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, 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