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
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Ten Artists, Ten Conversations, Ten Stories
My most recent article for The Culture Trip introduces ten of the fascinating artists that I have interviewed for my book, "Half the Sky: Conversations with Contemporary Women Artists in China". Here are the first three.
Ten Contemporary Chinese Women Artists You Should Know
Chinese contemporary art is ‘the flavour of the month’ in the West, but there are fascinating stories as yet insufficiently told: the stories of contemporary women artists. The ten artists introduced here are members of a generation who grew to adulthood in the 1980s and 1990s. Born into a post-Mao China that was entirely and disconcertingly different from the world of their parents, they have been forced to adjust to a tsunami of change.
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. In her strong imagery and flat, decorative backgrounds we can see a trace of the traditional woodblock prints of the revolutionary period, and also her love of Japanese art and design. Often described as a pioneer of digital animation in China, Bu Hua was one of the first to use animation software in an art context, creating surreal narratives about contemporary life. Her animations and still images often feature a feisty, sassy pigtailed child dressed in the uniform of the Young Pioneers, a Communist Party youth group. A clever combination of innocence and knowing, cuteness and cunning, playfulness and cynical parody, she swaggers through Bu Hua’s invented world. ‘I felt that this character is an actual person living in real life but [she] is really also an idealised version of myself. She knows this universe and the rules of this society like the back of her hand,’ says the artist. ‘Savage Growth’ employs her characteristically crisp graphic style to create an allegory of industrialisation, pollution and militarisation. Her heroine, armed only with a slingshot, takes aim at flocks of white birds which prove, on closer examination, to be military aircraft. Twisted trees grow out of pools of oil, and a row of sexy foxes (‘fox spirits’, in Chinese lore, are dangerous seductresses) sway backwards and forwards to a mechanical sound track like the rhythmic metallic noise of a factory assembly line. Bu Hua says, ‘people in China pay a lot of attention to the past and the future, but it’s really kind of forbidden to pay a lot of attention to what is happening now, in real life…I am showing what is happening in China at this exact moment, what is happening now.’
Cui Xiuwen’s 2002 ‘Lady’s Room’ caused the first lawsuit in Chinese contemporary art, when a professor in Guangzhou took exception to its frank documentation of prostitution in the ‘new’ China. With a hidden video camera in the bathroom of a swanky Beijing nightclub she recorded young hostesses changing their clothes, counting their money and arranging their next liaisons with their clients, exposing the seedy underbelly of China’s economic miracle. Born in 1970 near Harbin, Cui Xiuwen trained as a painter, graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1995. In the mid-2000s Cui produced a body of work featuring young girls dressed as Young Pioneers and posed in the Forbidden City, dwarfed by claustrophobic walls and gates representing Chinese tradition. ‘Angel no. 3’ features the same girl, nightmarishly replicated as a crowd of adolescent clones, sleepwalking towards us with arms outstretched. The work evokes the deliberate erasure of bitter memories – a collective amnesia. ‘This is about my own life experience,’ Cui says. ‘I would wake up and see the sky filled with this huge grey cloud which made me feel as if there was no hope.’ Cui Xiuwen returned to the countryside near Harbin to shoot ‘Existential Emptiness’. Like misty ink and wash ‘shan shui’ scrolls the series depicts a living girl and a life-sized doll, a shadow version of the living girl, a puppet figure. The figures are tiny in the vast landscape, like solitary scholars in the mists of a literati painting.
Dong Yuan paints objects which represent cultural and personal memory with meticulous realism, creating installations of multiple separate canvases. Born near Dalian in 1984, Dong studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. As a student, inspired by Western still life painting and Giorgio Morandi, she painted literally everything she owned. Small canvases depict her shoes, rolled up quilts, books, a rice cooker, a bath towel hanging on the back of a door, a teapot, even a box of tissues. ‘Home of Paintings’ and ‘Sketch of Family Belongings’ record, on 59 and 186 canvases respectively, the tiny apartments in which she lived as a student. ‘Grandma’s House and Bosch’s Garden’ consists of 855 canvases, a surreal juxtaposition of the fantasy world imagined by Hieronymus Bosch and the rural Chinese world of her grandmother. The gods of happiness, prosperity and longevity are juxtaposed with images of Mao and the stars of TV game shows. Furniture, teacups, textiles, traditional New Year hanging scrolls and everyday possessions intermingle. The humble courtyard house where Dong Yuan had been happy as a child would, inevitably, be demolished. Dong Yuan believes it is her duty and obligation to paint these memories, slowly and intensively completing one room at a time. The project took the artist more than two years. She describes the process as ‘fixing it in memory,’ - an elegy to a lost world. ‘It’s hard to know how many things have to disappear before people find their hearts settled down,’ says the artist.