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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

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

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

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

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

Asian Contemporary Art Week Starts May 10th

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A Chinese artist, Qiu Zhijie, is included in the highlights below. HIS work is excellent, socially-minded, and technologically innovative. I am no critic, but his work ideologically reminds me a bit of the work of the female artist Yin Xiuzhen. Both focus on the transcience of social constructions. Of course they are of the same generation, born only 6 years apart, for which such subjects are not out of the ordinary (Qui was born in 1969 and Yin in 1963).

Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW) also has a great blog with artist interviews. There is an interesting one from a couple of weeks ago with another Chinese artist,  Jian-Jun Zhang. Women are not scare at ACAW as a number of female artists are prominently represented. I have not come close to looking at every artist included, but it appears that women from China are not well represented. This may simply be a matter of probability: there are very few prominent female artists from China, therefore to make it into a list of the top Asian artists is difficult.

Here are the participating venues:

Ana Tzarev Gallery
Art Projects International*
Arts. i Gallery / Religare Arts Initiative
Asia Society and Museum*
Bose Pacia*
Chambers Fine Art
The Chelsea Art Museum
Ch’i Contemporary Fine Art
China Institute*
Crossing Art
Daneyal Mahmood Gallery
Dean Project
Eli Klein Fine Art
Ethan Cohen Fine Arts*
Gallery 456
Gallery Korea
Gana Art Gallery
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum*
Indo-American Arts Council, Inc.
Japan Society*
Kips Gallery
Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery
The Museum of Modern Art
M. Sutherland Fine Arts, Ltd.
M.Y. Art Prospects
Queens Museum of Art
Rubin Museum of Art
Sepia International / The Alkazi Collection*
Sundaram Tagore Gallery
Taipei Cultural Center
Tamarind Art Council
THE Gallery
Thomas Erben Gallery*
Tyler Rollins Fine Art

From the ACAW website:

Get the best of the best in Asian art today! Over 200 artists present their works at 35 museums and galleries across New York City. Programs include open portfolios, artist talks, panel discussions, video screenings, and performances alongside exhibitions at leading New York galleries and museums. This is the sixth Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW).

This year’s highlights include:
• Conversation: What’s ahead for Asian contemporary art? With Documenta 13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, artist Lee Mingwei (Taiwan/US) and Melissa Chiu at Asia Society (May 11)
• Qiu Zhijie (China) and Alexandra Munroe at China Institute (May 12)
• Lisa Ross and Nan Goldin at Daneyal Mahmood Gallery (May 14)
• Jakkai Siributr (Thailand) at Rubin Museum of Art (May 15)
• Almagul Menlibayeva (Kazakhstan), Esra Ersen (Turkey) and Lara Baladi (Lebanon) with Iftikhar Dadi, Leeza Ahmady, and Reem Fadda at Asia Society (May 17)
• Muratbek Djumaliev and Gulnara Kasmalieva (Kyrgyzstan) at the Museum of Modern Art (May 18)

Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

May 7, 2009 at 4:08 AM