“Ten Million Rooms of Yearning”: Art, sex and desire in Hong Kong – curator interview



Curators Cosmin Costinas and Chantal Wong share their insights on art, sexuality and desire in Hong Kong.

The curators of “Ten Million Rooms of Yearning. Sex in Hong Kong”, currently on show at Para Site, talk to Art Radar about the concepts behind the exhibition, the multi-layered issues brought into discussion and the contribution of art to critical discourse around society in Hong Kong.

Cao Fei, 'Naked Idol in RMB City', 2010. Image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.

Cao Fei, ‘Naked Idol in RMB City’, 2010. Image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.

Ten Million Rooms of Yearning. Sex in Hong Kong” was launched at Hong Kong’s influential nonprofit art space Para Site on 9 May 2014 and will run until 10 August 2014. Co-curated by in-house curator Cosmin Costinas and guest curator Chantal Wong, the multi-venue exhibition explores the connections between sex and sexuality, desire and the city’s social and historical contexts.

Sex and the city  

Through various perspectives and a variety of media, the 39 artists in the exhibition examine the ways in which desire and sexuality are experienced, conceptualised, fantasised, altered and hidden. The works take into consideration factors such as family and class structure, power relations, issues of gender and identity, the city’s space and social uses, and the role of capitalism in shaping intimacy and contemporary sub-cultures.

Sexual drive in Hong Kong is one of the lowest in the world owing to a variety of conflictual events throughout its history, from the liberalism of colonial times and especially the 1980s to the growth in conservative views post-1997.

Danh Vo, 'Photographs of Dr. Joseph M. Carrier 1962 - 1973', 2010, framed photographs. Image courtesy the artist.

Danh Vo, ‘Photographs of Dr. Joseph M. Carrier 1962 – 1973′, 2010, framed photographs. Image courtesy the artist.

Artists included in the exhibition range from important local Hong Kong artists such as Luis Chan and Angela Su, to mainland Chinese artists such as Cao Fei and international artists like Yayoi Kusama, Danh Vo, Roee Rosen and Willem de Rooij.

The variety of works and perspectives in the exhibition enriches a localised discourse that is already underway in fields other than art, such as academia, social sciences and social administration.

Art Radar spoke with the curators of the exhibition to find out more about the significance of such a topic in Hong Kong at this time.

Lee Kit, 'You and me against the world', 2014, looped video, 4min 55sec. Image courtesy the artist.

Lee Kit, ‘You and me against the world’, 2014, looped video, 4min 55sec. Image courtesy the artist.

Sex as pretext: The concepts behind the exhibition

“Ten million rooms of yearning. Sex in Hong Kong” looks at the connections between sex, desire and the city in its historical context. Could you expand on the concept of the exhibition? What are these connections? What is the historical context?

Chantal Wong (CW): There are multiple entry points that we are trying to look at. From a historical perspective, we are trying to look at the changing visibility of sexuality in Hong Kong, but also at the changing roles of genders and the perceptions of gender and identity in Hong Kong. This is done in multiple ways, predominantly for artworks. There is also a section that’s documentary, with a kind of memorabilia on sexuality, but it’s also presented through a number of historical artworks.

So, [for example] there are artists like Irene Chou, who is an ink artist, and this would be an emancipation for her as a female artist working in ink and looking at ink as a form of [expression] and it’s very organic. Then, [there is] Hon Chi-fun and the way that he tackles sexuality and sensuality in his practice. Then there is also the looking at the existing context of sexuality in Hong Kong, as you said before, through the place of sexuality and how it’s actually dealt with, how it’s hidden, how it’s replayed, and so on.

Some of the areas that we tackle in this show range from the role of public space and how public space is dealt with in Hong Kong, to the pragmatic fact that these are very small spaces to the different types of value systems and belief systems, whether it’s Christianity that is left over from the colonial period, but I guess [which is] also seeing a revival at the moment. Public space, for example, is very controlled, like the public parks, every single square inch in Hong Kong is meant to be productive. Christianity, among a lot of government officials, is a powerful religion, it’s a religion that a lot of government officials have adopted, and I guess that’s making a huge influence on media and censorship. And also how that is negotiated with more traditional Chinese Confucian values. These are more of the historical aspects of the exhibition.

And then all the different types of identity and all of these touch on certain sociological aspects, economic aspects, socio-economic aspects and also political [ones]. Another aspect is identities from gender studies, so you’ll have one aspect looking at the changing role of the woman in Hong Kong for the last century or so, and then the place of homosexuality and how that’s perceived within this city, but also beyond the diasporic communities.

Cosmin Costinas (CC): This would be a good sum up of the exhibition. In many ways, you could say that we almost use sex as a pretext to explore other components from Hong Kong society and history.

Irene Chou, Untitled, Circa 1980s, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 179 x 96 cm. Image courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.

Irene Chou, ‘Impact with 3 holes’, circa 1980s, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 123 x 69cm. Image courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.

Why have you chosen to present an exhibition on this theme now? What is the relevance of such a discussion today, in Hong Kong in particular?

CC: You could say that on the one hand it is always relevant, because it’s such an important component of life, both on a personal and cultural level. I think that as an institution, Para Site has shown over the last year that it’s interested in using art to explore issues that are relevant to society and to the overall culture of Hong Kong. And looking at the issue of sex, the exhibition tries to look at it from a clear historical perspective, which also takes into account the current situation of sexuality, desire and the city. What we notice is that rather than being in a kind of logic of opening out as time progresses – as one usually understands the issue of progressiveness about sexual and moral issues – in the case of Hong Kong, there has been a rather conservative turn over the last ten, fifteen, twenty years. So if you look at popular culture and the general discussions in the public space in the 1980s, let’s say, we realise that from a certain point of view at least, there was much more openness in discussing issues of sex, and sex was simply more present in these [public] areas than it is now.

There has been an overlap between this kind of [liberalism] and the conservative turn in terms of sex related issues – a general political conservative turn that’s happened in Hong Kong after the handover. So in that sense, there is actually an urgency or a relevance in the current moment for discussing the issues of sex.

Luis Chan, Untitled, 1968, acrylic on paper, 100 x 152 cm. Image courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.

Luis Chan, Untitled, 1968, acrylic on paper, 100 x 152cm. Image courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.

Attitudes to sex and sexuality in Hong Kong

Are there any particular laws in Hong Kong that repress sexuality or certain aspects of social relationships?

CC: Yes, well, there was a law passed…towards the end of the 1980s, in the second part of that decade, which imposed for the first time a rating system for cinema, for films, and that definitely had an effect of layering the presence of sexuality at least in cinemas in Hong Kong. There was that specific moment and several people that we talked to recognise that as a soft turning point in the whole history of the presence of sex in Hong Kong. But nevertheless, related to what I have mentioned earlier, I think it’s more about the combination of factors, and it’s more about the general turn in the mood of society and the overall situation rather than specific laws that would censor it, or that would make it taboo. It’s still possible to have sex in the public sphere and in culture, to a certain extent, and the laws aren’t necessarily much more restrictive than they were in the 1980s. But something else has happened in society.

