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, May 22, 2017

上海日记 Shanghai Diary: A Revisionist History and the Mandate of Heaven

Chinese flag billows at the stern of our boat, heading towards Yangshuo, Photo:LG
After Beijing, and a somewhat ill-fated trip to Guilin that featured a hideous hotel; food poisoning; a gazillion pushing, shoving, spitting, shouting tour groups following young women with flags and megaphones; and a trip along the admittedly beautiful Li River being lectured by the very dutiful guide I had hired to organise the details of boats and cars ("The government has completely solved the problem of pollution, the water is completely safe for swimming!"- yeah, sure), it was so good to return to Shanghai. Toilets that flush! Fabulous food! A seamless transition from Hongqiao Station into a taxi! Even the notorious Shanghai traffic was better than usual, and after 45 minutes zipping along those Jetsons-style futuristic elevated freeways I breathed a sigh of relief to see familiar Deco Gothic spires and emerge onto Huaihai Lu and then a tangle of smaller streets.

The Guilin adventure had its moments, for sure. The landscape is extraordinarily beautiful, and the trip down river was relaxing in a soporific way, despite the convoy of crowded boats. The old towns around Yangshuo - although most are not so much old as 'old', with reconstructed stone and timber houses and alleyways filled with red lanterns - were quite lovely, whether real or fake. I was the focus of much good-humoured curiosity from locals in a few villages, especially from old ladies chatting as they squatted in old-style rural Chinese toilets (i.e. no doors and long communal troughs.) To see how the laowai would pee was obviously a matter of great curiosity. All I can say is, you can get used to anything. Guilin itself - or what I managed to see of it before I was confined to the hotel room for two days after an unwise restaurant choice - is ridiculously pretty.
Old? Or maybe ''old" architecture. But beautiful nonetheless
But, oh Shanghai, how I love you! I love your plane trees, your Art Deco, your ridiculously tiny shops selling preposterous shoes and glittery clothing, your good coffee, your cool boys nonchalantly smoking while steering their motor scooters, your young girls singing to themselves while they ride along on their bicycles, your glamorous women striding in their stilettos, your old men playing cards in Fuxing Park, your gatherings of ballroom dancers at night in the small park on Huaihai Zhong Lu. I love the Huangpu river seen from high above the Bund, and even the ridiculous Oriental Pearl Tower.
Conversation, April afternoon, Shanghai. Photo:LG
I love your quilts and underwear hanging out to dry on every post and powerline, your grumpy old ladies, the uniquely Shanghainese habit of wearing flanellette pyjamas as streetwear, your dumplings and xiao long bao. The remaining shikumen stone gate houses are lovely, and it's taken me a long time to figure out how to find addresses in the longtang laneways, but now I know how to do it I love that too.
Shanghai juxtapositions, Photo:LG
On my last day, exiting Fuxing Park, a young Chinese man asked me if I knew where a particular small hotel was. And I did! And I managed to direct him in Chinese (only having to run after him once to say that I meant turn right, not left.) I knew because I had stayed there two years earlier (very weird) and probably he asked because he thought the only foreigner in sight may well be staying nearby, but I was ridiculously pleased with myself nonetheless.
Changle Lu, April. Photo:LG
I was last in Shanghai for a few days in mid-December, and before that at least once every year since 2011. I remember writing that it was a tough, tough city; in fact, with shamefully purple prose I described it as a 'snarling beast, a jabberwock'. What was wrong with me? Why has it taken me years to learn to love Shanghai as much as I love Beijing? I take it all back. Certainly, every city appears different in Spring than in mid-Winter. And Shanghai in Spring is gorgeous. So this time, I wandered, I found new corners, streets and alleys of the former French Concession, I made my way to every possible gallery, and I saw Song Dong's exhibition at Rockbund Museum,I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven'. I ate noodles and dumplings. I was in heaven myself, a little delirious after being ill and miserable in Guilin.
Song Dong exhibition 'I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven', installation view, Rockbund Museum
I started this post intending to write a serious analysis of the art I saw in Shanghai, but it seems I've got a little sidetracked. Soon I will write about the artists I encountered in galleries large and small: Song Dong, Xu Bing, Lu Yang, Liang Shaoji, Hu Liu, Chen Yujun, Yin Xiuzhen, Hong Hao and many more. I discovered a new and wonderful painter at the Yuz museum, and unsurprisingly I detested the extremely popular 'Kaws' exhibition. But you will have to wait till next time to find out why

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Lu Xinjian: Looking for Harmony in the City

