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Female artists featured in Prestel’s 2009 text, Young Chinese Artists: The Next Generation — Part VI: Ma Yanhong

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Noe, Piëch, and Steiner draw a comparison between the paintings by Ma Yanhong (b. 1977) and those of her teachers at the Central Academy, artists Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong (p. 179). Ma acknowledges this influence, but is quick to also point out the qualities that distinguish her work from other artists’:

Certainly my teachers shaped me, but I’m developing ever further away from this painting technique. I am concerned with the beauty of the people I paint, their erotic charisma. And it’s not just any random model, but I have a personal connection to the women. We set up the scenes together (Ibid).

Ma’s work builds upon the past at the same time as it removes the power held by now out-dated conventions. She embraces the daintier and prettier aspects of femininity, but her work here is not critiqued for being a return to antiquated ideals (as the femininity in Nuxing Yishu (“woman’s art”) categorized work has been). Instead, it is portrayed as being a natural part of her creativity and personality; and part of her generation’s freedom. On this point, the authors recall a common thread that ties the return to femininity among women in post-Mao China to the unisex egalitarianism of the Cultural Revolution:

Today’s women of urban China seize upon the same right to femininity that their parents’ generation, embroiled in the androgenic policies of the Cultural Revolution, considered morally reprehensible (Ibid).

The androgenic nature of the Cultural Revolution gender roles is not a point that needs debating. The use of the feminine to form a cohesive female voice among artists is also not a new theme within China’s modern art critics. What is interesting here is that the authors portray this return to the feminine as a positive development, whereas critics of the Nuxing Yishi era used the return to the feminine as an illustration of past repression, never pointing to the potential empowerment involved. Surely, both viewpoints are valid, but I wonder why the narrative has changed in so relatively short a time period.

Ma is compared to her female teacher (Yu Hong) who is 14 years her senior, yet Yu’s work was received in a different light that included the negatively connoted domestic/feminine aspects related to the Nuxing Yishu category. One is tempted to make the argument that both generations of women were reacting to the past in a manner that felt empowering, and the different interpretations of this reaction were colored by the dialogue manufactured through and around the development of Nuxing Yishu as a definite category.

Ma’s work is also know for its frank portrayal of the female body in scantily clad scenes that are sometimes incredibly intimate, and at other times force the viewer into an uncomfortable confrontation. The nude in China (particularly the female nude) has its own narrative that Ma both seems to react to and diffuse.

Nudity in China’s art emerged as a “naughty kind of cultural dissent in 1979” and became increasingly politicized amidst the tense cultural conflict between intellectuals and the government that led to the violent protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 (Kraus, 2004, 98). Mao declared the necessity of nude studies for scientific and artistic development, but during much of the 1980s, nude art shows—featuring nudes different in both form and intention—drew sensation and censure, as well as also significant amounts of money for the artists and organizers (female nude models were not included among the lucky recipients of this market, receiving only social denigration and very little other compensation). This growth was not limited to painting as “nude paintings were merely the most refined manifestation of a decade’s movement toward greater sexual explicitness” (Ibid, 91).

Anti-pornography campaigns during the mid 1980s threatened to derail nude painting, but these were primarily veiled attempts at overarching political repression, and the issue paled in comparison to the matters at hand by the end of the decade. Ultimately, nudes in art have prevailed through the ability of the genre to generate market value, especially after Deng Xiaoping’s “southern inspection” in 1992 during which he visited major southern economic sectors to legitimize profit seeking in the market (Ibid, 96). The bumpy progress of the 80s and 90s helped to vindicate one of China’s most prominent female artists, Pan Yuliang (b.1895-d.1977) who lived in Paris for much of her life as a result of the clash between the socially conservative Chinese art world of the 1930s and 1940s, and her unabashedly bold paintings (Kraus, 2004, 96; China Daily, 2006). Her works have been shown widely across the world including exhibitions in the U.S., Japan, and several European nations.

