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

Sunday, January 26, 2014

马年吉祥! The Year of the Horse

I know it's Australia Day, but I am pretending that I never saw those teenage girls dressed in flag-adorned costumes, or the many people sporting temporary Australian flag tattoos - it has all become way too creepy. And, frankly,dare I say it, "un-Australian". What happened to our famously laconic and cynical national character? So this post is ignoring January 26 in favour of the lunar calendar.The Year of the Horse approaches. In fact 2014 is the Year of the Wooden Horse, which is regarded, I discovered in a rapid scroll through a few Googled web pages, as a year of quick victories, unexpected adventures, and surprising romances. Those born in a horse year are supposed to be strong, courageous, independent, creative free spirits. Possibly, as a monkey year person, I am a little envious. Sydney is currently filled with red lanterns, many opportunities to eat noodles and dumplings, and a plethora of events in the lead-up to the enormous street parade in celebration of Chinese New Year. In addition to Mahjong, food, music and lion dances, art is also getting a look-in, thank goodness. 'Crossing Boundaries' is an exhibition of Asian Australian artists - some young emerging artists and some, such as Guan Wei and Lindy Lee, who are extremely well-known and celebrated. Curated by Catherine Croll of Cultural Partnerships Australia, and currently showing at Sydney Town Hall, the exhibition is an important part of Sydney's Lunar New Year celebrations. And, appropriately, many of the works are equine and celebratory in flavour.
Hu Ming, Wishes for Every Success in the Year of the Horse, 2013, oil on canvas
This is the third consecutive year that the exhibition has been held to coincide with New Year celebrations, and this time around it includes a number of the same artists as last year, as well as a host of new, previously unknown artists. Not every work in this highly eclectic show is great, but most are at the very least interesting, and the exhibition as a whole suggests evocative connections and parallels between works by very different artists. Croll says, "Artists participating in Crossing Boundaries have created new work that reflects upon individual journeys undertaken, boundaries crossed and new territories explored to provide a dynamic exhibition with strong celebratory flavour for the Year of the Horse."

Hu Ming, represented by two works quite unlike her usual repertoire of voluptuous revolutionary soldiers, is an interesting case study of a diasporic Chinese artist. In fact the artist herself spent 20 years of her life in the People's Liberation Army, from 1970 to 1990, eventually becoming a major. During this time she saw the last bitter years of the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, the 'opening up' under Deng Xiaoping and the tragedy of Tiananmen. She was given leave to study art and learned the painstaking hyper-realism of the traditional Chinese 'gongbi' style in Tianjin. She arrived in Australia in 1999 and now lives and works in Sydney, producing works that, albeit in a Pop idiom, are thoroughly immersed in traditional imagery and techniques.

Two panels of black paper, pitted with burned holes and marks, form "1000 Blacks & Myriad White', created  by Lindy Lee in collaboration with Elizabeth Chang. For both artists black has deeply ancestral connections to Taoist traditions and the principle of Yin/Yang. Yin, the black, represents earth, darkness and the interior. Yang, the white, represents heaven, lightness and the exterior. One cannot exist without the other. Lee has long been interested in ways of making the immaterial,the evanescent, take on a  material form. In these works she and Chang have created a powerful and mysterious diptych.
Somchai Charoen, Landmind, 2013, ceramic installation (detail)
At the entrance of the space is a floor installation by Thai ceramic artist Somchai Charoen. Deceptively pretty, his field of ceramic flowers, sitting lotus-like on the polished floor, conceal in their midst weapons of terror and destruction. 'Landmind' was created following his visit to the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia. "Landmines are one of the most horrific inventions," he says in his catalogue statement. "The consequences of war on the landscape inflict a trauma for people who travel through the land where an unknown terror lies beneath the surface. This remains decades after the conflict subsides. I am fascinated by how the regeneration of land works to conceal the mines as part of the natural landscape." Certainly his invitation to audiences to walk through the installation was not being eagerly embraced yesterday - the installation is a sobering reminder of the appalling consequences of war and conflict.

Tianli Zu has contributed one of her characteristic paper-cut works celebrating Nuwa, a powerful creation figure in Chinese mythology. Around 179-122 BCE in remote antiquity, so the story goes, the four pillars that supported the universe collapsed. The world became dark and chaotic. Nüwa tempered five-coloured stones to repair the heavens and held up the sky with four legs that she cut off a tortoise. According to the Chinese myth Shanhaijing (山海经), she created the horse before she created humans. Sometimes this artist works with video, however in this installation she has chosen to add evocative forest sounds which echo around the space, so realistic that they apparently caused maintenance men from the Town Hall to investigate whether an owl was trapped in the ceiling.
Tianli Zu,  Nuwa Created Horses on the Sixth Day, 2013, Chinese ink and tea, Hand cut cotton rag paper,
and sound composition
My 2013 interview with Tianli Zu, in which she revealed the ways in which her Cultural Revolution childhood continue to impact her work today, can be found  HERE: Tianli Zu: The Power of the Shadow

Tianli Zu,  Nuwa Created Horses on the Sixth Day (detail), 2013, Chinese ink and tea, Hand cut cotton rag paper,
and sound composition
Other interesting works included Ahn Wells and Linda Wilson's 'Ten Thousand Horses' which consists of 60  rosewood tiles with wax painted symbols referencing the power of the horse moving en masse in Chinese military history, as well as shamanism and Ahn's Korean heritage.
Ahn Wells and Linda Wilson, Ten Thousand Horses, 2013, Rosewood and Wax installation
 Guan Wei's panels from his recent dark series of constellations, 'Twinkling Galaxies' are beautiful, of course. In my conversation with him at his Beijing studio in November he reflected on the contrast he sees between Australia and China, now that he divides his time more or less equally between Sydney and Beijing.  

And I did enjoy a work made entirely of used teabags. Born in Indonesia, Jayanto Damanik now lives and works in Sydney and has recently returned from a residency at Redgate Gallery in Beijing. He has been collecting teabags since 1997, seeing them as a memory of family, a reminder of ceremonies and as an offering for the dead. Tea has both mundane and spiritual connotations, and is both deeply personal and cultural. He said, "My current project is focused on the psychology of family and home... I collected my tea bags from family and friends and each tea bag contains a memory... every teabag tells a story of daily life’s grievances and joys."
Jayanto Damanik, Conversations, 2013, used teabags, Chinese paper, glue

In amongst the dragon boat races, night noodle markets and (I hope) a revival of the wonderfully funny Pandas on bicycles (panda costumes, OK, no animal cruelty!) in the Lunar New Year Parade, you should definitely make the time to walk round the side of the Town Hall and see what a very diverse range of Asian artists who now "call Australia home" - and Australian artists with links to Asian cultures - are doing. And on Australia Day, when increasingly there is way too much flag waving and scarily mindless jingoism, it's a salutary reminder that this nation is all the richer and more interesting due to the contributions of people who have arrived here from all corners of the globe.