Extending our networks
New Networks: Contemporary Chinese Art at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery brings together the work of 16 key mainland Chinese artists whose practices emerged following the Cultural Revolution
Today the Ai Weiwei brand is strong. Political activist and contemporary artist, he has captured attention in the West for his criticism of and persecution by the Chinese government – you can even see the documentary on Netflix to prove it. His well-known installation Sunflower Seeds (2010) features in New Networks: Contemporary Chinese Art. Curated by Lucy Hammonds and Lauren Gutsell, this exhibition explores how, as contemporary Chinese art is increasingly included in significant Australian and New Zealand collections, narratives surrounding the influence of this work have also emerged. Spread across three galleries, New Networks includes installation, painting,printmaking, photography and digital media. Works are arranged into cross-pollinating themes that reveal the ethos of artists who, like Ai, consider China’s history, politics and traditions alongside the impacts of globalisation on their homeland.
New Networks also offers context for the companion exhibition Artificial Wonderland by Shanghai-based Yang Yongliang (b. 1980), the gallery’s International Visiting Artist for 2018. Having studied calligraphy from the Tang and Song dynasties, Yang contrasts this ancient artform with digital technology to mourn the impact of rapid urbanisation on the landscape. Accumulating an archive of still and moving images from China and his travels abroad, Yang creates imaginary places – manifestations of our global world that straddle paradise and dystopia. His new series explores the qualities of water and reference Song dynasty painter Ma Yuan (c. 1160–1225). Six moving-image works comprise digitally manipulated footage he shot of the Pacific Ocean,rivers and lakes during his time in Otago and the Southern Lakes district. Swirling and rippling, these images range from peaceful to eerie, continuing Yang’s investigations into humans’ relationship with the environment.
Working with customary artforms is an important component of the contemporary Chinese art movement,and the approach is explored in New Networks. Art historian Wu Hung describes it as “internalizing tradition”, whereby artists “clearly [reveal] their debt to China’s rich, artistic heritage by way of translation, transformation, appropriation and refiguration... instead of modernizing an indigenous art tradition to extend its longevity, these artists merge traditional forms, ideas, and technologies into the broader realm of global, contemporary art.”
Contemporary Chinese art began to reach the West in the 1980s, when artists like Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) commenced a new wave of Chinese diaspora, in search of conversations and opportunities away from political scrutiny. China Avant-Garde (1989), the first extensive exhibition of modern Chinese art, was selected by committee for the National Art Gallery, Beijing, before touring internationally. The early 1990s saw two significant exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art launched in Sydney and, in 1993, the inaugural Asia Pacific Triennial was held at Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art. Described by curator and writer Timothy Morrell as “the most comprehensive and authoritative survey of new Asian and Pacific art”, the triennial is also a platform for the gallery to collect works by Asian artists. Like a handful of major Australian institutions, Queensland dedicates curatorial positions to Asian art and has built up bodies of work by individual Asian artists. The 1000-plus works in their collection, they state, “shed light on modern historical developments, current environments of social change and evolving models of artistic production”.
In turn, Hammonds and Gutsell reflect that “the focus that has been placed on contemporary Chinese art inAustralian and New Zealand collections offered a way into the wider story of this art movement and means of looking at it from our own perspective”. Growing from this premise, New Networks includes work by Xu Bing (b. 1955), known for his monumental printmaking and calligraphy installations, and Chen Haiyan (b. 1955), who interprets her dreams through energetic, expressionist woodcuts andpaintings. Both are key avant-garde figures collected in Australia, renowned for adapting traditional artforms while advocating for the individual voice over communist state ideology. While the work of Xu and Chen is grounded in the 20th century, when they first began conversing with the West, Jennifer Wen Ma (b. 1973) positions traditional ink painting within a 21st-century framework. Her video work Brainstorm (2009), for example, was composed over a year with ink paintings on glass, and shows a figure and horse silently walking through shifting scenery. Using animation to reinterpret the changing seasons depicted in traditional landscape painting, Ma creates a metaphor for fluctuating psychological states.
Porcelain is another traditional medium synonymous with China. Liu Jianhua (b. 1962) grew up in Jingdezhen, the country’s porcelain capital, where he learned the craft from a young age. His installation Container Series (2009–16) was included in the 17th Biennale of Sydney and subsequently acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In this work, 37 vessels such as traditional qu (for wine) are arranged alongside contemporary shapes. The exterior of each form is coated with an icy teal celadon glaze in tribute to the Song dynasty, while their interiors have a langyao hong (oxblood) glaze, giving the illusion they are filled with rich red liquid. By bringing traditional elements into his minimalist installations, Liu demonstrates the continued relevance of porcelain – conversing with thepast rather than critiquing it.
In sharp contrast, a large-scale installation by Xu Zhen(b. 1977), ShanghART Supermarket (Australia) (2007–8), from the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art collection, comments on the Chinese art market while drawing on the history of performance and conceptual art in the West. Today, whole districts in cities like Beijing have been purpose built for the visual arts, the highly priced outputs of which feed increasing demand from galleries, collectors and art fairs. In ShanghART Supermarket (Australia) Xu plays off these exchanges through a witty recreation of the ubiquitous convenience store. Filling its shelves with empty packages of products like instant noodles, Colgate toothpaste and M&M’s, Xu literally turns art into merchandise.
Tank Project (2011–13), by the youngest artist in New Networks, He Xiangyu (b. 1986), provides a similarimmersive experience. Encountering this installation, you are greeted with the smell of leather and a deflated, life-size T-34 tank. The artist is part of a generation that is “no longer directly politicized or underground, having less recourse to tradition and the assertion of identity”, according to curators Jean-Marc Decrop and Jérôme Sans. “While the perspectives displayed are characteristically Chinese,” they continue, “the subjects addressed are more universal and regard the human dimension and the planet itself.” Crafted by 35 female needle workers over two years out of luxury Italian leather, He’s tank juxtaposes political influence and censorship alongside the influence of capitalism. Tank Project is in the collection of the White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney. Privately funded by Judith Neilson, the White Rabbit Gallery opened in 2009 and holds one of the largest collections of contemporary Chinese art internationally. Neilson is interested in the ambition behind Chinese art, which she believes results from the artists’ access to large studios, affordable materials and cheap labour while working in a massive economy and a constantly changing environment. Collecting and exhibiting from this perspective enables White Rabbit to show China as a frontrunner in art and industry.
In comparison to Australia, New Zealand’s engagement with mainland Chinese artists has predominantly been via exhibitions and residencies, often facilitated through curator tours by Asia New Zealand and Creative New Zealand. This is no doubt because of our country’s scale, our galleries’ resources and the incredibly dense and complicated art scene in China. Despite our growing relationship with Asia, no New Zealand institution has been in the position to create curatorial roles for contemporary Asian art, let alone disseminate the generalised term “Asia”. Instead, exhibiting and collecting has occurred via personal sensibilities and research interests. Rhana Devenport, in an unprecedented act, dedicated a year-long series at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery to contemporary Chinese artists, China in Four Seasons (2009–10), acquiring work by an international resident for the project. Freezer Passage from the Entrance (2009) by Jin Jiangbo (b. 1972), part of the Freezing Works, Patea: The Taranaki Scene series, shows the negative effects of globalisation on small towns through images of the abandoned freezing works, left to rot after the United Kingdom’s entry into the European Economic Community slowed New Zealand’s meat exports. The work was first exhibited alongside Jin’s images showing industrial ruins of factories in southern China. At the exhibition’s opening, I remember my surprise at how similarly our countries could be affected by global trade movements.
This sense of kinship is central to the approach of Hammonds and Gutsell, who have astutely chosen pieces to give their visitors a direct experience of China’s recent art history, while exploring global concerns. We are in the ‘Asian century’, a term coined in the 1980s that predicted Asia’s rise to become the 21st-century’s largest economic power: China alone now represents more than 19 percent of global GDP. Recognising the world is changing is crucial; but more so is knowing that Chinese New Zealanders are part of our community and have been since the 19th century. To better understand ourselves we need to embrace this whakapapa and further explore the heritage associated with it. In this sense, the ‘new networks’ of this exhibition approach the international through a local frame by building on existing relationships. This includes drawing on collections that can retell art and social history narratives to capture mainstream audiences – those who have watched Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, for instance. With exhibitions like this, alongside programming in smaller galleries and the collecting activities of our major institutions, meaningful cultural exchange with centres like China are evolving. And so the networks continue to grow.
New Networks: Contemporary Chinese Art was at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery from 8 December 2018 to 28 April 2019; and Artificial Wonderland by Yang Yongliang from 8 December 2018 to 12 May 2019.