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

Friday, July 27, 2018

The measure of all things: learning Chinese measure words

I'm re-posting a wonderful piece by Madeleine Thien from the Guardian, about measure words in Chinese. Having just finished 2 hours of Chinese homework that left me more than usually bamboozled and despondent, reading this made me remember how much I love this wonderful and infuriating language, where every character seems to have several possible meanings and one meaning can often be conveyed by several different characters. Measure words are the bane of the Chinese language learner but they give you a glimpse of a whole different way of seeing the world. I rarely remember the correct ones in conversation and resort to the foreigner's all-purpose 'ge'. But anyhow, read and enjoy. (And also read Thien's marvellous book 'Do Not Say We Have Nothing').

How do we categorise or classify things, thereby imagining them as one thing and not another? Unlike French or German, gender does not provide categories in Chinese, which groups things by something else entirely: shape.
Tiáo is one of at least 140 classifiers and measure words in the Chinese language. It’s a measure word for long-narrow-shape things. For example, bed sheets, fish, ships, bars of soap, cartons of cigarettes, avenues, trousers, dragons, rivers.
These measure words embrace the ways in which shape imprints itself upon us, while playfully noticing the relationships between all things. The measure word kē 颗 (kernel) is used for small, roundish things, or objects that appear small: pearls, teeth, bullets and seeds, as well as distant stars and satellites.
Gēn 根, for thin-slender objects, will appear before needles, bananas, fried chicken legs, lollipops, chopsticks, guitar strings and matches, among a thousand other things. “Flower-like” objects gather under the word duo 朵: bunches of flowers, clouds, mushrooms and ears.
It’s endlessly fascinating to me how we attempt to group anything or anyone together, and how formations change. Philosopher Wang Lianqing charts how tiáo was first applied to objects we can pick up by hand (belts, branches, string) and then expanded outward (streets, rivers, mountain ranges).
And finally tiáo extended metaphorically. News and events are also classified with tiáo, perhaps because news was written in long vertical lines, and events, as the 7th-century scholar Yan Shigu wrote, arrive in lists “one by one, as (arranging) long-shaped twigs”.
Onwards the idea broadened, so that an idea or opinion is also “long-shaped news,” and in the 14th century, tiáo was used for spirit, which was imagined as straight, high and lofty. In language, another geometry is at work, gathering recurrences through time and space. 
The whole article can be seen HERE

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Sworn Sisters: 结拜姊妹

I've been a long time away from this blog, regretfully: writing full time about Chinese contemporary art, and (because, clearly, I'm insane) undertaking a PhD on top of that full-time job has taken all the time I have. There are not enough hours in the day. Sometimes lately I have to remind myself to breathe. But....
Luo Yang, 'Xie Yue' (from the series GIRLS) 2015 digital print on fine art paper 70x100cm (unique edition)
image courtesy Vermilion Art
An event last week in Sydney is not something that I can let pass without comment. Vermilion Art bravely showed the first exhibition of Chinese women artists in Australia, curated by former Australian Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby. I say 'bravely' because the history of all-women exhibitions inside and outside of China is contested and complicated. And I say that, too, as someone who has curated one: 'Half the Sky' at Beijing's Red Gate Gallery in 2016 was an exhibition I organised with Tony Scott to coincide with the launch of my book of the same name. I had decided that the only possible curatorial premise was a very simple one: a selection of interesting work by women who featured in my book. I did not apply any over-arching conceptual premise to connect them, although several possible themes and tendencies did emerge. Most of these were ignored by reporters, though, who only wanted to ask me about my views of the 'leftover women' phenomenon and what people in Australia thought of it.Sigh.

In the 1990s in China there were a number of all-women exhibitions that left artists a little bruised and critics a little bemused. The reasons are sufficient for a whole doctoral thesis, but suffice it to say that one artist said to me, 'They don't have exhibitions and call them "exhibitions of mens' work", they're just exhibitions! Why should women be any different?' I don't agree with this, because of course the point is that there are still far too few women artists represented in the big curated shows - including the dismal statistic of 9 women in more than 72 artists in the recent Guggenheim exhibition, 'Art And China After 1989: Theater of the World'. But the conundrum of 'nüxing yishu' (womens' art) and what the term might imply is at the heart of my own research. Like everything else in China, it's complicated.

