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

Tuesday, 5 April: 2 artists, 2 galleries – and an experience of the Chinese medical system

Homage to Duchamp - Wan Liya
Image used with permission of Twin Cities Gallery Shanghai

The last few days have not been easy as I have been struggling with a viral infection that has turned into something worse. Eventually I had to admit defeat and realise that over the counter vitamins (with Chinese packaging, so I am not entirely sure what I have been taking!) and paracetamol was not going to stop the coughing, and began to research how to go about getting some medical attention. The online research suggested 2 public hospitals with 'Foreigner's Clinics' but on ringing one of these I was not encouraged to be told to call an ambulance and go to the general emergency ward. I have heard many stories about peoples' experiences of public hospitals, and I wasn't too keen to have my own first-hand knowledge.  Eventually I found the name of the clinic that services the expat community and found it efficient and accessible, although extremely expensive, with a waiting room full of 'laoweis' such as myself. I was all too aware that the medical care I was provided with so quickly was just not available to an ordinary Chinese person - there is no socialised medicine in this socialist society.

My health dilemma aside, my day also involved 2 separate trips to M50, the Shanghai version of the 798 Art District at 50 Moganshan Road, where old factories have been turned into an art zone of galleries and artists' studios. While there are still numerous shopfront galleries selling Chairman Mao statues and Cultural Revolution style images to tourists, these are not as prevalent as in Beijing, and there are many galleries showing very interesting work.

I visited Art + Shanghai, in another location in the city, and had a long conversation with art director Diana Freundl which ranged across many of the issues which my observations and interviews have thrown up - the status of women artists in the art world in China, the state of art education and specifically of curatorial practice and museology, the differences between the Beijing and Shanghai artworlds, the possibilities and future of a post-'bubble' art market, and the work of specific artists. The exhibition in the gallery, 'A Room of One's Own', of 4 very different and interesting women artists, is another indication of the vitality and freshness of the Shanghai art scene. I am able to arrange an interview for tomorrow with a young painter, Shi Zhi Ying.

Later in the day I visit 'Two Cities' Gallery at M50, and speak with director Eva Ting and curator Shannon Guo.  Shannon is an associate professor in the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University, teaching postgraduate students in the 'Jewelry and Metals Studio'. We talk about the always controversial boundaries between art and craft, form and function. Shannon is a feisty confident woman who says she considers herself a 'warrior' in a battle to ensure that the traditionally 'lesser' artforms of ceramics, glass, and metalwork are given equal status with the 'fine arts' of painting and sculpture. The gallery has presented some very interesting exhibitions which show work by artists who clearly blur these boundaries and work in conceptually interesting ways.

Hu Jieming on studio balcony at M50 old and new Shanghai
My day began with a really great honour: meeting Hu Jieming, a pioneer of digital art in China, a venerable artist whose work has been shown throughout China, and internationally in New York, Chicago, Seattle and the V&A in London. He now also teaches a new generation of artists in new media at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts.  Mr Hu welcomes me into his new studio - he has just moved, and the three rooms are completely filled with as yet unpacked artworks, books, furniture, and computer parts.

A gentle and unassuming man, he is happy to talk about his new work to be shown in Shanghai and Shenzhen in June this year. He is developing and applying new computer technologies to create an imaginary world using the internet. He wants to use science and technology to reveal how we are now all connected in a digital world "like a kind of socialism of the future". Like many other artists of his generation (he was in Elementary School during the Cultural Revolution, which affected him most powerfully) his work reflects China's past and its often uncomfortable trajectory into a new way of being. He says he has seen a 180 degree shift in Chinese society in his adult life - things once valued and cherished are no longer considered important and there is an urgent seeking for new values to replace the old. The title of an exhibition in which his work was shown in New York last year, 'Speed and Chaos' seems very apt, we agree. Even looking out the window of his new studio we see the change of the city - the old factory rooftops of M50 are overshadowed by new high rise apartments.

Mr Hu tells me that since he graduated in 1984 he has been a part of the dramatic changes that have swept through China in the 35 years since what Chinese often call 'the opening up'. It was an exciting time in Shanghai, with artists beginning to experiment with new forms as the ideas of the western avant-garde reached them. In the days of the 1989 student movement he remembers the whole city being paralysed, with cars burning in the streets, and the artists became part of an underground world. Later, as newer technologies became available, Hu was one of the first Chinese artists to realise their potential for art, perhaps because he loved mathematics and science as a boy, and wanted to apply these talents to his art practice. He also loved the work of American video pioneer Bill Viola, and this spiritual and lyrical sensibility is evident in some of Hu's works. We talk about the news in today's paper of the record price (HK 79 million) achieved by a Zhang Xiaogang painting as the Ullens Collection went under the hammer at Sotheby's Hong Kong. He laughs and says he thinks this new Chinese art world is a 'kind of miracle', but adds that those artists of the 1990s are already part of China's past, and that the future lies in new media. Young artists such as Lu Yang (and he shows me a work of hers that he has bought) are the future wave of Chinese art, as they can see the possibilities of technology for creating a new kind of art, and are also fully aware of its commercial potential.

Hu Jieming's works, such as 'The Raft of the Medusa' (2002) which was one of the first Chinese works to explore the possibilities of appropriation, or the more recent 'One hundred years in one minute',  layer the past with the present. He shows us the enormity and significance of the past and the way that time is a continuum. This awareness of 'the presence of the past in the now' seems to me to be a thread which connects the work of so many different Chinese artists working in many different forms. As I walk down many flights of stairs from his studio I am hoping that Australian audiences may have the chance to see these works, the product of such a reflective and incisive intellect.

Hu Jieming - 'Raft of the Medusa'
Image used with the permission of the artist and ShanghART Gallery

My next visit, through a red steel door to another new and dusty studio in M50, is to meet with the painter Pu Jie, whose work I have already seen and admired in Beijing at the Redgate Gallery. In fact we met at the fabulous dinner at Middle 8 hosted by Brian Wallace, but the 3 artists were at the centre of an admiring and somewhat boozy entourage on that occasion. Today in the virtually empty studio I am able to look very closely at his paintings, which are always built up in two layers, again representing past and present.

Pu Jie with work in studio

His works are based on 'the opening up' of China to the world, and in fact he defines two exhibitions of foreign art as crucial to his developing practice. One, an exhibition of French art in 1982 which included 3 works by Picasso, was a revelation to him. The other, even more significant, was a Robert Rauschenberg exhibition seen in Beijing in 1983. Pu says these exhibitions were 'unforgettable' and shaped his own practice as he sought new modes of expression in the days following those dark times when artists were told both how and what to paint. In fact, his own work was not shown in China for many years as it was considered too subversive.

Pu Jie small work
Pu Jie work showing underpainted layers
Images used with the permission of the artist and ShanghART Gallery

Today his paintings reveal an interesting tension between their beautiful surfaces and stylised, almost 'Pop Art' linear images, and the symbolism which lies beneath the surface. Every painting has another image hidden beneath it. The yellow painting of two modern young Chinese women is painted over another figure from the days of the Cultural Revolution. Another painting on a red background, the Heavenly Gate in Tiananmen Square represented by curved and straight nails (which themselves represent both violence and construction), is a potent, politically charged symbol of 1989. The gate is painted over another sad recumbent figure of an old man. These are subtle encoded references which allow him to layer past and present and express his own story and that of China generally. In this way his material and conceptual practice are seamlessly woven together to express what he identifies as 'the conflict of all Chinese people', the transition, sometimes painful, from one kind of society to another.

Pu Jie work 2
Image used with the permission of the artist and ShanghART Gallery