Female Artists in China

Lu Yang at Ren Space Gallery, Shanghai

Ma Qjuisha is a young Chinese video artist who established her reputation with autobiographical videos about the necessity for a woman to conform in China’s patriarchal society. In No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili (2007), she talks ‘face to camera’ about her life growing up in China in a one-child family unit and the pressures on her to conform. At the end of the video she spits out a razor blade from her bloodied mouth. In a later work, We (2009), the heterosexual couples depicted are held together by white robes. As they tear themselves apart the video hints at the triumph of individualism over social convention in a male dominated society that, only reluctantly, will accept women as artists.

Qiusha explained to Asian Art Newspaper why it is hard to be a woman artist in China. ‘Gender is a broad impediment for women. Women get married and have children and like me they drop out for one whole year and can’t do anything other than have ideas and make notes. Men do not have these problems. The majority of female artists in these circumstances just get on with something else,’ she said. She was speaking in her Beijing studio, a semi-industrial space with a high vaulted ceiling.

Since the birth of her daughter in 2013, Quisha, contrary to her fears, has successfully returned to the work force and continued her career as an artist. In 2015, she was one of 17 international women artists chosen by the luxury brand Dior to be included in the Miss Dior exhibition at Beijing’s Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art (UCCA). The only stipulation was that artists were required to include a pair of Dior gloves in their finished work. Ma’s video Sleeping Beauty (2015) features a young women trapped beneath ice and is a lamentation of women’s enslavement to male perceptions of femininity where women remain objectified in a society that continues to be fiercely patriarchal.

The following day, on the other side of Beijing, I talked to video and photographic artist Cui Xiuwen who achieved notoriety in 2000 when she secretly filmed prostitutes in the ladies room at a Beijing nightclub. Lady’s Room (2000) is a candid exposé of the prostitutes as they count their takings and apply their make-up. At 48 years, old Xiuwen is a generation older than Qiusha and is known for her visual statements on feminism and her ongoing attempts to dissect the role of women in modern China. Her series Angel (2006), 14 photographs of a pregnant teenager replicated by computer and posed en masse in front of the Forbidden City, explore gender politics and the most contentious of subjects in China, teenage pregnancy. ‘I consider myself as an artist, I never think I am a Chinese artist or a female artist. You feel equal in myself. There are not so many female artists in China … because you are under pressure to look after the family. It is really hard to hang on and reach to the top,’ Xiuwen said.

Xiuwen is a superstar artist in China with a stellar career. Recently she married for the first time, but having children is not on her radar. ‘If I sacrifice a lot for the art then it is really worth it. I have got a good husband. My art will get better,’ she explained.

Xiuwen’s provocative and somewhat surprising statement would not endear her to Lu Yang, who at 33 years old, is the same generation as Qiusha. Yang is considered one of China’s best multimedia and new media art talents. I met her on the streets of Shanghai on a frigidly cold winter evening where vaporous clouds of breath hung in the air. She rushed at me out of the dark swathed in multi-layers of colourful clothing; iridescent voluminous scarf, a zip-through anorak patterned like a post-modernist art work, and a raincoat masquerading as army fatigues. Yang has drawn on Japanese manga and animé in her work which she blends with online gaming culture, 3D animation, sculpture, prints, drawings, and installation and goodness knows what as she struggles to define what it means to be human. She is often described as the enfant terrible of Chinese art but if not exactly that then she is certainly the wild child, producing work that is confronting and anarchic.

Yang’s output – the vast majority of which is computer generated – is often humorous but always entertaining. It can also be visually objectionable in its engagement with religion, neuroscience, bio-technology and pop-culture. For a few minutes we stood on the street with Summer Jin, the director of Shanghai’s Ren Space Gallery, making small talk introductions while my interpreter rummaged in a pop-up store selling fake dvds, a rarity now in China. We were close to the atmospheric French Concession where Ren Space – an architectural Art Deco gem – is located in a dark alley off the main drag.

Yang is a precociously talented artist. She studied at the prestigious China Academy of Art in Hangzhou graduating in 2007 with a Bachelor of Fine Art and a Master of Fine Art in 2010.  Since then she has travelled widely and exhibited in countries as far flung as China, Denmark, United Kingdom, USA, and Japan. She has exhibited at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, and was included in the China Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 with a video/installation, Moving Gods, where she cast Tibetans as Buddhist deities in a colourful iconoclastic mashup. Her solo exhibitions have deliberately provocative and challenging titles such as Anti-Humanisme, Cancer Baby, Uterus Man, The Anatomy of Rage and Lu Yang Delusional Mandala. 

While Yang is a colourful and effervescent personality there remains a side to her character that is elusive. In her art she adopts a deliberate non-sexual androgynous persona constructing avatars that inhabit virtual reality landscapes such as in her animation from 2013 Uterus Man, where the uterus is something that bestows super powers on the video’s only character. Her epicene tendency is carried to extremes in Lu Yang’s Delusional Mandala where she is the central character – often naked – but stripped of any reference to her sexuality. On her website she refers to herself in the third person and of the opposite gender. ‘Lu Yang is Human. Here’s some of his  shit’ … she writes.

