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

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Passing Through the Human World: Cao Yu


Cao Yu, 'Something Inside the Chest', image courtesy the artist

Looming PhD thesis deadlines, in combination with our closed borders and the strange stasis of the COVID-19 world that we now inhabit, have all conspired to stop me updating this blog. The 'art teacher in China' that was me twelve years ago at the start of this journey is no longer really an art teacher as such, and I cannot go to China until (one day) 'Fortress Australia' decides to let its citizens leave and return. When that day comes, I very much hope to be able to return to Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and all the other places that I thought I had heaps of time to visit. I haven't yet been to Chongqing, or to Xiamen, and I would dearly love to go to Yellow Mountain and see the frescoes of Dunhuang.

Meanwhile, though, there is plenty of Chinese art to write about, and I've been doing quite a bit of that, for catalogue essays, interviews and articles published in COBO Social and elsewhere. So over the coming days I'll add links to various things I've written and comment on some of the best exhibitions I've seen.

I was very happy to be asked to write an essay for Cao Yu's solo exhibition at Urs Meile Gallery Beijing, and for Yang Yongliang's at Sullivan & Strumpf in Sydney. They are both extraordinary and interesting artists whose work I admire. I've interviewed three wonderful women - Charwei Tsai, Tianli Zu and Louise Zhang - for COBO Social, with more artist interviews to come. 

I'll start with Cao Yu - because anyone reading this blog from Beijing should get along to 798 and Galerie Urs Meile and see 'Passing Through the Human World'. I'm sad I can't be there to see it myself. Cao Yu and I have had many long exchanges via Wechat and email in the process of writing this:

Cao Yu,  Dragon Head, image courtesy the artist

Cao Yu: Passing Through This Human World

Cao Yu’s solo exhibition, Passing Through the Human World, focuses on our complicated relationships with the natural world, with each other, and with our desire to find meaning in our lives. It evokes the three cosmological realms of syncretic Daoist/neo-Confucian thought. The concept of ‘tian di ren heyi’ (heaven, earth, human united) represents an interconnected triad in which humans endeavour to live in harmony with the cosmos, including with the ancestors in the underworld of the dead. Cao is unafraid of big ideas like this—she examines the messy, painful, sometimes comical business of being human.

Cao Yu, 'Femme Fatale 2', image courtesy the artist

 A conceptual thread that runs through her ambitious, multidisciplinary work is her willingness to reveal things that are more often hidden from view, politely veiled, or camouflaged by euphemism. Cao Yu is, above all else, courageous. In this exhibition Cao explores gendered experiences of sexuality and motherhood; connections between life and the afterlife; links between species, and across aeons. Perhaps only in China, for example, could an artist procure a fossil from the Ice Age—a mammoth’s enormous leg bone unearthed in far north-eastern Heilongjiang Province—for an installation that examines profound human and post-human connections. 

In Nothing Can Ensure that We Will Meet Again (Ice Age - 2014), Cao Yu asks us to confront our deepest fears, and our deepest longings. She inserted the umbilical cord that once attached her to her firstborn child, frozen since 2014 for this precise purpose, into a space dug out of the bone and filled with resin. Inlaid and preserved like a prehistoric insect trapped in amber, the knotted cord will survive long past Cao’s own life span, and her son’s. It is a time capsule illustrating the powerful connection between a mother and her infant, but also a reminder of their inevitable separation and mortality. She chose the mammoth bone, she says, because they too, long ago, suckled their babies. For Cao, “The life that has gone is a witness to the connection and separation of the other two lives.” With the circular bracelet of her umbilical cord, Cao Yu is closing the circle between animal and human life forms, between past and present, and between death and a kind of immortality. 

The range, diversity and conceptual depth of her work is astonishing, but she is also deeply invested in the nature of her materials, from the more conventional – marble, stretched linen, digital media, neon, video – to the appearance of surprising, even transgressive, materials including raw meat, bones, and the artist’s own hair, breastmilk, and urine. This focus on materiality is a distinctive aspect of contemporary art from China. Art historian and curator Wu Hung explored the concept of ‘material art’ (caizhi yishu) to analyse how Chinese artists make use of unconventional materials in order to produce works in which “material, rather than image or style, is paramount in manifesting the artist’s aesthetic judgement or social critique.” Such materials, says Wu, “transcend codified art forms.”

Cao Yu, 'Yeah I Am Everywhere', image courtesy the artist

Cao Yu, 'Yeah I Am Everywhere' (detail), image courtesy the artist

Ever since her Central Academy of Fine Arts graduation exhibition in 2016, Cao Yu has used her practice to expose her own vulnerabilities— and to make us reflect upon ours. To a mixture of astonishment and affront from the audience, she presented her video Fountain, which showed the artist in dramatic chiaroscuro as a human fountain of expressed breastmilk. Cao was satirising the ejaculatory masculinity of canonical art historical works such as Duchamp’s notorious porcelain urinal, Fountain (1917), and American conceptual artist Bruce Nauman’s Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966–1967), a video which showed the artist in the act of spitting out an arc of water. Like Duchamp, she is a provocateur, and like Nauman her work is self-reflexive: Cao’s dialogue with art history inverted gendered expectations in which women were typically represented as passive objects of the male gaze. She may be reclining, bare-breasted, in Fountain but she forces us to reconsider the female body as powerfully productive. Having experienced pregnancy, labour, birth, and the sheer physicality of new motherhood, she said: “I felt for the first time as a woman that my body could have an even more violent power to release tension than a man’s.”

Cao Yu, 'Fountain', video still, 2016, image courtesy the artist

To read the rest of the essay, see the Urs Meile website HERE. It finishes with this:

Yet all is not grim in Cao Yu’s three cosmological realms of tian di ren heyi. A sculptural installation, Yeah, I am Everywhere III (2019) consists of two pieces of rough-hewn green marble from which, impossibly, ten gold-plated fingers emerge. They resemble curling spring shoots seeking the sun. The work suggests a fairy-tale—the undoing of a sorcerer’s enchantment, perhaps—or an unsettling dream of bizarre, inexplicable transformation. The ten golden fingers are cast from the artist’s own; growing out of the hardness of stone they represent her tenacity, courage, and resilience. The title is a mantra, an affirmation: “Yeah, I am Everywhere