Pink Slips, Paper Robes, & The Invisible Man: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art

 

Wang QuingSong, Beggar, 2001, c-print, DIMENSIONS (Photo courtesy of wangquingsong.com. Click to Enlarge)

Wang Quingsong, Beggar, 2001. (Photo courtesy of AW Asia, New York. Click to Enlarge)

 

A few weeks ago I had a chance to see Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont. It was photographer Liu Bolin’s The Invisible Man series that compelled me to make the drive and to add the show to my list of summer arts highlights during a recent appearance on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Liu did not disappoint. His self-portraits, which depict his camouflaged body blending into various settings around Beijing, were the highlight of the exhibit. With the Hiding in the City series, Liu takes landscape photography to a provocative new place. Whether he is standing in front of demolished building, a piece of Chinese propaganda, or grocery store shelves lined with soft drinks, Liu (with the help of his assistant) finds creative ways to disguise his body with paint and other materials in order to make himself “invisible.”

In 2005 the Chinese government destroyed Suo Jia Cun, the artist village where Liu’s studio was located. In response Liu started the Hiding in the City series as a way of protesting artists’ troubled relationship with the government and their physical surroundings. Through his elaborate photographs, he raises intriguing questions about identity, activism, consumerism, and government concealment in modern-day China. Photographs of the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, the Great Wall, and shelves of toy panda bears make clever use of China’s national symbols and raise pointed questions: What does it mean to be Chinese today? Is outer conformity also a reflection of inner conformity? What is the price of a nation comprised of individuals who can observe, but cannot act because of government control?

 

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 99 - Panda, 2011. 46 1/2 x 59 inches (Photo courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art , New York and Liu Bolin)

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 99 – Panda, 2011. (Photo courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art , New York. Click to Enlarge)

 

 

The photographs of Liu Bolin are a highlight of ??? (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

The photographs of Liu Bolin are a highlight of the contemporary Chinese art show currently on view at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 71 — Bulldozer, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Fine Art, New York © Liu Bolin)

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 71 — Bulldozer, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Fine Art, New York. Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No.93 -Supermarket No.2, 2010 (Photo Courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art  ©  Liu Bolin. Click to Enlarge)

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No.93 -Supermarket No.2, 2010 (Photo Courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art. Click to Enlarge)

 

I also had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Chinese artist Cai Xi, who lives in Brattleboro and happened to be at the museum showing The Pink Slip Project / Our Meal Table to some friends. Using text, paper, fabric, slippers, garments, wind sculpture, and audio-video collage, Xi has turned the difficult experience of job loss, specifically of receiving a dreaded pink slip, into an art installation and community-based project.

The work has many elements and it can take some time to understand how they relate. As I listened to the audio and read the official letter criticizing Xi’s job performance as a teacher (now transformed into collaged wallpaper, bowls, placemats, etc.), the parts and pieces of the installation slowly came together.

Xi’s own explanation of the project was also helpful. She told me that when she first moved to the U.S., any mention of “pink slips” sounded like “pink slippers” to her. “How cute,” she thought. “It’s like a fairy tale.” Only later did she discover the true meaning, but by then, the association was lodged in her mind. This account from her website articulates what she told me in person that Sunday at the museum:

Pink slippers…also relate to two aspects of Chinese customs: ‘Being given small shoes to wear’ refers, in Chinese, to being treated badly by the boss. On the other hand, ‘Hanging up shoes on the wall’ auspiciously protects the dwelling

[bi xie 壁鞋 ‘wall-shoe’ refers to bi xie 避邪 ‘warding off evil’]. Slippers are offered to guests as a sign of Chinese hospitality. To take care of the feet in traditional Chinese custom is to take care of the health of the entire body. Furthermore, the traditional foot-binding of Chinese women was a contradictory emblem of social status, not only a symbol of affluence but also, implicitly, the oppression of women.

 

Cai Xi has turned the experience of job loss into the Pink Slipper Project (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

Cai Xi has turned the experience of job loss into the Pink Slip Project (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Chinese Art at the Brattleboro Museum-Photo by Michelle Aldredge2

“Being given ‘small shoes to wear’ refers, in Chinese, to being treated badly by the boss,” says Xi. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

An important component to the Pink Slip Project is Our Meal Table, “an ongoing confidential gathering over a meal for participants to share personal troubles about their workplace.” (Anyone interested in attending Our Meal Table gatherings in Brattleboro, Vermont, can find out more here.)

