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

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Self and the Other

Long overdue: A post that I entered in an artwriting award,so couldn't publish till it was all over -- didn't win, but that's OK! I wanted to review this particular show because I have long been interested in the work of Echo Morgan/Xie Rong. Since I wrote this piece, I've met and interviewed the artist in London, and I plan to write more about her performance work:  she takes the notion of Chinoiserie and wrestles it into the ground. And the show included Angelica Mesiti - so what's not to like? It also seemed particularly apposite to post this the day after Australia's parliament finally -- finally! -- voted to legalise same-sex marriage.
Echo Morgan / Xie Rong, Be The Inside of the Vase, Documentation of Performance, Photograph, Jamie Baker
Image courtesy the artist

The Self and the Other: ‘Engender’ at Alaska Projects
‘Love will find its way through all languages on its own.’ (Rumi)

Tony Albert, Brother (Our Present), 2013, pigment print on paper, 150 x 100 cm, edition of 3 + 2 A/P, image courtesy of Sullivan & Strumpf and the artist
Sydney’s Kings Cross was traditionally the territory of the marginalised demi-monde, notorious for its seedy strip clubs, sex workers of every gender, sailors on shore leave, drug deals, crooked cops and underworld ‘identities’ -- and artists. Today it’s more like a tense demilitarised border zone between the respectable beneficiaries of property boom gentrification and the ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’. Here, in two disused spaces in a gloomy subterranean carpark, far from the standard white cube of the art gallery as it is usually understood, is Alaska Projects. The current show, ‘Engender’, at this artist-run-initiative is appropriate to its gritty location. Curator Grace Partridge selected work by seven artists, mostly but not all Australian, to explore the messiness and malleability of gender. This would be interesting curatorial premise enough, but ‘Engender' goes further, forcing us to consider the sometimes uncomfortable intersections of gender, class, and race. To ‘engender’ is to cause something to happen: to give rise to, to kindle, provoke, trigger or inspire. In the current context of an impassioned, often irrational debate about the rights of same sex couples to marry under Australian law, diverted by the ‘no’ campaign into fear-mongering speculation about whether boys might be encouraged, or even required, to wear dresses to school, the notion of ‘engendering’ is indeed provocative: the kindling is well and truly alight.
The first work you see is Angelica Mesiti’s haunting ‘Nakh Removed’ (2015), projected on a large screen at the far end of the first level of the carpark beyond parked cars and metres of oil-stained concrete.  Hypnotic and trance-like, the video shows four women of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian heritage re-enacting a Berber dance that is traditionally performed by women at weddings and fertility-related ceremonies. Their long hair flies across the screen as they dip and bend, tossing their heads from side to side and around in dizzying circular patterns.  The work speaks of sexuality, fecundity and female power. Their pale shoulders emerge from darkness, white against black clothing. Loops and skeins of hair swoop and swirl, and their slowed-down movement evokes an ecstatic state. This is primal, powerful and extraordinarily beautiful; the work challenges western stereotypes of Arab women.
Angelica Mesiti, Nakh Removed (2015), video, image courtesy the artist and Alaska Projects

It was filmed in Mesiti’s Paris studio, removed from the North African cultural origins of the dance, so ‘Nakh Removed’ speaks, too, of the oppressive legacies of French colonialism. A migrant child who grew up in Australia speaking one language at home and another at school, Mesiti has always been interested in the slipperiness of language, how meanings elide, slide away, and elude our grasp as we move from one subculture to another. Her childhood experiences drew her to notions of ‘the other’, to those on the periphery. Similarly, her experiences as a foreign child trying to ‘fit in’ and to learn the unfamiliar linguistic and behavioural codes of a dominant culture drew her to alternative languages of movement and dance. An earlier work such as ‘Rapture (Silent Anthem)’ (2009) reveals her interest in ecstatic states: the video  appeared to show a crowd of young people transported by a religious experience: Mesiti actually shot the crowd in the mosh pit at a rock concert from a hidden vantage point beneath the stage, then slowed down the footage and removed the sound. Like Bill Viola, she has been able to make video a medium through which she is able to convey powerfully transcendent and inexplicable human experiences. Watching ‘Nakh Removed’ we are drawn into the trance-like state that the dancers themselves have entered. For just that moment, in the Stygian gloom of a carpark – surely one of the most sinister ‘non-places’ of the contemporary world – the membrane between peoples and cultures becomes just a little more permeable.