The great acclaim she garnered abroad during her lifetime was legitimated in China both during her life and after her death when her paintings were repatriated in 1985 (they are now held by the China National Art Gallery and Anhui Provincial Museum). Though she lived most of her career Paris, she had five solo shows in China from 1929 to 1936; and at a solo exhibition in Shanghai in 1926, was declared to be China’s first female western style painting artist. After this string of shows, she settled in Paris in 1937 amidst uncomfortable pressures in China including an incident in 1935 in which an audience member of her solo show tore up one of the pieces, and left behind the message, “This is a prostitute’s carol to a whoremonger” as justification (China Daily, 2007). The main contention with her work was its frequent portrayal of female nudity, and she is especially well-known for her depiction of women bathing in nature. “By 2002 a Beijing art exhibition featured nudes that Pan created in Paris suggesting how normal nude painting had become” (Kraus, 2004, 96).

Today, it is even trendy for young women to commission nude portraits of themselves in commemoration of their youth (People’s Daily, 2000). This development and the use of nude self-portraiture is not looked upon approvingly by older generations of Chinese, accustomed to the social mores of the not too distant past that resulted in nude models during the 1980s finding divorce and family estrangement to be the primary reward for their contributions to art. While it will not result in a life of exile for contemporary artists, it certainly pushes social and generational boundaries to not only include graphic representations of the female nude, but to include graphic representations of one’s own female body naked. Scholars argue that neither the government, nor the artistic community has ever resolved the unfair gender relationships innate to the genre of nude painting: “men remained the viewers, and women remained the viewed” (Kraus, 2004, 98). But women are making strides in this direction by reclaiming female nudity as means of personal and social expression.

Cui Xiuwen, whose daring documentary Ladies Room led her to be called a feminist artist by critics is a good example of this development. In 2000, Cui hid a camcorder inside the ladies’ room of a posh Beijing hotel. The image focused on a limited area of mirror in front of which young prostitutes are seen stopping. They adjust their bras, fix their make-up, emotionlessly readying themselves for their evening of work. “Although some art critics have praised “Ladies Room” as a social critique of commercial sex in today’s China, Cui Xiuwen’s interest lies in representing a social space which is both public and secret, and which belongs to women alone” (Grosenick & Schübbe, 2007, 75). Her work is strongly autobiographical, evoking “the artist’s memory of her mixed beliefs, hopes, dreams, and fears” in a public manner that allows for interaction with the viewer (Ibid, 77). Cui incorporates autobiographical depiction using models that resemble herself in youth, and also powerful cultural images that define the life of modern China.

Ma Yanhong’s work shows a similar interaction between history and present, female and artist, and woman and individual. Through a very personal process, she produces intimate portraits that capture a country in this particular time.

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

March 23, 2010 at 12:58 AM

Li Shuang

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1978-1979 was a significant period in the development of contemporary Chinese art, which did not come into existence until the events of the late 1970s, particularly the opening of China by Deng Xiao Ping that enabled artists to create an ideological space for their work. Not since before 1948 had artists been able to cultivate individual expression without the restraints of socialist realism and political persecution. “After years of intellectual blankness during the Communist regime, the new forms that sprang up at this time were categorized under the common terms of ‘avant-garde art’ or “experimental art’” (Albertini, 2008, 8). This led to a national revitalization of the arts, with artists and writers experimenting, networking, and stirring up followers throughout the country. When this culminated in the New Wave Movement of 1985, artists were met with looser government restrictions regarding censorship, and colonies of artists flourished in over twenty-five cities throughout China (Ibid). This freedom did not last however, and the first group of artists to emerge during these social changes was forced to move abroad after exhibitions with political overtones back-lashed in political persecution. These artists have only in recent years begun returning to China. Although predominantly a male group, a small number of notable female participants have gained international prominence. For example, Li Shuang, who continues to live in Paris, but returned to shows in the mainland beginning in 2006 (Verlag Frauen Museum, 1999, 174; Galerie Du Monde, 2009).

