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

Friday, February 19, 2021

Seeing the Moon in a Dewdrop: Lindy Lee at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Appropriately enough at this tail end of the lunar new year celebrations, the review I wrote of Lindy Lee's survey exhibition 'Moon in a Dewdrop' at the Museum of Contemporary art back in December has been published in Randian this week. It's timely too, because her new solo exhibition at Sullivan and Strumpf has just opened - more on that show soon. And given that Facebook has exercised its unscrupulous might over the Australian government and blocked ALL news from its platform in Australia, it means that freelance writers and academics can no longer post links to their articles: posting references and links on this blog is now one of the few ways for me to share my writing with others who are interested in Chinese contemporary art, including the art of the diaspora and of  Australian/Chinese artists. 

So my piece for Randian began with a personal reflection: Lindy Lee and I are of the same generation, and although our experiences and cultural heritages are quite distinct, we both entered an artworld in Australia that was isolated and insular in the 1970s, growing less so in the 1980s, and is now far more connected with the rest of the world. Here's the beginning of the article: 

Lindy Lee, Doctrine of the Golden Flower, 2003, inkjet print, synthetic polymer paint on paper mounted on board, 25 parts: 40.6 x 28.6 cm each, 204.2 x 142.8 x 28.6 cm overall, Collection of The University of Queensland, gift of Lindy Lee through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program, 2013

Replicas, postmodernism and ‘bad copies’ 

I vividly remember seeing Lindy Lee’s early works when they were first exhibited in Sydney in 1985 in Australian Perspecta and 1986 in the 6th Biennale of Sydney. Grainy, velvety black photocopies of famous faces – portraits by Jan Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Ingres, Artemisia Gentileschi and other images from the western art historical canon – were arranged in rows or grids. They gazed out from behind layers of acrylic paint, or wax that had been partially scraped back. Hints of darkened visages emerged through cobalt blue or deepest crimson pigment, making them appear unfamiliar and mysterious. Their characters seemed to be both concealed and revealed by the artist’s manipulations. 

These shadowy works powerfully conveyed a sense common to artists and writers of my generation (and Lee’s): we were far from the action, on the other side of the world. The cultural centres, the ‘real’ art hubs, or so we thought then, were London, Paris, Florence, New York. We Australians were exiled to the periphery, inhabiting a postcolonial shadow world, a simulacrum – a pale photocopy, faded by the tyranny of distance. The art history we studied was almost entirely European and American; we feasted on images in reproduction, leafing through books with colour plates of Renaissance masters, and lined up for the (very occasional) blockbuster exhibition of works loaned from overseas collections at the state galleries. In that 1980s heyday of postmodern theory Lee’s works were discussed by critics and academics invoking Walter Benjamin and Baudrillard, but for me their interest lay in the connection forged between the artist and the mechanical reproduction. They suggested the angst of someone searching for a relationship across differences of time and culture. But there was more to Lee’s search than the general Australian awareness of the colonial ‘fatal shore’. 

Lindy Lee was born in Brisbane in 1954 to parents who had immigrated from China. She grew up in the (then) stultifyingly parochial suburbs of Brisbane during the era of the racist White Australia Policy; just a few years earlier, in 1947, Labor politician Arthur Calwell had notoriously ‘joked’ in parliament that ‘Two Wongs don’t make a white’. This upbringing, and the experience of being the only Chinese child in her school, left Lee uncertain of her identity. Like other children of Australia’s post-war migrants, she felt she was somehow inauthentic – not quite Australian, nor quite Chinese. Her early, experimental work with photocopies examined her own sense of being a ‘bad copy’, an altered, faded reproduction of the ‘real thing’.

Read the whole article HERE on the Randian Online site - and subscribe to their newsletter for interesting articles, interviews, reviews on global contemporary art

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Watching the Moon: The end of a terrible year

Pixy Liao, 'Things We Talk About', 2013, image courtesy the artist

In normal times at this tail end of the year I would write a kind of  'best of'' list of the art, the exhibitions and the most memorable artworld moments of 2020. I know, I know, it's kind of lame and a cliched media trope, but I have always enjoyed looking back over my calendar and sorting through all the many and varied experiences. Well, as we all know, these are not normal times, and this year there are vanishingly few things to talk about. The lasting experience of 2020 is of solitude mixed with uncertainty, boredom, and occasional lapses into existential despair. Life became very small as I encountered my students and colleagues mostly on Zoom, and seized precious socially distanced opportunities to see family and friends. I have tried to be more aware of the natural world, the turning of the leaves, the singing of birds in the garden, the sunsets and the moon - but frankly I'm often reading or watching Netflix and shamefully I see the moon and the sunsets in other people's Instagram photos more often than in reality. And as for art.....

