da The New York Times del
30 luglio 2008
Chinas Female Artists Quietly
by Holland Cotter
BEIJING On a February day in 1989, a young woman walked into
a show at the National Gallery of Art here, whipped out a pellet
gun and fired two shots into a mirrored sculpture in an exhibition
called China/Avant-Garde. Police officers swarmed into
the museum. The show, the countrys first government-sponsored
exhibition of experimental art, was shut down for days.
The woman, Xiao Lu, is an artist. The sculpture she fired on was
her own, or rather a collaborative piece she had made with another
artist, Tang Song, her boyfriend at the time. Why she did what she
did was not immediately clear, but this didnt matter.
She had set off a symbolic explosion.
The international press saw a rebellion story. Chinas
political and cultural vanguard claimed a hero. The government reacted
as if attacked. The renowned art critic Li Xianting has described
the incident as a precursor to the Tiananmen Square crackdown four
Whatever the truth, Ms. Xiao made the history books. She was a star.
She is the first and last Chinese female artist so
far to achieve that status. Contemporary art in China is a mans
world. While the art market, all but nonexistent in 1989, has become
a powerhouse industry and produced a pantheon of multimillionaire
are no women in that pantheon.
The new museums created to display contemporary art
rarely give women solo shows. Among the hundreds of commercial galleries
competing for attention in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, art
by women is hard to find.
Yet the art is there, and it is some of the most innovative
work around, even as visibility remains a problem. On a monthlong
stay, I visited several women who live and work in and around Beijing
and have important careers, although none of them top the auction
few are represented by prestigious galleries. An alternative list
of women doing strong but little-noticed work would be long.
If any woman qualifies as a power artist on the current
male model, Lin Tianmiao probably comes closest. She was born in
1961, and like many artists of her generation who were raised during
the Cultural Revolution but came of age professionally in its rocky
had a difficult start.
In the mid-1990s, with money scarce, censors watchful
and no gallery or market structure in place, she and her husband,
the conceptual artist Wang Gongxin, lived and worked in cramped
Beijing apartments where they mounted one-night shows that doubled
as rent parties.
Ms. Lins work reflected these hand-to-mouth
conditions. It was made from used household utensils teapots,
woks, scissors, vegetable choppers that she laboriously wrapped
in layers of cheap white cotton thread to create inventories of
domestic life that looked both
threatening and precious.
With the market boom, her career took off, and her
work grew in scale and formal polish. Her floor-to-ceiling installations
of self-portrait photographs anchored by braids of white yarn are
fixtures in international shows. She and Mr. Wang live in one of
gated high-rises designed for urban professionals; their joint studio
is an antiques-filled farmhouse on the outskirts of the city, where,
with a small staff of seamstresses, Ms. Lin produces ghostly
and expensive-looking soft sculptures swelling with egg-
shaped forms in pristine white silk.
Critics have noted affinities in her art to the womens
work aesthetic of certain Western feminists. Ms. Lin, who
lived in New York City during the late 1980s, would not disagree.
And she acknowledges that women are treated like second-class citizens
in China like
inactive thinkers, as she puts it. Yet she is cautious
about applying the term feminist to herself or her work. Why? The
concept is too Western. It is too vague. China is not ready for
feminism. China has its own brand of feminism. You hear variations
on these reasons often,
just as you do in the West.
Making the Past Portable
Yin Xuizhen is Ms. Lins near-contemporary. Both
are of the apartment art generation and worked with
homely, personal materials. For a 1995 installation, Ms. Yin unraveled
the woolen yarn from secondhand mens and womens sweaters
and used it to knit new sweaters that merged the genders. She sealed
her own clothes, including items dating to childhood, in a suitcase,
as if to preserve the past and make it portable. She also began
gathering architectural scraps from the streets of her native Beijing,
as if to document and memorialize a city
being destroyed around her. The threat of destruction pervades her
recent large-scale work too, though now the implications are global.
For a continuing piece called Fashion Terrorism, she
created a miniature airport baggage claim with mysterious parcels
stalled on a carousel. They may hold the possessions of immigrants
in transit; they may hold weapons. We cannot know.
She, like Ms. Lin, is married to an artist, Song
Dong, a video maker and conceptualist with a strong international
reputation. In fact, a fair number of successful female artists
in China are halves of art-world couples.
No artist in China has a more powerful spouse than
Lu Qing does. She is married to the artist-architect Ai Weiwei,
who was a consultant on the design for the 2008 Olympic Stadium,
known as the Birds Nest. Yet its hard to think of an
artist whose work is more different from his.
Mr. Ai is a conceptualist who specializes in controversy
and confrontation. For one piece he smashed ancient Chinese pots.
For another he disassembled antique furniture to make it unusable.
On the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he photographed
young woman standing in front of Maos portrait in the square
and provocatively flipping up her skirt.
Ms. Lu was the woman in that picture. But her art
is the opposite of exhibitionistic. Since 2000 she has made a single
new work annually. At the beginning of each year she buys a bolt
of fine silk 82 feet long. Over the next 12 months, using a brush
and acrylic paint, she marks its surface with tight grid patterns.
The results look like a cross between Agnes Martins grid drawings
and traditional Chinese scroll painting, historically a mans
Some years she fills the cloth. Other years, when
she can bring herself to work only sporadically, she leaves it half
empty. At least one year, she painted nothing. But completion in
any ordinary sense is not the goal. Whatever state the roll is in
at years end, that is its
finished state. She packs it away and buys a new bolt.