As the only woman among the founding artists in the Stars (Xingxing) group that self-assembled during 1979 in an attempt to shake loose the stranglehold of the government on China’s artistic communities, Shuang is a powerful figure in the story of contemporary female artists. Imprisoned for living in Beijing with her French fiancé, diplomat Emmanuel Bellefroid, Shuang was freed at the request of future French president Francois Mitterand in a meeting with Deng Xiaoping, and moved to France to marry Bellefoid. Her paintings now include portraits of characters with Buddha-like features and titles that play on traditional Chinese thees, such as Pine Tree & Crane (image below, Oil on canvas, 195 x 130 cm, 2007, ArtZine).

It is difficult to categorize this work within the restrictive descriptions of women’s artwork previously mentioned. Her earlier works during the late 1970s and 1980s are murky and abstract; and do appear to show a development akin to that described by the scholars cited above. She includes increasingly feminine characters, and in 2001, suggests a direct communication between the feminine and the masculine that shows the feminine as passive perhaps, but persistent and numerous.

Dialogue, Oil on Canvas, 116 X 81cm, 2001, ArtZine

Overall , her work shows traits of the characteristics of the 1980s and 1990s, but it also is haunting in its rich colors combined with icey, half-god stares. She is proof that the broad sweeps that were used to define modern female artists passed over many women with too much haste.

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Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

March 8, 2010 at 11:03 PM

Female artists featured in Prestel’s 2009 text, Young Chinese Artists: The Next Generation — Part V: Liang Yue

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Born in 1979 Shanghai, Liang Yue, captures interactions between herself and the urban centers of China’s economic growth. Noe et al. describe the city as,

a presence in much of her work, both as antagonist and accomplice (Noe, Piëch, Steiner, 143).

The dust storms that blanket Beijing in an orange dust during March and April change her partner in crime, extending the hours of dusk-like light, and casting the buildings in an otherworldly haze.

Liang Yue 'Morse Code 12' from the series 'Several Dusks' 2003 C-type print Width 120 cm x height 80 cm Collection of Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, Switzerland © Liang Yue

Liang Yue 'Morse Code 12' from the series 'Several Dusks' 2003 C-type print Width 120 cm x height 80 cm Collection of Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, Switzerland © Liang Yue

Liang Yue 'Morse Code 10 ' from the series 'Several Dusks' 2003 C-type print Width 120 cm x height 80 cm Collection of Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, Switzerland © Liang Yue

Liang Yue 'Morse Code 10 ' from the series 'Several Dusks' 2003 C-type print Width 120 cm x height 80 cm Collection of Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, Switzerland © Liang Yue

According to Noe et al., Liang’s work is an expression of something deeply personal and internal, yet she captures people, places, and activities that reflect the larger community of urban Chinese. Even when striving to capture the relatively quiet city at night, Liang portrays a broader story:

as much as these works are based in peace and quiet, they are simultaneously filled with the traces of humanity. The drawn curtains and distant lights on the highway suggest a multitude of lives and stories unfolding (Ibid).

Her photography and video work follows friends and strangers in routine / mundane activities, bringing everyday moments into an exaggerated light, and highlighting the publicity of intimacy in crowded urban centers. Traveling Day (2005/6) documents a trip taken with friends from Shanghai to a little town in Zhejiang province, and has been praised as “a subtle portrait of everyday things in the life of ordinary young people.” Lady Lady (2007), which follows Liang’s friend shopping in Hong Kong, where she buys extreme amounts of cosmetics. This film was featured at the China Independent Film Festival in 1999. The  schedule helpfully points out the fact that Liang is a female.

Liang’s ability to portray the mingling of public and personal that occurs in modern urban China is something she shares with contemporary female artists, such as Ciu Xiuwen (b. 1970), whose video Underground 2, captures a woman on the subway, tearing dead skin off her lips, temporarily unaware or uncaring of the public space she has chosen for this action.

I think that ultimately, Liang provides a lifeline to the individual to prevent loss in the drone of the city. Take the photograph below in which:

…the figure is shown standing in the distance on a pedestrian footbridge. People pass by and traffic can be seen rushing beneath. The scene is a blur of movement and activity except for the tiny beam of the flashlight that fives an intimate point of contact across space and time and suggests sympathy for individual consciousness within an indifferent environment (Ibid).

