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, October 26, 2011

Beautiful ephemera and extraordinary transformations

Chen Hangfeng, 'Where the Wind Comes From' 2011

Here are two links to the new work by Chen Hangfeng, whom I interviewed in his studio in Shanghai in April this year. I love the way he incorporates a deep knowledge of Chinese traditions of the scholar painters and the literati, and yet uses materials which contain their own comment about the nature of contemporary society and our cavalier use of non-recyclable materials. In particular, his use of plastic, and plastic bags, strikes a chord with anyone who has ever walked through a Chinese city (and especially the outskirts of big cities such as Shanghai or Beijing) as plastic bags and pieces of discarded plastic litter the ground everywhere you look, and dusty pieces of plastic float in the wind. Chen makes works which make wry comments about contemporary life in Shanghai, but contain within them many references to Chinese tradition, culture and folk art. His work is serious yet whimsical, and combines a tongue-in- cheek wry humour in his observations of his world, with an awareness of the power of art to make one think anew about things we might have taken for granted (such as vegetable gardens - see previous post).

This new work, "Where the wind comes from" is a development of an earlier piece, "Wind from West' which consists of depictions of plants such as plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo - “the Four Gentlemen” of literati lore, rendered in pieces cut from black plastic rubbish bags. The leaves of the plants are affixed with pins ("somewhat like a dead scarab beetle pinned to a piece of Styrofoam" says the artist), which suggests the memento mori, or the museum. A row of  fans mounted on the side of the work causes a periodic rustling of the leaves, "yet despite these wayward modern disturbances, when the wind stops, the leaves always return to their original position".See this earlier work here:

Both pieces also remind me of a work by Xu Bing I saw in an exhibition in New York last year. This fascinating show, 'Dead or Alive' at the Museum of Arts and Design, explored the many ways that artists work with nature, the natural world, and unexpected materials ranging from bones, to feathers, to leaves, to beetles and skeletal parts. Xu Bing's 'Background Story' at first sight appeared to be a traditional, lyrical, Chinese scholar painting depicting mountains and water on a scroll or screen. On closer examination this proved to be all a fake, a 'shadow world': when you looked behind the screen you saw that the apparently beautiful landscape was made up of rubbish and detritus, casting shadows onto a frosted glass screen. A whole new definition of 'the floating world'.

Yet another artist working in a similar vein is Yao Lu, with photographic works such as 'Early Spring on Lake Dong Ting', 2008. I saw these works in Hong Kong at the Galerie du Monde in an exhibition of contemporary photography, 'Capturing Cathay'. Once again, apparently traditional and beautiful Chinese landscapes, on closer viewing, prove to be made of refuse, plastic garbage bags and all the detritus of the growing cities and their fast-paced throw away materialist culture.

Yao Lu, Lake Dong Ting, Photograph, 2008