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

Monday, November 18, 2013

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Food, Learning Chinese, People - and Art

As I come to the final weeks of my residency I have been savouring some of my favourite Beijing moments. And they're not all food-related, but I have to say that food has figured largely in the fascination of my time here in China. That includes those foods which are immediately appealing and wonderful, and those which I am adding to my list of things to avoid. Joining the donkey pastrami and the boiled goats' feet of Xi'an I can now add the grilled duck tongues of Chengdu. The visual richness of street vendors of all kinds is a feature of any walk in Beijing, and the foods on offer have changed as the weather has grown colder - grilled corn, chestnuts and walnuts, congee and pancakes and baozi, sweet potato and cakes. Beijingers love their 'Xiao Chi' (literally, little food, i.e snacks)

So here's a list of other things I have enjoyed seeing and experiencing of late

  • I am amused and impressed by the fur-lined sleeves that have appeared on bikes and motorbikes - very necessary and so ingenious!

  • The tiny mandarins in the markets with their leaves attached - so cheap and so sweet - as well as pineapples and other strangely tropical fruits in this cold climate

  • Pomegranate juice from the street stalls

  • The woman who takes her microphone and amplifier into the park each afternoon and sings opera and Chinese folk songs in a pavilion beside the lake

  • The people both young and old who practise their saxophones, flutes and clarinets seated on benches in the park
  • Tiny children bundled into so many layers that they are completely spherical
  • The massive army greatcoats and hats with fur earflaps worn by men collecting recycling
  • The way that people love to gather in groups and add their opinion to whatever is happening, whether that's a car accident, a mahjong game, a dispute over the price of vegetables, or the technique of the water calligraphers and dancers in the park

Among many possible candidates for a favourite English shop name, my current favourite is definitely "Bing Bing Decently", a small emporium selling 'scholar rocks' and ornately carved pieces of timber and "jade" (I suspect definitely of the inverted commas variety) in the Chaoyang Cultural Market. But there is also this one, which definitely falls into the WTF category:

  • The frustration but also the joy of starting to be able to read Chinese characters continues - I forget as many as I learn, but it is a revelation to me in gaining a greater understanding of the people, culture and history. And Chinese characters are just so beautiful, even in subway signs or scrawled graffiti. I often trip over steps and walk into posts as I am so occupied in staring at billboards and street signs and trying to work out what they say.

I have been meeting so many interesting artists, including Guan Wei and Lin Jingjing, and continuing my series of interviews. As this research continues I've had many conversations with these artists, with my interpreters, with curators and with friends both western and Chinese about ideas relating to gender in China right now. It is often at the forefront of public discourse, and certainly forms a subtext to much policy debate and media angst. 

With artist Bu Hua in her studio, October 21
Lin Jingjing in her studio, November 14
With Guan Wei in his studio, November 11

Here are my first thoughts about this, in relation to three of the eighteen artists I have spoken with to this point. The article, 'Material Girls, Super Starlets, and Girls with Swagger'  was published in The Artlife last week, and this is an extract:

