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Archive for the ‘中国現代美術’ Category

A continuation from yesterday’s post. This past Friday, we here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa enjoyed the one-two punch of talks from husband & wife super major Chinese contemporary artists Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong, courtesy of Prof. Jaimey Hamilton and her Intersections visiting artists program.

Above: “Us Two: Yu Hong and Zhao Bo”, depicting Yu Hong (right) and a friend. Image via Long March Project.

Yu Hong, like her husband, is a professor of oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the same school where the both of them attended high school, undergraduate, and graduate school. Her work, like his, is mostly figurative, focusing on depicting real people who model for her, in a realistic manner, in oils or acrylics. Her paintings, however, tend to be much more personal, addressing less any kind of social or political events on a national scale. She paints herself, her family, her friends, mainly, within their own real-world contexts – studios, apartments, coffee shops.

My first exposure to Yu Hong’s work was in Boston, where she and her husband were included alongside a number of other contemporary Chinese artists in a group show entitled “Fresh Ink.” I’ll come back to the work she displayed there later, but first I wanted to touch upon my first impressions, and how my taste or interest in her work has changed as a result of this week’s talk. The gallery labels in “Fresh Ink” emphasize the feminine energy or femininity of her work, that she focuses so much on painting other women, her friends and family, and that she focuses so much on their lives. At first, I was a little turned off. I had no real interest at all. It reminded me of housewives, and their lunch dates and shopping, and the kind of lives they lead, living in essentially a totally different world from their husbands, or from other people, immersed in the interpersonal politics and gossip of each others’ families, the wholly insignificant accomplishments of their children’s crayon drawings or soccer leagues, totally divorced from the major happenings of the art world, business world, politics, or whatever else may be going on beyond the picket fences of their suburban little lives.

Yet, while listening to Professor Yu’s talk, I found myself reconsidering her work and gaining a new appreciation for it. It’s a celebration, really, of life, and of the beauty and enjoyment of having friends and networks; the relative calm of everyday people’s lives even as the country changes so swiftly and dramatically around them; and the calm, beautiful, energy of celebrating one another’s accomplishment’s and goings-on in one another’s lives.

Above: From her series “Witness Growing Up,” images of a photo celebrating the publication of the oil painting “Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan” (left) and of two year old Yu Hong in a park with her mother, wearing a badge with Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan on it (right). Images via All-China Women’s Federation.

For her painting series “Witness Growing Up,” Yu Hong went back through her family photo albums, and painted pictures of herself at every age, every year of her life (or, at least, at various ages, if not every single year; I’m not sure). Each of these is one-half of a diptych, accompanied by a magazine cover or other image relating major political events of that year. When the series reaches the year her daughter is born, it becomes a series of triptychs, no longer tracing only Yu Hong’s life, but that of her daughter as well, as major events continue to change our world. The contrast between the relatively normal, calm, family-oriented, very personal narrative of this woman’s life (and that of her daughter), and the rise and fall of Mao, Tienanmen Square, the return of Hong Kong to PRC control, 9/11, etc. is striking and interesting. We all live these lives, but while many artists might focus on only one or the other – the big political/social events, or the personal – she brings the two together to highlight the calm and smoothness of life as these major things happen around us, on a very different scale.

Above: “Flute Player – Rong Yiru” from Yu Hong’s series “She.” Image via Artnet.

Another series, titled simply “She,” consists of portraits of her friends, including artists and writers, each within a context (studio, coffeeshop) that somehow speaks to their identity. One painting in the series depicts a friend very pregnant, and nude, a painted record of this important time in the woman’s life (and in Yu Hong’s life, as her close friend), since under the One Child Policy, she may never be pregnant again. Another painting in the series shows Yu Hong herself creating plaster molds of a friend’s legs; the friend, a famous writer apparently, suffered (suffers?) from depression, and had fallen and broken her leg. I don’t fully understand the connection or the logic, but somehow, for some reason, because of having broken her leg, the writer wanted Yu Hong to make plaster molds, and to record her legs in that fashion, as they are/were. Considering this whole series in aggregate, we see between the lines a network of friendships, and can imagine the personalities and characters depicted, their lives, and their interactions. We can picture a calm, friendly, sunny, happy set of interactions – even punctuated by such things as depression, and terrible falls & broken legs – in which Yu Hong visits these friends at their studios, or meets up with them at coffeeshops, talking, chatting, keeping in touch. And since some of these people are themselves artists or writers, it seems also a bit of a glimpse into the world, the life, the friendship circles of being a member of this art-immersed lifestyle, romanticized not so much on the canvas, but rather in the mind of the viewer.

Above: “Spring Romance”, full view, across eight silk hanging scrolls. Image from the webpage of Harvard University’s “Fresh Ink” symposium.

Now, returning to “Spring Romance,” the piece Yu Hong made for the MFA show. She was one of a number of artists invited to create a new artwork inspired by or based on a work from the MFA’s collection of Chinese art. Selecting Emperor Huizong’sWomen Folding Silk,” she replicated the composition of the handscroll on a series of hanging scrolls in gold-infused silk, depicting her friends – including the pregnant flute player and the writer with plaster-covered legs – as themselves, in modern clothing, in positions emulating those of the figures in Huizong’s painting. And, as an extra little amusing jab, she replaced the lengths of silk being stretched out by women in the original work, with the handscroll itself, so that Huizong’s work is visible within the new composition.

I had thought this was perhaps a departure for Yu Hong, as necessitated by the specifications of the project. And I am sure that it was in various ways. The fact that she re-uses figures from other works, rather than creating new portraits based on who and where those people are today, and that she divorces them from any background which would inform the viewer of their context, are certainly a change from some of her other works.

Left: Yu Hong’s “Atrium,” a piece meant to be installed on the ceiling and viewed from below. Image via Blouin Art Info.

