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