Echo Morgan, Be The Inside of the Vase, 2012, photograph by Jamie Baker
Image courtesy the artist
Performance artist Echo Morgan (Xie Rong) was born and grew up in Chengdu but now lives in London. Her work has often challenged a western gaze on Chinese women that positions them as the exotic, oriental ‘other’; in the process she subverts traditions of ink painting and porcelain production. Three photographs in this show document ‘Be the Inside of the Vase’, a work performed in London in 2012 and documented by photographer Jamie Morgan. Without the performance these beautiful images may be read as a self-reflexive examination of Chinoiserie, a positioning of a Chinese body for a western gaze. The naked artist, completely painted white, has painted herself with a blue and white porcelain pattern of bamboo and cherry blossom. A branch of blossom travels across her face, covering her mouth and silencing her.
The title references a saying in which a beautiful women is likened to a vase – fragile, smooth, and, presumably, hollow. Morgan’s abusive and emotionally volatile father, a gangster who operated in the grey areas of the 1980s Chinese economy, ran nightclubs, brothels and casinos, collected stolen porcelain; he demanded that his daughter appear decorative and expensive. Her strong and resilient mother, in contrast, told her not to be like the surface of a pretty, empty vessel, but instead to be like the inside: ‘Be the quality!’ The beauty of the photographs belies the much darker content of the performance from which they came. Divided into two ‘chapters’, the first part deals with Morgan’s fraught relationship with her father, and the conflict and violence of her childhood. Morgan said, ‘The first story [Million Dollar Baby] began with my father’s attempt to commit suicide. He owed everyone money.’
In the second part, ‘Break the Vase’ the artist is shown inside an enormous vessel made of paper and bamboo; we can only see the top of her head. She invited the audience to throw water-filled balloons at her in order to ‘break the vase’; at first a seemingly innocent action, this soon became openly aggressive as the paper vase broke apart and the missiles smashed into the artist’s face. Morgan’s nude body, painted in blue and white to resemble Song Dynasty porcelain, is gradually revealed: the simmering undertone of violence becomes explicit and dangerous, the audience is complicit. Juxtaposing English narration with Chinese traditional songs, Morgan plays with her complex hybrid identity and her difficult childhood. Like Mesiti, she is interested in translation: between two languages, between gesture and stillness, between performance and image. She is restless, moving between two worlds, between her Chinese past and English present. The seductive beauty of her painted self-image cannot conceal her pain.
Other works, in particular those by Liam Benson, Tony Albert and Angela Yu, add further depth and complexity to this curatorial narrative. Yu confronts the audience with their voyeuristic impulse in ‘Prudish Boulder’ (2016). The artist’s nude body is seen from above, immersed in a bath filled with flowers and herbs. She becomes a rock, the ‘boulder’ in the title, a witty acknowledgement of how women have been so often represented in art as feminine ‘nature’ to masculine ‘culture’. Like Mesiti, Morgan and Yu, Benson plays with beauty and its inverse in ‘The Executioner’ (2015). A large photographic print shows the bearded artist, hooded, unflinchingly meeting our eyes. His executioner’s hood is completely transparent, made of gauze: this is not the identity-concealing black shroud of power, granting the perpetrator of judicial killing anonymity and, perhaps, absolution. Beaded, adorned with pearls and embroidered with flowers, the hood is instead rendered seductively beautiful. It is frivolous, charming, and verging on the absurd. Yet Benson’s watchful gaze through eyeholes outlined in beading engages us directly, forcing us to question past narratives of identity and historical acts of injustice.
Tony Albert’s ‘Brother (Our Present)’ (2013) continues his ongoing examination of how indigenous Australians have been represented and misrepresented, often subject to violence and police brutality. The work emerged as a direct response to an incident in Kings Cross in which young Aboriginal boys involved in a Saturday night car accident were shot by police. In the resulting community anger and distress, Albert saw a group of young men arrive at a rally shirtless, with targets painted on their chests. He was struck by their combination of defiance, vulnerability and pride, and made a series of portraits in their honour. Albert collaborated with a Sydney hostel that provides accommodation for Aboriginal young men and boys while they complete their schooling, shooting portraits that evoke the otherworldly chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, yet also recall 19th century ethnographic photographs of Aboriginal people in which they are viewed as specimens for scientific examination, rather than as fully human.
Each of the artists in this interesting and prescient show navigates complex and contested identities and contemporary divides between race, class, language and gender; their work is both tender and brutal, beautiful yet deeply disturbing, and each reveals both vulnerability and strength.

Featured artists include: Tony Albert, Angelica Mesiti, Liam Benson, Get To Work, Echo Morgan, Angela Yu and Archie Barry. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


After so many years of my long conversations with Chinese artists in their studios in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Xi'an and Guangzhou, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I've been able to bring the conversations closer to home. For the White Rabbit Artist Interview series, I've been able to record interviews with each artist from the collection who visits Sydney, shared via Vimeo. We're building up quite an archive.

Here is a sample selection - firstly, a 'teaser' for my longer conversation with Cang Xin earlier this year:

Cang Xin Trailer from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo.

