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, November 10, 2016

一个人 One Man: Liu Zhuoquan

Liu Zhuoquan in his Beijing studio, 2015, Photo: Luise Gues
If you've followed this blog for a while you will have come across Liu Zhuoquan before. He's the man who paints inside bottles, appropriating the ancient Qing Dynasty art of 'nei hua' or 'inside snuff bottle painting'. A new exhibition of his work is currently showing at Niagara Galleries in Melbourne, where his departure from previous imagery focused largely on the natural world - beautifully painted fish, birds, insects and plant forms inhabit many of his glass vessels - have made audiences look anew at a suddenly much more hard-edged artistic practice. The artist is careful to point out that his work is not about China in particular; in fact these misuses and abuses of power could be - and are - happening anywhere in the world. And with a painting of prisoners and guards behind barbed wire he could just as easily have been depicting unfortunate asylum seekers trapped by Australia's viciously cruel border security program in the offshore prisons of Manus Island or Nauru. Here is an extract from my catalogue essay for "一个人" (One Man).

Liu Zhuoquan
Self portraits - reading, 2016
four glass bottles, mineral pigments, rubber stoppers

One Man, With Courage…’ Liu Zhuoquan

Beijing-based artist Liu Zhuoquan is best known for beautiful installations of glass vessels in which delicately painted objects, animals and people are captured, suspended like specimens floating in formaldehyde. The walls of his Beijing studio are lined with shelves; on every shelf is an array of glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. Inside their curved surfaces the artist has depicted every conceivable aspect of his world. It’s like a cabinet of curiosities or a museum of specimens: as you turn your head your vision fills with crawling insects, leaping fish, fluttering birds and a vast panoply of flora and fauna. More disturbingly, though, other bottles contain coiled black snakes, human body parts and internal organs, screaming faces, and images of beaten or executed prisoners.

Liu Zhuoquan
Sparrow, 2016
four glass bottles, mineral pigments, rubber stoppers
Height - 18.5cm
A debate earlier this year at the National Gallery of Victoria asked whether artists have a moral responsibility to speak out about political and social issues. Should artists actively address issues of power, of corruption, of oppression? Can art actually make a difference? The omnipresence of social media and technology allows ordinary people to access information on an immediate and unprecedented scale, even in highly censored societies. Many citizens, artists most particularly, feel an obligation to address the uncomfortable truths thus revealed, bringing to the surface things that would otherwise remain hidden.  In a measured and nuanced way, Liu Zhuoquan does exactly this. Since his earliest childhood in Wuhan he has witnessed and experienced the misuse and abuse of power, and he applies a unique ancient Chinese craft practice to reveal some of the most troubling aspects of his world.
Liu Zhuoquan
Self portraits - drinking, 2016
four glass bottles, minera
On my first visit to Liu’s studio some years ago, amongst a profusion of painted plants, insects and birds, I noticed a pair of bottles slightly set apart on a small shelf. The larger of the two contained a portrait of a pony-tailed young woman in jeans and T-shirt standing awkwardly with her hands behind her back, the smaller contained just her head. I asked the artist about their significance. He told me the bottles belonged to a series, portraits of executed prisoners. The awkward young woman had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, her photograph published in the newspaper. It has been estimated that up until 2010, almost 5000 people were executed each year in China; since 2014 that figure has halved, although the precise statistics are a state secret. Liu Zhuoquan’s growing disquiet about the state apparatus of crime and punishment in China resulted in a recent series of bottles featuring police and their prisoners, but his preoccupation with the subject is not new, and one may look to incidents in the artist’s own life and family history for an explanation.

Liu Zhuoquan
Policemen in a bottle, 2016
giclee print
edition of 5
A saying attributed to Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, has particular resonance in the context of this brave body of work: ‘One man with courage makes a majority.’ The notion of the singular brave individual wielding the moral power to create change is, of course, highly problematic in China today, where the authoritarian collectivism of the socialist past collides with a new aspirational individualism. Tensions and conflicts are the inevitable result, seen in recent covert Smartphone videos showing rebellious villagers protesting land seizures or potentially toxic industrial developments battling armed police.  Other videos circulating on Chinese social media show the violence of the feared ‘Chengguan’ municipal law and order cops against marginalised street vendors and rural migrant workers on construction sites. Together with the recently renewed phenomenon of nightly televised ‘confessions’ from human rights lawyers, journalists – even Hong Kong book sellers – these images are a significant aspect of Liu’s world and contribute to his sense that there is a darkness at the heart of Chinese society.

Liu’s painted glass vessels reveal these often-hidden aspects of today’s China, as well as stories from the past. He has adapted the ‘nei hua’ (inside bottle painting) technique, an exquisite tradition dating from the Qing Dynasty, used to ornament decorative snuff bottles. Tiny curved brushes inserted into the bottles apply mineral pigments to the roughened inside surface, reversing the usual painting technique by painting from front to back. Like many other art and craft practices seen as relics of the feudal past, this was largely forbidden during the years of Mao’s rule. Appropriating this imperial tradition, often using images sourced from newspapers or social media, Liu combines his contemporary sense of irony with acute observation of people, and the fragile beauty of nature. He once described his studio as a scientific laboratory where he is recording the ‘ten thousand things’ of Taoist philosophy. In ancient China this phrase meant ‘everything that exists in the world’, the simultaneous sameness and difference of every element of the universe, the beautiful and the terrible alike.
Liu Zhuoquan
Bullet, 2016
three glass bottles, mineral pigments, rubber stoppers
Height - 18.5cm

A work such as Bullet (2016) recalls stories from the not-so-distant past – maybe urban myth, or maybe not – of families sent a bill for five fen to offset the cost of the bullet used to end the life of their husband or wife, son or daughter. Liu’s painted bullet, floating in its stoppered bottle, evokes forensic science and the aftermath of violence.  A narrative told with such economy of means emphasises rather than diminishes the horror. Two miniaturised police officers stand with their backs to us inside similar bottles, suggesting that they too are trapped in a system over which they have no control: they are just obeying orders, a chilling phrase we have heard too often before. These anonymous authority figures also make an appearance in Two policemen (2007), an earlier oil on canvas work, but the larger scale of the painting changes the meaning – seen from behind, against a 
loosely painted, greenish-white background, we are starkly reminded of their power.

