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, February 21, 2023

Beyond the Ordinary: Guan Wei at Vermilion Art

Guan Wei, Apparition, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 10 panels, 180x254 cm. Image courtesy Vermilion Art

Out of the Ordinary is the title of Guan Wei’s solo exhibition at Sydney’s Vermilion Art, a description that also fits the man himself. From his early years in Beijing’s post-Cultural Revolution contemporary art scene, to his arrival in Hobart in 1989 and emergence as the most prominent of the so-called ‘post-Tiananmen’ generation of Chinese artists in Australia, Guan Wei developed an art practice that merges two worlds. His visual language as painter, ceramicist and sculptor juxtaposes Chinese traditional motifs with Australian colonial imagery, and with continuing references to the indigenous history that intrigued him from his earliest days in Tasmania. The result is a surreal parallel universe, a place of imagined, alternative histories.

Covering twelve years of the artist’s work, Out of the Ordinary is a collaboration between Guan Wei’s long-time gallery, Martin Browne Fine Art, and Vermilion Art, Sydney’s only commercial gallery specialising in contemporary Chinese art. It reveals distinct phases in his practice over that time, and a variety of influences ranging from his fascination with Australian beach culture to appropriations of the Chinoiserie that was so fashionable in Britain and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prevented from returning to his Beijing studio for three years due to Covid-19 border closures, Guan Wei’s recent work examines the global pandemic as a kind of spiritual malaise. We humans may need an extra-terrestrial intervention, he suggests, whether that be from angels or aliens.

Guan Wei once said that he likes to work in ‘the space between imagination and reality’: he is a storyteller, a myth-maker – an artist with a strong sense of social justice and moral conviction. His blend of real and imaginary histories creates a world in which his characteristically faceless, pale figures interact with silhouettes of animals and people that resemble paper-cuts. His paintings are populated by Indigenous Australian, European and Chinese characters who wander in exotic landscapes or sail across painted oceans. Described poetically by Alex Burchmore as ‘adrift in dense spaces of iconographic collision’[i], Guan Wei’s eclectic imagery suggests stories of empire, invasion, exploration, and migration  – and often evokes a contemporary political paranoia over ‘sovereign borders’. Together with his distinctive iconography of Chinese clouds, swirling waves, map coordinates, navigational charts, and astrological diagrams they create a floating world of ambiguous transnational narratives.

Guan Wei, Play on the Beach No.2, 2010, acrylic on canvas, diptych, 130x106 cm.
Image courtesy Vermilion Art

The earliest work in the exhibition, Play on the Beach 2, dates from 2010. Part of a series created on Guan Wei’s return from China in 2008, the diptych suggests the simple, hedonistic Australian pleasures of sun and surf, with curly Chinese clouds floating above a blue ocean. Yet there is a hint of something darker. In the foreground, an emu buries its head in the sand while a fleshy pink figure runs towards the ocean, arms outstretched and mouth agape. In the background, tiny figures appear at first glance to be frolicking happily in the ocean. On closer inspection, however, we wonder whether perhaps they are not waving, but drowning.

Notions of navigation – the crossing of oceans, the art of the cartographer, the study of constellations – are significant in Guan Wei’s work. The exhibition features paintings from two important series, Reflections and Time Tunnel, that were inspired by a residency in England. Guan visited stately homes and historical museums and became fascinated by the exploits of the British navy in the eighteenth century. He studied maps and historical engravings and was inspired by collections of textiles and porcelain with the Chinoiserie motifs so beloved of the period. Contrasting a Rousseau-esque ideal of a Utopia in the Pacific with the horrors of a brutal penal colony and the violence of the Frontier Wars, Guan Wei developed new imagery to re-imagine these histories. He reflects on the universal theme of the journey, on specific historical voyages, and on his own journeys of migration and return.

Guan Wei, Reflection 12, 2016, acrylic on canvas, triptych, 130x162 cm. Image courtesy Vermilion Art

When the series was first exhibited Guan Wei described them as ‘floating between true and false, dark and light’. Reflection 12 (2016), for example, depicts what at first seems a bucolic idyll. In the blue tones typical of export porcelain or toile textiles, enclosed in an ornate frame, the foreground shows the silhouette of a woman and child feeding chickens. Cows and sheep stand in a small stream that runs beneath a curved stone bridge. A silhouetted figure playing a pipe recalls Arcadian landscapes by Watteau. In the background, indigenous figures are strongly reminiscent of the paintings of early nineteenth-century Tasmanian artist John Glover, no doubt encountered during Guan Wei’s time in Hobart. Glover’s paintings of Aboriginal ceremonies ignored inconvenient truths, presenting instead  of dispossession and disease an imagined pastoral ideal of coexistence. In Reflection 12 the faint image of a sailing ship in the background, and the black silhouettes of an angel fighting a demon outside the framed landscape, allude to darker truths of our history. A four-panelled folding screen, Remarkable World 3 (2019) continues this interest in the intersections between colonial European, Chinese and indigenous histories, filtered through the artist’s imagination.

The most recent painting in Out of the Ordinary is The Apparition (2023), an ambitious ten-panelled contemporary version of a medieval altarpiece that distils Guan Wei’s response to the ruptures of the global pandemic. The lower five panels depict an ocean dotted with islands. The island peaks and swirling waves recall the mountain and water imagery of shan shui ink painting. Yet here, rather than lonely scholars or Immortals wandering in the mountains we see the biblical story of Noah’s Ark (with an abandoned panda looking on plaintively from the waves). Dinosaurs coexist with Chinese dragons and dolphins, and the sea is filled with capsizing boatloads of anguished human figures. Above, angels appropriated from Renaissance paintings appear to offer hope and salvation. Guan Wei says, ‘A terrifying flood submerged the world. People were struggling in the water. Noah's Ark appeared from afar and magical forces descended from the sky. Human beings who had been troubled by the pandemic for three years were, at long last, rescued. There is always hope.’ Yet, the tiny silhouettes of a submarine and hovering UFOs suggest that humanity is not out of the woods just yet. Guan Wei’s work always balances despair with hope, tragedy with humour, and the ordinary with the mystical.