CW: I don’t think it necessarily has to do with legality around it. Actually, certain policies would in fact liberate. For instance, I think in the last few years, transgender people can now marry the opposite sex, as there is an understanding of this as a “medical condition” and then there is more of an acceptance of this legally. But, in fact, I would say that because of Hong Kong’s dominant capitalist form or aggressive capitalism, students in high schools are expected to commit themselves completely to their studies, and increasingly they’re trying to suppress forms of dating and intersexual relationships. Teachers and principals will implement systems where boys and girls cannot start dating. So it’s not necessarily a government policy, but it is an implementation within smaller forms of micro-spawns of government.

Yayoi Kusama, 'Homosexual Happening at Kusama Studio', New York (press release), 1968. Image courtesy the artist.

Yayoi Kusama, ‘Homosexual Happening at Kusama Studio’, New York (press release), 1968. Image courtesy the artist.

Is there any form of sex education in school?

CW: There is, but in a very sort of conservative methodology, [like] how to use a condom, and it’s very technical and has nothing to do with it in terms of teaching about relationships.

So, generally speaking, is it taboo to talk with family – and perhaps friends to a certain extent – about relationships and sexuality?

CW: Yes, I think families generally prioritise. One of the areas of the exhibition also covered the family unit: the Confucian value is that there is a very solid family unit. For instance, in Europe, the 1968 protests would have sort of broken down these structures. Here, it is extremely frowned upon to have any relationship outside of the family unit. The mother is seen as this kind of charmed idealised figure, and she is there to bear children and take care of the family unit. So I think that anything that steers away from these very solid notions of family structures is misunderstood and seen as something that deviates – as deviant behaviour. And this is not even to talk about homosexuality, etc. This is simply [about] different forms of relationships, you know, that is, love relationships.

You have mentioned how there has been a conservative turn at the official, government level and the educational level. How about the people, at a more social level? You are young people in Hong Kong; do you also feel that your peers have turned more conservative? And what role do you think art is seeking to play in terms of changing attitudes towards sexuality?

CC: I don’t know if we could really say that each and every individual has by him or herself become more conservative. But I think that because of the entire society becoming somewhat more conservative and less open, many of the individuals, even from the young generation, have a different relationship to sex. The presence of sex, the natural and healthy presence of sex in their attitude and public persona, is the primary issue that we wanted to discuss. I think art has the potential to open the discussion about many fields, it’s not just about sexuality or desire, but I think art has this incredible potential in general to look at especially those areas that are maybe more difficult to tackle with other means or where there is a kind of ambiguity or complexity that cannot be discussed in terms of black and white or in terms of scientific accuracy. And especially in these fields, having a topic being tackled and received by the audience through art, is generally constructive.

CW: I also think that, especially in the context of this exhibition, there is a lot of sensuality and these certain sensibilities that don’t necessarily need to be communicated in terms of representational [art]. There are works that are very sensual and erotic, like I said, Irene Chou’s ink paintings, where she deals with [the] organicism of ink touching water and what kind of visuality that produces. There is Zhou Tao, who depicts people turning into animals, picking up animalistic gestures and movements, and there are certain things that cannot be clearly communicated. But it really can be titillating and enticing and sensuous. And I think that’s a really important part of the show.

Have you got any responses from the media and the citizens as well? What kind of responses, criticisms, comments have you heard so far?

CC: Yes, there was quite a strong media presence at the exhibition, something we were very happy about, and then there were very serious audience numbers, again something that we are certainly happy about. I guess that to a certain extent, there is visibility and there is presence of the audience that is having the effect that we wanted. You know, naturally these things are getting more and more discussed. There aren’t specific responses or specific reactions that I would pinpoint.

Is there a particular demographic that you have seen at the exhibition, in terms of nationality and age?

CC: The vast majority of the people in Hong Kong are Hong Kong Chinese of course, so as a very Hong Kong-based and Hong Kong-concerned institution, that’s being replicated in the audience, and the vast majority of our audience is from Hong Kong. In terms of age, we try to ensure diversity and as in many other places, there is more interest in art and visiting exhibitions for a younger demographic. So it’s primarily local and somewhat young.

Petula Ho Sik-ying, 'The trilogy of Sinai: Sex Love and Hope', 2013, 2 videos. Image courtesy Para Site.

Petula Ho Sik-ying, ‘The trilogy of Sinai: Sex Love and Hope’, 2013, 2 videos. Image courtesy Para Site.

Sex: a ‘trend’ in art?

Recently, Sotheby’s has also had an exhibition of Erotic Art. Do you think that sex as a topic in art now is becoming a ‘trend’ of sorts?

CW: I think that ‘trend’ is really not [the right word]…I mean, there are two exhibitions and Sotheby’s exhibition is very historic. It’s really ceramics from the Ming dynasty [or other periods], and when you historicise, there is something very important about being able to place people within a context and almost remind them that sensuality and sexuality have always been present within our civilisation and from within Chinese culture. Even though people see this elsewhere – and I think that seeing this elsewhere is an important part of this exhibition in Hong Kong as well – because so much of “sexuality” is actually taking place in, for instance, Guangzhou or Shenzhen. In the 1990s, a lot of middle class men would go to Shenzhen to seek their mistresses. Pornography is watched in Japan, and (I am going on a bit of a tangent), but this historical aspect, you can always historicise something and it becomes less urgent.

We also have the documentary section, but that’s just more of a reminder of the context in which we are placed. But there is the sense of urgency, in what to respond to and what’s happening now, which helps contemporary artists to contextualise and place existing subjectivities now and to question why we are in this place. I don’t think that there are other exhibitions that are looking at this particularly, and I definitely don’t think it is a ‘trend’, which is why raising this topic is critical.

I mean, there are other people looking into this, there are researchers. One of the important figures that we spoke to is Man Leung, who is in the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong. There is Petula Ho Sek Ying, who wrote a book called Sex and Desire in Hong Kong, so there are a number activists/academics looking at this, but not a trend per se. But I think a number of people see the urgency of bringing this to the fore.

Sexuality through diverse lenses

The roster of artists in the exhibition is extensive (39). Are there a lot of native Hong Kong artists? Are there any artists in the show that you think stand out and whose works are more poignant and significant in some ways with regards to others?

CC: There’s a significant presence of Hong Kong artists, but there are also a number of international artists that we are featuring in the show as well, from Israel to Japan.

CW: There is an important section of artists [who] are diasporic artists and [who] left Hong Kong or left Asia. I guess that as a diasporic artist, their sense of identity of being elsewhere can be enhanced, so they play quite an important role in the exhibition. There is William Yang, who is in Australia, and he was taking photographs of some men that he was sleeping with in the 1960s. They’re very intimate, he writes sort of stories about how he had these relationships with these men on the photographs.

[There's] Danh Vo who is a Vietnamese by descent and a photographer. He was given a set of photographs by an American GI [and] homosexual [who] took photographs of landscapes, just generally travel photographs. There are a few of them, and you’ll see the intimate relationship that can be interpreted as homoerotic from the lens of an American, but actually it’s probably a completely platonic relationship between two boys or two men. So there are these diasporic artists, and then you have artists from Israel or from Japan, which has so much pornography that is looked at in Hong Kong – but these Japanese artists don’t necessarily need to relate to this factor. But I think it is important to be related to an East Asian country, and there are sort of similarities and relationships there.

Roee Rosen, 'Out (Tse)', 2010, video, 35 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Roee Rosen, ‘Out (Tse)’, 2010, video, 35 min. Image courtesy the artist.

