The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Thursday, 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

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Self and the Other

Long overdue: A post that I entered in an artwriting award,so couldn't publish till it was all over -- didn't win, but that's OK! I wanted to review this particular show because I have long been interested in the work of Echo Morgan/Xie Rong. Since I wrote this piece, I've met and interviewed the artist in London, and I plan to write more about her performance work:  she takes the notion of Chinoiserie and wrestles it into the ground. And the show included Angelica Mesiti - so what's not to like? It also seemed particularly apposite to post this the day after Australia's parliament finally -- finally! -- voted to legalise same-sex marriage.
Echo Morgan / Xie Rong, Be The Inside of the Vase, Documentation of Performance, Photograph, Jamie Baker
Image courtesy the artist


The Self and the Other: ‘Engender’ at Alaska Projects
‘Love will find its way through all languages on its own.’ (Rumi)

Tony Albert, Brother (Our Present), 2013, pigment print on paper, 150 x 100 cm, edition of 3 + 2 A/P, image courtesy of Sullivan & Strumpf and the artist
Sydney’s Kings Cross was traditionally the territory of the marginalised demi-monde, notorious for its seedy strip clubs, sex workers of every gender, sailors on shore leave, drug deals, crooked cops and underworld ‘identities’ -- and artists. Today it’s more like a tense demilitarised border zone between the respectable beneficiaries of property boom gentrification and the ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’. Here, in two disused spaces in a gloomy subterranean carpark, far from the standard white cube of the art gallery as it is usually understood, is Alaska Projects. The current show, ‘Engender’, at this artist-run-initiative is appropriate to its gritty location. Curator Grace Partridge selected work by seven artists, mostly but not all Australian, to explore the messiness and malleability of gender. This would be interesting curatorial premise enough, but ‘Engender' goes further, forcing us to consider the sometimes uncomfortable intersections of gender, class, and race. To ‘engender’ is to cause something to happen: to give rise to, to kindle, provoke, trigger or inspire. In the current context of an impassioned, often irrational debate about the rights of same sex couples to marry under Australian law, diverted by the ‘no’ campaign into fear-mongering speculation about whether boys might be encouraged, or even required, to wear dresses to school, the notion of ‘engendering’ is indeed provocative: the kindling is well and truly alight.
The first work you see is Angelica Mesiti’s haunting ‘Nakh Removed’ (2015), projected on a large screen at the far end of the first level of the carpark beyond parked cars and metres of oil-stained concrete.  Hypnotic and trance-like, the video shows four women of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian heritage re-enacting a Berber dance that is traditionally performed by women at weddings and fertility-related ceremonies. Their long hair flies across the screen as they dip and bend, tossing their heads from side to side and around in dizzying circular patterns.  The work speaks of sexuality, fecundity and female power. Their pale shoulders emerge from darkness, white against black clothing. Loops and skeins of hair swoop and swirl, and their slowed-down movement evokes an ecstatic state. This is primal, powerful and extraordinarily beautiful; the work challenges western stereotypes of Arab women.
Angelica Mesiti, Nakh Removed (2015), video, image courtesy the artist and Alaska Projects

It was filmed in Mesiti’s Paris studio, removed from the North African cultural origins of the dance, so ‘Nakh Removed’ speaks, too, of the oppressive legacies of French colonialism. A migrant child who grew up in Australia speaking one language at home and another at school, Mesiti has always been interested in the slipperiness of language, how meanings elide, slide away, and elude our grasp as we move from one subculture to another. Her childhood experiences drew her to notions of ‘the other’, to those on the periphery. Similarly, her experiences as a foreign child trying to ‘fit in’ and to learn the unfamiliar linguistic and behavioural codes of a dominant culture drew her to alternative languages of movement and dance. An earlier work such as ‘Rapture (Silent Anthem)’ (2009) reveals her interest in ecstatic states: the video  appeared to show a crowd of young people transported by a religious experience: Mesiti actually shot the crowd in the mosh pit at a rock concert from a hidden vantage point beneath the stage, then slowed down the footage and removed the sound. Like Bill Viola, she has been able to make video a medium through which she is able to convey powerfully transcendent and inexplicable human experiences. Watching ‘Nakh Removed’ we are drawn into the trance-like state that the dancers themselves have entered. For just that moment, in the Stygian gloom of a carpark – surely one of the most sinister ‘non-places’ of the contemporary world – the membrane between peoples and cultures becomes just a little more permeable.

