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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Day 15 - The ‘Romantic Revolutionary’, and the Summer Palace of a Powerful Empress

Summer Palace
This morning I met up and coming young artist Wu Junyong in his studio in an artists' village on the outskirts of Beijing, where currently between 60 - 70 artists live and work, until the government redevelops the land for a new railway line. The artist's life is always a precarious one, especially in this city of swift and dramatic change.

Wu is known as a pioneer of the use of Flash animation techniques, creating works which are at once poignant, lyrically beautiful, politically charged, technically sophisticated and sometimes nightmarish in a way which recalls Goya. When I look at his animations, in which tiny puppet-like men and hybrid animals are manipulated into grotesque parodies of social rituals I am reminded of the hand drawn animations of South African artist William Kentridge. These works also meld a personal visual language with a political or social imperative. Wu's most renowned work, 'When we are rich', is a savagely satirical indictment of 'new China' with its loss of traditional values and an obsession with the trappings of wealth and success. He believes that China today combines the worst side of a feudal society with the darkest aspects of capitalism, and he tells me that living in Beijing is a constant source of inspiration for his work, as it is like a theatre where all the craziness of the world is on show: thieves and counterfeiters, scam artists, scholars and philosophers. He sees himself as a surrealist and a 'romantic revolutionary', and I ask him to define this further. He thinks that a kind of idealism, and a dissatisfaction with the present, inspires him to create his ironic and satirical depictions of the world as it is, a social critique in which, he says 'art is like a thermometer, taking society's temperature'.

We drink Oolong tea from his native Hunan Province, which he quickly decides is not good enough, as it is 'last year's tea', so he makes a new pot of 'this year's' green tea, from the area around Hangzhou where he grew up and trained as an artist. I have drunk more tea from delicate tiny cups in artists' studios in the last ten days than ever before! He shows me his works in progress, and I am especially taken with his new paper cuts, which feature many of the same images that appear in his animations. He is working on hybrid combinations of Chinese and Western fables, fairy tales and folk tales, which combine to form apocalyptic and sometimes funny (and sometimes rather graphic) narratives. On the table, magically appearing from delicate drawings and the deft use of scissors, are frogs turning into princes, horses, elephants, spiders, Chinese 'scholar' cranes fighting over books, the small men wearing long pointed hats that populate his animations, and the Greek myth of Daphne turning into a tree. In this last instance Daphne wears a vase growing out of her head, as there is a Chinese expression that a beautiful girl is like a vase of flowers. I had previously thought that the pointed hats worn by the tiny puppet men in his works may be dunces' hats, in a veiled reference to the Cultural Revolution and the ways in which intellectuals were humiliated by the Red Guards. Wu says no, there is a specifically Chinese reference to the scholar's hat, and that these men are, for all their airs and arrogance, merely animals after all. I suspect that there are many possible layers of meaning here, however, not all of which I will be told.
Wu Junyong in his studio
Photographed by Luise Guest and used with permission of the artist

Wu shows me animation works both past and present on his laptop - they really are extraordinary, at once beautiful and disturbing. He believes that animation is the closest thing to imagination, as he is 'like an emperor with magic powers' who can summon up a whole new world. This world is one of political satire, mythology, social comment and a meditation on personal life all mixed together - he describes the process of creating his work as 'like writing a poem'.

Wu has just had a solo show, 'Duet' at Art Issue Projects Gallery, in which he showed work from the last 5 years. He has sold one of these works to the Shanghai Art Museum. He has also previously shown work in New York and LA, and has been collected by Judith Nielson for Sydney's own White Rabbit Gallery. However he does not believe it is necessary for Chinese artists to show internationally, as the focus of the artworld is now on Beijing. He will have another show of new work at Art@F2 Gallery towards the end of this year, in which there will be no animation at all. He wants to show audiences a different aspect to his practice and is working on sculptural forms and installation. Anything is possible in China - artists can work on projects of a scale and ambition that can only be dreamed of in Australia. Labour is so cheap that workmen - in fact whole villages of craftsmen, in some cases, can be hired for a minimal cost.

I tell Mr Wu that an American critic compared the way in which he has pushed the boundaries of the artworld to Marcel Duchamp and the revolutionary impact of his famous dada urinal, 'Fountain'. He curls his lip at this and stresses that he is not referring to any artists or art conventions, although he does show me a print of Breughel's 'The Blind Leading the Blind' and tells me that everything in his new work stems from looking at that painting. Wu is making specific comments about Chinese society which speak directly to Chinese audiences, but which may be 'read' in different ways by audiences in the west. The images in his work are a pictorial language, through which many possible meanings are both revealed and concealed.

In the late afternoon I walk around the beautiful artificial lake of the Dowager Empress Cixi's Summer Palace - she was the 3rd concubine who became the Empress in the name of her son, and then her nephew, and who ruled China for 50 years. I walk through ornamental gates and stone archways and along avenues of flowering peach (symbolising longevity), cherry and plum trees. Over and over I see the familiar symbols of the dragon, the phoenix, the lion and the tortoise. I am becoming much more aware of how significantly this rich traditional symbolism informs contemporary artists.  In China everything is a visual metaphor, and true meanings are often hidden.

Summer Palace rooftops
Summer Palace pavilion