What does the Israeli artist, Roee Rosen, bring to the discussion in Hong Kong?

CW: It’s kind of complicated to explain the work… it’s kind of a performance, media and performance between two women and the dominant person is kind of a left wing liberal – not economically liberal, but progressive – and then you have the subject, and she comes from a very right wing family. And the whole performance is that she is being exorcised of her ‘right-wingness’ and so she is quoting Lieberman [an extreme right-wing politician] throughout the process.

This is just a simple summary of a very complex process of research, and it’s something that’s very dark and complicated. I guess the urgency of putting this into the exhibition around sexuality is, from my perspective, the relationships or the potential of anybody to be dogmatised and everybody has the potential to become very violent and be dogmatised by xenophobia. In Hong Kong, there is a certain urgency because of our relationship to mainland China or mainland Chinese. And while so much of it is seen as a form of self-preservation, the victim can actually become the perpetrator.

So you are including international artists to bring in different perspectives from around the world?

CC: Different international artists perform differently. Either, like Chantal mentioned before, the group of diasporic artists were bringing in different perspectives, but at the end of the day it’s the same kind of major issue of how Chinese culture deals with these issues in contemporary times from different angles. So, this is not necessarily a different perspective altogether, it’s the same but from slightly different angles. Whereas in the case of other artists, it is more about entering a different singularity altogether that would shed a light on the issue of Hong Kong through its status of being different.

What other approaches to the theme of sex and the city are taken by the different artists?

CC: In terms of pieces, we don’t really want to give the idea of highlights. As Chantal has mentioned before, there are several clusters in the show, so there is the art historical cluster that includes Luis Chan, a very important modernist in Hong Kong. The younger artists are speaking more openly about the definition of sexual desire in Hong Kong at the current moment, like Trevor Yang, Wong Wai-yin, or Au Shek-yan. Then there are various international artists whose work is not directly related to Hong Kong, but we wanted to bring it for this effect of comparing and contrasting, so Hito Steyerl and Roee Rosen from Israel, Ines Doujak from Austria, Yayoi Kusama, Willem de Rooij, and so on.

Trevor Yeung, 'Three person tango', 2014, Tibia fusus, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Trevor Yeung, ‘Three person tango’, 2014, Tibia fusus, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Are there any quite explicit works?

CC: It is very important to know that we obviously didn’t want to make an exhibition that would just be provocative for the sake of being provocative. And there were so many other issues that we wanted to discuss, rather than just to provoke. So I guess that the vast majority of works are actually not at all explicit. But there are works where there is exposure of genitalia or exposure of sexual acts as well. But it’s certainly quite a minority of works. And even those works are not primarily based on this component of showing genitals or sexual acts.

Would all the works be understood within this concept of sexuality even outside of the exhibition?

CC: The majority of artists don’t necessarily have this as their primary concern for their work, so they either deal with this in one or a couple of their works and we chose those ones for the exhibition. Some of the works [in the exhibition] don’t directly deal with sexuality at all, and they perform their function in the exhibition as they are based in a particular position in the show, in order to speak about one of the issues that we wanted to bring up.

Ricky Yeung Sau-churk, 'Prosperity and stability', 1987, installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Ricky Yeung Sau-churk, ‘Prosperity and stability’, 1987, installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

A curatorial vision

How did you approach the curation of such an extensive and apparently sensitive show such as this one? Have you encountered problems with censorship, for example?

CC: Nothing significant as one might expect; we had one work that was installed in a public space, and we had to make sure that it did not contain any curse words or foul language. We placed a warning at the entrance of the show that we recommend people under 18 not to see the show because of those works.

CW: The idea was not to shock people and to discourage people from visiting the exhibition, so like Cosmin said, there were very few works that were explicit. We had warning signs and from the outside one could see the more subtle works, so there aren’t family-unfriendly environments. We want this to be a comfortable space for people and maybe only some ten percent of works will have some sort of genitalia or a sexual act being performed. So these were very clearly stipulated.

What is your hope from this exhibition? Do you hope that it will highlight attitudes towards sex in the city of Hong Kong, relieve taboos, make it easier to approach the subject or bring about any change in attitudes?

CC: Yes, the main reason why we did it is to start this discussion and to contribute… to bring our modest contribution through the means of art to a discussion that is already being pushed through and carried out by other people that Chantal has mentioned already, to continue this public discussion.

Will you have other exhibitions on this topic in the future?

CC: We are working on a number of different projects within the exhibition that continue and enrich the discussion in different directions, so I don’t think we will have another full-fledged exhibition on this particular topic – and there are also other topics that have urgency.

CW: And, I think that there are so many crossovers in the exhibitions…you’ll have questions of identity etc., so there are nice overlaps with other exhibitions that don’t need to just feature sex in Hong Kong.

Chu Hing Wah, 'Hong Kong Style Entertainment', 2007, ink and colour on paper, 101 x 96 cm. Image courtesy Yiqzinghai Collection, Hong Kong.

Chu Hing Wah, ‘Hong Kong Style Entertainment’, 2007, ink and colour on paper, 101 x 96cm. Image courtesy Yiqzinghai Collection, Hong Kong.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: art and identity, art and the community, art about society, contemporary art as soft power, curatorial practice, Chinese artists, Hong Kong artists, Japanese artists, Israeli artists, European artists, nonprofit spaces, gallery exhibitions, curators, interviews, events in Hong Kong

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“My Generation”: Young Chinese artists on American tour – in pictures



Barbara Pollack curates an exhibition of post-Mao Chinese art, currently on show at the Tampa Museum of Art.

The Tampa Museum of Art is holding an exhibition of emerging artists from post-Mao China until 28 September 2014. The show features the work of 27 young artists who explore life in contemporary China through individual points of view and unique works.

Chi Peng (b. 1981), 'Sprinting Forward 4' , 2004, C-print, 120 x 232.4 cm. Collection of Andrew Rayburn and Heather Guess. © Chi Peng. Image courtesy the artist.

Chi Peng (b. 1981), ‘Sprinting Forward 4′ , 2004, C-print, 120 x 232.4cm. Collection of Andrew Rayburn and Heather Guess. © Chi Peng. Image courtesy the artist.

My Generation: Young Chinese Artists” was launched on 7 June 2014 at the Tampa Museum of Art, Florida, United States and will be on show until 28 September. It will then travel to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, where it will be on view from 24 October 2014 through 18 January 2015. Curated by Chinese art expert Barbara Pollack, the exhibition is the first of its kind to focus only on China’s post-Mao generation.

Birdhead (founded 2004), 'The Light of Eternity No.3', 2012, black and white inkjet print, 1 of 36, 50 x 60 cm each. © Birdhead. Image courtesy the artists and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai.

Birdhead (founded 2004), ‘The Light of Eternity No.3′, 2012, black and white inkjet print, 1 of 36, 50 x 60cm each. © Birdhead. Image courtesy the artists and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai.

The post-Mao generation

All of the artists in the exhibition were born in China after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and after Mao’s death (1976). It is this aspect that sets this exhibition apart from other major showcases of contemporary Chinese art.

