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

Monday, December 31, 2018

This is not a List: My Year in Chinese Art

Yang Fudong film set - a new epic in production at the Long Museum, Shanghai, April 2017
As I've been swimming my (very slow) laps of the local pool over successive lazy Christmas holiday days, the splashing of the water drowned out by the relentless hum of cicadas, I've been thinking back over the year's highs and lows, achievements and regrets. In particular, as I drag myself up and down the pool, I've been remembering inspiring encounters with Chinese artists, and with their work seen in galleries, museums and studios. This year I've also had many opportunities to share ideas about Chinese contemporary art in some strange and wonderful locations. It would be impossible to rank these experiences into a 'Best of 2018' list, so what follows is a highly personal stream-of-consciousness musing on the year behind us.

During an April trip to China I was invited to speak on a panel at the Yenching Global Symposium at Peking University (better known as Beida), talking about the generational differences between older and younger artists in China, and my thoughts about how Chinese art has changed in the last 20 or 30 years. Moderated by Kaiser Kuo, founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor at SupChina - and a rock star/writer/broadcaster/provocateur whom I have admired for years - it was an initially nerve-wracking but ultimately exhilarating experience. In the same week I gave a talk in the odd but beautiful surroundings of the Dongyue Temple Art Museum to a mixed Chinese and non-Chinese audience, and then to a large group of students at China Women's University, where I spoke about my book 'Half the Sky'.

In Beijing, observing the constant reshaping of the city, the bricking-up of ramshackle bars and shops, the 'greyification' of the hutongs, and the dramatic changes seen even in my regular haunt of Xingfu Cun Lu and its little shops and restaurants, I travelled to meet artists every day, recording interviews for the White Rabbit Collection/Judith Neilson Archive. From young artists Chen Zhe and Geng Xue to pioneers such as Wang Jianwei and Feng Mengbo, every conversation was filled with rich and often unexpected treasures of information. Seeing the scale of Sun Xun's studio production was fascinating, especially following the exhibition of his extraordinary 'Republic of Jing Bang' at the White Rabbit Gallery, and prior to his major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Surrounded by ink drawings of life-size characters in the feature-length film he and his team are working on, we talked about art and life, and his journey from the sooty, smog-filled northern coal-producing city of his birth to the art academy in Hangzhou, and to his current life as a globe-trotting artist.

One rainy afternoon was spent recording a two-hour conversation with Shang Yang, discovering his slow-burning anger at the destruction of the Chinese landscape and the pollution of its air, soil and water in the name of 'progress'. For me, artists like Shang Yang represent the extraordinary resilience of the Chinese people: punished for years for his support of students in 1989, stripped of his teaching position and other roles and honours at Wuhan University, he continued to work, and remained steadfast and uncompromising in his subject matter. Now in his 60s, Shang had only two solo exhibitions in China until his New York show in September. I wrote about that exhibition for The Art Life - click HERE if you want to read more.

The drive back from Shang Yang's studio to the northern centre of Beijing was hair-raising in a violent thunderstorm, the streets running with deep water and the traffic a cacophany of blasting horns and shouting drivers. After three hours in the car, and already quite dark at 7.00pm, my driver reluctantly agreed to let me out as soon as I vaguely recognised the surrounding geography, so I could walk the rest of the way. The next morning he told me it had taken him another three hours to get home. 

Perhaps the biggest thrill for me in Beijing, though, was meeting Xu Bing. I had taught students about his work since discovering his 'New English Calligraphy' installations at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the late 1990s, and I was completely overwhelmed when I saw his two enormous phoenixes hanging in New York's Cathedral of St John the Divine in 2014. In contrast to the arrogance that often accompanies art megastardom (no names, no pack drill) Xu appears humble and unassuming, talking readily and revealing an ironic sense of humour. After our long conversation about his film 'Dragonfly Eyes' we drank beer and ate spicy noodles at his local Sichuan restaurant in a shopping mall near the studio.

Of all the exhibitions in Beijing galleries large and small, two standouts were Liu Wei's monumental installation and Zhu Jinshi's 'Ship of Time', now in the White Rabbit Collection, at Tang Contemporary. Both were extraordinary and breath-taking, dramatically defining the exhibition space. At Long March Space Liu's mechanical planets slowly orbited the room and I could not tear myself away.