“As an immigrant coming to settle in a foreign country, there was the feeling of being a social outsider,” says Xi. “This feeling was ongoing until the experience of being rejected through the ‘pink slip’ communications. Paradoxically, the rejection was the catalyst for at last becoming recognized as a part of the society. There was never so much attention during previous work years as this past year of ‘pink slip’ experiences. It was as if being invisible for years, and now, becoming visible through the rejection process.”

My favorite part of Xi’s installation was the outdoor “wind sculpture,” which the artist created out of delicate slips sewed from bright pink fabric. While the collaged letters and video provide some explanation about the project, the simplicity of the pink slippers and pink slips were the most effective visually. You can see a glimpse of Xi’s piece, currently hanging outdoors at the Brattleboro Museum, in this video, which I shot during my visit…

 


 
 

The outdoor component of Cai Xi's Pink Slip Project (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

The outdoor component of Cai Xi’s Pink Slip Project (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

Also in the South Gallery, the remarkable craftsmanship of Li Hongbo and Wang Lei are not to be missed. Li Hongbo’s Cultured Man (2012) constructed entirely of newspaper, makes clever use of found materials. The sculpture is more striking when standing, but unfortunately, an upright pose doesn’t allow the viewer to appreciate the startling volume and intricate work that comprises Cultured Man.

Wang Lei’s Colorful Clothes, made out of woven rice paper, were also memorable. They were so beautifully constructed that it was hard to believe they weren’t made of fabric. Touching the garments might have provided a clue to the unusual quality of the material, but since this wasn’t allowed, I relied on the text panel to tell me that, “Yes. Despite appearances, these intricate garments really are made of paper.” This left me wondering if the pieces might have been even more effective, though less beautiful, if the paper were more recognizable. Regardless, Wang’s garments, constructed of rolled, twisted, paper yarn, are a nod to imperial robes once worn by Qing dynasty emperors and their elites. Also, in China paper clothing is made and burned as an offering to the dead. Wang’s striking works create a compelling dialogue between contemporary and traditional Chinese art.

 

Wang Lei, Colorful Clothes No. 2, 2012 Woven Chinese Rice Paper, 23 5/8 x 70 7/8 inches (Photo courtesy of ????

Wang Lei, Colorful Clothes No. 2, 2012.Woven Chinese Rice Paper, 23 5/8 x 70 7/8 inches (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Gallery, New York City. Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Wang Lei, Colorful Clothes No. 1, 2012 Woven Chinese Rice Paper, 46 3/8 x 70 7/8 inches (Photo courtesy ???)

Wang Lei, Colorful Clothes No. 1, 2012. Woven Chinese Rice Paper, 46 3/8 x 70 7/8 inches (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Gallery, New York City. Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Li Hongbo, Cultured Man, (2012), newspaper, dimensions variable

Li Hongbo, Cultured Man, 2012. Newspaper, dimensions variable (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Gallery, New York City, and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Li Hongbo's Cultured Man "unfurled" at the Brattleboro Art Museum (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

Li Hongbo’s Cultured Man “unfurled” at the Brattleboro Art Museum (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

Zhuang Hui was another artist who caught my eye. His Group Portrait Series was particularly fascinating. It’s the strange juxtaposition of vintage photographic format with contemporary subject matter, combined with the sheer expanse and detail of these portraits, that held my attention. I only wish there had been more information about the series available to museum-goers. While the photographs were powerful in and of themselves, I was eager to know more.

After the show, my online research uncovered this description of Zhuang Hui’s work:

In 1997 Zhuang began a series of group portraits with an antique banquet camera that requires arduous preparation and that produces an elongated horizontal image. The groups he photographed were sometimes as large as 350 people. Each photograph was inscribed with the name and location of the group as well as the date of the photograph. Shuangyuan Energy Source Construction Company, 26 March 1997 shows hardhatted workers posed in front of a nuclear reactor. In each of these photographs the artist himself stands at one end of the group, helping to confound the boundaries between group portraiture and self-portraiture.