Late Autumn in Beijing alternates glorious blue sky days with others on which the pollution levels soar into the ‘alarming’ zone and people with masks covering their faces are glimpsed through mist and fog on grey streets under grey clouds. The schizophrenic weather conditions mirror something of the paradoxical nature of contemporary China. On one street you see old men in Mao suits playing mah-jongg on the corner, while in the next you are as likely to find a Lamborghini showroom as a snack cart selling dumplings. These paradoxes extend into the art world too. The pace of change in China has been so swift and dislocating that each new generation of artists essentially inhabits a different country, with different experiences, ideas and beliefs. On every construction site billboards loudly proclaim: “This is my Chinese Dream.” This dream, and what it might entail for different generations in China – and what that might imply for the rest of the world - is definitely contested territory.
I have been fascinated to discover these generational dissonances as I have met with artists during a two-month stay in Beijing. My particular project has been to interview female artists. Just as the social forces in China have swept away old certainties, so too have ideas about gender and the roles of women been changing, albeit in ways quite different from what one might expect.
Recently this has come to the forefront of public discourse, as the term “sheng nu” (“left-over women” - defined as single women over the age of 27) has gained increasing traction in the media. The following delightful piece was published on the website of China’s state feminist agency, the All-China Women’s Federation:
“Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, but girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult. These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don’t realize that as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their M.A. or Ph.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”
Despite the gender imbalance created by the One Child Policy and a preference for boys resulting in an over-abundance of men seeking wives, it seems that contemporary Chinese culture punishes women for being over-educated, over-ambitious and financially independent.
In street fashion, advertising, and, yes, even in the hallowed space of art galleries, I have been observing a kind of hyper-femininity. Representations of the feminine in some of the less illustrious galleries in the 798 Art Zone range from imperial maidens and concubines, reflecting nostalgia for a patriarchal past and its certainties, to fibreglass stilettos covered in spikes, an indication of current anxieties. Young men are nervous. They feel enormous pressure to be rich enough, and successful enough, to attract girls and find a wife. The famous quote from a TV dating show, from a young woman who said she would rather weep in the back of a BMW than laugh on a bicycle, is cited often as evidence of women’s materialism.
1. Travel Alone 60+50cm oil on canvas 2007
Han Yajuan, Travel Alone, 2007. Oil on canvas image courtesy the artist.
To find out more, I spoke with three artists who explore some of these ideas in their work.
I met Han Yajuan in her bright apartment and studio in the new area of Wangjing, where she looks down over block after block of high-rise apartments and sweeping expressways, a view she describes as “depressing”. Her work has been seen recently in Australia in the ‘Go Figure’ exhibition, curated by Claire Roberts from Uli Sigg’s collection at the National Portrait Gallery, and in ‘Far East Duet’ at the ACAF Project Space in Melbourne. She is represented in New York by Eli Klein Fine Art.
Born in 1980 in Qingdao, Shandong Province, and earning her MFA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, she is sometimes described as an artist whose works embody the collective unconscious of her generation, which seems rather a heavy burden. Her paintings reveal her interest in Japanese design and animation, as well as fashion, and reflect the culture of ‘cuteness’ (in Chinese, “Ke’ai”) prevalent in contemporary pop culture. In China, young (and even not so young) women are expected to behave in ways which are winsome, even child-like. ‘Travel Alone’ depicts a cute, big-headed, bling-adorned cartoon girl climbing into her red sports car wearing Dior glasses. She carries bags labelled Prada and Chanel. Fake or real, they reflect the current obsession with designer brands as symbols of wealth and success. Han Yajuan reveals the current anxiety about the lives of young women, the ‘material girls’ who want it all, and want it now. ‘Fashion Week’ represents the frantic busy-ness, but also the emptiness, of this world. In response to my suggestion that her paintings are a critique of contemporary life and materialism, she says, “I was just trying to present what I see…what exists. Twenty years ago a bicycle was a luxury, but things change. There is so much pressure; the speed (of life) is so fast. I am trying to present my point of view and also to give people an opportunity to see their own lives.” Her generation have not experienced the hardships of the past, and are experiencing the loneliness, as well as the material comforts, of an entirely different kind of society.