The YCAs (Young Chinese Artists), as Pollack refers to them, are not concerned with the politics of Communism or the Cultural Revolution unlike their predecessors or older peers. They are instead exploring and responding to the many facets of contemporary life in China, a country that has grown into one of the largest economic powers in the world in less than two decades.

Cui Jie (b. 1983), 'Jiu Xian Bridge Market', 2012, oil on canvas, 100 x 160 cm. © Cui Jie. Image courtesy Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai.

Cui Jie (b. 1983), ‘Jiu Xian Bridge Market’, 2012, oil on canvas, 100 x 160cm. © Cui Jie. Image courtesy Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai.

The YCAs have grown up through the Chinese art boom, with galleries, auction houses, biennales, fairs and 1,000 new museums. They have engaged with their artistic careers right after art school.

The globalisation of the art market in China is visible in their works: other than exploring their individual lives and perspectives, they don’t try to emphasise any “Chinese-ness” to impress western audiences.

Shi Zhiying (b. 1979), 'The Pacific Ocean', 2011, oil on canvas, 240 x 180 cm. Image courtesy a private collection and James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai.

Shi Zhiying (b. 1979), ‘The Pacific Ocean’, 2011, oil on canvas, 240 x 180cm. Image courtesy a private collection and James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai.

In the catalogue essay, Pollack says of the artists:

They are empowered, not only because they live in the fastest growing superpower in the world and are beneficiaries of its greatly expanding free market. They are empowered also because the art world has likewise been expanding globally during this period and seems poised to acknowledge them as fully-fledged art stars who have transcended the limitations of language and cultural differences.

Liu Di (b. 1985), 'Animal Regulation No. 5', 2010. C-print, 80 x 60 cm, edition of 10. Collection of Andrew Rayburn and Heather Guess. © Liu Di. Image courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing.

Liu Di (b. 1985), ‘Animal Regulation No. 5′, 2010. C-print, 80 x 60cm, edition of 10. Collection of Andrew Rayburn and Heather Guess. © Liu Di. Image courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing.

Jin Shan (b. 1977), 'No Man City', 2014, installation, Dubound paper, slide projector, aluminium, plastic, 244 x 610 x 183 cm. Tampa Museum of Art, Gift of the artist 2013.004. © Jin Shan. Image courtesy the artist.

Jin Shan (b. 1977), ‘No Man City’, 2014, installation, Dubound paper, slide projector, aluminium, plastic, 244 x 610 x 183cm. Tampa Museum of Art, Gift of the artist 2013.004. © Jin Shan. Image courtesy the artist.

Rebelling against commercialisation

At the opening of the exhibition, the curator told Whitehot Magazine that the exhibition represented new young artists from China who seemed to have grown up and inhabit a different country and a different century compared to the older generation of Chinese artists:

You have to really throw out stereotypes of Chinese contemporary art when you look at this work. These artists are rebelling against the commercialisation of China, which they see the older generation of artists having done.

Ma Qiusha (b. 1982), 'From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili', 2007, video, colour, sound, 7 min. 54 sec. © Ma Qiusha. Image courtesy Beijing Commune.

Ma Qiusha (b. 1982), ‘From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili’, 2007, video, colour, sound, 07m:54 s. © Ma Qiusha. Image courtesy Beijing Commune.

Zhao Zhao (b. 1982), 'Constellations II No.5', 2013, mirror with bullet holes, 160 x 120 x 17 cm. © Zhao Zhao. Image courtesy the artist and Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, Beijing/Hong Kong.

Zhao Zhao (b. 1982), ‘Constellations II No.5′, 2013, mirror with bullet holes, 160 x 120 x 17cm. © Zhao Zhao. Image courtesy the artist and Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, Beijing/Hong Kong.

The 27 artists in the exhibition are:

Double Fly Art Center (founded 2008), 'Double Fly Saves the World', 2012, video, colour, sound, 6 min. 22 sec. © Double Fly Art Center. Image courtesy the artists.

Double Fly Art Center (founded 2008), ‘Double Fly Saves the World’, 2012, video, colour, sound, 06m:22s. © Double Fly Art Center. Image courtesy the artists.

Xu Zhen (b. 1977), Produced by MadeIn, 'Fearless', 2012, mixed media on canvas tapestry, 316 x 645 cm. © Xu Zhen / MadeIN. Image courtesy of Long March Space, Beijing.

Xu Zhen (b. 1977), Produced by MadeIn, ‘Fearless’, 2012, mixed media on canvas tapestry, 316 x 645cm. © Xu Zhen / MadeIN. Image courtesy of Long March Space, Beijing.

Narratives and issues that the artists explore represent their individual styles and perspectives on life in contemporary China – whether they are examining and commenting on personal life or on broader political, economic and societal topics.

The variety of the artworks on show is extensive, for example, Birdhead’s photographic documentation explores life in Shanghai; Fang Lu’s personalised videos depict inevitable bodily changes and transformations in an era of plastic surgery; and Lu Yang’s multimedia works at the outer limits of new technology represent the frenetic pace of contemporary China.

Lu Yang (b. 1984), 'Wrathful King Kong Core', 2011, HD video, colur, sound, 14 min. 47 sec. © Lu Yang. Image courtesy Beijing Commune.

Lu Yang (b. 1984), ‘Wrathful King Kong Core’, 2011, HD video, colur, sound, 14m:47s. © Lu Yang. Image courtesy Beijing Commune.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, art in China, emerging artists, museum shows, touring exhibitions, curatorial practice, events in the USA, picture feasts

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5 Southeast Asian ceramic artists to know



An exhibition in Singapore brings together five ceramic artists from Southeast Asian countries.

One East Asia in Singapore is holding an exhibition by 5 ceramic artists from Southeast Asia. The show looks at the dialogue between the artists’ innovative and experimental ceramic practices that advocate the recognition of ceramics as fine art.

Installation view of "Ceramicship" at One East Asia Artspace, Singapore. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Installation view of “Ceramicship” at One East Asia Artspace, Singapore. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Ceramicship” is an exhibition of works by five Southeast Asian ceramic artists, running from 1 to 31 July 2014 at One East Asia Artspace in Singapore. The show features work by

  • Ahadiat Joedawinata (Indonesia)
  • Alvin Tan Teck Heng (Singapore)
  • Bathma Kaew-Ngok (Thailand)
  • Jon Lorenzo Pettyjohn (Philippines)
  • Peter Low Hwee Min (Malaysia)

These five artists have collaborated and exhibited together previously, including at “Ring of Fire – The First Southeast Asian Ceramics Festival” at Ayala Museum, Manila in 2009.

In “Ceramicship”, the artists continue their dialogue, now focused on their recent practice, demonstrating how their works transcend national and historical boundaries and reflect their indigenous interests. The five artists raise discussions around history and culture, tradition and technique from different Southeast Asian ceramic practices and perspectives, prompting the examination of a dual approach.

As expressed in the press release,

The approach has been two-pronged: the one being incorporation of traditional workings and its formal aspects into the created object by Pettyjohn and Tan; and the second being a modernist approach to re-creating form and meaning by Ahadiat, Bathma and Low.