And a longer conversation with the wonderful New York-based Lin Yan:

Lin Yan in conversation with White Rabbit from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo.

Check out our conversations with Shen Jiawei, Lu Xinjian, Song Yongping, Wang Zhiyuan, Xiao Lu, Xia Hang and Guo Jian. In the editing room right now: Song Jianshu and Huang Hua-Chen. And keep an eye on White Rabbit 's Vimeo Collection early next year for some VERY exciting additions!
White Rabbit Collection Vimeo

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

不好意思 Bu Hao Yisi: Apologies from a Bad Blogger, and Bingyi's Floating Life

So how many excuses are there for not updating this blog? I have been slack, it's true. My excuse is that I'm juggling a (very) full time job with a research degree and yet another attempt to study Chinese (hopeless task!) and as a tired juggler I'm beginning to drop the balls. And given that the research and the job both immerse me in reading and writing about contemporary Chinese art every day, this blog has had to take a back seat. I am also engaged in interviewing each Chinese artist from the White Rabbit Collection who comes through Sydney. For a link to the White Rabbit Vimeo Collection - 12 videos so far - click HERE.

Here is the trailer to my interview with the rather provocative artist, Xiao Lu:

Xiao Lu Trailer from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo.

I've recently returned from the UK where I presented a paper about my current research - no surprise to those in the know, it's focused on women artists and gender in contemporary practice. I'm writing an article for a new website (watch this space), a paper for a journal, and also writing up my interview with the very interesting performance artist, Xie Rong (Echo Morgan) whom I interviewed in London. And I'm in the final throes of a major book project.
Xie Rong / Echo Morgan, 'Be The Inside of the Vase', 2012, 4-hour performance, clay, body paint, water, Chinese paper, willow, metal, photographed by Jamie Baker, image courtesy the artist
More on my fascinating conversation with Xie Rong, over coffee in the British Library, coming very soon.

In the meantime, here's my recent article about Bingyi, who also features in my current research project and was a focus of the paper I presented at the Annual Conference of the Centre for Chinese Visual Art in Birmingham last month.
Bingyi at work in the mountains, image courtesy the artist

A Floating Life: Navigating Bingyi’s Literary Maze

Chinese contemporary artist, Bingyi (her full name is Bingyi Huang but she goes by one name, like a rock star), has ‘bombed’ the airfield at Shenzhen’s Bao’an Airport with 500 kg ink and oil missiles in order to create a dramatic painting for the terminal. She has created vast ink paintings 200 metres in length by laying specially made paper on basketball courts and mountain roads, pouring and hosing ink and water by the light of car headlights. She has sometimes burned her own paintings, letting the ash and paper fragments fall and mix into the ink of new works. A precociously gifted child, born in Beijing in 1975, Bingyi grew up to become a true polymath: an art historian with a doctorate from Yale, she has composed operas and ballets, made films, incorporated her knowledge of science and engineering into her artworks, and recently started a school for young artists and activists in Beijing. All in addition to creating exquisitely beautiful small ink paintings and large, expressive figurative canvases. An essentially self-taught artist, she began to paint in her mother’s living room in 2007, after eye surgery to correct her extreme short-sightedness.
Bingyi in her Beijing studio, 2013, photograph Luise Guest
Bingyi did not start painting with ink ­ — that came later — but with oil and acrylic on canvas. She developed an expressive and intuitive painting idiom that she describes as a search for the sublime. Her vision is not the European Romantic sublime, but a specifically Chinese notion informed by Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. From metaphysics to classical Chinese literature; from the poetry of Emily Dickinson to contemporary music; from Song and Yuan Dynasty ink painting to postmodernism, from geology and meteorology to physics and arcane mathematics, Bingyi brings a wealth of esoteric knowledge and a passionate interest in the possibilities of intellectual inquiry to her work. She is also a dancer and a musician, and a performative theatricality has certainly found its way into her work, but her approach, even when working with oil or acrylic, is the disciplined, controlled method of the traditional ink painter: each mark of the brush is deliberately placed. Her works appear painterly, but their apparent spontaneity is carefully considered.
Six Accounts of a Floating Life (2008) is characteristically literary in its density of poetic allusion and ambiguous narrative structure. Inspired by the memoirs of the eighteenth-century writer Shen Fu, it evokes the literati tradition of the handscroll, designed to be slowly unrolled and closely examined in scholarly gatherings called ‘yaji’. The handscroll represents the passage of time in an episodic manner: viewing a scroll is a sequential unfolding, intimate and revelatory. The size and format of a scroll makes the experience uniquely suited to a conversation between connoisseurs, poring over each new visual delight as it is rolled and unrolled. It is a method of painting that takes the viewer on a journey through time and space, both metaphorically and literally.
The artist describes Six Accounts of a Floating Life as a metaphysical love diary that describes life’s flow, its ‘shengming de huadong’. Its expressionist style and scribbly calligraphic line recall the innovations of early twentieth century painters, but the small figures scattered across the composition suggest, rather, the Chinese tradition of the wandering scholar. Each of the five (not six) panels depicts separate incidents, small moments in the passage of time, from the innocence of childhood to romantic love, its inevitable unravelling, and, finally, to death.