From Noe, et. al., page 145.

More on Liang Yue can be found at:

http://chngyaohong.com/blog/photography/liang-yue/

http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/photography/past_exhns/twilight/yue/index.html

http://china.shanghartgallery.com/galleryarchive/archives/id/330

http://www.shanghart.com/exhibitions/liangyue.htm

http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/photography+%2526+film/art40915

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

January 23, 2010 at 9:48 PM

Female artists featured in Prestel’s 2009 text, Young Chinese Artists: The Next Generation — Part IV: Han Yajuan

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In good company in this book, Han Yajuan represents the experiences of her generation aptly, using the her own life as inspiration for her artwork. She represents the consumer-oriented environment of China’s modern urban only children. But her has an undeniable feminine bent:

Han Yajuan uses cartoonish playfulness in her paintings to express a fascination for high fashion and celebrity culture that is increasingly prevalent in China’s rapidly growing urban centers. She portrays the fantasy life of young Chinese women reflecting the rising economy’s promises of wealth, luxury, and new options of consumerism. ‘They are like my idols. They can be fashionable, but also brave. They can be really free and easy, fearlessly driving off in a VW Beetle, or being really successful. In short they can do lots of things I could not do (Noe, Piëch, Steiner, p. 97).

Han Yajuan, My Life in Bobo's Kingdom No. 8, 2006 Oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm.

Noe et. al. make point of the pervasive nature of cartoon imagery in modern Chinese art as a result of the importation of western cartoon shows during the childhood of the post 1975 generation. The authors highlight a significant outgrowth of this cross-cultural influence that marks the power of silent translation that is imbued in the communal charge of visual culture:

…using a comic-inspired imaginary that already has an established international and intercultural visual diction enables Han Yajuan’s generation to communicate their ideas and feeligns to a global audience (Ibid).

Han employs elite brand logos in the global conversation about luxury and peerless drive. She seems also to bring this terminology into the titles of her pieces, such as the 2007 painting, Blue Fly, which evokes the designer online shopping site: BlueFly.com.

Han Yajuan Bluefly Oil on Canvas 150 x 150 cm 2007

Han Yajuan Bluefly Oil on Canvas 150 x 150 cm 2007

Upon first glance, this picture resemble an actual fly, made up of beautiful girls with a penchant for blue. Han has woven in many icons of material culture, however. Laptops have VAIO, netscape, and oddly, prada labels. Chanel, Dolce Gabbana, and Gucci are inscribed on books and apparel, and iPods/cell phones are a given. In general, I did not notice these details in my initial viewings of Han’s work. I was struck by the faces of the women portrayed. Their isolation, and their thick skin. Their blatant symbol status. The official, publicly recognized symbols, are only the icing on Han’s cake of superficial stature.

Karen Smith has said that Han’s characters are representative of China’s modern only children: coddled but expected to care for their parents, they face difficult realities without the past experience to indicate that they can rise to the challenge.

Han’s work was included in 2006 exhibition, Fancy Dream, curated by Zhu Tong and Eleonora Battiston. This exhibit portrayed the dreams and realities of China’s economic and cultural boom as expressed by the youth whose lives were shaped by these changes. Han Yajuan’s installation takes over the space of transition between other installations and floors of the Marella Gallery in the 798 Art District of Beijing.

Passing through the stairs of the main hall across the way, you enter in the “illusion” exhibit. From the stairwell all the way to the second floor exhibit hall is the entire image of the artist Han Yajuan. A three-segment projection from different directions portrays the entire image upon a wall, where the work of art apperas as one. As the spectators walk up to the next floor, they themselves, at times, will feel the process of the art itself, like being in a dreamland. This exhibit emerges beautifully, definitely making up for any of the previous exhibits’ shortcomings. Han Yajuan is an extremely sensitive artist, very adept at combining open spaces with her art and connecting the viewer as well (Fancy Dream, p. 10).