Installation view of "Ceramicship" at One East Asia Artspace, Singapore. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Installation view of “Ceramicship” at One East Asia Artspace, Singapore. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Ceramics as art

In recent years, there has been a growth of ceramic art on the international art stage. Still widely considered more as a craft than as fine art, the perspective is slowly changing. As reported in The Art Newspaper, ten years ago many artists were afraid of being pigeonholed if they made ceramics. But now, “they don’t think of it as a secondary medium,” says Renee McKee of McKee Gallery, which showed ceramic art at Art Basel this June.

Jed Morse, the chief curator of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, says:

We’re seeing artists incorporating ceramics into their work more and more.

The artists in “Ceramicship” are all strong advocates of bringing ceramic art to the fore and making it widely recognised as a fine art medium.

Ahadiat Joedawinata, 'My Archipelago', 2012, pinching, glaze, stoneware, 47 x 30 x 35 cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Ahadiat Joedawinata, ‘My Archipelago’, 2012, pinching, glaze, stoneware, 47 x 30 x 35 cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Ahadiat Joedawinata

Ahadiat Joedawinata (b. 1943, Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia) spent time training during his high school years at the Artist’s Studio (Sanggar Seniman), Bandung, under the tutelage of leading artists But Muchtar, Srihadi Soedarsono, A.D. Pirous, and Adrin Kahar. He holds a Doctorate from the Bandung Institute of Technology, where he now lectures. In addition to his own artistic practice, which includes the exploration of traditional crafts such as wood, earthenware and bamboo, Joedawinata also designs exhibitions and interiors at his residence and abroad and runs a ceramic studio from his home.

Joedawinata’s ceramic works closely follow his belief that “the material has its own language.” He shapes his thin ceramics by pinching and coiling, an extremely delicate and detailed process. The glaze is another important step in his practice, which is not easy to control and depends on the firing process. His practice focuses on the technical and formal aspects of ceramics, guided by the principle that the material communicates with the artist’s hands in an instinctual, natural way. This process results in a variety of shapes, including functional and more sculptural pieces.

Alvin Tan Teck Heng, 'Conversation 4', 2014, woodfiring, natural ash, 31cm x 51.5 cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Alvin Tan Teck Heng, ‘Conversation 4′, 2014, woodfiring, natural ash, 31 x 51.5cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Alvin Tan Teck Heng

Alvin Tan Teck Heng (b. 1961, Singapore) started working with pottery eighteen years ago. His ceramics teacher was a second-generation dragon kiln owner, whose kiln was demolished by the government in 1994. Teck Heng trained in the traditional way, and he believes that contemporary ceramics build on the foundation of the ancient art of pottery. He is also the curator of the “Ceramicship” exhibition at One East Asia, where he had his first solo exhibition “Clay Voyage” in 2013.

Inspired by traditional ceramics in both formal and technical aspects, Teck Heng’s work pays tribute to past masters. The artist closely follows their legacy and creates traditional items, such as his renowned teapots and teacups series or his large-scale sculptural relief vases that mimic natural shapes and patterns.

Bathma Kaew-Ngok, 'Enlightenment', 2014, stoneware, Raku with teak, 25cm x 51cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Bathma Kaew-Ngok, ‘Enlightenment’, 2014, stoneware, Raku with teak, 25 x 51cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Bathma Kaew-Ngok

Bathma Kaew-Ngok (b. 1971, Bangkok) majored in Ceramic Art from the Faculty of Fine and Applied Art at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok in 1997. After graduating, Kaew-Ngok went to Chiangmai to learn from local ceramicists. He then moved to Japan to study Iga-Yaki – a Japanese style of ceramic art that emphasises nature in its materials and processes – with a Japanese master, Kanji Atarashi, from whom he also learnt about Zen philosophy. This dual approach, practical and spiritual, taught him that ceramic art is not just working with clay, but also understanding the spirit of nature and being one with it. He says:

My heart became more peaceful. When I considered the fact of the resource, I found it is life itself. Nature is not so difficult to learn, actually it is very simple, but perhaps we have never tried.

Kaew-Ngok’s work expresses this cohesion between man and nature, giving life to artworks that embody the spirit of nature and the effortless intervention of man. His ceramics, in their almost rudimentary, imperfect shapes and glazes, seem to be fashioned out of soil and wood. In earthy, subtle colours, they appear as if they have been unearthed after having been buried for long.

Jon Lorenzo Pettyjohn, 'Palayok Series 1', celadon glaze with iron design stoneware, 25 x 27 cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Jon Lorenzo Pettyjohn, ‘Palayok Series 1′, celadon glaze with iron design stoneware, 25 x 27cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Jon Lorenzo Pettyjohn

Jon Lorenzo Pettyjohn (b. 1950) was born in Okinawa to Filipino-American parents. He studied ceramics at the Escuela Masana in Barcelona, Spain from 1972 to 1976 and was later an apprentice in a Spanish workshop for two years. Having been a potter for thirty years, Pettyjohn admits that ceramics are still widely considered a craft as opposed to art, but he is positive that perspectives are starting to change:

A lot of people still have this idea that art is painting, or sculpture that art isn’t functional (as opposed to decorative). There’s this sort of elitist thinking going on, but slowly, we’re starting to change that.

Pettyjohn has been part of the movement for the recognition of ceramics as an art in the Philippines since 1978. In 2003, he founded the Putik Association of Philippine Potters, with a group of professional and amateur clay artists. The association has organised events, exhibitions and university programmes, supported international scholarships for potters and the rehabilitation of the less fortunate youth through pottery therapy.

Pettyjohn’s practice is rooted in tradition and functionality, reworking traditional forms and decorations, he creates ceramic pieces that are both decorative and functional.

Peter Low Hwee Min, 'Vase with wooden stand' ("Colourful Cloud" series), reduction gas firing, slab work, 74 x 25 cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Peter Low Hwee Min, ‘Vase with wooden stand’ in “Colourful Cloud” series, reduction gas firing, slab work, 74 x 25cm. Image courtesy One East Asia Pte Ltd.

Peter Low Hwee Min

Peter Low Hwee Min (b. 1943, Malaysia) studied Oil and Chinese Painting at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) in Singapore. He then majored in Ceramic Art and Printmaking from the England West Surrey College of Arts & Design, United Kingdom. He now teaches at NAFA and is an advocate of experimentation in ceramic art.

His work ranges from functional pieces to sculptural and mixed media ceramics that incorporate materials as varied as wood, glass, paper and bamboo. Low emphasises the integration of traditional skills and contemporary creativity in many of his ceramics, modernist forms and sculptural elements are juxtaposed with traditional motifs and decorations. Low approaches ceramic art in a painterly and experimental way, creating work with surfaces that become canvases to enhance the textural and malleable quality of clay. He bridges the realms of craft and sculpture, art and function.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Southeast Asian artists, ceramics, tradition in contemporary art, overviews, artist profiles, gallery shows, events in Singapore

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Painting a life: Lebanese artist Annie Kurkdjian – ARTINFO video



Painting is the best therapy for Beirut-based artist Annie Kurkdjian, who grew up during the Lebanese Civil War.

In a recent video interview with ARTINFO, the soft-spoken artist talks about war, anger, ‘artist’s block’ and how she became the architect of her own life through painting.