Echo Morgan, Be The Inside of the Vase, 2012, photograph by Jamie Baker
Image courtesy the artist
Performance artist Echo Morgan (Xie Rong) was born and grew up in Chengdu but now lives in London. Her work has often challenged a western gaze on Chinese women that positions them as the exotic, oriental ‘other’; in the process she subverts traditions of ink painting and porcelain production. Three photographs in this show document ‘Be the Inside of the Vase’, a work performed in London in 2012 and documented by photographer Jamie Morgan. Without the performance these beautiful images may be read as a self-reflexive examination of Chinoiserie, a positioning of a Chinese body for a western gaze. The naked artist, completely painted white, has painted herself with a blue and white porcelain pattern of bamboo and cherry blossom. A branch of blossom travels across her face, covering her mouth and silencing her.
The title references a saying in which a beautiful women is likened to a vase – fragile, smooth, and, presumably, hollow. Morgan’s abusive and emotionally volatile father, a gangster who operated in the grey areas of the 1980s Chinese economy, ran nightclubs, brothels and casinos, collected stolen porcelain; he demanded that his daughter appear decorative and expensive. Her strong and resilient 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!’ The beauty of the photographs belies the much darker content of the performance from which they came. Divided into two ‘chapters’, the first part deals with Morgan’s fraught relationship with her father, and 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.’
In the second part, ‘Break the Vase’ the artist is shown inside an enormous vessel made of paper and bamboo; we can only see the top of her head. She invited the audience to throw water-filled balloons at her in order to ‘break the vase’; at first a seemingly innocent action, this soon became openly aggressive as the paper vase broke apart and the missiles smashed into the artist’s face. Morgan’s nude body, painted in blue and white to resemble Song Dynasty porcelain, is gradually revealed: the simmering undertone of violence becomes explicit and dangerous, the audience is complicit. Juxtaposing English narration with Chinese traditional songs, Morgan plays with her complex hybrid identity and her difficult childhood. Like Mesiti, she is interested in translation: between two languages, between gesture and stillness, between performance and image. She is restless, moving between two worlds, between her Chinese past and English present. The seductive beauty of her painted self-image cannot conceal her pain.
Other works, in particular those by Liam Benson, Tony Albert and Angela Yu, add further depth and complexity to this curatorial narrative. Yu confronts the audience with their voyeuristic impulse in ‘Prudish Boulder’ (2016). The artist’s nude body is seen from above, immersed in a bath filled with flowers and herbs. She becomes a rock, the ‘boulder’ in the title, a witty acknowledgement of how women have been so often represented in art as feminine ‘nature’ to masculine ‘culture’. Like Mesiti, Morgan and Yu, Benson plays with beauty and its inverse in ‘The Executioner’ (2015). A large photographic print shows the bearded artist, hooded, unflinchingly meeting our eyes. His executioner’s hood is completely transparent, made of gauze: this is not the identity-concealing black shroud of power, granting the perpetrator of judicial killing anonymity and, perhaps, absolution. Beaded, adorned with pearls and embroidered with flowers, the hood is instead rendered seductively beautiful. It is frivolous, charming, and verging on the absurd. Yet Benson’s watchful gaze through eyeholes outlined in beading engages us directly, forcing us to question past narratives of identity and historical acts of injustice.
Tony Albert’s ‘Brother (Our Present)’ (2013) continues his ongoing examination of how indigenous Australians have been represented and misrepresented, often subject to violence and police brutality. The work emerged as a direct response to an incident in Kings Cross in which young Aboriginal boys involved in a Saturday night car accident were shot by police. In the resulting community anger and distress, Albert saw a group of young men arrive at a rally shirtless, with targets painted on their chests. He was struck by their combination of defiance, vulnerability and pride, and made a series of portraits in their honour. Albert collaborated with a Sydney hostel that provides accommodation for Aboriginal young men and boys while they complete their schooling, shooting portraits that evoke the otherworldly chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, yet also recall 19th century ethnographic photographs of Aboriginal people in which they are viewed as specimens for scientific examination, rather than as fully human.
Each of the artists in this interesting and prescient show navigates complex and contested identities and contemporary divides between race, class, language and gender; their work is both tender and brutal, beautiful yet deeply disturbing, and each reveals both vulnerability and strength.

Featured artists include: Tony Albert, Angelica Mesiti, Liam Benson, Get To Work, Echo Morgan, Angela Yu and Archie Barry. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Conversations

After so many years of my long conversations with Chinese artists in their studios in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Xi'an and Guangzhou, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I've been able to bring the conversations closer to home. For the White Rabbit Artist Interview series, I've been able to record interviews with each artist from the collection who visits Sydney, shared via Vimeo. We're building up quite an archive.

Here is a sample selection - firstly, a 'teaser' for my longer conversation with Cang Xin earlier this year:

Cang Xin Trailer from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo.

And a longer conversation with the wonderful New York-based Lin Yan:

Lin Yan in conversation with White Rabbit from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo.

Check out our conversations with Shen Jiawei, Lu Xinjian, Song Yongping, Wang Zhiyuan, Xiao Lu, Xia Hang and Guo Jian. In the editing room right now: Song Jianshu and Huang Hua-Chen. And keep an eye on White Rabbit 's Vimeo Collection early next year for some VERY exciting additions!
White Rabbit Collection Vimeo

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

不好意思 Bu Hao Yisi: Apologies from a Bad Blogger, and Bingyi's Floating Life

So how many excuses are there for not updating this blog? I have been slack, it's true. My excuse is that I'm juggling a (very) full time job with a research degree and yet another attempt to study Chinese (hopeless task!) and as a tired juggler I'm beginning to drop the balls. And given that the research and the job both immerse me in reading and writing about contemporary Chinese art every day, this blog has had to take a back seat. I am also engaged in interviewing each Chinese artist from the White Rabbit Collection who comes through Sydney. For a link to the White Rabbit Vimeo Collection - 12 videos so far - click HERE.

Here is the trailer to my interview with the rather provocative artist, Xiao Lu:

Xiao Lu Trailer from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo.

I've recently returned from the UK where I presented a paper about my current research - no surprise to those in the know, it's focused on women artists and gender in contemporary practice. I'm writing an article for a new website (watch this space), a paper for a journal, and also writing up my interview with the very interesting performance artist, Xie Rong (Echo Morgan) whom I interviewed in London. And I'm in the final throes of a major book project.
Xie Rong / Echo Morgan, 'Be The Inside of the Vase', 2012, 4-hour performance, clay, body paint, water, Chinese paper, willow, metal, photographed by Jamie Baker, image courtesy the artist
More on my fascinating conversation with Xie Rong, over coffee in the British Library, coming very soon.

In the meantime, here's my recent article about Bingyi, who also features in my current research project and was a focus of the paper I presented at the Annual Conference of the Centre for Chinese Visual Art in Birmingham last month.
Bingyi at work in the mountains, image courtesy the artist

A Floating Life: Navigating Bingyi’s Literary Maze

Chinese contemporary artist, Bingyi (her full name is Bingyi Huang but she goes by one name, like a rock star), has ‘bombed’ the airfield at Shenzhen’s Bao’an Airport with 500 kg ink and oil missiles in order to create a dramatic painting for the terminal. She has created vast ink paintings 200 metres in length by laying specially made paper on basketball courts and mountain roads, pouring and hosing ink and water by the light of car headlights. She has sometimes burned her own paintings, letting the ash and paper fragments fall and mix into the ink of new works. A precociously gifted child, born in Beijing in 1975, Bingyi grew up to become a true polymath: an art historian with a doctorate from Yale, she has composed operas and ballets, made films, incorporated her knowledge of science and engineering into her artworks, and recently started a school for young artists and activists in Beijing. All in addition to creating exquisitely beautiful small ink paintings and large, expressive figurative canvases. An essentially self-taught artist, she began to paint in her mother’s living room in 2007, after eye surgery to correct her extreme short-sightedness.
Bingyi in her Beijing studio, 2013, photograph Luise Guest
Bingyi did not start painting with ink ­ — that came later — but with oil and acrylic on canvas. She developed an expressive and intuitive painting idiom that she describes as a search for the sublime. Her vision is not the European Romantic sublime, but a specifically Chinese notion informed by Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. From metaphysics to classical Chinese literature; from the poetry of Emily Dickinson to contemporary music; from Song and Yuan Dynasty ink painting to postmodernism, from geology and meteorology to physics and arcane mathematics, Bingyi brings a wealth of esoteric knowledge and a passionate interest in the possibilities of intellectual inquiry to her work. She is also a dancer and a musician, and a performative theatricality has certainly found its way into her work, but her approach, even when working with oil or acrylic, is the disciplined, controlled method of the traditional ink painter: each mark of the brush is deliberately placed. Her works appear painterly, but their apparent spontaneity is carefully considered.
Six Accounts of a Floating Life (2008) is characteristically literary in its density of poetic allusion and ambiguous narrative structure. Inspired by the memoirs of the eighteenth-century writer Shen Fu, it evokes the literati tradition of the handscroll, designed to be slowly unrolled and closely examined in scholarly gatherings called ‘yaji’. The handscroll represents the passage of time in an episodic manner: viewing a scroll is a sequential unfolding, intimate and revelatory. The size and format of a scroll makes the experience uniquely suited to a conversation between connoisseurs, poring over each new visual delight as it is rolled and unrolled. It is a method of painting that takes the viewer on a journey through time and space, both metaphorically and literally.
The artist describes Six Accounts of a Floating Life as a metaphysical love diary that describes life’s flow, its ‘shengming de huadong’. Its expressionist style and scribbly calligraphic line recall the innovations of early twentieth century painters, but the small figures scattered across the composition suggest, rather, the Chinese tradition of the wandering scholar. Each of the five (not six) panels depicts separate incidents, small moments in the passage of time, from the innocence of childhood to romantic love, its inevitable unravelling, and, finally, to death.