The next week, in Shanghai, my encounters continued, in studio visits with Jin Feng, Ni Youyu, Liu Jianhua and Chen Yujun. Once again I had the opportunity to meet an artist whose work I had taught since the 1990s. Gu Wenda was fortuitously in Shanghai and we were able to meet at his studio. I confess that at moments like these I feel as if I am inhabiting someone else's life - it is such a privilege to be able to engage these artists in conversations about their life and work. And what extraordinary stories I get to hear! Gu Wenda told me about his studies with Maryn Varbanov in Hangzhou, about his work being banned from an exhibition in Xi'an in 1986, and about his early days as a struggling Chinese artist in New York, as well as about his commissioned work for the White Rabbit Collection, a series of marble rocks inscribed with hybrid, partly invented characters relating to the 24 seasons of the traditional agricultural calendar.

In many years of meeting Chinese artists I've seen a lot of remarkable and impressive studios, but Chen Yujun's transformation of a cavernous former factory has created an especially calm and beautiful space - old, weathered doors and windows rescued from demolition sites have been used to partition the enormous concrete spaces into areas for working, exhibiting, reading, chatting and drinking tea. 

I enjoyed a long talk with Liu Jianhua about his use of porcelain. My last encounter with Liu was when he led the 'Everyday Legend' Research team on a field trip to Jingdezhen, where he had worked and studied from boyhood. To see the website of this research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, click HERE.

Of all the many exhibitions seen in Shanghai, I especially loved Yang Shen's 'Garden Oddity' at MadeIn Gallery: surreal juxtapositions of images drawn from cartoons and children's textbooks, sci-fi comics and animations and the strangest depths of the artist's imagination.

Back home, work continued on the establishment of the new Dangrove White Rabbit Collection Research Library and the archive, which has been a joy and a delight; I am lucky to work with a fabulous team of colleagues in a beautiful space. We welcomed our first groups of students from various universities to engage directly with the objects in the collection and the archival materials provided by its artists, and continued to film interviews with artists visiting Sydney, including Gonkar Gyatso, Wang Guofeng, Cao Hui, Sun Xun, Yang Wei-Lin. and (forthcoming) Hou I-Ting, Guo Jian and Gao Xiaowu.  The wonderful painters Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong brought piles of books and catalogues for the library when they arrived in town for a ceremonial switching off of Liu's 'painting machine' installation at White Rabbit Gallery.  Liu Xiaodong's interview can be seen HERE on the White Rabbit Collection Vimeo site, where you will also find many others.

Later in the year, in New York, I visited Lin Yan in her Long Island studio, went to the launch of Barbara Pollack's new book 'Brand New Art from China' (and greatly enjoyed my conversations with her), and saw exhibitions of Zhang Xiaogang, Shang Yang, and Liao Guohe. The Guggenheim show from young star curator Xiaoyu Weng featured Cao Fei’s evocation of a post-human future, Wong Ping’s fabulously eccentric digital tale of an elderly porno addict and new works by Lin YilinSamson Young and Duan Jianyu. The famous koan, ‘one hand clapping’, says the Guggenheim, is a metaphor for how meaning is destabilised in a globalised world.

Now, on the first day of a new year that we all hope will be kinder and less crazy, albeit perhaps without too much optimism, I think about how lucky I am to spend so much time with artists. Art continues to matter in this scary world. To finish with a quote from art critic Jerry Saltz:
"Thank you all the artists I’ve ever known who made me think the way I think."

Friday, November 2, 2018

One Hand Clapping: Chinese Art in New York

Zhang Xiaogang at Pace Gallery New York

I've been a long time away from this blog, I know. Just one more thing to feel guilty about: those nuns taught me well! In any case, self-flagellation aside, my September holiday in New York was so filled with Chinese art that it became what used to be called a 'busman's holiday' (for millennials that means 'a holiday or form of recreation that involves doing the same thing that one does at work.') I am sure there must be a Chinese idiom for this as there is for everything else, but I just don't know that one!

