A Potent Force
Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan
A Potent Force brings together the work of two strongly individual Chinese artists, Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan, both of whom happen to be female. Duan Jianyu was born in 1970; Hu Xiaoyuan in 1977. They graduated in 1995 from the oil painting department of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and in 2002 from the design department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, respectively. Duan Jianyu lives and works in Guangzhou; Hu Xiaoyuan in Beijing.
As a title, the phrase A Potent Force was conceived to intone the lyrical, introspective, and sentient intellectual prowess that characterises these two subtle plays with painting (Duan Jianyu) and conceptual video and installation (Hu Xiaoyuan). It further references the nature of both artists¡¯ analysis of the world as they experience it. As revealed by their respective dates of birth, there is but eight years of difference in age between these two artists but, in light of that period of China¡¯s modern history, they were born into two different eras: in 1970, when Duan Jianyu was born, the Cultural Revolution was at its height, the country in a state of chaos. In 1977, when Hu Xiaoyuan was born the Cultural Revolution was over, and whilst relieved that the ¡°ten years of madness¡± was finally over and the Gang of Four said to be responsible for it were interred, China was also grieving the loss of Mao Zedong, who died in 1976, amidst apprehension that the future, previously so clear, was now rather uncertain. The future was reoriented the following year, in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping announced a reform policy that would usher in mechanisms necessary for China¡¯s economic growth and that would affect the environments in which each artist matured: by the 1990s, Guangzhou, where Duan Jianyu remained to teach following her graduation, had became one of China¡¯s leading industrial hubs; Beijing, where Hu Xiaoyuan first settled as a student in 1998, was poised to become a hotbed of consumerism. Further, as Hu Xiaoyuan embarked upon her career in the early 2000s, Beijing¡¯s position as a cultural frontier for the art of the new commercialised era that gained significant momentum post©\2001 when China acceded to the World Trade Organization, remained strong. There is, thus, the force of a socio©\cultural shift in the margin of age that separates these two artists which is underscored by the atmosphere in which they passed their formative years. To a great extent, this aura is embodied in the topics they explore as well as the mediums chosen to express these.
For both artists, their approach to art is primarily emotive rather than directly cerebral. Clearly at an early point in their careers Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan made aesthetic choices which resulted in these unrelated approaches to expression: two distinct languages, each with a vocabulary tailored to what they have to say. If these two artists have anything in common ©\©\ beyond their gender which, today, to some degree still affects how society views them as (women) artists and, as a result, what the art world expects from them ¨C it is that their style results from an amalgam of their respective life experiences, distilled through the incidental features of their personal background and the environs in which they grew up.
Duan Jianyu is one of the finest painters at work in China today. She has a take on the world that is intellectually cohesive and disarmingly easy on the eye. The deceptively simple visual vocabulary she prefers may, on first encounter, appear childlike or naïve and, yet, is a highly sophisticated mechanism for capturing the artist¡¯s perceptive observations of the world. In the best sense of what generations of painters have achieved, Duan Jianyu is a storyteller of the first order, a chronicler of the times, whose tales speak as urgently to the common man ©\©\ who is, ultimately, her subject ¨C as they do to critics and to curators. Surveying her oeuvre through what is now a fifteen©\year career it is clear that she is a master of succinct, quintessentially human vignettes that speak to viewers of any cultural background, too.
Through her art, Hu Xiaoyuan approaches her audience in a different way. Her work is also embedded with meaning that lies beneath the surface of the physical form and which is not at all obvious. The first impression of an encounter with her work is not, as I have described for Duan Jianyu, necessarily easy. From the first, Hu Xiaoyuan asks more of us. In contrast to Duan Jianyu¡¯s painting, Hu Xiaoyuan is consciously convoluted, intentionally confusing us. She does this by wrapping her message in successive veils which must be stripped away one by one for the message to be revealed. In many ways, this process mirrors a typical journey towards enlightenment, along which puzzles and clues are encountered that must be addressed before any real sense of that journey or the thing it describes can be made. Arriving at what we might term the final ¡°destination¡±, as a state of understanding, can only be achieved by individual effort, which is partly why Hu Xiaoyuan contrives to make that process ambivalent; the viewer has to work at it, to earn that understanding. Thus, also in contrast to Duan Jianyu¡¯s paintings, Hu Xiaoyuan¡¯s works have no conscious narrative; no beginning and no end. They tell us less about who we are and more about what we are able, or not, to sense. She does this in works created using a range of mediums, but which are possessed of a particular strength in her work with video. This she deploys as a sensual experience for the viewer, providing the maximum emotive force via a minimum of factual information to draw upon. An encounter with the work of each of these artists engages viewers on a direct and subconscious level and, at the same time, provides much to contemplate.
