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

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A radioactive glass chandelier in Sydney's Chinatown: two exhibitions, a lecture, and the impossibility of ever learning Chinese

Adam Chang, ‘Mao Guarded by Standing Terracotta Soldier’, 2012, oil on canvas,
220 x 300cm, image courtesy of the artist.

Having just learned how to say 'My bad' in Chinese (Bu Hao Yisi!) I felt the phrase was appropriate to my neglect of this blog since the Biennale. Not that I haven't been looking at, reading about, and pondering on issues relating to Chinese art - indeed I have - but other aspects of life such as the necessity to earn a living and the 24/7 nature of the 21st century workplace have rather taken over of late.

Here are some of the things I have seen/ heard/watched/learned:
Firstly, an exhibition entitled 'The Price of War' at a rather idiosyncratic Sydney gallery, Chinalink. Run by David Chang, who came to Australia from Shanghai some years ago, it has featured some interesting curated shows of works by Australian/Chinese artists. However all these shows have included works by David's brother, the painter Adam Chang, and 'The Price of War' also includes works by Adam Chang's son, an as yet unproven, very young painter. I am not sure why I feel that this somewhat undermines the credibility of the gallery, but it makes me feel a little uneasy. Adam Chang is an accomplished painter who has been a finalist in numerous Sydney art prizes, yet his inclusion, and that of his son, seem a rather curious limitation on the work of the curator. Patronage in the artworld is nothing new, of course, and yet....This show includes works by some big names - a Shen Shaomin video installation and a work by Guan Wei, as well as two huge and ambitious works by Shen Jiawei, the prodigiously talented painter schooled in academic realism before his post-1989 arrival in Australia. I have written more about this show for The Art Life online journal. The work I responded to most in the exhibition was by Tianli Zu, a stop frame animation based on a performative approach to paper cutting, which to me suggested a number of connections with other artists working in China, such as Wu Junyong and Chen Hangfeng, both of whom work in ways which reinvent this particular folk art tradition.
Guan Wei, ‘Where’s Ned Kelly?’, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 306 cm (12 panels) image courtesy of the artist. 

Attending the Qiu Zhijie lecture last week at the Museum of Contemporary Art was a fairly extraordinary experience. I enjoyed his animated presentation of incredibly complex, beautifully drawn mind maps of his concepts for the upcoming Shanghai Biennale. These represent in some ways a quite radical reinterpretation of the conventions of such an international show of contemporary art. The building, a converted power station "bigger than Tate Modern!" as Qiu said numerous times, looks impressive, although it appears very far from finished and the Biennale opens in October. Still, this is China, after all, where whole cities can appear suddenly as if overnight. I particularly loved his accounts of rediscovering aspects of the history of Shanghai, including its role as the last remaining city to accept European Jews fleeing persecution in the period before the war. A photographic studio run by a Jewish refugee is still there, and a number of photographs from the period have been unearthed. A project to re-photograph the  living subjects of those terribly poignant 1930s and 1940s images, together with the original photographs, is an idea that I loved. Aaron Seeto and Gallery 4A will curate the Sydney component of the exhibition, with some interesting younger artists including Khaled Sabsabi, who won the Blake Prize for Religious Art with his video work 'Naqshbandi Greenacre Engagement', which showed Sufi Muslims worshipping in a suburban Sydney setting.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, 'What the Birds Knew', uranium glass beads, aluminium wire and UV lights, courtesy of the artists, Artereal Gallery Sydney and GV Art, London

And speaking of Gallery 4A one of the most interesting exhibitions I have seen for some time reinforces my sense that the most important aspect of contemporary art practice (or, at least, the one that probably interests me the most) is the way in which artists select deeply significant materials as the basis and fundamental core of their works. Ken and Julia Yonetani's 'What the Birds Knew' features a giant 6 metre green ant and a very beautiful chandelier made out of radioactive uranium glass, in their evocative response to the Fukushima disaster. The title references Kurosawa's 1955 film 'Living in Fear' and the experience of these works glowing eerily green in a darkened gallery, and knowing that this is due to radiation, is quite unsettling. Look out for my review of this show on
Meanwhile, I continue my struggles to master the most basic spoken Chinese. This is a perpetually humbling experience. I keep thinking that at some unspecified and magical time there will be a tipping point beyond which it will suddenly get much easier and I will begin to be able to understand and respond to simple conversation. Not happening. I still have to have things repeated many, many times. And I still get the word order wrong all the time. There's nothing to beat that sense of being the village idiot. Learning Chinese - can I just say 'mei banfa!' 
Ken and Julia Yonetani's radioactive chandelier, uranium glass, UV lights