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

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Grandmother's House and Bosch's Garden: the art of Dong Yuan

Dong Yuan, 'Grandmother's House', multiple small canvases, 2013, image courtesy the artist

Young Beijing painter Dong Yuan is about to show her enormous installation of small canvases at Gallery Yang in the 798 art district. The works, completed over several years and numbering more than 850 individual paintings, were prompted by her sense of loss and sadness at discovering that the house of her childhood memories was becoming unrecognisable as it was renovated, remodelled and partly demolished. This house, belonging to her grandmother in the coastal city of Dalian, was where the artist spent much of her childhood. Like most other Chinese people I know, particularly those now in their late twenties and thirties, she was essentially brought up by her grandparents.

Using her relatives as research sources - sending cousins and uncles to visit and photograph the house, as visiting made her "too sad" - she reconstructed this place of memory in its every detail, drawing precise plans and diagrams to ensure that her recollections were accurate. She told me, when we met in her bare Beijing apartment on a very cold December day last year, that she felt she must fix these memories in her mind before they disappeared altogether. Like so many other thoughtful young artists I have met in Beijing and Shanghai, she is finding it difficult to cope with the pace of change and the transformation of the physical spaces of Chinese cities and the lives lived within them.
Dong Yuan in her studio, Beijing December 2012,
photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist

When we spoke about her practice of creating immersive installations of her paintings (such as the one held in the White Rabbit collection which records every detail of the spartan, tiny apartments in which she lived as an art student) she told me she had completed 400 paintings but was not even halfway finished. I was completely charmed - and impressed, as well, by the virtuosity of her impressive technique - by the works she showed me. Paintings of her uncle's pants hanging from a hook on the wall, of an umbrella leaning against a corner - with separate canvases representing the drops of water around it - of flower pots on a window sill and pots and pans in the kitchen. All painted with loving detail, recalling a past which has been swept away in the tidal wave of modernisation which continues to transform China and the daily life of every Chinese person.
Dong Yuan, sewing basket, 2012, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist

Dong Yuan trained in the powerhouse of the Central Academy of Fine Arts painting department, where she became obsessed by the skills of old master painting from the Italian Renaissance, including the tiny, incidental details in the backgrounds of such works, always painted with such clarity and precision. These influences continue to inform her work today.

I find her work so very interesting - she is working with themes and concepts which could be termed feminist, representing as they do the often overlooked quotidian details of a woman's daily life - whether her own or her grandmother's - and of family relationships. In this she is working in ways not dissimilar to some other young artists in Beijing who use their own daily lives and family histories in their works. Gao Ping, Li Tingting and Gao Rong spring to mind here. Dong Yuan herself, however, would not see her practice in this way, and in fact did not know what to make of my questioning. Warm and funny, a little self-deprecating and shy, this was the only point where our interview became strained. A salutary reminder about imposing one's own Western paradigm on people living in a very different one. And, as Lin Tianmiao told me emphatically in my interview with her last December, "Mao said that women hold up half the sky, but there is no feminism in China."

Dong Yuan, 'Grandmother's House', oil on separate canvases, image courtesy the artist
 What Dong Yuan has said is that she has been inspired by the disturbing, surreal visions of Hieronymous Bosch in her latest show, "A Short History of Everything: Grandma's House and Bosch's Garden" which opens at Gallery Yang next week. The promo for the show says, " For Dong Yuan, her grandmother’s house represents the site of her earliest memories and ideas about the world, as well as the most simple and secure of possible lifestyles and experiences.  The extraordinary universe created by Bosch meanwhile—the father of European surrealist art—addresses the deep desire of all artists to move beyond the mundane. Through a collection of images of various sizes, Dong Yuan collages her memories of her grandmother's house and brings them to life again. Using the same method, she recreates Bosch's garden, this time taking his characters out of their original terrain and putting them on the smoky and grey plane of everyday life."

 If you have spent any time at all in a Chinese city, you may conclude that references to Bosch are not so far-fetched! 
Dong Yuan, 'In Grandmother's House', oil on separate small canvases, 2013, image courtesy the artist
I have written two recent articles referring to this artist, firstly for Randian:" In Grandmother's House " in which I related her work to the embroidered and sewn sculptures of Gao Rong. Both artists have created works inspired by childhood memories of their grandparents’ house, and the accretion of relationships, objects and rituals contained therein. Unsurprisingly, artists now in their late 20s are reflecting on the enormous social transformation experienced in their lifetime. And in a society where change is the only certainty, artists tend to look inward to family and personal history — and to the “things” that represent them — in a search for meaning and identity. More recently I included Dong Yuan in an article for The Culture Trip: "Old Meets New in Chinese Art "

Dong Yuan, 'Kitchen', 2012, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist
In that piece I reflected on the way she records the here and now, in a taxonomic process of ordering her world. When all else in life appears temporary and uncertain, these solidly modelled, convincingly rendered forms are a way of keeping chaos at bay. When we spoke last December she told me that she found it difficult to persuade galleries to represent her, as she works so slowly and so meticulously, and her practice is one in which every painting is a small part of an environmental installation, as well as a work in its own right. These paintings become a re-creation of her family house, an astonishing feat of trompe l’oeil which is both funny and immensely touching. Her reflection on her own personal journey from her hometown of Dalian to Beijing is both a memorial to tradition and a meditation on the transformation of modern China.
Most definitely an artist to watch!