Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sichuan HOT!

Chongqing is exploding. Dubbed “the invisible city” by The Guardian (UK) newspaper because so few people outside of China have heard of the place, it sees some 1,300 people a day flooding into its precincts, around half a million new residents a year. That makes Chongqing the fastest growing urban conglomeration on the planet, a vital wheel in the Chinese government’s ‘Go West’ campaign to regenerate a feudally impoverished and underdeveloped interior – and an increasingly potent equal to the great eastern cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.

Located on the merging veins of the Jialing and Yangtze, it is also upriver from the Three Gorges Project, the world’s largest dam, the building of which has helped drive the immigrant rush into the city as well as power its almost insane expansion. Once a part of the Sichuan province, Chongqing has simply become too big for that state to handle. It's now an independent ‘municipality’ with some 31 million people living in both the city and the surrounding hills and farming regions into which it is spreading like a fire.

Inevitably the young artists of Chongqing manifest this energy: a clamor, optimism and virulence the likes of which the West has not seen the nineteenth century days of the Industrial Revolution. These artists are all products of the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy where the acclaimed likes of Zhang Xiaogang were previously trained during the 1980s. Against the grain of other all-pervasive Chinese teaching institutions, the Academy has now produced a new wave of graduates distinguished by the radical variety of their individual styles rather than a group or generational signature. It’s a development attributed to the liberating influence of their two Masters, Yang Shu and Chen Weimin.

Yang Shu’s own paintings have the organic mysticism of a Kandinsky to them if Ralph Steadman had been holding the brush, lotus-like abstractions with a violent, off-kilter undercurrents coming at you across the canvases. Chen Weimin’s work is saturated in colours – bright blues, sponge pinks, luminous yellows – that appear to reconstitute the buildings and advertising iconography of Chongqing into a psychedelic vision circa San Francisco 1969. Summaries are always glib, but Yang seems to chart the hilly vertigo of the city’s frantic road life, its endless noise and rural-shattering expansion as something phantasmic, deeply internalized; while Chen depicts a scenic actuality of eye-popping beauty and radio-active consumer absolutes, a city soaked in its own urges.

With Yang and Chen’s guidance a showcase exhibition of a generation under their tutelage has been put together called ‘Sichuan Hot: New Painting from Chongqing City, China’. The title makes an obvious reference to the famously spicy and eye-wateringly intense hot-pot dishes for which all of Sichuan is justly famous. It has been assembled by the curators Ray and Evan Hughes of the Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney in partnership with Simon Wright, the Director of the Queensland College of Art Gallery at Griffith University. Already ‘Sichuan Hot’ is shaping up as one of the most cutting edge displays of contemporary Chinese art in the world today, though all three curators are quick to state that while Yang and Chen provide “an impressive entry point” as Wright puts it, “the exhibition is really an emerging artists’ show – it’s also less about contemporary ‘Chinese’ art than contemporary art internationally.”

Li Li is the best known of the group on those terms, with successful showings already in Hong Kong and New York. She regularly depicts herself as a pony-tailed girl in flat-planed cartoon situations, gleefully taking to rainbows with a flame thrower and devouring trees in a stoned reverie like some giant panda, or dismembering herself in eerily detached pastel settings. Zen Hong is perhaps the most restrained of all the artists by comparison, producing austere, highly detailed architectural facades in monochromatic grids with nothing more than a pen and a ruler – work that curator Simon Wright finds overwhelmingly “painstaking and on a level of obsession I still can’t work out”.

Li Hua’s rough and blaring abstractions meanwhile suggest comparisons to Hundertwasser, works so ropey and dense they appear ready to slide off the canvas to the floor. Her studio partner Li Bin Bin creates a more floating mix of vine-like DNA and Mandelbrot fractals that blend organic and digital terrains. Both artists give off the impression of looking inside an aquarium, one wretchedly, colour-fully polluted, the other odd and futuristic. Liu Wei Wei’s work is from somewhere else again: voodoo figurines that suggest Jean Michael Baquiat and the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ on a glam-rock bender.

This is from China? Really?

Evan Hughes elaborates on this eclecticism by explaining how all three curators found themselves “reacting against this idea there was a Chinese style of painting”, not to mention the market-driven mania that has reinforced it. Just when Beijing and Shanghai seemed to be playing themselves out in the long aftermath of the Cynical Realist and Gaudy Artist movements of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Chongqing opened their eyes again to other possibilities. “I’ve never seen my father be so committed or work so hard on a show,” he says of the ‘Sichuan Hot’ show. “Never.”

For Ray Hughes the exhibition is the pay-off to “an energy that has been feeding me for fourteen years” ever since his first thrilling visits to the Mainland, which would go on to establish his Sydney gallery as the bridge-head for modern Chinese art in Australia. Hughes has shown works by major painters like Liu Wei, Liu Xiaodong and Qi Zhilong, and continues to maintain relationships with some of the most important Chinese artists of the era as well as idiosyncratic choices like the Luo Brothers and Chang Xugong that have proved equally astute and enduring.