¡°Beauty£¬Where are you? I¡¯ve been looking for you everywhere.¡±
To understand Duan Jianyu¡¯s take on the world, it is necessary to read this quote as if it were the title of a farce. It would be easy to assume that, in being the words of a woman artist, the topic of beauty or reference to a desire to be beautiful, in art or in life, would come naturally to Duan Jianyu. It is exactly this type of easy assumption that had led her ©\©\ and continues to motivate her ©\©\ to play with the human penchant for type casting, in this instance ¡°woman¡±, but that applies equally to nationality, race or creed. Where Duan Jianyu invokes ¡°beauty¡± as a topic or a physical feature of her work, as for example embroidery incorporated into canvas paintings such as A Pair of
Embroidered Shoes No.1, it is to challenge the lazy way society has developed for skim reading visual signals and drawing hasty conclusions. The symbols of beauty, such as the alluringly feminine siren or goddess in the painting Beautiful Dream: Daughter of the Sea, tend to function as red herrings. A first glance suggests an obvious conclusion, but it is one that, for a full understanding of Duan Jianyu¡¯s point, is entirely false.
Her paintings centre on their own universe, one created by the artist in the manner of a great novelist, articulated in a language that has been described by Vitamin Creative director Zhang Wei as a ¡®secret emotional code¡¯. This is done using motifs that are not China specific, but which combine to a vernacular that is elegantly ¡°Chinese¡±, and very much about life in the present tense. Through personal writings, which function as a vast resource of inspiration for her paintings, Duan Jianyu demonstrates a profound grasp of social realism. The humanistic affairs that unfold in the paintings are linked by means of a poetic title given to each series to which the individual paintings belong. The paintings belonging to one series are related but readings of them are not mutually dependent on the presence of each ¡°family¡± member in order to grasp the specific lineage. These titles are deceptively romantic; The Mountain and Water Always Echo Our Love, Going Home, or Homesickness. They are also distinctly humorous as in the case of How to Travel with a Watermelon, You Are Welcome or the tongue©\twisting impossible fraternity mapped out in Mother¡¯s Sister¡¯s Mother¡¯s Cousin¡¯s Husband is a Chef. The humour is accentuated in the combination of images; animals and humans such as the chickens and cows, gorillas and airhostesses, or farmers and femme fatales, PLA soldiers and Father Christmas. Let¡¯s not forget the blissful countryside vistas and curious collections of objects in her still©\lifes.
The narratives that are undercurrents in the paintings interweave places, environments and physical and social character types from composition to composition, of a variety of scale and of painterly mannerism. There is always more than meets the eye in these paintings. Examine the ¡°homage¡± to the great Chinese modern master Wu Guanzhong, whose East©\meets©\West stylistic inter©\weaving is given a new twist. Here, his familiar dotting of landscapes to signify depth of field (where larger dots are closer to the foreground and smaller dots recede into the distance) is transformed into an undulating terrain of erect nipples pointing upward from range after range of breast©\shaped mountains. Whilst every element Duan Jianyu presents is recognisably real, the juxtaposition of individual parts is such that in this world of fantasy we become sharply aware that truth can be stranger than fiction. Her paintings capture that rich tapestry of life spoken of as a measure of great literature and the working of a vivid and articulate imagination. As the artist says ¡®Imagination is the lubricant of everything¡¯. Duan Jianyu apparently has an abundance of potent imagination.