Bingyi, Six Accounts of a Floating Life, Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5, 008, oil on canvas, whole work 160 x 900 cm,
 courtesy of White Rabbit Collection
The original literary work is a multi-layered chronicle that tells and re-tells significant events in consecutive chapters, revealing new details and different points of view, shifting from private and domestic moments to public events and, rather surprisingly, to long descriptions of gardening and flower-arranging. Chapter titles such as The Joys of the Wedding ChamberThe Pleasures of LeisureThe Sorrows of Misfortune, and The Delights of Roaming Afar, are replicated in Bingyi’s appropriation of the text. The original memoir concludes mysteriously after only four sections, rather than the six alluded to in the title. (Two final chapters published in the 1930s were subsequently revealed to be fraudulent.) Bingyi similarly suggests an element of mystery with her five panels. It can be conjectured that the missing sixth panel represents an absence, a space in which one can insert whatever narrative you please, connecting artist to her audience.
Bingyi, I Watch Myself Dying, 2009, oil on canvas, 300 x 500 cm, courtesy of White Rabbit Collection
Monkeys and butterflies cavort through the paintings, referencing folk tales and classical literature. Bingyi’s multi-layered iconography links western and eastern philosophy, and personal events with universal human experiences. Another reference in her complex lexicon of imagery is to sacred Buddhist frescoes in the caves of Dunhuang, along the Silk Road, as well as to western art history and Christian theology. In the second panel of the series, two nude figures are depicted surrounded by green foliage, birds and butterflies, an allusion to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Semi-transparent, their pink skin reveals the organs beneath. The male figure has a brain and nervous system, the female is in possession of a heart and lungs: Bingyi sees the wonder as well as the danger in the intertwining of separate identities in passionate romantic relationships. If you lose yourself entirely, what then?
Bingyi’s immersion in Chinese art history – her Yale PhD thesis was a study of the Han Dynasty – provides a depth of understanding that she applies in a contemporary idiom, whether working on a small and intimate scale or in the monumental ‘land art’ ink paintings for which she has become well-known. With Six Accounts of a Floating Life, the large scale of Bingyi’s paintings render the experience immersive, almost cinematic. It is like reading a book, but a book where the ending has deliberately been left open for the viewer to imagine a conclusion. Perhaps the absent sixth panel is the ‘colophon’, where in traditional handscrolls the owner and other viewers would attach their comments, or engage with the comments left by previous viewers, like a pre-digital version of a social media ‘thread’.
A serious accident in 2009 in which Bingyi’s clothing was set alight by a candle flame left her very badly burned, subject to a series of traumatic and excruciatingly painful medical interventions and operations. I Watch Myself Dying (2009) expresses the horror of this experience, with the artist’s fragile body lying on the operating table under brilliant lights, watched by an alternate self who hovers above her like the soul leaving the body. This creature is Cyclops-eyed, with engorged breasts, pregnant with suffering. Malevolent faces crowd into the top of the composition, recalling Ensor’s masked figures in The Entry of Christ into Brussels. Part of a series of works entitled ‘Skin’, it’s an unsentimental representation of physical anguish, making deliberate references to Thomas Eakins’ nineteenth century medical portraits, and his paintings depicting surgical procedures.

Cathartic and gestural, Bingyi once again references the work of Philip Guston, a painter who understood suffering, whilst her floating figures reveal a distinctly Chinese sensibility. The pink body of the artist lying on the table, organs and sutures visible on the surface, is like a pupa in the process of becoming. The most autobiographical of Bingyi’s works, it nonetheless reveals her scholarly and poetic approach, layered with dense literary and artistic allusion. She likens her practice to composing music, or writing computer code, using a language that juxtaposes the intuitive with the controlled and systematic. Like the imperial scholar painter in his study, Bingyi applies a highly refined visual language to express her deepest feelings and responses to the events of her world. In a long conversation in her studio, a converted Yuan Dynasty temple in the oldest part of Beijing, she said, ‘It’s like I am composing a riddle. I am convinced that in a thousand years, people will dive into my paintings and they will want to know what kind of a literary maze I was constructing.’
About the artist:
Born in 1975 in Beijing, Bingyi’s training as an art historian informs her painting practice. Her doctoral dissertation at Yale was based on her study of the Han Dynasty, and her deep knowledge of Chinese art and literature underpins every aspect of her practice. Bingyi’s paintings and installations have been shown in the United States, Korea, Spain, Belgium, Canada and Hong Kong, as well as in group and solo exhibitions in China.