Shanghai-based painter Lu Xinjian has invented his own visual language with which he represents his experiences of urban life. In several interviews for the White Rabbit Collection since 2015 in Shanghai and in Sydney (Judith Neilson was one of the first collectors to see his early 'City DNA' paintings in Beijing, in 2011), he talked with me about his early life as a boy in rural China, and his surprising metamorphosis into a highly successful contemporary artist on the global stage.
Lu Xinjian and a painting in his 'City Stream' series, image courtesy the artist
These interviews were compiled as a profile of the artist published this week in 'The Art Life', together with a video interview conducted at White Rabbit Collection late last year. It goes like this:

Lu Xinjian’s early life seemed an unlikely background from which a successful artist might emerge. Born in 1977 into a poor farming family in a rural village in Jiangsu Province, by his own account his childhood was spent running wild, looking after ducks and chickens. After school he studied computer graphics and graphic design, despite his love of painting, knowing that a poor boy making his way in the world needed a more secure income than that of an emerging artist. 
Lu Xinjian with his mother, image courtesy the artist
But a chance encounter changed everything: in 1998 the influential Dutch design company Studio Dumbar had an exhibition at the art museum in Nanjing, where Lu Xinjian was studying. He didn’t have the money to buy a ticket to enter the gallery, but stood entranced in front of the posters, absorbing their structures, colour, line and form, their use of the Modernist grid. Returning to the college library, he began to read everything he could find about European design, determined that one day he would go to study in the Netherlands. It took four years after graduation to save the money, but in 2005 he graduated from the Design Academy in Eindhoven, and in 2006 from the Interactive Media and Environments Department at the Frank Mohr Institute of Hanze University of Applied Studies.
Lu Xinjian in the studio, image courtesy the artist
In Eindhoven and Groningen Lu Xinjian found himself at the centre of a particular Modernist tradition. To that point he had loved the work of Keith Haring and other contemporary American painters, but now the work of artists of the European ‘Zero’ movement of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Heinz Mack, Gunther Uecker and Otto Piene inspired him. They believed that art should be a ‘zone of silence’ devoid of personal expression. Lu Xinjian saw in this philosophy a link to Buddhist traditions of restraint and simplicity, harmony and quietude. After early experiments with figurative expressionist painting, an influential teacher, Petri Leijdekkers, introduced him to de Stijl and the work of Mondrian. He had been at an impasse, lonely and depressed during a residency in Korea, when he began to draw views of the night sky, the edges of buildings as lines and the stars as dots. The dots and dashes found in the ink drawings of Van Gogh, the grid structures of Dutch and German early twentieth century design, and the cool abstraction of Mondrian coalesced to form a new way of thinking. This epiphany was the start of his important City DNA series.
Lu Xinjian, City DNA – Beijing, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 400 cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
From this point Lu Xinjian began to paint in more abstract ways, using aerial perspectives of iconic metropolises: New York (irresistibly recalling Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie) Beijing, Shanghai, Rome, Paris, London, Los Angeles, and Venice. The first in the series, however, was the Dutch university town of Groningen, where he had taken photographs from the top of the tower in the centre of the town before returning to China. Sources for his imagery included maps and satellite views of each location, as well as photographs, but the artist sees his work as philosophically complex and multi-layered. He believes cities are built and defined by history, culture and language as much as by geography; each is distinct and unique, despite the homogenising impact of globalisation. Lu Xinjian tells the story of each city in a visual language of his own invention that merges western abstraction with simplified forms that recall the Bauhaus and Dutch graphic design, in combination with computer coding. The picture planes appear to pulsate with energy, despite their flat, brightly coloured grounds. Struggling to find a name for this body of work, Lu Xinjian suddenly saw the lines and dashes as akin to a diagram of a human genetic code. Cities, too, have a kind of DNA structure, a term borrowed from architectural practice, conveying something of the unique and complex social and architectural systems of the modern metropolis.

TO read more in 'The Art Life' , click HERE

And here is the video interview with Lu Xinjian 

Lu Xinjian in Conversation with White Rabbit from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo.
Shanghai-based painter Lu Xinjian discusses his 'City DNA' series, his interest in Mondrian and Dutch design, and how a boy from a poor rural farming family became a successful contemporary artist