The final exhibition I saw before the onset of Sydney's lockdown in March, somewhat nervously due to the increasingly serious pandemic, was 'Xu Zhen: Eternity Vs. Evolution' at the National Gallery. I felt that the visceral spectacle of the works, which had been so evident in the major survey exhibition at Beijing's UCCA and in various shows at White Rabbit Gallery, was somehow diminished inside the rather dark concrete spaces of that Brutalist Canberra building. 

XU ZHEN® "Hello", installation view, Photograph: Luise Guest

The best critical account of that exhibition is by Alex Burchmore, in Randian. Of the snake-like, moving Corinthian column activated by visitor movement he writes: ''the voluptuous coils of ‘“Hello”’ (2019) take pride of place in ‘Eternity Vs Evolution’, towering over the viewer and following their every move with a baleful gaze that threatens consumption by the emptiness of the void (and note the inclusion of quotation marks in the title). The caption for this work draws attention to the historic prestige of the Corinthian column that Xu has chosen for the body of his serpent, ‘first created in ancient Greece [as] a symbol of power, prestige and western civilization.’ Yet the flaccid immobility of this automated guardian, save for the hesitant and creaking sway of its pediment-head when activated by the approach of the viewer, inspires more pity than dread. Carved in soft and yielding Styrofoam, this is a column devoid of all function, a structural support incapable of supporting its own weight, spectacular in scale but hollow within. As such, ‘“Hello”’ offers a clue to the underlying message of the exhibition: that which seems invulnerable and eternal is often little more than an artfully contrived illusion, while the evidence of our own eyes is rarely as straightforward as it seems and inevitably colored by the assumptions that structure our view of the world.'' Read the full article here. 

Lindy Lee, 'Moonlight Deities', installation view, photo: Luise Guest

Lindy Lee, No Up, No Down, I Am the Ten Thousand Things, 1995/2020, installation view, Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2020, photocopy, synthetic polymer paint, ink on Stonehenge paper, dimensions variable, image courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney and © the artist, photograph: Anna Kucera

I managed to briefly see a small part of Brook Andrew's Biennale of Sydney before it closed and then, once museums re-opened, enjoyed a visit to an almost empty Museum of Contemporary Art to see 'Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dewdrop' (about which, more later). Apart from those experiences, months apart, the wonderful 'Indonesia Calling' at 16 Albermarle Project Space turned out to be one of those increasingly rare experiences - an exhibition that was curatorially coherent and visually and conceptually exciting. John McDonald's curation of an exhibition of work by extraordinary (and eccentric) ink painter Li Jin for Vermilion Art, 'To Live [It Up]', was also interesting, providing a different view of the artist's work than the big survey show of his career that I had seen at Ink Studio in Beijing in 2019. It's great to know that a number of works were acquired from this exhibition for the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

Works by Li Jin shown at Vermilion Art in November

So, in this globally calamitous and personally very challenging year, how to make some sense out of the chaos and confusion? Is it even possible in this year when the president of the United States is advocating a literal military coup to contest an election he lost, and when so many of us have lost faith in our governments' responses to the pandemic that has devastated the globe. We are increasingly divided, angry, sad and cynical.

Among the many losses of the year, a bright spot for me was the realisation that it was still possible to continue my conversations with Chinese artists, albeit (sadly, and who knows for how long) not face to face in their studios. I've spoken with Pixy Liao, Cao Yu, Liu Xi and Shoufay Derz via email, Facebook and Wechat and have had articles published in a range of print and online journals that I've referenced in previous blog posts, including most recently an article in Art Monthly Australasia.

Pixy Liao, 'Ít's Never Been Easy to Carry You', 2013, image courtesy the artist

These conversations were interesting and thought-provoking, challenging some of my assumptions about art, feminism and China, which is always a good thing. I take these ideas now into the chapter for a book that I am working on, so watch this space! Here is the opening section of the Art Monthly piece.  In the extract below I've left out the footnotes and references, just to make it more readable in this blog format:

 'Public Bodies, Private Lives: the work of Cao Yu and Pixy Liao'

