Every day Chinese women in contemporary art are creating spectacular work that can often go widely unnoticed. Connected by a keen eye for the rapid developments and urbanization changing the realities of daily life in China paired with a respect for history and techniques that have been passed down through generations of women, these artists have a unique perspective and approach in their variety of media. For Chinese New Year, we celebrate their work, which stands out in an art scene that is still largely male dominated.
Dong Yuan’s rich and layered interiors represent memory and tradition passed down through objects. While studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, she became obsessed with still lifes and painted every object she owned. Her ambitious work Grandma’s House and Bosch’s Garden consists of 855 canvases, and juxtaposes themes of rural China with the evocative world of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
Besides being an art history professor with degrees from Yale and Mount Holyoke, Bingyi paints large scale landscapes in oil that combine historical events with personal and cultural memory. She has shown internationally and is represented by Ink Studio Gallery in Beijing. Her paintings in the series Six Accounts of a Floating Life combine depictions from Shen Fu’s 19th century memoir of daily life in that era of China with personal memories and evocative moments.
Han Yajuan’s work is a commentary on materialism and contemporary culture in Asia. With Japanese influences, her cute, bobblehead figures appear in brightly colored cartoonish settings. Han Yajuan’s work deals with the particular brand of unease that comes with the fast pace of development in China and has struck a chord with a generation that experienced China’s drastic shift from Communism to consumerism. Ironically, her popularity has landed her collaborations with the likes of Vogue and Chanel Couture.
Joey Leung Ka-Yin is a graphic artist from Hong Kong whose delicate lines and washes of ink reveal more sinister and surreal content upon closer inspection. Her work plays into the delicate, allusive and poetic elements of the experience of womanhood and read like misremembered dreams or botched fairytales.
The texts that often accompany her drawings are wistfully melancholic and poetic with a hint of the fantastical:
Taking off my skin
I can see my true self
How can I compare with you?
Honestly, we are actually the same without the skin
Why we bother to compare?
Gao Rong uses soft sculpture techniques and saanxi embroidery taught to her by her grandmother to make realistic simulacra of everyday objects and environments. Accurate to the tiniest detail, every surface in Gao Rong’s installations is embroidered. Born in inner Mongolia, Gao Rong’s installation The Static Eternity represents the objects in her grandparent’s traditional home, including thermoses, family portraits, kitchenware and even trash cans. She also depicts scenes of contemporary life including rusty pipes and neglected hallways using the same detail oriented technique.
Chen Qiulin is a new media artist based in Chengdu. Her work addresses the harsh realities of rapid urbanization through video installations focusing on the city of Wanzhou where she grew up. The city was submerged underwater due to the Three Gorges Dam project in 2003 and the entire population was relocated. In her video project The Empty City Qiulin returns to the remnants of the abandoned city where she grew up, speaking to a pace of development in China, which can often leave identity behind in its quest for urbanization.
Lin Tiamniao’s textile work explores themes of motherhood, feminism, and repression in China. Her installation Badges features gigantic embroidery hoops stating slanderous and derogatory words used towards women in English and Chinese. Tianmiao’s work takes on women’s issues in a way that is perhaps more directly related to western feminist frameworks than other artists on the list, but she argues, “There is no feminism in China, although women hold up half the sky.” Much of her work uses the process of thread winding, employing techniques taught to her mother when she was sent away to the country for three years during the Cultural Revolution. “Feminism is from a basic instinct—I believe as women we have to get stronger by ourselves.”
Cui Xiuwen’s controversial video Ladies Room documents the activity in a women’s restroom as women apply makeup and prepare for a night at the club—we later see them counting money in a scene that reveals they are prostitutes. In her popular series Angel, idealized schoolgirls take over the Forbidden City and armies of girls survey the parameters of abandoned landscapes. Cui Xiuwen’s Existential Emptiness series blurs the boundaries between eastern philosophy and western existentialism through the artist, in the form of a doll with a case of ennui, exploring in barren landscapes.
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