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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

Nothing more than modern parlor painting?

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The late 1970s and 80s were a significant time in the history of modern Chinese art. “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’.” (Claudia Albertini, 2008, Avatars and Antiheroes, 8). Women were outnumbered in participation in these changes, but some critics go so far as to argue that the artwork of women was not only not developing in line with the artwork of their male contemporaries, but that it was not developing at all: entrenched in antiquated themes and styles. Art historian John Clark characterized female artwork of this period as being “wary of societal topics,” and “nothing more than a modern version of parlor painting” (Clark, 2000, Chinese Art at the Turn of the Millennium. Hong Kong: New Art Media Limited, 71).

Could this be true, or do views such as this represent a misconception of the development / language of female artists? Of socialist painting in China?

Similar statements about female artwork can be found within Chinese discourse as well. Take for example the following statement from artist/critic Liao Wen that appears in Wu Hung’s 2002 text, The First Guangzhou Triennal–Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (1990-2000):

“Unfortunately, within the mainstream women’s art served only as a feminine ornament on the broad sweep of government ideology and had little to do with women’s perspective or existence in contemporary China” (p. 61).

Liao, a woman, has written a good deal on the development of female artists in China. Her views are well-informed, yet echo statements that women’s artwork turned to antiquated, safe, paths just as their male contemporaries branched out into untested waters:

Phobic of utilitarianism, they were similarly wary of societal topics. Now more than ever before without a model or a safe harbor, women either consciously or subconsciously returned to the garden of traditional art. Feminist art from this period is almost entirely comprised of women, children, mothers and their children, flowers and scenery. (see Yan Ping ‘s “Mother and Child” and Jiang Caiping ‘s “Tibetan Opera Actress”).

Yan Ping
“Mother and Child”
Oil on Canvas

Jiang Caiping
“Tibetan Opera Actress”
“Gong Bi” Ink on Paper

Even if the works from this period employ a variety of different techniques, nonetheless painting seemed to be nothing more than a modern version of parlor painting and linked neither to Chinese contemporary culture, much less feminist culture (“Tumultuous History of China’s Feminist Values and Art“).

The subjects of women’s artwork in China during the late 1970s through the 1980s may have been similar to those parlor painting (images of home, flowers, portraits of women, etc.), but the style and story seems highly subjective, and the storyteller wields great influence. An exhibit promoted as an Olympic venue attraction by the “Official Website of the Chinese Government” portrayed female artists of the 20th century as wielding unique insights and subtle stylistic linguistics that show them being proactive commentators on the social and political developments of the period.

The exhibit announcement tells us that during the recent Olympics, visitors to the Beijing Fine Art Academy were be greeted by an exhibit of “12 eminent women painters of 20th century China.”

The 50 selected works on show adopted typical subjects in traditional Chinese ink and brush paintings, such as landscapes, flowers-and-birds, and portraits. They were composed by such eminent female painters as He Xiangning, Pu Yunyu, Xiao Shufang and Zhou Sicong between the 1950s and the 1980s.

The show’s organizer says that the female artists have an edge over their male counterparts in terms of artistic expression.

Gao Yuan from Beijing Fine Art Academy said, “Female artists tend to be more keen to discover the hidden beauty in life. They are also more perceptive to changes happening in their surrounding environments. From these paintings, you can see that they have a more serene state of mind.”

The announcement makes special note of the inclusion of Zhou Sicong (1939-1996), whose work is described as significant to nationalistic and feminist causes: “Many of her 1950s’ works reflect how women were actively involved in the construction of socialism.”

Zhou’s work is described by an Italian gallery as significant in contemporary social and feminist discourse:

ZHOU SICONG (1939 – 1996)

Zhou Sicong was born in 1939. As a prominent and influential Chinese artist during the mid to late 20th Century, Zhou was perhaps one of the first to express deep concern for, and doubt over, the fate of Chinese women from a feminist perspective. She once said, “”I always feel that women are too tired, without any rest.” In her painting, ‘Yi women’, Zhou depicts her concerns by portraying two women of Yi ethnicity carring almost overbearing heavy bundles of firewood – a recurring theme in her work. Other more abstract pieces demonstrate Zhou Sicongs mastery of ink and her innovative ink techniques. Zhou died in 1996 at the age of 57.