Han Yajuan’s video installation in this exhibit, Flash was heralded by the artist Zhang Xiaotao as being:

the “correction” of young Chinese female artists for a current meaningless and incomplete language…Through the video language she presents a varied but disordered working status; the noises stimulate our psychological and mental reaction…Han Yajuan’s series of oil paintings “Cow Kingdom” with their superb and coquettish colors appear very palatable and, at the same time, they create pets and pretty girls which double on the canvases. The pretty little cow figures and the Audi and BMW cars in the piece “Luxuries” are just a daydream, or are they reality? (Ibid, p. 78).

Han’s artist statement for Fancy Dream reveals that this sense of wonder at reality and illusion melded together is exactly the reaction she desires:

Often in our memory, we have sudden flashbacks of some shocking scenes, like falling into a pond when we were children, thrashing about and eventually standing up again. However, every time I have mentioned this to my mum, she always said no such things happened to me. Later, even I started to doubt it. These kind facts are so important and related to our destiny, that I wonder whether they are something minted somewhere.

The work Flash Memory attempts to exaggerate, with a group of suggestive images, a kind of concern about consistency and persistence of the clue about human existence. In fact, the expansion of this clue is a process of searching, locating and revising, and it is likely to lead to senseless lost [sic], or to the deletion of tracks due to an accident in our memory, or maybe has been distorted, or even being bluntly disordered by “external forces.” No person would like to accept such a result. The process of research and revision is something full of efforts and sightlessness, it is vulnerable and I thought it would as well [have] been real and interesting (Ibid).

Han may be solidifying her own language, however while her symbols are most often very feminine, the story she tells is of her generation, not her gender. She does not seem bound to the characteristics of Nuxing Yishu, and she does not seem to be reacting to female predecessors. Her motivations may stem primarily from an internal struggle with her place in the external world of modern Chinese youth, and a desire to make clear the blur between imagination, fate, and fact.

More can be found on Han Yajuan at:

http://www.kerseboom.com/hanyajuan/hanyajuanpage.html

http://www.chinesecontemporary.com/han_yajuan_cv.htm

http://www.artnet.com/artist/424888223/han-yajuan.html

http://oneartworld.com/artists/H/Han+Yajuan.html

http://www.beyondartspace.com/en/artistSpace.asp?artistID=40

http://www.nyartbeat.com/event/2009/93FA

http://www.artfacts.net/en/artist/han-yajuan-82777/profile.html

http://www.oneinchpunch.net/2007/06/27/chinese-shopaholics-in-chinese-artist-han-yajuans-cute-paintings/

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

January 23, 2010 at 1:00 AM

Zhang Yue, born 1987, 177 Wuding Lu, 2007.

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Zhang Yue aims to “make work that resonates meaningfully with the particular context of its creation” (Albertini, 2008, 168). For 177 Wuding Lu (pictured below), she embroidered common phrases and the outlines of eating ware onto table cloths that she put in place at a restaurant set for demolition the next day. After the last day of service, these table cloths and the stains of use become representational of a time and place that will never again exist in the rapidly evolving Chinese urban environment.

Images, Albertini, 2008.

More on Zhang Yue can be found at:

The Artist’s website

Saatchi Gallery

Perceptual Art Machine

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

August 18, 2009 at 9:10 PM

Female artists featured in Prestel’s 2009 text, Young Chinese Artists: The Next Generation — Part III: Chen Qiulin

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Chen Qiulin (born 1975 in Yichang) is a particularly apt ambassador for China’s urban youth because her work embodies the cycles of death, rebirth, and dreams that define China’s urban environments in which buildings are gone and replaced (and sometimes gone again) more quickly than building proposals are agreed upon in the U.S. A prominent theme in her work is cemented in the act of memorializing her hometown, Wanxian, that has become eclipsed and erased by the rising water of the Three Gorges Dam. Her melding of past and present, real and imagined,  “renders the present as a circular movement between urban destruction, creation, and Utopian imagination” (Noe, Piëch, Steiner, 2009, 67). In Tofu–100 Chinese Surnames, Chen forces tradition onto the modern landscape in a way that recalls the personal while it disrupts the public:

Her installation of tofu alongside a new road in the lush Sichuan countryside is a work filled with reminders of tradition and of people who populate that tradition. The tofu characters are the one hundred most common Chinese family surnames. This element of the work is packed with significance. First of all, these are names, names of people, families found all over China.

Almost everyone will be able to identify with these names. If they do not find their own name among these one hundred they will find the name of their neighbours, their classmates or their friends.

Chen Quilin, "Tofu -- 100 Chinese Surnames," 2004, Silver Gelatin Print, 40 x 120 cm.
Chen Qiulin, “Tofu — 100 Chinese Surnames,” 2004, Silver Gelatin Print, 40 x 120 cm.

In Farewell Poem, 2002/2003, Chen crafts her own visual language of historical allegory and mourning physical ties to the past. This fourteen-minute video shows:

documentary footage of the demolition process (of her own hometown and the towns that surrounded it) interchanges with segments of the Peking opera Farewell My Concubine staged on the ruin of a tradition opera theater. Dressed up as Concubine Yu herself, Chen Qiulin transforms the ill-fated opera character into an allegorical figure in memory of the lost cultural tradition of her hometown (Noe, Piëch, Steiner, 2009, 67).

Chen Qiulin, "Farewell Poem," 2002/2003, Video.

Chen Qiulin, "Farewell Poem," 2002/2003, Video.

For more on Chen Qiulin, see (from artnet.com):

2008 Cate McQuaid, Flooded land Common Ground: Painting and Video Focus on China’s Three Gorges, The Boston Globe, (March 30).
2007 Debra Singer, On the Ground: New York, Artforum, (December): p. 284-289.
2007 Samir S. Patel, Chen Qiulin at Max Protetch, ArtAsiaPacific, (September – October).
2007 Migration, NY Arts, (vol. II no. 11/12).
2006 James Meyer, The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art, Artforum, (April): p. 238-239.
2005 Minglu Gao, The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art, Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

August 3, 2009 at 9:02 PM

Female artists featured in Prestel’s 2009 text, Young Chinese Artists: The Next Generation — Part II: Cao Fei

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Cao Fei offers an exemplary character study for the possibilities open to young female artists. She has made high waves in international and domestic circles since earning her BFA from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. Her work is often credited as being some of the best that the post-1975 generation has produced, as well as representational of the creative strengths of contemporary Chinese art in general. She has had influential supporters, such as super-star curators Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich-Obrist, even before she finished school. Take for example, this quote from an article entitled The World According to Cao Fei:

…the curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist says the young supergirl ‘has developed an expansive oeuvre of theatrical performance, photography, writing, sound pieces, short film and even a feature length production” that reminds him of a young Robert Rauschenberg.’

Art:21 blog reports that the October 14th episode of the PBS series, Art: 21 — Art in the Twenty-first Century, will be titled “Fantasy,” and will feature Cao, along with three other artists:

Mary Heilmann, Jeff Koons, and Florian Maier-Aichen — whose hallucinatory, irreverent, and sublime works transport us to imaginary worlds and altered states of consciousness.

The editors of Young Chinese Artists describe the varied mediums and socially conscious viewpoint that have made up her work in the last decade, as well as the dark, introspective piece, Room 807 (2002), which they rightly point out is seldom included in surveys of her work.

Cao Fei, "Room 807," 2002

Cao Fei, "Room 807," 2002.

Cao Fei, "Room 807, No. 5," Photograph, 84 x 112 cm.

Cao Fei, "Room 807, No. 5," Photograph, 84 x 112 cm.

Unfortunately, there is no interview included in their portrait of Cao, so the editors include quotes from other interviews with the artist. Still, the interviews they include are notable (e.g. a 2007 interview with curator Hou Hanru). It would have been interesting to see what this poster child of generational talent would say in a body of work full of the words and works of her generation, especially since she often has a critical eye on the construction of realities among the techno-centric youth of China’s rapidly altered urban environments.

