Panel I. tradition and modernity
Discussant: Pamela Fletcher, Bowdoin College
Reclaiming Female Subjectivity: Images of Women, Past and Present, in the Art of Cui Xiuwen and Yu Hong
Lara C. W. Blanchard, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Images of beautiful women have historically been a significant subgenre of Chinese painting—but most of the painters were male, constructing idealized female figures from a distinctly gendered perspective. In contemporary China, female artists such as Cui Xiuwen (b. 1970) and Yu Hong (b. 1966) have moved to redefine such images on their own terms. This paper will focus on Cui’s Ladies’ Room (2000) and Yu’s Female Writer (2004), from the series She: these works in many ways reject the notion of female figures as objects of the male gaze. Ladies’ Room, a surreptitiously shot video focusing on prostitutes in a Beijing nightclub’s restroom, presents a telling contrast with premodern paintings that depict courtesans at work or represent the women’s quarters. Rather than idealizing her subjects, Cui Xiuwen uses her hidden camcorder to explore the dichotomy between public and private and to raise questions about authenticity. Yu Hong’s Female Writer, a diptych consisting of a photograph of the writer Zhao Bo and a painting of her in acrylic on canvas, recalls earlier images of literary women as imagined by men, but Yu Hong deliberately complicates the perspective in her work: though both photograph and painting reflect a female figure from a woman’s point of view, Zhao Bo selected the photograph. Ultimately, Female Writer grapples with issues of identity and self-expression. Ladies’ Room and Female Writer can both be understood as examples of feminist art, subverting the concept of the gaze as a path to visual pleasure and reclaiming female subjectivity.
Camouflaged Histories: Lei Yan as Chinese Guerrilla Girl
Sasha Welland, University of Washington
Lei Yan’s trajectory as an artist began with a decades-long career as a soldier in the Chinese military. She received her art training in the People’s Liberation Army Art Institute, from which she graduated in 1991. After she retired from active duty, her art practice shifted from painting to digital photography and installation, with pieces that probe the gendered contradictions of the military as a site of opportunity, talent development, and oppression. This paper examines the culturally specific categories of the woman soldier, art soldier, and womcan artist in Lei Yan’s work as explorations of China’s twentieth-century feminist history. Her series, Camouflage Production (2007-2009), installations of soft-sculpture daily-use items covered in camouflage fabric manufactured in China but exported around the world, provides a metaphor for the intersection of everyday, domestic life and international geopolitics that threads throughout her work. Digital photographic pieces revolving around the role of women and the rhetoric of female emancipation in the Red Army’s Long March and around unreported loss of life on both sides of the Sino-Vietnamese War visualize an important feminist historiographical question: how do suppressed histories of these events require the rewriting of dominant national and international narratives? Lei Yan’s career as culturally trained career soldier turned contemporary artist foregrounds both the gendered labor underlying macro visions of geopolitics and the necessity of making institutionalized canons of global feminist art accountable to Asian “guerrilla girls” routes to critical artistic production.
Panel II. Place and Space
Discussant: Belinda Kong, Bowdoin College
Lisa Claypool, University of Alberta, Canada
We are domestic beings that dwell in a supermodern world. The home is site of intimate performances of who we are and who we want to become. And if the home is so central to identity, gender is as well, for historically, and across cultures, the home has been identified (problematically or not), as the women’s domain, an interior space circumscribed by gendered boundaries distinct from the public sphere of male-dominated discourse. Those boundaries have taken material form in needles, threads, textiles, clothing.
But boundaries can and do shift. So what happens when the supermodern reach of the non-place (airports, strip malls, factories) extends into the home, and boundaries for performance of the self become ever more transitive, permeable, dislocated -- invisible? This paper explores the ways that Yin Xiuzhen’s 尹秀珍 installations– planes fabricated from shirts and skirts, immobile cargo containers ablaze with light rather than heavy with commodities, suitcases containing cities sculpted of clothing within – illuminate the stakes and opportunities of our new metadomestic turn.
