Abstract This is an investigation into the significance of the ancient 'secret' women's phonetic syllabary, Nüshu, in the performance and painting work of contemporary artist Ma Yanling, based on two extensive interviews with the artist in October and November 2013 and a close analysis of specific works. This article examines, first, the ways in which the gendered communication of life-stories and the exploration of female grievance found in Nüshu texts (the supposedly 'secret' women's phonetic syllabary used by peasant women in Jiangyong County, Hunan Province until the late 1980s) continues to have relevance in the work of a contemporary artist. It is argued that Nüshu texts (intended to be chanted aloud) are in themselves performative and cathartic in a similar manner to contemporary performance art practices. Second, the article argues that the ways in which Ma Yanling's work subverts the iconography of Mao-era propaganda portraiture and its Pop-inspired satire in contemporary Chinese art (Zhongguo Dangdai Yishu) represent complex and contradictory aspects of female experience and feminine subjectivity in today's China.
Abstract The yaji in Imperial China was an ‘elegant gathering’ of scholars who met to play chess, listen to music, and appreciate ink painting and calligraphy. They were generally all-male affairs, often taking place in a walled garden. Recently it has been argued that such forms of semi-private contemplation are appropriate models for exhibiting Chinese contemporary art. This article has two connected parts: the first examines how two women artists, Tao Aimin and Bingyi, ‘outsiders’ to the yaji garden gathering as it was traditionally constructed, subvert (yet also honour) important Chinese traditions. They challenge a gendered historical narrative by means of a reinvigorated and performative ink language, negotiating literal and figurative ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ spaces. Positioned as reconfiguring space in a way that challenges binaries of inside/outside, they interrogate the literati tradition that functioned as an expression of class and gender. Two works in particular exemplify their practice: Bingyi’s Époché, a 2014 performance in which she dropped 500 kilograms of ink/oil ‘missiles’ from a helicopter over the airfield at Shenzhen Bao’an Airport, and Tao Aimin’s 2008 The Secret Language of Women, an installation of bound books printed from rural women’s washboards employing the ancient Nüshu script invented by rural women. The second part of the article critically examines contemporary iterations of the yaji as a model for the exhibition of contemporary art. The term yaji is thus used in two ways in this article: as a metaphor to reflect on the absence of women artists in the reinvented literati ink tradition, and in a critical examination of its real-world manifestations in several recent exhibitions. In this context, the works of Tao Aimin and Bingyi occupy a complicated liminal space: they position themselves at times inside feminist discourse and at other times disavow a connection; they occupy a marginal space within dominant contemporary art world discourses and historically masculine discourses around calligraphy and the yaji, yet ‘inside’ the ink tradition. This article was developed from a paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Centre for Chinese Visual Art, School of Art, Birmingham City University, 13 October 2017.
3. Translation, transformation and refiguration: The significance of Jingdezhen and the materiality of porcelain in the work of two contemporary Chinese artists
Abstract In December 2016 a group of researchers led by Professor Jiang Jiehong travelled to Jingdezhen as fieldwork for the Everyday Legend research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Representing the White Rabbit Collection of Contemporary Chinese Art, Australia, I was invited to participate. This article developed from reflections on the fieldwork component of the research project, as well as the formal and informal discussions that took place, at the time and subsequently, in Shanghai, Birmingham, Groningen and London. In 2018, as a further development of this process of reflection, I conducted semi-structured interviews with two artists of different generations: the article examines how Liu Jianhua and Geng Xue approach the use of porcelain as a contemporary art material. Each has spent extensive periods of time in Jingdezhen and each is immersed in this particularly Chinese tradition. At the same time, each is identified (and identifies themselves) as practising in a global contemporary art context and participates in exhibitions and exchanges internationally. Considered in the context of current and historical discourses around global contemporaneity2 and its manifestations in twenty-first-century China, their work illuminates the key question that the Everyday Legend project was designed to examine: how can contemporary art and traditional Chinese craft practices intersect, informing and enriching each other? As representatives, respectively, of the generation who emerged into the first years of the post-Cultural Revolution Reform and Opening period, and of a younger generation educated partly outside China, they reveal how Chinese artists strategically negotiate local and global in positioning their work as contemporary reinventions of traditional forms and materiality.