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

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.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

半 边 天 : Half the Beijing Sky Part 2

Ming City Wall Park, Beijing
 Blue sky continues, the air is fresh(ish), and trees are in green leaf everywhere you look. Three reasons to be cheerful in Beijing. Only the apocalyptic traffic today could put a dampener on my mood, the day after the big book launch and "Half the Sky" exhibition opening at Red Gate Gallery. The exhibition is causing a bit of a buzz around town, I hear, and I am hoping there will be at least a few people turn up for my talk tomorrow evening at the Beijing Bookworm. It seems that "Half the Sky" has hit some kind of zeitgeist - people are definitely interested, and warmly enthusiastic.

Half the Sky opens at Red Gate Gallery
How interesting that shows of women artists are in the news again, with Hauser and Wirth in LA re-writing the history of abstract sculpture in America in Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016. Despite the apparent success of individual women - in that case Louise Bourgeois, or Lee Bontecou; in the Chinese context Cao Fei or Lin Tianmiao - they are still an absence in the larger narrative. The debate about the rightness or wrongness of all-women shows continues, and I must admit I had secret worries about whether it was a good strategy. But in the end, writing the book was a curatorial process, and an exhibition was a logical move.
Dong Yuan, Grandmother's Cabinet, installation view
When I began writing "Half the Sky" there were many anxious moments when I thought I must be mad. I continued to succumb to moments of doubt and despair throughout the process: was it a kind of hubris that made me think that I could - or should - write a book about artists in another culture, another language? But I really was determined to tell the story of this particular group of artists, representative in so many ways of the extraordinary phenomenon that is contemporary Chinese art.

Installing Gao Rong's "Sitting in a Chair and Thinking About My Future" - an armchair covered in embroidered mould, and lamp with knitted light rays
Installing Li Tingting works

Tao Aimin and Ma Yanling with Tao's "In an Instant" installation

In conversation with Lin Jingjing before the opening begins

  Visitors examining Dong Yuan's "Grandmother's Cabinet"

Tao Aimin, "In an Instant"

Brian Wallace, Red Gate director, with Xiao Lu and Guo Chen

With Dong Yuan

Gao Rong signs a copy of the book

Looking at Cui Xiuwen's "Existential Emptiness"

With Lin Jingjing

Brian Wallace introduces the Australian Ambassador at the opening

Australian Ambassador Jan Adams and a line-up of Chinese artists: 
L to R Zhou Hongbin, Cui Xiuwen, Li Tingting, Xie Qi, Jan Adams, Ma Yanling, myself, Bu Hua, Tony Scott, Bingyi, Xiao Lu, Lin Jingjing, Han Yajuan, Gao Ping. Not pictured: Gao Rong, Tao Aimin, Dong Yuan and Huang Yajuan

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Half the Beijing Sky

Bu Hua, Beijing Babe Loves Freedom, Giclee Print, 60cm diameter, courtesy White Rabbit Collection
Back in Beijing after six months, I am listening to a cacophany of shouting and car horns on Chunxiu Lu outside my window. The horn, otherwise known as the Chinese brake pedal, is a form of catharsis for drivers going nowhere on the choked Beijing roads. It's been a tough few days, but finally I've got my Beijing mojo back and I'm loving it again. Spring makes grey Beijing beautiful, and softens its harsh contours.

After disastrously losing my cell phone in a mad race to the gate to board my Beijing-bound flight in Hong Kong last Wednesday, thrown into a state of panic at being cut off from the world, I was then further horrified to discover that my previously reliable means of clambering over the Great Firewall of Chinese internet censorship was no longer working. No Facebook! No Gmail! No Twitter! And with no phone, there could be no Wechat or text messages to and from friends and family. Horrible! It's been an enforced "digital detox" and I don't recommend it, despite my growing anxiety about my own dependence on social media and the pressure we now feel to be a constant online presence.

