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

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

Friday, June 25, 2021

Mountains and Seas: Yang Yongliang's Digital Dystopia

Yang Yongliang, Doe, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

When Sullivan & Strumpf asked me to write an essay for his solo exhibition in Sydney this month, I was delighted to be back in contact with Yang Yongliang. I had first met the artist, who now lives and works between Shanghai and New York, in 2015 when I was in China researching the first group of artists for the White Rabbit Collection Book '99 Chinese Artists', eventually published in 2019. Like other artists whose work alludes to past traditions in China, Yang struck me as an inheritor of the scholarly tradition of the literati - the highly educated elite who had passed the gruelling Imperial Examinations and worked as advisors to the court. Their beautiful calligraphy and ink wash paintings of mountain landscapes represented a Daoist metaphysics of universal harmony - and a solace and respite from the realpolitik of the imperial court. Yang, in his studio in an Art Deco building near Shanghai's Bund, was gentle, softly spoken and very serious about how his work both looks back to the past and also critiques the present day. Discovering the incredibly laborious and meticulous process in which he creates his digital still and moving works was intriguing.

 So here is the essay: 

Travelling Among Mountains and Streams: Yang Yongliang’s Imagined Landscapes

“...Clouds darken with darkness of rain, 
Streams pale with pallor of mist. 
The Gods of Thunder and Lightning 
Shatter the whole range. 
The stone gate breaks asunder 
Venting in the pit of heaven, 
An impenetrable shadow.”

Li Bai (71-762 CE), ‘Tianmu Mountain Ascended in a Dream’ 

Yang Yongliang, Goose, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

Each time I have visited Shanghai, speeding in a taxi along elevated freeways from the airport or the high-speed train station, I am reminded of the ‘Jetsons’ cartoons of my mid-twentieth-century childhood. Gleaming towers with strangely Gothic spires stuck on top, neon flashing through smog, terrifying spaghetti junctions and abrupt dives onto off-ramps into congested streets of half-demolished houses – the city seems to represent a modernity in the process of becoming, an unrealised, shining, technicoloured future that never quite arrived, a promised future of robots, airborne cars and monorails.

This urban spectacle is the source of multidisciplinary artist Yang Yongliang’s paradoxical homage to the past thousands of years of China’s cultural history, and simultaneously an expression of deep foreboding about what the future holds – not just for China, but for the planet. Home to more than twenty million people, Shanghai is a modernist dream of unceasing transformation – and also a nightmare. Its skyline is ever more dramatically vertical, and its streetscape undergoes constant demolition and reconstruction. The past is erased anew every day. Hints of a different history remain; a wall surrounds a demolition site with one ‘nail house’ still standing, a few neighbourhoods of ungentrified traditional lilong lane houses are filled with hanging washing, leaning bicycles, and gossiping neighbours. But the tower blocks and new roads are always visible. 

Yang Yongliang’s melancholy digital works are his response to life in this urban palimpsest: he applies new media in an adaptation of Chinese traditions of landscape painting, appropriating the shan shui (literally mountain, water) idiom to represent the contemporary world. Now, living and working between Shanghai and New York, he looks back to China’s artistic heritage – to Song Dynasty landscape scrolls in particular – for inspiration, adapting ink painting techniques to digital platforms. In Yang’s work the past, transformed, informs the present and issues a warning about the future. Yang Yongliang was born in 1980, at the dawn of China’s period of seismic change under the ‘open door’ economic policies of Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping. Over the next thirty years China was transformed, becoming an urban nation of mega-cities. Yang’s birthplace, an ancient water town, was a place of traditional southern white houses with upturned eaves, a famous pagoda, and old humpbacked stone bridges over quiet canals. Gradually, though, Jiading Old Town was subsumed by the ever-expanding Shanghai suburbs. So much so that when Yang returned to his hometown from university, everything he remembered had vanished. This sudden change, experienced as a traumatic erasure of personal history, lies at the heart of his work. 

