“Half the Sky” by Luise Guest

Luise Guest’s Half the Sky is a welcome addition to works on Chinese contemporary art. Amid all the froth of the Chinese art scene, Guest focuses solely on female artists, long overlooked and under-studied, presenting the work and thoughts of some thirty artists.

In recent years Chinese contemporary art has become incredibly diverse. The realistically rendered women of Yu Hong’s work convey in their often neutral expressions the uncertainty of their position in a developing China, while Han Yayuan’s mice-women smiling artificial smiles while clutching designer handbags and driving modern sports cars comment on the materialism of the society. Li Tingting updates Chinese ink painting with colorful washes of plastic bottles, shoes, furniture and chandeliers while Tao Aimin uses ink to paint the laundry washboards of rural women reminding viewers of the contrast between the modern cities and the countryside.

What Guest captures so well is the sheer variety of Chinese art today. Space enables her to show only the tip of the iceberg, yet in mixing established and new artists as well as traditional and non-traditional forms of art Guest gives insight into the turmoil in society and in their lives that these artists seek to express.

While Chinese artists themselves tend to see generational divisions speaking of cohorts of those born in the 60s, 70s or 80s, Guest takes a more topical approach grouping artists under method or medium. She covers not only traditional ink and oil, but also photography and performance art. Forms of art based on embroidery or the women’s language of rural Hunan (nushu) are also shown revealing the variety of art practice among women artists. Typically, three or four artists are selected for each group exposing the reader not just to the many different aspects of Chinese art but to the varied directions that the artists are taking each art.

Half the Sky, Luise Guest (Piper Press, January 2016)
Half the Sky, Luise Guest (Piper Press, January 2016)

The artists featured in each section are quite diverse. “Painting the Zeitgeist” features Yu Hong (born in the 1960s), Xie Qi (70s) and Han Yajuan (80s). Yu Hong paints in a very realistic style, Xie Qi near abstract and Han Yajuan cartoonish. As the subtitle of the book indicates, each artist profile is more a conversation containing elements of biography, education and comments on works as well as the artist’s view of her role as an artist and of art in China.

There is an individual chapter on Xiao Lu’s work “Dialogue” that was a part of the pioneering 1989 show “China/Avant Garde”. The work had two components, a sculptural work and then a performance piece where Xiao shot the sculpture with a pistol. The shooting was one of the earliest performance art pieces in China and just about closed the entire exhibition. (This sculpture, complete with bullet holes, is currently on exhibition at Long Museum, Shanghai as part of an exhibit of women artists.) In the wake of the shooting, confusion and misdirection left authorship of the work and performance uncertain. Guest clarifies the origin of the work giving full credit to Xiao Lu in a discussion that serves not just to highlight the work, but to highlight the difficulty women artists have had being recognized and credited for their work.

The profile approach affords a very personal look at each artist and her art. Moreover, Guest is able to capture the very different experiences and outlooks of the artists. Mixing artists from different cohorts in each section brings the reader back again and again to the dramatic changes that China has experienced even in the very limited space of the 14 years that separate the birth of Yu Hong and Han Yajuan.

However, the conversational format leaves Guest with no place to perform the synthesis that would place the artists in a larger context as well as critically assess each artist. From a critical perspective, the big question here regards feminism. Is the art of Chinese female artists feminist? As Guest notes,


Many Chinese women see a western feminist paradigm as alien to their own experience. Some western commentators believe that feminism as a coherent political movement never emerged there, but this is a gross over-simplification of a much more complex reality.


Unfortunately, Guest does not give us much insight into the complex reality. The closest she gets is the chapter on Chen Lingyang and her work “Twelve Flower Months”:


… a series of photographs completed over the course of a year recording her menstrual cycle. The artist’s own body and bleeding genitalia are reflected in antique mirrors, with the traditional flower representing each calendar month.


Guest plays ping pong with this work on the question of its feminist character declining to declare for one side or the other. In the end, she settles on the assessment that


From a distance of more than fifteen years, Chen’s work appears more dreamily self-absorbed than flagrantly provocative.


This view seems to accept Chen’s denial of her work as feminist while at the same time discounting the work’s artistic merit.


Chen is not the only artist to aver a feminist assessment of her work. In the main, Guest accepts such statements without question, noting that when the artist declared her work not feminist, Guest was at a “conversational dead end”. Guest is prepared to allow her artist subjects to walk away from the “feminist” label, because most of them say they do not think “western feminism” applies to China. The artists’ reluctance to be identified with “western feminism” is understandable. To declare one’s art “feminist” would bring the artist close to the avowedly political. So the artists eschew a “feminist” label.

Yet, as art critic Taliesin Thomas noted in an essay in a 2015 issue of Yishu, we may be looking for “feminist dialogue with Chinese characteristics”. The art we see here very much seeks to discuss the position of women in the changing society of China. Is this “feminism with Chinese characteristics”? One senses that Guest wants to say that it is, but the conversation format reveals the artists one-by-one leaving Guest with no place to discuss the art and artists within the broader Chinese context.

Throughout the profiles patterns keep repeating that cry out for greater explanation. Many of the artists here are graduates of CAFA, the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Guest notes the role of figurative art in Chinese art education as well as the influence of Duchamp and Beuys. But, again, the profile approach does not permit a broader discussion of how education and influence have brought these artists to the point that they are at.

For all its limitations, however, there is no other resource that explores in such depth the range of work by Chinese female artists. The questions Guest raises will engage the admirer, student and collector of Chinese art for years to come. I look forward to Guest’s next work and her further exploration of these questions.

Stephen Maire is a Director of a garment manufacturing and trading company. He has lived in East Asia for more than twenty years.