Photographs of Bingyi in her Beijing studio by Luise Guest

Monday, August 21, 2017

Magician of Paper: Li Hongbo

Li Hongbo makes extraordinary, moveable, stretchable, slinky-like sculptural installations from paper: here is the start of my profile for The Art Life based on a long conversation with the artist held in his Beijing studio in 2015. I have to say, I've been in an awful lot of freezing cold artists' studios in China in the last few years, but Li Hongbo's rural barn was definitely the most frigid - I dropped my notebook and voice recorder on the floor several times because without my gloves, my fingers were so numb.

As a little boy in rural Jilin Province, in China’s far north-east –– closer to North Korea and Russia than to Beijing –– Li Hongbo made his own simple playthings from paper, taking pages out of school exercise books to construct toy planes, trucks and trains. Now, as an artist working in Beijing, exhibiting across the globe, he is known for extraordinary large-scale installations such as the two life-sized expanding figures held in the White Rabbit Collection, or ‘Ocean of Flowers’, an installation of brightly-coloured paper guns and weaponry seen on Cockatoo Island at the 18th Biennale of Sydney in 2012. The intimacy of handling paper resonates with childhood memories of folk art traditions and his own hand-made toys. Today, having mastered the art of cutting, gluing and carving thousands of sheets of cheap brown paper to transform this humble material into intricately designed kinetic forms, Li Hongbo says that what he enjoys most, apart from the endless possibilities of the medium, is its accessibility. He believes that Chinese people have a special bond with paper that comes from a deep cultural memory.
Li Hongbo, Paper, 2010, dimensions variable, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
Li’s concertina-like expandable sculptures begin as stacks of paper; until they are stretched and pulled into new shapes they appear as if carved from stone or wood. As a student Li Hongbo researched how paper was used in Chinese folk art, influenced by the significant artist and teacher, Lü Shengzhong, who revived a Chinese craft tradition with his own contemporary papercut installations. Lü’s emphasis on the importance of folk art inspired his students to undertake field research in remote areas of rural China, recording obscure and endangered arts and crafts and learning their techniques. Returning to Beijing, Li Hongbo and his contemporaries sought new ways to embed these traditions into their own art practice: Li experimented with the Chinese ‘honeycomb’ paper folding technique.
In late 2015, I spoke with Li Hongbo in his Beijing studio and asked him what it is about paper that he finds so endlessly fascinating. What follows is an edited extract of that conversation:
Li Hongbo: Firstly, it is because it is very cheap and very common, and accessible to everyone. And it is everywhere, it has a special bond with people. Secondly, Chinese traditional culture has a lot to do with paper. It’s about cultural memory and tradition. People have never stopped their investigation into the endless possibilities of paper. I love paper.
Luise Guest: When, and how, did your interest in the magical possibilities and properties of paper originate?
LH: When we were little a lot of toys were made of paper; toys at that time were very expensive so children would use paper to make things like aeroplanes. They would even tear their textbooks to use that paper to make toys. My handmade toys were very popular with my classmates so I had very good relationships with them! Then later I was a book designer, and I also studied ancient Chinese Buddhist books and wood block printing. So, paper was created long before the Tang Dynasty – more than 4000 years ago – and when I studied the ancient traditions and religious paintings I discovered that paper was a medium that carried history and carried stories. All of this led to my fascination with the endless possibilities of paper.
LG: How did you develop the skills needed to make these extraordinary sculptures?
LH: Originally, I studied Chinese folk art and I am also an expert on Chinese paper culture. The ancient Chinese were very clever; they could make various toys with one sheet of paper that can take various forms. So, I learned how to make my own works in this traditional way.
LG: Is this ‘honeycomb’ gourd technique that you use similar to the method used to make traditional lanterns?
LH: Yes, very much so.
LG: Can you tell me a little about your background – your childhood and student years in Jilin Province before you came to Beijing? I am curious to know about your earliest experiences of art.
LH: When I was young I was very naughty and I liked making toys with my own hands – toys were very expensive so my parents would not buy me toys, and I became very good at it. I liked painting, so I grew very confident in these things. I never stopped painting. At Spring Festival in 2013 I discovered that my mother had collected every artwork I had made since I was a small child, from primary school to college. All of those exercise books were filled with sketches and drawings – but very few notes! In senior high school, I began to learn things and in college I majored in art education. I did not work as a teacher, though, because I wanted a career as an artist, so after graduation I came to Beijing. [In Beijing, Li completed two Masters Degrees at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, in Folk Art and in Experimental Art, over a period of ten years.]
Li Hongbo, Paper, detail.
Read more: Click HERE

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Magic Carpet Ride: Lin Tianmiao's Protruding Patterns at Galerie Lelong, New York

Lin Tianmiao, Protruding Patterns, 2014, wool thread, yarn, acrylic, dimensions variable, installation view at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, Image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co, New York
Imagine my disappointment to be invited to the solo New York show of Lin Tianmiao - and to know that there is no way in the world that I can be there. However, I was lucky enough to be in New York when her major retrospective at Asia Society was showing, and I count myself VERY lucky indeed to have been able to interview Lin Tianmiao twice at her Beijing studio, and see for myself the spaces in which her extraordinary textile installations are produced.

