Photo Luise Guest
Cyclists on Changle Lu, Shanghai, 2017. Photograph Luise Guest
I used to love the uniquely Shanghainese habit of wearing pyjamas in the street - often paired with high heeled shoes, and a tiny dog on a leash, or sometimes worn with fluffy slippers. Younger people found this fashion choice excruciatingly unsophisticated and over the years these sightings have become very rare. I always found it eminently practical and comfortable, if not exactly elegant.  Now that we are all wearing old track pants all day, or switching from our night pyjamas to day pyjamas to start working on laptops in our locked-down interior worlds, it also seems rather foresighted.
Shanghai street scene, 2012. Photograph Luise Guest
I love Shanghai's architecture too, from the art deco around Maoming Nan Lu and Huaihai Lu and the colonial buildings (a reminder of a dark past, but very beautiful) on the Bund. The towers topped with neon-lit, Gotham City-like spires you glimpse as you speed along the elevated freeway coming into the city are visions of a modernity of the past. The stone doorways of shikumen houses and multi-dwelling longtang laneways, whether crumbling and chaotic or restored and gentrified are beautiful. They are endangered, of course, as Shanghai undergoes a constant process of being torn down and rebuilt, like every other Chinese city.
Shanghai Longtang, Neighbours chatting, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Shanghai rooftops, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest.
Most of all I love the palpable energy of my conversations with artists in their studios - oftentimes now far outside the city centre - and their sense that anything is possible. Last April I engaged in intense conversations, recording interviews with artists ranging from painter Zhao Xuebing to video artists Li Xiaofei and Qiu Anxiong, and global new media star Lu Yang, almost ten years after we first met.
Zhao Xuebing in his studio, 2019. Photograph Luise Guest
Qiu Anxiong in his studio, 2019. Photograph Luise Guest
With Lu Yang, Shanghai, 2019
Now, of course, galleries and museums are closed, exhibitions are virtual, and art fairs are cancelled or indefinitely postponed. The future of the artworld, and of artists as nomadic beings participating in a global ecology of fairs, biennales and curated museum shows is anyone's guess. We can probably assume that after this (if there is an after this) then nothing will ever again be quite as it was.
Chen Hangfeng in his Shanghai studio, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest
Last April I travelled to the outskirts of the city to meet once again with Chen Hangfeng in a suburban villa.  I had first interviewed Chen ten years earlier in his tiny, former French Concession studio: changes in the places where artists live and work echo the changes in Chinese society over the intervening time. Chen discussed his new work 'Excited with No Reason'. This video animation was inspired in part by his new life, shuttling back and forth between Shanghai and Amsterdam, and his interest in global trade and its effects - an interest that seems even more compelling in a world brought to its knees by a pandemic that has infected the globe, vectored on planes and cruise ships.

The outcome of that conversation with a wonderful artist who jokingly describes himself as a 'half-assed literati' was published last year as Invasive Species and Global Trade Routes: A Conversation with Chen Hangfeng. Click on the link to read the article in Sydney-based online journal, The Art Life.

Artists, in Shanghai and everywhere, are continuing to work in their studios. Perhaps artists and writers, often somewhat introverted and solitary by nature, are among those whose lives are least altered by our current circumstances. I hope I shall return to see their new work and to wander those streets and laneways once again.
Shanghai street in the rain, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

一 日 千 秋: 'One Day, a Thousand Autumns'

Guozijian Street, Beijing. Photo: Luise Guest

In this time of isolation, anxiety, and various kinds of sorrow both deeply personal and globally shared, a time that Nick Cave described in his newsletter as 
making us 'become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out', writing is something that I and many others are turning to. For some that takes the form of a diary or frequent social media posts, for others it might be letters to friends and family. For me and other suddenly unemployed writers it's blog posts like this one. Whatever form they take, they are all  like letters in bottles cast into the ocean. The days seem very long, and somewhat shapeless, recalling the Chinese idiom: ‘One day, a thousand Autumns’.
Guozijian Street, Beijing. Photo: Luise Guest
Looking back over this blog since I began writing it at the end of 2010, I suddenly remembered the optimism and unfettered joy of my earliest trips to China. That astonished desire to exclaim, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, ‘Well Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!’ is something I’d love to recapture. I had been so looking forward to taking my two grown-up daughters to Shanghai for their first experience of China, before Covid-19 brought the world as we knew it to a screaming halt. I am still hoping to do that eventually, although the news of China closing its borders to foreigners this week sent a chill down many spines, virus or no virus.
Hutong view near Dashilan'r. Photo: LuiseGuest
I’ve been looking back at my travels, to a time before they mostly became work trips for the job I have now lost – a sudden and unexpected redundancy that has profoundly shaken me, even in the midst of global turmoil. I’m hoping to regain my old adventurous spirit in the future as an independent writer and researcher, untrammelled by external strictures and obligations.

