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, June 28, 2020

Porcelain and Paradox: the work of Liu Xi

Liu Xi, Low to Earth stoneware, raw clay, 2018, Photo: Eric Set © Gaya Ceramic Arts Center, Bali

In my newly reinvented identity as an independent researcher and writer, I've had the enormous pleasure during this weird and fragmented time of the pandemic lockdown to interview three interesting Chinese artists. Thank goodness for the technology that allows us to break out of our lonely isolation and continue transcultural dialogues! I am beyond delighted that my conversations with the three -- Shanghai-based Liu Xi, Brooklyn-based Pixy Liao, and Cao Yu, who lives and works in Beijing -- will appear over the coming months in Yishu and Ran Dian.

Firstly, I had a fascinating emailed Q&A with Liu Xi, whose porcelain installations convey her ideas about the historical position of women -- in China and globally -- in her frank exploration of gender and sexuality, including explicit representations of female genitalia. Her work also examines hidden female histories, and the sometimes fraught and complex relationship between the individual and society. She challenges conventions of porcelain and ceramics production with unorthodox combinations of materials and methods of display, revealing both technical virtuosity and her willingness to engage with difficult ideas. The material of clay in its very physicality is paradoxical – soft and malleable, it becomes hard and brittle once fired. Porcelain is imbued with associations of Chinese history, its imperial prestige and status, yet clay is dug from the earth. Liu Xi’s work encompasses these binaries, just as she explores paradoxes of female strength and vulnerability.

Vaginal imagery became something of a leitmotif of feminist art of the 1970s. From Niki de Saint Phalle to Judy Chicago and Carolee Schneemann, women artists were reclaiming the vagina as a symbol of female power and fecundity. Georgia O’Keeffe’s fleshy floral paintings were identified with this cause too, despite the artist’s consistent denial of any such intention. To misquote Freud’s probably apocryphal disclaimer, perhaps sometimes a flower is just a flower. Yet imagery of female genitalia can, even now, and despite its twenty-first century pornification, be powerfully transgressive.

Liu Xi, Our God is Great (2018-2019) porcelain, 52 pieces, dimensions variable, 
Image courtesy the artist

'Liu Xi's Paradox' was published by Ran Dian earlier this month. It begins this way:
During the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, Chinese avant-garde artists were challenging previous taboos on representations of nudity and sexuality. A number of women artists began to make work from a feminist standpoint, using their own bodies, or the bodies of other women, to explore female subjectivities. Examples include Chen Lingyang’s photography series Twelve Flower Months (1999-2000) depicting the artist’s bleeding genitals during her menstrual cycle, Cui Xiuwen’s notorious video of sex-workers filmed in the toilets of a Beijing nightclub, “Ladies Room” (2000), and performance artist He Chengyao’s bare-breasted walk along the Great Wall in 2001, “Opening Up the Great Wall” (1). All these works received varying degrees of public opprobrium at the time, and work by women artists (nüxing yishu) came to be characterised, rather, as focused on private, domestic and emotional concerns in contrast to the public and the political – an essentialist view that persisted until very recently.

The relationship between Chinese women artists and feminism is an ambivalent one, shadowed by memories of the state-sponsored feminism of the past, and their awareness that the concerns of women in China are distinct from those of Euro-American feminists. Attempted transcultural dialogues have often been thwarted by mutual misunderstandings. Despite the flurry of translated feminist texts and theoretical positions that entered the discourse in China from the late 1980s (thoroughly documented by Min Dongchao) (2) , and despite significant women-only exhibitions in the 1990s and early 2000s that have been analysed in the work of scholars such as Peggy Wang, Tao Yongbai, Shuqin Cui and Sasha Su-Ling Welland, few mid-career women artists today overtly identify with feminism, even those whose work examines aspects of gendered experience. (3)

Read the whole article HERE:

Liu Xi, Boundless Night No. 2, 2016, Porcelain, 54 x 34 x 9cm, Photo; Tao Min,
Image courtesy the artist