Duan Jianyu was not born in Guangzhou but in Zhengzhou, Henan, considered the heartland of Chinese ancient civilisation. To this origin, Duan Jianyu ascribes an interest in the vernacular life of people, down to earth and no©\nonsense; a suspicion of artifice and the kind of grandiloquent talk for which northerners are famed. Evidence of
socio©\political enquiry as the premise for her work and the visual content used to accommodate her observations is most succinct in Duan Jianyu¡¯s Guide to Life, 2009, a collection of ideas and suggestions which follow in the mode deployed by leading conceptual artist Geng Jianyi. Individual sections are presented under the headings ¡°How to live life with passion; how to nurture healthy sentiment¡±; ¡°How to suckle your baby the right way¡±; and, referencing the house©\wifely duties that inevitably fall to women, ¡°How to use detergent to get rid of stains quickly¡±. In this context, one might further compare the workings of her intellect to that of another revered contemporary artist in China, Wang Xingwei: Tell a Story to a Lamb is just one example of the references, subtle and concealed by the brilliance of her painting, to art history of which she is well versed ¨C not merely in reference to Wu Guanzhong.
Duan Jianyu is smart enough to be cynical about all she has been required to learn, in particular about the indoctrinated facts of socio©\political life. She has a remarkable ability to see the world through clear eyes, yet the observations brought to her paintings suggest she continues to maintain faith in humanity. (By contrast, Hu Xiaoyuan belongs to a generations that is past cynicism, and no longer cares so earnestly: not because it is selfish, but because it realises that there is no ¡°power of one¡± and any attempt to change the world is merely a waste of precious time. Generally speaking, the younger generation seems to believe in nothing.) Duan Jianyu is not so cynical that she does not care about what she sees as misguided or wrong in the world; phenomena she examines through what is visible of contemporary daily life on her doorstep. As she says ¡°If my works were food, they would be a rather badly rinsed mixed salad with some stones left in it as a warning to chew carefully.¡±1
¡°If limits are imposed upon the process of seeing, then the completeness of experience is reduced to little more than a conscious aspiration.¡±
If the particular concerns Duan Jianyu explores is the complexity of human society, its bubbling desires, grand ambitions, lofty ideals and the innate weaknesses that are so often its failings, then, conversely, for Hu Xiaoyuan art is a means to examining the self, that self being a purposeful sentient being and self©\awareness the raison d¡¯¨ºtre for existence. The implication here, drawn from a reading of Hu Xiaoyuan¡¯s art, is that if there is no reason for existence then it becomes a nihilistic futile void. Not that Hu Xiaoyuan is particularly nihilistic, but she does entertain a deliberate flirtation with futility. She is a child of the reform era, precious, precocious, confident and slightly insecure, yet independent in thought and will. Comfortable with her individualism, Hu Xiaoyuan finds reason to challenge the notion of art in China today, as a value system, as a process of visually interpreting the world and as a material object. Her work focuses on what can be done and experienced within the sphere of the self, relying on one¡¯s senses alone to navigate and understand what is seen and felt of the world. To achieve this, her recent video installations increasingly undermine the conventional process of reading the works: what we, as
1 Duan Jianyu in Monica Dematt¨¦, ¡°Her Stories and Their Actors¡±, The Seduction of Village, CCAA 2010, unnumbered pages
viewers, see is not clear in terms of narrative or form. Hu Xiaoyuan asks that we become aware of looking, seeing, and does so by making it as hard as possible to recognise the content ¡ª thus denying a ¡°completeness of experience¡±.
Through the decade©\long span of her career, Hu Xiaoyuan has worked with a range of mediums and materials. Whilst each of these has produced distinctive results, it is in the medium of video that her voice has found particular strength: in a range of single and multiple channel pieces, she has demonstrated great sensitivity towards moving images, which she manipulates in a highly nuanced manner to achieve that sensual experience for the viewer. As suggested, in her filmed sequences, nothing is ever quite what it seems. With the exception of the obvious details of bodies in motion in the 2010 four©\channel work I Don't Know How Long You've Been Walking On, and I Don't Know Where You're Going, revealed through the rippling effect that motion produces upon the outer garments as worn by those bodies, Hu Xiaoyuan¡¯s choice of superficial image serves to obfuscate the object itself. A good example is No Reason Why, 2010, which you would swear is the image of a pupae under a microscope but is, in fact, a human body wrapped tightly in a swaddling band and shot from high above so as to appear small.