This is private, at-home work. I dont
think what Im doing is art, Ms. Lu said. In fact,
it makes me forget what art is about. Like Ms. Lins
early wrappings and Ms. Yins knitting, this is art as performance
Few if any of Chinas lionized male artists are
doing work as slow, private and hermetic. And by no means all women
In the 1990s the photographer Xing Danwen, born in
1967, documented the rough-and-tumble life of artists in the fringe
squatter settlement here called the East Village. Her 1995 photographic
series Born With the Cultural Revolution examined the
status of her generation of women: heirs of a Maoist principle of
gender equality now living in a market economy that undermines that
equality. And the work did so with a complexity that makes Mr. Ais
Tiananmen picture look like a one-liner.
Beyond Womens Issues
What has been gained and lost in the transition between
old and new ways of social thinking, between collectivism and individualism,
is the subject of her recent Urban Fiction series. Here
Ms. Xing digitally inserts miniature vignettes of domestic violence
and isolation into
photographs she has taken of tabletop models of Beijing high-rises.
The original architectural models were made by real estate developers
to sell new apartments like the spacious but unpalatial one that
Ms. Xing lives in. Many of the tiny figures in her narratives have
Clearly art by women in China is not confined to womens
issues, like family and home. Much of the art is about excavating
a personal past and bringing it into the present, and about examining
that present and how women are living it.
In 2000 Cui Xiuwen used a hidden camera to film a
group of women, most of them prostitutes, talking, applying makeup,
calling clients and counting cash in the bathroom of a Beijing karaoke
bar. The video, titled Ladys Room, was censored
when it appeared in the 2002 Guangzhou Triennial, presumably because
it presents realities women as active agents in consumer
eroticism that contradict a spectrum of cultural ideals about
gender, from a view of the sexes existing in harmonious balance
to one of women as subservient. As the artist herself says of the
video, You can feel that it is a situation before a battle.
More recently, Ms. Cui, who is in her late 30s, has
produced highly finished photographs and paintings of adolescent
girls dressed in uniforms of the Young Pioneers, a youth organization
in China. Sometimes bruised and bloodied, the girls pose in what
looks like the Forbidden City. And most recently, she has made pictures
of older girls floating like somnambulant angels above Beijing rooftops.
The theme of childhood and maternity recur almost obsessively, as
they do in Ms. Lin
s new sculpture.
Xiong Wenyun, born in 1953, is on a different track.
She has a cramped studio in the 798 District, a once-hot art neighborhood
now overrun by second-tier galleries and tourists, but her best-known
work, the 1998 photographic series Moving Rainbow, was
shot far from
Beijing and its art world.
For this project she traveled a bleak logging road
that runs through westernmost China into Tibet. She photographed
people she encountered, many of them residents of remote mountain
villages, and talked to them about commercial development that threatened
their way of life. She also took photographs of truck caravans and
of shacklike truck stops that lined the route, after adorning both
with fabric hangings keyed to the colors of Tibetan prayer flags.
A Different Role Model
Since Ms. Xiong finished her project, China has improved
the trucking road and added a mountain tunnel to make Tibet more
accessible to Chinese settlers and tourists. It has also prohibited
logging in the region. As a result, the caravans and many of the
truck stops that Ms.
Xiong turned into temporary art installations are gone; her documents
are what remains of them.
Ms. Xiong is well aware that Moving Rainbow,
with its blend of activism, anthropology and abstraction, is an
anomaly in new Chinese art, much of which, in addition to being
only obliquely political, is product-oriented and studio-bound.
Not all of it is, though. A much-noticed young artist,
Li Shurui, born in 1981, began her career while still an undergraduate
with an ambitious outdoor installation. It consisted of a long line
of fabric cubes that stretched across a lake in a remote part of
Yunnan Province inhabited by a matriarchal ethnic minority.
Although she has since become best known for her paintings
air-brushed, semi-abstract images of music club interiors
executed in a pleasing internationalist mode she stood out
in a recent gallery group show for an installation work that suggested
a cross between a Minimalist environment illuminated by fluorescent
lights and an open elevator stuck between floors. Some people spoke
of savvy references to certain Western art; others noted a vague
resemblance to the shot-up sculpture that caused so much fuss in
A few years ago Ms. Xiao revealed that the primary
motivation behind the shooting had not been aesthetic or political,
after all, but emotional. She was expressing anguish over her relationship
with Mr. Tang, which was going sour. What she was firing at was
sculpture per se, which was made from two telephone booths and titled
Dialogue, but at her own image in its reflective surface.
For some people the significance of her action was
diminished with that revelation, although to anyone viewing it through
a Western feminist eye meaning with the understanding that
the personal is political its significance increased.
As for feminism, Ms. Li, who is married to the painter
Chen Jie, acknowledges the force of male chauvinism in the art world,
both in China and elsewhere. But, she says, she is still too young,
still too much in the stage of discovering herself, to figure out
whether she considers herself a feminist or not.
It may say something about her present and future
thinking, though, that when asked to name a cultural role model,
she pointed neither to other artists nor to contemporary politics,
but to the deep past: to the seventh-century ruler Wu Zetian, who
through a combination of brains, beauty, unsparing ambition and
tenacious hard work, became Chinas first and only empress.