Dissident Australian-Chinese artist Guo Jian lives in semi-rural isolation two hours north of Sydney on the New South Wales Central Coast, in a house large enough to swallow several families. His studio, once a large three-car garage is 100-square metres with plenty of storage space in several side rooms. Canvasses litter the floor, stacked like carpets in a carpet showroom. Several paintings in various stages of completion lean against walls. There is one that shows a naked Chinese woman – a reprise of the earlier The Day Before I Went Away series that made his name – and two large recent trompe l’oeil photographic works made from thousands of tiny portrait photographs which, when viewed from a distance, assume the look of a traditional Chinese landscape complete with misty lakes and trees. When viewed close, the landscape dissolves into a pointillist-like morass of faces. Jian used as many as 30,000 tiny photographs in a previous work.
There is something a little tentative about the studio space with its low beamed ceiling, but I cannot quite put my finger on what it is. I wondered how it compared to his first studio at the Yuanmingyuan artist village on the northwest of Beijing that he had occupied in the early 1990s and that was eventually shut down in 1993. ‘It was a shared room off a farmer’s courtyard,’ he remembered.
Jian fled to Australia in 1992, after being involved in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations only to return to China in 2005, where he occupied several studios before settling at Songzhuang artist village in Bejing in a 200-square-metre warehouse with 7.5-metre ceilings. The Central Coast studio in comparison is cramped and gloomy with low ceilings and restricted natural light. Nonetheless it is safe, comfortable, even though a touch residential for an artist whose parents and grandparents suffered at the hands of the communist party. His paternal grandfather was executed by the PLA in the early 1950s for being a landowner, Jian revealed. His mother and father were both tormented by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966 -76), Chairman Mao’s attempt to restore his authority after the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-62), which saw millions of Chinese die from famine. Jian himself, born in 1962, often encountered Red Guard violence on the streets of Duyun in southwest China’s Guizhou province where he was born.
Jian grew up during this turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution but confessed to having been a fan of the model operas, the only form of entertainment generally available, instituted by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, who became the deputy director of the Central Cultural Revolution Group advancing Mao’s political ideology through these operas which showed proletarian characters fighting heroically against traditional oppression. For Jian, one model opera proved particularly popular, The Red Detachment of Women, not so much for the high-toned patriotism it displayed but because the women on stage wore shorts and tight skirts that revealed their legs, something that was frowned on for ordinary Chinese women at the time.
As a boy Jian had two dreams. One was to be an artist – as a child he was always drawing – the other was to be a soldier. The two dreams coalesced when he was 17 and joined the People’s Liberation Army during the brief Sino- Vietnamese war. But his drawing skill kept him away from combat and instead of a combat soldier he became an army propaganda artist.
Later, as an art student at the Central Minorities Institute in Beijing (6,000 students from his area applied but only three were admitted), he was swept up in the Tiananmen Square protests for greater freedom and democracy. He joined the hunger strikers and was in the square when the tanks rolled in and the PLA began firing indiscriminately at anything that moved. The memories of seeing so many fellow students killed and their bodies piled high in the bicycle lot of the local Fuxingmen Hospital have never left him. Like many idealistic young men of his generation, he believed the PLA was the defender of the people. ‘It was beyond belief that the PLA would ever fire on Chinese people. It was the people’s army. I never thought the army would shoot at me,’ he explained.
Being part of the Tiananmen Square demonstration meant that Jian was a marked man. However, being married to an Australian woman meant that he was able to move to Sydney in 1992, although it took him three years to obtain a visa. In Australia, he developed the series of political and satirical paintings for which he has became widely known, including the Trigger Happy (1999-2000) and Excitement (1995-1998) series. They showed promiscuous and curvaceous female soldiers, often scantily clad, entertaining Chinese soldiers, enticing them into a patriotic frenzy. Many, if not all of the lascivious soldiers, are modelled on Jian’s own features. ‘In China at that time women were not allowed to wear shorts or miniskirts and they often dressed like soldiers. But if you went to see this opera, it was the only time you would see woman in shorts. We all loved it! I went to see it many times! I believed that to meet beautiful, sexy girls you had to join the army,’ he smiled.
The paintings were highly charged and explicitly sexual with an underlying threat of violence and there was nothing subtle in the way they satirised communist ideology.
He returned to Beijing in 2005 and set himself up in a studio at the Black Bridge Heiqiao artist village just beyond Beijing’s 5th Ring Road, before moving to Songzhuang close to the now famous 798 artist precinct where he began developing his The Day Before I go Away series. In these works the sexuality is toned down while the political commentary remained sharp and direct. It was a period where he was watched closely by the authorities but he somehow manage to escape any censure.