Saturday, May 6, 2017

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Art and Life in a Grey City

Guozijian Street Beijing, photo LG
My three April weeks in China were lucky ones - even despite the food poisoning (thanks, Guilin) and the viral pneumonia (thanks, Hangzhou). Why lucky? Because you can go to China expecting to see extraordinary contemporary art and find little that excites you, or you can go another time and be blown away by the quality of work shown in galleries and artists' studios, by the sheer energy, vitality and innovation of what Chinese artists are doing. This was one of those fortunate times. And to be back in Beijing in Spring after a twelve month absence was a delight: the sky was (mostly) blue, the parks full of blossoms and ballroom dancers; and the galleries (mostly) open and showing interesting work.
Reflected blossoms, near Nanluoguxiang, Beijing, photo: LG
China's dizzying pace of change continues: on every visit, even if only a few months apart, I see new developments. This time what I noticed most was the explosion of the bicycle-sharing app; the streets are filled with colourful bikes rented easily, anywhere, by scanning a QR-code with your smartphone, and then left wherever you finish up. Every ride costs about 20 cents and they are HUGELY popular. Beijing has once again become a city of bicycles. And tiny new electric cars as well. The old tin can 'beng beng' taxis are still there, and the traditional pedi-cabs (not used only by tourists, by the way) but my usual Dongzhimen neighbourhood is filled with little vans silently scooting along delivering water, take-out meals, dry-cleaning, and anything else you can imagine could be delivered in a city of entrepreneurs.
Motor-cycle taxi, Dashilar, Photo: LG
Old shool beng beng taxi, Photo L
Combined with the three-wheeled carts collecting recycling, generally presaged by a ringing bell and a harsh cry,  it is a collision of old and new. The scourge of the silent scooter on the sidewalk is still there, though, particularly unnerving at dusk, or when the rider suddenly shouts at you to get out of the way. And there's still plenty of sidewalk spitting, which is perhaps a comforting sign that some things don't change. Old bars and expat hangouts have closed (sorry, not sorry) and the gentrification of the hutongs proceeds apace, but the essential character of the city remains, much like its inhabitants - tough, gritty, no bullshit, and a sardonic sense of humour. I was glad to see the battered velour armchairs still on the street in Chunxiu Lu, and the outdoor hairdressers at work in the hutong nearby. And the unique and unmistakeable smell of the Beijing drains is always present.
Hutong, Dashilar, photo: LG
Washing drying in the lanes, Beijing, April 2017, Photo: LG
Beijing rooftops through a hutong window, Photo: LG
I was in Beijing for my own research project, meeting with artists who are subverting ink traditions in very particular ways, and most of my time was taken up with long drives to and from studios in Songzhuang, Caochangdi and Shunyi. But in intervening windows of time I visited galleries in 798 and Caochangdi and saw wonderful things.
My top  5 Beijing highlights:
1. Qiu Anxiong, 'New Book of Mountains and Seas Part III' at Boers-Li Gallery - immersive, completely extraordinary. Qiu has created a dystopic universe with just enough connections to the present-day to make it thoroughly terrifying. So immersive that I sat through the entire video twice. Part II was a central element of White Rabbit's 2016 exhibition, 'Vile Bodies'. Here Qiu talks about his work for the exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum in 2013:

2. Wang Yuping at Tang Contemporary - a remarkable painter whose work I had not seen before. His series of paintings of the intersection near Jingshan Park is so characteristically Beijing that it would make you weep with nostalgia. And how lovely to discover that he taught my good friend Gao Ping at CAFA, and is a beloved professor. The exhibition 'Jingshan Hill' is divorced from current fashion and theoretical discourse and is all the better for it.

3. Tai Xiangzhou at Ink Studio -  a stunning exhibition called 'Speculative Cosmologies' - the curator says: Working in the literati mode, Tai spent years copying and mastering classical compositions and brushwork. He focuses on the landscapes of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), considered a Chinese golden age for both pictorial and astral arts. Speculative Cosmologies features select examples of Tai’s classicizing style, including Mountain of Heaven, a virtuosic rendition of a Song monumental landscape as a screen—a format charged with cosmological significance; Cosmic Symphonies, an elaboration of a celebrated 13th-century album depicting different aspects of water; and Microcosm-Macrocosm, a primordial landscape without organic life generated from a miniature scholar’s rock. Lovingly and intimately antiquarian, these paintings also ask, speculatively and counterfactually, what a Song landscape would be if it encompassed the vastly expanded scope of contemporary knowledge and experience.

4. Liu Di at Pekin Fine Arts - new directions in the work of this interesting artist, whose digital works of large-bottomed animals plonked in the courtyards of Beijing apartments have been shown at White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney.