But, I was stunned to discover that, actually, this is hardly her only work on gold, hardly her only work playing with formats this way – using multiple hanging scrolls to create a polyptych – and hardly her only work based on or inspired by famous works from art history. I had thought the gold was perhaps a choice to emulate or recall the brownish discoloration of the silk of Huizong’s painting, and I still hold that it adds meaning in that way for me, but asking Prof. Yu her intentions or thoughts, she simply said that gold is a powerful, special color, especially in Chinese culture. Fair enough. In any case, it has a beautiful effect. I particularly love how it just sort of fades into the background. The gold is no more obvious than a solid-color background in any other color (and, in fact, probably far less noticeable or distracting in many cases), and just provides a beautiful, glowing, warm background. I wish more Western artists, or more artists in general, used gold today. (Or maybe I don’t, because then it would be less special when it is used.)

Yu Hong has reproduced “Spring Romance” in a polyptych of canvases, and has produced another similar work, seemingly on silver-infused silk handscrolls, depicting figures peering over a curve, like a hill maybe, which extends across the whole composition. Several works were designed to be installed on ceilings, and some were even painted in that posture, the artist stretching up, the work facing downwards. Recalling the trompe l’oiel and de sotto in su techniques I just learned about having been used in the High Renaissance, fooling the eye by painting a skylight, for example, with a beautiful blue sky on the ceiling, when it is in fact simply painted on and not an actual cut-through view of the actual sky, these works do something I feel is not particularly common at all today.

In another piece, she emulates the layout of the famous Ghent Altarpiece, replacing each of the figures – God, Mary, John the Baptist, Adam, Eve, etc. – with her friends, all of them asleep. I am not sure I fully understand the connection thematically between this and the Altarpiece, a very religious work, but she says the figures are asleep because they are tired out from the swift and dramatic changes China has seen in recent decades, and continues to see everyday.

Above: Yu Hong’s “Ladder to Heaven.” Image via CAFA Art Info.

In another work, called “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” she depicts figures climbing a sort of ladder to success. I’m guessing it represents the rat race, or something, the sacrifices we make forcing ourselves into the one path that mainstream society seems to expect of us. The medieval European work it is based on depicts figures struggling to ascend to heaven, as demons try to pry them off and pull them down into Hell. Yu Hong has kept the basic composition, more than enough of it to be quite recognizably based on that medieval work; but she has reversed the meaning. Those who make it to the top of the ladder might achieve a sort of “Heaven” of financial/career success, but those who fall off are depicted as being happy. They’ve found happiness in marriage (love/relationships), or in art, or in pursuing their own path. The idea that falling off means falling into Hell is completely not in evidence and is, I believe, meant to be extricated, removed, not present in this work. She’s really changed around the meaning of it, in an interesting and creative way. The total and complete secularization of what’s essentially, to its core, a Christian work, is also very interesting to me, and seems very (Communist) Chinese to me.

So, to sum up, I guess, Yu Hong’s references to historical masterpieces, her use of gold, and her playful, creative use of formats (e.g. ceiling paintings) made her works quite appealing and interesting to me from the beginning. But what is attractive and beautiful about her works on a deeper level is the calm, optimistic, positive energies they exude, as they chronicle her everyday life, her social circles, as well as her own life-story growing up. Seeing one of her works at the MFA was impressive and enjoyable enough, but now I really want to see an installation of her works filling a gallery, seeing how they interact, and feeling the energies flow through the space.

Above: An installation shot of a recent show of Yu Hong’s work, showing how her pieces work together in a consistent aesthetic. The canvas version of “Spring Romance” can be seen on the left wall. “Atrium” and “Natural Selection” appear on the ceiling, while her work referring to the Ghent Altarpiece graces the far wall.

(For more images of Yu Hong’s work at the MFA, see my blog post on the exhibition, or my photos on Flickr.

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Intersections strikes again. Through whatever connections, the Intersections visiting artist program here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa managed to get two huge big-name Chinese contemporary artists who are here in the islands on private family vacation, to come in and talk about their work.

Left: Liu Xiaodong. Photo: Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

I first learned of Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong’s work when I attended the Fresh Ink exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a year or so ago, though I did not know that they were a married couple. Both are professors at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, the most elite art school in China, as well as graduates from CAFA high school, and CAFA undergraduate and postgrad. Though the popularity of Chinese contemporary art is very much booming in the art market these days, and though there are many artists doing all kinds of fascinating, interesting, new, creative, innovative things, contrary to what we might therefore expect, CAFA’s curriculum remains extremely conservative. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – technical skill should still be considered important, and not just concept and theory, on which many art schools in the West might focus overmuch. Training at CAFA is like “academic” training in the French or Soviet mode, very much focused on realistic painting of the human figure in oils. Accordingly, both Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong focus heavily on depicting contemporary scenes, and real people – e.g. themselves, their friends, everyday people selected to serve as models.

Above: Liu Xiaodong paints his childhood friends in his childhood hometown of Jincheng, for a piece called “My Egypt.” Image: Want China Times.

What interests me most in Liu Xiaodong’s work is the concept and the process, more than the final product. In many of his works, he selects a meaningful site, and selects people from that place to serve as his models. The final product is, perhaps, nothing too radically unusual or impressive – it’s a realistic (though still stylized) depiction of the scene he had in front of him (posed models, landscape, props, setting) in oils – though I am sure that in person (rather than on PowerPoint) the works would be quite impressive in size, at least. He tends to paint his figures life-size. This means that, each figure in a painting being five or six feet tall, the work as a whole, incorporating background and everything, is often several meters square, if not larger.

Above: “Qinghai-Tibet Railway”; 98″ by 394″, oil on canvas, 2007. Photo via Mary Boone Gallery.