So imagine my surprise tonight to find this blog working just fine - it's never been accessible in China before without a VPN. The censorship here is nothing if not unpredictable - it keeps us on our toes and is a source of constant frustration, a game of cat and mouse between the censors and the providers of VPN services. A game you can't win, a bit like Bu Hua's Beijing Babe taking shots at fighter jets with her slingshot. Or this, my favourite Beijing translated signage:

In China there is always, always suddenness. I should be used to it by now.

Red Gate Gallery, Beijing
Here in Beijing to launch my book, "Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China" with an exhibition of works by 16 of the 32 artists at Red Gate Gallery, I have been so frustrated by not being able to upload and share photographs of the installation process and the opening itself. Today, with blue skies and sunshine - never to be taken for granted in Beijing - a big crowd arrived and climbed the stairs to the city wall and the old watchtower that houses Red Gate Gallery. The newly arrived Australian ambassador, Jan Adams, launched the book, and it was wonderful to see  the artists again.

Miraculously now the car horns have died down and drivers have stopped leaning out of their windows to shout at each other. No - I spoke too soon! But nevertheless, exhaustion has overtaken me.

Photographs and more Beijing stories soon.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

''Water Flows Downhill, Man Struggles Upwards": The End of the Chinese Miracle?

Cao Fei, My Future is Not a Dream, 2006, from the series Whose Utopia,
digital video 20 min 6 sec, image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space
The urbanisation of China and its entry into world markets in recent decades has resulted in the largest migration in human history. Young - and not so young - workers from the impoverished countryside flocked to the big cities, especially to the manufacturing centres of southern China. The Pearl River Delta became the world's factory. Cities like Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, were populated almost entirely by rural teenagers and young parents who had been forced to leave their children back in their villages to be raised by grandparents, creating a generation of 'left behind children'. Despite the complex social issues that resulted, millions of resourceful and resilient migrants sought a secure financial future, and until recently it seemed most unlikely that many would return to the much-despised countryside and hard-scrabble rural poverty they had left behind. Except, of course, at Spring Festival time, when they returned home en masse for the holiday, bringing gifts and money to their families. 

This social revolution has been documented in Leslie T. Chang's wonderful book 'Factory Girls'; in the documentary film, 'Last Train Home', that recounts the arduous journeys of some of the 130 million workers travelling home for Spring Festival, and in contemporary art. Cao Fei's  award-winning SIEMENS Art Project of 2006, What Are You Doing Here? traced the daily lives of workers at the Osram Light Bulb Factory in Foshan. One element of her ambitious work is a video entitled Whose Utopia, for which she invited the workers to perform a dance to the music of their choice, against the background clatter of the assembly line. The video closes with portraits of individual workers gazing straight at the camera, defying us to see them as mere cogs in the machinery of China’s economic miracle.

Now, however, the 'miracle' is souring. The London Financial Times has produced a powerful series, 'The End of the Chinese Miracle', examining the impacts of a slowing economy, an aging population, and a dwindling labour force. After three decades of economic growth, and carefully targeted social and economic policy, China has completed its transformation from an essentially agrarian nation to an almost entirely urban society. But now, with factories closing (or relocating to Vietnam) due to changing markets and the pressures of higher wages, some of these migrant workers are returning to their hometowns. The implications of this metamorphosis, for China and for the world, are enormous. Check out the series HERE. And watch this fascinating and timely doco.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Invisible Ink: The Ink Tradition Remixed and Reclaimed

Charwei TSAI, Incense Mantra, 2013, single channel video. In collaboration with Tsering Tashi Gyalthang.

The ink tradition in Chinese art continues to fascinate the art market and international curators, as well as being a political hot potato inside the Chinese artworld. To some, it's a regressive artform manipulated in the interests of bolstering nationalism. To others, it's part of the reinvention and reclamation of Chinese tradition after thirty years of Maoist suppression. Whatever your stance, contemporary variations on ink painting are not vanishing any time soon. The current exhibition at UNSW Galleries illustrates all the possible variations employed by contemporary artists who are deeply invested in the philosophy of the tradition, but not necessarily in the physical medium itself. 

Here is my review, published today in The Art Life after two visits to the exhibition and an illuminating chat with its curator, Sophie McIntyre, in which she explained the long gestation of her research, her interest in the ink phenomenon, and why she chose these particular artists, all of a younger generation than some of those who first began the ink revival in the 1980s and 1990s. We are lucky to see this exhibition in Sydney after its successful launch in Canberra and a second showing in Bendigo. Don't miss it while it's here!

Ink Remix at UNSW Galleries
The term ‘ink painting’ evokes mental images of delicately rendered misty mountains, waterfalls, peonies and bamboo. In China today this category of art production does include artists whose work falls within the boundaries of historical conventions, but it has also come to include a younger generation of artists who challenge and subvert the tradition in surprising ways. The highly politicised ‘Contemporary Ink’ movement includes artists with extraordinarily diverse practices. And some of them don’t use ink at all.
YAO Jui-chung 2015 -complete work small file
Yao Jui-chung, Yao's Journey to Australia, 2015, biro, oil pen with gold leaf on Indian handmade paper, 200 x 546 x 6cm. Courtesy of the artist and Tina Keng Gallery.
The use of ink is deeply embedded in the Chinese sense of nationhood. Fundamental to Chinese calligraphy and painting for more than two millennia, the unique properties of Chinese ink allow artists to produce works of great expressive power with limited means. Whether diluted or ‘black as lacquer’, it is capable of infinitely nuanced and subtle mark-making. Reinventing and transforming traditional modes of expression, artists in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan brought the philosophy and aesthetics of Shui Mo (‘water and ink’ painting) to their sculpture, drawing, video and performance practices, a fresh approach revealed in ‘Ink Remix’ at UNSW Galleries. From a Buddhist prayer written with ink on tofu by Charwei Tsai to Ni Youyu’s reimagined Chinese cosmology made of flattened coins, the exhibition reveals how contemporary artists ensure the ink tradition remains vital and alive.
YangYongliang_ABowlofTaipeiNo 4
YANG Yongliang, A Bowl of Taipei no. 4, 2012, photographs (Epson Ultragiclee print on Hahnemuhle paper), 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Sophie McIntyre brings her deep knowledge of contemporary art from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to the curation of the exhibition. Two years in the making, ‘Ink Remix’ was intended to examine the work of a younger generation of artists, born after 1960. McIntyre says, ‘I was curious about why a lot of young contemporary artists were turning to this phenomenon of ink. But I was most interested in those artists who were critically interrogating an ink tradition and what that means in contemporary society.’ McIntyre was curious to see how artists in the three locations respond differently to this revitalisation of an ancient art practice. What she discovered, in many conversations with many artists, was their desire to reconnect with the tradition in a philosophical sense, rather than as technique, style or medium. And not just to reconnect, but to reinterpret.
Just as a musical remix could include sampling of tracks by multiple artists, many of the artists in ‘Ink Remix’appropriate the tropes of traditional ink works. Misty mountains do appear, albeit in a much altered form. In Yang Yongliang’s ‘Bowl of Taipei’ series (2012) they are crammed into noodle bowls, suggesting the ‘bonsai-ing’ of nature, squeezed into a new urban world of consumerism and mass production. Yang’s clever animations respond to China’s environmental crisis and the pace of urbanisation. ‘Rising Mist’ (2014) at first appears to emulate a traditional scholar painting of mountains and water. On closer inspection you realise that the mountains are formed by the towering steel and concrete high-rises of an enormous city; construction cranes and electric stanchions rather than pine trees punctuate the horizon line. The entire urban landscape is adrift in a miasma of pollution.
He Xiangyu learned how to paint like masters of the Song Dynasty in order to produce works that appear similar to classical paintings. His vistas of mist-shrouded mountains, tiny temples and tumbling waterfalls, however, are painted with ink mixed with Coca-Cola, a satirical jab at the unstoppable march of globalisation and consumer culture. Part of a much larger project shown at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in 2012, ‘Cola Project’ also involved the boiling down of 135,000 litres of the soft drink into a smelly tar-like sludge, and the carving of two jade skeletons (made to the exact dimensions of the artist’s, with the assistance of MRI imaging and X-rays) that were then partially simmered in Coca-Cola. The paintings make more sense in the context of that larger body of work, but in pondering their materiality we are forced to consider whether Chinese culture is being overwritten in a destructive process of what used to be called ‘Coca-Colonisation’, or whether, in contrast, they show the enduring nature of those traditions, outlasting the sweet product of consumer desire.
TSAI Charwei, Tofu Mantra, 2005, video still. Courtesy the artist and TKG+
The act of writing is central to the practice of Charwei Tsai, born in Taipei and currently living and working between Taiwan and Vietnam. For many years her work has explored relationships between spirituality and the natural world, using performance, photography and video. She conveys the transience of the physical world in the ‘Mantra’ series, writing a Buddhist prayer onto lotus leaves, mushrooms, flowers and other organic materials. Tsai memorised the important Heart Sutra when she was growing up in Taiwan, and its meditation upon the impermanence of all things continues to inform her practice. For ‘Tofu Mantra’ (2005) she wrote its 260 Chinese characters onto a large piece of tofu. The video documents the process of decay, the tofu liquefying, surrounded by falling insects, an arresting memento mori.
Her choice of tofu, a material so symbolic of Chinese culture globally, has particular significance for an artist straddling cultures and languages. (As, incidentally, was also seen recently in Chen Qiulin’s ‘One Hundred Names’ project at 4A, in which the artist carved the most common Chinese surnames into large blocks of firm tofu.) ‘Incense Mantra’ (2013) is a site-specific work produced in Hong Kong in collaboration with Tibetan Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, inspired by the enormous conical joss sticks burned in the Man Mo Temple. The incense, densely covered with characters written in black ink, slowly burns, turns to ash and crumbles. A soundtrack of chanting monks and the noise of waves (Hong Kong, so closely associated with the maritime world, translates from the Chinese as ‘Fragrant Harbour’) produces a genuinely stilling and meditative experience.
To read more, click HERE
To see exhibition details, Click HERE

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Home and Away: A Conversation with Chen Qiulin

Wearing a sparkly baseball cap and expressing a surprisingly enthusiastic interest in trying a pie floater from Sydney institution Harry's Cafe de Wheels (and if you are not an Australian reading this, don't even ask!) Chen Qiulin seemed very young, and initially rather shy, when we met before the opening of her first Australian solo show at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Once in conversation about her work, however, despite the inevitable slight awkwardness of doing an interview with a translator, she was articulate and thoughtful, revealing why she had chosen the unlikely material of tofu as a metaphor for contemporary China. My conversation with this significant contemporary artist was published this week, in The Art Life:

Chen Qiulin. A Hundred Surnames in Tofu, 2010; still from video installation. Courtesy of the Artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.
In the last few weeks Sydney has been filled with red lanterns, and lunar new year festivities of all kinds to usher in the year of the monkey. Amidst all the imagery of zodiac animals, lion dances and red papercuts, an exhibition currently showing at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is centred around the unlikely material of tofu. The first solo exhibition in Australia of significant Chinese conceptual artist Chen Qiulin is definitely something to be celebrated.
Chen Qiulin, 'Scent' Installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, image courtesy the artist and 4A

Chen Qiulin’s hometown of Wanzhou, in Sichuan Province (home of fabulously spicy tofu dishes) was partially submerged during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, a massive infrastructure project that caused more than a million people living on the banks of the Yangtze to be relocated, their lives – and often their livelihoods – disrupted. For many years her work has documented the impact of the dramatic physical, cultural, social and economic transformation of China upon ordinary people, the “lao bai xing”, or “old hundred names”. Her ongoing‘One Hundred Names’ project involved carving the most common Chinese surnames into blocks of firm tofu, documenting their disintegration and decay. Her solo exhibition at 4A features a number of earlier works and a new commissioned project, ‘One Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong’. Together with curator Toby Chapman and the 4A team, Chen researched the history of the Chinese diaspora in Sydney, specifically focusing on the Haymarket precinct where the gallery is located. She found the names and stories of some of the earliest Chinese migrants, discovering that ‘Kwong Wah Chong’ was Sydney’s first Chinese-owned and operated business.
I spoke with Chen Qiulin at 4A, prior to the opening of the exhibition, to find out more about this intriguing connection between Sydney’s Chinatown and the inhabitants of Chongqing and Chengdu. To the sound of the trams passing outside, and with the smells of her installation of Chinese market aromas (think star anise, ginger, Sichuan pepper) wafting through the gallery, the artist explained why tofu is the perfect metaphor for contemporary China:
Luise Guest: I saw your earlier video work, ‘Garden’ and your reconstructed timber traditional house at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2009, and I found them very sad and elegiac. With those earlier works, and again now, with ‘One Hundred Names’, you seem to focus on experiences of change, loss and displacement. To what extent do your own feelings about the disruption and dislocation experienced by Chinese citizens due to China’s rapid social change motivate you in making your work?
Chen Qiulin: I entered this field as an artist at a very early stage because I had experienced so many changes in my hometown, and generally in China, so that’s why I am so interested in this topic of change. It’s the starting point, as well as the reason, that I am consistently doing so many different things, exploring different practices. I focus a lot on individuals. My work extends to the micro level of individuals, not just cities, or the whole country, but individuals and how their lives change. And in this work I have used tofu because it is such a delicate, soft, fragile medium. It doesn’t last long. It’s a kind of symbol for society’s upheaval, and for China itself.
LG: I want to ask you about the process of decay and disintegration, how your carved tofu changes, rots, decays and then eventually disappears. Why is that significant?
CQ: The process of decay is slow but natural. It’s a symbol of China’s ancient culture and traditional values, things that once upon a time were praised and applauded by people, but now are really not valued and are being forgotten.
LG: Is this a source of some sadness for you, this loss of tradition, and increasingly the sense that everywhere is the same in this globalised world?
CQ: Yes, it makes me very sad.
LG: In the past your work has often been highly specific to your own experiences in Sichuan Province, and to the changes wrought on cities and towns by the Three Gorges Dam construction. This iteration of your ongoing ‘One Hundred Names’ project here at 4A is a little different, as it has such an interesting connection with Sydney, and the Chinese diaspora who first settled here in the 19th century. Do you see this as marking a change in your work, a new direction from your previous work?
CQ: I think my practice is constantly expanding throughout different cities and towns in China, and slowly, slowly it has spread to Sydney and Australia. It is expanding now to a global reach.
LG: Is your ongoing project ‘One Hundred Names’ very specifically Chinese or does it have a more universal significance?