In the cold Beijing winter of 2012, I interviewed Lin Tianmiao – often described as one of very few feminist artists in China. She told me bluntly, ‘There is no feminism in China. It’s a Western thing.’She meant, I think, that Euro-American feminism/s were not especially relevant to the experiences of Chinese women – and also that she resisted being silo-ed in a still-patriarchal Chinese artworld as a ‘woman artist’. It is generally acknowledged, as Shuqin Cui recently argued, that ‘few Chinese women artists would welcome the label of feminist art or categorize their work as feminist art even if the feminist dimensions of their work were clearly evident.’ Nonetheless, many artists grapple with issues of gender and challenge heteronormative stereotypes. A feminist self-identification is not especially significant, as art historian Joan Kee noted: The question is not whether women artists from Asian countries identify themselves as feminists, or whether their work imparts feminist messages. Instead, the issue concerns the logic of interpretation’. Feminism is embodied in nuanced and culturally specific ways in the practice of many contemporary Chinese artists – even if they disavow the label.  When I spoke with multi-disciplinary artists Cao Yu and Pixy Liao, they expressed reservations about being pigeonholed, yet their work powerfully challenges essentialist notions of the ‘feminine’.

Cao Yu, 'Mother' series, installation view, image courtesy Cao Yu and Urs Meile Beijing/Lucerne

Cao Yu, 'Everything Will Be Left Behind', installation view (above) and detail (below), image courtesy the artist and Urs Meile Beijing/Lucerne

You will find the whole article in the Summer 2020/2021 issue of Art Monthly Australasia.

Perhaps, at the end of a year that has been so terrible for so many across the globe, at the mercy of a virus (and I don't mean the one in the White House) we come back to the knowledge of our tiny insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Lately I am finding that comforting rather than frightening. The title of Lindy Lee's exhibition 'Moon in a Dewdrop' is a reference to the writings of 
Dōgen, the 13th century Zen monk who brought Buddhism from China to Japan. Lee is a practising Buddhist and the philosophy informs her life and art. I think of the artists I know in China whose study of Daoism similarly inflects their work, and their reactions to the world and its suffering. We too are the 'ten thousand things' - everything under heaven - in a constantly fluxing relationship with the world and everything in it - light and dark, health and illness, solitude and companionship. Well, I'm working on that level of acceptance. Mostly failing. It's a process.

Lindy Lee, Buddhas and Matriarchs, 2020, installation view, Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2020, flung bronze, image courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Singapore and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney with the assistance of UAP and © the artist, photograph: Anna Kucera

As Dōgen said of himself watching the moon:

‘Sky above, sky beneath, cloud self, water origin’

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Show and Tell: Cao Yu’s Gendered Embodiment

Back in March, finding myself cut adrift from all certainty and from what I had foolishly assumed to be a continuing professional identity, I was catapulted like so many others across the globe into a time of uncertainty and fear. One of the things that has held me together is my conversations with artists, and my interest in writing about the work of women artists in particular. In the last six months I've written about the practice of some extraordinary women, including Liu Xi, Pixy Yijun Liao, and most recently, young rising star Cao Yu. Of necessity our conversations have been conducted online, via email and WeChat, and it's sad not to be physically present in their studios for these conversations. But even given this restriction, our dialogues have been richly rewarding and I'm delighted by the trust they've shown me to represent their work in my words.

My article about the very transgressive and courageous work of Cao Yu, one of the most interesting young artists emerging from the Sculpture Department of Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. was published in Ran Dian this month. 

All images reproduced courtesy of the artist and Urs Meile Gallery, Beijing and Lucerne.

Here's an excerpt:

Show and Tell: Cao Yu’s Gendered Embodiment

A naked female torso is half obscured by shadow. We cannot see her face. As her hands rhythmically squeeze her pale breasts, jets of milk shoot into the air. ‘Fountain’ (2015), a video first exhibited at her graduation show in 2016, brought young artist Cao Yu instant notoriety. Viewers reacted viscerally – some with outrage and disgust, some with anger, some with fascination and delight, and some with bewilderment. Was it pornography? Was it a joke? Was it a feminist statement about motherhood? Reactions to this work, including an attempt by authorities to remove it from the exhibition, reveal so much about how women’s bodies and their sexuality are perceived. Cao Yu’s transgressive work issued a defiant challenge to ingrained cultural taboos, that is for sure.

Minimalist, conceptual, and deliberately provocative, Cao’s work reflects upon and exploits the physicality of her materials, from the conventional – marble, stretched linen and canvas – to unexpected, even transgressive, substances including the artist’s own hair, breastmilk and urine, and their various significations. Cao graduated from the academically rigorous Sculpture Department of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts and cites Sui Jianguo and Zhan Wang as influential teachers and mentors. In a recent interview Cao Yu said it was Zhan Wang, whose own work is deeply conceptual and uncompromising in its refined physicality (1), who encouraged her to realise her potential when she began postgraduate study.(2)

Font of Wisdom

Despite dramatic lighting that creates a Caravaggesque chiaroscuro, ‘Fountain’ is no art historical Madonna. It is real and a bit disturbing. For me, it evokes memories of breastfeeding two babies, of painfully engorged, inflamed or leaking breasts. Lactation makes people uneasy. Bizarrely, it often evokes disgust. Even today, breastfeeding women in public are required to cover themselves discreetly with precarious arrangements of shawls, and are often pressured to remove themselves completely from the public gaze. Cao Yu’s video bravely defies such patriarchal, squeamish nonsense, forcing us to watch her female body doing its thing.