So, aiming for optimism and planning a new future even while living day to day, as we all now must, here are some of the things I love about China – and about Beijing in particular:


Beijing Grey. Photo: Luise Guest

There is a particular Beijing grey (and those who know me know that I do love grey!) It’s the grey walls of the hutong alleys and courtyard houses and their grey tiled roofs, echoed very often by grey and polluted air that makes those rare blue-sky days all the more miraculous.  Grey walls are offset by red doors and brightly coloured washing drying on lines, fences, or draped over powerlines – less so than in Shanghai where it used to be called ‘Shanghai flags’, but it’s still a thing. 

Hutong Washing. Photograph Luise Guest


'Beware lest suddenness happens' is one of my favourite 'Chinglish' warning notices (in the Beijing Zoo). And suddenness does indeed happen. Constantly. To follow the sound of music at 9 o'clock at night, enter the park and find more than a hundred people ballroom dancing in the dark. To come upon the water calligraphers still absorbed in brushing their beautiful characters onto the pavement at dusk. To round a corner in the park and find a man taking his songbirds in their cages for a turn around the lake. One morning I came out of the gate of my lane onto the street and found all the young real estate agents lined up outside their office with their hands on their hearts while the national anthem was played. This was quite a sight – they were usually fully occupied with lying across their motor scooters playing games on their phones, playfully pushing and shoving each other or vainly combing their hair and gazing into their mirrors. 

Blossoms in Caochangdi Gallery courtyard. Photograph Luise Guest


And that brings me to the people. My first encounters were so open-hearted and generous, from the translator I hired who told me his English name was Stanley (‘Why Stanley?’ ‘Stanley Kubrick, of course, Miss Luise’) and constantly told me to wear warmer clothes, to the very young doorman at the hotel that I had booked in my complete ignorance of Beijing geography, on the wrong side of the city. Wearing a much too big PLA greatcoat and a battered fur hat he grinned each time I left and called out ‘Man zou ah!’ (Literally, ‘walk slowly’, but meaning ‘take care’.) Because Beijing was my first Chinese city, and because I made friends in that first six-week trip that I hope will be friends for life, it has seemed almost like home to me ever since. People are incredibly kind and open-hearted, and I hope that the recent, widely reported suspicion of foreign-ness will not change that. 
Beijing street scene, 2016. Photo: Luise Guest
I have always struck up conversations (in my sadly still non-fluent Chinese) with old men sitting out in the hutongs, with mothers watching their children in the park and – especially when my daughter was expecting her first baby and I was feeling very far away – with grandmothers wheeling prams or holding hands with red-cheeked toddlers bundled up in so many padded clothes that they look like miniature Michelin men. They were probably a bit bemused by the laowai’s unsolicited ‘I’m also going to be a grandmother!’ but they were always very kind. Dancing aunties ask me to dance with them in the park, singers explain the words of their revolutionary songs, and shopkeepers sometimes run after me with change I have forgotten or gloves I've left behind: all these encounters are woven into the threads of my memories.
A feast from the Caochangdi artist hangout 'Fodder Factory', now sadly closed. Photo: Luise Guest


And finally, of course, the food. It must be said that  food has figured largely in the fascination of my time in China. The visual richness of street vendors of all kinds was a feature of any walk in Beijing – sadly many have now been moved on or returned to far provinces – and the foods on offer changed as the weather changed. Tiny sweet clementines that I have never found anywhere else in the world, whole pineapples on sticks, pomegranate juice, grilled corn, chestnuts and walnuts, congee and pancakes and baozi, sweet potato sold from braziers, and cakes: Beijingers love their 'xiao chi' (literally, ‘little eats’, i.e snacks).

Girl selling pomegranates, Beijing 2015. Photo: Luise Guest

And I remember the beautifully coloured dumplings on my very first lunch with friends in Beijing, at a tiny restaurant that I could never find again, the duck at different ‘Lao Beijing’ famous restaurants, and the fabulous hand-pulled noodles. And the cakes (some delicious, some ... odd) from Daoxiangcun, an old ‘Beijing brand’ cakeshop established in 1895 -- or 1773 depending on who you believe.

Beijing is changing – it is already a different city from the one I fell in love with ten years ago. The gentrification, the ‘Great Bricking’ that made the old hutongs that had teemed with life more blandly homogeneous, the closure of street markets, the removal of migrants who had flocked to the city from all over China and the loss of their tiny, flourishing businesses – hole in the wall noodle joints, flower shops, bicycle repair stalls, tailors and convenience stores – all this has made Beijing cleaner, certainly, but perhaps less interesting. But constant change is a given in China, and its people are nothing if not resilient and adaptable. I just hope I will see it again, and spend much more time there than I have been able to in the last five years of brief work visits.
Hutong shopping. Photo: Luise Guest
I hope the terrifying children's rides are still there, too, but I fear all these little shops selling an extraordinary mixture of dongxi will be gone with the gentrifying winds of change.