To read the rest of the essay, the catalogue is available from Niagara Galleries: HERE

I love the glass bottles, but I think after long consideration my favourite work in the exhibition is a painting on more conventional canvas. Two policemen in ill-fitting baggy uniforms are seen from behind, in the characteristic bored pose of soldiers or police officers with sore feet who've been standing for a long time. They are also victims of a system that seeks (and sees) dangerous dissent everywhere.
Liu Zhuoquan
Two policemen, 2007
oil on canvas
99.5 x 70cm

Friday, September 23, 2016

Zhang Peili: China and the World

Preparing to write a piece for Daily Serving about the Zhang Peili exhibition at the Australian Centre on China in the World, at Canberra's Australian National University, I was thinking about the aspects of Chinese contemporary art that I find most compelling. In the end, I decided, it comes down to the sheer audacity of scale and ambition, the sense that nothing is impossible, even in a tightly controlled society. Chinese artists are adept at walking that tightrope, evading heavy-handed and clumsy attempts at censorship; they use metaphor in such clever and poetic ways. Even, as in the case of Zhang Peili, when they have been insistent on a desire to avoid narrative altogether. 

Here, for example, is Zhang Peili's 'Elegant Semicircles', in ‘HARMONIOUS SOCIETY 天下無事’, curated by Jiang Jiehong as part of Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 (with a work by He An in the foreground. Six large, single-colour flags on mechanised flagpoles sweep the floor as they move from side-to-side, gathering dust throughout the exhibition. 

One of the things I thought about was the hugely significant role of new media and time based work in an artworld still dominated by painting - the impact of one man on that development is very significant. Zhang Peili was the founder of the New Media Department at Hangzhou's China Academy of Art, and he still teaches there - his pupils are now making waves internationally.

Writing for Daily Serving, I said: 

''Sometimes—perhaps not often enough—viewing video art is a profoundly immersive experience of the kind that only a time-based medium can provide. Bill Viola describes this magic: “…it’s not an intellectual experience, it’s a physical experience. It’s coming at your body.” At other times, while peering at a small screen in a darkened gallery, the only possible response is an overwhelming ennui. Zhang Peili provides audiences with both these seemingly mutually exclusive states. In the 1980s and 1990s, he employed an aesthetic of deadpan banality, repeating nonsensical rituals that created intentional slippages of language and meaning. Although these and his recent video installations might frustrate a 21st-century audience grown overly reliant on spectacle, this glimpse of Zhang’s work over more than twenty-five years is satisfyingly thought-provoking and often surprisingly poetic. 

Zhang Peili. Q + A + Q, 2012. 2-channel video projection installation; 20:37; installation view, Q + A + Q, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist and Australian Centre on China in the World.
'Zhang Peili: From Painting to Video' is curated around a work gifted to the Australian Centre on China in the World at ANU. In 2014, Zhang’s friend and fellow artist Lois Conner donated one of the artist’s final paintings, Flying Machine (1994). The exhibition of this newly restored work provided an opportunity to explore Zhang’s transition from painting to video, and to reflect on the development of new media art in China toward the end of the 20th century. The exhibition also presents eight of Zhang Peili’s pioneering video works dating from 1988 to 2012, starting with 30 x 30 (1988), generally considered to be the first video work in the history of contemporary Chinese art.

Zhang Peili. Uncertain Pleasures, 1996; six-channel video, twelve CRT monitors; 5:04. Courtesy of the Artist and Australian Centre on China in the World.
30 x 30 (1988) was later followed by Zhang’s experiments with performative, durational, and text-based installations. In the piece, Zhang films his own hands in surgical gloves, breaking a thirty-by-thirty-centimeter mirror, painstakingly gluing the shards together, and then breaking and gluing it again and again against the terrazzo-tiled floor of an empty office. The video was filmed over three hours (the longest VHS tape available at the time); Zhang’s intention was to lock viewers into the exhibition space for the entirety of the piece. This absurdist representation of a banal and incomprehensible action reflected the artist’s determination to avoid political imagery and easy narratives. He intended it to be excruciating to watch: After a series of fruitless meetings planning a retrospective of the avant-garde ’85 New Wave Movement that had surged across China in the mid-1980s, Zhang wanted to make a video that would be as boring and pointless as these meetings.
Zhang Peili, 30 x 30, 1988, single channel video, 32 min 9 secs

The first 5 minutes of 30 x 30

To read the rest of the article, click HERE

Monday, September 12, 2016

Hu Qinwu: 天下All Under Heaven

Earlier this year I wrote a catalogue essay for an exhibition of paintings by Hu Qinwu at Melbourne's Niagara Galleries. I have loved Hu's work since visiting his studio on my first trip to China at the start of 2011, my first encounter with this softly spoken and gentle artist. Here is the essay, in both English and Chinese versions, with thanks to Niagara Galleries, China Art Projects and my wonderful translator in Beijing, Xu Yining:
Hu Qinwu in his Beijing studio, 2011, photograph Luise Guest
Can painting be a form of meditation, even of prayer? In the work of Beijing-based painter Hu Qinwu we find a cosmos teeming with energy, like constellations seen through a powerful telescope, or the unseen worlds beneath the ocean’s surface. Hu works in an idiom that seems at first glance to echo western modernist conventions of abstraction – fields of rich colour are activated with a grid of lines and marks that appear to shimmer and float across large canvases like echoes of Rothko, immersive and profoundly beautiful. Almost minimalist, they are stained in grey, gold, crimson, viridian or jade. 