Inside Ren Space Yang speaks like someone who has much to say and only a very short time in which to say it.  Her English is good and her vocabulary comprehensive. Whether or not she is perceived as a woman artists is not something that concerns her. She explains that her androgynous persona is not just to do with appearance but is also determined by the fact that she carries a unisex name which circumvents the inconvenience of being continually asked if the work is by a man or woman artist. ‘A lot of people do not know that I am female. Because a lot of my work is not gender based therefore a lot of my audience think I am a man. People know me because of my art and not my gender,’ she said.

I asked what does she think of the position of women artists in China? ‘I really want to avoid the gender issue in my work. A lot of people want to interview me about this. They ask why you do this kind of artwork which can be seen as violent,’ she observed. She was referring to her video Revived Zombie Frogs Underwater Ballet (2009), in which she used electrical impulses to stimulate the muscles of dead frogs to a musical soundtrack.

Zombie Frogs shows Yang’s passion for bio-art, a subject she was exposed to at college, and which flirts with the boundaries between life and death in a Promethean sense. ‘You see (the frog) moves and you wonder if it is still alive or dead,’ she said. The macabre video has been viewed over one million times on the internet and has proved to be one of Yang’s most popular with its fine balance between the polarities of the sacred and the profane.

I asked Yang if she sees herself as a woman artist or just an artist. She avoids answering and seems to be growing impatient with my questioning. ‘Just a human being. I do not want to bother about gender in my work. I hardly go out anywhere. I live on the internet. Nobody knows who I am,’ she continued.

The conversation veered off toward Yang’s Cancer Baby project of 2014. Kimo Kawa Cancer Babies was her first solo exhibition at Ren Space and featured toys, videos and paintings of what some have called ‘adorable cancer cell protagonists’. The centre piece was a short animation video song, Cancer Baby Song (2014), which depending on one’s personal relationship with the disease could be seen as trite juvenilia or one of extremely bad taste. ‘I want to learn about neurons, difficult medical things, and the psychology of human behaviour,’ she explained. So much to learn and so little time.

Which brought us abruptly back to Yang and her practice and her voracious appetite for learning as a tool to expand her practice. Anything that does not press upon this self-induced research quest is peremptorily dismissed. For example, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution on her art? ‘In Shanghai we just watch videos.’ Chairman Mao? ‘Too far away from me.’ Censorship in China? ‘Nowadays young people just give up talking about these things.’  Life is spent on the internet making so-called, ‘internet art’, digital artwork that in many ways attempts to eschew the gallery system. She has a thoroughly democratic approach to disseminating her videos and uploads them all to Vimeo (the video file sharing web site) so they are available for ordinary people – those outside of the art world – to view for free.

Is the Great Fire Wall (a technological barrier constructed by the Chinese government to restrict what its citizens can access on the web) a burden for Yang whose work is so predicated on the internet. ‘It is quite a big problem for me. I do not care about the things they (the government) do not want us to watch. I just care about the things I need,’ she commented.
At this point in our conversation Summer Jin interceded with her own views on the position of women artists in China today. ‘The previous 10 years have been hard but today things have changed. Life is much better than before. Women artists are much more confident and with Yang’s generation there are not so many barriers,’ she said.

It is a view endorsed by Beijing-based artist 36-year old Cui Jie. Jie is a painter whose subject matter is the architecture and urbanism of a modern city. The two artists could not be more different in their approach to art. Yet their views concerning women artists are not that dissimilar. While Yang lives a life surrounded by frenetic Japanese influences, Jie inhabits a solitary life in the studio and insists that her favourite artist is the 15th century Italian master, Piero della Francesca. She is focussed, calm and uncompromising.

‘This question about women artists is often asked. I do not really think it is a problem because I work in the studio by myself. Maybe it would be different if I were doing installation or performance where I would have to work as a team and where it is harder for a woman who must navigate the gallery system. But it is very hard to break out of the dominated man’s world.  The most difficult thing for female artists is you have to think about if you want to have a child. Because for two years you really cannot do anything. And missing two years is a long time for an artist. But I am not thinking about starting a family. So, at the moment, I am OK,’ she explained.

Jie has a steady boyfriend and a career that is taking off. Currently she is featured in a group show The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017 at UCCA in Beijing. Last year, she was included in a group show at Shanghai’s K11, the Chinese property czar Adrian Cheng’s shopping mall art space. I suggested that if Jie’s boyfriend is not as successful as she is and they had a baby then he could stay at home and look after it while Jie returned to work with minimal interruption to her career.

At this point in the conversation the interpreter abruptly jumped in. ‘In China a man would not do that. Culturally it is just not acceptable,’ she said. Jie concurred. Here seems to be the crux of the problem. It is not so much just about having babies and taking time off to do so that is stifling the presence of women artists in China, but the fierce patriarchal society that refuses to see women as equals.

Last year Shanghai’s West Bund Long Museum exhibited an historical survey of international women’s art. Described as the first such exhibition in China it covered 10 centuries, 13 countries and 105 artists and was called, She: International Women Artists Exhibition. 

In the catalogue Wang Wei, who with billionaire husband Liu Yiqian owns the Long Museum, wrote, ‘Women often bear more pressure than men, as the former has to deal with both family responsibility and social challenges. The world would be a better place if women can receive education and respect.’ Perhaps if exhibitions by women artists were not called ‘She’ it would be one small step along the road to true artistic emancipation for the women artists of China.


By Michael Young