American activist Marian Wright Edelman once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see”. This phrase has become widely attributed with the issue of representation, or lack thereof, of various groups in society.
Over the summer, hyped up on a renewed sense of awe for my heritage from a recent trip to China, I paid a visit to Beijing-based artist Song Dong’s Communal Courtyard, as it was being displayed with Canadian artist Annie Wong’s Quotidian Chinese, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Dong’s piece was comprised of 100 Chinese wardrobe doors set in a maze-like fashion to simulate Beijing’s traditional hutongs, or communal living spaces. Wong’s Quotidian Chinese featured older Chinese immigrants enacting various traditional rituals amongst the wardrobe doors, including playing Mahjong, practicing Tai Chi and doing factory work.
The interaction between these two exhibits created one gorgeous and cohesive piece, evoking the rapidly changing landscape of a country I had spent the past month in – as well as my interpretation of it as a daughter to immigrant parents. The excitement I felt from experiencing art with which I had a personal connection to was heightened by the lack of exposure Western society had to Chinese art until recently.
The rapidly changing social and political landscapes of post-Mao China has greatly widened the market for contemporary art, and has also provided a wealth of unifying themes explored in the medium. Artists such as Ai WeiWei, Xu Bing and Ren Hang are receiving international acknowledgement for their provocative pieces that challenge tradition, contributing to the country’s contemporary art scene. However, it is still unfortunate that a quick Google search for “contemporary Chinese artists” still yields results near completely devoid of female names.
This lack of immediate online presence is anything but an indicator of their non-existence. In 1989, installation artist Xiao Lu fired two shots of a pellet gun at her own piece titled Dialogue, during the first China Avantgarde Exhibition. Upon triggering complete media upheaval around the already controversial event, Xiao became the first and decidedly last female artist in China to achieve such popular mainstream status.
There are many female artists who are pushing the boundaries of China’s contemporary art scene. Here are three of them, whose works challenge convention and place a magnifying glass against various pillars of tradition.
Cui’s work often explores the rapidly evolving ideas of femininity in Chinese culture. Her piece, Ladies’ Room, is a videotape of a group of prostitutes preparing for the night in a Beijing nightclub bathroom was the subject of a lawsuit and was nearly censored. Her oil paintings often feature girls dressed as Young Pioneers, a division of the Communist Youth League, as they pose against the backdrop of Tiananmen Square. Ciu’s work examines modern femininity in terms of sexuality and the rejection of subservient, weak archetypes.
Focusing heavily on themes of philosophy and politics, Huang Jingyuan paints surreal fictions in hyper-detail. Her series, I Am Your Agency (2013) is a series of highly detailed oil paintings of unflattering photos posted by real people online, and examines the shifting but tense relationship between the Chinese people and their government.
Wang Zhibo’s work explores Chinese society’s reverence for its natural landscapes by painting them with eerie connotations, forcing the viewer to examine their relationship with space. Often creating scenes juxtaposing nature with man-made objects, Wang challenges the traditional depictions of mountains and crisp foliage prevalent in ancient scripts.