Among the works he shared with us were several of workers at the Three Gorges Dam, or of people forced to move from the area so that the dam could be built. He took actual people from the place, set them up as models, and painted them from life, with the actual landscape of the Three Gorges area and/or the dam itself, in the background. Another work captured seven young women sitting atop a wagon, with their town, the town of Beichuan, in the background, as it was right after being almost entirely destroyed by the Sichuan Earthquake. This was entitled “Out of Beichuan.” A partner piece to this was called “Into Taihu,” and depicts seven young men in a wooden rowboat on Lake Tai, near Shanghai. He then went back to his childhood hometown, and painted portraits (and group portraits) of his childhood friends, all grown up. One painting shows them all playing cards together in the park; one depicts a friend who owns a karaoke bar, singing at the bar, with all the crazy lights and whatever of the karaoke box room in the background. Another work, completed a few years earlier right after the Beijing-Tibet railroad was finished, depicts two Tibetan men leading horses across the plains, as the train runs by in the background. He said he actually had to go quite a ways afield to find Tibetan men who had horses, could ride them, and looked a bit more like what he was looking for – less fully culturally assimilated into (Han) Chinese culture. In 2009-2010 or so, he went to Boston and got a bunch of high school students to pose as models for him, as he sought to address issues of high school violence. This was the work I saw at the MFA. Perhaps you begin to sense the theme.

Above: Liu Xiaodong painting young women at Beichuan in Sichuan after the earthquake. Photo via Dgeneratefilms.com and Supernice.eu.

I think what I found most interesting and engaging about his work is the context in which he paints it, the issues he seeks to address by painting certain subjects at certain times or in certain places, and the role his art plays therefore in capturing these moments in time, and then broadcasting them, with, of course, a considerable degree of his own sentimentality or interest mixed in. He says he does not see himself as political, let alone activist, and I think in a way this does sort of come through in his work. Yes, he is picking particular moments which are of particular significance, and which could be interpreted to have serious political or social activist sort of meanings, but his work really sort of toes that line. The paintings themselves, the final products, feel more documentary, and more like simply capturing moments of life, then they feel like they are truly social commentary of any sort. Plus, as Liu pointed out, it is very easy to re-explain a new or different meaning for one’s paintings, if one is ever accused of making an inappropriate (read: politically dangerous) statement. Oh, no, no. That’s not what this painting means at all.

Further, Liu really seems to revere the process, and to insert into it a special energy. He says that from when a project begins to when it ends, everything in between is “art”, not just on-site, but everything that everyone involves does for the days or weeks of the process, from the act of painting itself, to the actions of the photographers and videographers, to the experience of the models, down to breaks and meals, carrying the materials away and then back to the site again the next day, even sleeping. All of it is part of the process, until the work is complete. With this in mind, many of his works in more recent years have been extensively photographed and videoed in process, sometimes by rather big name film directors. “Hometown Boy,” a documentary of his journey to his childhood hometown, re-meeting old friends, and painting them, was directed by big-name Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and won a Golden Horse Award in Taiwan for Best Documentary. Jia Zhangke, similarly, directed a film called “Still Life,” which incorporated a lot of footage of Liu Xiaodong painting, and which won a Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Int’l Film Festival – the festival’s top prize.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the work of Liu Xiaodong’s wife, Yu Hong, who also spoke here at UHM on Feb 3.

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I am still way behind on posting about exhibits I saw on the East Coast over winter break. Trying to catch up… but I realize I’ve lost my notes that I took of my impressions and thoughts while visiting this exhibit, which is only going to make the whole process that much more difficult, as I try to reconstruct those impressions from the photographs, and from memory.

Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a major Chinese art event not to be missed. It features ten new works by major Chinese artists inspired by the great treasures of the MFA’s Chinese art collection.* So, this is not just an opportunity to see amazing works by some of the hottest contemporary artists in the world today, but also to see some exceptionally, unbelievably famous Chinese paintings, and to see the way these contemporary artists have reinterpreted or reimagined the themes or compositions of the masterpieces of the past.

I had made the mistake of assuming it would be in the Asian Art galleries, and went there first. It’s a testament to how big a deal this exhibit is that it is being shown not in the Asian galleries, but rather in the new Gund Gallery for special exhibitions, right below the heart of the new expansion, i.e. right outside the new Art of the Americas Wing.

It was absolutely incredible to see the “Five-Color Parakeet” by Emperor Huizong – easily one of the most famous Chinese paintings, ever. Open up any good, thorough survey textbook of the history of Chinese art, and I can practically guarantee it will be in there. I felt like no matter how long I stood in front of that piece, it would be too short a time to pay it proper respects. Unless I end up working at the MFA (dream job!), I imagine it unlikely I will be seeing that painting again for a long long time, if ever. And yet, standing before it, prevented from really getting close enough to appreciate it properly, on account of the sheet of plexiglass that stood vertically between me and the painting, laid out horizontally on a pedestal, I just could not help but feel like I ought to be getting more out of this interaction. Here it is. A super super famous painting, by an emperor no less – a really famous emperor.

Seeing that work was incredible. But, even as I felt the desire to stand there and stare at it until something more happened, until some switch clicked and the super special experience I was waiting for happened, I knew I had to keep moving. I skimmed the rest of this “Masters” exhibition, wondering where all the rest of the treasures of the collection, not to mention the new works, were…. Certainly, the other works up were ancient, and famous, and masterful as well, but they were not any works I remembered having heard of (which speaks more to my ignorance than to anything about these masterpieces), and so I finally made my way to the Info Desk to ask and find out where Fresh Ink was.

I was pointed to a giant banner hanging over the stairs, reading “Fresh Ink.”

Each artist was introduced with a label like this one, including her signature, photos of her and her studio or process, quotes on the wall about her approach or attitude, a brief biography and summary of analysis of her work. Really a fantastic model that I think could be applied positively, productively, to most exhibits.

As soon as I hit the bottom of the stairs, boom, I got my first glance of “Fresh Ink,” and could see that it was everything “Chinese Master Paintings from the Collection” was not. It is an exhibit with some real design to it, with gallery-labels and an overall exhibit design custom-designed for this exhibition, in a super sleek, post-museum** sort of style. Rather than each piece being simply labeled with title, date, media, etc. and a brief description, we saw multiple labels for each piece, including photos of the contemporary artist with his or her signature and a brief biography, along with a brief discussion of the artist’s and curators’ thoughts and interpretations and ideas regarding the work. Other labels discussed other aspects of the piece, such as the art historical significance of the traditional masterpiece displayed alongside the new work, which served as the inspiration.

