Drifting Clouds: Two views of Chinese art

Reviews Feb 10, 2012 No Comments

Luise Guest takes a look at two exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art and attempts to unravel the differences…

Faithful to your art you know no age, letting wealth and fame drift by like clouds” (Tang dynasty poet Du Fu):

These words appear, in apparent Chinese calligraphy, which on closer inspection turns out to be English,  on Xu Bings scroll, ‘New English Calligraphy , included in A New Horizon: Contemporary Chinese Art’ at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

While wealth and fame may (perhaps) have been permitted to ‘drift by like clouds’ in the days of the scholar painters and the literati, today’s Chinese artists are experiencing the pleasures of both. Chinese art continues to boom, despite the shiver caused by the global financial crisis. Here in Australia, partly due to the 2011 – 2012 ‘Year of Chinese Culture in Australia’, and partly due to Sydney’s large Chinese New Year celebrations, we have had the opportunity to see two very different exhibitions: in Canberra, a historical survey of art from the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic to the dawn of the 21st century, with works drawn from the collection of the National Art Museum of China; and at Sydney Town Hall under the auspices of the city council’s Chinese New Year celebrations, ‘Two Generations: 20 years of Red Gate Gallery’. The Red Gate show will also travel in February to the Manning Regional Gallery, Taree, to the Damien Minton Gallery in March, and thence to Newcastle, Perth and Melbourne.

Song Ying, ‘Girl’, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 150 cm, image courtesy of Red Gate Gallery

Red Gate Gallery was China’s first commercial art gallery, opening in Beijing in 1991 at a time when the notion of a private art market was completely unheard of. Since then this gallery has played a significant role in providing a space for artists to exhibit and to build their careers. It has also introduced western audiences to contemporary Chinese artists, and encouraged cultural exchange between Australian and Chinese artists through influential residency programs. Director Brian Wallace first arrived in China in 1984, and has witnessed first-hand the dramatic changes that have taken place since that time. Before he opened the gallery in the imposing Dongbianmen watchtower, on the remains of the Ming Dynasty city wall, there was no gallery system and no art market in existence.  Wallace had been organising exhibitions for some years with artist friends at the nearby Ming Observatory and other extraordinary historic locations such as the Old Summer Palace, the Confucian Temple and the Altar of the Sun, in Ritan Park.  “So it could be said that contemporary Chinese art began in the Ming Dynasty”, he wryly observes.

In the late 1980s, in the first days of the ‘Open Door’ policy, there was a sudden flowering of contemporary art, with young artists trained in the rigorous academic techniques of socialist realism feeling the intoxicating freedom to experiment with performance art, conceptual art and new ways of thinking about painting.  Through all the various political vicissitudes, the loosening and tightening of artistic freedoms, and the Communist Party policy shifts since that time, Wallace has built the gallery as an influential and credible artistic force, representing significant artists working across painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, photomedia, and, in the case of Island 6, the cutting edge new media work of the Liu Dao artist collective.

‘Two Generations’ features the work of senior Red Gate artists, who have each nominated younger emerging artists to show together with them. Wallace was impressed by the great seriousness with which the older artists approached this task, and the thoughtful approach that they each took in considering the merits of the younger artists’ works. The exhibition also includes works by artists who have been the recipients of a Red Gate philanthropic residency program whereby artists from other provinces far from the artistic centres of Beijing and Shanghai can experience the dynamic art scene and develop their practice.

Despite the monumental and cavernous space of the Town Hall, surely not the easiest site in which to hang such a show, the exhibition provides a fascinating glimpse into the diversity of current Chinese art practice. From paintings to works on paper, sculptures to video and installation works, the vibrancy and optimism of the Chinese art scene, felt by any visitor to Beijing galleries or artists’ studios, is immediately apparent.  Many works demonstrate the sheer technical bravura of contemporary Chinese painting. ‘Typewriter No 1’ by Wang Yuping is a large work in oil and acrylic, in which an impasto typewriter (oh, the nostalgia!) floats in a void as if levitating, the blank sheet of paper protruding from its mechanical guts a witty echo of the blankness of the surrounding canvas. The artist’s statement takes laconic brevity to new heights: “I enjoy collecting typewriters, this is my favourite one.”

