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

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Monday, 4 April

Crowds at ZhouZhuang
ZhouZhuang Canal

Note to self - do not take a tour of the 'water towns' of Suzhou and Zhouzhuang on the long weekend of the 'tomb sweeping festival'. I was there today, and so was half of China. I am sure the Humble Administrator's Garden is very beautiful, but I was in a crowd that felt like the population of a small city, crammed into crooked pathways and slippery stone steps, so was unable to see very much except people climbing over fences to take photographs of each other posing with cherry blossom trees.

Since last Friday I have met the 'elder statesman' of Chinese contemporary art, the Swiss gallerist and founder of 'ShanghART' Gallery, Lorenz Helbling, and two very different artists.

Helbling first came to China in the 80s and opened his gallery in 1996, at a time when there was no art market in China and virtually no interest in Chinese art. With Brian Wallace in Beijing he must be credited to a large extent with shaping the current art scene here in Shanghai, and in helping to create the excitement and interest in collecting Chinese art. Like Brian Wallace he identifies the lack of a museum culture in China as one of the obstacles to be overcome in the artworld, and the shift to a dog eat dog market economy as one the biggest problems for artists. When he arrived in Shanghai in the days of the 'iron rice bowl', artists had small studios and worked as teachers. But they didn't have anywhere to really show their work. Today when they graduate from the art colleges in their thousands each year around the country they have to make a living based on sales of their work very quickly. Many of them have risked everything in order to study art, rather than work in a more stable field. And in China there is no infrastructure as yet of fellowships, scholarships or artist grants to enable young artists to develop their practice. ShanghART has three spaces, including a fabulously enormous warehouse in an industrial area at Taopu, where he is able to show very large installation works by the artists he represents in a museum-like setting which is open to the public.

I went there to meet Shi Qing, an artist born in Mongolia and now working in Shanghai after spending many years in Beijing. He works with installation, often including photomedia and video, to create a 'parallel world of the imagination'. His current work, which fills his studio from floor to ceiling, is inspired by the contradictory concept of the garden in Chinese tradition - at once nature and culture. He thinks contemporary art in China is like a Botanical Garden, which perhaps could do with a little more wildness and less cultivation. He will show this work, 'Republic of Plants' in the Guangdong Art Museum in Guangzhou throughout April. He tells me he is interested in an essential dichotomy in the Chinese identity of the artist - whether scholar or craftsman - and he is constantly asking himself this question in his own work.
Shi Qing in his studio

Shi Qing at work on 'Republic of Plants'
We go from the studio into the museum space to see his 2009 work, 'Elementary Spectacle: Farm and Factory',  a miniature city of child sized models of the buildings of the Factory Work Unit in which he grew up, completely filled with pieces of the simple, basic Soviet style furniture of the Cultural Revolution era. I find this work immensely sad, but Shi tells me for him it is neither sweet nor bitter, but rather a meditation on the past in order that we may better understand the present.
Factory Installation by Shi Qing
Shi Qing with his work
Artworks photographed by Luise Guest and used with the permission of the artist and ShangART Gallery

As a complete contrast, in the afternoon I meet the young, up and coming 'star' of the Shanghai art world, Lu Yang, at Art Labor Gallery. She has just flown back after showing her new work in Beijing, and will shortly leave for a residency in Japan. She has also recently shown her work in New York. Just 25 and immensely cool, with her hot pink satin bomber jacket and ripped jeans, multiple piercings and a quietly confident manner when talking about her work, she is a very impressive character. Having studied multimedia and cross media arts under one of China's most significant and admired conceptual artists in Hangzhou, her work now is like nothing else - large digital prints produced like Graphic Design pieces using Adobe Illustrator, and video works which owe something to music video, something to sci-fi traditions, but are most heavily indebted to actual scientific research. Lu identifies the Australian artist Stelarc with his scientifically based cybernetic artworks as someone she most admires.
Lu Yang with 'Biological Strike Back'
Photographed by Luise Guest and used with the permission of the artist and Art Labor Gallery

She is interested in ideas about control, specifically the way the brain controls the functions of the body and can in turn be controlled by outside agencies. Her latest work, 'Control Kraft Tremor' deals with treatments for Parkinson's disease, as a metaphor for this notion of control. It is controversial, and there are those who have criticised this work, and earlier work based on motor neurone experiments with live frogs, as cruel and heartless. She says the idea that her work is violent or cruel is a misunderstanding, and that her work reflects the world and the way the media reports it. 'I can't control what the audience thinks', she says, 'If I enjoy my work there will be someone out there who will like it.'
Door in Duolun Street