Out of the Ordinary continues at Vermilion Art until 23 March 2023


[i] Alex Burchmore, ‘Guan Wei’s “Australerie” ceramics and the binary bind of identity politics’. Index Journal issue no. 4


Monday, May 16, 2022

"Sweet Dreams Are Made of This": Dorveille at Vermilion Art


Qin Han, Dream your dreams, 2021, soft pastel, watercolor, mineral pigments on paper, 70x100cm, image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

In this time of "Know my Name" and the restoration of hidden women to the artistic canon (and to the art market) the current exhibition at Sydney's Vermilion Art hits the zeitgeist. Curators Man Luo and Tianyue Li, with curatorial assistant Jiawen Li, have created an interesting show in which works by 5 young women artists are not (at least primarily) linked by their gender. Instead, this exhibition centres around a common thread: that dreamy state between sleep and wakefulness once known as "dorveille". With apologies to Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics: "Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree?"

The exhibition catalogue references a medieval poem by Jean Froissart:

"First described in medieval France, Dorveille is ‘a psychic, physical and spiritual condition’                experienced by artists and poets. It is a dreamlike semi-conscious state in which there is no distinction    between the fantastic and the familiar, from which words, images and ideas emerge."

But it is not just artists and poets who experience this condition. Many of us are all too familiar with the phenomenon of hours of semi-wakefulness in the middle reaches of the night. But perhaps what we call "broken" sleep is actually not broken at all, but ... normal? Rather than tossing and turning, seeking elusive oblivion, could it be instead a productive time of thoughts and decisions, a time to reflect? Two years of a global pandemic and weeks of lockdowns put paid to so-called "normal" sleep for many. Working at home from the couch (or the bed), zooming into meetings in pyjamas, hours of Netflix bingeing, eating at odd times (I hope this is not just me...)  Has all this created new neural pathways and habits that mean we can't go back to how things were in the before times?

In fact, in the pre-industrial West, segmented sleep was completely normal. People slept in two blocks, with a time of wakeful sleepiness or sleepy wakefulness in the middle. As Jesse Baron wrote in the New York Times:

"Back when segmented sleep was common, this period between “first” and “second” sleep inspired reverence. The French called it dorveille, or wakesleep, a hypnotic state." Uses of this time differed. Some wrote poetry, or interpreted their dreams. Some had visions, or wrote in diaries. Some, more pragmatically perhaps, just had sex. As long as we don't use these unencumbered hours to answer emails or doomscroll through newsmedia, they can be a gift. 

But these hours can also be dark and disturbing, filled with half-remembered dreams, with regrets and sorrows, with presentiments of the uncanny. Mothers breastfeeding their babies in the hours towards dawn know this. So too, these are the hours when the old and sick are most likely to slide from life into death.

I was interested to see how artists Qin Han, Ruth Ju-Shih Li, Angie Pai, Rose Wong and xinxin responded to the hypnotic allure and dreamy reverie of "wakesleep".

Qin Han, Human pretzels, 2021, soft pastel, watercolor, mineral pigments on paper, 20x14cm, 41x32cm with frame, image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Qin Han was trained at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Her playful, Surrealist vocabulary of (very pink) naked women floating in strange landscapes owes a little to Matisse and Picasso, a little to Niki de Saint Phalle's joyfully voluptuous naked ladies, and something to Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights", yet is in the end entirely, idiosyncratically her own. Dream your Dreams (2021), for example, depicts six pink nudes arranged around a large, floating mass, an amorphous shape filled with beautiful linear patterns and colour. Her figures recall the artfully arranged poses of art historical nudes or nudie pinups, yet they are smiling cheerfully, legs awkwardly placed and boobs akimbo. It is as if they have dreamed a gorgeously coloured world into being. In Everyone has an Island (2021) more pink ladies disport themselves in yoga or dance-like poses on brightly coloured shapes that resemble clouds. 

Other excursions into this theme take us to darker places.

Ruth Ju-Shih Li, Midnight, 2019, Jingdezhen porcelain, gold, 22 x 16 x 7 cm, image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Ruth Ju-Shih Li, originally from Taiwan, trained in Ceramics at the National Art School in Sydney and now divides her time between Taipei, Sydney and the ancient Chinese porcelain city of Jingdezhen where she maintains a studio. Her work is gaining international attention - she has exhibited widely in Australia, Taiwan, Mainland China, Korea and Thailand, and was awarded the Special Prize at the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale International in 2020. Alluding to fairy-tales, myths and legends, juxtaposing Western and Eastern influences, her fragile porcelain installations evoke ideas about the ephemeral nature of existence. At first appearing simply beautiful and decorative, a closer examination reveals a darker exploration of death and decay signified through Vanitas-like drooping petals and birds' wings.

Rose Wong, The Bible of Female Saints - Lin Daiyu, mixed media, 2021, 42x30cm, Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Multidisciplinary artist Rose Wong was born and grew up in Hong Kong. She was trained firstly at the University of Hong Kong and received the Master of Artist Teaching & Contemporary Art Practice from Goldsmiths, University of London. Now based in Beijing, her practice blurs boundaries between painting and sculpture, as well as digital media and performance art. She is drawn to subjects from classical Chinese literature, mythology and folk-tales, including concubines, goddesses and immortals. The Bible of Female Saints - Lin Daiyu, for example, depicts a central character from the classic Chinese novel ''Dream of the Red Chamber". A melancholy figure, Daiyu had been reincarnated from a previous existence as a flower, thus she represents the world of illusion, immortality and dreams. 

Angie Pai, Aha, 2021, acrylic and sand render on wood, 150 x 113 cm, Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Born in Taichung, Taiwan, currently based in Melbourne, Angie Pai graduated from RMIT and is now studying psychology at the University of Melbourne. Pai says she examines the compromises that come with living on the cusp of East and West. Influenced by Daoist and Buddhist teachings, and by aspects of Confucianism, Pai makes work that explores complex issues of identity in subtle, often ambiguous ways that suggest a meditative form of minimalism. Interviewed - most appropriately - for "Liminal", Pai told James Robinson that being Asian in Australia means "learning to harness the multifaceted aspects of my intercultural upbringing in a pragmatic manner."

xinxin, The Cure, 2021, oil on canvas, 70x50cm, Vermilion Art

Multidisciplinary artist xinxin trained at the art academy in Chongqing (which has a strong history of producing extraordinary expressionist and surrealist figurative painters) and at UNSW Art & Design. Like Qin Han, she too is influenced by northern Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch, creating a Surrealist imaginary. Her works are mysterious, uncanny, suggesting the grotesque and nightmarish. Alice has definitely travelled through the looking glass in these works, entering a hallucinogenic and unsettling world where nothing is what it seems.

"Dorveille" takes us into the personal imaginaries of each artist. Individually they explore their dreams, desires and fears, and the exhibition as a whole, beautifully installed in the gallery space, suggests the exposure of otherwise elusive, hidden worlds. But perhaps there is also another kind of 'dorveille'. In some ways the experience of diaspora mirrors that liminal zone between sleep and wakefulness. Living on the cusp of East and West, often moving across borders and between cultures, exhibiting internationally, wondering where is home, the artists in 'Dorveille' have each developed a visual language of material, image and form that examine the connections and disconnections of the diasporic experience. 

"Dorveille" continues at Vermilion Art through 4 June 2022

Saturday, April 2, 2022

三 界: The Three Realms of Ah Xian

Ah Xian, Fledging No.9, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x 70 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

I had the privilege and pleasure of being invited to Vermilion Art earlier this month to be "in conversation" with Chinese Australian artist Ah Xian on the occasion of his exhibition "Fledging". Surrounded by his works, and with a small audience - acknowledgement of the spiking Covid-19 case numbers in Sydney - we spoke about how two years of a global pandemic changed his practice. Prevented by Australia's closed borders from returning to his sculpture studio in Beijing, or to the porcelain city of Jingdezhen where he has found much inspiration in the past, he wondered what he could do. The result of his period of contemplation is revealed in this exhibition, and it represents a distinct change in his practice, perhaps best expressed in the poem he wrote for this beautiful, ambiguously gendered,  viridian green figure with a bird perched upon its head:

Freely thinking soars up high
Peace can perch and also fly
Where there’s truth and righteous men
There I make their hometown mine

Wandering through the exhibition of his new works alone, on a rainy Sunday afternoon prior to my conversation with the artist, I was reminded that in ancient China, painting, poetry and calligraphy were not considered as separate artforms. They were the "san jue": the "three perfections".  In the isolation of his locked down Australian studio, Ah Xian found a new direction. Using photographs of selected sculptural busts and figures, juxtaposing their reproduced images with his own poetry (written with very beautiful calligraphy in traditional Chinese characters) and seal carving, he created a suite of works on xuan paper, reactivating his figurative sculptures in a new form.

Ah Xian is at once an absolutely contemporary artist, yet also grounded in Chinese traditional art forms; highly cosmopolitan and global in his outlook, yet profoundly influenced by his own and China's histories. Before arriving in Australia, firstly in 1989 as a visiting scholar at the University of Tasmania’s Tasmanian School of Art and settling in Sydney in 1990, Ah Xian was a member of Beijing's avant-garde artistic circles. He became a self-taught painter during a period poetically described by writer Linda Jaivin as "that time when everything seemed hopeful". 

Since the 1990s and his transition from painting to sculpture, the artist (who was born Liu Ji Xian but took the name "Ah Xian" in the early 1980s) has been internationally known for figurative sculptures cast from human bodies. The first series, China China, consisted of 40 hand-painted porcelain body casts. The best-known of these are a set of busts, cast by Ah Xian from the bodies of family and friends before being made and fired in the kilns at Jingdezhen and hand-painted by local artisans. Often painted with the cobalt blue glaze for which Jingdezhen (the "city of blue and white") is so famous, the figures appear melancholy, their closed eyes suggesting they are lost in a private reverie. There is a faint echo of the death masks that once memorialised people in a pre-photographic age. Decorative patterns across their heads and torsos partially cover their mouths, suggesting that they cannot, or will not, speak. Asked about possible interpretations of their closed eyes  - apart from the obvious one that it is required by the casting process - Ah Xian was reticent; he prefers audiences to make up their own minds. I have a sense, though, that a certain melancholy silence attends the work of many, if not all, Chinese artists of his generation. Sadness, too, is a part of the diasporic experience, a sense of loss and longing for an irretrievable past life. The poem written for Fledging No. 4 suggests both the joy found in familiar cultural rituals and the sorrow in remembering:

This auspicious day
Crowded lion dance
Red silk and red belts
Jade faces, jade folk

Ah Xian, Fledging No.4, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x 70 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the China China series, and of later busts made from other sculptural materials including  concrete, resin-fibreglass, cinnabar, cloisonné, jade, bronze, and latex, is the very intentional cultural hybridity of Ah Xian's visual language. The portrait bust is a Western form, deriving from classical Greece and Rome, while the motifs that proliferate across these figures are purely Chinese, referencing traditions of shan shui landscape painting, bird and flower painting, and porcelain painting. Ah Xian points out in conversation, though, that notions of east and west are not so easily defined by simple binaries: we must not forget the carved figurative sculptural forms of Buddha, and of various deities and Immortals, found in temples across China. 

Ah Xian, Fledging No.2, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x 70 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Ah Xian's first series of busts represented a ten-year period in which he oscillated between Australia and China, seeking a way to bring aspects of his Chinese background into his work as a contemporary conceptual artist. The series has been described by QAGOMA curator Reuben Keehan as "an equilibrium finally struck between Chinese and European modes of making". 

Each of the nine works selected for this exhibition represents a distinct phase of his practice, including the standing female nude, now in the collection of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, made of beaten copper and cloisonne enamel. It reveals the influence of Western art history; the nude figure is not a part of traditional Chinese iconography, although there was certainly plenty of spicy erotica in both art and literature. Ah Xian's poem for this work references that history, and the evocative encoded language commonly used in classical poetry and the lyrics of Chinese opera: 

Lotus ladies stand 
Dense mists float, sly scent 
Whispers: You… 
Why not Join me in my bower? 
Ah Xian, Fledging No.1 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 146 x 76 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Interestingly, none of the nine sculptures selected for the works in this show feature the blue and white glazes of the China China series. Instead, they range from celadon to cinnabar, and from cloisonne to concrete. The term "fledging" refers to the point at which young birds have grown the adult feathers that will allow them to fly. Ah Xian says that his sculptures are heavy, solid, singular, three dimensional forms - earthbound if you like - whereas these two dimensional works on xuan paper are light, airy and editioned as multiples (although the calligraphy on each piece is unique, the work of the artist's hand). His work is "taking flight" in a new direction. 

Ah Xian, Fledging No.5, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x 70 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Above all, Ah Xian wanted these works to be beautiful - a solace, he says, for difficult times - and they absolutely are. But there is darkness here, as well as a Buddhist-influenced sense of acceptance. His poem for Fledging No. 5, a solid concrete figure that, adorned with leaves, appears to be sleepwalking into a new reality, is disturbingly apt for our time of war and plague:

One day, perhaps
Beyond aeons, when new civilisations shine
We are already enclosed by tree rings that were once green
Turned human fossil upon fossil
Concrete dolls

Ah Xian's original poems have been beautifully translated for the exhibition texts by Archibald McKenzie. The exhibition continues at Vermilion Art, Sydney. See more on the gallery website: 

Monday, December 27, 2021

Cartographies of Memory: a Year (or two) of Living Dangerously

Tony Scott, New Health Plan, 2007, image courtesy the artist

In pre-pandemic days it was my habit at this weirdly liminal time to reflect on the year's experiences of exhibitions, visits to artists' studios and inspiring (or at least interesting or strange) encounters in the artworld. Needless to say, 2021 has been another year of living (with great trepidation) dangerously, thanks to Covid-19. It presented sadly few opportunities for encountering art or artists beyond the window of my computer screen. 

Nevertheless, despite the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the general malaise, I have managed to meet and write about a number of interesting artists as well as (almost, almost, so close!) completing a PhD thesis. And teaching keen postgraduate students, most of whom were in their Chinese hometowns rather than studying in Sydney as they had hoped to do. 

In a brief hiatus between lockdowns it was wonderful to actually see the Yang Yongliang exhibition at Sullivan & Strumpf for which I had written an essay, and to speak about his work to invited viewers in the gallery. Unable to travel to China, I have nonetheless continued to interview artists and publish articles, including my conversations with Charwei Tsai, Tianli Zu, Louise Zhang and Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen in COBO SOCIAL and an essay for Cao Yu's solo show at Urs Meile Gallery Beijing (which you can read HERE). I had hoped to be able to travel to Norway in May 2022 for the opening of a major exhibition of women artists from China at Lillehammer Museum called 'Stepping Out'. I was honoured to be invited to join an academic reference group for this important project, and to write an essay for the catalogue, but it seems unlikely that I can be there for the opening. Maybe in 2023 when the exhibition travels to the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg...

One great pleasure in these dispiriting times was writing an essay for my dear friend Tony Scott's survey show at Glen Eira City Gallery. 'Back from China' reflected on an extraordinary life's journey from Melbourne to Beijing, to Hong Kong and back again. Thinking about Tony's work prompted memories of shared China adventures. It is due to Tony's generous spirit that I was able to meet wonderful artists such as Gao Ping, Hu Qinwu, Huang Xu and Dai Dandan on my first trip to China in 2010. Within hours of arriving in Beijing as a completely bamboozled first-timer (Beijing is ... a lot) I found myself eating dumplings with Tony, then attending a gallery opening in Caochangdi, and then joining an artist's dinner at famous Yunnan restaurant, Middle 8th, thinking to myself all the time, 'Dorothy, you're not in Kansas any more!'  

Tony Scott, 1 Cloud in Gold Landscape, 2021 Chinese Paper, Oil Paint, Pigment on Canvas
35 cm x 45 cm, image courtesy the artist

Other memories include Tony's residency in Chengdu in 2013, when he persuaded me to make a speech at the exhibition opening. I had arrived on a flight from Beijing (on Sichuan Air, where the flight attendants bring pots of chilli sauce up the aisle and ladle it onto your food) having no idea that this was going to happen. I wrote the speech on a borrowed laptop in about an hour and then joined a line-up of Party officials and the Australian consul general, where I was introduced as 'a famous art critic from Australia'. As my speech was translated into Chinese, line by excruciating line, I felt that my life was slipping away even as I spoke - it seemed to go on for hours. Writing the essay, then, was something of an exercise in nostalgia for China, and Tony's work is wonderful, so I share it here with his permission.

Tony Scott, Shelter 1, 2019, Oil Paint, Almanac Pages on Board 24 x 22 cm, image courtesy the artist

Cartographies of Memory: the work of Tony Scott

“I’ve come back—return journeys
Always take longer than wrong turnings—
Longer than a lifetime …

Crossing the black map
Ushering you like a windstorm into flight …

I’ve come back—there are always
Fewer reunions than partings
But only by one.”

Excerpted from ‘Black Map’ by Bei Dao (2008), translated from the Chinese by Tao Naikan and Simon Patton 

Mountain peaks beneath big skies, sweeping storm clouds, and the shapes of traditional ‘scholar rocks’ are a constant presence in Tony Scott’s works, juxtaposed with references to medicine, the body, and human frailty. These themes of human beings in dynamic relationship with the natural world, cosmologies of an interconnected universe, seem very Chinese. Unsurprisingly – Scott lived and worked in China for many years. His body of work resembles a diary of outward journeys and homecomings, a map of memory. Shaped by the artist’s long experience of a country he first visited in 1994, the emphasis in his paintings, mixed media works, and installations is on the importance of landscape, the visceral physicality of paint, and the nostalgic associations embodied in objects found in Chinese flea markets.

Tony Scott. Silver Cloud 4, oil paint and pigment on joss paper, image courtesy the artist

Although Scott now lives and works in Melbourne, painting in a suburban garden studio rather than in the ramshackle artist villages on the outskirts of Beijing, China is ever present in his work. Recurring images of mountains, clouds and human body parts evoke the Daoist/Confucian cosmology of tian di ren heyi, in which everything under heaven (tian) exists in a mutually reciprocal and interdependent relationship. In Daoist/Confucian and Buddhist belief, the mountains are the home of the Immortals, and the earth contains the ancestors.[i] Dramatic peaks wreathed in clouds were the favourite subjects of the literati shan shui (mountain and water) painters,[ii] and mountains beneath cloud-filled skies are a constant theme in Scott’s works too.

Scott describes his first visit to China as intoxicating and transformative – he worked on an exhibition installed in a pavilion in Beijing’s Temple of the Sun Park (ritan gongyuan) and witnessed the city’s demolition and reconstruction in an optimistic and relatively liberal time of dynamic change. Like many first-time travellers to the Middle Kingdom, he was hooked. Returning again and again over the next several years, Scott settled in Beijing in 2004, where he lived until he moved to Hong Kong in 2013. In 2016, sensing the winds of change that have now so dramatically altered Hong Kong, he made the momentous decision to return to Australia. In his Melbourne studio Scott’s work has taken on a new energy; he has been feverishly prolific. It is as if imagery, colour, form, and painterly surfaces have been simmering and strengthening since his homecoming.

Scott’s survey exhibition reveals a consistently experimental, tactile, eclectic approach to materials and to the expressive possibilities of paint applied to richly layered surfaces. A close look often reveals glimpses of underlying, Schwitters-like collage materials including gold or silver funerary joss paper, Japanese wallpaper, and assorted paper ephemera collected on his travels. These materials embody the artist’s investigation of his passage through the world and through time. Installed together, Scott’s landscapes, installations of found objects, and the occasional figurative painting make up a multi-faceted autobiography.

A series of re-worked painted heads, for example, suggests a shifting, fluid identity. Self Portrait – Red (2000-2020) depicts the artist as a blank, featureless silhouette, a tabula rasa to be over-written with new experiences. In Self Portrait with a Pyramid (2000-2020) Scott represents himself as a yellow outline. The hint of a face, or possibly a second presence, emerges through scumbled layers of paint and glaze. Drips of pigment and solvent render it evanescent, ghost-like. It suggests the layered, complex identity of the transcultural traveller, a selfhood in a continual process of reconstruction. The faint pyramid seen in this painting prefigures the later Shelter series and also echoes the repeated forms of mountains that appear in so many works. Hints of Scott’s earliest Chinese sojourns emerge here too; the grey tones evoke the beautifully bare bones of northern Chinese winter landscapes and the grey courtyard walls of Beijing’s traditional hutong neighbourhoods. A hint of red appears through mist, evoking an urban landscape of grey air, grey walls, and red courtyard doors.

Beijing is physically present in installations utilising objects and materials found at the extraordinary Panjiayuan ‘Dirt Market’, the source of treasures ranging from antiques (mostly fake) to Chinese furniture, old letterpress blocks, books and paper ephemera, and porcelain shards. It was Panjiayuan that provided wooden acupuncture figures – dummies covered with tiny holes for the needles and marked with the ‘qi’ meridians of traditional Chinese medicine – for two major installations. In New Health Plan (2006) the figure is connected with wires to instruments for measuring electric current. Recalling Dr Frankenstein’s monster brought to life with arcing jolts of electricity, this work was produced after the grim years of the SARS epidemic and reflects on human frailty with wry humour. It seems more than ever prescient now, as we wonder whether a ‘new health plan’ for humanity will emerge from these last terrible years of a global pandemic.

Another work featuring an acupuncture figure, Blood Pressure (2021), reveals Scott’s fascination with the gruesome illustrations in ‘Gray’s Anatomy’. Flanked by anatomical illustrations of human hearts beneath layers of paint, above the figure a gaudy LED sign reads ‘high blood pressure’ in Chinese characters. The work confronts us with the ephemeral nature of human existence. It also suggests a different, non-physical ailment – the vulnerability and heartache of love. In a similar vein, Measuring the Heart (2021) demonstrates Scott’s witty use of found objects. Two slide rules are mounted on Chinese silk within a Chinese picture frame, a neat bit of double coding that represents two kinds of crisis: the stress test of the electrocardiogram, and the panicked moments of romantic doubt and desire which most of us have experienced at one time or another.

Tony Scott, Mooncake Balance, 2021, mooncake mould, brass plumb bobs, brass hangers

Mooncake Balance (2021) continues this theme of measurement with brass plumb bob weights suspended beneath an antique mooncake mould. It’s an elegantly minimalist juxtaposition of apparently unrelated objects that plays with ideas about how things – and people – are weighed and measured, literally and metaphorically. The moulds, of course, are empty, and the plumb bobs establish a vertical line that leads nowhere. There are art historical references here to Surrealist objects, to Man Ray, and to Marcel Duchamp’s Dada ready-mades. Man Ray’s sly humour in works such as Indestructible Object (1923, remade in 1933) – the famous metronome to which he attached a photograph of an eye – or his Cadeau (‘Gift’) of 1921 – an iron with a row of nails facing outwards down its centre – are artistic ancestors of the wit Tony Scott brings to melancholy subjects. These essentially obsolete objects have an absurd yet poetic presence; they possess a significance beyond the logic of the everyday.

The constant theme in Scott’s work, though, is the landscape – Australian and Chinese. These ancient landscapes of rolling mountains, dry as a bone, are often painted over found surfaces such as Chinese almanac pages, or funerary paper. While based in Beijing, and later in Hong Kong, Scott travelled frequently between Chinese cities, exhibiting in Shanghai, Chengdu and Xiamen. Many works depict sensuous mountain forms and blurry glimpses of landscape as if seen from the window of a fast train. Scott’s transcultural painterly idiom of space and form is inflected by both Chinese and Western art histories. There is awareness, too, of ‘material art’ (caizhi yishu) practices whereby contemporary Chinese artists use culturally encoded materials such as xuan paper, ink, silk, old books and even tea and gunpowder.[iii] Scott, moving between outsider/insider identities after so long in China, has found his almanacs and printed books, and his ‘dirt market’ finds such as mooncake moulds and acupuncture figures, to be evocative visual metaphors. They are powerfully nostalgic, yet avoid any hint of slick Chinoiserie, a difficult feat for an artist working between eastern and western cultures, but one that Scott navigates adroitly. 

40 Days in Xiamen 1 and 2 (2019), for example, are installed as panels resembling vertical scrolls, supported by mooncake moulds serving as plinths. Soft tones of warm red in subtle washes painted over Chinese almanac pages create the illusion of distance, revealing the influence of literati shan shui ink painters and their nuanced gradations of every possible shade of ink wash. Almanac pages emerging from beneath layers of pigment suggest a narrative of the artist measuring out time on his visits to the coastal city. We are left to imagine what happened in Xiamen, but the vertical drips of paint create a melancholy sense of loss. 

On the Li River (2020), is painted over acupuncture manual pages. The dramatic forms of southern China’s karst mountain landscapes, so beloved of Song Dynasty shan shui masters, emerge through richly scumbled layers of oil paint, pigment and wax, like an almost forgotten record of a voyage long ago. In By The Great Wall 1 and 2 (2021), painted on Chinese joss paper on aluminium, Scott evokes the bleak beauty of the mountains north of Beijing. In winter this landscape seems an unrelieved vista of grey – the ancient grey wall against grey earth and grey sky – yet in spring it is transformed to a sea of pinks and mauves with blossoming trees.

Tony Scott, Dust 1, 2021 Acrylic, Oil Paint, Pigment on Canvas image courtesy the artist

Often, as with the Storm Approaching series, there is a sense of foreboding in these paintings. White clouds partially conceal mysterious calligraphic marks that hover over the mountain range below or resemble sinuous river systems seen from above. In the Geometric Landscape and Dust series we can almost smell and taste the brown dust from the Gobi Desert that so often blankets Beijing. Dust 2 (2021), for instance, hints at Scott’s earlier, quite formalist, abstract visual language based on a Mondrian-like grid. It evokes the repeated architectural forms and map of Beijing’s streetscape, designed on an axis of the four compass points that symbolised the emperor’s ‘mandate of heaven’. Divided into unequal vertical halves and bisected by a red horizontal, Dust 2 is a minimalist poem of deep burgundy, maroon and dusty pink, overpainted and scraped back like the weathered surface of a hutong wall.

Tony Scott, Silver Cloud 1, 2021, oil paint and pigment on Chinese paper, image courtesy the artist

Clouds are ever present in these paintings, floating above the kind of mountain scenery in which you might expect to see a lonely monk or scholar contemplating nature in a literati ink painting. Five Mountains 1 (2020) is luminous in shades of magenta, orange and red, with lyrically gestural clouds floating in the heavens above. Three Black Mountains (2021), in contrast, is the most foreboding of Scott’s mountain landscapes; layers of acrylic, oil paint, and wax on paper are scraped, scored and sgraffitoed with mysterious markings. A sliver of light over the humped forms of mountains beneath heavy clouds lit by flashes of lightning suggests the unpredictable power of nature.

Tony Scott, Flying Home 3, 2020, Collage, Oil Paint, Pigment on Board, 20 cm x 20 cm

 image courtesy the artist

Scott’s painterly mountains have recently metamorphosed with the addition of 3-D printed mountain forms arranged on shelves in front of paintings under glass domes, or on petri dishes. It is as if they have been brought into being through some alchemical experiment. These forms in turn relate to a series depicting rocks arrayed in a landscape. They reference the Chinese fondness for the ‘scholar rocks’ (gongshi) whose twisted, fantastical forms are found in every Chinese park and formal garden. Pitted and perforated – either by natural forces of water, wind and weather, or artificially enhanced to be more aesthetically appealing – they were admired from the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). Believed to symbolise the mountain peaks inhabited by the Immortals, representing the transformational, mutually reciprocal relationships between yin and yang in Daoist cosmology, they were collected by connoisseurs, displayed in gardens, and painted by artists. Small, ornamental versions were prized objects in a scholar’s study. In Scott’s works they are somewhat ambiguous, sometimes taking the form of human organs. In 13 Rocks on a Horizon (2021) they are painted over ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ illustrations of veinous eyeballs and other body parts, becoming a hybrid mountain range in which human and the natural world are one, beneath an ominous sky. Floating (2021) depicts a row of scholar rocks that have become detached from the earth and hover weightlessly in an amorphous grey space, suggesting the Daoist non-action, or effortless harmony, called wu wei

Tony Scott, Gardening in Caulfield 4, 2021, Collage, Oil Paint on Paper 28 cm x 35 cm
image courtesy the artist

After so many years of navigating the often-labyrinthine, even Kafka-esque, Chinese art ecology – not to mention negotiating the exhausting pace of day-to-day living in a city like Beijing – is it possible that Scott has found peace at home in Melbourne, painting in his garden studio? Looking at the Gardening in Caulfield series it would seem so: in Gardening in Caulfield 5 (2021), painted on Japanese wallpaper, the familiar forms of scholar rocks and mountains appear to recede into a misty distance while rich earth and burgeoning plant forms occupy the foreground. Gardening in Caulfield with Trellis (2021) reveals a row of cypress or pine trees emerging from darkness. A suburban garden trellis replaces the Great Wall of China. A curved form of purplish soil resembles the mountain ranges of earlier works, suggesting the slow turning of the earth on its orbit around the sun and the rhythms of a human life. It’s a smaller landscape, a peaceful and domestic space. Yet in Scott’s richly layered paintings it is as eventful and filled with energy as those he remembers from China.

“I’ve come back—there are always
Fewer reunions than partings
But only by one.”


Tony Scott, Gardening in Caulfield 5, 2021 Japanese Wallpaper, Oil Paint on Canvas Board
40 cm x 30 cm, image courtesy the artist

[i] Tian di ren heyi or tian ren heyi (天人合一) refers to the unity between humanity and the natural world.


[ii] Shan Shui (), literally translated, means ‘mountain and water’, and refers to imagery of landscape in Chinese ink painting.


[iii] Art historian Wu Hung’s theory of the significance of materiality in the work of Chinese contemporary artists underpinned his curation of ‘Allure: The Art of Matter’ shown at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, in 2019. Examples of this ‘material’ approach include Liang Shaoji’s installations featuring the thread-like filaments wound by silkworms; Cai Guo-Qiang’s use of gunpowder; Wang Lei’s use of old books; Xu Bing’s giant phoenixes made with building site debris; Zhu Jinshi’s enormous installations made from xuan paper, and Gu Wenda’s use of human hair. There is a relationship between the cultural meanings embodied in these works and Scott’s use of Chinese found materials such as acupuncture figures.


Friday, June 25, 2021

Mountains and Seas: Yang Yongliang's Digital Dystopia

Yang Yongliang, Doe, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

When Sullivan & Strumpf asked me to write an essay for his solo exhibition in Sydney this month, I was delighted to be back in contact with Yang Yongliang. I had first met the artist, who now lives and works between Shanghai and New York, in 2015 when I was in China researching the first group of artists for the White Rabbit Collection Book '99 Chinese Artists', eventually published in 2019. Like other artists whose work alludes to past traditions in China, Yang struck me as an inheritor of the scholarly tradition of the literati - the highly educated elite who had passed the gruelling Imperial Examinations and worked as advisors to the court. Their beautiful calligraphy and ink wash paintings of mountain landscapes represented a Daoist metaphysics of universal harmony - and a solace and respite from the realpolitik of the imperial court. Yang, in his studio in an Art Deco building near Shanghai's Bund, was gentle, softly spoken and very serious about how his work both looks back to the past and also critiques the present day. Discovering the incredibly laborious and meticulous process in which he creates his digital still and moving works was intriguing.

 So here is the essay: 

Travelling Among Mountains and Streams: Yang Yongliang’s Imagined Landscapes

“...Clouds darken with darkness of rain, 
Streams pale with pallor of mist. 
The Gods of Thunder and Lightning 
Shatter the whole range. 
The stone gate breaks asunder 
Venting in the pit of heaven, 
An impenetrable shadow.”

Li Bai (71-762 CE), ‘Tianmu Mountain Ascended in a Dream’ 

Yang Yongliang, Goose, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

Each time I have visited Shanghai, speeding in a taxi along elevated freeways from the airport or the high-speed train station, I am reminded of the ‘Jetsons’ cartoons of my mid-twentieth-century childhood. Gleaming towers with strangely Gothic spires stuck on top, neon flashing through smog, terrifying spaghetti junctions and abrupt dives onto off-ramps into congested streets of half-demolished houses – the city seems to represent a modernity in the process of becoming, an unrealised, shining, technicoloured future that never quite arrived, a promised future of robots, airborne cars and monorails.

This urban spectacle is the source of multidisciplinary artist Yang Yongliang’s paradoxical homage to the past thousands of years of China’s cultural history, and simultaneously an expression of deep foreboding about what the future holds – not just for China, but for the planet. Home to more than twenty million people, Shanghai is a modernist dream of unceasing transformation – and also a nightmare. Its skyline is ever more dramatically vertical, and its streetscape undergoes constant demolition and reconstruction. The past is erased anew every day. Hints of a different history remain; a wall surrounds a demolition site with one ‘nail house’ still standing, a few neighbourhoods of ungentrified traditional lilong lane houses are filled with hanging washing, leaning bicycles, and gossiping neighbours. But the tower blocks and new roads are always visible. 

Yang Yongliang’s melancholy digital works are his response to life in this urban palimpsest: he applies new media in an adaptation of Chinese traditions of landscape painting, appropriating the shan shui (literally mountain, water) idiom to represent the contemporary world. Now, living and working between Shanghai and New York, he looks back to China’s artistic heritage – to Song Dynasty landscape scrolls in particular – for inspiration, adapting ink painting techniques to digital platforms. In Yang’s work the past, transformed, informs the present and issues a warning about the future. Yang Yongliang was born in 1980, at the dawn of China’s period of seismic change under the ‘open door’ economic policies of Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping. Over the next thirty years China was transformed, becoming an urban nation of mega-cities. Yang’s birthplace, an ancient water town, was a place of traditional southern white houses with upturned eaves, a famous pagoda, and old humpbacked stone bridges over quiet canals. Gradually, though, Jiading Old Town was subsumed by the ever-expanding Shanghai suburbs. So much so that when Yang returned to his hometown from university, everything he remembered had vanished. This sudden change, experienced as a traumatic erasure of personal history, lies at the heart of his work. 

Yang Yongliang, Tiger, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

China’s headlong rush towards modernisation brought many benefits, and much wealth to some, but along with it came a deep uncertainty and anxiety. The unceasing expansion of metastasising cities – bulldozers tearing up ancient villages like ravaging beasts leaving behind towering piles of rubble – erased the landscapes of the past, replacing them with endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks beside eight lane highways. Imagery of this perpetual cycle of demolition and construction is buried within Yang Yongliang’s landscapes. At first sight they appear like backlit, digital versions of sublime literati paintings. But look a little closer and you discover they are made up of thousands of photographs, seamlessly layered to reveal a very different world. Giant cranes loom through the clouds and mist, electricity pylons march across the countryside, and tumbledown houses are replaced by steel and glass towers. It is as if Yang is constantly revisiting his moment of shock, returning home to find the familiar become utterly strange. 

Yang Yongliang, Boy, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

The years he spent living and working in Shanghai, watching it become a shining, hustling, globally connected city, underpin his laboriously constructed still and moving images. Yang is at once fascinated and appalled by this transformation, and his work is a paean to what has been lost in the process. Perhaps that is why he turns so often to Song Dynasty master painters like Fan Kuan and Guo Xi for inspiration. In a period following dynastic upheaval, political strife, and conflict depictions of beautiful landscapes represented solace. The mountains were an escape from the troubles of the world. Song Dynasty shan shui paintings were expressions of Daoist and Buddhist belief in the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world, and the mutually reciprocal relationship between yin and yang. With deft brushstrokes and subtle tonal gradations of ink on silk, these scrolls create a place, as Guo Xi wrote in his treatise on painting, ‘Lofty Record of Forests and Streams’, in which the viewer could immerse themselves, taking an imaginary wander along mountain paths beside gushing waterfalls, climbing up into the high mountains, the home of the Immortals. 

Yang Yongliang’s appropriations of Song Dynasty paintings may appear at first sight to be faithful reinterpretations of the originals. But in Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (2014), for example, the soaring peaks of Fan Kuan’s famous scroll, painted around 1000 C.E, have become mountains of towering apartments stacked one behind the other, the fir trees replaced by electricity pylons, scaffolding and cranes. Yang fills the foreground with derelict white houses like those of his childhood hometown, but they appear to be tumbling into the churning waters of the ravine. Early Spring (2019), Yang’s adaptation of Guo Xi’s 1072 masterpiece, retains the mist-wreathed crags and claw-like trees of the Song Dynasty landscape with its hidden message of neo-Confucian universal harmony, but adds a note of warning. Hints of human rapaciousness alert us to how differently we see the natural world today – as a resource to be exploited. 

His digital landscapes oscillate between sublime beauty and dystopian horror. Intricately layering images of rocks and waterfalls shot in various parts of China – and in other parts of the world – with photographs of mining sites, construction zones and land clearing operations, Yang Yongliang makes us look at Chinese painting traditions and at our fragile planet in a new way. Yang Yongliang is celebrated internationally for his monochrome works that evoke in digital form the nuances of tone achieved by master ink painters. He has now ventured into colour for the first time in a series that recalls the delicate palette found in paintings by Ming Dynasty master Lan Ying that feature pine trees, bamboo, fantastical twisted rock forms, and sometimes a tiny figure seated in a pavilion, observing the mountains. Drawing on these pictorial conventions, Yang’s series depicts similarly vertiginous ‘mountains’ wreathed in mist rising from water, but on a closer examination we see they are not mountains at all, but impossible clusters of high-rise buildings.
Yang Yongliang, Monkey, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

Each image hints at some impending disaster – ruined buildings have collapsed into rubble, derricks are moored offshore and the earth has been stripped bare by machinery. Unusually for Yang Yongliang, each work in the series contains a solitary human or animal, rendered as a small, insignificant presence in an utterly indifferent world. A lonely dog stares out to sea, a monkey clings despondently to a rock, a white horse stands precariously on a cliff, a flock of geese take flight. A man attempts to fish in a shallow pool, ignoring the misty ocean below him. Tiny human figures such as wandering scholars or hermits were often featured in Chinese paintings, representing the relationship between humanity and nature in Daoist cosmology. Yang’s are weighted with different meanings. They seem like the sole survivors of an environmental catastrophe. The waves crash, and the mountains, denuded of vegetation, seem about to slide into the ocean.

Yang Yongliang, Five Dragons, video, image courtesy artist website

Yang Yongliang’s work asks us to face uncomfortable truths, to view the world that human greed has wrought. Endlessly innovative, in recent years Yang Yongliang has ventured into new technological realms, exploring the creative possibilities of Virtual Reality and 3D video animation, reinventing traditional analogue photography techniques and introducing colour to his immersive video installations and digital images. He continues to riff on Song Dynasty paintings and Chinese mythology, yet his work is also imbued with twenty-first century allusions to video game design, inviting audiences into an enticing imaginary world. Described by the artist as a “multi-point perspective mind journey through the eyes of the dragons”, 4-channel video Five Dragons (2020), for instance, was inspired by a Southern Song Dynasty painting by Chen Rong from 1244 that depicts the symbolic beasts writhing through swirling mists. Yang notes that historically the dragon was a symbol of imperial power and stability, wisdom, benevolence and good fortune. Today, however, it is often associated merely with prosperity, in yet another sign that economic development and material consumption trumps all. 

Yang Yongliang 'Imagined Landscapes' installation view, Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney

In Glows in the Night (2020), a development from Journey to the Dark, a 4-channel video work shown at Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney in 2018, Yang provides audiences with an immersive experience that recalls the (pre-pandemic) experience of flying into a big city at night, looking down at an apparent wonderland of twinkling lights, neon signs, and the golden ribbons of car headlights on highways. We see fairy lights on boats, flashing screens on skyscrapers, mountains in the distance, and in the foreground, glimpses into apartment windows. This sprawl of habitation is like a human anthill, glimpses into the lives of millions of strangers, inhabitants of this megalopolis. It could be anywhere in the contemporary world. Glows in the Night reveals the paradox at the centre of Yang Yongliang’s practice: the seductive allure of urban modernity and the simultaneous knowledge of its fragility.

You can do a wonderful virtual walkthrough of the exhibition HERE
And read the essay in its much more beautiful layout version in the gallery magazine HERE