In sculptural works such as ‘Super Starlet 6’ the cloying cuteness is undercut by a disturbing sense of identity crisis – these are essentially faceless beings, literally from the assembly line. Looking at these works before I met the artist, I wondered what she intends to communicate about the lives of Chinese women today. Are the creatures she represents victims of new social pressures, or are they empowered and materially successful beings? Is it celebration, or criticism? The answer, as is so often the case in China, is equivocal. Han Yajuan’s female figures are, and also are not, self-portraits. She is a participant in, as well as an intelligent observer of, the culture in which she finds herself. Self-possessed and confident, with her deep voice and disarmingly infectious laugh, she is fully aware of the dark side of the glamorous world she depicts: a world of corruption and karaoke bars; mistresses and designer handbags. But she is pragmatic. “From a very primitive perspective,” she says, “it relates to the uncertainties of life – we should pursue the things that make us happy. It’s personal. It’s about what makes me happy. There is a part of me in all those figures.”
2. Super Sterlet 6 out of 6
Han Yajuan, Super Starlet 6, 2011. Color paint on tin bronze, crystals, 45 x 36 x 40 cms. Image courtesy the artist
“I am from the eighties generation”, she says, identifying the strictures of the Chinese education system as well as the Japanese cartoons she loved as a child as key influences on her thinking. “My early works are about individualism and uncertainty. Later I changed my perspective to stand on a higher point and look down upon a whole complex and contradictory world.” When she began to create these elaborate multi-dimensional compositions, she was initially filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. Working towards a solo show in New York next April, she says, “I am trying to connect doubt and uncertainty with very concrete things. You can see the materialism, you can see the fashion, but this is just recognition. I know why I am doing this. I know what I try to achieve. It is for people who maybe don’t have the time to see this, to look at these things.”
Rather surprisingly, given their apparent celebration of consumerism, Han sees her practice as relating to Zen philosophy and to Qing Dynasty paintings in which multiple perspectives depict a whole universe, both microcosm and macrocosm. We discuss the famous scroll representing an entire town in which every person depicted is doing something different. In ‘Perfect Ending’, a parallel universe of tiny cubicles is filled with girls and consumer products - espresso machines, laptops, mobile phones, shoes and handbags. They strike me as extremely sad. A tiny world appears about to implode under its own pressure. “This is still a male-dominated society,” she says, in response to my query about whether it is more difficult for female artists in China. “But I’m a human being first, then a woman, then an artist.” And, she adds, if you just keep on doing good work, people will have to take notice.
3. Perfect Ending 360+180cm 2010
Han Yajuan, Perfect Ending, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy the artist
Bu Hua was born in 1973, graduating from the Institute of Fine Art, Tsinghua University, Beijing, (formerly the Central Academy of Fine Art and Design) in 1995. Coming from a family of artists, with a father who was a distinguished printmaker, she “learned the language of lines” at an early age. Her work is represented in the collection of the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney.
Bu Hua is best known as one of the pioneers of digital animation in China, discovering the expressive possibilities of Flash software and its potential to convey emotional truths about contemporary life in an immediately engaging and dynamic way. During our conversation she tells me about an artist whose name she cannot remember, discovered in the late 90s at Kassel Documenta, who created wonderful, complex, highly political animations with charcoal drawing. “William Kentridge?” I ask. “Yes, yes, yes!” she exclaims. Seeing his work in Germany was the impetus that made her want to combine drawing, painting and animation. In recent years she has developed a character, a key protagonist in both video and still images, who is based on herself as a child - a defiantly feisty but definitely cute Young Pioneer. She bravely navigates the surreal landscape of the 'new' China, encountering strange beasts, mystical forests, hideous pollution and rapacious developers, somehow emerging victorious. She is a girl with 'swagger', according to Bu Hua, and a more confident version of the artist herself - a fearless alter ego. In ‘Savage Growth’ she wanted to express this anxiety and fuse western and eastern traditions of art and design. “In modern China, how could you not be influenced by this fusion of West and East, this cultural invasion and ‘soft power’? I am just reflecting this reality,” she says.
Bu Hua, The Water is deep here in Beijing I (2010). Image courtesy the artist.
The girl who skips and jumps through her animations, woodblock prints, paintings and digital images is based on the artist's memory of herself as a schoolgirl in Beijing in a simpler era. She thinks about herself cycling to school at a time before the recent explosion of wealth and development with a certain degree of nostalgia. Past, present and future collide in the imagined adventures of this 'Beijing babe' who functions as a voyeur, a means by which we can see the craziness of the contemporary world.
5. Bu Hua AD 302 - 8
Bu Hua, AD3012-8,2012, giclee print on paper. Image courtesy the artist.
To read the rest of the article, click here: HERE