Wang Lifeng’s ‘Qing Mountain’ combines torn newsprint and other papers with gestural painterly marks, making deliberate reference to literati scholar paintings. Such acknowledgements of historical traditions in Chinese art abound in the practice of contemporary painters, in both direct and subtle ways.  Jiang Weitao’s ‘Work 1112’ comes from a tradition of abstraction seen most particularly in Shanghai. During the 1980s abstract painting emerged there as a form of dissidence and individual expression, and it continues to flourish. This work has a luscious and seductive red surface, its high gloss reminiscent of lacquer ware, covered with marks based on the Chinese character ‘kou’ – meaning mouth, entrance or window. This ideogram alludes to the opening of the new China as it enters an era of prosperity and growth.  Jiang has described his development of an abstract visual language in terms of the debt he owes to traditional Chinese art forms, and the philosophical link between Chinese calligraphy, painting and poetry – a trinity of expression called ‘san jue’, or the ‘three perfect things’. This particularly Chinese approach to abstraction, which distinguishes it from a western modernist inheritance of formalism even when some aspects may appear superficially similar, is also seen in the work of painters such as Hu Qinwu, a Beijing artist who has exhibited on several occasions at Stella Downer Fine Art in Sydney.

Jiang Weitao, ‘Work 1112’, 2011, oil on canvas, 112 x 82 cm, image courtesy of Red Gate Gallery

Guan Wei’s ‘Fragments of History No. 8’ continues his consistent theme of colonialism and exploration. His characteristic curly Chinese clouds (perhaps like those the aforementioned Du Fu saw ‘drifting by’) are juxtaposed in one jigsaw-piece-like panel with the figures of spear-wielding Aborigines in another. The fragmentary pieces of the work are attached separately to the wall, as if broken apart by some form of continental drift, or a long ago geological disaster.

Some excellent photographic works have been included in the show, in recognition of the significance of this form in Chinese art today. For me the most evocative of these works was Zhou Jun’s Digital C Print, ‘Phoenix Ancient City. Typical of this artist’s practice of photographing heritage architecture in moody black and white and then digitally adding his signature bands of red, the work suggests many possible layers of meaning. The colour red has an obvious and powerful significance in China, with meanings ranging from joy, marriage and prosperity to the Revolution and the Communist Party. This work, however, contains a strong suggestion of the wholesale destruction of heritage neighbourhoods in every Chinese city, which includes the artist’s own ancestral home in Nanjing. Perhaps the use of red here relates more to the way that Chinese obituaries are written in red ink. Li Gang’s evocative, blurry photograph of a vanishing bicycle, ‘Hua Xia Bike No 9’, is another elegy to a fast disappearing China, a theme of loss and change which recurs in melancholy images of city landscapes in other works in the show.

Zheng Xuewu’s installation, ‘Zen Quote – Amitabha’, is poetic and intriguing. Partly open books, including a Bible, Communist tracts, Buddhist texts and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, are arranged on traditional Chinese chests. From inside the books spill many rolled tubes of paper, made by the artist from the pages of the books themselves, and resembling the arrow-like shapes of a traditional dough stick from Tianjin. Does this suggest that knowledge is digestible? That all the world’s knowledge and ideas can be reduced to smaller and smaller pieces? Or, perhaps, that all knowledge and ideas, even across apparently mutually exclusive ideologies, and different times and cultures are interlinked. Whatever Zheng’s intention, the manual process of making the work, he says, was akin to chanting Buddhist scriptures in a meditative state.  Like senior figures of the Chinese artworld such as Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, he is intrigued by the power of language to determine thought and identity.

Zheng Xiewu, ‘Zen Quote – Amitabha’, 2011, books, paper and wooden boxes, dimensions variable, image courtesy of Red Gate Gallery

‘A New Horizon: Contemporary Chinese Art’ at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra is a very different story. Viewing this exhibition, intended to be a cornerstone of the 2011 -2012 ‘Year of Chinese Culture in Australia’, is rather a curious experience.  While their intentions and contexts are admittedly very different, there is a dramatic contrast between the narrative about China presented in the works selected here, and the picture of contemporary art represented in the Red Gate Gallery show. An even more dramatic contrast is apparent between  this exhibition and the works that Judith Nielson has collected for the White Rabbit Gallery or curated exhibitions such as GOMA’s ‘China Art Project’ or Tate Britain’s ‘The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China.’ The curatorial intentions for this Canberra show are explicitly didactic, seeking to create a narrative about art in China (and, by extension, about China more broadly) post 1949. The narrative is divided into three ‘chapters’: ‘New China 1949 -1977’, ‘New Thinking 1978 – 1999’ and ‘New Century 2000 – 2009’. Despite the many interesting works included here, the dead hand of politics and officialdom is visible in the selections, the exclusions, and most particularly in the text of the catalogue accompanying the show. Descriptions accompanying the works are brief, and critical analysis is at a level of simplicity bordering on remedial reading.