Several of China’s female artists of the 2oth century showed their work in Europe, and opinions about the development of a modern female visual language are somewhat disparate, but not in strictly geographical terms. Perhaps ideology from multiple channels has impacted this discourse in a different way dependent upon domestic discourse. A survey of artwork in the mid-twentieth century will likely reveal multiple discourses, and women who’s work does not fit the restrictive descriptions above.

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

January 26, 2010 at 1:04 AM

Jia, F. (1999). Nüxing yishu zai jiushi niandai (Women’s art during the 1990s). Art Observation, vol. 3. Translated from the original Chinese.

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Women’s Art in the Nineties

The nineties was the decade in which Chinese female artists became the most dynamic. Since 1990 [when] eight young female painters united to begin an exhibition, female artists have become increasingly active. In1995 this practice became a hot trend: in Beijing alone, the quantity of female artists’ exhibitions was not less than twenty or more. Until 1998, female artists were involved in an expansion of exhibitions: in March in Beijing “Shi ji–Nu Xing Yi Shu Zhan” (Century Woman Artist Exhibition), in April in Taibei, “Taiwanese Female Artist’s Exhibition,” and in June in Berlin, Germany, “Half of the Sky.” Exhibitions of Chinese female artists — the line up and powerful academic research that each of these three exhibits possess — they are the important landscape at the turn of the century of Chinese contemporary art. Therefore recall the previous nine years, and the “Chinese Modern Art Exhibition,” which was the last [exhibition] to cause a temporary sensation: the “gun attack incident.” Unavoidably, this gave way to people sighing with deep feeling over one of the deeper implications hinted at: the curtain on new art closes, female artists are brought on stage. Since the individual who opened fire was a young female artist.

Women’s Art: New Theme of Conversation in the Nineties

Female art was the new topic of conversation during the decade of the nineties. It was also a popular topic within the [discussion of] China’s “post modern” and the contemporary art. Speaking like this is not to imply a denial of the accomplishments of previous female artists, it is merely to say that former female artwork certainly did not have convex displays of a type of clear female characteristic, therefore it is extremely difficult to judge their work in terms of gender. Nevertheless, coming into the nineties, the creative work of female artists appeared to more advantage, as distinctive from that of male artists. Female artists no longer needed male standards and male creative processes in order to paint. They began to establish a type of self-study and consciousness of the particular [and] recognizable similarities of their own gender, leading to gender specific discrepancies discovered within the value of their own selves. Once women attempted to use personal experience and “women’s perspective” to interpret this century, women’s creative works were not only different from male artists, but also different from the work of any former era of women. Therefore this singular practice embodied “women’s art,” and the advance of these concepts composed the topical content of “women’s art” and its “post-modern” overtones.

Once we had the one “coupled artist” age of collaboration. When men and women are equal in theory (as in couple collaborations), it keeps women from their sense of self-exploration, so the meaning of equal transforms into women’s effemulation. Under these conditions, female artist’s work can only represent one type of characteristic: “non-sexual” [by means of] anti-feminine intentions during the time of this trend. However, today the couple artist age of collaboration has passed, the “wife’s” paintings already differ from “husband’s” paintings. And this sort of difference stems from these women’s realization of their “womanhood;” and also the realization that they have their own perspective. They have their own experiences and standards of judgment. Additionally, the way that [women] feel and experience the world, and the way that they think, is different from men. It is these gender differences that are the foundation for the construction of female art. It is on top of this “corner stone” that female art can reveal a unique aesthetic, a moral character, and a spirit of direction.

Women’s Art and Male Art

When we try to distinguish art in terms of gender and confirm the concept of “women’s art,” theoretically there is a very complicated condition: if we declare that all art created by women is “women’s art,” then it means that we have to agree on an extension of the concept at the same time: all art created by men is “male art.” If we agree on that concept and take it a step further: it raises the question, what distinguishes male art from female art. How can we answer that? If there is no gender-based distinction in art, then why should we define gender-based categories in art?