I was truly blown away by this exhibit immediately upon stepping inside. The gallery opens up in front of you, immediately presenting you with a very clear view of at least two new and contemporary works that, if you know your Chinese art history, immediately remind you of particular treasures from the collection.

For some reason, I had expected to see very conservative monochrome ink landscapes, the sort of thing that only the most expert of experts would recognize as innovative. I guess it was the “Ink” in the exhibition title. Instead, we see energetic, innovative, colorful (in some cases), incredible works using Western media (in most cases) and techniques to refer to classic compositions – really, my favorite kind of contemporary art.

Yu Hong – Spring Romance

Yu Hong’s piece is in Western paints and Western styles, in a form that couldn’t be anything but modern/contemporary – a single composition spread out across a number of separate pieces of silk, hanging more like banners than like hanging scrolls. Yet, walking into the gallery, I immediately recognized it as a reworking of the composition of “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk,” a rather famous 12th century handscroll painting attributed to Emperor Huizong, the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty, who also painted the parakeet mentioned above. Before even delving into any other aspects of this, the idea of a work on silk inspired by (based on) a work about preparing silk, itself also painted on silk, inserting women in modern fashions, depicted in modern/Western paints (oils? acrylics? I need to learn to be able to tell) and in a style unlike that of traditional Chinese works, holding up the ancient work on silk – these aspects alone put a smile on my face and have me enjoying the work.


The referential aspect of the artwork does not end there. Each of these young women is, in fact, a figure from another of Yu Hong’s works, each of them a friend or acquaintance, and each with a story to tell. As the labels in the gallery explain, the woman playing the flute, seen here in a detail of “Spring Romance,” had commissioned Yu Hong to paint her in commemoration of her pregnancy. We see also a friend of Yu’s, a novelist who had fallen off a building, and who asked Yu to produce casts, that is, plaster molds, of her healed legs afterward – Yu Hong herself is thus present as well, her hands covered in white plaster.

Li Jin – Reminiscence to Antiquity. Ink and color on paper, 2009. Album leaves mounted as hanging scrolls.

Li Jin’s piece at first seemed naive, amateurish, somehow. Sloppy. Like I could look at it once, think “ah, okay. Yup. Got it. Nice.” and just move on. But lingering for one moment longer, I began to see an incredible (anyone want to keep count of how many times I fail to vary my adjectives?) realism and density of color and form, and some real humor and parody in the details.

Backing up again, I love that he has created album leaves on hanging scrolls – a traditional format for very untraditional subjects in untraditional media inspired by, based on, referring back to, a traditional work.

I wish I could share with you all the pictures I took in the exhibition – there’s really just so much to see here, and so much to talk about. But, my posts are more than long enough as is, plus I feel that would be pushing the boundaries of fair use and such even more so than I already am. In any case, the exhibition is still up for a while, and the catalog should be widely available, if you would like to see more. Though the works look really watercolory at first, and I just sort of automatically therefore assumed them not worth a second look, I am glad that I did take a second look at them. Many of these album leafs are actually majorly accomplished, dense with detail and life-likeness, telling vignettes and/or sharing a great sense of humor or parody.

Based on a handscroll painting entitled “Northern Qi Scholars Collating Texts” and attributed to the great Tang dynasty painter Yan Liben (c. 600-673), Li Jin created a pair of handscrolls, and then also these album leafs / hanging scrolls, speaking to the less than serious attitudes these great ancient scholars seem to be taking. Though today we look back at the ancients and “paint” them, so to speak, in our history books and in our minds, as being of immaculate moral uprightness, and their compilations of the ancient classics of poetry and literature to verge on sacred, mythological events, in fact, even in a painting such as this – Yan Liben likewise being extolled as a paragon of virtuous, masterful Tang dynasty painting – we can clearly see the ancient masters having a raucous, drunken good ol’ time. So, Li Jin, as others (such as Wang Qingsong) have as well, seek to engage with this idea by reimagining such drunken and debaucherous escapades in a more contemporary (modern) context, or at least combined somehow with elements of the modern.

The handscrolls (not pictured here; sorry) were completed in Boston in 2008; when the artist returned to China he realized he needed to create further works on the same themes, completing the project by engaging with the subject not only in Boston, but also after having come home, those thoughts and ideas and thematics in mind, engaging with them in the different context of now being back in China.

Chinese art history, even moreso than the art histories of most cultures, is all about engagement with the past; traditionally, the only proper way to innovate in painting or calligraphy in China was to first master not only the styles of the masters of the past, but to truly engage with the spirit of those masters, and to then innovate within that tradition. Having these ten artists work with the treasures of the museum’s collection, and create new works inspired by the masterpieces of the past, therefore, is a most wonderful continuation of the spirit of that tradition, a most excellent fusion of traditional methods of developing the tradition and modern/Western-inspired media, subjects, and style. I am highly amused and entertained, and indeed pleased, therefore, to see that at least one of the artists spoke to the idea that these efforts to reclaim the past, in order to better gain insights into the present, which is essentially the central theme and purpose of this exhibition, and a major theme throughout Chinese art history, could possibly be less than successful.

Li Jin writes:

“How can people of today possibly know the thoughts of the ancients?
Mistakenly, they replace the old times with the new.
Li Jin lived in Boston in the spring of 2008, in order to pursue
A sense of antiquity…
But it was in vain.”

Fresh Ink is open through February 13th. I sadly did not know about it, and so will be missing out, but more contemporary Chinese works in the same vein will be up at the Harvard Museums through May 14, in an exhibit entitled “Brush and Ink Reconsidered.”