5. An exhibition of new directions in the work of young artists, both Chinese and international, at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) - still with a cloud hanging over its future and no buyer in sight - presented tiny enclosed spaces with lots of video.Highlights here were the futuristic imaginings of Cui Jie - and in China they're not much of a stretch - and a stunning, ambiguous installation by Ma Jianfeng. Here's an interesting article featuring Cui Jie - and Lu Yang who I will write about in a later post: Where Next? Imagining the Dawn of the Chinese Century

Apart from that, the skies were blue and clear, my wanderings in the remaining hutongs were a delight (even though I still cannot persuade my husband to love Beijing), you can now get excellent coffee all over the city, and it was great to be back in a place that I have come to love like a second home. I visited the studios of Xiao Lu, Ma Yanling, Yu Hong and Bingyi, and spoke with Tao Aimin at Egg Gallery and Ink Studio in Caochangdi.
With Xiao Lu and her exciting recent ink works in her studio, Beijing, April 2017
The following week, in Shanghai, a city I have grown to love over the years, the exhibitions on offer were just as compelling. Next week: Shanghai Diary Revisited.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Light and Dark: Chinese Chiaroscuro

West Lake, Hangzhou, Photograph LG
I'm writing this propped up on pillows underneath an eiderdown at home in Sydney, having returned from China with some unwelcome additional baggage: a case of viral pneumonia has rendered the last week a feverish blur. It's a little ironic -- our departing flight from Shanghai was delayed for hours due to a sick passenger on the plane when it arrived, infected with something alarmingly unspecified that required the plane to be decontaminated, disinfected and inspected by quarantine officers before it could be re-boarded. Stuck indefinitely, possibly overnight, in the appalling Pudong Terminal 1, knots of people muttered in several languages, perhaps with dramatic scenes from the movie 'Contagion' playing in their heads, while being blandly assured by the crew that everything was under control. And all along I was the person unknowingly harbouring evil microbes, and the plane, once boarded many hours later, was perhaps the cleanest I have ever encountered.

In my restless attempts at sleep this week, half awake and half dreaming, scenes and encounters from my last three weeks in China have been re-enacted like snippets of film. Powerful images and compelling experiences, but I've been finding it hard to render them in words for some reason. I'm going to write a separate post about the art I've seen - and it was wonderful - and the artists I've met. This first piece post-China is an attempt to reconcile my conflicted feelings about this most recent trip. There are two things that I keep coming back to, that represent for me the complexity and contradictions of contemporary China, with all its excitement and adrenaline, beauty and astonishing inventiveness, resilience and pragmatism, and also its very deep unhealed scars.

The first thing is purely joyful: it's the delight I always experience in Chinese public parks and gardens, in every city I've been to. All of life takes place there, and every age group and almost every demographic is present. From the ubiquitous - and often much-maligned - dancing 'aunties' (and, really, how snobbish, sexist and ageist is much of the media attention focused on them!) to the ballroom dancers, kite-flyers, water calligraphers, card players, opera singers, tai ji quan practitioners, old men with caged birds, old ladies in wheel chairs, massed choirs, fan dancers, and doting grandparents with little children. There are pleasure boats on the lakes and the weirdly grotesque ride-on toys that are uniquely Chinese.
Water calligrapher, West Lake, Hangzhou, photo LG
Middle aged men jog (sort of) wearing dress shoes, and sometimes suit jackets, carrying large radios blaring Chinese opera or comedy cross-talk on straps over their arms like a handbag. Women and men walk the paths slapping at themselves vigorously to stimulate the circulation. Very elderly people demonstrate enviable flexibility and determination using exercise equipment. So much determined 'duanlian shenti' (physical exercise) and energy from a generation who may well have experienced considerable suffering and hunger in their youth is entirely admirable. I am aware of the sub-texts (often those choirs of middle-aged and elderly people are singing the revolutionary songs of their youth with great gusto, for example, which younger people find a little bizarre and embarrassing; and many of the dutiful sons and daughters - and daughters-in-law - pushing those wheel chairs may prefer to be doing something else.) I know, too, that as a western observer my fascination may seem a kind of Orientalism. I think that characterisation would be wrong. I feel energised and uplifted in Tuanjiehu Park or Ditan Park in Beijing, or Fuxing Park in Shanghai by the enormous, unquenchable, good-natured vitality of masses of people engaged in so much pleasurable activity. Jingshan Park, the day before I left Beijing, was filled with locals as well as Chinese tourists, bringing their children to see the spring blossoms. The choir I found, following the sound across the park, was singing an old song commemorating the sacrifices of workers who built the railway line across the Qinghai grasslands to Tibet.
Singers in Jingshan Park, Beijing, photo LG
The sense of community is palpable. I love that women my own age invariably ask me to join the dancing (and, shhh! don't tell my children, but sometimes I do.)  I use my bad Chinese to chat with grandmothers and old ladies, and I ask people to tell me about the songs being sung. I feel remembered joy just writing this paragraph. In Hangzhou last week, visiting outside of mid-winter for the first time, I strolled along the lake and encountered, in one afternoon, five different groups performing Chinese opera, with small orchestras, just for each other; solo musicians playing and singing; and three different places where ballroom dancers of varying levels of skill were waltzing, so fast that it was completely, hypnotically, wonderful. In the morning I had watched a group of  graceful women, with middle aged faces but the supple bodies of young girls, practising a traditional dance, surrounded by other groups working with swords and fans, and retired people just out chatting with friends, flasks of tea and snacks on the benches beside them. None of this was happening for the benefit of the hordes of (Chinese) tourists visiting West Lake, these were locals just out doing what they do, from early in the morning till late at night. All this public dancing and singing reminded me of an Impressionist painting: Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette depicts working class Parisians publicly enjoying their leisure in a similar way, and perhaps under similar circumstances of dramatic social change, fluidity, uncertainty and urbanisation.
Hangzhou waltzing, Photo: LG
If all of this sounds uncomplicated and idyllic, then that would be to deny that people's lives are difficult in Chinese cities as they are everywhere else. The social tensions arising from generational differences bordering on incomprehension, the impacts of globalisation, the dramatic changes of urbanisation, the increasing divide between social classes: all these factors are by now so well known that there is little point in repeating them. And yet, as people - young and old - cycle past me in the street singing loudly and unselfconsciously, and I watch the aunties and uncles chatting on their doorsteps in hutongs and alleyways and on park benches, I hope that this manner of living connectedly, publicly, out in the open, won't be lost to a future of gated condominiums and a retreat into a world of private screens.
Hangzhou Waltzing, Photo: LG
The second unforgettable image is much darker, something I witnessed at Guilin Airport, something that once seen cannot be unseen. It's the antithesis to the public high spirited pleasures I've written about above. Trying to make some sense of  what I witnessed I thought about the multiple layers in contemporary Chinese art, the bitterness that often underlies seemingly more innocuous imagery. I thought about works by Guo Jian, focused on militarisation and propaganda; about Liu Zhuoquan's recent series focused on crime and punishment; about Yu Hong's paintings of the early 2000s that explored the melancholia she believed to be omnipresent in post-Mao Chinese society; about the focus on bodily suffering of so much performance art by artists such as Ma Liuming, Zhang Huan, He Chengyao, Xiao Lu and Ma Qiusha. I thought about the Chinese sense of humour, very funny and very dark.