Actually, within the art produced by humankind, the greater part of it is distinguished as belonging to “neutral” [art], the primary method stems from distinct gender-based perspective, so [in the category of neutral art] there is no need to make these sorts of distinctions. If we put artists into classes based on uncomplicated divisions of male artists and female artists, then it’s as if we place previous artists in the place of the bourgeoisie like the supreme class, we could cave into a theory of a type of dualism. Nevertheless, within this artistic category there is certainly a group that possesses a clear divergence based on gender, and gender-based characteristics. Thus, in regarding this section of art [one is] supplied with that particular viewpoint. We test this sort of situation below with a graph that shows:

(*Apologies for the lack of a graph here–chalk it up to technical difficulties. Imagine two overlapping circles. The one on the left is labeled, “male art,” and the one on the right, “female art.” The area in which they overlap is labeled, “gender neutral art.”*)

Male Art                                                                                             Women’s Art

1                 2

Gender Neutral Art

Circle one indicates all male artists’ artistic productions;

Circle two indicates all female artist’s artistic productions;

The value of the intersection of circle one and circle two is the portion of artists whose gender-based distinction diverges from these groups, namely “gender neutral art.” The portion of both circles that does not overlap, equals the portion where the existing group’s sexual distinction diverges, this could also be called “male art” or “women’s art” to take into account that group’s inclusion.

The differences between female art and male art are produced by [the artists’] experience based on respective differences of sexual distinction. From this deep layer of sexual distinction, the heart’s resources are triggered. As a result of having male gender and female gender, there exist divergent parts from physiology to mentality. Due to the long term of the father’s power over the consciousness of women, [the father figure] exerts influence that determines their art from its starting point to its style of presentation, [so] in this sector there can exist differences. It is also from these types of differences, female art can reveal unique/personal value. Therefore the meaning of using gender distinction in the process of [this discussion]: female art’s appearance and development filled out an empty space of art history—the prior version of art history is basically the history of the male visual experience. The development of the female visual experience makes this history complete. This is where the real value of using gender distinction in the discussion of art and the advocacy of women’s art lies.

Furthermore, from the perspective of art history, women’s art could be broadly defined as being the entirety of women’s creative works. Due to [the fact that] they as a group are constantly being stifled, and being placed in the periphery of art history. Therefore when we historically, and completely settle accounts [regarding] only their art productions, it is very natural to broadly use the concept of “women’s art.”

The Basic Characteristics of Women’s Art

Since “women’s art” is an independently existing [category] separate from male art, then it is supposed to be describable and also have its own relatively stable characteristics and appearance. However, due to its plentiful, colorful, and various orientations, and due to its being located in an actively changing process, it is not possible to attempt to describe it. Nevertheless, we try to include the following points based on the current status of the development of female art:

  1. They don’t care anything about things outside of themselves, things not related to their personal emotional life. Further, [they] emphasize the excavation of their heart’s resources, and from personal experience attain the body language from which [they] obtain inspiration. The works of art include the trends of unique personal features and aspects of privacy.
  2. They very rarely use rational angles of analyses to involve a subject matter and grasp a theme. But rather emphasize the emotional characteristics of their artwork, and emphasize the importance of direct feeling, enabling base physical senses to emerge. [Their] creative works are more like childish illusions, like stealing things as one pleases, expressive in the unreasonable blurred appearance. This is to say that a clear path is not readily visible from [their] physiological to mental reaction.
  3. They are not interested in politics, history, philosophy, but express a special concern for nature, life, humanity, and the question of existence. So much so that a dull ordinary life is paid close attention to, [as if] something surpassing lofty [ideals], and the pursuit of glory.
  4. They universally lack interest toward the world of men. They barely use male figures in their art (perhaps this is the thing that inhibits [their] deepest parts). The biggest difference here is that male artists usually use female figures in their art. Questions that are personal to women are paid increasingly close attention to by female artists. They face their own egos, which allows them to explore and open an area of “art expansion.” This art stems from never exploring the knowledge outside their field of experience, which provides valiantly for female artist’s success.
  5. The linguistic style of this art developed from traditional hand-worked arts [handicrafts]. In the paired skills held by men and women, the division of labor practices was such that men tilled [the soil], and women spun [cloth]. There then appeared the innate ability [of women] to build a nest, to sew, weave, knit, and handwork embroidery. Even though modern era women have already lost this relationship, contrary [to modern times] the artistry seems to have already enabled the peaceful production of a natural accumulation [of skills]. In the arts, women naturally maintained interests in the artistry of sewing, weaving, knitting. [These skills and related media] simultaneously became one special type of female linguistic style. This linguistic style is analogous to weaving, or the language of sewing. Even though it is not widespread, it does exist within female artwork, however it is a specialty contained in female art.
  6. Mediums of art are selected from the last life transformed [i.e. traditional feminine culture] and the close feelings [toward that life]. Female artists not only have one type of particular partiality for the traditional skills of weaving, moreover the related materials of these skills possesses an especially sensitive type of feeling. Material selected for art installations express distinct female characteristics: needles, thread, cotton, silk, gauze, various types of fiber and light/gauzy material. These everyday ordinary materials transform technique via female artist’s deployment outside [the home], and changes in tradition, which were agents of change for certain concepts. In other words, using women’s inner wisdom to conceptualize and analyze daily life brings ordinary feminine material into technique and transforms art.

In summation, today’s female art is already far from traditional female artist’s expressions, which were of a slender and reserved type, clearly beautiful as if inviting a singular unique style [parlor art]. We can already use a traditional appreciation of beauty to look within women’s creative productions, but [female artists] also have the power of expressing visual intensity, in this they are almost on par with male artists, and are not below them. From poetic atmosphere, that conveys one’s emotions, of illusion, romance, aesthetic importance, ideals, [the art] transforms into a type of mysterious, crazy, strangeness, with an abundance of ideological language and a spirit of visual sense motivating it. This type of [art] is directly practical, directly from human life, directly of the self. Contemporary female artists display for us what is one horizon within the vast scenery of art. However, even though there are numerous different concepts and various techniques, we can still see some common qualities. It is precisely in these common qualities that “women’s art” becomes something worth discussing.

**Thank you to Dr. Deborah Porter and Fiona Meng-Fan Lu for invaluable assistance and consultation on this translation!**

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

August 3, 2009 at 1:56 PM

Posted in Nuxing Yishu

Metropolis Now! at Meridian International Center, Washington, D.C.

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The Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. has organized and is currently hosting a modern Chinese art exhibit, Metropolis Now!, that features 31 contemporary Chinese artists, 7 of which are female. The female artists included—Xing Danwen, Wang Xiaohui, Liu Ren, Liu Liyun, Lin Tianmiao, Li Wei, Han Yajuan—echo the stated intent of the exhibit to chronicle “the significant changes taking place in China as that country experiences the rapid growth of its cities and the impact of globalization.” The artists chosen come from multiple generations and also represent the developments that have occurred in the field of “women’s art” during their professional lifetimes.

The exhibit’s website includes a note about each artist’s vision, many of which reveal the ways in which China’s rapid development has impacted their creativity. From the exhibit’s artist page:

Han Yajuan, Before the Big Night, 2008. Oil on canvas:

Before the Big Night, 2008. Oil on canvas.

Like many people born in the 1980s, she is constantly in pursuit of new sensations and fresh experiences and her paintings reveal that overarching quest of her generation. The cartoon-like language in Han Yajuan’s works not only effectively represents the romance and simplicity of this group, but also shows the difference between their visual understanding and visual representation. These young artists share similar life experiences and most of them have subconsciously acquiesced to consumerism through their art.

Han, born in 1980, is also included in the new text, Young Chinese Artists: the Next Generation that highlights the work of those artists born around or after 1975. The cartoonish and ultimately “girly” quality of her work confirms the characteristics ascribed to art produced by Chinese women within the category nuxing yishu (women’s art), but while the immediate sense of the work is personal and internal, its message is one that reflects the artist’s generation and the future of Chinese society. By having “subconsciously acquiesced to consumerism through their art,” these artists make pointed statements about modern society. The depiction of materialistic caricatures of Han’s generation may be an intentional and pointed statement about the shortcomings of herself and her peers.

Lin Tianmiao is an impressively established artist, born in 1961, who came of professional age during the period in which the work of female artists in China was characterized by the category of nuxing yishu. She resists classification as a feminist artist, and it is questionable to apply this western term to any of China’s female artists, but her work does have a definite focus on the female experience (a key point of nuxing yishu, and what critics say separate the artwork of this era from that of their female predecessors).

From the curators of Metropolis Now!:

The installation art and conceptual photography of this extremely influential woman artist embody a unique style and femininity. Her greatest strength is the ability to combine the intricacy of life experiences with a manipulation of materials. Lin Tianmiao’s woven silk installations require significant manual labor and are a reflection of traditional craftwork.

Lin Tianmiao, Shadow No. 1, 2008. Mixed Media.

Lin Tianmiao, Shadow No. 1, 2008. Mixed Media.

The time-intensive incorporation of thread recalls China’s female tradition of cloth production and embroidery, which “echo(s) the repetitive, redundant duties of female labor” (Albertini, 2008, 72). The futility of encasement that is inflicted upon previously functional items in The Proliferation of Thread-Winding series (1995-1997) also bring to mind the long-standing tradition of foot-binding, which significantly decreased the ability of late imperial women to function on their feet.

Xing Danwen, born in 1967, is in the same professional generation with Lin. Her work is concentrated around the impact of urbanity on personal and environmental well-being. It encases cultural memory and portrays the sense of being caught in something larger than oneself. Xing, like Lin, has travelled extensively has held successful exhibitions in the west. This is a trait that is shared by their male contemporaries who left China in order to produce art without censorship or political prosecution. It has only been in recent years that these have begun to return in large numbers.

The curators of Metropolis Now! depict her work thus:

Her works are the result of frequent travels around the world. According to this artist, ‘In modern cities solitude means more than being alone. It is a psychological experience. New objects are intertwined with old ones, and it seems that people are living in grids.’ In her photographs the exteriors of building models are always the initial focus. The dramatic scenes inside are perceived only through careful observation. Xing Danwen’s virtual scenes permit audiences to see and feel people’s solitude and the gaps between them.

Urban Fiction Series No. 15, 2008. C-print.  Exhibited by Meridian courtesy of the artist and Ooi Botos Gallery.

Urban Fiction Series No. 15, 2008. C-print. Exhibited by Meridian courtesy of the artist and Ooi Botos Gallery.

The site includes the following note: “The artwork was produced in a format that differs from Xing Danwen’s Series specifically for this exhibition.” C-prints are not different for the artist, and I wonder if this alteration has to do with the scale of the images since her work in this series is incredibly detailed. There are only a few things that draw me to D.C., but this exhibition is most certainly one of them. Thank you to the people of the Meridian International Center for putting together this topical and exciting show!

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

July 27, 2009 at 5:34 AM

Cao Fei & Business As Usual

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Cao Fei has been quickly rising within the art world, especially for her video work (the stills of which I think look expertly directed). Significant voices in the field have paired her with a more seasoned, male, video artist, Yang Fudong both in exhibition and critic. They are the only mainland-based artists included in the show Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation open at the Hong Kong Art Museum until August 9th; in 2008 Director of the Asia Society Museum and Vice President of Global Art Programs, Melissa Chiu named Cao and Yang as the two artists that represent the current developments in, and future of, Chinese art; and they compose a two person show focused on Chinese video art: Business As Usual that was curated by the Arizona State University Art Museum and will travel to the Henry Art Gallery this summer.

One of the curators of this show, Heather S. Lineberry Senior Curator and Interim Director of ASU kindly spoke with me about the process behind the choices of herself and her co-curator, Marilyn Zeitlin:

BAU was co-curated by myself and Marilyn Zeitlin, retired director of the ASU Art Museum.  As most contemporary curators, we both followed the rise of the contemporary art world and market in China and its representation on the international scene.  We hosted the Regeneration exhibition, organized by the Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell University, a few years ago which was a broad survey of recent generations of contemporary art in China and included a broad range of media.  After this survey, we were interested in a more focused exhibition on video work, as presenting video and new media is a primary initiative for our museum.  Drawn both to individual pieces and to their bodies of work, I selected Yang Fudong and Marilyn selected Cao Fei.  We were interested in the complex comparisons created by this two person exhibition, between the artists and their careers and between the content and style of their work.  Yang Fudong has become a standard bearer for video art in China with international exhibitions, publications and collections.  Cao Fei is much younger, a woman, and when Marilyn selected her for the exhibition, she was an emerging artist in China and internationally.  The content and style of their videos/films only emphasizes this contrast in generation and career stage.  Yang Fudong’s work is more cinematic and narrative, quoting broadly from Chinese political and cultural history.  Cao Fei works seem to reference reality shows with participants who are not actors and less scripted.  She focuses on current realities in China, popular culture and youth.  We found these contrasts to be a powerful bracketing for the breadth of contemporary art by Chinese artists.

Needless to say, I can’t wait to see this show when it comes to Seattle. Cao Fei may be the poster child, not only for success as a young Chinese artist, but also for success as a female artist. She does not identify her work as “women’s art” (nuxing yishu) and does not seem constrained by the cultural restraints of previous generations of women.

In her mention, of Cao and Yang, Melissa Chiu pointed to Cao’s  early project  from 2002, Rabid Dogs which featured Burberry-clad canine characters making their way though office settings in order to showcase the determination for social climbing amongst Cao’s peers; and also Cao’s newest work seen at the 52nd Venice Biennale 2007. This piece utilizes second life to build a pavilion in which Cao shows a video installation. The topic of this real art inside of an unreal world is the “rather melancholy, a little about the sex,, .. gambling, the forever young and beautiful avatars, but mostly [is] about loneliness, longing, and meeting someone from the other side of the planet with similar thoughts and feelings!” (Posthorn, P., 2007, June 17, para. 2). In 2004, she used video and still images to portraiture Guangzhou youth engaged in imaginary battles while dressed in Japanese anime costumes. Some shots even followed the characters home to their parents who, as one could imagine, did not appreciate the manifest obsession with pop culture.

8mins/DV/2000, Director/Photographer: Cao Fei, Actors: Wu Ying, Zhang Xiaochuan, Zhang Xinqi, Lin Yusi, Ou Guorui, Song Jiaqi, Zhong Liang, Lighting/Still photographer: Lu Yigang, Makeup/Costume: Zhang Xiaochuan, Cao Fei, Costume maker: Mr.Zhou, Editing: Cao Fei, Music Editing: Cao Fei (

8mins/DV/2000, Director/Photographer: Cao Fei, Actors: Wu Ying, Zhang Xiaochuan, Zhang Xinqi, Lin Yusi, Ou Guorui, Song Jiaqi, Zhong Liang, Lighting/Still photographer: Lu Yigang, Makeup/Costume: Zhang Xiaochuan, Cao Fei, Costume maker: Mr.Zhou, Editing: Cao Fei, Music Editing: Cao Fei (

Cao Fei, China Tracy, 2007, Internet and installation project (Grosenick & Schübbe, 2007, 53).

Cao Fei, China Tracy, 2007, Internet and installation project (Grosenick & Schübbe, 2007, 53).

Her 2006 piece, My Future is not a Dream (aka SIEMENS Art Project 2006: What Are You Doing Here? won Cao the China Contemporary Art Awards young artist category in 2006, and is my favorite of her work. The video captures workers of a light bulb factory in Guangdong, whom Cao invited to perform / dance to their choice of music. In this act, Cao, who is from Guangdong, showcased the juxtaposition between the creative dreams and material realities of many workers. Cao is admirably pushing boundaries between audience and subject, but what is most significant for her work as a female artist is that the subject at hand does not descend from traditional definitions of female, and far surpasses social ideals of the female sphere. Because Cao and other similarly aged / minded women have ideologically broken out of the restraints of the inner chambers, they can case their social inquiries and critiques onto society as a whole. Furthermore, the artists of this generation are not confined to the “women’s art” genre in terms of curatorial and critical choices. The only specialty exhibits included in Cao’s resume relate to her chosen mediums, and not her given gender. It is work of this scope that has elevated female artists to previously unheard of positions, and they will likely continue to rise as the bursting bubble of China’s art market refines the quality of the field.

Cao Fei, My Future is not a Dream, 2006, Video (Grosenick & Schubbe, 2007, China Art Book, 52).

Cao Fei, My Future is not a Dream, 2006, Video (Grosenick & Schubbe, 2007, China Art Book, 52).

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

June 8, 2009 at 6:58 PM

Jia Fang Zhou’s Essential Characteristics of Women’s Art

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  1. Not paying close attention to those extrinsic objects that have nothing to do with personal feelings and life. Instead, paying more attention to intrinsic inspiration from personal experience and instinct. Such works of art show are (sic) more intimately about the individual.
  2. Seldom taking motif analysis rationally. Stressing artistic intuition. Their works are full of childlike fantasy, free sketching, an irrational composite of images and a mysterious interaction between the physiological and psychological.
  3. Being apathetic towards politics, history and philosophy, and on the contrary, concentrating on the themes of nature, life, humankind and survival. Even paying attention to tiny, petty and ordinary things much more than seeking the sublime.
  4. Being generally disinterested in the men’s world. They rarely use man as artistic object, unlike male artists who commonly treat women as objects of study. Women’s art cares more about those questions pertaining directly to women. When they face their own ego, a new spiritual domain hitherto unobserved, provides women artists with a free space to explore.
  5. Their methods of discourse are developed from traditional handicrafts. The traditional division of work was ‘male farmer, and female weavers,’ which trained women to have deft hands. Although modern women seem to have little link with such handicrafts as stitching, weaving and embroidery, women artists reveal an interest in them in their art and turn it into a kind of individual discourse. They are not common to the art works of all women artists, but surely are specific phenomenon in women’s art as a whole.
  6. Materials are often chosen from daily life and a sense of propinquity. Women artists not only prefer those of such traditional handicrafts, but are specially sensitive to these materials. Here, installation artists who manifest and (sic) distinct characteristics of gender: needles, thread, cotton, silk, wool, fibers and light materials. In the hands of women artists, these objects of daily use are transformed into conceptual materials (1998. Shi ji, nu xing yi shu zhan – Century woman. Xianggang: Shi jie hua ren yi shu chu ban she, you xian gong si, 9).