Annie Kurkdjian, 'Untitled', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Annie Kurkdjian, ‘Untitled’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Unlike painters of her generation, Annie Kurkdjian (b. 1972, Beirut, Lebanon) does not portray literal representations of conflict, nor does she resort to idyllic escapism. Instead, her oeuvre is defined by a gentle, whimsical, painterly voice that unexpectedly and uncannily captures the full force and brutality of war and violence. Informed by academic studies on psychosis, Kurkdjian’s paintings are playful yet darkly provocative, shrewdly embodying the fragility of humanity.

Kurkdjian exploded onto the Lebanese art scene when she received the Jouhayna Badoura Prize in 2012, one of the most distinguished art prizes in the region. Her work has since been shown to great acclaim at Art Dubai 2013 by Albareh Art Gallery.

In a recent ARTINFO interview entitled “Art in Beirut – Painter Annie Kurkdjian”, Kurkdjian discusses her traumatic childhood, the motivations and challenges of being an artist, and her search for personal and artistic identity.

Watch the ARTINFO video interview with Annie Kurkdjian on YouTube.com

A childhood of war

The Lebanese Civil War lasted for sixteen years, massacring Kurkdjian’s hometown and childhood. In the video interview she recalls:

[The Civil War] began when I was two and until I was eighteen, I thought that was the world. I never thought there was another kind of life. Until I travelled and I discovered, in Europe, for instance, how life is.

The sudden realisation of her stolen childhood led to anger, but it wasn’t until the age of 22 that Kurkdjian found an outlet to express it. Kurkdjian had obtained a Master’s degree in Business Administration, but when she discovered the art of painting, she knew that she had found her vocation:

I’m trying to express all that [anger] in paintings, because it’s the most peaceful way to express anger, I think, art. [...] it’s like Post Traumatic Disorder, but I’m managing it with [...] artistic ways. It’s the best therapy.

Annie Kurkdjian, 'Untitled', 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Annie Kurkdjian, ‘Untitled’, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Studying psychology: Painting as freedom

As Kurkdjian reflects in the interview, she used to see torture daily for sixteen years. Yet, the subjects in her paintings do not flail in abject horror. Instead, a mute, restrained despair pervades not only the victims but also the victimisers, as well as the space in between. Kurkdjian’s biography at the Albareh Art Gallery’s website states:

Surfaces become concave, legs stretch into arms and the eyes become fixed inwards, extending beyond the canvas, into unforeseeable places that are forbidding yet tempting and sensuous. The destination could be redemption, but might as well be loss and darkness.

The depth and subtlety of Kurkdjian’s paintings are due in part to her academic studies on psychology, philosophy and theology. In particular, an internship at a psychiatric hospital in Lebanon had a profound impact, helping the artist overcome a mid-career artist’s ‘blockage’. Kurkdjian said:

[During the internship] I saw how psychotic people paint. And I began to understand what painting is, because there was freedom. They don’t think about anything. They just express. And that was the lesson for me. After I graduated psychology, I re-began to paint and I found myself.

Annie Kurkdjian, 'Untitled', 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Annie Kurkdjian, ‘Untitled’, 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Painting a life, painting to live

The painterly voice that Kurkdjian found for herself consists of a dark, acrid world softened by warm earth colours. The despair sits beside a constant search for mercy and dignity, at times sensuous, at others exposing shame. Above all, Kurkdjian takes inspiration from life and its instabilities, carving out a world through her art even as she tries to fathom and make sense of it. Kurkdjian says that:

I work [...] on humans in my paintings [...] and relations between humans. And I call it existentialist painting.

Since finding her voice and artistic identity, Kurkdjian began to earn a living with her work. She proudly declares:

I decided in 2009 to do my own exhibition because I felt my work looks like me, and I felt my identity is in it. I was sure of myself. I’m beginning to make a living from it. [At] first, it was very difficult: I had to do very big savings to survive [sic] but now, I’m making a living.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Lebanese artistspainting, identity art, art about trauma, art about violence, art about war, video interviews with artists

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Cambodian performance art: Art Radar’s top 4 posts



Who are the top players in Cambodia’s performance art scene?

The latest in our ongoing “Lists” series, we bring you Art Radar‘s four best articles on Cambodian performance art. Cambodia’s performance artists explore issues surrounding the body and cityscape, while also addressing sociopolitical contexts in the country.

Performance artist Tith Kanitha, one of the participants in “Roundtables: The Body, the Lens, the City” day-long seminar held in Phnom Penh, March 2014. Image courtesy SA SA BASSAC.

Performance artist Tith Kanitha, one of the participants in “Roundtables: The Body, the Lens, the City” day-long seminar held in Phnom Penh, March 2014. Image courtesy SA SA BASSAC.

Cambodian performance art: “Roundtables” seminar

April 2014

A day-long seminar entitled “Roundtables: The Body, the Lens, the City”, held in Phnom Penh on 22 March 2014, discussed Cambodian performance art within the context of the cityscape as well as the experience of using the body to make art.

Click here to read more about the seminar.

Amy Lee Sanford, 'Full Circle - Day 3', 2012, clay, glue, fabric, string and scissors. Image courtesy of the artist.

Amy Lee Sanford, ‘Full Circle – Day 3′, 2012, clay, glue, fabric, string and scissors. Image courtesy the artist.

Repairing what was broken: Amy Lee Sanford and Cambodian art today – interview

June 2013

Amy Lee Sanford, a performance and installation artist living in Phnom Penh, is a prominent voice in Cambodia’s youth-driven contemporary art scene. Art Radar spoke with the artist to learn how her work takes on the sometimes turbulent shifts happening in Cambodia today.

Click here to read the full interview.

Anida Yoeu Ali, 'Campus Dining', 2012, digital color print on hard foam board. Photograph: Masahiro Sugano. Image courtesy Studio Revolt.

Anida Yoeu Ali, ‘Campus Dining’, 2012, digital colour print on hard foam board. Photograph: Masahiro Sugano. Image courtesy Studio Revolt.

“It takes a village to raise a bug”: Cambodian performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali – interview

March 2013

With her textile installation The Buddhist Bug Project, Cambodian performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali meditates on urban displacement and spiritual turmoil. The artist speaks with Art Radar about the project, which she recently brought home to Phnom Penh, and the metamorphosis of contemporary art in Cambodia.

Click here to read more about the fascinating Buddhist Bug Project.

Anida Yoeu Ali, 2012, "Enter the Ruins #1", digital colour print, 45 cm x 65 cm, in the exhibit "The Space Between Inside/Outside", at JavaArts Gallery, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Image courtesy of the artist.

Anida Yoeu Ali, “Enter the Ruins #1″, 2012, digital colour print, 45 cm x 65 cm, in the exhibition “The Space Between Inside/Outside”, at JavaArts Gallery, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Image courtesy the artist.

Red stools central in first JavaArts Cambodian artist residency – picture feast

September 2012

As part of JavaArts’s new artist residency programme, Cambodian artist Anida Yoeu Ali combined collaborative performance and installation. She used the red stool, commonly found in Phnom Penh street eateries, as a motif, thereby placing Cambodia squarely in a Western-style “white cube” setting.

Click here to read more about and see images from the project.

 

Want to look through our archives yourself? Click here to take a look at what else we have written on Cambodian contemporary art and artists.

 

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The missing images of Russia’s past and present: 5 Russian photographers to know now



5 photographers and video artists explore contemporary Russia alongside the rediscovered works of a pre-revolution master. 