Yang Yongliang, Tiger, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

China’s headlong rush towards modernisation brought many benefits, and much wealth to some, but along with it came a deep uncertainty and anxiety. The unceasing expansion of metastasising cities – bulldozers tearing up ancient villages like ravaging beasts leaving behind towering piles of rubble – erased the landscapes of the past, replacing them with endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks beside eight lane highways. Imagery of this perpetual cycle of demolition and construction is buried within Yang Yongliang’s landscapes. At first sight they appear like backlit, digital versions of sublime literati paintings. But look a little closer and you discover they are made up of thousands of photographs, seamlessly layered to reveal a very different world. Giant cranes loom through the clouds and mist, electricity pylons march across the countryside, and tumbledown houses are replaced by steel and glass towers. It is as if Yang is constantly revisiting his moment of shock, returning home to find the familiar become utterly strange. 

Yang Yongliang, Boy, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

The years he spent living and working in Shanghai, watching it become a shining, hustling, globally connected city, underpin his laboriously constructed still and moving images. Yang is at once fascinated and appalled by this transformation, and his work is a paean to what has been lost in the process. Perhaps that is why he turns so often to Song Dynasty master painters like Fan Kuan and Guo Xi for inspiration. In a period following dynastic upheaval, political strife, and conflict depictions of beautiful landscapes represented solace. The mountains were an escape from the troubles of the world. Song Dynasty shan shui paintings were expressions of Daoist and Buddhist belief in the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world, and the mutually reciprocal relationship between yin and yang. With deft brushstrokes and subtle tonal gradations of ink on silk, these scrolls create a place, as Guo Xi wrote in his treatise on painting, ‘Lofty Record of Forests and Streams’, in which the viewer could immerse themselves, taking an imaginary wander along mountain paths beside gushing waterfalls, climbing up into the high mountains, the home of the Immortals. 

Yang Yongliang’s appropriations of Song Dynasty paintings may appear at first sight to be faithful reinterpretations of the originals. But in Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (2014), for example, the soaring peaks of Fan Kuan’s famous scroll, painted around 1000 C.E, have become mountains of towering apartments stacked one behind the other, the fir trees replaced by electricity pylons, scaffolding and cranes. Yang fills the foreground with derelict white houses like those of his childhood hometown, but they appear to be tumbling into the churning waters of the ravine. Early Spring (2019), Yang’s adaptation of Guo Xi’s 1072 masterpiece, retains the mist-wreathed crags and claw-like trees of the Song Dynasty landscape with its hidden message of neo-Confucian universal harmony, but adds a note of warning. Hints of human rapaciousness alert us to how differently we see the natural world today – as a resource to be exploited. 

His digital landscapes oscillate between sublime beauty and dystopian horror. Intricately layering images of rocks and waterfalls shot in various parts of China – and in other parts of the world – with photographs of mining sites, construction zones and land clearing operations, Yang Yongliang makes us look at Chinese painting traditions and at our fragile planet in a new way. Yang Yongliang is celebrated internationally for his monochrome works that evoke in digital form the nuances of tone achieved by master ink painters. He has now ventured into colour for the first time in a series that recalls the delicate palette found in paintings by Ming Dynasty master Lan Ying that feature pine trees, bamboo, fantastical twisted rock forms, and sometimes a tiny figure seated in a pavilion, observing the mountains. Drawing on these pictorial conventions, Yang’s series depicts similarly vertiginous ‘mountains’ wreathed in mist rising from water, but on a closer examination we see they are not mountains at all, but impossible clusters of high-rise buildings.
Yang Yongliang, Monkey, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

Each image hints at some impending disaster – ruined buildings have collapsed into rubble, derricks are moored offshore and the earth has been stripped bare by machinery. Unusually for Yang Yongliang, each work in the series contains a solitary human or animal, rendered as a small, insignificant presence in an utterly indifferent world. A lonely dog stares out to sea, a monkey clings despondently to a rock, a white horse stands precariously on a cliff, a flock of geese take flight. A man attempts to fish in a shallow pool, ignoring the misty ocean below him. Tiny human figures such as wandering scholars or hermits were often featured in Chinese paintings, representing the relationship between humanity and nature in Daoist cosmology. Yang’s are weighted with different meanings. They seem like the sole survivors of an environmental catastrophe. The waves crash, and the mountains, denuded of vegetation, seem about to slide into the ocean.

