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, August 17, 2014

Are You My Mother? Reflections on Mothers and Daughters

Zhang Xiaogang Big Family 1995 oil on canvas. source: Saatchi Gallery
I have been thinking a lot about mothers and daughters. Unsurprising - my own mother is in a state of advanced dementia, and while I adore her, and she sometimes recognises me and is still fabulously feisty (and funny) the relationship has always been, shall we say, "complicated". And my eldest daughter is about to be married, which feels both happy and strange. I have flashes in my dreams of my daughters as babies; the sheer pleasurable physicality of tiny children. I remember lying beside them as they slept; the exhaustion overlaid by that fierce love that is quite overwhelming. 

Ridiculously, I was almost reduced to tears the other day when I read somewhere an account of the Dr Seuss book 'Are You My Mother?' which I must have read a thousand times to my own small daughters. A baby bird falls out of the nest and goes exploring, asking every creature - and thing - it sees, "Are you my mother?" The reply is always, "No. I am not your mother. I am a horse/pig/cow/truck," etc etc. Of course there is a happy ending, anticipated with great satisfaction by the children who chanted along with me, "Yes! I am a bird and I am your mother!"

I recently saw again a charming Chinese animation for children, called 'Tadpoles Looking for their Mother' or ‘Where is Mama?’. Created in 1960 at Shanghai Film Studios under the guidance of the legendary animator Te Wei, it tells the story of a group of tadpoles searching for their mother. They plaintively question goldfish, shrimp, turtles and other creatures on their journey through a watery landscape, "Women de Mama, Zai Nali?" Each frame is rendered in deft, minimal brushstrokes with ink and wash, influenced by the watercolour paintings of Qi Baishi. In these digital days its artistry and simplicity are a revelation.

But why on earth have memories of my own childhood, and my children's, been haunting me? Why now? It began when I started to write an article about the artist Gao Rong for 'Artist Profile' magazine. As I listened once again to my taped interviews with Gao, I heard echoes of the stories told to me by so many of the female artists I have been meeting in China. There is a great closeness between Gao and her mother - although much untold bitterness, I am sure, in the story of her grandmother. Sent away into exile in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, far from her native Shaanxi Province, she and her seven children would have starved had she not been able to barter her exquisite embroidery for food. I began to think of all the tragic separations and the broken families resulting from ten years of utter madness. 

 Gao Rong The Static Eternity 2012 cloth wire sponge, cotton, steel, board, 516 x 460 x 270 cm detail
image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
Perhaps because that time coincided with my own childhood and teenage years, as I look at photographs of my mother with her two children in 1966, I inevitably compare our lives with those of  Chinese artists of my own age. No doubt it's also because now, increasingly often, my mother has no idea who is in those photographs. Nevertheless, I think of Qing Qing, who was sent away with her mother to Xinjiang Province to drive a tractor in her early teens, the family's house seized, books burned and father imprisoned. I think of Lin Jingjing, whose mother was left behind "to take care of things" when the rest of the family escaped overseas. She was sixteen. The family's property was confiscated and she was sent to prison and then into rural exile.It was thirty years before she saw her mother again, by which time her father was dead. And there are so many others who allude obliquely to suffering, fragmentation, betrayal and disconnection as they tell me about their lives. 

Dong Yuan told me recently that she continues to make artworks about her grandma's house on the coast near Dalian because that was the place where she learned what family was, and where she felt safe. Her own parents, she didn't need to elaborate, were of the generation when "everything was for the country." Artists of a much younger generation find it hard to relate to their parents' and grandparents' experiences, and their parents in turn cannot understand the new pressures of a materialist and frighteningly dog-eat-dog (in Chinese, "ren chi ren" - man eat man) world. I think about Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline" series, and reflect on the tenacity - but also the tenuousness - of family ties. They can be destroyed by the fraying and crumbling of cognition and memory as much as by the ramifications of political ideology.
Dong Yuan Grandma's House, multiple canvases, oil and acrylic, 2013, image courtesy the artist
Yet it is interesting to me that so far every single Chinese female artist I have interviewed (about twenty five now) mentions their mother somewhere in their narrative. Sometimes memories are bitter and the stories oblique, sometimes they are enormously loving and positive. Some mothers are proud of their artist daughters, some mystified, and some are frankly disapproving. But those mother/daughter bonds, so complicated and so strong, are always a part of the daughter's story. Many women, I admit myself included, are still hoping for that motherly approval, that affirmation, and continue to long for it into middle age and beyond. My mother at eighty nine sees her own mother in the room, and sometimes cries for her, which breaks my heart.

So the story of Gao Rong learning to sew from her mother and grandmother, in turn teaching her Shaanxi stitching to rural women who can then earn money assisting her in her sculptural projects, struck a chord with me. It seemed a healing kind of story, in a country where the scars of the past are all too visible. And it spoke to me in a way about my own wounds too. Gao says, “Heritage is not just a technique, but a spirit of survival handed down from one Chinese woman to another.” Gao Rong is the same age as my daughter, and so I loved her telling me that she missed her mother terribly when she was alone studying in Beijing, and that she then took her mother with her to New York for her solo show last year. 

And now, when my own mother sometimes asks me,"Who are you? Are you my mother?" I have learned to say, "Yes I am, and you are safe."

The full interview with Gao Rong is in the current (August 2014) issue of Artist Profile.