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, November 14, 2011

Zhong Jian and Babelogic: the Middle Kingdom Translated

Breughel's Tower of Babel 1563 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
The exhibition 'Zhong Jian' (translated in Australia as 'Midway') at the Mosman Regional Gallery was a huge surprise to me when I visited on Saturday. I am not sure what I expected of this show, previously seen at the Wollongong Regional Gallery,  of works by 5 Chinese artists living and working in China, 5 Chinese-born artists who work between the two countries, and 5 Australian artists whose work is informed by China in some way. Most of the publicity material I had seen used images by Kate Beynon or Guo Jian. Not uninteresting, but not inspiring either. I am never sure how I feel about Beynon's work - it certainly has an immediate graphic appeal, and an interesting take on cultural hybridity but it 'empties out' pretty fast, and one is then left with seductive patterned surfaces. 

Jin Sha's appropriated 'Conversations' with Durer and Piero della Francesca have an appealing impertinence, but then again Yasumasa Morimura did this 'insert an Asian into the western canon' thing with his 1980s 'Daughter of Art History' series. Jin Sha's 'Conversation with Durer', however, repays a longer look, with its melding of Durer's iconic ringleted self portrait and the image of the Chinese Emperor in his imperial robes and peacock feather hat. Artist as emperor? I recall artist Wu Junyong telling me that he sees the role of the artist as a cross between a magician and an emperor. In Jin Sha's more recent works he plays with the notion of absence, taking canonical western images such as Bellini's Doge or Piero della Francesca's Duke of Urbino and representing them as empty suits of clothes. A comment on power and the emptiness of political pomp and circumstance, perhaps. His works are clever, and beautifully realised, revealing the rigorous academic training that underpins the work of contemporary Chinese artists.

Other works are less immediately appealing. Guo Jian's sexy girls in lingerie juxtaposed with dancing Red Guards or Peoples Liberation Army soldiers are a form of Political Pop that is considered very passe in China today, despite the fact that the galleries in 798 and M50 are full of such images. However these works represent the 'assault' of Western culture on China after the Cultural Revolution and the art movements which flourished during the 1990s, and are therefore far more self consciously 'Chinese' than work currently being made in China. They speak of a particular historical moment now vanished, and of the process of questioning culture - of both high and low varieties. Despite my hesitation, the exhibition itself was quite a revelation. Interesting juxtapositions ensure that the stated aim of occupying a 'new space' in the artworld, one of dynamic transformation that acknowledges the Chinese diaspora (and, more recently, the return of so many artists to China) and celebrates fluid identities and cultural hybridity, is fulfilled. The viewer is left with a jumble of impressions and ideas, much like the contemporary world of immediate cultural exchange and visual pastiche.

Lionel Bawden's sculptural pieces carved from white Staedtler pencils, with the ironic title 'Clouds and Rain', stand on their two plinths at the entrance like the guardian lions at a Chinese doorway, but they also remind me of 'scholar rocks' in their undulating forms, as well as hinting at the sexual meaning of the phrase and its metaphor of joining together two disparate sensibilities - whether two lovers or two cultures. I enjoyed Liu Xiao Xian's witty 'Game', the porcelain chess board with a game that no-one can play, made up of Western chess and Chinese Checkers; and Guan Wei's meditations on Australians and their relationship to land and history. As Shen Shaomin's show at Gallery 4A opens this week it was also very interesting to see his earlier work, 'Experimental Field No. 2: Cabbages', made of bone and bone meal, with tiny shards of bone and skull revealing themselves among the leaf like forms. As my daughter said, 'Creepy!'

The highlight for me, though, was the wonderful work by Laurens Tan, 'Babelogic II', with a white model of Breughel's 'Tower of Babel' (or is it?) on a white tricycle of the kind that abounds in Chinese cities carrying everything from firewood to recycling to eggs and other farm produce, to huge loads of industrial piping. The video screens which form an integral part of the work are intoning words in Mandarin which echo through the gallery space, underlining the difficult, tentative frustrations of attempting to communicate across cultures. Especially for me, all too conscious of my slow and tortuous study of Chinese. This work, in which Tan communicates his sense of the ambiguity of being both foreign (waiguoren) and Chinese, in China, is wonderful. I am astonished as I walk into this space, as one of my own senior students is working on a piece about the difficulty of communicating across language and culture. She has been inspired by artists such as Yang Zhenzhong, Susan Hiller and Jenny Holzer, and only last week we had a conversation about how the Tower of Babel might be a useful metaphor to make a complex work hang together visually. And here is such a work! It seems  that some ideas are just out there, in the 'zeitgeist' ready to fall out of the air.

Laurens Tan, 'Babelogic II', 2008, Tower and Tricycle with Dual Channel Projections, image from

I leave the exhibition with a last look at the very beautiful works by Zhang Qing, 'Clothes Patches from the Qing Dynasty' with their sense of an ordered Middle Kingdom in harmony with nature (oh dear!) and with the audio from Tan's Babelogic sternly uttering phrases such as 'fiscal markets' in perfectly enunciated Mandarin. Guiltily I go home vowing to do my Chinese homework.