From her first major piece, A Keepsake I Can¡¯t Give Away, 2005, Hu Xiaoyuan¡¯s work has always been subtle; using materials that are delicate and content that is minimal to achieve an aura that is quiet. A Keepsake took the form of a series of circular embroideries, such as maidens would once offer to prospective husbands as evidence of a modest character and ability in the requisite skills of home©\making. Hu Xiaoyuan embroidered scenes of mandarin ducks, in combination with other more risqu¨¦ highlights of the female body, and she did so using her own hair, which she lopped off at the crown for the purpose. Whilst some may see this work as being feminist, as indeed one aspect of its conscious meaning was, since that time, Hu Xiaoyuan has not demonstrated herself to be an intentionally feminist artist. As her career has evolved she has continuously broadened her concerns. A recent focus has been making works that seem to exist to deny what they are, either as the content of her video installations, or in terms of the physical substance of materials she brings to the objects, such as her ¡°wood grain¡± paintings. These ¡°paintings¡± are, in fact, sculptural, created from carefully selected lengths of cut wood or an unusually shaped tree root, and containing a deftly disguised portion of their bulk that has been painstakingly painted by hand to replicate the original surface. The process involves a fine, almost transparent piece of gauze, to which hours of attention is devoted in the process of tracing the grain of the designated surface area onto the gauze. The original surface is then painted out in white, and the tracing on gauze neatly attached over that surface. The traced painting is both decoration and dressing as if of a wound. It is also a pointless, futile piece of labour, but an activity that results in an object of beauty. A Potent Force contains two new wood pieces fashioned from a particularly rich dark mahogany©\hued hard wood. One she refers to as a ''tusk'' and the other a hock of ham. Her intervention here is extremely subtle, but placed together they have a studied intensity. Yet what might be the
actual meaning here? It seems the real point for Hu Xiaoyuan is again to highlight the fact that little about surface appearance is actually the truth of what is seen.
This line of enquiry is well illustrated in the 2012 single©\channel video See. This piece is silent and requires almost total darkness to achieve the full effect of the almost invisible motion across the screen: that motion is the artist hidden behind a vertical curtain of paper which is moved from one side of the screen to the other by the slow, incremental carriage of her own body upon which the drape of paper rests. Should she have moved too fast, the motion would be obvious and, in all likelihood, the paper ripped. See is a work that requires some patience of the audience, for even though this first screen is accompanied by a small companion monitor, this monitor has been placed on the ground, not merely facing the wall, but its screen right up against it. The footage it shows reveals the secret process of the artist¡¯s crab©\like sideways progress by which the paper on the first screen is moved, yet the monitor¡¯s positioning refuses to yield this secret to an audience. Like other examples of Hu Xiaoyuan¡¯s work, See is all about individual awareness and the willingness to see. Whether it be age that creeps upon us unawares, sickness that infiltrates a body unseen, climate change at work altering weather patterns around us, or the results of corruption or deception in business or government, between friends and foes, so much that directs and affects our lives might unfold before our eyes, yet we see as much or as little of it as we may the motion of Hu Xiaoyuan¡¯s curtain of paper. Even where we do see something apparently so slight, the mind resists reading them as signs, impatient instead for something it can understand; something that is easy to read and move on, and that does not require perplexing thought processes.
Slight is an apt description, too, of the content of the three©\channel video Drown Dust, 2012. The conception of Drown Dust was one of those beautiful accidents of creativity that occurs when, in the process of carrying out a plan towards one conceived end, the artist discovers something else that directs them towards an entirely different end. In reality, Drown Dust couldn¡¯t be simpler. The three sequences synched together follow details of the props or of the elements brought to the filming of the latest video work Axing Ice to Cross the Sea ¨C which the artist was in the process of completing when her attention was redirected ©\©\ as they touched the actor and the artist in the process of collaborating. The video was being filmed by the sea at Changli on the coast of Hebei province. It was in the course of setting up and returning from the set, wet, cold and exhausted, that the elements in Drown Dust revealed themselves to Hu Xiaoyuan. Departing from the human body©\in©\motion that we see in the final version of Axing Ice to Cross the Sea, 2013 ¨C Axing Ice to Cross the Sea is a three©\channel work centred on the distinctive movements of a writer, also dancer, chosen for her androgynous figure and fearless character ©\©\ Drown Dust presents sea water dripping from a soaked garment; grains of sand clinging to the interior of a drying shell; threads along the frayed edge of piece of fabric wavering and shaking in an unseen current of air. Using a macro lens, Hu Xiaoyuan transformed these details into worlds of their own. We are drawn into the journey of the drips, into the shell, along the stubbly edge, as if carried into an unknown, fabled land, for the imagination is very much
awakened here in the process of looking and what its tells the viewer of Hu Xiaoyuan¡¯s intention is very much down to the breadth of their own imagination¡¯s bandwidth.