It seems that this show continues her fascination, last seen in her embroidered 'Badges',  with language and how it delimits - and limits - women. The Galerie Lelong Press Release states:
"Over the past six years, Lin has collected around 2,000 words and expressions about women in various languages. Pulling from popular novels, newspapers, the internet, and colloquial dialogues, she has gathered phrases such as “divinité,” “Mori girl,” and “leftover women.” Some are predictably derogatory to women, demonstrating the continued ubiquity of sexist attitudes reinforced by language, while others are directly recovered from obsolescence, representing the nuanced mix of confusion, humor, self-deprecation, and empowerment that accompanies the shifting consciousness of women. This lexicon is woven into thickly raised wool forms so that viewers can feel the visceral and literal protruding patterns while touching and walking on the carpets."

As with the 'Badges' works which include familiar English terms including the entirely predictable tramp, whore and slut along with terms very specific to the Chinese context such as 'phoenix lady' and 'xiao san er' (a 'little third' is a mistress) these works too combine terms such as 'ghetto bird'  and 'Beauty Queen' with, as seen below, 'Zhongguo Da Ma'. Literally "Chinese Aunties" the term refers to middle-aged Chinese women who rushed to invest in gold in 2013 when gold prices plunged,
Lin Tianmiao, F + You No. 1, 2017, Black velvet, woolen yarn, silk thread, cotton thread, 100 x 100 cm, image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co, New York
In my first interview with Lin Tianmiao, in the bitterly cold Beijing winter of 2012, she was extremely definite discussing her views on feminism and feminist art.
 “How do you feel about being called a feminist artist?” I am emboldened to ask. Lin thinks for a moment, then says, “I don’t think there is any feminism in China. Mao said that women hold up half the sky but we have not reached that level.” She denies making her own works in any kind of a conscious response to her reading of feminist theory. “In fact I think feminism is from the west,” she says."

Click HERE for a link to the interview, published on The Culture Trip

This fall, Lin will also be featured in Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Lin will present a solo exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Glass, which will simultaneously feature her work in the group exhibition Annealing. In Spring 2018, Lin will also present a solo exhibition at the Bund Art Museum, Shanghai. Her work is in many prestigious institutions worldwide including the Brooklyn Museum, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Hong Kong Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Art Museum of China, Beijing; National Museum of Australia, Canberra; M+ Museum, Hong Kong; Seattle Art Museum; Shanghai Museum of Glass; Sherman Foundation, Sydney; and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing. 
And to this list must also be added Sydney's own White Rabbit Gallery, where two works from her early 'Focus' series have just been showing in the recently concluded exhibition 'The Dark Matters'.

The New York show at Galerie Lelong New York September 9 through October 21. If you're in Manhattan, check it out.

Lin Tianmiao, Bound and Unbound, image courtesy the artist

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

From the Bones of the Fish: Narrating Desire and Beauty in the Work of Monika Lin

Walnut shells, miniature monsters, nail polish, mirrors, plastic debris and the beauty myth - how does all that coalesce in a socially engaged, multi-disciplinary body of work?

I've written about Monika Lin's work before -- she was one of the female artists I encountered on my first, 2011, research trip to China, when it was beginning to dawn on me that the research question I'd set myself, and on the basis of which I had been lucky enough to win a coveted travelling scholarship, was not really the one that I wanted to find answers to. Instead of producing general teaching and learning materials about how contemporary Chinese artists envisaged their practice, I had become far more interested in the work of women artists, and how they positioned themselves in a still, sadly, testosterone-fuelled Chinese artworld. I met Monika in a Shanghai cafe -- she rode up on her bicycle and we talked about the difficulties faced by women artists, about her practice-led research, about art and motherhood, and how her own position as an American/Chinese artist gave her a unique perspective on the art scene in Shanghai. Her performance in which she wrote the character for 'rice' 10,000 times featured in my article for The Culture Trip, 'The Power of the Word: Calligraphy in Contemporary Chinese Art''

Here's my catalogue essay for her intriguing new body of work, 'From the Bones of the Fish', shown in New York this month:

‘She was very lonely in this sealed-off place. Actually, she was cursed by a witch because of her beauty.’ (Wu Siying, aged 11)

Around the year 700 CE, during the Tang Dynasty in China, a folk tale pre-dated European versions of the story of Cinderella by at least one thousand years. In this earlier version, the protagonist Ye Xian (叶限) was similarly mistreated by an evil stepmother. Her only friend was a pet fish, which her wicked stepmother served for dinner, in an act of vengeful spite. The bones of this fish were magical, recalling the oracle bones used for divination in ancient China. They replace the role of the fairy godmother in the western version of this morality tale, but other elements are depressingly constant: tiny feet, golden slippers, feminine duty, self-sacrifice, and a prince seeking a woman both beautiful and compliant.

