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, September 25, 2013

Black Crows on Chang'An Avenue

I was quite thrilled to see my catalogue essay for this very wonderful new installation by Liu Zhuoquan -  brought to Sydney Contemporary, the new kid on the block in terms of international art fairs, by China Art Projects last week.
Liu Zhuoquan, Chang'An Avenue (detail) 2012, 12 streetlights, mineral pigment
image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects
I had seen elements of this installation in the artist's studio last December, and was intrigued by how he had developed his practice from painting images inside bottles of all kinds, using the ancient 'nei hua' or 'inside bottle painting' technique traditionally associated with delicate snuff bottles in the Qing Dynasty, to painting inside lamps and globes and other found or manufactured objects. An earlier work, 'Seven Sparrows' had given some indication of the possibilities of creating an immersive and emotionally resonant work using this technique. The new work, 'Chang'An Avenue', takes it further again. Despite the fact that my rudimentary Chinese completely and embarrassingly deserted me when we met at the art fair on Saturday, I am planning to visit his studio in Beijing, which on each occasion I have been there has been filled with the most wonderful assortment of bottles and glass vessels painted with everything you can imagine, from fish to cockroaches; from foetuses to Cultural Revolution imagery; from organs and body parts to beautiful misty mountain landscapes.

Liu Zhuoquan, work in progress 2012,
photograph Luise Guest, reproduced with permission of the artist and China Art Projects

This is what I wrote for the China Art Projects catalogue:

There are few sounds more likely to induce despair than the melancholy call of a crow outside one’s window. In most cultures they are seen as a harbinger of death and doom, and in China traditionally considered birds of ill-omen. Yet, in a surprising twist, in Tibetan Buddhism they are symbols connected with the protection of the Dharma. These highly intelligent birds have become significant visual codes in the recent work of Liu Zhuoquan, a rising star now represented in major collections including those of Uli Sigg and Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery. Liu Zhuoquan’s oeuvre is underpinned by significant events in his own life, including the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and the years he spent in Tibet.

Past meets present in Liu’s practice. His installations of recycled glass bottles adapt the ‘neihua’ (inside bottle painting) technique, an exquisite tradition dating from the Qing Dynasty, most often found in decorative snuff bottles. Like many other art and craft practices seen as relics of the feudal past, this was forbidden during the years of the Communist regime and the crushing of the ‘Four Olds’. Now, living and working in a Beijing transformed by China’s emergence as an economic global power, Liu combines a contemporary sense of irony with his acute observation of his metamorphosing world and his sense of the fragile beauty of nature. He is also fully aware of the transgressive possibilities inherent in the use of the Duchampian found object – his installations often possess a sly wit, and can be read on many levels. Liu Zhuoquan’s work reveals cultural memory seen through the lens of personal experience.

In his hands the technical demands of painting with tiny curved brushes on the inside surfaces of glass containers becomes a means by which he can represent aspects of his world in ways which are sometimes profoundly subversive. From delicate representations of insects, plants, flowers  and fish, he moves seamlessly into more controversial subject matter, critiquing aspects of modern China with works referencing such issues as the death penalty, the ‘harvesting’ of organs for transplant, the implications of the One Child Policy and the effects of rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and consumerism.
Liu Zhuoquan, Chang'An Avenue (detail) 2012, 12 streetlights, mineral pigment
image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects
 ‘Chang’An Avenue’ powerfully extends his use of visual metaphor, evoking a palpable sense of menace and claustrophobia. The streetlamps replicate those found along Beijing’s ‘Avenue of Eternal Peace’, the east-west axis of the city. Chang’An Avenue has been the site of momentous events – demonstrations, uprisings, military parades and funeral processions. Specifically, to the artist and the astute observer, these lamp-posts symbolise Tiananmen Square, with all its many potent and (in China) forbidden associations. Crows are trapped inside the glass shades of the lamps, painted with great delicacy and detail. Each individual feather, and the light reflected in each watchful eye reveal the careful attention paid to the natural world that is so characteristic of Liu’s practice. These crows are witnesses to human folly, and the sense of being observed is unnerving.

Liu wants to represent, “the weight of history to the Chinese people that has been played out in these streets and squares”. There is something profoundly disturbing in the image of the bird trapped inside the tight glass container of the lamp: one can almost hear the beating of powerful wings. The work evokes the experience of walking the grey streets of Beijing in the gloom of a cold afternoon in late autumn, when crows gather on the lamp-posts and power lines and one is overwhelmed by the inescapable sense of history underlying the ordinariness of the everyday. Beneath the frustrations of Beijing traffic jams and the sight of an old man serenely pedalling a ‘san lun che’ three-wheeled blocking the path of honking taxis and the BMWs of the new rich, there are ghosts. And perhaps they choose to appear to us in the form of black crows.

Liu Zhuoquan with part of his Chang'An Avenue installation and other works in his Beijing studio
Photograph Luise Guest, reproduced with permission of the artist and China Art Projects