The New York gallery and museum scene was so filled with events and exhibitions relating to China that I wrote this piece for The Art Life. And the focus on Chinese art helped to stop me picking at mental and emotional scabs caused by the hideousness of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination and the fact that Donald Trump was in town. 

Forever Young: Three Chinese Artists in Manhattan

Anticipating a September holiday in New York, I imagined strolling through rooms hung with the monumental canvases of the giant egos of the mid-century moderns. Little did I expect my longed-for week in Manhattan to be focused on the generational shifts and transformations that now characterise contemporary art from China. But such is the nature of the global art world.

From solo shows in Chelsea to Song Dynasty shan shui paintings (literally, ‘mountain and water’ and the Chinese term for landscape) at the Metropolitan Museum; from a book launch by celebrated critic and curator Barbara Pollack to One Hand Clapping, young curator Xiaoyu Weng’s latest exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York was most unusually focused on China. The Guggenheim show featured Cao Fei’s evocation of a post-human future, Wong Ping’s fabulously eccentric digital tale of an elderly porno addict and interesting new works by Lin YilinSamson Young and Duan Jianyu. The famous koan, ‘one hand clapping’, says the Guggenheim, is a metaphor for how meaning is destabilised in a globalised world.
Barbara Pollack and curator Xiaoyu Weng discuss Pollack's book 'Brand New Art From China'
at James Cohan Gallery
Following the theme of a globalised world, Brand New Art From China is art critic and curator Barbara Pollack’s second book, following her 2010 Wild Wild East: The Adventures of an American Art Critic in China. Book events to mark its launch were held at two major New York galleries in September. Pollack coined the phrase ‘post-passport generation’ to describe younger artists, often educated outside China, whose eyes are turned firmly to the global rather than the local. They are sometimes categorised as ‘post-80s’, or ‘post-internet’, labels that many detest. They often (but not always) reject obvious tropes of ‘Chineseness’ in favour of an international visual language.
Liao Guohe, Burn Witches, 2018, image courtesy Boers-Li Gallery, New York
This post-Mao generation, whose work has been seen in Sydney in recent exhibitions featuring Sun XunLu YangTianzhuo Chen and Geng Xue, was represented in the New York commercial gallery scene by Liao Guohe. Born in 1977, just after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he is a harbinger of the work of the new generation. Liao has cultivated a constructed persona, deliberately confusing hapless biographers with a CV featuring ‘alternative facts’. He was born in Calcutta, he says – or maybe in Changsha – and educated in California, or maybe not. His deliberately crude canvases and sheets of unstretched fabric in Burn Witches at Boers-Li’s Manhattan space are covered with idiosyncratic symbols and scrawled Chinese characters.
Sometimes described as the chief exponent of ‘bad painting’ in China, Liao’s scatological works are often very funny, but also filled with overwhelming anger at the injustices and absurdities of modern life. Painted mostly on cheap lengths of fabric purchased at Beijing wholesale markets (a response to the third forced demolition of his studio in the constant reconstruction of the city), they feature smiley faces and the repeated character ‘gan’, which may be translated as ‘work’ but is also obscene slang. Like jittery internet memes and the constant contortions of Chinese users of the ‘Chinternet’ to evade government censors, these paintings reflect Chinese society in coded ways.

Zhang Xiaogang, Mirror No. 2, 2018. Oil on paper with paper and cotton rope collage, 142 x 112 cm, Courtesy of Pace Gallery New York.