Metropolis Ecologies: Yin Xiuzhen's Parallel Cities
Meiling Cheng, University of Southern California
Since 1995, Beijing-based artist Yin Xiuzhen has produced a string of installations in response to the metropolitan locales that she inhabited or visited during global travels. In her earlier pieces, Yin exposed the rapid disappearance of Beijing's traditional cityscape by displaying used roof tiles with photographs and pouring concrete dust on furniture salvaged from demolition sites. In her subsequent sculptural series, Portable Cities (2001-), Yin remembered the metropolises she encountered by sewing up their urban built environments with found clothes and fitting these fabric sculptures inside luggage cases, which facilitated both their transportation and exhibition internationally. In another ongoing series, beginning with Collective Subconscious (2007), Yin fabricated numerous inhabitable containers/installations for viewers to hold public conversations and solitary meditations in various exhibition venues. My inquiry will follow three conceptual paths that I identify as Yin's creative strategies—urban intervention; urban memory; and urban imaginary—to explore how her three interrelated clusters of artworks signal the proliferation of her arguably "feminist" cosmopolitan ecologies.
Panel III. Self and Identity
Discussant: David Collings, Bowdoin College
Wrapped Body and Masked Face: Female Subject Formation in Liu Manwen’s Self-portraiture
Shu-chin Tsui, Bowdoin College
The exhibition Women’s Art in China – 1920-2010 opened at the Central Academy of Fine Art Museum, Beijing, China, in 2010 and brought the subject of self-portraiture to critical attention. Questions posed by the exhibition call for continuing examination: How does the woman artist use self-portraiture to insert a female self into the history of art that has denied her presence? To what extent does the self-representation reconcile the gendered roles of woman and artist? How does the self-portrait constitute a self-expression or autobiographical narrative that problematizes the conventional conceptions of gender, gaze, and representation?
Taking Liu Manwen’s oil paintings, especially her Mundane Life series, as examples, this presentation argues that via self-portraiture the self comes to terms through social-cultural constitution and visual reflection. With face masked and body bound, Liu Manwen’s self-portraiture locates a troubled self against familial relations and social-cultural confinement. The mode of self-portraiture enables the artist to form a self-expression where the lost self finds her image from mirror reflection and her voice through visual articulation. Issues specific to discussion include spatial anxiety, where the self reconciles familial place and social space; gazing strategy, where the self oscillates between object to be looked at and subject challenging the gaze; psychological exploration, where the self searches for identity and subjectivity behind the mirror reflection.
Navigating Orientalism in Hung Liu's Art
Nancy E. Riley and Mary Jane Riley
Chinese in North America live among many legacies and stereotypes. They are seen as "forever foreigners;" even those whose families have been in the US for generations are sometimes assumed to be more connected to Asia than to the United States. Of course, the United States is the site of a long history of anti-Chinese laws, acts and beliefs, in which Americans have attempted to exclude, segregate and otherwise keep Chinese from becoming part of the United States. In spite of this history, Chinese Americans have found ways to succeed in a variety of areas of social, economic, and political life, but such successes have often had to address the legacies of this history; these successes themselves have brought a new stereotype, the "model minority," in which Asians in the US are seen as outpacing their expected place in the society. One important influence on how Chinese have been viewed and treated within the United States has been the image of China held by Americans. Throughout American history, Asia has often been constructed in the west as a "focus of fantasy, fear, and desire." (Machida 2008: 56); desire and fear has long been associated with China in particular. As early as colonial America, Chinese porcelains were highly valued even as China itself was considered a threat; the notion of Chinese threat has strengthened in recent years as China has become a strong player in the economic world. At the same time, China's internal and external politics have constrained and at times outright banned artistic and creative efforts and works.
How do artists navigate the orientalizing that is involved in these contexts? What strategies do do artists like Hung Liu, born and raised in China and now living in the United States, use to navigate these stereotypes and legacies (by addressing, accepting, ignoring, or challenging them) through art? By focusing on key pieces of Hung Liu's work, we examine how she expresses herself through art and how her art (including subjects and techniques) represents the legacies of US/China and Chinese American histories.
Panel IV. Female or Feminist: Women’s Art in Contemporary China and Hong Kong
Discussant: Caro Huh, Freer and Sackler
Off the Margins: Chinese Women’s Art in Thirty Years
Tao Yongbai, independent art critic, China
Women’s Art has never come to terms until early 1990s in China. Before that, the subject receives scattered attention via either women’s art exhibition or individual solo show. A group of women scholars and artists, at the contemporary turn, turn to gendered Nuxing/Woman against politicized Funu/Women as theoretical conception in critical scholarship as well as art creation. The given conception leads artists to seek female feature lost in art tradition and erased from male dominated visual cultural discourse. Women’s Art, thus, introduces a visual field as well as theoretical notion characterized by self-discovery, self-rewriting, and self-assertion.
