Sunday, August 10, 2008
China’s Female Artists Quietly Emerge
The New York Times
July 30, 2008
China's Female Artists Quietly Emerge
By HOLLAND COTTER
BEIJING — On a February day in 1989, a young woman walked into a show at the National Gallery of Art here, whipped out a pellet gun and fired two shots into a mirrored sculpture in an exhibition called "China/Avant-Garde." Police officers swarmed into the museum. The show, the country's first government-sponsored exhibition of experimental art, was shut down for days.
The woman, Xiao Lu, is an artist. The sculpture she fired on was her own, or rather a collaborative piece she had made with another artist, Tang Song, her boyfriend at the time. Why she did what she did was not immediately clear, but this didn't matter.
She had set off a symbolic explosion.
The international press saw a rebellion story. China's political and cultural vanguard claimed a hero. The government reacted as if attacked. The renowned art critic Li Xianting has described the incident as a precursor to the Tiananmen Square crackdown four months later. Whatever the truth, Ms. Xiao made the history books. She was a star.
She is the first and last Chinese female artist so far to achieve that status. Contemporary art in China is a man's world. While the art market, all but nonexistent in 1989, has become a powerhouse industry and produced a pantheon of multimillionaire artist-celebrities, there are no women in that pantheon.
The new museums created to display contemporary art rarely give women solo shows. Among the hundreds of commercial galleries competing for attention in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, art by women is hard to find.
Yet the art is there, and it is some of the most innovative work around, even as visibility remains a problem. On a monthlong stay, I visited several women who live and work in and around Beijing and have important careers, although none of them top the auction charts, and few are represented by prestigious galleries. An alternative list of women doing strong but little-noticed work would be long.
If any woman qualifies as a power artist on the current male model, Lin Tianmiao probably comes closest. She was born in 1961, and like many artists of her generation who were raised during the Cultural Revolution but came of age professionally in its rocky aftermath, she had a difficult start.
In the mid-1990s, with money scarce, censors watchful and no gallery or market structure in place, she and her husband, the conceptual artist Wang Gongxin, lived and worked in cramped Beijing apartments where they mounted one-night shows that doubled as rent parties.
Ms. Lin's work reflected these hand-to-mouth conditions. It was made from used household utensils — teapots, woks, scissors, vegetable choppers — that she laboriously wrapped in layers of cheap white cotton thread to create inventories of domestic life that looked both threatening and precious.
With the market boom, her career took off, and her work grew in scale and formal polish. Her floor-to-ceiling installations of self-portrait photographs anchored by braids of white yarn are fixtures in international shows. She and Mr. Wang live in one of Beijing's many gated high-rises designed for urban professionals; their joint studio is an antiques-filled farmhouse on the outskirts of the city, where, with a small staff of seamstresses, Ms. Lin produces ghostly — and expensive-looking — soft sculptures swelling with egg- and breast-shaped forms in pristine white silk.
Critics have noted affinities in her art to the "women's work" aesthetic of certain Western feminists. Ms. Lin, who lived in New York City during the late 1980s, would not disagree. And she acknowledges that women are treated like second-class citizens in China — like "inactive thinkers," as she puts it. Yet she is cautious about applying the term feminist to herself or her work. Why? The concept is too Western. It is too vague. China is not ready for feminism. China has its own brand of feminism. You hear variations on these reasons often, just as you do in the West.
Making the Past Portable
Yin Xuizhen is Ms. Lin's near-contemporary. Both are of the "apartment art" generation and worked with homely, personal materials. For a 1995 installation, Ms. Yin unraveled the woolen yarn from secondhand men's and women's sweaters and used it to knit new sweaters that merged the genders. She sealed her own clothes, including items dating to childhood, in a suitcase, as if to preserve the past and make it portable. She also began gathering architectural scraps from the streets of her native Beijing, as if to document and memorialize a city being destroyed around her.
The threat of destruction pervades her recent large-scale work too, though now the implications are global. For a continuing piece called "Fashion Terrorism," she created a miniature airport baggage claim with mysterious parcels stalled on a carousel. They may hold the possessions of immigrants in transit; they may hold weapons. We cannot know.
She, like Ms. Lin, is married to an artist, Song Dong, a video maker and conceptualist with a strong international reputation. In fact, a fair number of successful female artists in China are halves of art-world couples.
No artist in China has a more powerful spouse than Lu Qing does. She is married to the artist-architect Ai Weiwei, who was a consultant on the design for the 2008 Olympic Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. Yet it's hard to think of an artist whose work is more different from his.
Mr. Ai is a conceptualist who specializes in controversy and confrontation. For one piece he smashed ancient Chinese pots. For another he disassembled antique furniture to make it unusable. On the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he photographed a young woman standing in front of Mao's portrait in the square and provocatively flipping up her skirt.
Ms. Lu was the woman in that picture. But her art is the opposite of exhibitionistic. Since 2000 she has made a single new work annually. At the beginning of each year she buys a bolt of fine silk 82 feet long. Over the next 12 months, using a brush and acrylic paint, she marks its surface with tight grid patterns. The results look like a cross between Agnes Martin's grid drawings and traditional Chinese scroll painting, historically a man's medium.
