Published August 28, 2019 by Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Object of the month: Cui Xiuwen, "Angel No. 2," 2004

Many pieces in the exhibition Art Purposes: Object Lessons for the Liberal Arts reference and challenge perceptions of the body, and how artists re-appropriate portraiture with an emerging awareness of expanding the canon and making social critique. Angel No.2, with its layered reflections on gender, sexuality, and China’s unique cultural-political history, stands out as a striking example.

"Angel No. 2" by Cui Xiuwen

Many works in Art Purposes: Object Lessons for the Liberal Arts reference and challenge our perception of the body, and how artists re-appropriate portraiture with an emerging awareness of making social critique. Angel No.2, with its layered reflections on gender, sexuality, and China’s unique cultural-political history, stands out as a striking example. The photograph depicts twelve images of a girl in a horizontal array, donned in white and pictured with airbrushed skin and identical doll-like features. Their bodies appear loose and lifeless, barely hanging on to the chairs while fully exposing their protruding bellies. Here, Cui Xiuwen is using the pregnant teen body to highlight issues of control—or rather, lack thereof—over one’s own body. In the context of China’s extreme measures of population planning and taboos against female sexuality, this image takes on a deeper layer of melancholy and apprehension. Set in a backdrop that mimics the Forbidden Palace, these “angels” exist within imperial patriarchy and ideological isolation.

While Angel No.2’s long, linear format seemingly harkens back to ancient handscrolls, the piece itself functions as an inquisitive exploration into the medium of photography. Cui Xiuwen has in fact replicated the same figure multiple times to compose the image, and explores the use of multiples through digital manipulation. The resulting work is a conceptual hybridity devoid of personal narrative, further illustrating the weight of collective history in addition to the women’s inherent vulnerability and anonymity.

Sabrina Lin ’21
Summer Curatorial and Educational Assistant
Bowdoin College Museum of Art

 

Illustration: Angel No.2, 2006, chromogenic print, by Cui Xiuwen, Chinese, 1967–2018. Gift, Joe Baio Collection of Photography. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.