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

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A short history of (nearly) everything: Dong Yuan

Grandma’s House——The North Face of Youngest Uncle’s Room, 250X500cm,oil and acrylic on canvas, 2013
More images of the recent exhibition at Yang Gallery in 798, Beijing, by Dong Yuan, "A Short History of Everything: Grandma’s House and Bosch’s Garden

 It's a little hard to imagine the connection between images inspired by Hieronymous Bosch and the Garden of Earthly Delights, and images such as the one above 'Youngest Uncle's Room', with their minutely detailed representation of every single object in every room in the house where Dong Yuan spent much of her childhood. A short history of everything? Bill Bryson wrote "A Short History of Nearly Everything" but obviously this work is more ambitious!

Grandma’s House——The West Face of Youngest Uncle’s Room, 250X500cm,oil and acrylic on canvas, 2013
In almost 900 separate canvases, ranging from tiny in size to much larger, presented as an immersive installation, Dong Yuan reflects on her memories of growing up in a house which is now unrecognisable due to the transformations which have swept across China in recent years - transformations which have created a world which Dong's grandmother, who owned this house in Dalian which is memorialised in the alchemical processes of the artist, would not even recognise.

Grandma’s House——Cupboard No.2,200X200cm,oil and acrylic on canvas, 2013

When I was looking at these paintings as works in progress in Dong Yuan's studio last December, I kept remembering the stories told to me by Savana, the Shanghai translator for my first research trip to China in 2011. She grew up in the Danwei (work unit) in which both her parents lived and worked their entire lives. She herself became a steelworker in the same factory complex when she left school - this was the last vestiges of the cradle to grave security/prison of Mao's "iron rice bowl". Perhaps sensing the winds of change, and responding to the powerful call of her own ambitions and desire for greater personal freedom, she persuaded her father to permit her to study at evening college and then at university to qualify as a tour guide and eventually as a skilled translator. Leaving Xian, she went to work in Beijing and Shanghai; travelled alone to work in America, and even came to Australia on her own for a holiday.This is a woman whose grandmother had bound feet. The changes in the lives of women - of everyone - in three generations are almost incomprehensibly enormous. No wonder there is a very typical Chinese response to all of this fast-paced transformation: a dark sardonic humour and cynical wit. It connects easily with the irrational juxtapositions of Surrealism. Artist Wu Junyong told me that Beijing is like a theatre of cruelty where all the darkest elements of humanity are on display. After all, the English expression very applicable to today's market-dominated China, "it's a dog eat dog world" is "ren chi ren" (人吃的人) which means "man eat man" in Chinese.  So perhaps it is not such a stretch to see a young artist such as Dong responding to the dark desires and terrifyingly absurd imagery of Bosch.
Bosch’s Garden(detail 01),Dimensions Variable,oil on canvas,2013
Whatever her motivation, her technical skill is undeniable, and her fascination with turning the minutiae of everyday life into a loving homage to a past which is gone forever speaks to all of us. We all carry around our own personal "short history of everything" inside of us, and we all know that we can never go back to check whether our memories are as distorted as the world revealed by Bosch.