Some years she fills the cloth. Other years, when she can bring herself to work only sporadically, she leaves it half empty. At least one year, she painted nothing. But completion in any ordinary sense is not the goal. Whatever state the roll is in at year's end, that is its finished state. She packs it away and buys a new bolt.
This is private, at-home work. "I don't think what I'm doing is art," Ms. Lu said. "In fact, it makes me forget what art is about." Like Ms. Lin's early wrappings and Ms. Yin's knitting, this is art as performance and meditation.
Few if any of China's lionized male artists are doing work as slow, private and hermetic. And by no means all women are.
In the 1990s the photographer Xing Danwen, born in 1967, documented the rough-and-tumble life of artists in the fringe squatter settlement here called the East Village. Her 1995 photographic series "Born With the Cultural Revolution" examined the status of her generation of women: heirs of a Maoist principle of gender equality now living in a market economy that undermines that equality. And the work did so with a complexity that makes Mr. Ai's Tiananmen picture look like a one-liner.
Beyond Women's Issues
What has been gained and lost in the transition between old and new ways of social thinking, between collectivism and individualism, is the subject of her recent "Urban Fiction" series. Here Ms. Xing digitally inserts miniature vignettes of domestic violence and isolation into photographs she has taken of tabletop models of Beijing high-rises. The original architectural models were made by real estate developers to sell new apartments like the spacious but unpalatial one that Ms. Xing lives in. Many of the tiny figures in her narratives have her face.
Clearly art by women in China is not confined to "women's issues," like family and home. Much of the art is about excavating a personal past and bringing it into the present, and about examining that present and how women are living it.
In 2000 Cui Xiuwen used a hidden camera to film a group of women, most of them prostitutes, talking, applying makeup, calling clients and counting cash in the bathroom of a Beijing karaoke bar. The video, titled "Lady's Room," was censored when it appeared in the 2002 Guangzhou Triennial, presumably because it presents realities — women as active agents in consumer eroticism — that contradict a spectrum of cultural ideals about gender, from a view of the sexes existing in harmonious balance to one of women as subservient. As the artist herself says of the video, "You can feel that it is a situation before a battle."
More recently, Ms. Cui, who is in her late 30s, has produced highly finished photographs and paintings of adolescent girls dressed in uniforms of the Young Pioneers, a youth organization in China. Sometimes bruised and bloodied, the girls pose in what looks like the Forbidden City. And most recently, she has made pictures of older girls floating like somnambulant angels above Beijing rooftops. The theme of childhood and maternity recur almost obsessively, as they do in Ms. Lin's new sculpture.
Xiong Wenyun, born in 1953, is on a different track. She has a cramped studio in the 798 District, a once-hot art neighborhood now overrun by second-tier galleries and tourists, but her best-known work, the 1998 photographic series "Moving Rainbow," was shot far from Beijing and its art world.
For this project she traveled a bleak logging road that runs through westernmost China into Tibet. She photographed people she encountered, many of them residents of remote mountain villages, and talked to them about commercial development that threatened their way of life. She also took photographs of truck caravans and of shacklike truck stops that lined the route, after adorning both with fabric hangings keyed to the colors of Tibetan prayer flags.
A Different Role Model
Since Ms. Xiong finished her project, China has improved the trucking road and added a mountain tunnel to make Tibet more accessible to Chinese settlers and tourists. It has also prohibited logging in the region. As a result, the caravans and many of the truck stops that Ms. Xiong turned into temporary art installations are gone; her documents are what remains of them.
Ms. Xiong is well aware that "Moving Rainbow," with its blend of activism, anthropology and abstraction, is an anomaly in new Chinese art, much of which, in addition to being only obliquely political, is product-oriented and studio-bound.
Not all of it is, though. A much-noticed young artist, Li Shurui, born in 1981, began her career while still an undergraduate with an ambitious outdoor installation. It consisted of a long line of fabric cubes that stretched across a lake in a remote part of Yunnan Province inhabited by a matriarchal ethnic minority.
Although she has since become best known for her paintings — air-brushed, semi-abstract images of music club interiors executed in a pleasing internationalist mode — she stood out in a recent gallery group show for an installation work that suggested a cross between a Minimalist environment illuminated by fluorescent lights and an open elevator stuck between floors. Some people spoke of savvy references to certain Western art; others noted a vague resemblance to the shot-up sculpture that caused so much fuss in 1989.
A few years ago Ms. Xiao revealed that the primary motivation behind the shooting had not been aesthetic or political, after all, but emotional. She was expressing anguish over her relationship with Mr. Tang, which was going sour. What she was firing at was not the sculpture per se, which was made from two telephone booths and titled "Dialogue," but at her own image in its reflective surface.
For some people the significance of her action was diminished with that revelation, although to anyone viewing it through a Western feminist eye — meaning with the understanding that the personal is political — its significance increased.
As for feminism, Ms. Li, who is married to the painter Chen Jie, acknowledges the force of male chauvinism in the art world, both in China and elsewhere. But, she says, she is still too young, still too much in the stage of discovering herself, to figure out whether she considers herself a feminist or not.
It may say something about her present and future thinking, though, that when asked to name a cultural role model, she pointed neither to other artists nor to contemporary politics, but to the deep past: to the seventh-century ruler Wu Zetian, who through a combination of brains, beauty, unsparing ambition and tenacious hard work, became China's first and only empress.