The filming of Axing Ice to Cross the Sea was finally finished at the end of 2012. The timing was less to do with being distracted by Drown Dust and more to do with waiting for a degree of cold, of frost and the crisp cutting chill of air and atmosphere that comes with winter and cannot be faked. It thus has a chilly, haunting quality akin to the three©\dimensional sound space that accompanies so many of Bjork¡¯s songs (with particular reference here to her contribution to Hector Zazou¡¯s Songs from the Cold Seas, 1995). The differently ways in which viewers respond to Axing Ice to Cross the Sea as to Drown Dust is, for Hu Xiaoyuan, telling. The images might appear different but are, in fact, related aspects of the same thing. Given time and the inclination, we¡¯d probably figure it out, but even if we had both, what Hu Xiaoyuan seems to suggest is that there are no absolute answers. As evidence, the final work in the exhibition is Where is There, 2010, a two©\channel video work, shown on two very small screens in close proximity to each other. The sequence is so simple viewers would be forgiven for feeling there ought to be more to it than appears to be: but no, there is not, now specifically. What is seen here are lights at night ¨C tail©\lights on a car and street lights receding into the darkness of the night. Their beauty lies is a simple observation of fact, nothing more.
In terms of the exhibition, A Potent Force gives foremost weight to Hu Xiaoyuan¡¯s video works, but includes two installations exemplary of her oeuvre. The space of the Rockbund¡¯s second floor gallery allows for a ceiling height and a field of natural light perfectly suited to the installation works. The first, Summer Solstice, 2008, comprises a formal, old©\fashioned child's school desk, its austere design the embodiment of rigid Confucian order, as a correct posture from which the seated child may not deviate. They can neither lean forward nor slump back. The aura of the desk itself is softened by the inclusion of small personal items, a book, a pen, a small toy©\like model of a deer, placed on a shelf above the desk, all of which are moulded from papier mâch¨¦. There is, too, a pair of real stuffed sparrow ¨C referencing the Chinese proverb ¡°first bird from the tree¡± perhaps ¨C and a real alarm clock, which provides Summer Solstice with its unusual sound element. The desk is filled with the empty casts of chrysalis¡¯ shells from long©\gone cicadas. This element is a key to reading the entire work, for the cicada spends most of its short life underground developing within this tightly fitting shell, as the child in the chair. From the moment it bursts forth, believing its life has truly begun, it has but a fleeting time to find safety above ground and mate, at which point it dies. Thus, Hu Xiaoyuan indicts the falsity of hope, questioning the trap of the chair and the idea that life begins when childhood ends. A long scroll of paper falls to the floor, blank, of course, like the child that is forced to do their learning seated on this contraption.
Useless, 2007, also contains a long piece of paper, one that has been torn up and then painstakingly reconnected to form an approximation of its original form. This too has a sound element, being the tearing of the original piece
of paper. This portion of the exhibition was conceived to create an atmosphere similar to a library, an old©\fashioned kind in which silence reins. Equally, an air of what is today the unfamiliar sense of silence that used to rein in museums as recently as twenty years ago; in these hallowed halls, filled with masterworks, devoid of contemporary art, displays were viewed almost holding one's breath. To achieve the maximum sound effect of these two pieces, Hu Xiaoyuan inserted into this space a single black box housing the single channel video work See.
The art of Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan lie at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, the in terms of the title and juxtaposition of works, A Potent Force points directly to the succinct meaning and enduring resonance of the art of these two artists, Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan.