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

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Paper and Silk: Magritte meets Mao

Jin Sha, "Salute to Masters - Conversation with Piero della Francesca 2", 2011, Digital print on silk 
 Image reproduced courtesy of the artist and Janet Clayton Gallery
The show of Chinese artists at the Janet Clayton Gallery in Sydney, 'Paper and Silk', provides a tangible demonstration of the ways that contemporary art in China continues to be underpinned by tradition, as well as informed by the rigorous academic training afforded to artists there, so long disappeared in the west. The work of painter Jin Sha has been seen in Australia in 'Zhong Jian' (Midway), the exhibition he curated which showed in the Wollongong Regional Gallery and in other regional galleries before finishing up at the Mosman Regional Gallery last year. Here is a link to my review of that show on this blog: "Zhong Jian and Babelogic"

In Zhong Jian his witty 'Conversation with Durer' pointed towards some of the key ideas currently informing Chinese art - a nostalgia, even a yearning, for the past; anxiety about a fast-paced and uncertain present day; and a sense of foreboding about the future. Perhaps paradoxically the anxiety is often mixed with a great sense of pride and optimism about China's emergence as a powerful international force to be reckoned with. The appropriation of canonical Western works is a feature of his practice, and in this instance the Duke and Duchess of Urbino are the guise under which he interrogates aspects of the world - his own contemporary world of an urbanised, globalised China, and the world of art, so long dominated by the canon of Western art history.

Jin Sha, “Salute to Masters - Conversation with Piero della Francesca No 1”, 2011 
Ink and colour pigment on silk , 
image reproduced courtesy of the artist and Janet Clayton Gallery

The Renaissance Duke in the Piero della Francesca painting is represented as the master of all he surveys, including his much younger bride, Battista Sforza. Here he becomes just an empty suit of clothes perched on the window ledge, all pomp and no circumstance. Magritte's famous pipe suggests that we must question everything we see, as everything might be other than it appears to be. The Duchess, likewise, no longer inhabits her elaborate head-dress, which appears utterly absurd as an empty shell. One of Magritte's apples dangles, perhaps representing the temptations of worldly wealth and power. These two aristocrats, however, are now literally 'no body'. They are empty suits of clothes, hollow and absurd. It's not such a stretch to think about the way that in China, all conversations about power are necessarily quite carefully coded. Meanings are hidden and revealed quite strategically. I have written in more detail about these works, and about the exhibition, and you can read my review here: The Art Life

Looking at Jin Sha's work I thought of the wonderful 'Old People's Home' from the Sigg Collection currently showing  at the Sherman Foundation for Contemporary Art, with its underlying message which so profoundly undercuts all our assumptions about power. In that work the ancient, wizened world leaders rumble pointlessly around the floor of the gallery in their wheelchairs, like some hideously depressing dodgem car ride at a sinister funfair. To me, the message is the same: "Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come" says Hamlet of Ophelia, holding up Yorick's skull as a gruesome reminder of mortality.In the end, we are all reduced to empty shells like these old men.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Old People's Home, 2007, mixed media installation. Detail. Courtesy M+ Sigg Collection, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and National Portrait Gallery.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jin Sha's work also made me think of an image that has gone viral on Sina Weibo in the last week or so:

This Hermes 'Birkin' bag in red crocodile, emblazoned with the stars of the Chinese flag, was apparently given as a gift to a certain Ms Mao Yuping, chairwoman of  "Precious Gold Holdings Ltd' . She herself posted the image on China's version of Twitter, with a saccharine message about how thoughtful the director of Hermes was, finishing with the statement, 'The Chinese flag flies in my heart'. According to 'vintage designer handbags online' a second-hand Birkin goes for over $24,500 and a new one can sell for $10,000. The red colour in the Chinese flag represents the  blood of revolutionary martyrs. This seems as if it would be have to be a parody, but it is apparently all too real. What can one say?

Jin Sha's choice of words underneath his appropriated Duchess of Urbino is probably sufficient: "For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self assuming, haughty blasphemers....." 

In contrast to the flashy materialism and hedonism, exemplified by Mao Yuping's tacky handbag and critiqued by Jin Sha, the works in 'Paper and Silk' are in many cases quiet and delicate. They creep up on you slowly and then insistently demand your attention. They reveal the highly developed levels of skill and technical accomplishment which is considered unremarkable in China, extraordinary elsewhere.

Wei Wei, Maroon Horse, Digital Print on Paper, 45cm x 69 cm,
 image reproduced courtesy of the artist and Janet Clayton Gallery

Lu Peng, Crane, Digital print on paper, 51 x 45.5cm
image reproduced courtesy of the artist and Janet Clayton Gallery