This paper will trace the trajectory of women’s art of three periods:
1980s seeking self and returning to female: women’s art via the weakening of gender consciousness.
1990s from cultural periphery to central stage: women’s art via subjective exploration and creative production
new century from micro to macro: women’s art in seeking freedom of humankind.
Women with a Capital W: Art Works of Xiang Jing
Jia Fangzhou, independent art critic, China
A significant transition in women’s art of the new century is the declining interest in collective presence and cultural subversion. Women artists have departed from a gendered perspective shared collectively to engage in humanistic narrative that goes beyond sexual difference. Concerning feminism, many of the women artists reject its conceptual ideology, refuse to be labeled as feminist, and show no interest in the comprehension of its theoretical significance. Their response to patriarchal norms, under such conditions, appears to be apathetic and permissive. When defined less by challenge or subversion than by tolerance and strategy, women’s art shifts focus away from personal experience to the external world. The move from self-exploration to social-historical examination manifests in art that takes the world and humankind as its central consideration.
‘Women’s Art in Hong Kong Reframed: A Performative Research in Progress on the Potentialities of Women Art-Makers
Linda Chiu-han Lai, City University of Hong Kong
A discussion on women’s art in Hong Kong often has to pass two kinds of apologetics: why “Hong Kong” and why “women.” I take advantage of established defense for the geographic formation of HK as a unique place of art-production resisting co-option into the grand arena of Chinese contemporary art. (Cartier, 245) I also argue, via phenomenology-based ethnography and a performative approach, that “women’s art,” arbitrary and essentialist the label may be, is a productive departing point allowing me to examine similarities and differences within a convenient construct of cultural labor.
Conversing with 10 proposed female artists, and following some of them during actual art-making processes, my research essay incorporates our collaborative moments, including my inviting each artist to be a “self-made theorist” about her practice which I put in writing, and their articulation of their “theories” with an artwork on paper. An edited video documentation will also accompany for extended purposes. My selection of artists re-opens the questions of “what is art-making,” “who is an artist,” the ways subject positions are at work with multiple cultural capital and personal goals, and the limits of ‘visual art’ as a critical category. The essay also seeks to reconsider the apparent focus on the private and self-preservation and the lack of grand political outlook (Chang, 84; Cartier, 247) through the notion of ‘the everyday’ broadly discussed in cultural studies and historiography.
My practice of feminism is inseparable from myself being an artist and Marxian-left historian, in this project realized through (re-)naming, inscription and thick description. I aim to gain insights into the production realities and processes of HK contemporary art, while bringing stronger visibility to the artists studied, relating what is nominally within art practice with what is outside, thus hopefully achieving “an ethical, political, aesthetic dissidence.” (Pollock, xix)
Sources of Inspiration
Lan-Chiann Wu, Independent Artist of Chinese ink painting, California
Artist Lan-Chiann Wu will speak about what compels her to make art and why she embraces ink painting as an expressive medium. Having received years of vigorous, traditional, training in Chinese ink painting, she has emerged as an artist with a distinctly authentic style, blending Eastern and Western modes of representation. She will discuss her sources of inspiration, which range from scenes of daily life to poetry and literature that touch on universal humanistic values. In her work she explores life’s fundamental themes, which she transforms to envisioned realities that link past and present, and that traverse different cultures. She confronts questions as, why are we here and what is our purpose in life? The depth of human intellect and emotion serves Lan-Chiann as an inexhaustible resource; the innate strength humans possess to overcome personal or collective challenges deeply fascinates her.
Lan-Chiann will talk about which painters were of consequence in her own formation as an artist, and she will briefly discuss influences of Chinese painting philosophy and theory. She will talk about her creative ideas; journeys that begin with casual observations and informal sketches, that continue with further research and detailed drawings, and that end with a completed painting. The frequently recurring glimmers of light in her work are metaphors for human resilience; the love, hope and strength that each person carries within. While Lan-Chiann Wu’s art is rooted in the ancient tradition of Chinese ink painting, she flawlessly blends Western and Asian aesthetic principles to create work that is uniquely idiosyncratic in style. Thus conceptually as well as aesthetically her work bridges cultures, time and space.