Some of these characteristics are supported by the art produced by women, and in those instances, it is clear where these aspects of the “women’s art” category come from. Two common confirmations of this category are works that 1) embrace materials associated with women in pre-modern China; and 2) works that illustrate the female form and / or the female experience as their central subject. However, even in these instances, I think that one can read more into the work that what is intended under the limited category of “women’s art.” Some of the following examples feature graphic representations of the female form, so have been placed after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

June 4, 2009 at 5:30 PM

The 1970s – mid 1990s and Lin Tianmiao

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The period from the end of 1970s to the mid-1990s is said to represent a retrogression of art made by women, as its content returned to the parlor painting days of the pre-twentieth century. After half of a century of striving to realize the principle of egalitarianism and holding up half the sky, women now were told to work toward the “restoration of human nature,” which meant they had to tackle the “daunting task of restoring womanhood on [their] own, without the benefit of slogans or movements” (Clark, 2000, 70).

In the backlash against the socialist realism model of painting stringently popularized under Mao, China’s artists experimented with “almost every form of art in classical Western and Chinese tradition, as well as practically every form and school of thought in Western modernism” (Clark, 2000, 70), using them for increasingly bold social commentary. However, women’s artwork of the time seemed “wary of societal topics” and firmly rooted in traditional female art, “nothing more than a modern version of parlor painting” that was not linked to either Chinese contemporary culture or feminist culture (ibid, 71). Using flowers and floral patterns as primary tools in self-examination, for example.

In the mid-nineties art critics credit female artists with expressing a consciousness of their own inner workings and an understanding of life. From this point on into the present day, female artists have been less willing to allow an oppositional male-female relationship to define their artwork. This generation of artists has created a feminine artistic discourse based on their experience that has developed along with a “greater sense of independence and stronger female consciousness” (Gu & Yang, 2003, 44). They incorporate materials and techniques that are inherent in the female experience, such as those used in household activities and embroidery, manipulating these traditional materials to represent their modern reading of the female condition. Lin Tianmiao, for example uses wound thread and cloth-wrapped objects in an effort to explore the “processes of individualization within the given social structures” (Grosenick & Schubbe, 2007, 195). Lin has become one of the better known female artists to exhibit her work internationally. One of her earlier and often cited works illustrates the divergence between interpretation and artistic intent that is an especially dangerous pitfall in the critique of modern female artists. Proliferation of Thread-winding (1995) illustrates the Chinese gender-related concept of yin and yang through sharp needles that deceive the senses to evoke a soft bed, thus blending rigid male yang with pliable female yin. Despite highlighting this elusion to gender differences and choosing items of daily and domestic life “as well as actions like winding, weaving and binding (which) are often interpreted as female, Lin refuses the gender specific interpretations as too short sighted” (Ibid.).

Still, Lin does not object to being showcased as a feminist artist in the west. Her series Bound-Unbound was featured at Brooklyn’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This work “consists of over 100 household items wound with white yarn” that are put in front of a canvas made of threads hanging next to one another (Ibid, 198). The canvas backdrop represents the action of cutting the threads that bind the objects. The item’s form remains recognizable through the tightly wrapped shrouds however it is stripped of its context and former use. This active symbolism and Lin’s choice of title bring to mind the tradition of foot binding, which also lent women’s feet a new aesthetic dimension while taking away their former use (as such deformed feet made for precarious and often painful walking). But this is not the primary message that Lin intends—for her, the new identity given these objects brings the item’s “stored experiences, time and energy” to the fore (Ibid.). Its focus is on the opportunity for new experience that the altered conception of the object carries.

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

May 11, 2009 at 5:46 PM