He nonetheless likens arriving in Chongqing to how he felt visiting New York in the 1970s. The camaraderie of the young artists, “the labyrinth of studios,” “this scene happening”; all in an extremely hilly city of aggressive vibrancy he repeatedly describes as “like something out of the street-scenes in Bladerunner”.

Historical resonances add another undercurrent to this atmosphere. Chongqing is said to have been the site for the war-like 11th century BC kingdom of Ba, famed for its short, and ferociously effective, curved swords. Nearby is Fishing Town, one of the three great battlefields of China, “the Place That Broke God’s Whip”, where the Mongol hordes were turned back during the Song Dynasty. The same warrior spirit would make it the heart of resistance to the Japanese invasion in World War Two, and the provisional capital of China under Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang forces. Whenever the country has been in trouble, it seems, it is Chongqing that has closed its fist and turned the invaders away.

Along with automobile and motorbike manufacturing, the military still plays a big part in the city’s industrial life, and there is extensive coal mining across the region. Given its hilly setting and the mountains that surround it, Chongqing climbs upwards as much as outwards, and remains unusual for a Chinese city in that there are virtually no bicycles to be seen on the streets. Car ownership doubles every five years – and with the World Bank ranking 16 of China’s cities among the 20 most polluted in the world, Chongqing consistently languishes among the worst offenders despite ‘clear-sky days’ and a recent shift towards cleaner hi-tech and I.T.-related industries.

Many of the artist’s studios bear witness to the city’s military history, massive work spaces that have been developed out of former tank lofts and now serve the more creative warrior spirit. “Most art schools lay down train tracks like Tootles. Here there was a green light to go and chase something and I liked that,” says Ray Hughes of visiting the Academy. “There wasn’t a focused look. It was lashings of freedom. People were going in their own various directions. These guys (Wang and Chen) gave them the license to explore. This bunch of kids is China’s next wave,” he adds without a shadow of doubt; then he begins to laugh. “[My son] Evan likes to say their Cultural Revolution wasn’t Mao it was Microsoft.”

Evan Hughes laughs with him. He is, of course, himself a representative of a generational shift in the curatorial energy of Sydney. Evan Hughes talks in a long spieling rush about what he saw in these artists’ paintings, and does so in a way that is highly attuned to their youth: “There are no references to Mao in their work. No references to the Cultural Revolution. Unless it made some impact in their lives there is no reason for them to clasp on to such things. Instead it’s the city itself and things like the internet, cable TV, the mass reproduction of cartoons from Japan, the affects of design in everything from new magazines to architecture.”

“You have to remember this generation in their early teens only knew oppressive State buildings, design and mass media before. With the internet especially they began seeing all these images that people in the West take for granted. It all comes out of mass communication. Artists of importance in China previously told the stories of repression and opening. These kids have seen the explosion of pop culture, urban clutter, the destruction of open environments.” It’s these streams that give the show its international flavour – along with what he calls “the story of the explosion of China in terms of its urban landscapes.”

Ultimately, Evan Hughes suggests these artists are in fact “painting about their world in a foreboding way.” Ray Hughes smiles at that idea. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the darker intimations this work may carry about Chongqing, about China, or about what it is like to be young in a world poisoning itself on all kinds of levels. “I’m forty years older,” Ray Hughes says. “Part of what you learn through the process of getting where I am is to sometimes just drop the suspicions and inhibitions and run with the optimism that’s there… I do think I’ve unearthed some pretty interesting characters as part of the visual language of the place [Chongqing].” And with a Mandarin chop of the hand he adds, “That’s my job.”

Evan Hughes uses the same Bladerunner comparisons with wry amazement, reinforcing it with a final story about a collector in London who was skeptical of Chen Weimin’s work, describing it as recycled Pop Art gestures with fresh Chinese flavours: “I thought back to the city, to its buildings adorned in pink tiles, its bright orange afternoon smog-assisted sunset, the deep British Racing green of the Yangtze River, the bright yellows of the taxis and the bright blues of the buses,” he says. “I turned from the painting to him [the collector] and replied, ‘No, it’s really like that.’… Welcome to Chongqing.”

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this story first appeared in Australian Art Collector, April - June, 2009

+ Sichuan Hot will be exhibited at the Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney from September 25- October 21, 2009.

= Above artworks in descending order from the top are:

- Untitled, 2006 oil on canvas by Yang Shu
- Untitled (Pink Flower/Fireworks) 2008 oil on canvas by Chen Weimin
- Untitled, 2008 mixed media on canvas by Li Hua
- The Black Flower I, 2009 acrylic on canvas by Li Binbin

Images are copyright and republished courtesy of Ray Hughes Gallery.

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