All that changed in late May 2014 on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre when Jian gave an interview to London’s Financial Times. In 2010, in his Songzhuang studio he had created a large diorama of Tiananmen Square shown in a state of deconstruction. ‘It was my reaction to the demolition taking place in China. Thousands of hutongs had been demolished in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic games and in Duyun, the street where I had grown up had been swept aside. So I thought, I am going to demolish Tiananmen Square,’ he said. ‘My friends said, ‘If you do that you will be arrested’. But I was not.’ The work that the Financial Times journalist saw was actually three years old, but the latest iteration had been covered by Jian in a thick layer of minced pork, although by the time the interview took place Jian had removed the meat, ‘It was going green,’ he remembered. ‘But the pungent smell of rotting flesh still hung in the studio.’ I asked a rhetorical question. Did Jian intend to be deliberately provocative with the Tiananmen Square work? He thought for a moment before replying. ‘In China they view me as a trouble maker, but I do not look for trouble. I made this work because it is something I felt strongly about,’ he replied.
At midnight following the publication of the interview in London there was an ominous knock on Jian’s studio door. He opened it to a crowd of policemen who barged in. ‘There were 15 police cars blocking the street outside,’ he recalled. ‘And several of the policemen did not know what it was all about, only that there was an order from “high up”,’ he said. He was arrested and hauled off to a local police station for interrogation. ‘I knew that they could make me disappear,’ he explained. He was held in detention for 15 days before being bundled onto a plane bound for Sydney and exiled from China for five years. He is not able to return until 2019 – and remains conflicted as to whether he will ever actually return.
In many ways the satirical paintings of cavorting female soldiers had run their course long before Jian was banished from China. However, his focus had already turned to the environment. In 2008, he had returned to Guizhou and was staggered by the amount of rubbish and environmental degradation he encountered. The mountains he knew as a child were littered with garbage, rivers were choked with plastic packaging and magazines. ‘I could not believe what I found,’ he said. He took thousands of photographs of the rubbish – homing in on the faces of celebrities he found in the magazines and on the discarded packaging, many of whom had endorsed the products. Back in his studio he set to work collaging thousands of tiny photographs, often less than one centimetre square, onto large photographs of the mountain landscapes. Sometimes a large work would contain 30,000 tiny images and take months to compile. Two of these works lean against the studio wall. Step back to view them and they coalesce into pleasing scenes with misty lakes, and forested hills set within a traditional Chinese landscape. Move close to the work and the aesthetic dissolves back into pointillist mash-up of hideous grinning faces.
Back in Australia, life has changed for Jian. There is a new woman in his life and they have an 18-month-old son. He moved in to his new studio at Christmas and an air of hesitant uncertainly haunts its gloomy corners and I speculate to myself whether the dissident spirit still burns inside him. Unresolved watercolour sketches for an upcoming series are scattered on a coffee table while to one side is a recent vividly colourful reprise of the satirical works The Day Before I went Away series of a decade earlier but now the women have succumbed to sexually explicit nakedness. Is this a bedroom painting, I wonder? ‘Occasionally I get asked by collectors to revisit this subject,’ he said, by way of explanation. Spread across the floor are several large unfinished canvases removed from their stretchers. One by one he pulls them aside. They show a gathering of ethnic Chinese women with a heavy phalanx of disinterested police in the foreground. In the background is a sign that promotes the National People’s Congress held annually in Beijing. Jian told me the work references the subjugation of minorities in China and the ongoing homogenisation of China’s population. The group of women seem tokenistic. Almost as an afterthought Jian mentions how he is in fact a member of the Bouyei ethnic group himself, the 11th largest of the 56 groups recognised by the Chinese authorities. They have their own language, but he cannot speak it although his parents could.
In a side room hundreds of family photographers recently sent from China to Jian by his sister are spread about. Momentarily Jian appeared reflective. ‘My whole art practice is based on my struggle with Chinese heritage. My story is related to China and based on my memories,’ he stated. It is a simple explanatory statement. We leaf through the fading photographs; Jian as a 17-year-old soldier, Jian as a young student, Jian with family and friends. They have joined the piles of memorabilia that he draws on for his art – newspaper clippings, old photographs, girlie playing cards, old tin toys, fliers for recent Chinese theatrical productions in Sydney and assorted postcards. But there is nothing of his paternal grandfather. He has slipped guardedly away into a silent unspoken history. Later, I learn that grandfather had been an opium grower and that he was executed for failing to comply with land confiscation that followed the 1949 Communist victory over the Nationalist Kuomintang troops. I determine to press Jian on this so I telephone him.
His grandfather was one of three brothers. Faced by the communist army one brother killed himself, one died of an opium overdose and his grandfather, faced with execution, shot himself. It is a litany of tragedy. ‘My parents would not discuss this. They could not even bury him and his body was thrown into a mass grave. He was 37 years old,’ Jian said.
‘Every time I ask my mother about him she always tried to stop the conversation. I have tried to get the story from my grandmother, but she died 10 years ago there is now nothing more to learn,’ he said sadly. This sad story, once resolved, might just be the final tiny piece of his family’s life and experiences that will collage into a more complete work and bring closure, further down the track.
BY MICHAEL YOUNG