(untitled 20161), 2016

acrylic, pigment on canvas 150 x 120 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Unlike the mid-century American colour field and gestural abstractionists, however, Hu Qinwu’s abstraction emerges from a particularly Chinese art historical moment. The abstract painting that emerged at the end of the twentieth century in China is the antithesis of western minimalism; art historian Gao Minglu coined the term ‘Maximalism’ to define their particular character: anti-theatrical, consisting of both interior and exterior space, imbued with philosophical and spiritual notions of temporality, these works reflect the conceptual space within the artist. Inheriting this specifically Chinese history, every work in Hu Qinwu’s oeuvre is an expression of his Buddhist practice – slow, deliberate, reflective and spare. Not a mark is wasted; there is no excess. This is painting that has been pared back over time, stripped of all that is inessential, reduced to its essence. 

For thirty years under Mao the only permissible style for Chinese painters was Soviet Socialist Realism. Painters were trained in Russian and French methods of academic realist painting, and even today figuration dominates. There is a growing interest in abstraction, however, and an acknowledgement that there is indeed a history of abstract painting in China. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first there have been reciprocal exchanges between Chinese and western modernist artists in relation to abstraction. A complex history of transnational discourse that defies easy codification, this has not been a one-way influence, or a kind of artworld colonialism. In post-war New York artists such as Rothko, Motherwell, Kline and Tobey were fascinated by ink painting and calligraphy, and by Zen Buddhist thought. In post-Mao China, a late twentieth century revival of ink painting took western abstraction as a visual language of line and mark and adapted it to a very different philosophical paradigm. To view Hu Qinwu’s paintings as an adaptation of high modernist ‘all-over’ painting would be to entirely miss the point. His practice is grounded in Buddhist philosophy, Chinese history, and his life in Beijing, far from his home town in Shandong Province. To understand his paintings as a form of prayer is closer to the artist’s intentions. 


(untitled 13021), 2016

acrylic, pigment on canvas 150 x 120 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Hu Qinwu describes his careful layering of wash, stain and glaze as ‘a process of alternative confirmation and disavowal’ in which a repeated brushing away and re-drawing ultimately creates harmony. Lined up against the walls of his studio, his canvases seem to be texts that could be read if only you could decipher the script. Braille-like, these paintings are a coded language of dots, dashes and marks. Like Buddhist sutras, you imagine them chanted aloud. Acrylic works on paper are stacked on tables; deep red, cobalt or ultramarine pigment is layered over black, or sometimes reveals itself from underneath darker shades of aubergine and dark grey. The surface patterning of dots and marks is made by the artist’s practice of dropping water carefully and methodically onto the surface of the work. Sometimes Hu uses a soldering iron to burn holes into the surface, evoking natural processes of weathering and decay. In the past he has burned into the pages of Buddhist sutra books to obliterate certain characters on each page, rendering the text unreadable. To the artist, this is not a nihilist absence of meaning, but an action embedded in a Buddhist theology in which language is just one possible means of labelling and defining the world. In the ‘Buddhist Volume’ series a fine gold grid overlays Chinese characters partially revealed through a patterning of dots in darker and lighter washes of ink on heavy paper. They seem to shimmer and dissolve, disappearing and reappearing under the patterns of tiny repeated circular forms. 

Trained in oil painting in his native Shandong Province, Hu Qinwu came to Beijing to pursue a Master’s Degree in Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 2008. Today, he lives and works in the capital, in a peaceful studio far from the city centre, and his practice extends from painting into photography, printmaking and sculpture. His immersion in the traditional practices of ink painting, his own personal history and the recent history of China have all had a profound impact on his work. ‘Chinese history and culture are in my blood’, he says. Austere, yet lyrical, his paintings convey tranquillity, as well as a determination to create order from the constant change and frenzied re-invention that characterises life in Beijing.


(untitled <<13006>>), 2013

acrylic, pigment on canvas
80 x 90 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Works such as ‘Untitled 13006’ and ‘Untitled 13008’ (2013) feature veils of rich red pigment over darker underpainting. The characteristic grid of dots in these works makes them appear weightless, floating, suggesting the rhythmic pulsing of blood in the veins. In ‘Untitled 13021’ (2013) a myriad of dots and marks vibrate across rich grounds of black and grey, at once dramatic and subtle. Abstract and yet also not abstract, they are immersively meditative. On careful viewing these works reveal elaborate and sophisticated variations of colour, shape and texture; every mark and subtle transition of tone is carefully considered. There are no accidents here. The authoritative presence of Hu Qinwu’s large canvases are underpinned by his deep knowledge of ink painting.

The term ‘tian xia’ in Chinese literally translates as ‘under heaven’, but its meaning is far more complex. Rooted in Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian philosophies, it refers to the order of things, the wholeness of the universe, as well as to physical geography and the metaphysical realm of mortals. Far beyond the visible and physical world, ‘tian xia’ implies a cosmology covering earth, heaven and everything in between, including the social, psychological and political worlds. Archaeologists have discovered ancient Chinese artefacts, jade carvings, temple structures and sacrificial platforms which employ the square (‘cong’) and the circle (‘bi’) in a symbology of the cosmos. The archetype of round heavens above and square earth beneath also formed the ancient symmetrical axis of the design of Beijing. Scholars speculate that, as far back as the ancient Neolithic period, these abstract designs functioned as astronomic and magical instruments to create magical connections between human and supra-human worlds.

Now, in a time of doubt and chaos, this ancient cosmological symmetry is seductively appealing. In works such as ‘Untitled 15001’ (2015) the darker vertical lines and streaks of paint make up a grid that echoes the brutal concrete, glass and steel structures of hypermodernity, the edifices that have replaced the grey courtyard houses and lanes of old Beijing, surrounded by eight-lane ring-roads. Punctuated by the circular forms made by the slow, deliberately controlled dripping of water onto the wet surface of the canvas, these paintings also evoke rainfall, weathering and the cyclical process of the natural world. Hu Qinwu has been profoundly affected by the transformation of his society in the last twenty years, and the dramatic changes in China’s economic, cultural and political landscape. He turns inwards, he says, to find ‘a quiet, calm place’ in which he can reflect on true and enduring values amidst the turbulence of rapid social change. 
Hu Qinwu (untitled 15002), 2015
acrylic, pigment on canvas 90 x 80cm
image courtesy Niagara Galleries

The startlingly vivid turquoise surface of ‘Untitled 15002’ (2015) is interrupted by long vertical drips and dribbles that intersect with wave like chains of droplets, suggesting light on water. Hu Qinwu presents us with a paradox. Dropping water onto his canvases from above, he apparently opens himself to the vagaries of chance. At the same time, he controls the process as much as any painter of the literati creating fluid calligraphy with ink and brush. Mass and void, control and release, simplicity and complexity, light and dark, order and chaos – Hu Qinwu’s practice deals with apparent contradictions. Relying on the repetition of forms to create rhythmic harmonies, he creates works of great complexity with simple means. Yin and yang: the heavens above and the earth below.