Chen Qiulin. The Garden No. 1, 2007; C-type print; 100 x 82 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.
CQ: This new connection with 4A is majorly based on Sydney’s Chinese history and this specific location of Haymarket and Chinatown. I focused on specific individuals and interviewed some second and third generation residents who live in Sydney, and their feelings and opinions. The concept of ‘home’ kept coming up in those conversations. So there is a significance globally.
[After researching Sydney’s early Chinese residents, Chen Qiulin found inhabitants of Chengdu with the same surnames as people in Sydney. She asked them for their favourite tofu recipes, and filmed them cooking while they spoke about their family histories and the stories of the recipes, in their kitchens.]
LG: Through the device of the surnames, when you film people in Chengdu cooking and eating tofu, and telling the stories of their favourite recipes, you are creating a link, are you not, between people living in China and Chinese people living in Sydney?
CQ: I am interested to learn about new places, new cultures, new histories. So that is why I am here in Sydney working on this commission. The ‘One Hundred Names’ project might continue, and eventually go beyond Australia.
LG: I wondered if the development of this project made you see any commonalities between Chinese people living here in Australia and those people in Chengdu (with the same names) that you filmed cooking in their kitchens. What commonalities did you find?
CQ: I think that the boundaries and the concept of ‘hometown’ have been blurred, both inside and outside of China.
LG: Is this concept of ‘hometown’ core to Chinese people’s sense of identity?
CQ: Yes, but it is to do with the constant rapid change in China. People don’t really have a clear concept of home anymore because everyone is moving around and society has changed so rapidly. So maybe the word ‘hometown’ is more conceptual now, more than a real location, a real ‘home’. It’s not necessarily a physical place.
 Image #3 Chen Qiulin
Chen Qiulin. One Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong, 2015, installation view, image courtesy the artist, A Thousand Plateaus Art Space Chengdu, and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
LG: If you go back to your own hometown of Wanzhou now, how is it different from when you were a child?
CQ: Yes, it is very different. In my opinion it’s not only the appearance of the town that is different, but the people living there too. When I went back I felt such a strong disconnect between my memories and the reality.
LG: With ‘One Hundred Names’ obviously you are focused on Chinese history and culture, including food culture. But in your work generally you have a focus on the ‘Lao Bai Xing’, the ordinary people, common people who are caught up in the processes of globalisation. Why do you concentrate in your work on every-day, ordinary individual people, such as the workers in your new video project, or the porters in Chongqing in your earlier work, ‘Garden’?
CQ: Because they are the real China. They are how China and the Chinese people really are.
LG: We talked about the disruption and dislocation of change. But does the dramatic pace of change in China actually make it a very exciting place for an artist to work?
CQ: In the last three decades contemporary Chinese art just started. Over that thirty years it has developed so rapidly and has now reached an international audience. The exciting part might be that within China people are now beginning to accept all kinds of art as art – no longer just painting and drawing. So in China, people’s ideas about contemporary art are changing.
LG: You yourself trained as a printmaker at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, making woodblock prints in the traditional techniques. That’s a long way from the work you are doing now as a new media and installation artist. What do you think is the most significant change in your own work?
CQ: When I was studying at the art college, what I gained was just skills and techniques. Slowly I realised that I had to learn more about the world and come up with new ideas, and concepts, beyond just skills. That is why I want to learn more, and try new media. After I leave Sydney I will fly back to Chengdu and go to a ‘Dong’ minority village and collaborate with a contemporary dancer based in France to make a documentary.
[The Dong ethnic minority live primarily in the border regions between Guizhou, Hunan and Hubei Provinces.]
LG: So, no more tofu?
CQ: No!

One Hundred Names is on view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, until February 27, 2016. It will be on view at the Shepparton Art Museum, Victoria, from June 4 to July 31, 2016.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Art Of Tofu: Chen Qiulin and 'One Hundred Names'

Since when has tofu been an art material? I have a particular fondness for the spicy Sichuan dish, "Mapo Doufu". Sadly it's usually rather bland and sloppy in Australia, without the requisite fiery kick of authentic Sichuan "numb pepper". And I fear that I may never, ever forget the taste memory of eating Stinky Tofu in a Shanghai back-alley restaurant in 2011, with a Chinese friend who was either oblivious to my distress or meanly amused. But using tofu to make art? Is that a thing?

Just ask Chen Qiulin, who grew up near Chongqing and now lives in Chengdu, and hence is more than a little familiar with its culinary possibilities. Over the last several years she has been continuing her '100 Names' Project, using blocks of firm tofu as she once used timber panels to carve woodcuts as a printmaking student at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. The latest iteration of this project is showing now at Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, and I reviewed the show for Daily Serving:

What’s in a name? In ancient China, surnames represented clans and ancestral lineage, a highly significant aspect of identity and filial obligation. In contemporary parlance, the Chinese phrase “Lao Bai Xing” (literally, “the old hundred names”) translates as “the ordinary people” or “the common folk.” It often refers to the voiceless, those who are most powerless in the face of social forces. For many years, Chen Qiulin has been documenting how the dramatic transformations of China’s physical, cultural, and social landscapes have impacted the lives of these ordinary people. Her hometown of Wanzhou was affected by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, in which whole villages and towns along the Yangtze River were submerged, and more than a million people were relocated. In recent years, her One Hundred Names project has been representing that concern in an unexpected medium, as she carves the most common Chinese surnames into blocks of firm tofu and then documents their decay and disintegration over time. For her first solo exhibition in Australia, at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, these earlier works, together with a commissioned project, explore themes of ancestry, diaspora, and displacement in a broader historical and geographic context. To read more, click HERE.