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Visual arts

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Cao Fei, China Tracey, RMB City, 2009
From Cao Fei's entre to the art world in the late 1990s she was pitched as 'new generation'—a representative of the much needed next wave of artists to carry on from the theoretical dilemmas (and hype) generated around the contemporary Chinese artists who had preceded her. Drawing on the languages of pop and youth cultures, she signified a new voice on Chinese society, one that was savvy with globalisation and could comment on Chinese consumerism with the tools of the system itself.

More than 10 years on, Cao Fei is astoundingly accomplished, having spent the greater part of her 20s engaged in elaborate experiments with multimedia, collaborative performance pieces and deep explorations into the world of virtual reality. While primarily a video artist, Cao Fei’s interest in theatre has extended her work to the stage, often toying with the distinction between the digital and the real. Films inspired by the cultures of hip hop, pornography and gaming have given verve to her artistic vocabulary; meanwhile her cool eye is manifest in a number of shrewd documentaries. Cao’s works have been included in biennales around the world and dozens of catalogues and compendiums include essays under her name.

Is Cao Fei still next generation then? When asked, she raises her eyebrows sarcastically and, with characteristic minimalism, points to the eight-months pregnant belly before her (she also has a two-year-old son). “You’d still call me a young artist?” Whatever the relevance of such categories, however, Cao’s work maintains the same exuberance that first attracted the label of youth—the vivid colours of popular media and a preoccupation with fantasy.

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Cloud's Nightmare, Animation 8’30″,2010

The animations and paintings of Wu Junyong have the same unsettling effect of an Aesop’s Fable or Grimms' Fairytale. Peopled by kings, jesters, and animals, they use the language of shadow-puppetry and performance to comment on the greed and hubris of society. Almost gothic in their aesthetic, they are marked by a dark wit that seems timeless, crossing Chinese and Western mythology to expose the follies of those in authority. There is more than a little of The Emperor’s New Clothes in Wu’s work, and a strange feeling of wickedness in the fact that pictures so violent should be so appealing.

Wu Junyong's studio is a mish-mash of paper cut outs pinned to corkboards, paintings propped up against the walls, prints hanging from the upper levels, and a quiet digital studio in the corner. It's easy to picture him moving from one area to another, picking up different tools with which to work, depending on the mood and demands of the moment.

To meet Wu Junyong is to come into contact with the same cheeky ambiguity in his art. Hopefully something of his mischievous smile comes through in the interview posted below.

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At The Zoo, Oakland, U.S. Image by Randy H.Y. Yau

Yan Jun is a creative polymorph. Search on his name on the Internet and you’ll come up with a list of roles – from experimental sound artist, to critic, to curator, to performance poet – and stories of his pioneering in China's underground music scene from the late 1990s to early 2000s. In 1998 he began the independent label, Sub Jam, initially to publish zines and later for music CDs; and in 2004 he established Kwanyin records for the release of more experimental works. From June 2005 to December 2010, Yan and his Sub Jam community organised a series weekly of performances called Waterland Kwanyin at the Beijing Bar, 2Kolegas, serving up rock, experimental and electronic music to an ever-morphing crowd of listeners.

Both Sub Jam and Kwanyin continue, supported by a regularly updated blog (see here for Yan Jun’s own), as do gigs, and the general greasing of communal and creative activities for which Yan Jun has become widely known. Meanwhile Yan remains one of China’s most important experimental artists, pushing the limits of sound, language and music in his own performances and recordings. Translator, Maghiel van Crevel once said Yan Jun makes things happen, and there is no doubt that Yan has this generative role. Raised in Lanzhou, but based in Beijing since the late 1990s, Yan is something of a creative catalyst, preferring the early and ambiguous stages of invention and putting a high value on the amorphous in artistic communities.

I met with Yan Jun last week in a Korean restaurant in Beijing, where we chatted over kim chi and corn patties. A generous conversation partner, Yan is modest yet brims with ideas; self-deprecating in both his philosophy and humour. Our discussion covered topics well beyond China’s experimental arts scene, and is chockers with food for thought, so I’ve posted a longer interview than usual here. Read on for Yan’s provocations on the role of art in an age of consumerism (ala Beijing’s 798 Art Zone) and that of culture in a new world shaped by the power of the Chinese economy.

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Cinema Alley 2011
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Photo: Susannah Wimberley

The material of film and video is light, so we usually create darkened rooms in which to experience its art. 4A’s Cinema Alley however makes use of the night, erecting a large outdoor screen in Sydney’s Parker St for one evening each Chinese New Year Festival. Now in its third year, the event transforms this Chinatown backstreet into an open-air cinema and screens a selection of Chinese video art curated by 4A Director, Aaron Seeto. 4A’s own ‘laneway project,’ Cinema Alley is also a result of the gallery’s focus on community engagement, extending outdoors from the gallery and, this year, including screenings from their 2010 Animation Project with the local community.

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Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, 2003. 35mm film transferred to DVD. Image courtesy the artist and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai, China

If Documenta XI hadn't supported Yang Fudong in the completion of his film Estranged Paradise in 2002, we might have lost an important contemporary artist. More than five years into the film's production, Yang was considering leaving the world of contemporary art to take up a career in the commercial film industry - and then the Documenta festival stepped in.

As it is, we'll never know Yang's feature films (although we can be sure they would have been beautiful). Instead we have his delicate and poetic film and video pieces, and ongoing questions about where they should best be shown.

Chen Shuxia is a Sydney-based arts writer currently completing her Masters on Chinese contemporary art history at the University of Sydney. She spoke with Yang recently in Sydney, where he was attending the opening of his exhibition No Snow on the Broken Bridge showing at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) from 18 March – 4 June 2011.

Many thanks to Chen for this interview.

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Shen Shaomin, Image by Pedro de Almeida

Shen Shaomin first came to acclaim in the 1900s with his Unknown Creatures and Experimental Fields series - sculptures of mythical creatures and bizarre biological scenarios made of bones. Since then, he has produced a diverse and large body of work, expressing both horror and fascination at the perversities of science, the brutality of humans against nature and the unsustainability of human civilisation.

Shen Shaomin migrated to Australia following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Like many of his Chinese-Australian peers, however, he relocated to China a few years ago to take advantage of cheaper materials and studio space, and the dynamism of China’s international art scene. Shen maintains a connection with Australia, and is increasingly represented in Australian exhibitions. I spoke to him during a recent visit for the 17th Biennale of Sydney - images and interview below.

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Hedgehog, Image by Matthew Niederhauser

At a small bar in Beijing, called D-22, sixty years of rock history are currently being mashed up in one thrillingly experimental moment. It’s almost like the entire canon of pop music has fallen out of the sky – punk, folk, reggae, rock, noise, rockabilly – and young Chinese musicians and their audiences are making of it what they will, taking a bit of Johnny Cash with a bit of Radiohead, Bjork and Joy Division and jamming it into something of their very own.

For the past four years, New York photographer, Matthew Niederhauser has been documenting this musical scene, posing his subjects against a red wall in the back room of the club or capturing them in action on stage. Joyside, P.K.14, AV Okubo, Carsick Cars, Hanggai and countless other Chinese bands have passed beneath his lens, mythologised by his consistent style and focus on D-22.

A selection of these photographs have recently been published in a book, Sound Kapital, which conveys the colour and dynamism of this scene. Click ‘Read More’ below to see some of these pictures, and to read Niederhauser describing what he calls the ‘creative orgy’ currently taking place in Beijing.

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Zhang Ding, Great Era, 2007, single-channel video, 14 mins. Image: Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai.

Zhang Ding in Last Words (Phase 1)
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
July 16 - August 28, 2010.

Born in 1980, Zhang Ding belongs to the most recent generation of Chinese video artists, growing up beyond the shadow of the Cultural Revolution and in a world saturated with images of the West and a new aspirational China. Rather than commenting on China’s history, or even its recent economic reforms, Zhang’s work is marked by feelings of alienation from contemporary society, a sense of retreat into fantasy, and an ongoing struggle with desire. For Zhang the political is personal, and highly mediated. Mixing video art and installation, Zhang creates worlds of light and sound, surreal cinematic dreamscapes, and intimate performance pieces. Originally from the Western province of Gansu, Zhang now lives and works in Shanghai, a city he has made something of a muse for his work.

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You Meng-Shu, Coca-colonization II, 2006, white stoneware, grocery shelves; 180x40x90 cm.

You Meng-Shu is a Taiwanese-born artist who has been based in Sydney since 2006. Trained in Taiwan as a ceramicist, she uses traditional skills and materials to comment on the impact of America on her native culture - or 'Coca-Colonization' as she references it in her art. This work bears the hallmark of her Chinese background, but is also about globalisation and the challenges it poses to culture in general.

You is something of a product of globalisation herself, having lived in Taiwan, the United States and Australia. She speaks English with a slight mid-Western accent, is savvy with a number of different languages and cultures, and is able to adopt different cultural identities as required (Taiwanese, Chinese, American, Australian).

I spoke to You in her final few months in Australia, seemingly at the end of her years-long critical examination of Coca-Colonisation, and in the process of moving on to other shores (both creative and geographic). This felt like a moment at a cross-roads, and an opportunity to look back on her major work of the last few years.

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Gao Shiqiang, still from Total Eclipse, 2010. Image: Courtesy of the Artist and Magee Gallery, Beijing.

What system of classification separates an animation or documentary film from video art? None really, if you're looking at China and the screen-based work being shown and created there. China’s is an art world still building its institutions, and with this comes a freedom from such expectations or constraints.

Laurens Tan is a digital media artist and sculptor, based in both Australia and China. With Chinese parents, but a childhood spent in The Netherlands, Indonesia, Singapore, and Australia, Tan’s background also defies simple definition. In 2006 Tan moved to Beijing, to learn the language of his family heritage, and make work as part of the thriving contemporary Chinese art scene.

Tan and I spoke recently about the flux and energy of today’s Beijing – a city Tan’s calls ‘a great little research site to consider what will happen with contemporary art.’ More specifically, we discussed Tan's curated exhibition of Chinese video art, Arena: A Post Boom Beijing, currently at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in Sydney . This exhibition is both beautiful and provocative, and I seriously recommend seeing it if you’re in Sydney.

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Wang Gongxin, The Dinner Table, 2006, video installation, audio, 5:00. Image: Courtesy of the Artist.

In the minds of many curators and collectors today, Chinese art of the 1990s is synonymous with kitsch Cultural Revolution iconography, and large-scale paintings and sculpture. However the 1990s were also a time of experimentation for a handful of artists uninterested in these market trends. Frustrated with the limitations of traditional media, they worked with video and installation as a means to extend their art practices and to raise issues that would challenge their audiences.

Wang Gongxin was one such pioneer and, along with his friend and colleague Zhang Peili, is now considered one of the granddaddies of new media art in China. Wang and Zhang were both headline acts in the exhibition 幕Mu:Screen, Three Generations of Contemporary Video Art which ran at UTS Gallery in June this year, curated by Marie Terrieux.

Marie Terrieux spoke to Wang in advance of the exhibition, and we've been able to reproduce this interview courtesy of UTS Gallery. See the (very beautiful!) online catalogue for more on 幕Mu:Screen and its artists.

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Celebrating a Good Harvest 庆丰收 1972 Poster © Chinese Poster Collection, the University of Westminster


China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art
8 August - 7 November
University of Sydney Art Gallery

China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art is an exhibition of Cultural Revolution propaganda posters, and their legacy in the visual culture of China today. The show brings a selection of original 1960s and 1970s posters from the University of Westminster collection, together with the work of four contemporary artists – Li Gongming, Liu Dahong, Shen Jiawei, and Xu Weixin – whose styles and methodologies continue to be influenced by this time.

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Wang Jianwei, Hostage, 2008, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view at Campbelltown Arts Centre for Edge of Elsewhere, January 16 - March 14, 2010. Photograph by William Newell. Image: Courtesy of the Artist.


Wang Jianwei’s Hostage
Edge of Elsewhere at Campbelltown Arts Centre
16 January – 14 March 2010

For a few days in January 2010 I was Wang Jianwei’s interpreter, during the installation of his work, Hostage, for the exhibition “Edge of Elsewhere” at Campbelltown Arts Centre on the outskirts of Sydney. Wang Jianwei and I spent days discussing his art work, but also art more generally – its definitions, processes and manifestations, along with the context of the international art world and the markets in which art is produced.

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