London’s Calvert 22 Gallery introduces an engaging dialogue between Russia’s past and present by juxtaposing the works of young Russian artists against the Tsar-commissioned photographs of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, 'Peasant girls, Russian Empire', 1909. Image courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorsky Collection, Washington D.C.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, ‘Peasant girls, Russian Empire’, 1909. Image courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorsky Collection, Washington D.C.

In the early twentieth century, Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, commissioned aristocrat Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944) to photograph his vast empire in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution. An early pioneer of colour photography, Prokudin-Gorsky used coloured filters to enable black-and-white images to be seen in colour.

Almost gaudy with intense hues, Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographs capture the beginnings of industrialisation and Russian colonisation at its height. These images were recently rediscovered and are being shown in the United Kingdom for the first time.

Showcased alongside Prokudin-Gorsky’s defining images are the works of five contemporary artists who document the aftermath of the empire’s collapse. Curated by Kate Bush as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture programme, “Close and Far: Russian Photographers Now” runs at Calvert 22 Gallery from 18 June to 17 August 2014.

Olya Ivanova, 'Anna Alexeevna, Kich-Gorodok', 2010. Image courtesy the artist.

Olya Ivanova, ‘Anna Alexeevna, Kich-Gorodok’, 2010. Image courtesy the artist.

Olya Ivanova 

Echoing Gorsky’s portraits, Olya Ivanova (b. 1981, Moscow) photographed villagers in the small northern village of Kich Gorodok. Like an ethnographer undertaking field research, she made the village, its inhabitants and their rituals the subject of intense study. Her portraits are shot in the style of turn-of-the-century village photography: subjects wear their best garments, pose stiffly and, following tradition, do not smile.

A documentary photographer, Ivanova’s incisive and intimate portraiture is often found in magazines as well as museums and private collections. Regardless of environment, subject and palette, Ivanova’s portraits evoke a tender sense of belonging and ‘placedness’, capturing the invisible relational space between subject and setting, individual and context.

Here, Ivanova’s photographs invoke nostalgia for the pre-industrial past. As the exhibition’s press release puts it:

[T]he vast majority of the population has migrated to towns and cities. Traditional country life is dying, but is still indelibly associated [...] with the essence of being Russian.

Max Sher, 'Stary Oskol, August 24, 2014, Russian Palimpsest', 2010 - ongoing. Image courtesy the artist.

Max Sher, ‘Stary Oskol, August 24, 2014, Russian Palimpsest’, 2010 – ongoing. Image courtesy the artist.

Max Sher

Unlike Ivanova who studies villages, Max Sher (b. 1975, St. Petersburg) portrays the evolving cities of Russia. Sher started out as a photojournalist before venturing into visual arts. Started in 2010, his ongoing project “Russian Palimpsest” records urban landscapes in a dispassionate and methodical way, documenting everyday landscapes, from regional airports to petrol stations.

As a result, Sher captured the gradual eradication of Soviet-designed Russia as it was eclipsed by post-Soviet architecture. Through his lens, characterless banks, bland malls and bare streets stand still and silent, indifferent to the shifting sands of time. As The Guardian reports:

Max Sher’s Russian Palimpsest is an ambitious attempt to create a photographic catalogue of the vast country and to introduce a new visual language by which to understand Russia.

Alexander Gronsky, 'Dzerzhinskiy II, Suburbs of Moscow, Russia, Pastoral', 2008-2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Gronsky, ‘Dzerzhinskiy II, Suburbs of Moscow, Russia, Pastoral’, 2008-2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Gronsky

If Ivanova works with the Russian village and Sher the Russian city, Alexander Gronsky (b. 1980, Tallin, Estonia) explores the indistinct, indeterminate space in-between: the city’s edge. In a series entitled “Suburbs of Moscow, Russia, Pastoral” (2008-2012) Gronsky performs a formalistic, detached yet rigorous study of unruly ‘edgelands’, unfinished buildings and excavated hills and valleys.

Using measured compositions and carefully selected colour tones, Gronsky shrewdly brings out man’s uneasy encounter with nature within these liminal spaces. There are picnickers finding leisure next to toxic wastelands, sunbathers lying next to construction sites, and city dwellers strolling past abandoned reservoirs and sand dumps. As the London Evening Standard reviews, “[the] locals off work play[ing] near polluted riverbanks and edges of forests and picnickers suggest Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in toxic settings.”

Gronsky told The Newyorker that “Pastoral” is neither a social critique nor a commentary on Russian politics. Instead, he said:

It’s about my personal perception of the Russian landscape, especially the outskirts and borderline areas. I enjoy spending time there – I feel that I fit there, probably because I don’t really feel that I fit anywhere else.

Taus Makhacheva, 'Gamsutl' (still from HD video projection), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Taus Makhacheva, ‘Gamsutl’ (still from HD video projection), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Taus Makhacheva

Taus Makhachkeva (b. 1983, Moscow) is an artist with Russian citizenship, a Western education and Dagestani (northern Caucasian) ethnic roots. An up-and-coming artist with a handful of accolades to her name, Makhachkeva’s work attempts to question the unstable boundaries between same and other, acceptance and rejection, and to disentangle the historical, cultural and personal layers of events and spaces.

In Gamsutl (2012), Makhachkeva conducts a personal and provocative exploration of a slice of Caucasian history. In the film, an anonymous protagonist performs a series of frozen movements against the spectacular backdrop of a crumbling and abandoned Caucasian settlement. The poses are gestures of combat appropriated from nineteenth century battle paintings celebrating Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus. As the exhibition press release says:

In evoking the past through a vocabulary of gesture, this lone figure merges into the historical memory of Gamsutl, at the same time as his body embraces its ruined bricks.

Dimitri Venkov, 'Mad Mimes' (still from video), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Dimitri Venkov, ‘Mad Mimes’ (still from video), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Dimitri Venkov

Dimitri Venkov (b. 1980, Novosibirsk) is a graduate of the Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia and holds an MA in Film Studies from the University of Oregon. He produces video and multimedia works that are cinematic in form but conceptual in content, and in 2012 he received the Kandinsky Prize for Best Young Artist for his ‘mockumentary’ film Mad Mimes (2012).

The film is a spoof anthropological documentary featuring a fictional community near the Moscow Ring Road on the outskirts of the city. The group survives by collecting roadside trash and the detritus that gets thrown out of passing cars. As a result of their social isolation and dependency on the Ring Road, the community develops bizarre rites and rituals based on those of Melanesian cargo cults and other new religious movements.

Despite the humour, Venkov’s message is serious. The artist examines conspiracy theories and Cold War paranoia and explores historical deception, myth-making and manipulation practices in his films. Venkov says, quoted by the Calvert Journal:

I think my films are as funny as, for example, a history dissertation.

An unseen, uncensored Russia

Mad Mimes, as with all the other works in this thought-provoking exhibition, is a clever allegory for life that is still turbulent in post-Soviet times. As evidenced by the stimulating and evocative works, creativity and political vision thrives in the still chaotic and highly secretive shadows of contemporary Russia. As Dazed reports, in spite of international and social struggles, young artists persist in “documenting an unseen, uncensored Russia, reflecting the state of the people’s Russia today.” Curator Kate Bush explains:

I wanted to make an exhibition which contrasted the end of one empire in Russia – the Russia of the Romanov Tsars – with the end of another empire. Today’s young photographers and artists are the first generation to develop fully after the collapse of the Soviet empire. I think each of the photographers in the show are dealing with pressing questions of identity and are very conscious of working in a very new Russian cultural and political landscape. A new Russia is emerging, and this new generation are enjoying an unprecedented freedom in terms of what and how they are able to photograph [...]