 

Zhuang Hui's Group Portrait series (Photo by Michelle Aldredge. Click to Enlarge)

Zhuang Hui’s Group Portrait series (Photo by Michelle Aldredge. Click to Enlarge)

 

 

A detail from Zhuang Hui's Group Portrait series (Photo by Michelle Aldredge. Click to Enlarge)

A detail from Zhuang Hui’s Group Portrait series (Photo by Michelle Aldredge. Click to Enlarge)

 

Other high points from the exhibit included Han Yajuan’s pop-art painting and sculpture, Cui Xiuwen’s Existential Emptiness No. 8, and Wang Quingsong’s Beggar, which shows the artist’s flair for the dramatic. Here is Wang’s own description of the photograph’s origins (shown above):

The most striking thing in the streets of Beijing is that we often see beggars loiter around foreign embassies and consulates where rich people of Chinese or foreign descent, come and go. The beggars ask for small change. When I came to Beijing and saw such a weird thing in 1993, I felt very depressing. So I did a performance, called Beggar (1993-1994). For three days, I walked on the street in Sanlitun, where foreign embassies and bars were located, and asked for money from foreigners only and did not give any reasons when they asked. However, I failed. I did not get any money. I did not get any sympathy either. In 2001, I reshot this memory through the shutter of camera and called it Beggar. However, by 2001, my perspective was different. Besides the value significance we give to paper currencies, I also want also to satirize the pompous attitude the rich give to the poor. This is the situation occurring with China’s growing gaps between the rich and poor.

 

Cui Xiuwen, Existential Emptiness No. 8, (2009), c-print, 67 x 41.375 inches

Cui Xiuwen, Existential Emptiness No. 8, (2009), c-print, 67 x 41.375 inches (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Gallery, New York City, and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Han Yajuan, Super Starlet, edition of 6, (2011) painted tin, bronze, crystals, 17.75 x 14 x 11.75 inches

Han Yajuan, Super Starlet, edition of 6, (2011) painted tin, bronze, crystals, 17.75 x 14 x 11.75 inches (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Gallery, New York City, and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Han Yajuan, Art Flair, (2011), oil on canvas, 70 x 212.5 inches (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Gallery, New York City. From the exhibit "Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art" on display at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center through June 23, 2013). Click to Enlarge.

Han Yajuan, Art Flair, (2011), oil on canvas, 70 x 212.5 inches (Photo courtesy of Eli Klein Gallery, New York City, and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Click to Enlarge)

 

Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art is exactly what it says it is—“a taste.” Curator Mara Williams has put together a small, but rich, selection of contemporary Chinese art.

The themes of image and identity, environment and politics, and the reinterpretation of artistic tradition bind this diverse collection of works together. As Williams says, “China’s leading intellectuals and artists are questioning, probing, exploring, pushing back against, and even outright condemning an official policy of growth-at-all-costs. Who is in/who is out? Who wins/who loses? What is gained/what is lost? What is fair? What is the common good? What are human rights? Human dignity?” What is traditional in China today? What is new? There are no easy answers, but at least contemporary Chinese artists are posing these important questions.

The show, including Liu Bolin’s The Invisible Man, is on view at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center through June 23, 2013. You can find out more details about visiting the museum at their website.

 

 

Please Help Gwarlingo Remain Ad-Free

Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive. 140+ Gwarlingo readers have contributed so far and $12,600 of the $15,000 goal has been raised. If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video and all of the member rewards, including some limited-edition artwork, here on the Gwarlingo site.

Don’t need a reward or official acknowledgement for your gift? Want to keep the donation process simple? Click here to make a donation of your choice. (Good karma included!)

 

donate-now-small
 

Rachel Perry Welty's awe-inspiring, fruit-sticker drawings combine a minimalist style with Rachel's novel use of everyday materials. One lucky $1000 donor will receive an unframed, one-of-a-kind drawing by Rachel Perry Welty (similar to this one).

Rachel Perry Welty’s awe-inspiring, fruit-sticker drawings combine a minimalist style with Rachel’s novel use of everyday materials. One lucky $1000 Gwarlingo donor will receive an unframed, one-of-a-kind drawing by Rachel Perry Welty, courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York. (Note that the drawing will be similar to this one, but not the same). Click here to discover all the rewards of a Gwarlingo membership.

Subscribe to Gwarlingo

Stay up on the latest poetry, books, and art news by having Gwarlingo delivered to your email inbox. It’s easy and free! You can also follow Gwarlingo on Twitter and Facebook.

Also, check out the Gwarlingo Store–a handpicked selection of books of interest to writers, artists, teachers, art lovers, and other creative individuals. A portion of allyour purchases made through the Gwarlingo Store portal, benefits Gwarlingo.

 

 

By | 2016-11-11T21:50:01+00:00 06.20.13|Events, Images|Comments Off on Pink Slips, Paper Robes, & The Invisible Man: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.