The form of this story, like so many others in which women are punishedRapunzel locked in her tower, Sleeping Beauty cast into a coma, or Snow White slumbering in her glass coffinare, artist Monika Lin believes, deeply entrenched in the collective psyche. They cut across cultures and historical periods, representing notions of class, gender and sexuality in highly problematic ways. The consistent thread underlying all these stories, and other fairy-tales from many cultures, is the punishment of women for imagined transgressions. Too beautiful? Not beautiful enough? Too proud? Too independent? The narrative arc will ensure that women will learn their place, only to be saved by the grace and favour of a powerful man.
The essential role of women in such punishing mythologies is one of waiting: to be rescued, to be awoken, to be chosen, to be judged as beautiful and therefore worthy. ‘Those who are not judged beautiful are not beautiful’ pointed out John Berger in his 1972 analysis of the female nude in western art history. Women in fairy tales, and indeed in European oil paintings (think of Giorgione’s ‘Sleeping Venus’, for example), are reduced to a passivity that borders on narcolepsy. British writer Angela Carter likened this to a death sentence in her 1978 text, The Sadeian Woman. Add a more explicitly pornographic element to these tales of women waiting to be activated by being chosen, and we end up with The Story of O.

Where is female agency in these stories, so ingrained in us from earliest childhood? If women tell their own real and imagined stories, might they be different? In her latest body of work Lin has engineered an opportunity for us to hear stories told by 147 women and girls – their voices echo through the gallery space, their stories are written in Chinese and English, and the images they created to illustrate them are exhibited as relief prints. The participants in these oral story-telling workshops were inhabitants of Shanghai: migrant workers, retirees, school children and middle class women alike assuming authorship and agency. In the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the Little Mermaid must sacrifice her voice in order to be seen and desired by the Prince; Lin’s project invited women to speak and be heard.

‘The Bones of the Fish’ interrogates the cultural constructs found in fairy tales as historically powerful, enduring myths that constrain women. Even now. Today. And everywhere. As I walked to meet the artist in Shanghai, I passed a cosmetic surgery hospital. The large banner across its façade said, ‘You too can be a beautiful woman.’ In China, to be ‘bai fu mei’ (white, rich, pretty) is a contemporary aspiration, and Chinese beauty standards are even more stringent than in the west. Women trying to raise daughters free to be their authentic selves must negotiate a Disneyfied global minefield of candy pink. Adult women are marketed versions of the consolatory princess myth as ‘empowerment’. All women judge themselves and each other by impossible standards of beauty and behaviour. Lin’s work investigates this conscious and unconscious consumerism and dares to consider alternatives.

Monika Lin’s work has consistently focused on the marginalised, on those absent from the grand narratives of history. In ‘Double Happiness’ (2011) she explored the impact of pharmaceutical companies and the ‘medicalisation’ of ordinary life. ‘Exemplars’ (2013) used the medium of the woodcut — making a reappearance here in her new work — to deconstruct patriarchal Confucian allegories of filial duty. She works at the intersections of gender, class and race, examining the lives of Shanghai courtesans in ‘flower house’ brothels, and the exclusion of women from the Imperial Examinations system that produced Chinese literati painters and poets. In innovative multi-disciplinary bodies of work, underpinned by deep research, she presents us with alternative, hidden histories, and with the voices of those who were expected to be silent.