The exhibition opens with Sun Zixi’s large painting, ‘Group Photo at Tiananmen’ (1964) which the catalogue tells us shows a “group of patriots” being photographed in front of Mao Zedong’s idealised portrait. The group includes sailors, peasants and happy smiling members of various ethnic minorities, all looking cheerfully into the utopian socialist future. In contrast, last week at GOMA in Brisbane I saw Liu Wei’s video work entitled ‘A Day to Remember: June 4 2005’.  An artist who was himself involved in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, Liu Wei simply set up his camera in a number of significant locations, including Beijing University, on this 15th anniversary of the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ , as it is referred to in China, and asked each passer-by, “What day is it today?” Some young respondents clearly had no idea the date had any significance (hardly surprising, given the way it has been carefully excised from the historical record as taught to school children) and suggested a variety of possible answers including “Is it Father’s Day?”, “Is it Environment Day?” Older people, however, from all walks of life, became extremely uncomfortable. Many covered their faces and walked away. Some became angry and defensive, and some were clearly frightened. The video is compelling viewing, and makes its point without obvious polemicism. As night falls, Liu Wei is in the square itself, filming around the famous monument at its centre, where soldiers are moving people away and loudspeakers instruct people to “Leave the square now!”. An earlier artistic response to the June 4 date, of course, was Ai Weiwei’s famously iconoclastic 1994 photograph of his wife, Lu Qing, raising her transparent skirt in front of Mao’s portrait at the entrance of the Forbidden City to show her knickers.

Back in the officially sanctioned works of the Canberra exhibition, another poignant work is ‘Spring Breeze and Willow’ by Zhou Shuqiao, a piece of Cultural Revolution propaganda painted in 1974. According to the wall text, written without apparent irony, it depicts “young city based intellectuals responding to Mao’s call to share the experiences of farmers and peasants by going to rural areas for re-education.” With its bright colours and the shiny smiling faces of the pigtailed protagonists I found this work almost unbearably sad. A generation of young Chinese had their school or university education interrupted by this policy, the ramifications of which have continued to play out through all the intervening years.

Among many competent but uninspired works which appear to have been selected more because of the official positions held by the artists (tenured professors at various tertiary institutions, members of the Board of Directors of the Chinese Artists’ Association, chairmen of various Oil Painting institutions and so on) there are more interesting works by significant artists, including Xu Bing, Jan Wang, Zhan Wang and Miao Xiaochun.  However the exhibition as a whole is a very strange assortment.  It reminded me irresistibly, in its unevenness and odd juxtapositions, of exhibitions I have seen in China in some of the newer ‘museums’ which often turn out to be funded by property developers. There is a sense of extreme earnestness, unleavened by much exchange with artists outside China until very recent times. The emphasis is on painting, including some very beautiful works which meld ink painting and calligraphy traditions with modernist painting practice, such as Shang Yang’s impressive ‘Dong Qichang Project 27’ (2009) and Qi Baishi’s lyrical 1951 ink and wash work ‘Red Lotuses’ painted in the ‘flower and bird’ tradition of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The omission of any photographic work is inexplicable: photomedia, installation and new media work is among the most exciting work currently being produced in China, and even many of the painters of the avant-garde movements of the 1990s have moved their practice into these areas.

In amongst the lyrical Tibetan landscapes and idealised images of strong women workers engaged in holding up half the sky, there is much of interest. Chen Conglin’s 1979 painting, ‘Snow, xx1968’ depicts the bloody aftermath of a Cultural Revolution street battle. In his native Sichuan province the battles between rival Red Guard factions were reportedly more vicious than anywhere else in China, with Chongqing in a state of virtual civil war by the middle of 1967. Thousands of students participated in a pitched battle in front of the library of a teachers college that lasted for three days.  This city was the centre of China’s munitions industry, and by late July the students had access to grenades, machineguns and flame throwers. Reports of some battles suggest that there were as many as ten thousand combatants and thousands of casualties, and nearly 200,000 people fled the city. Within 20 years from the date of this painting, by the late 1990s, Cultural Revolution imagery would be employed with an ironic Pop sensibility by artists such as Wang Guangyi to comment on globalisation and consumerism.

Shen Jiawei’s enormous 6-panelled epic historical painting ‘Red Star Over China’ merits careful analysis and interpretation. He completed it in six months of furious painting in 1987, two years before he came to Australia, (and long before he was commissioned to paint the portrait of ‘our’ Princess Mary). Painted in his characteristically meticulous high realist style, the title of the work is taken from American journalist Edgar Snow’s account of the beginnings of the revolution, a book banned for 30 years in China. The painting includes Snow himself and his wife Helen among the cast of 124 characters. Also among them: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and every significant military and revolutionary leader of the period leading up to the success of the revolution in 1949. Many of the people included in this painting would later be destroyed by successive purges. A group of small boys dance in red-starred singlets and caps at the front of the composition, representing the optimism of that particular moment in time. One of the Shaanxi revolutionaries included is Xi Zhong Xun, whose son Xi Jinping is currently the anointed successor to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Shen Jiawei said of this painting, “What is painted here is the first act of a tragedy…the youthfulness and ideals will be destroyed by later acts which are yet to be painted.”