Obviously, the title refers to Marcel Duchamp’s notorious challenge to the art establishment in 1917. ‘Fountain’, a porcelain urinal turned on its side, is a sly reference to gendered sexualities, a hand grenade thrown into art history and over a century later it is still the subject of contested interpretations. Cao Yu also references Bruce Nauman’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Fountain’ (1966–1967), in which he spits out an arc of water (with obvious ejaculatory symbolism). Cao’s breastmilk fountain satirises the phallic subtexts of both works.

Cao Yu’s uncompromising chutzpah in confronting the masculinist history of modern and contemporary sculpture and performance art – so much testosterone! – echoes the similarly audacious work of a Chinese performance and transdisciplinary artist of the previous generation. In 2001, He Chengyao removed her shirt to stride bare breasted along the Great Wall. It was, she says, an impromptu performance during the public exhibition of German artist H. A. Schult’s installation of life-sized figures constructed of consumer waste.(3) When the semi-naked He Chengyao suddenly appeared in the midst of the crowd, attention was immediately diverted towards her. Because her spontaneous action was so public, and because it took place at this site – a potent symbol of Chinese nationhood – the considerable media attention was mostly negative.(4) She was accused of being an immoral attention-seeker, a judgement rooted in a misogynist view of ‘good womanhood’ that has not noticeably abated in the twenty years since. Some years ago, reflecting on her motivation for this transgressive action, He Chengyao told me, “Faced with all this hostility I tried to figure out the reason behind my performance. It was as if I was being controlled by a supernatural power of some kind. I decided to look inside for answers instead of outside.”(5)

This sense of looking ‘inside’, feeling an uncontrollable imperative to use her body as a means of artistic expression, is familiar to Cao Yu, too. Cao gave birth to her first child in 2014. Childbirth and motherhood changed her view of her own body and herself; a visceral female physicality found its way into her work. ‘Fountain’, Cao says, was a work that she had to make. After her child was born, for the duration of her lactation, she had frequent bouts of mastitis that caused high fevers and almost unbearable pain:

Although it caused me pain, it also brought nutrition and life energy to my child, so my milk became this wonder substance that I [both] loved and hated. So, in the process of fighting this pain, I was sensitively aware that my body at this moment was full of endless life energy and explosive force. 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. And [if] my body was gradually turning into a masculine fountain monument, then it [also] became a container for life-giving and spraying milk. The white milk was imbued with the memory of love and hate.(6)

The video is shot from the point of view of the artist as she gazes down at her own body, experiencing its power. Undoubtedly there is an erotic charge in the work – certainly the physical closeness of breastfeeding an infant can be intensely pleasurable as well as sometimes extremely painful. But in a contemporary culture in which the breast is commodified as an erotic object, and sexuality and motherhood are often seen as incompatible, ‘Fountain’ issues a challenge to the pornographic gaze that reinforces this binary. Cao Yu wanted all attention to be focused on the jets of liquid shooting into the air and the power of her body to expel it with great force. The milk fell into her eyes, almost blinding her. Cao carefully directed the lighting, camera angle and the positioning of her body:

We chose to shoot this video with the brightest light exposure possible, which created a clear contrast between the white milk and the dark background. The details of the breasts were gone, instead, it showed a beautiful landscape of two active volcanoes.

Cao was in so much pain from her engorged breasts by the time the video was shot that she felt they would explode. She experienced exquisite relief as she began pumping, until the last drops of milk were gone. Tension and release, and that strange mixture of joy and sorrow familiar to all new parents, are communicated so powerfully in this work. Cao Yu knew that ‘Fountain’ would evoke strong reactions (undoubtedly, at least in part, her intention) but her video is not merely subversive, it is also aesthetically beautiful.