Yang Yongliang, Five Dragons, video, image courtesy artist website

Yang Yongliang’s work asks us to face uncomfortable truths, to view the world that human greed has wrought. Endlessly innovative, in recent years Yang Yongliang has ventured into new technological realms, exploring the creative possibilities of Virtual Reality and 3D video animation, reinventing traditional analogue photography techniques and introducing colour to his immersive video installations and digital images. He continues to riff on Song Dynasty paintings and Chinese mythology, yet his work is also imbued with twenty-first century allusions to video game design, inviting audiences into an enticing imaginary world. Described by the artist as a “multi-point perspective mind journey through the eyes of the dragons”, 4-channel video Five Dragons (2020), for instance, was inspired by a Southern Song Dynasty painting by Chen Rong from 1244 that depicts the symbolic beasts writhing through swirling mists. Yang notes that historically the dragon was a symbol of imperial power and stability, wisdom, benevolence and good fortune. Today, however, it is often associated merely with prosperity, in yet another sign that economic development and material consumption trumps all. 

Yang Yongliang 'Imagined Landscapes' installation view, Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney

In Glows in the Night (2020), a development from Journey to the Dark, a 4-channel video work shown at Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney in 2018, Yang provides audiences with an immersive experience that recalls the (pre-pandemic) experience of flying into a big city at night, looking down at an apparent wonderland of twinkling lights, neon signs, and the golden ribbons of car headlights on highways. We see fairy lights on boats, flashing screens on skyscrapers, mountains in the distance, and in the foreground, glimpses into apartment windows. This sprawl of habitation is like a human anthill, glimpses into the lives of millions of strangers, inhabitants of this megalopolis. It could be anywhere in the contemporary world. Glows in the Night reveals the paradox at the centre of Yang Yongliang’s practice: the seductive allure of urban modernity and the simultaneous knowledge of its fragility.

You can do a wonderful virtual walkthrough of the exhibition HERE
And read the essay in its much more beautiful layout version in the gallery magazine HERE

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Passing Through the Human World: Cao Yu


Cao Yu, 'Something Inside the Chest', image courtesy the artist

Looming PhD thesis deadlines, in combination with our closed borders and the strange stasis of the COVID-19 world that we now inhabit, have all conspired to stop me updating this blog. The 'art teacher in China' that was me twelve years ago at the start of this journey is no longer really an art teacher as such, and I cannot go to China until (one day) 'Fortress Australia' decides to let its citizens leave and return. When that day comes, I very much hope to be able to return to Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and all the other places that I thought I had heaps of time to visit. I haven't yet been to Chongqing, or to Xiamen, and I would dearly love to go to Yellow Mountain and see the frescoes of Dunhuang.

Meanwhile, though, there is plenty of Chinese art to write about, and I've been doing quite a bit of that, for catalogue essays, interviews and articles published in COBO Social and elsewhere. So over the coming days I'll add links to various things I've written and comment on some of the best exhibitions I've seen.

I was very happy to be asked to write an essay for Cao Yu's solo exhibition at Urs Meile Gallery Beijing, and for Yang Yongliang's at Sullivan & Strumpf in Sydney. They are both extraordinary and interesting artists whose work I admire. I've interviewed three wonderful women - Charwei Tsai, Tianli Zu and Louise Zhang - for COBO Social, with more artist interviews to come. 

I'll start with Cao Yu - because anyone reading this blog from Beijing should get along to 798 and Galerie Urs Meile and see 'Passing Through the Human World'. I'm sad I can't be there to see it myself. Cao Yu and I have had many long exchanges via Wechat and email in the process of writing this:

Cao Yu,  Dragon Head, image courtesy the artist

Cao Yu: Passing Through This Human World

Cao Yu’s solo exhibition, Passing Through the Human World, focuses on our complicated relationships with the natural world, with each other, and with our desire to find meaning in our lives. It evokes the three cosmological realms of syncretic Daoist/neo-Confucian thought. The concept of ‘tian di ren heyi’ (heaven, earth, human united) represents an interconnected triad in which humans endeavour to live in harmony with the cosmos, including with the ancestors in the underworld of the dead. Cao is unafraid of big ideas like this—she examines the messy, painful, sometimes comical business of being human.

Cao Yu, 'Femme Fatale 2', image courtesy the artist

 A conceptual thread that runs through her ambitious, multidisciplinary work is her willingness to reveal things that are more often hidden from view, politely veiled, or camouflaged by euphemism. Cao Yu is, above all else, courageous. In this exhibition Cao explores gendered experiences of sexuality and motherhood; connections between life and the afterlife; links between species, and across aeons. Perhaps only in China, for example, could an artist procure a fossil from the Ice Age—a mammoth’s enormous leg bone unearthed in far north-eastern Heilongjiang Province—for an installation that examines profound human and post-human connections. 

In Nothing Can Ensure that We Will Meet Again (Ice Age - 2014), Cao Yu asks us to confront our deepest fears, and our deepest longings. She inserted the umbilical cord that once attached her to her firstborn child, frozen since 2014 for this precise purpose, into a space dug out of the bone and filled with resin. Inlaid and preserved like a prehistoric insect trapped in amber, the knotted cord will survive long past Cao’s own life span, and her son’s. It is a time capsule illustrating the powerful connection between a mother and her infant, but also a reminder of their inevitable separation and mortality. She chose the mammoth bone, she says, because they too, long ago, suckled their babies. For Cao, “The life that has gone is a witness to the connection and separation of the other two lives.” With the circular bracelet of her umbilical cord, Cao Yu is closing the circle between animal and human life forms, between past and present, and between death and a kind of immortality. 

The range, diversity and conceptual depth of her work is astonishing, but she is also deeply invested in the nature of her materials, from the more conventional – marble, stretched linen, digital media, neon, video – to the appearance of surprising, even transgressive, materials including raw meat, bones, and the artist’s own hair, breastmilk, and urine. This focus on materiality is a distinctive aspect of contemporary art from China. Art historian and curator Wu Hung explored the concept of ‘material art’ (caizhi yishu) to analyse how Chinese artists make use of unconventional materials in order to produce works in which “material, rather than image or style, is paramount in manifesting the artist’s aesthetic judgement or social critique.” Such materials, says Wu, “transcend codified art forms.”

Cao Yu, 'Yeah I Am Everywhere', image courtesy the artist

Cao Yu, 'Yeah I Am Everywhere' (detail), image courtesy the artist

Ever since her Central Academy of Fine Arts graduation exhibition in 2016, Cao Yu has used her practice to expose her own vulnerabilities— and to make us reflect upon ours. To a mixture of astonishment and affront from the audience, she presented her video Fountain, which showed the artist in dramatic chiaroscuro as a human fountain of expressed breastmilk. Cao was satirising the ejaculatory masculinity of canonical art historical works such as Duchamp’s notorious porcelain urinal, Fountain (1917), and American conceptual artist Bruce Nauman’s Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966–1967), a video which showed the artist in the act of spitting out an arc of water. Like Duchamp, she is a provocateur, and like Nauman her work is self-reflexive: Cao’s dialogue with art history inverted gendered expectations in which women were typically represented as passive objects of the male gaze. She may be reclining, bare-breasted, in Fountain but she forces us to reconsider the female body as powerfully productive. Having experienced pregnancy, labour, birth, and the sheer physicality of new motherhood, she said: “I felt for the first time as a woman that my body could have an even more violent power to release tension than a man’s.”

Cao Yu, 'Fountain', video still, 2016, image courtesy the artist

To read the rest of the essay, see the Urs Meile website HERE. It finishes with this:

Yet all is not grim in Cao Yu’s three cosmological realms of tian di ren heyi. A sculptural installation, Yeah, I am Everywhere III (2019) consists of two pieces of rough-hewn green marble from which, impossibly, ten gold-plated fingers emerge. They resemble curling spring shoots seeking the sun. The work suggests a fairy-tale—the undoing of a sorcerer’s enchantment, perhaps—or an unsettling dream of bizarre, inexplicable transformation. The ten golden fingers are cast from the artist’s own; growing out of the hardness of stone they represent her tenacity, courage, and resilience. The title is a mantra, an affirmation: “Yeah, I am Everywhere

Friday, February 19, 2021

Seeing the Moon in a Dewdrop: Lindy Lee at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Appropriately enough at this tail end of the lunar new year celebrations, the review I wrote of Lindy Lee's survey exhibition 'Moon in a Dewdrop' at the Museum of Contemporary art back in December has been published in Randian this week. It's timely too, because her new solo exhibition at Sullivan and Strumpf has just opened - more on that show soon. And given that Facebook has exercised its unscrupulous might over the Australian government and blocked ALL news from its platform in Australia, it means that freelance writers and academics can no longer post links to their articles: posting references and links on this blog is now one of the few ways for me to share my writing with others who are interested in Chinese contemporary art, including the art of the diaspora and of  Australian/Chinese artists. 

So my piece for Randian began with a personal reflection: Lindy Lee and I are of the same generation, and although our experiences and cultural heritages are quite distinct, we both entered an artworld in Australia that was isolated and insular in the 1970s, growing less so in the 1980s, and is now far more connected with the rest of the world. Here's the beginning of the article: 

Lindy Lee, Doctrine of the Golden Flower, 2003, inkjet print, synthetic polymer paint on paper mounted on board, 25 parts: 40.6 x 28.6 cm each, 204.2 x 142.8 x 28.6 cm overall, Collection of The University of Queensland, gift of Lindy Lee through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program, 2013

Replicas, postmodernism and ‘bad copies’ 

I vividly remember seeing Lindy Lee’s early works when they were first exhibited in Sydney in 1985 in Australian Perspecta and 1986 in the 6th Biennale of Sydney. Grainy, velvety black photocopies of famous faces – portraits by Jan Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Ingres, Artemisia Gentileschi and other images from the western art historical canon – were arranged in rows or grids. They gazed out from behind layers of acrylic paint, or wax that had been partially scraped back. Hints of darkened visages emerged through cobalt blue or deepest crimson pigment, making them appear unfamiliar and mysterious. Their characters seemed to be both concealed and revealed by the artist’s manipulations. 

These shadowy works powerfully conveyed a sense common to artists and writers of my generation (and Lee’s): we were far from the action, on the other side of the world. The cultural centres, the ‘real’ art hubs, or so we thought then, were London, Paris, Florence, New York. We Australians were exiled to the periphery, inhabiting a postcolonial shadow world, a simulacrum – a pale photocopy, faded by the tyranny of distance. The art history we studied was almost entirely European and American; we feasted on images in reproduction, leafing through books with colour plates of Renaissance masters, and lined up for the (very occasional) blockbuster exhibition of works loaned from overseas collections at the state galleries. In that 1980s heyday of postmodern theory Lee’s works were discussed by critics and academics invoking Walter Benjamin and Baudrillard, but for me their interest lay in the connection forged between the artist and the mechanical reproduction. They suggested the angst of someone searching for a relationship across differences of time and culture. But there was more to Lee’s search than the general Australian awareness of the colonial ‘fatal shore’. 

Lindy Lee was born in Brisbane in 1954 to parents who had immigrated from China. She grew up in the (then) stultifyingly parochial suburbs of Brisbane during the era of the racist White Australia Policy; just a few years earlier, in 1947, Labor politician Arthur Calwell had notoriously ‘joked’ in parliament that ‘Two Wongs don’t make a white’. This upbringing, and the experience of being the only Chinese child in her school, left Lee uncertain of her identity. Like other children of Australia’s post-war migrants, she felt she was somehow inauthentic – not quite Australian, nor quite Chinese. Her early, experimental work with photocopies examined her own sense of being a ‘bad copy’, an altered, faded reproduction of the ‘real thing’.

Read the whole article HERE on the Randian Online site - and subscribe to their newsletter for interesting articles, interviews, reviews on global contemporary art

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Watching the Moon: The end of a terrible year

Pixy Liao, 'Things We Talk About', 2013, image courtesy the artist

In normal times at this tail end of the year I would write a kind of  'best of'' list of the art, the exhibitions and the most memorable artworld moments of 2020. I know, I know, it's kind of lame and a cliched media trope, but I have always enjoyed looking back over my calendar and sorting through all the many and varied experiences. Well, as we all know, these are not normal times, and this year there are vanishingly few things to talk about. The lasting experience of 2020 is of solitude mixed with uncertainty, boredom, and occasional lapses into existential despair. Life became very small as I encountered my students and colleagues mostly on Zoom, and seized precious socially distanced opportunities to see family and friends. I have tried to be more aware of the natural world, the turning of the leaves, the singing of birds in the garden, the sunsets and the moon - but frankly I'm often reading or watching Netflix and shamefully I see the moon and the sunsets in other people's Instagram photos more often than in reality. And as for art.....

The final exhibition I saw before the onset of Sydney's lockdown in March, somewhat nervously due to the increasingly serious pandemic, was 'Xu Zhen: Eternity Vs. Evolution' at the National Gallery. I felt that the visceral spectacle of the works, which had been so evident in the major survey exhibition at Beijing's UCCA and in various shows at White Rabbit Gallery, was somehow diminished inside the rather dark concrete spaces of that Brutalist Canberra building. 

XU ZHEN® "Hello", installation view, Photograph: Luise Guest

The best critical account of that exhibition is by Alex Burchmore, in Randian. Of the snake-like, moving Corinthian column activated by visitor movement he writes: ''the voluptuous coils of ‘“Hello”’ (2019) take pride of place in ‘Eternity Vs Evolution’, towering over the viewer and following their every move with a baleful gaze that threatens consumption by the emptiness of the void (and note the inclusion of quotation marks in the title). The caption for this work draws attention to the historic prestige of the Corinthian column that Xu has chosen for the body of his serpent, ‘first created in ancient Greece [as] a symbol of power, prestige and western civilization.’ Yet the flaccid immobility of this automated guardian, save for the hesitant and creaking sway of its pediment-head when activated by the approach of the viewer, inspires more pity than dread. Carved in soft and yielding Styrofoam, this is a column devoid of all function, a structural support incapable of supporting its own weight, spectacular in scale but hollow within. As such, ‘“Hello”’ offers a clue to the underlying message of the exhibition: that which seems invulnerable and eternal is often little more than an artfully contrived illusion, while the evidence of our own eyes is rarely as straightforward as it seems and inevitably colored by the assumptions that structure our view of the world.'' Read the full article here. 

Lindy Lee, 'Moonlight Deities', installation view, photo: Luise Guest

Lindy Lee, No Up, No Down, I Am the Ten Thousand Things, 1995/2020, installation view, Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2020, photocopy, synthetic polymer paint, ink on Stonehenge paper, dimensions variable, image courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney and © the artist, photograph: Anna Kucera

I managed to briefly see a small part of Brook Andrew's Biennale of Sydney before it closed and then, once museums re-opened, enjoyed a visit to an almost empty Museum of Contemporary Art to see 'Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dewdrop' (about which, more later). Apart from those experiences, months apart, the wonderful 'Indonesia Calling' at 16 Albermarle Project Space turned out to be one of those increasingly rare experiences - an exhibition that was curatorially coherent and visually and conceptually exciting. John McDonald's curation of an exhibition of work by extraordinary (and eccentric) ink painter Li Jin for Vermilion Art, 'To Live [It Up]', was also interesting, providing a different view of the artist's work than the big survey show of his career that I had seen at Ink Studio in Beijing in 2019. It's great to know that a number of works were acquired from this exhibition for the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

Works by Li Jin shown at Vermilion Art in November

So, in this globally calamitous and personally very challenging year, how to make some sense out of the chaos and confusion? Is it even possible in this year when the president of the United States is advocating a literal military coup to contest an election he lost, and when so many of us have lost faith in our governments' responses to the pandemic that has devastated the globe. We are increasingly divided, angry, sad and cynical.

Among the many losses of the year, a bright spot for me was the realisation that it was still possible to continue my conversations with Chinese artists, albeit (sadly, and who knows for how long) not face to face in their studios. I've spoken with Pixy Liao, Cao Yu, Liu Xi and Shoufay Derz via email, Facebook and Wechat and have had articles published in a range of print and online journals that I've referenced in previous blog posts, including most recently an article in Art Monthly Australasia.

Pixy Liao, 'Ít's Never Been Easy to Carry You', 2013, image courtesy the artist

These conversations were interesting and thought-provoking, challenging some of my assumptions about art, feminism and China, which is always a good thing. I take these ideas now into the chapter for a book that I am working on, so watch this space! Here is the opening section of the Art Monthly piece.  In the extract below I've left out the footnotes and references, just to make it more readable in this blog format:

 'Public Bodies, Private Lives: the work of Cao Yu and Pixy Liao'

In the cold Beijing winter of 2012, I interviewed Lin Tianmiao – often described as one of very few feminist artists in China. She told me bluntly, ‘There is no feminism in China. It’s a Western thing.’She meant, I think, that Euro-American feminism/s were not especially relevant to the experiences of Chinese women – and also that she resisted being silo-ed in a still-patriarchal Chinese artworld as a ‘woman artist’. It is generally acknowledged, as Shuqin Cui recently argued, that ‘few Chinese women artists would welcome the label of feminist art or categorize their work as feminist art even if the feminist dimensions of their work were clearly evident.’ Nonetheless, many artists grapple with issues of gender and challenge heteronormative stereotypes. A feminist self-identification is not especially significant, as art historian Joan Kee noted: The question is not whether women artists from Asian countries identify themselves as feminists, or whether their work imparts feminist messages. Instead, the issue concerns the logic of interpretation’. Feminism is embodied in nuanced and culturally specific ways in the practice of many contemporary Chinese artists – even if they disavow the label.  When I spoke with multi-disciplinary artists Cao Yu and Pixy Liao, they expressed reservations about being pigeonholed, yet their work powerfully challenges essentialist notions of the ‘feminine’.

Cao Yu, 'Mother' series, installation view, image courtesy Cao Yu and Urs Meile Beijing/Lucerne

Cao Yu, 'Everything Will Be Left Behind', installation view (above) and detail (below), image courtesy the artist and Urs Meile Beijing/Lucerne

You will find the whole article in the Summer 2020/2021 issue of Art Monthly Australasia.

Perhaps, at the end of a year that has been so terrible for so many across the globe, at the mercy of a virus (and I don't mean the one in the White House) we come back to the knowledge of our tiny insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Lately I am finding that comforting rather than frightening. The title of Lindy Lee's exhibition 'Moon in a Dewdrop' is a reference to the writings of 
Dōgen, the 13th century Zen monk who brought Buddhism from China to Japan. Lee is a practising Buddhist and the philosophy informs her life and art. I think of the artists I know in China whose study of Daoism similarly inflects their work, and their reactions to the world and its suffering. We too are the 'ten thousand things' - everything under heaven - in a constantly fluxing relationship with the world and everything in it - light and dark, health and illness, solitude and companionship. Well, I'm working on that level of acceptance. Mostly failing. It's a process.

Lindy Lee, Buddhas and Matriarchs, 2020, installation view, Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2020, flung bronze, image courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Singapore and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney with the assistance of UAP and © the artist, photograph: Anna Kucera

As Dōgen said of himself watching the moon:

‘Sky above, sky beneath, cloud self, water origin’

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Show and Tell: Cao Yu’s Gendered Embodiment

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

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

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

Here's an excerpt:

Show and Tell: Cao Yu’s Gendered Embodiment

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

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

Font of Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thursday, August 20, 2020

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

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

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

Pixy Liao, Photography, Chinese Contemporary Art

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

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

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

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

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

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

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

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