Just for the record, I’m pleased that my second-favourite Chinglish sign was still to be found in public toilets on my last visit. It says: "This is what I have been wanting to talk to you about. Please flush the toilet. You are the best."

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Liu Zhuoquan's Wronged Ghosts

Liu Zhuoquan, Object Series, 2007, glass bottles, mineral paint, dimensions variable, White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.
Liu Zhuoquan in his studio, Beijing, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
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. Many contemporary Chinese artists reinvent traditional art and craft forms, from ink painting to papercutting; from paper lanterns to embroidery, and from bookbinding to kite-making, mixing them up in a glorious postmodern mash-up to create ambitious large-scale installations, performance art or new media works. But Liu Zhuoquan’s practice is something entirely unique. He knew about the ancient art of nei hua, the supremely difficult process of painting the inside of tiny snuff bottles, using curved brushes and working in reverse, from the front to the back of the image. 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. Some contain human body parts, foetuses or images of police and prisoners. By populating discarded glass vessels with miniature figures and objects, Liu is as much magician as scientist.
A wall in Liu Zhuoquan's Studio, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Liu Zhuoquan adapted the nei hua (inside painting) technique, to reflect on his own contemporary life as an artist in Beijing. Qing snuff bottles were painted with tiny landscapes, immortals, animals, flowers and birds. Traditionally, the artist uses a bent, hooked brush made with a few strands of yak hair to apply mineral colours with incredible skill and precise detailing.  In 1696, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi, the first state glass factory was set up to produce the bottles, which were presented to the royal members, senior officials, and foreign ambassadors. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, in addition to glass and porcelain, other materials such as ivory, amber, coral, agate, crystal and bamboo roots were also used for making snuff bottles.  Like many other art and craft practices seen as relics of the feudal past, this craft was largely forbidden during the Cultural Revolution.
Rows and shelves filled with painted bottles and the artist in his studio, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Liu Zhuoquan, 24 bottles, 2010, mineral pigment and binder on glass.
Photographed in artist's studio in 2011 by Luise Guest
In the 1970s a Beijing-trained painter returned to his hometown of Hengshui in Hebei Province. He was shocked at the poverty and poor living conditions of the locals and began to train some in this ancient art. Now it’s a centre of production of traditional inside-painted snuff bottles, mostly for the souvenir trade, and 20,000 people are employed painting the bottles – in China, nothing happens on a small scale! It is here that Liu Zhuoquan found his expert artisans. Working with a small team of these craftsmen as his assistants, Liu combines his contemporary sense of irony with acute observation of people, and of the fragile beauty of nature. He once described his studio as a scientific laboratory where he is recording the ‘ten thousand things’ of Daoist 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.
Chang’an avenue, 2013
cast iron lamp stand, explosion-proof light globes, wire, mineral colour
dimensions variable. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries
In Seven Sparrows (2011), and Chang'An Avenue (2013) beautifully painted birds appear to flutter helplessly in their death throes inside glass light fittings. Sparrows have a very particular, personal meaning for Liu Zhuoquan – like so many others, his family was exiled, sent to the countryside in 1970, accused of being insufficiently revolutionary. As in many such cases, the farmers were understandably hostile to what they perceived as useless city people being foisted on them, more mouths to feed in a collapsing system of collectivised farms.  Liu’s father, a city tailor, was ill suited to farm labour and was given the task of chasing birds from the crops, chasing them around the fields with a stick until he dropped from exhaustion. The dying sparrows that appear in many of Liu’s paintings thus become a tragic metaphor for the artist’s father.
But as so often in Chinese contemporary art they also symbolise a larger field of Chinese history. The Four Pests campaign of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ started in 1958. The four pests were rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows – the last included because they ate the grain seeds. The masses were mobilised to eradicate the birds, and citizens took to banging pots and pans or beating drums to scare the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Nests were torn down, eggs were broken, and nestlings were killed, resulting in the near-extinction of the birds in China. By April 1960, Chinese leaders belatedly realised that the birds ate insects, as well as grains. Rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased. Mao ordered the end of the campaign against sparrows, but it was too late. With no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. This ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Famine, in which it is now believed that more than 40 million people died of starvation.
Liu Zhuoquan, Seven Sparrows, 2011 (detail). White Rabbit Collection Sydney
In ‘Seven Sparrows’ the seventh sparrow is the figure of a hanging man, bound at the wrists. It has two meanings here, the first being a direct reference to the media reporting of condemned criminals, and the harsh punishments meted out to them. The ‘sparrow’ is a slang term for a method of interrogation. The second, coded reference relates to the artist’s father. When he died, after a lifetime of trials and tribulations, Liu Zhuoquan thought his frail body seemed as fragile and insubstantial as a dead bird.
In the artist’s own words, each glass vessel imprisons ‘a wronged ghost being cursed, a memory or an unsettling dream’.

You can find another article about Liu Zhuoquan HERE on COBO SOCIAL, based on the catalogue essay I wrote for his Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, solo show in 2017