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

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Shoes & The City: Lu Xinjian, Nike and the White Rabbit Collection

So here is my second blog post for the new website that covers White Rabbit Gallery, the White Rabbit Collection and its archive, and the new Research Library at Dangrove - it's about artist Lu Xinjian and his collaboration with Nike. What it doesn't tell you is that Lu Xinjian's paintings were some of the very first that I saw in a gallery in Beijing, on my first visit to China as a recipient of the NSW Premier's Travelling Scholarship. I was utterly clueless, totally lost in Caochangdi, and walked into a gallery where I got talking to the very lovely Shasha Liu - now a friend - who told me that an Australian collector called Judith Neilson had just acquired two of the paintings. A lot has happened since then!

Read on ...

In early 2011 two paintings by an emerging Chinese artist were acquired for the White Rabbit Collection. They used an unusual technique derived from the aerial mapping of cities to produce large, apparently abstract canvases with grids and formalist designs. Critics noted they recalled the paintings of Piet Mondrian and the early Modernist de Stijl artists and designers. The artist was Lu Xinjian, a Shanghai-based painter who had indeed studied in the Netherlands and had loved Dutch design since he was a young student in Nanjing. The two paintings, from his important early City DNA series, turned out not to be abstract at all, but rather represented aerial views of Beijing and Venice. 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.
City DNA Beijing, 2010, oil on canvas
City DNA: Beijing (2010) shows the symmetrical axis of the Forbidden City, its surrounding 
lakes and the jumble of historical hutongs and courtyards in lines and dashes on a scarlet ground. 
The artist’s source imagery is scanned into a graphics software program to create a vinyl stencil, 
from which each shape must be carefully unpeeled before he can paint over it, in colours selected 
from national or city flags. The process is repetitive and exhausting – it can take up to four days 
to peel off each line from the stencil over one large canvas. The annotated print-outs from Google 
Maps that Lu donated to the Judith Neilson/White Rabbit Collection archive reveal how he begins 
the laborious process of designing these complex compositions.
City DNA Venice, 2010, oil on canvas
Lu Xinjian sees his slow, methodical practice as connected to meditation or the calming 
practice of Qi Gong, despite the frenetic contemporary hustle and bustle of his urban subjects. 
He says, ‘Coming from a small peasant village where nothing changes and the cultivation of tea 
marks the rhythms of life, the dynamism of the urban landscape has always fascinated me.’
Fast Forward to 2018. Lu Xinjian, now an extremely successful artist on the international 
stage, collaborates with Nike on a remarkable project: transferring new City DNA designs to a
limited edition shoe, initially one especially designed for the current marathon world record holder 
Eliud Kipchoge. Asked about the connection between artist and runner, Lu explained: 
‘He runs through cities, crosses them, lives them, takes them step by step. Instead, I paint the cities
 – not only the shapes on the canvas, but also the speed, the noise, the atmosphere.’ 
Only 300 pairs of shoes were produced, released at the first Nike flagship store in Shanghai. 
Their designs are based on the map of  Shanghai, with the Huangpu River at its centre. 
Two pairs of these extraordinary shoes are now in the research library at Dangrove, evidence of 
the enduring link between contemporary art and design that has been embraced by Chinese artists. 
Here, researchers can find interviews, plans and diagrams in the archive, books and catalogues 
in the library, and of course the works themselves in the collection.
Check out the whole website HERE - navigate to the 'Dangrove' section for information about the 
White Rabbit Collection and its archive.

Monday, December 31, 2018

This is not a List: My Year in Chinese Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 2, 2018

One Hand Clapping: Chinese Art in New York

Zhang Xiaogang at Pace Gallery New York

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

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

Forever Young: Three Chinese Artists in Manhattan

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

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

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

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

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

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