‘The Bones of the Fish’ is shaped through connected elements, like the chapters of a book. ‘Lacquered’ is the most explicitly polemical. Nail polish contains highly toxic chemicals that leach into the body and have been found in international samples of breast milk. Lin interviewed manicurists in Shanghai nail salons—young women from the countryside seeking a better life and the promised intoxicating glamour of the big city—engaging them in conversation about their working lives far from their hometowns. Twelve portraits resulted from these lengthy conversations, painted with glossy nail polish on mirrored surfaces. It’s a dangerous glamour: the seductively luscious surfaces of lacquered nails can be likened to the shiny poisoned apple given to Snow White by the wicked queen. 
‘Philosopher’s Walnuts’ consists of 1,000 gilded walnut shells, each containing a tiny, part-human figure. Arranged on square tiles of gold leaf, they recall religious iconography. These miniature hybrid creatures reference a Japanese erotic print, Hokusai’s 1814 ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’ (also known as ‘Girl Diver and Two Octopuses’) that shows an ecstatic sexual encounter between a woman and two octopi. These works possess an element of the uncanny, a suggestion of the cyborg, of an impending post-human dystopia.  The walnut shell itself is imbued with magical possibilities of transformation. Alternately representing fecundity or masculinity, walnut shell bracelets are prized male accessories in China, with links to Buddhist practice and to the imperial past. Signifiers of status. In the early twenty-first century, for a while walnuts were artefacts of trade worth more than gold. Lin cleverly interweaves a gendered narrative with theories of labour and capital.
With great prescience, Roland Barthes suggested in his 1957 text ‘Mythologies’ that ‘the whole world can be plasticised, and even life itself.’ ‘Plastic River’ is an installation made of rubbish salvaged from the streets – recycled advertising signs, acrylic, Tyvek bags and LED signs. Here Lin connects the toxicity of the beauty myth to the vast waste dumps of plastic and garbage surrounding Chinese cities and polluting the oceans, a result of our reliance on the endless cycle of production and consumption, and the repetitive labour of millions. Culture subsumes nature.
In ‘The Bones of the Fish’, Monika Lin suggests that the shiny, seductive allure of advertising is a siren song of desire, as toxic and false in the end as the beauty myth and the fairy tale.
Luise Guest, May 2017
All images courtesy of the artist

 The artist's book may be seen HERE, and click HERE for Monika Lin's website

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Heaven's Mandate: Song Dong at Rockbund

Song Dong, Wisdom of the Poor: Song Dong’s Para-Pavilion, Old house, old furniture, steel, Dimensions variable. 2011. Photograph, LG
This week The Art Life published my review of Song Dong's survey show at Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum, which was absolutely a highlight of my April immersion in Chinese contemporary art.
As you will see, I loved this show.

The Getting of Wisdom: Song Dong’s ‘I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven’

ART LIFE , REVIEWS Jul 14, 2017 
Song Dong, Mirror Hall, Mirrors, old wooden window frames, mirror boards, Dimensions variable. 2016–2017. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum
‘I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven’ is a mature artist’s reflection on life’s joys, dreams, fears and disappointments. Beijing-based conceptual artist, Song Dong, responds to one of the Analects of Confucius, in which the sage suggests that by the age of 50, one ought to be sure of one’s place in the universe, should know ‘the mandate of heaven’. The getting of wisdom, if you like, should be done and dusted. Across six floors of Shanghai’s Rockbund Museum, and across its façade, rooftop balcony, stairwells and elevators, Song Dong responds to Confucius with all the uncertainty and anxiety of a more complicated age: ‘At 10, I was not worried. At 20, I was not restrained. At 30, I wasn’t established. At 40, I was perplexed and at 50, I don’t know the mandate of heaven.’
The exhibition is divided into seven ‘chapters’, one for each floor of the museum and the seventh for the exterior. Each chapter is represented by a Chinese character; together they form a line of a verse:
Jing (mirror), Ying (shadow), Yan (word), Jue (revelation),
Li (experience), Wo (self), and Ming (illumination).
Entering, you are immersed in a structure of re-purposed window frames and mirrors, a (literal) Daoist reflection on the fleeting nature of the physical world, beautiful and unsettling. Within the structure you find Song’s homage to Duchamp’s first readymade. The Use of Uselessness: Bottle Rack Big Brother (2016) is an enlarged version of Duchamp’s inverted bottle rack; on its prongs are discarded bottles that once held whiskey or powerful Chinese baijiu. Lit to resemble a fallen chandelier, they have been cleverly arranged to look a lot like the ubiquitous surveillance cameras that watch our every waking moment. This modern day panopticon has particularly chilling connotations in China, and the work reminds us that surveillance has been a recurring theme in Song’s work. Another work that hints at the heavy hand of the state is found on the third floor. ‘Slogans’ is a maze of fencing and the red banners with white text that you see everywhere in Chinese cities, hanging on fences, outside schools and across the entrance to apartment buildings. Visitors were forced to follow a narrow, circumscribed path through the fences, with the most popular political slogans of the last century and today looming over them – there was no possible alternative route. Sixteen watchful fibreglass policeman with Song Dong’s face are positioned throughout the exhibition.

Song Dong, Mirror Hall, installation view, Mirrors, old wooden window frames, mirror boards, Dimensions variable. 2016–2017. With policeman figure from the series Policemen. Fiberglass, acrylic painting, 170 cm in height, 16 pieces. 2000–2004. Image courtesy Rockbund Art Museum
To read more, click HERE