Cao Fei, "Yanmy at Home (CosPlayers Series)," 2004, C-print.

Cao Fei, "Yanmy at Home (CosPlayers Series)," 2004, C-print.

Cao Fei, "Nada at Home (CosPlayers Series)," 2004, Digital C-print.

Cao Fei, "Nada at Home (CosPlayers Series)," 2004, Digital C-print.

The editors sum up her work clearly and concisely (something which is sometimes lacking in the flourishes of art criticism):

Cao Fei’s art has become increasingly challenging, demanding, and socially engaging over the past ten years of her career. Her playful joggling of realistic fantasies and fantastic realities makes her work most pertinent to actual life experiences in contemporary China, something often lost in the staggering numbers of economic growth and the cant governmental promises of an Utopian future where everyone’s life will be better the next day.

Cao Fei, "RMB City 2," 2007, Digital C-print.

Cao Fei, "RMB City 2," 2007, Digital C-print.

This afternoon, I saw Cao’s video triptych, Whose Utopia at the Henry Art Gallery. The twenty minute piece is incredibly moving (also great to sit in a dark air-conditioned room during the heatwave that has been raging in Seattle). I watched it twice, and not just for the free a/c. The first part, Imagination is Product, is visually interesting, but topically numbing, which is an appropriate portrait of the mechanical repitition required in professional factory life. Countless identical light bulbs get produced largely by machines. Then the human workers–mostly young, mostly female–take over to perform those tasks that are not well suited to machines. The central aspect of this labor seems to be quality control. One worker pushes bulb after bulb onto a conduit to test them. Cao shows her face lit up over and over again, as the woman stares into the light. One can only imagine the headaches that this induces. The sequence title is fitting since it was imagination that resulted in machinized labor, and it was imagination that led Deng Xiaoping to open China to commercial possibilities and to build large factories on which the world would come to rely. In the end, imagination turned into products, in this case lightbulbs, sent abroad by the boatload to light homes, businesses, and cars. These young workers traded rigid tradition and parental supervision, for a lonely sort of freedom as cogs inside of concrete buildings. Cao was born in Guangzhou, the capital city of the province in which the OSRAM lighting factory sits. This area had one of the first of China’s national economic developments zones: the Guangzhou Economic and Technological Development Zone. As such, this city and the surrounding towns are intimately connected to the social instability that accompanies China’s rapid economic growth. Cao has rythmically portrayed the disconnect between the dreams of youth looking to factory jobs for economic and social freedom, and the true quality of life that these workers experience.

Cao Fei, "Whose Utopia?" 2006, Video Installation

Cao Fei, "Whose Utopia?" 2006, Video Installation.

Cao Fei, "Whose Utopia?" 2006, Installation View

Cao Fei, "Whose Utopia?" 2006, Installation View, Tate Liverpool.

The band of the same name, who's members are featured in the video, wear t-shirts that spell out the title of the piece: "My future is not a dream."

The band of the same name, who's members are featured in the video, wear t-shirts that spell out the title of the piece: "My future is not a dream."

I must also make a note particular to the Henry set-up: the designers chose two facing galleries to present Cao’s video and that of her co-artist in this exhibit, Yang Fudong. This layout is ideal since the co-curators of the exhibit, Heather Lineberry and Marylin Zeitlin, chose the two partly because the artists are different enough in style, age, and gender to represent the spectrum of contemporary Chinese art. However, the speakers in both galleries were placed just inside the door so that sounds from the opposing gallery constantly leaked into the other, and could be heard even when one was not near the entrance. This may have been caused by differences between what Henry staff wanted to accomplish, and what building and budget conditions enabled them to accomplish, and I am not meaning to criticise without some understanding. It really is a shame, however, because the simple presentation of the videos–one screen, one bench, no text inside the room–was perfect, and perfectly spoiled by the noise pollution.

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

August 1, 2009 at 11:14 PM