Such candid representations of motherhood are rare. We are more accustomed to saccharine depictions of selfless maternal sacrifice, or airbrushed, Instagram-perfect imagery that belies the bloody reality of childbirth, the delirious exhaustion and pain of new motherhood and lactation, or the endless, repetitive labour of raising a child. It is no surprise that the work excited controversy when it was exhibited – indeed, Cao Yu says she suddenly knew what it was like to be an overnight sensation. Some members of the art academy’s administration tried to prevent the work being shown at all, declaring it to be pornographic. Her name was abruptly withdrawn from an awards list. Members of her family were embarrassed. Audience reaction was mixed, and she was attacked online, in terms reminiscent of those used to attack He Chengyao almost twenty years earlier. Cao described the scene:

In the museum, someone was whispering in front of the work, someone called friends to come back and watch it again and again, some people were pointing fingers with bad intentions, there was also someone bursting into tears during the viewing.

I wondered whether the references to Duchamp, Nauman, and the problematically masculinist narratives of art history were at the forefront of Cao Yu’s mind as she planned this work, or whether they had revealed themselves only once she saw the video. In response, Cao quoted the Chinese idiom ‘to paint a dragon and dot the eyes’ (huà lóng diǎn jīng 画龙点睛) meaning ‘to add the final finishing touch’ to something. From the moment she decided to make the work, Cao realised that she was entering a dialogue with art history, not just with Duchamp and Nauman, but also with earlier works such as Ingres’ ‘La Source’ (1856), a neo-Classical painting depicting an idealised nude woman holding an urn spilling water balanced on her shoulder. The Chinese title of Cao’s video ‘泉’ may be translated as ‘Fountain’ but also refers to a spring or source of water. She says:

These classics have one thing in common, namely, they all came from the interpretation of ‘Fountain’ by the great male artists in art history. Therefore, the video work Fountain, created using new media, and from the perspective of a female artist from a younger generation, launched a new understanding and interpretation of the classic works in history, which was a leap forward, and that really excited me.


‘Fountain’ transformed the milk produced by Cao Yu’s body into an art material. ‘Artist Manufacturing’ (2016) makes this intention even more explicit. Cao condensed eighteen litres of her breast milk into a malleable, clay-like material, and used it to mould abstract forms. Unmediated by the distancing of video camera and screen, they bear the marks of the artist’s kneading fingers and are redolent of sour milk. Described by Rachel Rits-Volloch as an ‘extrusion of her own bodily fluids, an inversion of herself from inside to outside, signed with her own fingerprints’(7), Cao has made the product of her own body into art. This is not unprecedented; in 1961 Piero Manzoni filled 90 cans with his own faeces. Each was numbered and labelled in Italian, English, French and German, identifying the contents as ‘”Artist’s Shit”, contents 30gr net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961’.(8) Thus, in a neat comment about the aesthetic judgement and intellectual acuity of the artworld, the product of the artist’s body became a commodity.

Cao Yu’s work is quite different, however, and arguably more interesting. Although she says, very emphatically, that she is not a feminist,(9) ‘Fountain’ and ‘Artist Manufacturing’ align more readily with works by feminist artists who challenged taboos around menstruation, pregnancy and birth and refused to hide the realities of the female body – its inconvenient leakiness, as well as its sexual and maternal power. Carolee Schneeman’s 1975 ‘Interior Scroll’, a performance in which she drew a long, narrow scroll of paper from her vagina and read aloud from it comes to mind.(10) So, too, do the performance works of Patty Chang, such as ‘Melons’ (1998) in which she wears a large bra with the cups filled with cantaloupes that resemble prosthetic breasts. Chang slices through bra and melons with a sharp knife and scoops out the flesh with her hand, enacting an imaginary ritual at the death of her aunt from breast cancer. Chang also used her own breastmilk in ‘Letdown (Milk)’ (2017), photographs of the discarded milk she had expressed into cups and any other available receptacles as she documented an arduous journey through Uzbekistan. The double meaning of her title references both the physical sensation when milk begins to flow, prompted by the sucking of the infant on the nipple, and an emotional state of disappointment.(11)

To read more about Cao Yu, click on the Ran Dian article HERE

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Experimental Material: Desire and Intimacy in the work of Pixy Liao

 My article about Pixy Yijun Liao's challenge to binaries of gender, race and heteronormativity was published in the most recent issue of 'Yishu' journal. To say I was thrilled to be published in Yishu would be an understatement. I picked up a back issue of this important journal in the shop of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum many years ago, and have subscribed ever since - both for myself and for the research library at the White Rabbit Collection, which now holds an impressive collection of back issues that were very kindly donated to them. Yishu has consistently published interesting voices in the field of contemporary art from China. To have the opportunity to interview Pixy Liao in April (by email, from her home in lockdown in New York and my home in lockdown in Sydney) was a delight, and to then have the article published in Yishu buoyed my spirits at a very dark time in my life. So I encourage you to read the journal in full, and I post a short excerpt here.