Bingyi, Six Accounts of a Floating Life, Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5, 008, oil on canvas, whole work 160 x 900 cm,
 courtesy of White Rabbit Collection
The original literary work is a multi-layered chronicle that tells and re-tells significant events in consecutive chapters, revealing new details and different points of view, shifting from private and domestic moments to public events and, rather surprisingly, to long descriptions of gardening and flower-arranging. Chapter titles such as The Joys of the Wedding ChamberThe Pleasures of LeisureThe Sorrows of Misfortune, and The Delights of Roaming Afar, are replicated in Bingyi’s appropriation of the text. The original memoir concludes mysteriously after only four sections, rather than the six alluded to in the title. (Two final chapters published in the 1930s were subsequently revealed to be fraudulent.) Bingyi similarly suggests an element of mystery with her five panels. It can be conjectured that the missing sixth panel represents an absence, a space in which one can insert whatever narrative you please, connecting artist to her audience.
Bingyi, I Watch Myself Dying, 2009, oil on canvas, 300 x 500 cm, courtesy of White Rabbit Collection
Monkeys and butterflies cavort through the paintings, referencing folk tales and classical literature. Bingyi’s multi-layered iconography links western and eastern philosophy, and personal events with universal human experiences. Another reference in her complex lexicon of imagery is to sacred Buddhist frescoes in the caves of Dunhuang, along the Silk Road, as well as to western art history and Christian theology. In the second panel of the series, two nude figures are depicted surrounded by green foliage, birds and butterflies, an allusion to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Semi-transparent, their pink skin reveals the organs beneath. The male figure has a brain and nervous system, the female is in possession of a heart and lungs: Bingyi sees the wonder as well as the danger in the intertwining of separate identities in passionate romantic relationships. If you lose yourself entirely, what then?
Bingyi’s immersion in Chinese art history – her Yale PhD thesis was a study of the Han Dynasty – provides a depth of understanding that she applies in a contemporary idiom, whether working on a small and intimate scale or in the monumental ‘land art’ ink paintings for which she has become well-known. With Six Accounts of a Floating Life, the large scale of Bingyi’s paintings render the experience immersive, almost cinematic. It is like reading a book, but a book where the ending has deliberately been left open for the viewer to imagine a conclusion. Perhaps the absent sixth panel is the ‘colophon’, where in traditional handscrolls the owner and other viewers would attach their comments, or engage with the comments left by previous viewers, like a pre-digital version of a social media ‘thread’.
A serious accident in 2009 in which Bingyi’s clothing was set alight by a candle flame left her very badly burned, subject to a series of traumatic and excruciatingly painful medical interventions and operations. I Watch Myself Dying (2009) expresses the horror of this experience, with the artist’s fragile body lying on the operating table under brilliant lights, watched by an alternate self who hovers above her like the soul leaving the body. This creature is Cyclops-eyed, with engorged breasts, pregnant with suffering. Malevolent faces crowd into the top of the composition, recalling Ensor’s masked figures in The Entry of Christ into Brussels. Part of a series of works entitled ‘Skin’, it’s an unsentimental representation of physical anguish, making deliberate references to Thomas Eakins’ nineteenth century medical portraits, and his paintings depicting surgical procedures.

Cathartic and gestural, Bingyi once again references the work of Philip Guston, a painter who understood suffering, whilst her floating figures reveal a distinctly Chinese sensibility. The pink body of the artist lying on the table, organs and sutures visible on the surface, is like a pupa in the process of becoming. The most autobiographical of Bingyi’s works, it nonetheless reveals her scholarly and poetic approach, layered with dense literary and artistic allusion. She likens her practice to composing music, or writing computer code, using a language that juxtaposes the intuitive with the controlled and systematic. Like the imperial scholar painter in his study, Bingyi applies a highly refined visual language to express her deepest feelings and responses to the events of her world. In a long conversation in her studio, a converted Yuan Dynasty temple in the oldest part of Beijing, she said, ‘It’s like I am composing a riddle. I am convinced that in a thousand years, people will dive into my paintings and they will want to know what kind of a literary maze I was constructing.’
About the artist:
Born in 1975 in Beijing, Bingyi’s training as an art historian informs her painting practice. Her doctoral dissertation at Yale was based on her study of the Han Dynasty, and her deep knowledge of Chinese art and literature underpins every aspect of her practice. Bingyi’s paintings and installations have been shown in the United States, Korea, Spain, Belgium, Canada and Hong Kong, as well as in group and solo exhibitions in China.

Photographs of Bingyi in her Beijing studio by Luise Guest