At Vermilion Art, though, 'Sworn Sisters' navigates these potential pitfalls in interesting ways, presenting the work of 9 very diverse artists who yet strangely complement each other. Xiao Lu, whose reputation as a 'bad girl' was forever cemented by her notorious performance in 1989 at the China/Avant-garde exhibition in Beijing, when she fired a pistol into her own installation, is represented by photographs and video of a recent performance work. No less transgressive, this performance resulted in a serious injury to the artist's hand as she cut and hacked her way out of a block of ice which gradually became stained with her blood.
Xiao Lu, 'Polar' documentation of performance, 2016, C-print, image courtesy Vermilion Art

'Polar' is one of a series of recent performances that employ ink, water and ice - and sometimes all three at once. They follow some years of the artist's struggle to come to terms with childlessness, menopause and ageing. Xiao underwent 'Tui Na' massage and wrote Tang Dynasty poetry with medicinal herbs, practising calligraphy every day and immersing herself once more in Chinese aesthetics and philosophical traditions. Here, though, ink and water are used to quite different ends, in punishing durational performances which are often very beautiful, albeit sometimes  violent or self-destructive. The materiality of ink and water is particularly Chinese, and Xiao Lu is intentionally referring to the yin and yang binaries of Daoist philosophy. In the work below (not shown in  the exhibition), frozen blocks of Chinese ink and water slowly melted and dripped over the white-robed figure of the artist, with photographs of the earlier blood-stained performance in the background.

Xiao Lu, Hanging Ice (悬冰), 2017, performance and installation, image courtesy the artist
The title of the exhibition alludes to the semi-secret 'women's language' of Nüshu, a script form once taught by mothers to their daughters in remote villages of Jiangyong County in Hunan Province - and, incidentally, another key element of my PhD research. Nüshu was used to embroider poems onto fans, belts, and into 'Third Day Missives', books given to young brides by their 'Sworn Sisters' as they left their parents and their village for an uncertain future. Men could not read Nüshu, and, according to the scholar Fei-Wen Liu, were not tempted to try: it was scorned as a vernacular for mere women, confined to the home, their feet bound, and denied education. It is tempting to think that the work of these contemporary artists is another kind of female coded language, similarly designed to represent aspects of female experience.

Other works in 'Sworn Sisters' include a print of one of Chen Qingqing's ethereal robes made of dried grasses, and a Joseph Cornell-style weathered timber drawer containing a little naked plastic doll, her blonde head weighed down as if by the intolerable weight of memory. Called The Long March (2014), it recalls Qingqing's own dramatic life story: sent away from her family to cadre school during the Cultural Revolution she drove tractors, worked as assistant to a barefoot doctor, and much later became a corporate executive working in Germany, before returning to China to join the burgeoning contemporary art movement centred on the 798 art district. You can see my story about Qingqing here:Between Memory and Metaphor

It is wonderful to see more work from rising star Geng Xue, following the popular triumph of her installation and animation Mr Sea at White Rabbit Gallery in 'Ritual Spirit', an exhibition of her works on paper in the last show at Vermilion Art, and her selection for the Biennale of Sydney, where The Poetry of Michelangelo has been showing at Artspace. The conceptual artist is represented here by two earlier porcelain works; they are delicate and ethereal and I was immensely relieved that somebody in the enormous crowd on the opening night did not somehow back into their vitrines and destroy them!

Geng Xue, 'Untitled 2' porcelain 2016 25x25x25cm, image courtesy Vermilion Art

Geng Xue, Untitled 1, porcelain 2015 45x35x35cm image courtesy Vermilion Art
My current obsession is focused on contemporary adaptations and reinventions of Chinese ink, so I particularly enjoyed seeing Cindy Ng's works here. Surprisingly, it was in the British Museum's Chinese rooms that this Macau-born, Beijing based artist first explored the traditions of Chinese ink painting, while she was studying in London. In 1996, Ng moved to Taipei to continue her studies in contemporary ink painting and held a solo exhibition at the Taipei Fine Art Museum, before later moving to the mainland to live and work in Beijing. Her work is rooted in her knowledge of Song Dynasty ink painting, but in her paintings, videos and photographs ink is freed from its history as a vehicle for imagery - she experiments with digital forms, and new media as well as painting. Having  seen Cindy Ng's work in a Shanghai gallery in 2011, when I was first beginning to study and write about Chinese contemporary art, I was delighted to see these beautiful works once again.
Cindy Ng 'Ink 1711' 2015, ink acrylic on paper, 30cm, image courtesy Vermilion Art
In his speech at the opening, which was attended by an astonishing 300 people, and included a performance by an opera singer and by artist Rose Wong, Geoff Raby said that his aim was to 'shatter stereotypes of Chinese women'. In a number of ways the works in 'Sworn Sisters' reveal women from different generations and  backgrounds who subvert gendered expectations of what 'womens' art' - and, indeed, 'Chinese art' - might look like. And that can only be a good thing.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Body Calligraphy: Ink and Breastmilk

I'm currently immersed in thinking about materiality and Chinese contemporary art -  most especially in relation to ink, and how it is being used in performance works by women artists. So when I saw photographs of work by an artist called Xie Rong in a Hong Kong exhibition '家' at Galerie Huit last year, I wanted to find out more, thinking that I could perhaps interview her in China. I discovered that she lives in London, and goes by the name Echo Morgan. Serendipitously, I was visiting the UK for the first time in many years to present a paper at a conference - yes, about ink, and women artists - so we were able to meet. This account, published in The Art Life last week, was based on a very long conversation over many cups of coffee in the British Library tea room.

Body Calligraphy: the performance work of Echo Morgan

Echo Morgan (Xie Rong), Hair Painting, 2011, documentation of performance, image courtesy the artist
Echo Morgan is the English name of Xie Rong, a Chengdu-born, London-based, multi-disciplinary artist whose work is underpinned by a dark family story. She works with stereotypes of ‘Chineseness’ and femininity in order to subvert them. Morgan has written texts on her skin using red lipstick, black Chinese ink, white ‘ink’ made from jasmine tea, and her own breast milk after giving birth to her second child. She has played with tropes of Chinoiserie, painting her naked body to resemble blue and white porcelain, and then inviting the audience to violently wash the patterns away by hurling water-filled balloons at her. Her work mines her own experiences of childhood, family, marriage and motherhood – and those of her female ancestors. She is a story-teller.

Echo Morgan (Xie Rong), Hair Painting, 2011, ink on paper, image courtesy the artist
When I saw images from Morgan’s 2017 Hong Kong show,  Home, I was intrigued. The exhibition featured a re-enactment of her 2011 work, I Am A Brush, in which she ‘wrote’ calligraphy with Chinese ink using her own long hair. The result of the original performance was an 11-metre long scroll covered in abstract marks, later cut into five pieces for the exhibition. It’s a wry comment on the red-hot market for ink painting and the fashion for Chinese traditions, but it’s also the result of a very personal ritual of loss and sadness. I found Morgan through the Hong Kong gallery, and we met in London late last year. Over coffee in the hushed surrounds of the British Library tea room, she told me about her life and work.
Morgan’s performances incorporate gesture, voice, text and image. I Am A Brush began when she was completing a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London. She had become interested in theories of female language, prompted in part by the breakdown of her first marriage to a husband who could not comprehend why his wife, then working as a designer for a major department store, would give up a good salary to become an impoverished art student. Morgan remembered how her mother had carefully brushed her long hair before her wedding, reciting a traditional bridal blessing. She wanted to make something using hair and text to express her sorrow. Hair, ink, and tears: in I Am A Brush the traditionally masculine scholarly language of calligraphy becomes a female language of the body.
A woman’s hair is imbued with contradictory meanings – a ‘crowning glory’ that is also abject, a sexual fetish that is also terrifying, a source of power that also signifies vulnerability and subservience. Dipping her hair into dense black Chinese ink, Morgan ‘wrote’ out her heartbreak and her strength, her sadness about the end of her own marriage and those of her divorced mother and aunts. She thought of The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran (another Chinese woman who had made her home in England). Morgan told me of a line that resonated with her own experience: ‘Every family has a book but in China the book is glued with women’s tears.’ Her mother’s bitterness, and her own, seeped into the paper with the sweeping arcs of her hair. She said, ‘All the ink marks and dots were words, they were the stories of the women in my family.’
Be Inside the Vase was a multi-layered work performed in London in 2012 and documented by Morgan’s partner and collaborator, photographer Jamie Baker. It includes photographs, a film with a haunting monologue reflecting on her fraught relationship with her father, and the performance itself. The photographs of Morgan’s body, painted with floral motifs, are a challenge to orientalism, a self-reflexive examination of Chinoiserie, and a deliberate positioning of a Chinese body for a western gaze. The naked artist, painted white, has covered herself with a blue and white porcelain pattern of bamboo and cherry blossom. A branch of blossom trails across her face, covering her mouth, silencing her. The beauty of these photographs belies the much darker content of the performance from which they came.

Echo Morgan (Xie Rong), Be the Inside of the Vase, 2012, documentation of performance, photograph by Jamie Baker, image courtesy the artist
The title references a Chinese saying that likens a beautiful woman to a vase – fragile, smooth, and hollow. Morgan’s abusive and emotionally volatile father was a gangster who operated in the grey areas of the rapidly opening Chinese economy in the 1980s; he ran nightclubs, brothels and casinos, and collected black market porcelain. He demanded that his daughter appear decorative and expensive, like a Song Dynasty vase. Morgan’s mother, in contrast, told her not to be like the surface of a pretty, empty vessel, but instead to be like the inside: ‘Be the quality!’ Divided into ‘chapters’, the first part of Be Inside the Vase deals with the conflict and violence of her childhood. Morgan said, ‘The first story [Million Dollar Baby] began with my father’s attempt to commit suicide. He owed everyone money.’

Echo Morgan (Xie Rong) You Have My Blood In You , documentation of performance, image courtesy the artist
In the second part, Break the Vase, the artist stood inside an enormous vessel made of paper and bamboo. She invited the audience to throw water-filled balloons at her in order to ‘break the vase’. At first people were hesitant, but soon the paper vase broke apart and the missiles smashed into the artist’s face. Morgan’s nude body was gradually revealed as the paint washed away and the bamboo structure was broken: a simmering undertone of violence became explicit and dangerous, the audience was made complicit. Juxtaposing English narration with Chinese traditional songs, Morgan plays with her complex hybrid identity and her difficult childhood. She explores the territory of translation: between two languages, between gesture and stillness, between her Chinese past and English present, between performance and image.

Echo Morgan (Xie Rong), You Have My Blood In You, documentation of performance, image courtesy the artist
You Have My Blood in You is a further interrogation of her past – sent away at the age of four after her parents’ divorce to board at a much-hated ‘strict Communist kindergarten’, Morgan was shaped into a ‘xiao hong hua’ (Little Red Flower), obedient and pliant. Later, she yearned to escape the cage of expectation and the weight of memory. When Morgan became a mother to sons, memories of her father threatened to overwhelm her. All his shady schemes came to nothing, and all his supposedly valuable Song Dynasty vases turned out to be worthless fakes – he died destitute. Underneath her white clothes, her body is painted with black ink that gradually seeps through, signifying a stain that cannot be washed away, and the blue pigment represents the blue and white glaze of porcelain.
Since the 1980s contemporary artists in China have deconstructed and reconstructed calligraphy in subversive ways, often – as with Xu Bing, Wu Shanzhuan or Gu Wenda, for example – to comment on meta-narratives of culture such as the power of the state or the sweeping forces of history. In Echo Morgan’s works her own body, her hair, even her breast milk, become a language; she is writing a woman’s story of suffering with a subtext of strength and courage. She says, ‘I do really respect the power and strength of women, but I think in my work you see a lot of fragility. And that is how I feel, as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother.’

Friday, December 29, 2017

六六大顺 or, 2017: Six of One and Half a Dozen of the Other

Thinking about the usual end of year list (lazy writer's shortcut, I know), my plan was to write about six outstanding exhibitions. Six of the best, I thought, but when the phrase came to mind I shuddered: I remembered to my horror that it's what cane-wielding teachers said to boys they were about to beat when I was a child. Absolutely barbaric, and not what I meant at all!  Although, come to think of it, I've seen some exhibitions, and some artworks, that could be described as painful this year. Hence the English title of this piece, 'Six of One and Half a Dozen of the Other'. The Chinese title is uncharacteristically optimistic too, unlike most Chinese aphorisms: 'Liu Liu Da Shun' means that everything is running smoothly, an outcome devoutly to be wished as we approach the Year of the Dog.  I'd much rather write about art that I loved than the much greater proportion of exhibitions and individual works that left me cold, so here are my top six art experiences for 2017 as this difficult and, yes, painful year comes to a close. Four exhibitions, and two encounters, in no particular order, and a quick gloss over the half dozen 'other'.
Song Dong, Wisdom of the Poor: Song Dong’s Para-Pavilion, Old house, old furniture, steel, Dimensions variable. 2011. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum
1. Song Dong, "I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven" Rockbund Museum, Shanghai, April
In Shanghai at the end of April I was lucky -- so lucky -- to catch the last weeks of this show, a survey of 30 years of Song Dong's work. From his earliest performance works, lying flat on the frozen ground in Tiananmen Square and breathing, or stamping the surface of the Lhasa River in Tibet with a seal carved with the character for 'water', to works based on his extended series of 'para-pavilions', architectural structures made from re-purposed furniture and building remnants, the show was a marvel across the six levels of the museum. For a review published in 'The Art Life', I described it like this:
I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven’ is a mature artist’s reflection on life’s joys, dreams, fears and disappointments. Beijing-based conceptual artist, Song Dong, responds to one of the Analects of Confucius, in which the sage suggests that by the age of 50, one ought to be sure of one’s place in the universe, should know ‘the mandate of heaven’. The getting of wisdom, if you like, should be done and dusted. Across six floors of Shanghai’s Rockbund Museum, and across its façade, rooftop balcony, stairwells and elevators, Song Dong responds to Confucius with all the uncertainty and anxiety of a more complicated age: ‘At 10, I was not worried. At 20, I was not restrained. At 30, I wasn’t established. At 40, I was perplexed and at 50, I don’t know the mandate of heaven.’
The exhibition is divided into seven ‘chapters’, one for each floor of the museum and the seventh for the exterior. Each chapter is represented by a Chinese character; together they form a line of a verse:
Jing (mirror), Ying (shadow), Yan (word), Jue (revelation),
Li (experience), Wo (self), and Ming (illumination).
Entering, you are immersed in a structure of re-purposed window frames and mirrors, a (literal) Daoist reflection on the fleeting nature of the physical world, beautiful and unsettling. Within the structure you find Song’s homage to Duchamp’s first readymade. The Use of Uselessness: Bottle Rack Big Brother (2016) is an enlarged version of Duchamp’s inverted bottle rack; on its prongs are discarded bottles that once held whiskey or powerful Chinese baijiu. Lit to resemble a fallen chandelier, they have been cleverly arranged to look a lot like the ubiquitous surveillance cameras that watch our every waking moment. This modern day panopticon has particularly chilling connotations in China, and the work reminds us that surveillance has been a recurring theme in Song’s work. To read more, click HERE
2. "Jasper Johns, Something Resembling Truth", Royal Academy, London, October
While I loved visiting old favourites on my blink-and-you'll-miss-it work trip to the UK in October (obligatory visit to Holbein's Ambassadors, the odd Titian and Raphael, and my favourite bizarre Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli) only one London exhibition really excited me, another survey. An artist of almost Chinese longevity, Jasper Johns has produced consistently interesting work since the late 1950s and this exhibition, the first comprehensive survey to be shown in the UK in 40 years, revealed the shifts and developments in his six decades of practice. Many works I had only seen before in reproduction, such as the Four Seasons paintings; other, more recent, work was completely new to me. Johns continues to experiment with form and content, defying stereotypes of the aging artist repeating the tropes of their youth. In the grand, hushed surrounds of the Royal Academy, visitors murmured discreetly, a very different experience from being amongst the young Chinese audience at Song Dong, taking selfies and giggling.

3. Qiu Anxiong, "New Book of Mountains and Seas Part III" at Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing, April
Immersive and extraordinary, Qiu Anxiong's final work in this trilogy is a frighteningly dystopic twist on the present day. Adding a newly high-tech gloss to Qiu's technique of animating his ink drawings, the work conveys themes of twenty-first century anxiety and alienation expressed through the metaphor of the metropolis. It's probably no wonder that speculative fiction is big in China, although I often feel that nothing could be stranger than reality.

4. Zhou Li, Yuz Museum, Shanghai, April
In her first solo exhibition for many years, Zhou Li's works completely seduced me. In a darkened space on the upper level of the huge Yuz Museum on the West Bund, her abstract canvases glowed. Floating shapes hover on soft grounds of grey, or occasionally, of vivid red or pink. Linear forms overlap, abut and coalesce, suggesting the constant rhythms of the universe. Zhou, like many contemporary Chinese artists, is interested in Daoist philosophy: the push and pull of yin and yang are discernible in her juxtapositions of line, colour and form.

Here's a description of the show from ARTFORUM

In 2017 I have been fortunate to have conversations with many artists, both in Sydney and in China. As part of an archive project for the White Rabbit Collection, I have recorded interviews with Guo Jian, Song Yongping, Lu Xinjian, Xiao Lu, Lin Yan, Song Jianshu, Xia Hang, Cang Xin, Wang Zhiyuan, Huang Hua-Chen and Shen Jiawei. You can find these videos HERE. For my own ongoing research project I have re-interviewed Xiao Lu, Ma Yanling and Tao Aimin in Beijing, and for yet another project I've met with Shi Yong in Shanghai. Courtesy of the Vermilion Art stand at Sydney  Contemporary, I engaged Cang Xin in conversation about his life and work as a post-89 conceptual artist. All of these conversations have been fascinating, but two that have been especially memorable were my second visit to the studios shared by Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong, in Beijing, and a long conversation over cups of coffee in the British Library Cafe with performance artist Echo Morgan (aka Xie Rong).

Yu Hong, One Hundred Years of Repose, 2011, Acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, Image courtesy the artist
Yu Hong in her Beijing studio in 2014, Photo: Luise Guest
5. Yu Hong spoke about her work 'One Hundred Years of Repose', currently on view at the White Rabbit Gallery, and about her particular painting techniques, when we met in April in Beijing. I find Chinese artists of her generation especially interesting: they began their studies in an era of strict formalism and an approved style influenced by French Realism and Soviet Socialist Realism, and then graduated into a changing world in which avant-garde artists and critics were doing their best to shake everything up. My last conversation with the artist had taken place in the spring of 2014, while I was writing my book about Chinese women artists, 'Half the Sky', and we sat in her studio drinking cups of tea in front of that painting. I had been amused when I arrived that time to find a kerfuffle of TV camera crews and cars outside the studio: she had been painting a portrait of tennis star Li Na, commissioned for a Tiffany ad campaign. Inside the studio was a different, and much quieter, more reflective world. And so it was again in 2017, as we drank tea and spoke about her love for the physicality of paint, behind us on large easels a multi-panelled work appropriating Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" from the Sistine ceiling, the figure of God now a Chinese Immortal.
Echo Morgan, Be the Inside of the Vase, 2012, Performance Still, image courtesy the artist
6. With Echo Morgan in London, our conversation ranged across her dramatic and difficult childhood, shaped by her resilient mother as much as by her gambling, gangster father, and an eventful journey towards a life in the UK. I'm thinking about her work in relation to my interest in how women artists are using ink and their bodies. More soon.

And the 'Half a Dozen of the Other'?
Best not to dwell. Disappointments in 2017, apart from the sense of impending doom shared by all sentient beings in a time of Trump, included the David Hockney exhibition at the NGV, some lacklustre shows at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and a truly awful exhibition by ''KAWS" at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, to which the only possible response was "WTF". I'm sad not to have been able to see THAT Chinese show at the Guggenheim, nor the earlier "Tales of Our Time", but, hey, you can't see everything. Onward to 2018, to a new Biennale of Sydney, curated by Mami Kataoka, to a visit to Melbourne to the first NGV Triennial, the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial in November, some exciting shows coming up at White Rabbit Gallery, building on the beautifully curated 'The Dark Matters' and 'Ritual Spirit', and to further adventures in China and elsewhere. And a heartfelt New Year's resolution to work harder on my Chinese. We'll see. Meanwhile, a happy and prosperous 2018 to all readers of this blog!
With Cang Xin, courtesy of Vermilion Art, at Sydney Contemporary (we did not exchange clothing!)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Subterranean Feminism: Tao Aimin, Gao Rong and Dong Yuan

My article for WAGIC (Women and Gender in China) published last week:

Secret Language of Women: ‘Subterranean Feminism’ in the Work of Three Chinese Artists

December 11, 2017
Tao Aimin, The Secret Language of Women 女书, Book 3, Text 11, 2008, ink on paper, acrylic cover. Image courtesy the artist