Desire, intimacy, and the performative nature of sexuality—this is the complicated, gendered territory of Pixy Liao’s photographic practice. When the Shanghai-born, Brooklyn-based artist moved from China to the United States in 2006 to study photography in Memphis, a chance encounter with a Japanese musician and fellow student inspired a continuing body of work. He became her boyfriend, her model, and her muse, appearing in a series of staged photographs enacting an exaggerated, heightened version of their partnership.

Pixy Liao, Photography, Chinese Contemporary Art

Pixy Liao’s much-anticipated first solo Canadian show, curated by Henry Heng Lu at Vancouver’s Centre A Gallery, was a victim of the novel coronavirus, opening only in virtual form on April 3, 2020. The exhibition, Pixy Liao: Experimental Relationship (for your eyes only, or maybe mine, too), features her ongoing (since 2007) Experimental Relationships project and the more explicitly erotic For Your Eyes Only series (2012–ongoing).[i] Pixy Liao examines the dynamics of her romantic relationship with her partner, subverting expectations of gender and heterosexuality in images that are sometimes playful, sometimes touching, sometimes erotic—and occasionally a little disturbing. These photographs, in which the artist herself often appears with her boyfriend, Moro, are generally shot in interior domestic spaces with a cool, high-key aesthetic. A couple, shut away from the world, focused only on each other and their relationship? In a pre-pandemic world this may have seemed a somewhat obsessive, inward-looking practice. But as COVID-19 swept across the globe, introversion became a way of life for many and Pixy Liao’s unsettling photographs seem more poignantly representative of the zeitgeist than ever.

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

In her examination of the shifting power plays in her relationship, Pixy Liao also explores broader themes of cultural identity, the representation of masculinity, and the fetishization of the Asian woman. For the Experimental Relationships series, posed by the couple using a self-timer that is generally visible in the shot—a broad hint at the “meta” nature of her allusive practice—the mundane domestic interiors in which they act out their desires are a significant element of her mise-en-scène. She invites us to imagine what lies behind the bland facades of suburban houses, the dramas taking place around the IKEA furniture. In ordinary, unglamorous kitchens and bedrooms, Pixy Liao inverts the misogyny of the art historical male gaze, posing the pale body of her younger partner like a flexible prop. She wraps him, folded over bedclothes like a piece of human sushi, dresses him in her own clothes, or drapes his naked body over her shoulders like a shawl. Liao is generally clothed, or wearing a nude bodysuit, and Moro is often naked, thus overturning centuries of objectification of the female nude. In his 1972 book and television series, Ways of Seeing, John Berger pointed out what later seemed so blindingly obvious: In (Western) art history, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.”[ii] Here, it is Pixy Liao who is doing the looking.

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

The “determining male gaze” proposed by film theorist Laura Mulvey entered Chinese critical discourses in the late twentieth century.[iii] Lara Blanchard explains how Mulvey’s psychoanalytic theorizing of desire was adapted to analyze pre-modern Chinese images of women. However, in her discussion of feminist art practices in China, Blanchard argues that the theory cannot apply to gazes that fall outside the familiar trajectory of the male desiring gaze directed at the female subject, nor to the mutual gaze between women.[iv] Where does this place an artist such as Pixy Liao, who directs her frankly desiring gaze toward her male subject while at the same time positioning herself for the objectifying gaze of the camera lens? She is author, participant, observer, and observed, occupying a complicated space in which she fetishizes her own body as well as Moro’s.  

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place (2008) shows the fully dressed artist pinching Moro’s nipple while she gazes blankly at the camera in a witty parody of the famously ambiguous sixteenth-century French painting Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters. Art historian Rebecca Zorach speaks of a “libidinal economy” of possession and collection in relation to this painting, and she might equally well be speaking of Pixy Liao’s semi-parodic allusions to fetishism and voyeurism. Zorach describes an intersection between desire and possession that is “mimetic, producing a likeness in the desirer of the thing desired.”[v] The For Your Eyes Only series makes this playful intention explicit. Pixy Liao describes it as “a combination of daily life and performance with a naughty attitude.”[vi] Images of body parts are fragmented and closely cropped: a close-up of Moro’s crotch in tight underpants, for example, or Pixy Liao’s buttocks poking through a vulva-shaped opening between deep-red curtains. Laura Mulvey argued that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,”[vii] In the light of more recent theoretical analysis of the performative nature of gender and sexuality, Pixy Liao’s work clearly establishes the pleasure inherent in the female gaze revealed through the distancing lens of her camera—at the body of her lover, at herself, and at their physical (and emotional) connection.