 Luise Guest May 2016


Hu Qinwu, Untitled 12007, 2012, acrylic and pigment on canvas, image courtesy Niagara Galleries

绘画作品能否成为冥想甚至祈祷的一种形式?来自北京的画家胡勤武为我们描绘了一个充满能量的宇宙,如同透过超级望远镜望见的一系列星座,又仿佛是世人无从窥见的海底世界。 乍一看去,胡勤武的作品似乎承袭了西方现代主义者的抽象画传统——线条和符号构成的网格赋予色彩缤纷的田野无限生机,而这些网格又闪烁不定,漂过大大的油画布,和罗斯科的画作如出一辙,让人身临其境,又富含深刻的美。如同一位简约主义者,他们将作品染成灰色、金色、深红色、青绿色以及翡翠色,它们散发出微弱的光和阵阵的悸动。然而,不似中世纪时美式的色视野和抽象主义者,胡勤武的抽象作品起源于中国艺术的特定历史性时刻。兴起于中国二十世纪末的油画是西方极简主义的对立;艺术史学家高名潞创造性地提出“极繁主义”这一术语用以定义它们独有的特性:反剧场性、兼具内部空间与外部空间、充满世俗的哲学和精神层面的意味,这些作品反映了艺术家内心的概念空间。基于中国历史的这一特殊时期,胡勤武的每一件作品都在表达着他的佛法修行——慢节奏、审慎、深思熟虑以及清心寡欲。符号的数量恰好,多一分则过,少一分则缺。随着时间流逝,他的作品不断浓缩,冗赘通通抛却,只留下精华部分。
Hu Qinwu, Untitled 20162, 2016, acrylic and pigment on canvas, image courtesy Niagara Galleries
历史,蔑视着肤浅的概念,这既非一种单向的影响,也不是艺术世界的殖民策略。战后,纽约艺术家如罗斯科、马瑟韦尔、克莱因以及托比,痴迷于水墨画、书法以及禅宗佛教思想。毛逝世以后,水墨画在二十世纪末的中国复苏,将西方的抽象主义视为线条和符号的视觉语言,并将其改造为极为迥异的哲学范式。如果将胡勤武的画作视为极盛现代主义的“去中心化”,那么将会完全不得要领。他的绘画植根于佛教哲学、中国历史以及他在北京的生活经历,而与他的故乡——山东——相去甚远。如若将胡的画作视为一种祈祷形式,才算是领略到了个中要义。 胡勤武认为,他精心地清洗、着色、上釉是“一个用另类方式加以确认和否认的过程”,在这一过程中,重复的刷洗和绘画最终成就了和谐。在他工作室的墙上,排列着一幅幅的油画,仿佛一篇篇待读的文章,而要读懂它们,你必须破译其中的密码。如同盲文一般,这些作品就是圆点、破折号和各种符号组成的密语。像佛经一般,你想象着人们将其高声咏唱。丙烯酸颜料绘就的作品在书桌上堆起;深红色、深蓝色或者青蓝色颜料涂在黑色之上,或者,有时这些颜色从底下紫红色和深灰色的暗影中显现出来。圆点和符号构成的表面图案是胡勤武小心翼翼而有条不紊地将水滴在作品表面形成的。有时,胡勤武会用烙铁在作品表面烙出几个洞,从而形成老化和衰败的自然现象。过去,他曾在圣经的书页上烧过洞,每一页上都会烧掉几个汉字,导致圣经失去了可读性。对胡勤武而言,这并非毫无意义,而是一种嵌入了佛教神学的行为,这其中,语言只是定义世界的其中一种方式。在圣经经卷中,厚厚的纸上点着或明或暗的水墨点,它们覆盖着汉字,而这些音乐可见的汉字纸上则覆着细腻的金色网格。这些网格似乎闪闪烁烁,似在溶解,在重重叠叠的圆形图案下消失、再现。
胡勤武在山东老家学习油画创作,而后来到北京就读于中央美术学院并于2008年毕业,获得油画系硕士学位。目前,胡勤武在北京生活和工作,他安静的工作室远离喧嚣的市中心,而他的工作领域也从绘画延伸到摄影、版画制作和雕塑。他对水墨画传统画法的痴迷、他自身的经历以及中国近代历史无一不对他的作品产生了深刻影响。“中国历史和文化就流淌在我的血液里”胡勤武如是说道。朴素而不失情调,他的作品传达出宁静以及他的决心,那就是从不断的变化和标榜北京生活的、狂热的再发明中创造出秩序。 胡勤武的作品,如《无题13006》以及《无题13008》(2013)是在较暗的底色上涂上一层浓浓的红色颜料。这些作品中独特的圆点组成的网格使它们看起来没有重量,似在漂浮,彰显着血管中血液的节律性搏动。在《无题13021》(2013)中,无数的圆点和符号在黑色和灰色之上颤动,透露出戏剧性和微妙之处。抽象而又不抽象,这些作品展现出冥想的意味。仔细审视,这些作品展现出色彩、形状以及结构的精细而复杂的变化;每一个符号和色调的微妙变幻都经过精心考量。在这里没有巧合。胡勤武对水墨画的深刻理解构成了他的大型油画存在的基础。
远在远古的新石器时代,这些抽象设计就以天文的、魔法般的工具角色在发挥作用,在人类和超级人类世界之间产生了奇妙的联系。 眼下,我们生活的时代充斥着怀疑和喧嚣,这一来自古代的宇宙对称性论愈发充满吸引力。在诸如《无题15001》(2015)等作品中,暗色的垂直线条形成网格,与颇具超级现代性的、冷冰冰的混凝土、玻璃以及钢铁建筑相呼应,摩天大楼将老北京灰色的天井院子和胡同取而代之,八条环形道路将北京围绕其中。 过去二十年间,社会变革、中国经济、文化以及政治面貌的巨大变化都对胡勤武产生了深刻的影响。他说,他试图从内心深处找到“一处宁静、祥和”,社会变化极其迅速,产生了种种混乱,而胡勤武希望能够其中真实而持久的价值观加以反省。《无题15001》(2015)惊艳的蓝绿色表面因垂直下落的水滴而断断续续,这些水滴又与波浪交织在一起,如同水滴形成的链条,形成一片波光粼粼。胡勤武向我们呈现出一个悖论。水滴从高空落下,落到他的油画上,而很明显,他将自己融入于奇思妙想之中。同时,又如同任何一位用笔墨创造流畅书法的骚人墨客一样,他控制住整个过程。巨大与虚无,控制与释放,简单与复杂,光明与黑暗,秩序与混乱——胡勤武的作品着眼于显而易见的矛盾。依托形式的反复出现创造出韵律的和谐,胡勤武的作品据此糅杂了巨大的复杂性和简单的方法。阴与阳:天与地。
Luise Guest