The ‘F-word’ – feminism, that is – can be a minefield for non-Chinese writers in conversations with Chinese women, something I discovered whilst researching a book about women artists. An interpreter assisting me at first refused to translate the term, adamant that there was no such Chinese equivalent. The term ‘gender’, albeit much debated, is widely used, but the term for ‘feminism’ – variously, ‘nüxing zhuyi’ or 'nüquan zhuyi’ – frequently causes ‘lost in translation’ moments. Over time I learned not to make assumptions from a Euramerican feminist paradigm, and I discovered a Chinese feminist history. The problem for writers and curators, of course, is how to present the work of artists who do not identify with feminism, yet appear to be making feminist work, without speaking ‘for’ them, or orientalising their work. In ‘Toward Transnational Feminisms’, for the exhibition Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art in 2007, Maura Reilly drew on the work of Ella Shohat to describe the work of such artists as a form of ‘subterranean feminism’. How do artists whose identification with feminism is complicated by their perception of an East/West divide navigate this somewhat treacherous territory?

The work of three women who examine hidden female histories reveals a gendered language of materiality and imagery. Tao Aimin (陶艾民) collected wooden washboards from hundreds of rural women to re-present as sculptural objects and surfaces from which to make prints and rubbings. Gao Rong (高蓉) applies embroidery to ambitious, padded fabric installations. Dong Yuan (董媛) paints tiny details of interior spaces, creating installations made up of separate canvases. In their work, the domestic and the humble are memorialised, the unsung labour of women is honoured, and the fast-vanishing world of an earlier generation of women is given physical form. They do not explicitly identify their work as feminist, but rather as exploring highly personal histories and individual responses to a rapidly changing world. From artists emerging into the aspirational present from the collectivist past, this emphasis is unsurprising.

The history of feminism in China explains the deep ambivalence many artists, writers and intellectuals feel about the term. Their unease with the feminist label reflects the suspicion of many towards the state-sponsored feminism of the recent past, epitomised by the All China Women’s Federation. After 1949 the explicit policy of the state was the erasure of traditional ‘feudal’ gender distinctions and the equal participation of women in the great Socialist project: female comrades would ‘hold up half the sky’ as workers, soldiers and farmers. Feminism became enmeshed in, but always secondary to, the utopian visions of the Chinese Communist Party. The impact of this history on the work of women artists who emerged in the post-Mao period into a globalising art economy should not be underestimated.

Identification as a feminist artist is as contentious in China as everywhere else, but here there is a particular art-world history. Exhibitions of women artists during the 1990s and early 2000s were focused on interiority and ‘womanliness’. Many women artists began to see them with a degree of suspicion, feeling (often quite rightly) that their work was trivialised by this curatorial separatism. In her catalogue essay for the 2013 exhibition Breakthrough: Work by Contemporary Chinese Women Artists, Peggy Wang argues that in this late twentieth century history: ‘… "women's art" served less as a rallying call for female artists, and more as the start of a set of thorny parameters against which to navigate and negotiate.’ In Gendered Bodies: Toward a Women's Visual Art in Contemporary China, Shuqin Cui characterises these exhibitions as “entangled in misconceptions” about feminism and femaleness. The disavowal of political activism continues: in 2017, curator Ai Lai’er insisted that her aim was not to reveal a ‘collective female identity’ but rather, ‘a “hint” towards a non-determinable factor’. In Beijing, where exhibitions of women’s art risk being closed by the authorities, this carefully vague and apolitical stance is understandable. (See, for example, The Guardian’s report on the closure of an exhibition focused on violence against women in 2015.) Ai, like others, perceives a shift from discussions of gender identity to an emphasis on the individual.

Tao Aimin, Gao Rong and Dong Yuan express considerable doubt about the word ‘feminist’ but they are deeply invested in female histories. Tao Aimin’s installations, paintings and books present the traces left by applying ink to wooden washboards collected from rural women. Choosing the ancient female script of Nüshu (女书) as her calligraphy, she inserts a language invented by anonymous rural women into the canon of the literati tradition, bringing an unacknowledged history into the light of day. Taught by mothers to daughters in remote villages of Hunan Province, the Nüshu script was used to embroider texts onto fans and belts, written in ‘Third Day Missives’ (San chao shu, books given to brides on the third day of marriage) or used to record the ‘bridal laments’ sung for young women leaving their family homes for their husband’s village.

Tao Aimin, Women's Book, Installation of Washboards, Image courtesy the artist

Click HERE to read more