Female Art in the New China

Cui2

As part of their
"Did you know China is more than just the Olympics?" series, the New York Times sent art critic Holland Cotter
to China for a month to look at art made by women. Cotter poses the same two
questions to each artist: Is your work political? Is it feminist? For each
female the artist the answer is the same: the category "political" is
too narrow and "feminist" is too broad.

The artists’ work
itself doesn’t fit very neat into categories, however. Cotter’s sample ranges
from the elegant, Chelsea-ready sculptures of Lin Tianmiao to Cui Xiuwen’s
voyeuristic look at Beijing prostitutes. The most evocative art comes from the
women who were born under the hard times of the Great Leap Forward. These
artists include Lin (born 1961) and Yin Xuizhen (born 1957). Lin and Yin create
"apartment art"–art made from small household objects, each one
charged with the tension of the tenacious hoarder. It’s as if every small object, every morsel
of food is a precious thing in the workers’ utopia. This art is the most
conventionally feminine, and the opposite of the gallery-chewing artworks produced
by China’s top male artists. And yet these small objects seem to address the
conditions of history more directly than some of the more allegorical work of
other explicitly political Chinese artists.

Another interesting
artist working in the same hermetic vein is Lu Qing. Every year she buys an
82-foot-long bolt of fine silk and spends the year painting the scroll with
grid patterns. If she can find the time, she finishes the entire bolt. If not,
then she simply buys another bolt and begins again. Her scrolls have neither
use value nor exchange value. They are produced by labor that is an end in itself. The scrolls are like a continuous but illegible ticker tape from the recent past.
Nothing could be further from the mass production of China’s current economic
expansion and the heroic nationalism that has accompanied it.

In addition to her
film Lady’s Room, Cui has produced a
series of paintings featuring adolescent girls dressed in uniforms of the
Maoist Young Pioneers. The girls stare off into space in ready-to-be-seen
poses, but they’re often bruised and battered, as if they’ve been roughed up by
Jiang Qing herself. These
are striking paintings, and their political intend is obvious enough. (Sample
above in a photograph taken by Natalie Behring for the Times.) However, in the context of the often ambiguous
depictions of Mao by other contemporary Chinese artists, it’s not clear if the
paintings are unalloyed repudiations of Communist authority, or wistful glances
backward to simpler times. Totalitarian regimes rarely disappear without leaving some traces of nostalgia–just look at Russia today.

Looking at contemporary Chinese art, sometimes it can seem as if artists are creating for Western consumption a radical chic flirtation with Mao, a far cooler product to buy from the new China than lead-infused Thomas the Tank Engine toys.

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