Shen Jiawei, ‘Red Star Over China’, 1987, oil on canvas, 198 x 183cm (6 panels), image reproduced with kind permission of the National Art Museum, China

Works I found intriguing, and which introduced artists new to a western audience, included Wei Ershen’s 1988 ‘Auspicious Chinese Mongolia which is reminiscent of the luminous yet solidly modelled forms of Piero Della Francesca, with its three monumental figures engaged in an ambiguous and mysterious narrative, each apparently involved in their own thoughts, not meeting each other’s gaze. Even the colours, primarily terracotta, rose madder, ochre and deep turquoise, seem closer to Italy than to Harbin, that cold city of ice sculptures. Jiang Yu’s hyper-realist 2008 sculpture ‘Teenage Girl’ is compelling in its deliberate banality, with obsessive attention to the detail and surface texture of ribbed tights, baseball cap, boots and leather jacket, and a surly demeanour far from the shining pigtailed idealists represented in earlier works (but very familiar to any parent of a teenager, anywhere).

Miao Xiaochung’s extraordinary 3D computer animation, ‘A Limited World, based on Hieronymous Bosch and the Garden of Earthly Delights, is quite wonderful, even more so in this rather curious context. Like many Chinese artists, Miao studied in Germany, in Kassel, from 1995 to 1999. Originally a painter, he moved seamlessly into panoramic photographic works and more recently into computer imaging and animation, making works about the social transformation of China that are ambitious allegories of the human condition. This particular work demonstrates an inventiveness and command of the medium that elicited gasps and appreciative comments from the very mixed audience on the day I visited the museum. Its unsettling audio of a clacking computer keyboard laid over sweeping orchestral music can be heard throughout the show, contributing to an atmosphere of unease that permeates the entire space.

Ding Yi’s seductive abstract work, ‘Ten Tips’, continues the ‘Appearance of Crosses’ series that he has been working on since 1988. Sumptuous surfaces painted with unconventional materials including fluoro and glitter paint feature an all-over patterning of grids of tiny crosses. The absence of any of the political content required of the earlier artists is significant, and represents a paradigm shift which took place in the late 1980s and early ‘90s as China began to open and new ways of thinking emerged. His work was described by Richard Vine in ‘New China, New Art’ as “a contemporary critique of the scholarly over-refinement that afflicts traditional Chinese painting”. It is probably equally true, however, to suggest that, like Jiang Weitao in the Red Gate Show, Ding Yi represents a particular tradition of abstraction in Shanghai, probably the only city in China to have experienced early 20th century Modernism in art, architecture and design.

Ding Yi, ‘Ten Tips’, 2005, oil on canvas, 200 x 134cm, image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Museum of Art, China

The final work in the exhibition, hanging next to the exit, presents another irony. One of Xu Bing’sNew English Calligraphy works, in which English words appear at first sight to be Chinese characters, it is in this piece that the text  “Faithful to your art you know no age, letting wealth and fame drift by like clouds” appears. The catalogue states baldly that “the new English calligraphy created by Xu is a cross-cultural blend he developed in order to teach Americans to learn Chinese calligraphy.”  In fact, the many works that Xu Bing has created using a variety of invented characters and ideograms all point to the instability of language and the ways that it can be manipulated in order to determine ideas and ways of thinking.  On his own website he says of his installation work, ‘New Calligraphy Classroom, in which viewers become participants in an apparent calligraphy lesson, “The feeling of being engaged in an esoteric practice evaporates, as the idea that the meaning of Chinese characters can be grasped through a short-cut training session rather than years of study is exposed as a fantasy rooted in a cultural attitude. For participants who read Chinese, a system of language masquerading as one’s own and adapted to Western modes of thought and communication raises other issues of appropriation, displacement and Western dominance.” It is worth noting that Xu Bing’s most beautiful work, ‘The Book from the Sky (now in the collection of GOMA in Brisbane) was at first praised as worthy of official approval when exhibited in the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing in 1989, and then banned when the political winds shifted.

It is perhaps not so much wealth and fame after all, but rather politics and political ideologies, that ‘drift by like clouds’ as the winds change, and it is the lot of artists at times to try to accommodate themselves to prevailing breezes, and, sometimes, to courageously resist them.

About the writer: Luise Guest is a Sydney based art teacher and blogger who has been writing about Chinese contemporary art since her trip to China early in 2011 on a NSW Premier’s research scholarship. Spending time in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong she met and interviewed more than 20 artists, curators, academics and art writers. She is now an obsessive Sinophile attempting to learn Mandarin and impatiently planning future trips to China. Her interests extend to the broader spectrum of contemporary art in the Asia Pacific region.

Her blog: www.anartteacherinchina.blogspot.com

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