And to read the rest of the article, you'll need to download the PDF from Yishu Online!

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

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Doing the Cha-Cha with Marx and Engels: an Ode to Shanghai

Fuxing Park, Shanghai, April 2019. Photo: Luise Guest
In a pre-pandemic world I would have been in Shanghai with my daughters right now, introducing them to the city I have grown to love over the last ten years. Such plans we had, for wandering the streets of the former French Concession, watching the dancers in the park, exploring the tiny shops and all the art galleries, and - of course - eating amazing food. In this grim and fractured time it may seem frivolous or self-indulgent to be remembering an era when travel to China was a (relatively) simple matter of getting a visa and booking a flight: in our new parallel universe that will likely be unthinkable for a long time to come. But in a period of growing xenophobia everywhere across the globe, it's more than ever necessary that we hold on to our dreams of trans-cultural encounters and our hopes that in the future our borders will open and our horizons will expand once more. And my nostalgia helps me with that, in a bittersweet way.
Shanghai laneway, April 2019. Photo: Luise Guest
Instead of being a Shanghai flâneur exploring ever-widening arcs around Maoming Nan Lu, I'm 'sheltering in place' like most people across the planet and wondering whether our world will ever be the same. One year ago I was in Shanghai after a week in Beijing, interviewing artists, visiting exhibitions, and enjoying the frenetic pace of this city with its complicated history. I've been thinking about what it is that I most enjoy about Shanghai, and how it is so different to Beijing. My affection was far from instant - it took quite a few years of learning the rhythms of this mega-city with its population of more than 24 million people before I suddenly realised one day that I had fallen in love with it.
Shanghai street scene, 2017. Photograph Luise Guest. 
On my first visit, arriving by high-speed train after a month spent in Beijing, I became instantly lost in the multiple exits from the station, and found it utterly alienating. I had unwittingly booked a hotel in exactly the wrong part of the city, all 8-lane highways and concrete and glass, impossible to walk around and in a construction zone difficult for taxis to navigate. It was the end of winter, and still bitterly cold and damp. On my second visit the following year, and just slightly more savvy, the taxi driver from the airport decided that a foreigner was just too much mafan and tried to make me get out on the side of the elevated expressway off ramp. Fortunately, by this time my Chinese was just barely good enough to argue, and by midnight I'd arrived at the right (very odd) hotel. Although only after he had tried to drop me at three others, apparently randomly selected.

I hired a young translator for my interviews with artists who introduced himself to me with his chosen English name as 'Troy Sailor'. He was certainly handsome and charming, but on our first trip to an artist's studio he unsmilingly told me that in China, old women like me stayed home to save their money to pass on to their children and didn't gallivant around the world on their own. A great start! But going back through my notebooks I am astonished to remember that on my very first trip, as the recipient of a travelling scholarship for art educators, in a single week I interviewed luminaries Hu Jieming, Yang Zhenzhong, Shi Qing and Pu Jie, as well as Shi Zhiying, Chen Hangfeng, performance artist Wu Meng and Monika Lin. And a very young Lu Yang, who had just recently graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. This is evidence of my own chutzpah, for sure, but also reveals the kindness and generosity of the artists and their galleries - I'm grateful to Shasha Liu and Martin Kemble from Art Labor, Lorenz Helbling from ShanghART, and to Art + Shanghai curator Diana Freundl, who had shown Shi Zhiying's beautiful paintings in a group show of women artists.
Lu Yang with 'Biological Strike Back', 2011. Photograph Luise Guest
Leaving the hotel to find somewhere to eat on my first night in Shanghai I remember being too terrified to cross the road, as hundreds of motor scooters revved their engines impatiently at every traffic light. Shanghai taxi drivers were not the chatty, chain smoking 'lao Beijingren'  with their leather jackets and buzzcuts listening to crosstalk on their radios that I had become used to, but surly characters who reversed terrifyingly, at speed, on the elevated freeway and zigzagged in and out of lanes, horns blaring and cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they swore at every other road user. Shanghai driving, it seemed, was a Darwinian exercise where only the most fearless survived. When I showed a Chinese address to one driver, he told me he didn't have his glasses so would have to borrow mine - then proceeded to hurtle down the highway, turned around to face me in the back of the cab, wearing my multifocals. At that point I truly thought I would never see my children again.

In 2012 I was still describing Shanghai as a savage beast of a city - a jabberwock with 'jaws that bite and claws that catch'. When did this change? Perhaps it was in 2013 when I had enough Chinese to feel more confidently independent, or arriving in the Spring of 2014 and realising just how beautiful the old streets are.