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Mapping Time: Zhang Peili and Yuan Goang-Ming in Canberra

Entry to Zhang Peili: Painting to Video, at Australia Centre on China in the World, Canberra
I've just returned from a weekend in Canberra, which always feels to me as if I have somehow just missed the Zombie Apocalypse - wide, silent, startlingly empty streets devoid of people and cars. It's eerie. At least, it felt like that until I got out of the lift in my hotel on the wrong floor last night and found myself in a dense crowd of broad men in dinner suits and thin, fake-tanned young women in very tight evening frocks. They looked at me as if I was an intruder from another planet. I was so disconcerted, and so inappropriately attired, wearing jeans and a padded jacket bought in a Beijing street market, that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that I was not in fact in the lobby, and push my way through the perfumed crowd back to the elevators.

Later, in my room, I had cause to reflect on what a sheltered life I have obviously led thus far - never before has the mini bar in my hotel room included, next to the over-priced Kit-Kat bar and expensive water, both a bow tie in a box (for emergencies of the cocktail party kind) and 2 condoms in a tin (for a different kind of emergency.) Suffering from an excess of self-conscious postmodernism, the hotel design featured every possible visual trope relating to politics and politicians, from portraits of Obama to Margaret Thatcher and everyone in between, and giant mirrored murals of paparazzi in the elevators. My room card featured the famous image of Gough Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House after the dismissal of his government. Mysteriously, overlaying the image were the words of quite another Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, after Australia won the America's Cup. Deliberate pastiche or millennial ignorance on the part of the marketing team? I was relieved not to be issued a room card featuring Tony Abbott, which might possibly have come with a Paul Keating quote about Australia being the ''arse-end of the world".
Zhang Peili 張 培力, 30X30 (Set of 3 Screenshots), 1988, Single channel video installation
I was in the nation's capital (sorry, Canberra, but it's hard not to laugh a bit when you say that - beautiful clear air and a bit of Brutalist architecture notwithstanding) for a conference at the Australian National University, 'Moving Image Cultures in Asian Art', and the opening of an exhibition of works by Zhang Peili at the Australia Centre on China in the World. The big attraction was that both Zhang Peili (often called, perhaps to his annoyance, the father of Chinese video art) and Yuan Goang-Ming, the very significant video artist from Taiwan, were both speaking, and the conference featured interesting papers from scholars and artists including eminent Australians Claire Roberts and John Clarke, Omuku Toshiharu from the University of Tsukuba, and Kathrine Grube from New York University. .

In the end, apart from the anticipated themes of fluidity, hybridity and transnational discourse, the unexpected narratives that emerged were of friendship (between artists both within and across national borders, between artists and curators/critics, between scholars, between teachers and their students) and of education - dear to my heart but so often disregarded. Both Zhang Peili and Yuan Goang-Ming stressed their role as teachers. More of that in a moment.
Zhang Peili 張 培力, 30X30 (Set of 3 Screenshots), 1988, Single channel video installation
Image source: Asia Art Archive
Zhang Peili spoke about his work since the mid 1980s, his humorous and thoughtful delivery beautifully translated by Linda Jaivin. He emerged as a whimsical figure with a finely honed sense of the absurd. '30x30', usually described as the first Chinese video work, was three hours long, he revealed, because 180 minutes was at that time the longest VHS tape you could purchase. Zhang repeatedly dropped a mirror onto the terrazzo floor of an empty office, glued the shards together, then dropped it again, often interrupted by passing office workers wanting to know what on earth he was doing.

He knew it would be excruciatingly boring to watch, and this was intentional - after a long series of fruitless meetings throughout 1987 planning a retrospective of the '85 New Wave Movement, Zhang wanted to make a video that would be as boring and pointless as the meetings. The retrospective never happened. One may ask - and indeed, some at the conference did - why he chose a mirror, and whether there is a deeper, perhaps Freudian or Lacanian significance there, but I suspect this would be to miss the point. After years of Socialist Realism, followed by the Sichuan school (rather sentimental) and Scar Art, Zhang Peili wanted an art that denied narrative.

Zhang Peili 張 培力, WATER — Standard Version from the Dictionary Ci Hai (Screenshot), 1993, Video installation with single channel on TV screen. Image Source: Asia Art Archive
A work from 1993 features a famous news reader from CCTV, the official state television channel, reading all the words relating to water from the dictionary, in the manner and style of the official news broadcast - for 9 minutes and 35 seconds. It's both funny and (deliberately) tedious, and quite hypnotic. Deadpan, refusing narrative and deliberately avoiding any political commentary, works such as this become nevertheless a sardonic commentary on the absurdity of the artist's world. When it was shown at Huangshan, curator Gao Minglu insisted that it be run on fast forward.

The exhibition, in the very beautiful surroundings of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), features seven carefully chosen works. Zhang Peili: From Painting to Video is a collaboration between CIW and MAAP (Media Art Asia Pacific, in Brisbane.) The project is built around the generous gift to CIW, in 2014, of one of Zhang’s final paintings from the 1990s - perhaps even the last painting - before he shifted his focus to video and media installation art. Newly restored, never before exhibited, Flying Machine (1994) is a gift from Zhang’s friend and fellow artist, Lois Conner. The presentation of the painting provided an opportunity to explore this significant transition from painting to video, to reflect on the development of media art in China. 

I will write further about other works in the exhibition in a future post - including an extraordinary work, new to me, in which Zhang recorded interviews between police officers and two petty thieves. Real and unscripted, these interrogations are both alarming and absurd as the dishevelled, hapless pair admit trying to rob their victims armed with fruit knives.
Zhang Peili, Q & A & Q & A, 2012
6 Channel with 6 images, video installation, Edition: Colour, sound, 20' 37", photo: Luise Guest
Here is a link to an interesting interview with Zhang Peili, who now, in addition to being director of OCAT Shanghai, still teaches in the influential New Media Art Department that he established in the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he himself studied oil painting in the early 1980s:

Yuan Goang-Ming  Fish On Dish, 1992 Video Projection Installation 
© Courtesy of the Artist & IT PARK 
In Taiwan, video emerged in the early '80s, kick-started after a show of French video art from the Pompidou Centre at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1984, and by artists returning to Taiwan from study in Japan: they introduced video art into the curriculum of tertiary art education. Yuan Goang-Ming made his first video work, 'About Millet's The Angelus' in 1985. Here it is:

I first encountered work by Yuan Goang-Ming in an exhibition at Hanart TZ in Hong Kong last year. It's not an exaggeration to say that it blew me away. Later, I realised that I had in fact seen another of his works before, in the Asia Pacific Triennial, and had been deeply moved by it. In a review of the Hong Kong show, 'Dwelling', I wrote this: In the gallery space, an elegant table is laid as if for a dinner party, with crystal glasses and an ornate dinner service. Every now and then a loud clanking noise disrupts the silence, and the table shakes as if the building has been hit by an earthquake. The real sense of disquiet comes when you enter the next room, where three short videos are screened on a loop. You sit on a domestic sofa, lit dimly by a standard lamp, and reality begins to unravel entirely. In the title work, Dwelling, (2014) the focus is a blandly modern living room, the only oddity the rather slow riffling pages of a magazine on the chair, a book on the coffee table. A breeze wafts the curtains. Suddenly, and without warning, the entire room explodes. Slowly, languidly, the wreckage of the room drifts back until the room once again regains its ordinary appearance. Filmed underwater, although it takes one a while to realise this, the movement of every object seems dreamlike. Yuan suggests that what we accept as stable and fixed is in fact entirely unpredictable. In a split second, the apparently impossible can disrupt everything we take for granted. Of course, we know this is true, but it is profoundly disturbing to see.

The article from which this is excerpted, Exploding Realities: Three Video Artists in China, can be found HERE on The Art Life website.

YUAN GOANG-MING Dwelling - Moment III 2014. Digital Photography / Colour Photograph. 120 x 180 cm Edition of 8. Image Courtesy of the Artist and Hanart TZ Gallery.
Like Zhang Peili, Yuan Goang-Ming was trained as a painter, studying Chinese painting and calligraphy, then western painting. And like Zhang Peili, he too is an educator and influential teacher. Zhang Peili has mentored many young artists who have emerged from the school of New Media in Hangzhou, not least the often outrageously transgressive Lu Yang, whose recent work, Delusional Mandala, reveals the increasing influence of science and technology. Read about Lu Yang, Zhang Peili's enfant terrible pupil HERE. (And see her work in 'Vile Bodies', opening September 9 at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.)

The ANU conference made clear, among much else, the hugely important role of the teacher. In a room populated by scholars, artists and curators who are also teachers (and for whom, frequently, all these roles overlap) I reflected on why art education matters. Just as Zhang Peili reconstructed his 30 x 30 mirror over and over again, so too do teachers reconstruct, reflect and re-reflect in dialogue with their students, in a conversation that continues down the generations. They (we) make meaning - just as do artists, art historians and curators.

 I had plenty of time on the long drive back to Sydney, under huge sweeping skies, to consider the significance of time - even, in the words of John Clark, "epistemically broken time."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bu Hua: Beijing Babe Loves Freedom

Bu Hua, Beijing Babe Loves Freedom No. 2, 2008, giclee print, 100 cm diameter,
image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
With the arrival of my first grandchild (4 weeks old and, of course, completely gorgeous) I have been in a reflective frame of mind. A new baby throws you back forcibly to the long nights you spent cradling your own infant children, and even much further back in time to your earliest memories. Waving knitted toys and rattles at my tiny grand-daughter to amuse her (or, perhaps, just to entertain me), I began thinking about the power of childhood objects to evoke primal responses. 

Before language, before logical thought, these things are imprinted. Digging through cupboards I found rattles, teething rings and slightly moth-eaten teddy bears from the childhoods of my two daughters, and even an antique doll of  my own, with a 1950s plastic perm, eyes fallen back inside its head. It's a kind of time travel, this generational remembering, and it recalled my experience of visiting Bu Hua's extraordinary studio last year, where every wall and flat surface is crowded with old dolls, mechanical and wind-up tin toys, train sets and puzzles. Every conceivable childhood totem is here somewhere, arrayed like devotional objects in a shrine. Indeed, it is a shrine - to the artist's memories of a Beijing long gone, before eight-lane highways tore through the city and the hutongs were almost entirely demolished. 

In Bu Hua's studio, 2015, photo Luise Guest
I have wanted to write a piece about Bu Hua for a while, with a focus on her use of memory, and her nostalgia for her Beijing childhood.

Bu Hua in Beijing, 2015, photograph Luise Guest
1960s meets 1990s in Bu Hua's studio, photograph Luise Guest

Bu Hua was born in 1973, during the Cultural Revolution, but her focus is on a Beijing of memory: bicycles and willow trees; hutong laneways and tight communities. There are certainly dangers in romanticising the past , and Bu Hua's teenage years were times of dramatic change as China opened to the world marketplace, but like many Chinese people, she now sees an unrecognisable place of monstrous greed and unstoppable corruption. It is not surprising that people look back to a time of greater simplicity with a degree of regret.
Bu Hua, Sami, giclee print, 100cm diameter, image courtesy the artist
(I chose this work for an exhibition 'Half the Sky: Chinese Women Artists' shown in Hong Kong and Beijing in April 2016. The Hong Kong Gallery were most upset at the subject matter, but in Beijing it didn't raise an eyebrow!)

Growing up surrounded by artists, Bu Hua ‘learned the language of lines’ from earliest childhood. Her father was a printmaker, painter, and a professor of Fine Arts in Beijing. Connected to the renaissance of printmaking that took place in the years following the Cultural Revolution, influenced by German Expressionists such as Kirchner and Kollwitz, he expected his children to follow in his footsteps. Bu Hua studied the techniques of ‘shui mo’ (water and ink) painting, and attended a specialist art high school before studying at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Fine Art. After her father’s death, she travelled to Germany for a major exhibition of his work. During her European travels, visiting galleries and exhibitions, she discovered the work of international contemporary artists, completing postgraduate study in the Netherlands.
Bu Hua, World 6, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas, 120 x 360 cm, image courtesy the artist
Japanese cartoons were newly available to Chinese TV audiences in her childhood, and Bu Hua loves the vintage nostalgia of ‘Astroboy’, and the wonderful animations made at the Shanghai Film Studios during the 1960s, such as ‘Havoc in Heaven’, an adaptation of the traditional tale of the Monkey King. One of her favourite films is ‘Fantastic Planet’, a French/Czech stop motion animation about a planet ruled by giant humanoid aliens. Now recognised as a significant figure in the vanguard of digital animation in China, an innovator with vector graphics software, she adapts and blends influences from Surrealism, Japanese anime and manga illustration with the strong flat planes and linear qualities of woodblock prints and traditional Chinese folk art. Bu Hua’s practice adroitly navigates the sometimes perilous boundaries between ‘high art’ and popular culture, fine art and graphic design, cuteness and satire. 
Bu Hua, As Soon as China has a Space Station on the Moon, it can Begin to Consider Establishing a Communist Party There, No.3, 2008, giclee print, 100 cm diameter, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
Bu Hua’s happy memories of a secure Beijing childhood provide the source of much of her imagery today. The red corridors and grey walls of traditional architecture, and the white bridges and willow trees of her city recur in her paintings, digital prints and animations. The same protagonist appears in many of her works: a defiantly sassy, pigtailed ‘Young Pioneer’, with her red scarf flying as she navigates a strangely dystopian universe, she represents the artist herself as a child. In Beijing dialect this character is ‘sa mi’ () – a feisty girl with kick-ass attitude. She swaggers and pouts through animations such as Anxiety (2009) and LV Forest (2010), confronting monstrous machines and strange hybrid beasts. Sometimes she takes aim with a slingshot at flocks of birds that morph into fighter jets, sometimes she rides a dinosaur through lush jungles, and in other works she stares into the middle distance, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.

Bu Hua, What is Left Belongs to You, Acrylic on Canvas, image courtesy the artist
Bu Hua communicates her anxiety about the social transformation and ecological destruction of China, and what she sees as the growing selfishness and narcissism of its citizens, fusing western and eastern traditions of art and design. The rising or setting sun is a recurring motif, reminding us that Mao Zedong was often depicted in propaganda posters, framed by the rays of the rising sun. In Bu Hua’s ironic vision, though, darkness is coming. Her fearless young protagonist, a lonely child in a terrifying universe, confronts a nightmare landscape of marauding machines and hideous skeletal beasts. In Vowing not to Attain Buddhahood until all are salvaged from Hell No.3 (2008) she stands astride the skeleton of a deer in a desolate landscape lit as if by the flash of a nuclear explosion. Red fronds of foliage hang from above like tentacles. Birds, beasts and insects dart around the circular composition, an ironic inversion of the traditional Chinese moon window, designed to frame the serene beauty of a scholar’s garden. In this work only the naked child is calm and unmoved, a witness to the apocalypse.
Bu Hua, Vowing Not to Attain Buddhahood Until All Are Salvaged from Hell No. 3, giclee print, image courtesy the artist
Savage Growth (2008) is an animated allegory of industrialisation, pollution and militarisation. Bu Hua’s Young Pioneer stands atop a building, conducting a flock of birds that morph into pairs of white gloves, flying above a devastated landscape in which distorted trees grow out of pools of oil. Other birds become military aircraft, casting ominous shadows over an abandoned amusement park as they shoot down the flapping hands. A row of sexy foxes (fox spirits, in Chinese folklore, are dangerous seductresses) dance backwards and forwards to a sound track that evokes the rhythmic metallic noise of a factory assembly line. Bu Hua represents the environmental devastation wrought by rapid development in China, the unintended consequences of urbanisation and greed. In contrast, Bu Hua also wants to show beauty and tenderness, through the innocence of a world of memory, of small animals and clockwork toys, harking back to a simpler time.

You can read more about Bu Hua in my book ''Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China", Piper Press, Sydney, 2016. A detail of her feisty protagonist graces the cover, beautifully designed by John Dunn, an unmistakeable representation of the power of female ambition and achievement against a sometimes stacked deck. 

The book is available in selected bookstores in Sydney and Melbourne, in Beijing through Beijing Bookworm ( and online through the Queensland Art Gallery HERE

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Four Women Went to China

‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself...'
Beihai, Beijing, October 2015, photo Luise Guest
When I was asked to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of works by three Australian artists, Suzanne Archer, Hanna Kay and Sarah Tomasetti, it was their exhibition title that first grabbed me. 'Three Women Went to China': those five words possess a magical, mytho-poetic resonance. I couldn't stop thinking about them. And as I began to ask each artist how her experiences of China had changed her, and influenced her practice, I began to think about how China has changed me, too. The fourth woman in the title of this post is me.
Near Gulou Daijie, Beijing, October 2015, Photo Luise Guest
I first travelled to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong at the start of 2011, the recipient of a scholarship through the New South Wales Premier's Office, sponsored by a Chinese company. I thank my lucky stars every day for that opportunity, which literally changed my life. I had been teaching students about contemporary Chinese art for some years, but it had never really crossed my mind that I could actually go there. My plan was to visit artists' studios, galleries, university Fine Arts Departments and schools, and to interview 20 Chinese artists in order to develop teaching and learning materials for senior Visual Arts students. Just before I left Australia, the enormity of my chutzpah hit me and I suddenly felt terrified. But having accepted a largeish sum of the government's money I had to pretend a confidence I did not feel.

I began to study Chinese, and by the time I left Sydney in March I could stumble through a few phrases of limited usefulness. 'I am an Australian.' 'I am a teacher.' 'I would like to buy this.' 'How much is this?' 'I don't want this.' 'Please give me a receipt.' 'Give me a cup of coffee.' I began to have an inkling that these phrases, plus my wobbly ability to count up to ten, would only get me so far. I hired translators for my interviews, and arranged an itinerary of meetings with artists in each city, visits to international schools, galleries and museums, to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and (the most difficult to organise of all) a visit to a local high school in Shanghai.

Two more phrases from my textbook struck fear into my heart. 'What is this that I am eating?' seemed to me the kind of question to which I may not wish to know the answer. And, 'Please take me to the American hospital!' appeared, just possibly, causally related to the first one. I expected China to be challenging, but in reality I had no idea what I would find. In retrospect, my ill-preparedness and sheer naivety is both hilarious and horrifying.

The thing that most struck me on that first visit, amidst the apocalyptic pollution,the terrifying traffic, the fact that I was constantly lost amidst the grey sameness of Beijing streets and incomprehensible signage, and the chaotic tangle of tumbledown artists' villages on the city outskirts, was the generosity and warmth of the artists, who welcomed me into their studios, took my project seriously, evinced great respect for teachers, and spoke honestly, at length (sometimes, it must be said, at almost unstoppable length), and with surprising frankness, about their lives and work.

I was constantly surprised by their accessibility and openness, and the way that in China one meeting automatically leads to more contacts. Each studio visit resulted in further serendipitous encounters, and through these chance contacts I met artists of a stature that I would not have dreamed of approaching. I had never interviewed anyone before, and with hindsight my earliest encounters make me cringe - poor Hanison Hok-shing Lau in Hong Kong, and Wu Junyong in Beijing were among the first of these L-plated interviews. But I think they could see my genuine interest and enthusiasm, and I find that people generally respond in kind. To date I have visited and interviewed more than 60 artists - adding Xi'an, Chengdu, and Hangzhou to the other cities. I continue to be humbled by these encounters, from Shi Jindian in Chengdu, Bai Ye in Xi'an, Wang Zhibo and Jin Shi in Hangzhou, to all the artists who agreed to feature in my book "Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China" and the recent exhibition curated for Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, featuring 16 of them. Most recently I have been meeting artists whose work is in the White Rabbit collection, including Zhang Dali, Xu Zhen and Wang Qingsong.

But it was not just the artists whose warmth has struck me and made me grateful - over the years following that first trip I have had so many encounters with Chinese people, in parks, in taxis, on buses and trains, in restaurants, shops and markets, that are genuinely kind and helpful. Sure, as a "laowai" you get scammed every now and then. But now my Chinese is sufficient to argue with pedicab drivers, and to bargain a bit harder in the market. I can even swear, and once shocked a taxi driver so much that he swerved right into oncoming traffic. I have danced with the 'aunties' in Tuanjiehu Park; eaten stinky tofu in Shanghai, donkey pastrami in Beijing, and ducks' tongues in a Chengdu hotpot restaurant whilst watching fire-eating opera performers; travelled across China alone by train; and negotiated my way around far-flung suburbs in black cabs to find obscure artist studios. Did I ever have cause to say "Please take me to the American hospital?" Yes, in fact, but not for myself - and my hair-raising experience of a Beijing ambulance ride in the middle of the night was not for the faint-hearted.
Kite flying at the city wall, Beijing, October 2015, photo Luise Guest
Now, after seven trips to China, both short and long, including a three month stay in 2013 that included a two month Red Gate Gallery residency, living in the local neighbourhood of Tuanjiehu, I can say without any hesitation that China has changed me. I can talk to anybody, anywhere, and I don't care in the least if my mangled Chinese syntax is causing them great amusement. I have become surprisingly adventurous, and would have to agree with Gloria Steinem that when a woman turns 50 she comes into her own, and becomes truly herself. China has given me a job that I love, research that fascinates and challenges me, and a passionate interest that extends beyond art to history, politics and language. China made me a writer.

I understand how the three artists in the exhibition (opening next week) feel they too have been 'imprinted' and changed irrevocably by their experience of China. I started the catalogue essay this way:

‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself,

It leads to transformation of dust into pure gold!’ (Rumi)

Suzanne Archer, Banquet, 2015, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist 

Three Women Went to China. These five words suggest a mythical journey: a crossing of mountains and oceans; the possibility of danger; adversity overcome and the getting of wisdom. It evokes legendary heroines. Pilgrimage. A fable, perhaps, or a metaphor. Alternatively, it’s a bald factual statement. Three women did go to China, together and separately, more than once. And returned, but not unchanged. 

You can read more, and see more of their work, HERE.