Zhang Xiaogang, Bathtub, 2018. Oil on paper with magazine and cotton rope collage, 144 x 203 cm. Courtesy of Pace Gallery New York
In contrast, Pace Gallery showed new work by Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958), one of the major figures from the generation of painters who exploded onto the international art market in the 1990s. Political Pop and Cynical Realist artists created bleakly satirical images as a response to their experiences of the Cultural Revolution and their unease at the tidal wave of western influences transforming Chinese society. Sometimes unfairly accused of ‘self-orientalising’, creating an art ‘brand’ to seduce foreign curators and collectors, artists such as Zhang now struggle to break free of socialist imagery. The works in this show, painted on paper with hand-torn, uneven edges and layers of collage, represent that shift. They are still, however, directly related to his famous ‘Bloodline’ series inspired by melancholy family photographs from the Cultural Revolution.
In some cases, Zhang’s earlier work is referenced directly. Mirror No. 2 recalls a locket opened to reveal its secret photographs, or a mirror that reflects a memory. On the right oval a woman, perhaps Zhang Xiaogang’s mother, is painted in sombre monochrome except for the artist’s characteristic patch of translucent red, like a birthmark. On the right a bourgeois chandelier hangs over a bathtub, against a background of mottled wallpaper. The bathtub image recurs too, in a painting depicting three small children seated in a bath filled to the brim, their heads held above rubber rings, their gaze averted. It is a disturbing image, suggesting institutional life in hospitals or orphanages. Another painting depicts thermos flasks of the kind now acquired as nostalgic souvenirs, but once holding hot water in every Chinese home and workplace. For Zhang Xiaogang, the melancholia and recurring memories of the ‘Bloodline’ series remain, even to the threads that meander across the surface of the works.

Shang Yang, Decayed Landscape No.2, 2018. Mixed media on canvas,122 x 436 cm (48 x 171 3/4 in), Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art

Shang Yang, Decayed Landscape No.32018, Mixed media on canvas, 168 x 777 cm (66 x 305 1/2 in). Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art
At Chambers Fine Art a third solo show featured an artist of an older generation. As yet little known outside China, Shang Yang was born in 1942 and graduated from the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in 1965, where he had been trained in the mandatory Soviet-style Socialist Realism. As an impoverished young artist he could barely afford to buy paint or canvas, prompting his use of found materials and bitumen, a practice he continues. I met Shang in Beijing in April, and in a long conversation over cups of tea in his studio he said, ‘I think, looking back at my career, I have done only two things. One thing is to paint water, one thing is to paint mountains.’
Shang’s large canvases, representing scarred, damaged landscapes, suggest looming environmental disasters. A rich seam of art historical references underpins his mature style; Shang loves Song Dynasty painter Fan Kuan’s lyrical images of mountains and streams, but also references Anselm Kiefer and Cy Twombly. Seamlessly embedding his deep knowledge of Chinese and western art history and aesthetics into his own practice, he works tirelessly in his Beijing studio, driven by dismay and sorrow at the wasteful consumerist society he now inhabits. In April, looking at the canvases arrayed around the walls of his studio, I asked him, ‘Do you see your work as a wake-up call, a warning to humanity about where we are heading if we don’t take heed of our relationship with nature?’ Shang replied: ‘Yes, that is my purpose. I have been focusing on this theme for two or three decades. I want to warn the whole world.’
Shang Yang sees the damage wrought to the natural environment, in China and everywhere, as an irreversible catastrophe. Since the 1990s he has obsessively painted totemic mountains: the Dong Qichang Project series (Dong Qichang Project 38 is now in the White Rabbit Collection) and the Decayed Landscape emerged from his dawning realisation that the rapid transformation of Chinese society into a market economy requiring ever-increasing urbanisation would have unforeseen consequences. Decayed Landscape No.2 reveals Shang’s characteristic syntax of triangular volcano-like forms, the essence of ‘mountain’, like a pictograph. It’s a powerful, minimalist language of form and mark, an almost brutal surface that yet suggests immense sorrow and regret. The empty spaces in Shang’s vast canvases are as important as the dark, brooding mountains.
The work of three artists born into very different periods of modern Chinese history evokes an overwhelming melancholy, as well as an emphatic avowal of the continuing significance of painting in contemporary art. The idea, often expressed now, that the old guard of artists in China are no longer relevant and should move over to make way for new blood strikes false. Shang Yang’s compelling canvases distill a lifetime dedicated to painting, experimentation, teaching, study and clear-eyed observation of his society. Perhaps the last word goes to a collaged paper scrap in one of Zhang Xiaogang’s canvases – a newspaper clipping reporting on Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, with the headline ‘Forever Young’.
See my other articles in The Art Life HERE
Check back soon: at some point in the near future I'll write  about my visit to Lin Yan's studio in Long Island City.

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.’