Former French Concession street scene, April  2019. Photograph Luise Guest

So what do I love?
The parks with their dancers and singers - of course.  I love the impromptu concerts by students in the tiny park across the road from the Shanghai Conservatorium. On each visit I try to make a very early morning visit to Fuxing Park with its staggering array of activity including the very loud, and often completely tone-deaf, amplified singers belting out anything from Chinese opera, to cheesy karaoke ballads, to Puccini.  I love watching the ballroom dancers doing rather stiff, upright, Latin moves under the watchful gaze of Marx and Engels.
Doing the cha-cha with Marx and Engels. April 2019. Photo Luise Guest
I love the tree-lined streets with their tiny shop windows where gaudy qipao and satin stilettos jostle against windows displaying rows of lacquered roast ducks or dusty mops and buckets in hardware stores. I love the lines of people waiting to buy baozi, pancakes and cakes at the famous places on Huaihai Road. I love the strange fashions in the windows of the 'Shanghai Lady' department  store. I love peering into beautiful but run-down gardens behind walls and fences. I love the sheets, towels, quilts and undies hanging from lines strung from windows, between trees, and on power lines, and the padded jackets waving in the wind on coat-hangers hooked onto street lights.
'Shanghai flags' in the French Concession. April 2019. Photo Luise Guest
Cyclists on Changle Lu, Shanghai, 2017. Photograph Luise Guest
I used to love the uniquely Shanghainese habit of wearing pyjamas in the street - often paired with high heeled shoes, and a tiny dog on a leash, or sometimes worn with fluffy slippers. Younger people found this fashion choice excruciatingly unsophisticated and over the years these sightings have become very rare. I always found it eminently practical and comfortable, if not exactly elegant.  Now that we are all wearing old track pants all day, or switching from our night pyjamas to day pyjamas to start working on laptops in our locked-down interior worlds, it also seems rather foresighted.
Shanghai street scene, 2012. Photograph Luise Guest
I love Shanghai's architecture too, from the art deco around Maoming Nan Lu and Huaihai Lu and the colonial buildings (a reminder of a dark past, but very beautiful) on the Bund. The towers topped with neon-lit, Gotham City-like spires you glimpse as you speed along the elevated freeway coming into the city are visions of a modernity of the past. The stone doorways of shikumen houses and multi-dwelling longtang laneways, whether crumbling and chaotic or restored and gentrified are beautiful. They are endangered, of course, as Shanghai undergoes a constant process of being torn down and rebuilt, like every other Chinese city.
Shanghai Longtang, Neighbours chatting, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Shanghai rooftops, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest.
Most of all I love the palpable energy of my conversations with artists in their studios - oftentimes now far outside the city centre - and their sense that anything is possible. Last April I engaged in intense conversations, recording interviews with artists ranging from painter Zhao Xuebing to video artists Li Xiaofei and Qiu Anxiong, and global new media star Lu Yang, almost ten years after we first met.
Zhao Xuebing in his studio, 2019. Photograph Luise Guest
Qiu Anxiong in his studio, 2019. Photograph Luise Guest
With Lu Yang, Shanghai, 2019
Now, of course, galleries and museums are closed, exhibitions are virtual, and art fairs are cancelled or indefinitely postponed. The future of the artworld, and of artists as nomadic beings participating in a global ecology of fairs, biennales and curated museum shows is anyone's guess. We can probably assume that after this (if there is an after this) then nothing will ever again be quite as it was.
Chen Hangfeng in his Shanghai studio, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest
Last April I travelled to the outskirts of the city to meet once again with Chen Hangfeng in a suburban villa.  I had first interviewed Chen ten years earlier in his tiny, former French Concession studio: changes in the places where artists live and work echo the changes in Chinese society over the intervening time. Chen discussed his new work 'Excited with No Reason'. This video animation was inspired in part by his new life, shuttling back and forth between Shanghai and Amsterdam, and his interest in global trade and its effects - an interest that seems even more compelling in a world brought to its knees by a pandemic that has infected the globe, vectored on planes and cruise ships.

The outcome of that conversation with a wonderful artist who jokingly describes himself as a 'half-assed literati' was published last year as Invasive Species and Global Trade Routes: A Conversation with Chen Hangfeng. Click on the link to read the article in Sydney-based online journal, The Art Life.

Artists, in Shanghai and everywhere, are continuing to work in their studios. Perhaps artists and writers, often somewhat introverted and solitary by nature, are among those whose lives are least altered by our current circumstances. I hope I shall return to see their new work and to wander those streets and laneways once again.
Shanghai street in the rain, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest