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

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

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Passing Through the Human World: Cao Yu


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

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

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

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

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

Cao Yu,  Dragon Head, image courtesy the artist

Cao Yu: Passing Through This Human World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’