I'd gone to Guilin for a weekend, having always wanted to see the dramatic karst landscape that featured in so much Chinese painting, and to travel along the Li River. The landscape is certainly beautiful, but it would have been better to go twenty years ago, before mass tourism descended. I was prepared for this to some extent, but the reality was a bit of a shock; the hotel was a hideous processing factory for tour groups from far provinces, and I got food poisoning - for the first time ever in China. By the time I was sitting queasily at the airport I was quite keen to leave Guilin behind. Suddenly there was a commotion, and an uneasy stirring of the people all around me; I looked up to see three figures stumble past, surrounded by men in dark glasses and leather jackets. They were bent forward, shuffling, and it took me a moment to realise that they were blindfolded, their hands cuffed behind them. I was profoundly shocked, a feeling compounded by the realisation that their blindfolds were white surgical masks intended to be worn over nose and mouth, and by the casual brutality of the police who shoved them roughly through the airport. They were bent at the waist in attitudes of supplication reminiscent of Cultural Revolution photographs. I cannot get this image out of my mind.

I have almost deleted my description of the Guilin Airport incident several times now. It is obviously so out of keeping with the tone of this blog, which for years has recounted my experiences in China - the joyful, the amusing, the bewildering and the confusing nature of the encounters of just another laowai. One of my aims has always been to counter the schematically over-simplified view of China held by people who have never been there - and some who have - focused on the reporting of corruption and human rights abuses in the western press. I wanted to show that the reality of a vast country of 1.4 billion is far more complex than what we see in the media, and give a sense of the ordinariness of daily life. But what I saw that day was far from ordinary, and this brings me back once again to art. It is artists who draw our attention, in ways both subtle and profound, to dangerous truths, to the beauty, terror and absurdity of life. It is up to us to pay attention.
From Guilin to Yangshuo on the Li Rover, Photo LG

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Spring in Beijing

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

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

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Lin Yan: Ink and Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

Shelter from the Storm: Before the Rain at 4A

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

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

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

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

To read the rest of the review, click HERE

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Year of Transformation

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

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

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

The year of the first grandchild - such joy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the art-related highlights of 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porcelain worker painting the Immortals, Jongdezhen

San Bao Artist Residency and Studios, Jingdezhen

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

Meats drying from the eaves, Jingdezhen

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

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