Between Fear And Trust: The Art Of Liang Yuanwei

Photo of Luise Guest
28 December 2016

On the cusp of international recognition, Chinese artist Liang Yuanwei sits down over tea with writer/blogger Luise Guest for a frank discussion about the frustrations and disappointments particular to women in the Chinese art world. According to Liang, time away from China has allowed her to reflect on her own artistic practise, ‘becoming a curator of [her]self.

When I visited Liang Yuanwei at her Beijing studio in early 2011 she was one of the few artists I had met willing to speak frankly about the frustrations and disappointments particular to women in the Chinese art world. Last December I visited her again, back in her same studio in Blackbridge Artists’ Village, after she had controversially represented China at the 2011 Venice Biennale, exhibited her work in London and spent three months working in Berlin.

I first encountered Liang Yuanwei’s richly textured impasto canvases at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney and was eager to find out more about her practice. Her early paintings simulated patterned cloth, checked or intricately flowered. Pieces of fabric were collected from friends and relatives, some with a personal significance and attached to memories, others of a deliberately banal nature, like striped flannelette sheets or pyjamas. Her meticulous technique results in a recreation of these fabrics, creating an ‘all-over’ abstraction with a twist.

For the series Piece of Life she painstakingly recreated the colours, patterns and textures of these fabrics, working slowly and laboriously, section by section. The paintings evoke the domestic and the homely, and the unsung labour of generations of Chinese women. Her painting practice, in its deliberate, controlled and meditative aspect, is a key element of the way she thinks about her work, underpinned by her reading of philosophy and her knowledge of both Chinese and Western art history.

Born in 1977 in Xian, Shaanxi Province, she has lived and worked in Beijing since graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. As we sat in her studio, drinking green tea, surrounded by her canvases and installation pieces, she told me about a journey that has taken her from reluctant studies within the Design Department (because her father would not permit her to study Fine Arts, fearing the unpredictable and uncertain life of the artist) to her current position on the cusp of significant international recognition, with shows at Pace Beijing, the London Art Fair and the Venice Biennale.

Liang Yuanwei, Study for ‘A Piece of Life’, oil on canvas, 2008.

From early hardship as a self-taught painter forced to ‘lose face’ by persuading undergraduates to show her how to stretch a canvas to her current status today has not been an easy road. Liang tells me she had to develop a thick skin and ‘act tough’, fighting for acceptance in the testosterone-fuelled Beijing art scene, especially in dealing with gallery directors such as the one who famously told her in 2005 that she had better become a photographer as ‘there are already too many female painters’. Her response: a series of photographic self-portraits called Don’t Forget to Say You Love Me When You Fuck Me, a parody of erotically charged photographs of women, with the artist herself as pouting object of the male gaze.

During our conversation Liang Yuanwei refers to a range of artists who have been of great significance to her, including the pioneering sculptor Eva Hesse and the painters Luc Tuymans, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. In 1995 some of her tutors at the Central Academy returned to China from Berlin, bringing with them ideas about art which were quite new to her, including the work of Joseph Beuys. This has informed her developing practice as an installation artist working with found objects and non-art materials. She realised that the ideas underpinning her work were as important as the materials and techniques with which they were communicated. ‘Art practice is like building houses, where different people use many different materials and construction methods. My paintings are my own little universe of materials, purposes and techniques,’ she says.

Liang Yuanwei, Study for ‘A Piece of Life’ 2008.

A year and a half later, back in Beijing in a bitterly cold December, we again sat drinking fragrant tea as I asked how her selection for the 2011 China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale had changed her. She is a little wary, and asks why I am interested in the work of women artists. ‘Feminism is just a word, generated from Western systems,’ she says. ‘There is no feminism in China.’ Venice left her bitter, with a strong feeling that her selection had been merely tokenism. The space within which she had to install her work was small, dark and difficult, and she attracted criticism from curators and critics for ‘not being Chinese enough’. The politics of the experience have burned her, leaving her a little more cynical and disillusioned. ‘I was chosen because I was young and female, to make China look good,’ she said with some sadness.

Her plan for the Venice work was appealingly simple. The five artists selected for the China Pavilion were each asked to create a work representing one of the five pervasive Chinese flavours or scents: tea; lotus; medicinal herbs; incense and for Liang’s work the unmistakeably pungent smell of China’s traditional white spirit, ‘baijiu’. She decided to pump the baijiu through rubber tubes in and around large metal barrels, creating a very loud soundscape as the spirit splashed into the metal, and developing an increasingly rancid smell over time. Wine spurted from three lumbar puncture needles at the top of rubber hoses into metal basins and then was pumped back up to continuously repeat the process. She explained that her chosen material – the liquid spirit – was authentically Chinese and real, as well as representing ‘high mountains and water streaming’, that staple of traditional ink painting. And baijiu, of course, is made from crops and thus also represents the farmers and the countryside.

Liang Yuanwei, Study for ‘Golden Notes’, oil on canvas, 2010.

After Venice she stayed in Berlin for three months and visited Documenta 13 in Kassel twice, an experience which proved an epiphany. It has been a year of studying, thinking, writing and observing the differences between the art worlds of China and Europe. ‘I found the problems I am facing as a woman artist are very different to the issues faced by artists internationally,’ she told me. ‘Women artists in China, especially women artists over the age of 35, are in the minority. Things are still very unequal and there appears to be no change.’ The time away from China has been important, allowing her to think deeply about her practice and incorporate new ideas. ‘Everything now is connected – both memory and future,’ she says. ‘I now think more about the relationship between myself as the artist, my work and the world. I have become a curator of myself.’

Liang Yuanwei, ‘Study’, liptstick on paper, 2012.

She has returned to painting with a vengeance, working on a series of canvases using the motif of fish – single creatures as well as in in seething complex patterns – as a development of the diptych works presented in the “Golden Notes” exhibition at Beijing Commune in 2010. She is interested in the science of colour and is concurrently experimenting with lipstick as a painting pigment. She showed me a range of fabulous reds and pinks which she has applied to crumpled paper in drawings of geometric precision, after which she watches the changes that take place in the colours as they fade from strong reds to softer browns. These will at some point become a new series of paintings. This quite radical experiment with such a “female” material seems a fitting metaphor for a woman who has struggled to find her artistic voice and remain true to herself, succeeding in quietly forging a successful career through sheer determination and persistence. She is now embarked on a path which, she says, is a ‘balance between fear and trust’, an artistic trajectory in which she finds herself, like other artists, trying to make sense of the dramatic transformation of China, and the new possibilities which emerge.

Despite an understandable reluctance to be labelled or pigeonholed, Liang Yuanwei makes artworks which thoughtfully reflect a unique vision of her experience of the world.

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