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, September 11, 2012

A 'double take' and some cognitive dissonance...

Old and new China, Shanghai, April 2011, photograph Luise Guest

So as usual I am attempting to immerse myself in all things Chinese and all things contemporary Chinese art. This sometimes leads to some strange cognitive dissonance. This week I am reading three books at once and jumping backwards and forwards from one to the other. The first is Jonathan Fenby's 'Tiger Head Snake Tail: China Today, How it Got There and Where It is Heading'. As you might guess from the title, this book delivers rather less than it promises. Despite being genuinely interesting, many chapters are essentially a series of lists and factoids in search of a narrative which could make sense of them. There are some great quotable bits and pieces though, like the story of the 6 year old child on a TV quiz show who was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. 'An official', she said. 'What kind of official?' 'A corrupt official', she said. The book certainly paints a fascinating picture of a nation on fast forward with all the excitement and the inevitable problems that entails. The second is Tani E. Barlow's 'The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism' which I am earnestly and optimistically dipping into and then  putting down with a sense of exhaustion. The third is a book that surely must have been written just for me: A crime novel in an affectionate homage to the hard-boiled private eye genre, with a female protagonist (an American born Chinese) set in New York, with a plot centering around the Chinese contemporary art market. For me this already ticks all the boxes. And S J Rozan can really write. I totally love Lydia Chin!

And of course meanwhile I am neglecting to do my Chinese homework - I should be learning how to discuss the weather in Chinese for my class on Thursday but the 'tianqi yubao' (weather forecast) is so far failing to fascinate. And I make such tiny baby steps towards some kind of minimal level of competence that it is just depressing. Especially when I hear westerners speaking fluent Chinese and think 'But how did you GET there?!'

Meanwhile I have just got home from an absorbing and illuminating conversation held by the Power Institute at the University of Sydney, between Chinese curator Pi Li and Sydney art academic Thomas Berghuisen. Pi Li is here for 'Go Figure!', the big Contemporary Chinese Portraiture show opening at the  Sherman Foundation and the National Portrait Gallery later this week. He is in transition between Boers-Li Gallery and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and his new role at M+,  the new Museum of Visual Culture housing Uli Sigg's collection in the West Kowloon Cultural precinct in Hong Kong.

Pi Li gave a history from his own personal recollections of the development of contemporary art from the early 1980s in China, with all the many transformations and developments along the way. One of the fascinating things he commented on was the profound influence of the Sensation Exhibition and the yBa artists such as Hirst and Emin on a new generation of Chinese artists seeking another path following the commodification of the 90s wave of Cynical Realist and Political Pop painters. He identified Qiu Zhijie, Zhang Huan and Yang Zhenzhong among those who saw the use of ephemeral artforms, and rotting or impermanent materials as a way to reignite the avant garde. There was also some very interesting discussion of the impact of the returning diaspora of artists. When I met Yang Zhenzhong at his studio in Shanghai last year he was re-editing his iconic work 'I Will Die' into an 8 hour version for a European exhibition. He was the very model of the contemporary Chinese artist - essentially a global brand. But with an interesting and hugely significant body of work.

Yang Zhenzhong in his Shanghai Studio, April 2011, photograph Luise Guest
 (the artist  trying to give directions to my taxi driver on his way to pick me up from the studio - quite a challenge!)

Last Friday night saw the opening of the new White Rabbit exhibition 'Double Take'. It is clever and thought provoking and a wonderful chance to revisit some familiar works, such as paintings by Liang Yuanwei, painted 'neihua' bottles by Liu Zhuoquan, and even some of Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds. I have written at greater length in and you can read more about my responses to the show here: Double Take at White Rabbit

A favourite work from the show? Gao Rong's fabulous simulacra of her Beijing basement apartment entrance, entirely fabricated from fabric and embroidery.

Gao Rong, Level 1/2, Unit 8, Building 5, Hua Jiadi, North Village (2010) fabric, thread, sponge, metal, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.