I could go on to talk about all the works in this show – they are each of them quite fascinating and beautiful. But I think I shall leave it for now. I hope you have the chance to see the show in person, yourself.

At the rate I’ve been going it will be a long time before my photos of this Boston trip are up on Flickr, but trust me, they will be eventually. In the meantime, please feel free to go take a look at my photos from Kyoto from last summer.

Upcoming posts will feature Japan Society’s exhibit “The Sound of One Hand: Zen Paintings by Hakuin Ekaku,” as well as a post on the 33rd Annual University of Hawaii Graduate Students Art Exhibition, up now, featuring some breathtaking work by my close friends & “cohort”/colleagues/classmates. Thank you for reading!!

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*To be accurate, one work is by a Chinese-American artist, inspired by a Jackson Pollock. The rest are by Chinese artists, inspired by Chinese artworks from the collection.
**Post-modern is, of course, a term super-laden with meaning. And as I am hardly an expert at modern art terminology, I’ll leave that one alone. Suffice it to say, I identified the design aesthetic of the exhibition as something which felt, or tasted, very forward-looking, very contemporary, very new and sleek, precisely the kind of thing I wish we saw more of.

All photos taken myself. No one is to blame for the poor quality but me (and perhaps Apple; they looked soooo clear and sharp on the iPhone screen, but then when I uploaded them…). The artworks themselves are of course copyright the respective artists; gallery labels etc are copyright Museum of Fine Arts, and no claims of creative property are made by me here. Purely using photography for “personal non-commercial purposes”, pseudo-journalism, fair use in so far as I can justifiably argue so.

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Speaking of Chinese contemporary art, Wang Qingsong came and spoke on campus today.

Epic thanks to Prof. Jaimey Hamilton and the Intersections program here at the University of Hawaii which brings a good number of contemporary artists here each term not just to speak and present their work, but also to visit student studios and classes, and interact and engage directly with students. It’s a really special opportunity, I would imagine, for the students; I don’t know how common this is at other schools, but it’s pretty awesome here. And thanks, too, of course, to the incredible sponsors, since Intersections is not funded by the Art Dept or anyone else regularly/permanently on campus.

I don’t quite have my finger on the pulse of Chinese contemporary art enough to say really quite how big he is, but putting that aside, what matters is, his art is absolutely incredible.

In “Can I Cooperate With You?” (2000), Wang references a classic Chinese painting depicting a Tang emperor receiving a foreign ambassador. Here, the foreigner and the Chinese switch places, with the foreigner surrounded with adulation, power, and wealth, and China, with its tiny flag, seeking, begging, for corporate collaboration.

A photographer, Wang choreographs amazingly elaborate and artificial scenes, with bold, colorful costumes, props, and backgrounds, the artificiality being part of the appealing aesthetic. His works speak to a great many subjects, questioning the benefits of commercialism and criticizing the impacts of Westernization. He seems particularly interested, or should I say frustrated, with the idea that China is such a major economic powerhouse, but in fact has no big name brands overseas (or even domestically? I wonder. I don’t know.) – when Chinese companies merge with foreign companies, yes, they benefit, and the nation benefits, but in the end, you still see Nike, McDonalds, and Sony everywhere in China, and no big name Chinese brand names in the rest of the world (there may be big major exceptions that are just slipping my mind at the moment… but anyway, that’s his argument).

There are basically two things, well, four, that really impress me about his work. One, the effort and materials put into each work is amazingly impressive. One would assume that he could do a lot in post, so to speak, that is, in digital editing. It’s obvious he must edit his photos considerably anyway, dialing up the color and smoothing out the roughness of reality. Yet, from costumes to props to backdrops, he does so much to actually create the scenes he photographs. One of his newest works, which hasn’t even been debuted yet, is a 42-meter-long piece, like a huge long frieze running along the ceiling of a building, in which a great many figures are seen in various poses and costumes meant to recreate various famous statues and monuments throughout history (mainly Chinese history). All is made to look like stone relief. But while I am sure there are plenty of ways he could have done this digitally, he actually built a giant wall with styrofoam impressions, covered entirely in mud, into which his models, also covered in mud, stepped, so that it would look like they were carved in relief from the stone.

Left: “The Thinker” (1998) obviously speaks to spirituality and religion in these modern times. A man irrevocably imprinted with the cultural impact of McDonald’s attempts to meditate, to practice religion or seek spirituality, atop a cabbage leaf (symbolic, I am told, of the Chinese nation, or national pride), while the busy busy busy-ness of the city rushes past behind (or all around) him.

Secondly, his artwork functions on just about precisely the level I like and appreciate and enjoy in contemporary art. They are not abstract forms – they are very clearly images of people in certain costumes, in certain settings and situations, and very often the title gives a further hint as to the meaning of a work. I love works where you don’t need to struggle or get frustrated to figure out what it is. It’s very clear what his works are, what they depict. Whether it’s a crowd of people all crowded around a few naked women dancing, the crowd all pointing huge cameras at the women, or whether it is a professor sitting at a desk in front of a massive giant blackboard covered completely in English and Chinese words and Western corporate logos, you can tell immediately upon looking at it what it is. This frees you up to then get to the meat of the matter – what it all means. And while the meanings may be somewhat obvious – in one piece, he shows men in camo fatigues struggling up a hill as if towards battle, with a McDonald’s sign rising high above, obviously something belonging to the enemy – the aesthetic beauty of the works, the incredible detail (and I mean really incredible detail, every single word on that blackboard being legible at high enough magnification, and having relevance), and just some intangible quality about his work makes you want to look longer, look closer, and really think about it. There’s meaning right there, clear as day in front of you, that makes you laugh or nod, his social criticism obvious, saving you from the frustration most associate with modern art, but then, he makes you look deeper.

Third, these works are simply beautiful. They are appealing and attractive. Who says art has to be ugly? That is has to be disturbing? In a way, it’s kind of ironic, since historically it’s the Chinese painting critics, far moreso than anyone in the West so far as I know prior to the 20th century, who always said that color and realism were cheap tricks, that making a painting attractive and appealing in such a surface manner cheapened it, and that the best paintings were those that were not blatantly appealing on the surface, but which needed to be appreciated on a deeper level.

Wang Qingsong’s works absolutely work on a deeper level, I believe. But they are beautiful as well. Very clear, clean forms, like “airbrushed” magazine cover models, and bright colors, like an idealized version of reality, though the actual content of the scenes is more dream or fantasy, highly symbolic and extremely staged, hardly realistic at all.

And fourth, he does do a number of works that very directly reference classic Chinese artworks. And you know I love that.

When his “Night Revels of Luo Li” came on the screen, I nearly leapt out of my seat. (Click image to embiggen.) I am not sure that I can really articulate the meanings and implications of this image – the social criticisms embedded in it – but the way in which he has reproduced the overall composition of the exceedingly famous “Night Revels of Han Xizai” (Gu Hongzhong, c. 970 CE) while replacing each element with something contemporary, and often something outlandishly colorful and gaudy, and for lack of a better word, slutty and crass, is really just incredible.

(I’m genuinely sorry that none of these are big enough to see here properly. Please do click to embiggenate.)

There are various stories behind the Han Xizai painting. One states that the emperor wished to grant Han Xizai a ministerial post, but had heard rumor of depraved and debauched activity in Han Xizai’s mansions, so he sent two painters to act as spies, who produced this work depicting an inappropriate mixing of social classes at a most raucous and immoral party. Another interpretation says that the previous story was created, along with the painting, in order to sully the reputations of both Han Xizai and that emperor, as dynastic change leads to such negative portrayals of the previous regime.

In any case, Wang Qingsong says his work is meant to speak to the situation of intellectuals in China today. What does that mean? Perhaps that the powers that be seek to portray intellectuals as debased, raucous, and immoral; that today, as during the Cultural Revolution, and in accord with Communist ideology overall, intellectuals are seen as the elite, as the bourgeois enemy of the good, hardworking proletariat worker or peasant. Or maybe I’m misreading it – Chinese ideology isn’t exactly my strong suit. But, in any case, the size of the work and the details allow for it to be very engaging and involving. Notice how the biwa player has been replaced by a woman with blue hair and a wonderfully blue guitar, while figures sit or stand opposite her in just about exactly the places and positions people sit or stand in the original work.

Note the very traditional elements of the setting – particularly the furniture, and the fans a few girls hold – but then, the very modern Sprite bottles, not to mention the very modern, and in some cases outlandish, clothing. Notice also the repetition of figures or characters. Starting from the right – as traditional Chinese paintings are traditionally read – the tall furniture element behind the girl with the guitar serves as a sort of narrative break, marking a break between scenes. On the other side, we see the same figures over again, doing something different. This is not one single scene, one giant panoramic party, but rather a series of sequences, a narrative over time, as in a traditional handscroll.

So much more can be said… I could run through all the pieces he spoke of and showed tonight. But I think I need to leave it there. His work is surprisingly easy to find online – just Google his name: there is tons out there.

A show of Wang Qingsong’s work, entitled “When Worlds Collide“, opens next Friday (Jan 21) at the International Center of Photography in New York, and runs through May 18. I look very much forward to seeing it myself when I am in New York for the College Art Association conference next month.

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Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been in the news a lot lately, whether for his sunflower seeds installation at the Tate Modern, or his house arrest and studio party.

As for why the authorities would approach him to build a studio, and then shortly afterwards decide he didn’t have the right permits and have it demolished, I gather there are complexities I am missing.

But, between the party featuring a dinner of river crabs (the word for which is a homonym for “harmony”, used here ironically and accusatively), other activities, and the general media presence and response in recent months, Mr. Ai is said to have “come to see his conflict with government officials as performance art.”1 And I can sort of see it. It’s certainly serious, and real, not merely a performance, but, in terms of the way the eyes of the (art) world are watching, it really does function in some ways as a performance. It seems almost humorous and nonsensical, or it would if it weren’t so deadly serious. I sincerely hope that Mr. Ai is not more severely punished by the government for his critical artworks and comments.

The river crabs party was held in protest against the demolition of the studio he erected over the last few years, and as a goodbye party for this magnificent art space which was only completed this past July. Authorities said they were going to knock it all down sometime in February, but, this past week, boom, down it went.

ART RADAR ASIA has gathered a number of reports on the events. Much thanks to them for this, and for their always excellent reporting. If you haven’t checked out their page, please do.

(1) Wong, Edward. “Chinese Authorities Raze an Artist’s Studio.” New York Times. 12 January 2011.

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The NY Times shares with us today an article entitled Gao Brothers, Beijing Artists One Step Ahead of Censors. Accompanied by a video report, the article describes a secret, illegal, underground party held by the Gao Brothers, artists whose exhibitions have been closed and studios raided before on account of their work being in violation of censorship laws.

One work, a slightly larger than life-size sculpture, portrays Chairman Mao on his knees, one hand on his chest, a penitent and profoundly remorseful look on his face. The head is designed to come off easily, so that it can be hidden, rendering the statue unidentifiable and politically non-threatening, in the case of a raid on the studio space.

China continues to be the site of an extremely vibrant art scene, and while it is exciting to learn that these kinds of works continue to be produced, that underground exhibitions do occur, at the same time of course one has to wonder how one could ever get on the invite list… If it’s secret enough to be unknown to the censors, the authorities, then how would little ol’ me find out about it and ever get to attend one? Well, it’s a moot point since I’ve never been to China yet and have no idea when I might happen to find myself there.

I am excited to see the Times continuing to report on Chinese contemporary art, and I look forward to hearing more about the Gao Brothers in the future – hopefully good news about future works and exhibitions, and not such news as their arrest or the like.

EDIT: An interview with the Gao Brothers, courtesy of Art Radar Asia.

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It seems relatively rare for MoMa to feature East Asian Contemporary Art. Maybe they’re not too eager to jump onto the bandwagon of Chinese contemporary art, thinking it too much of a fad and a trend, thinking that it’s not yet clear which of these artists are the true masters whose works will become classics. Maybe it’s because Asian contemporary works like those I’d like to see don’t quite mesh with their conception of “modern art” and/or with the museum’s mission statement or something to that effect. Maybe the American/European faction on the board is too powerful. Or maybe those running the museum are just stuck in the 1950s-80s.

In any case, in something of an exception, MoMa is currently devoting a large space on the second floor to a project by Chinese artist Song Dong. He and his mother have taken all of the objects she had pack-ratted away over the years out of her home and organized them around the gallery – scraps of cloth here, old newspapers neatly tied in a bundle there, bottle caps, old appliances, empty PET bottles, and so on. As the gallery labels explain, a Chinese saying, wu jin qi yong, translated in the exhibit as “waste not,” is a defining philosophy for at least one generation of Chinese… everything can (at least theoretically) be put to another purpose, and so there is no call to throw it out. If the artist’s mother’s home was indeed limited to the size of the wooden skeleton of a structure in the center of the gallery, then it must have been exceedingly crowded indeed.

(Actually, while they do refer to this tiny structure, about two or three times the size of my cubicle, as her house, I find it extremely hard to believe, given how much space one needs just to cook and sit and eat and sleep, let alone live a whole life, let alone hoard all these worthless possessions. It’s like the size of the so-called zero-yen homes you find made of blue tarp lining the shores of the Sumidagawa in Asakusa.)

In any case, it is a most interesting exhibit. It’s aesthetically culturally very interesting, from the perspective of the historian or anthropologist, in the way that each and every item is distinctly Chinese, or at least distinctly different from what we are used to in the US. The Coke bottles are a different size and shape, and the labels are in Chinese. Much of the old clothing is one kind or another of Chinese clothing, not Western dress. The appliances are different sizes, styles, shapes, brands, and makes from what we have here in the US. And so, as a traveler, a visitor, an explorer of other cultures, intrigued by things as minor as the way different people can each think their version of the Coke bottle is the normal, regular, typical style, and that it’s strange that it should look different in another country.


But is it art?

If the artist says it is, and MoMa says it is, then that’s more or less good enough for me. The artist, and curator, both had rather insightful and interesting things to say about the meaning and symbolism of the project, so that’s something.

But even if it isn’t art, I think it quite interesting, both culturally/aesthetically, and culturally/sociologically; that is, both for what it looks like, the designs and styles of all the objects presented, and also for what the hoarding phenomenon, “waste not” philosophy, and age, quality, and condition of the objects tell us about Chinese culture.

Definitely an interesting exhibit; the only one I saw that day, I think it was absolutely worth the $0.00 I paid to get in. I’m really glad I didn’t have to pay the full $25 they ask for regular admission, given that I have little interest in the rest of what they have on display.

One of the artists in the New Museum‘s “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition, Liu Chuang, did something similar, arranging the objects worn and carried by an individual on a table. Each table was a profile of a different random, average Chinese person, their clothes, bags, cellphones, ID cards, books, and other possessions describing and defining them.

Certainly a pattern if not a trend, and a fascinating peek into the culture of current-day China.

All photos my own. Courtesy of MoMA’s allowing photography in their galleries.

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Last post of my photos from New York’s “Asian Contemporary Art Fair 2008.” Maoism, Communism, the current cultural changes in China, are all extremely popular (common) subjects in Chinese contemporary art these days, and the chief motif or subject I was introduced to when I studied contemporary Asian art in my senior year of undergrad. Biting, meaningful, powerful, distinctly Chinese, referencing the past with attention to the present and the future, I find these images far more compelling than the vast majority of Western “modern art”. However, I think it took the massive environment, the numbers of objects, at ACAF to make me realize that Maoism as a motif is growing kind of tired. For me, anyway. I’m ready for something new.


"Multitalented Boy" by Jiang Shuo, one of a series of sculptures by the artist of cartoonish, cute young boys shouting the praises of Maoism.

The constrast of the metal (bronze?) and the red makes for a simple, and therefore striking, color palette.


McDonald’s series by Hu Gong. Maybe it’s not so easy to see from the photos, but these paintings are three-dimensional, the burnt wreckage extended out beyond the plane.

What is being burnt? By whom? For what purpose? We can’t be sure.

But note the shadowy figures in the top left of the first painting, "Conspiracy". And the hamburger image in the center of the conflagrations and destruction in the second painting. A pair of figures can be seen in all four paintings, watching their world destroyed.

They’re quite small, and maybe hard to see in this photo, but in both of these images, our two figures, who represent the average person, and the viewer, look out over the horizon at the Golden Arches, which serves in the context of the paintings as a symbol of hope.

Are these meant to represent the hopeful, prosperous future that Westernization and capitalism brings to a China ruined and destroyed by Maoism? Or is it a more ironic, sarcastic work, addressing the ludicrousness of seeking a hopeful future in a Western megacorporation like McDonald’s?



One of several works by Xue Song combining traditional images, Maoist propaganda imagery, and Western capitalist images.

Images from Maoist propaganda posters make up the purple background of this piece, with a more traditional Chinese ink-painting landscape image in green inside the outline of a Coca-Cola bottle.

Another of Xue’s works involves a number of proletariat/workers from a Maoist poster cheering for Marilyn Monroe.

As compared to works that are fully "modern", addressing color and shadow and line absent of any cultural or historical influences, this is far more the kind of thing I like. It directly addresses the cultural issues currently facing China. Issues of identity, of history. Are the Chinese people, having grown up under Maoism, looking for a new traditional identity in Coca-Cola?

Seems an extremely popular image, the Coke bottle, as a symbol of Western capitalist culture. One work we saw but did not photograph was a fairly traditional-looking calligraphy piece which reads "Long live Coca-Cola!"
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A bright and colorful painting by Zhao Bo, technically Untitled, but tentatively titled "Youth" (青春) after the writing on the red T-shirt in the foreground.

An interesting representation of Chinese youth, with no direct references to pre-Communist traditional Chinese culture, and many modern elements, from the T-shirt to the guitar labeled "Rock".. the LG and Shell logos, Tienanmen (天安門) written on the right center…

And there’s something about the style of the painting, and the faces in particular, which I feel a great many of the contemporary Chinese artists use. It reminds me in particular of Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun. The pink skin with bright white areas… It’s quite distinctive, isn’t it?
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And what better way to end a series of posts on contemporary Asian art than with Wang Guangyi?

Wang was one of the key core artists introduced to me in my undergraduate senior seminar on contemporary Chinese art.

Some of his works really express far more directly the notion of these Maoist revolutionary proletariat types admiring McDonalds, or another symbol of capitalism.

However, most of the other ones just juxtapose the Maoist yellow and red images with logos, like in these two, with no direct interaction between the two. A shame, I think, for an artist who has, in other works, made such a bold statement.

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I love that they let you take photos in galleries, art fairs. Actually, I’m surprised at how many proper museums allow visitors to take photos, provided they don’t use a flash. Museums are normally heinously strict about holding onto the copyright of objects they didn’t create, and whose creators are long dead.
… Of course, taking pictures at a gallery, art fair, or museum, and then actually doing anything with those photos, are two separate issues. Most galleries, museums, allow visitors to take photos “only for personal use”. Well, what counts as personal use? Does this blog count as journalism enough so that my use of the photos counts as “fair use”? I really don’t know. To be honest, I think it’s all a bit messy. What constitutes “personal use”? What rights do I have over my own photography, when it’s photography of a copyrighted artwork? In what manner, what ways, what contexts am I allowed to use these photos? Beats me.

Three babies, in different colors, with beautiful dragon images (tattoos?) on their faces, and what I interpret as phoenix feathers… The artist’s name is Hanis Purmono. What culture/ethnicity do you suppose that name comes from?

Chinese sometimes call themselves “Children of the Dragon”… this is a beautiful representation of Chinese spiritual, cultural, mystical heritage.

Or, it’s something completely different. What do I know?

I didn’t catch the name of the artist, or the title of the works, but I like the take on food aid.

These were great. Portraits of Mao by Yu Ziwei, made up of thread, sewn, not drawn or painted, onto the canvas. The flowers on the left and bees on the right are quite interesting…. the bees are kind of gross, and remind me of bugs feasting on a corpse. I realize as I’m writing this that of course flowers growing on a grave is also a common image, but the flowers are also a much prettier image, something that decorates and beautifies the image, raising questions of what the artist thinks of Mao.

Some fantastic bonsai (penjing or penzai in Chinese) art by Shen Shaomin. We couldn’t be quite sure if all the metal was just sort of braces and that the real art was the bonsai. But, I’m pretty sure it’s sculpture. What attracted my eye in any case was the Chinese seal-script covered vases.

These four portraits at first glance reminded me of Alphonse Mucha (though I’ll admit I needed Claire’s help to recall the name).

I think it was the green one in particular, with its Art Nouveau architectural elements and fashion. The blue one also features the Eiffel Tower, and fashion elements not entirely incompatible with that 1900-1930 sort of period.

The artist’s name is something like Ying Ying Zhang… I can read the signature, but do not know the proper reading, and cannot reproduce the second character on the computer because I don’t know the reading. The first and third are 逸 and 製.

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I worry that these ACAF posts will overwhelm my regular posts… maybe I should backdate them or something. But, I feel happy to think that I’m providing a service, by bringing my loyal readers (all two of you) new art and artists you might not have seen, learned of, otherwise.


“Imitate of Martin Luther King Jr” by Pan Xing Lei.

Is “imitate” a noun? I wonder what the artist was trying to express with the title.

I love the juxtaposition of the very traditional calligraphic backdrop and the very modern, comic-booky energy blast. It’s like he’s bursting forth out of tradition, out of the past, into the future. Based on the red, and the shouting face, and the Chinese context, I thought at first it was Mao… but it’s MLK. Interesting.


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The next piece, to the left, is a work by Ken Hamazaki based on the Chōjū-giga, a famous 12-13th century handscroll painting depicting animals (mainly rabbits and frogs) dressed as, and acting as, humans.

Gold and marker on denim. I particularly like the way you can tell purely by the outlines what he’s drawing from. Another excellent, intriguing, and amusing example of combining traditional with new. The gold background is very traditional – though I do not believe it appears on the original Chōjū-giga scroll; the markers and denim are of course quite modern.



“City” by Zhang Kangiun. A recreation of Beijing in metals and mixed media, the city identified by the distinctively shaped CCTV Headquarters which is planned to be completed this month. The grubby bronze and overall color of the piece does a great job of representing the grubbiness, the filthiness, of Beijing, even though I’m sure the palette of the real city is not a bronze.

I love the details on this piece. Look at the traffic jam, and at the military tanks on the lower level of the roadway.

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One of many pieces in the Luo Brothers‘ series “Welcome to the World Famous Brand.”

Given all that I’ve learned about Chinese art, from traditional ink paintings to Western-style Maoist oil paintings, I am a bit surprised to realize I have no idea where this particular colorful, gaudy, and very distinctly Chinese style comes from. But anyone who has been to one of the Chinese chotchke stores in the local shopping mall, or in Chinatown, will immediately recognize the style.


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I don’t know the name of the artist of this piece, but I love it.

Yu-san spoke about paintings of literati meetings frequently in our art history class this past year in Yokohama, and mentioned this artist.

Meetings of famous poets, artists, philosophers – in short, literati (文人) – are a very common theme in traditional Chinese paintings. This artist takes the concept to the next level, incorporating modern-day people into the scene.

(Don’t touch that dial. More Asian contemporary art to come.)

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