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Russian artists, photography, video art, art and the community

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Artist Hojat Amani on angel’s wings, calligraphy and Iranian art today – interview



Iran’s Hojat Amani seeks to provide relief from modern-day woes through his fresh perspective on traditional Persian narratives.

Iranian artist Hojat Amani deftly blends contemporary Western pop culture with the Persian script and classical motifs. Art Radar spoke with the artist about his newest “Still Life” series and proof that angels do exist.

Hojat Amani, 'Persian Still life', 2014, mixed media on wood, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Janet Rady Fine Art.

Hojat Amani, ‘Persian Still life’, 2014, mixed media on wood, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Janet Rady Fine Art.

Hojat Amani was born in Iran’s western Luristan Province (استان لرستان‎) and holds degrees from the University of Art in Esfahan and the University of Art in Tehran. According to Janet Rady, the gallerist who represents his work in London, Amani is unique amongst his peers. Rady told Art Radar that:

Hojat is a multi-talented artist, working in a variety of media and styles, be it photography, painting, calligraphy, figurative or still life subject matter. He is unique, in that he has the ability to make Iranian art accessible to an international audience. Instantly recognisable as Iranian, he does not dwell on the negative aspects of the culture, from which so many of his fellow artists draw their inspiration. Instead, his work is consistently one of beauty, joy and pleasure, subtly imbued with a compassionate sense of humour.

Amani’s work has been shown widely throughout Tehran, as well as in solo and group exhibitions in Canada, Europe, Kuwait, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In addition, the artist has participated in art residencies in London and Lithuania.

Art Radar learnt more from the artist about the import of calligraphy in Iran, how the collision between tradition and modernity can estrange the soul, and his iconic “Angel” series.

In addition to being a painter, you are also a calligrapher. Historically, does calligraphy have a long tradition in Iran?

Calligraphy goes back to the emergence of Islam in Iran. In the beginning, it was utilised to copy passages in the Qur’an. There is a tradition in Islam stating that a person who writes the name of God beautifully will be rewarded with entrance to Heaven. When the Qur’an was copied, certain important rituals had to be followed in detail and the individual had to undergo specific training. This training was transferred from one generation to the next.

When transcribing passages, calligraphy should be done in the same manner as when one prays. In his book, Hikmat al-Ishraq, Persian philosopher Sohrevardi (شهاب‌الدین سهروردی‎) described how in prayer, the busyness of senses subsides, the ego goes into a trance and the pure being of the human is embellished with an image from beyond. That which is from beyond will at times hide and at other times will shine on the being. The result is a written line in the sacred book. In the past, this art was prescribed for rebellious kids to learn concentration and mindfulness, and many families used to encourage their children to learn this skill.

Nas’taliq is known as the “Bride of the calligraphy scripts” and today is the most popular of the classical Persian calligraphy scripts. This style has been based on such a strong foundation that it has changed very little since its inception. It is as if Mir Ali Tabrizi (میرعلی تبریزی), known as the father of Nas’taliq, found the optimum composition of letters and graphical rules so that it has just been fine-tuned during the past seven centuries.

Nas’taliq is the most beautiful Persian calligraphy script and also technically the most complicated. It has strict rules regarding the shape of the letters and composition of the complete finished product. Even the second most popular Persian calligraphy style known as Cursive Nas’taliq or Shekasteh Nas’taliq noticeably follows the same rules as Nas’taliq, with more flexibility, of course.

Hojat Amani, from the "Angel" series, 2011, inkjet print on canvas, 130 x 90 cm (51 1/8 x 35 3/8 in.), edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Janet Rady Fine Art.

Hojat Amani, from the “Angel” series, 2011, inkjet print on canvas, 130 x 90 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Janet Rady Fine Art.

Tell us about your “Angel” series. How did it begin? Is there a history of angels or winged creatures in Persian culture?

Man has always been in search of meaning and seeking sanctuary. In the current era, when geographical boundaries have been removed, it is easier for us to search for our true home and reflect upon one’s true being. This will put an end to alienation between people. People today have lost their innocence to the virtual world of machines and media. We have become estranged from our own essence and our values have been reduced to mechanical efficiency. The same is true of art, where it has been reduced to physical or material value.

Man’s anxiety and restlessness is the result of his alienation from his own soul. Belief in metaphysics and faith helps man to find his soul and inner peace of mind. Art has the potential to enable him to regain peace; art can rescue man from his anxieties and inner turmoil. I believe that art’s potential is more than beauty – it has the potential to heal. Pieces “reporting” about the actual world through realism are beautiful, but they cannot heal. Art that is based on man’s essence and points to the beyond is the type of art that heals.

Traditional Persian miniature painting has always considered other realms. While Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was asking to see an angel before he would actually draw one, eastern artists were drawing angels. In the secular imagination, as well as in many religious traditions from the Near East, there have always been angelic beings. They were depicted by the Zoroastrians in Iran, Buddhists in Bamiyan, the Arabs of Mesopotamia, Mani’s of Babylon and Aramaean prophets. The depicted images were an indication of the belief in God and superhuman capacities. The same type of beliefs can be seen in Islamic traditions and sacred books.

Hojat Amani, Untitled, 2004, acrylic on card board paper, 39 x 32 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Hojat Amani, Untitled, 2004, acrylic on cardboard paper, 39 x 32 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

As an art student, I used to draw freely, without a conscious direction. As the ink would touch the paper, I would play with it and it would turn into an angel. This was the beginning of my contemplation on angels and thoughts of how I could create contemporary angels with new narratives and experiences.

I thought about creating angels from ordinary people and with wings. Using traditional Islamic and Iranian motifs, I painted wings on a white screen (curtain) and asked people to stand in front of these screens and imagine their desires. I asked them to imagine that the wings belonged to them, without any judgments. Thus the models “tried on” the wings and projected their feelings about angels. In retrospect, the appearance of these angels was not a coincidence. They were messages from the unconscious beckoning to be actualised in the form of contemporary angels.

How did your subjects react to the wings?

Often people were serious, other times they had fun with it. Both of these reactions were important to me. In my country, there are many who don’t like to be photographed, especially women, because of their religious beliefs. For this project, however, people were often eager to experience standing in front of the wings. But there were also people who thought that they were too big to fly and some felt that they were too sinful to stand in front of the wings. In some places, the police prevented me from proceeding with the project, because the concept was very unusual to them and was considered as anti-religious by others.

Working with these people was extremely interesting and exciting. They believed that their wishes had been granted and that this was the actualisation of their dreams. In Iran, most private galleries tend to veer towards themes exploring politics and gender. I believe all people can become angels “in character” regardless of gender. Perhaps the modern world and technology have separated people from their essence with issues like war and racism, but the imagination of being an angel even for a short time is pacifying to people. To me, it brought great satisfaction to record such moments and these angels were representing a piece of heaven in the modern world. As Rumi (جلال‌الدین محمد بلخى) says, “We lived in the heavens and were friends of angels… there will we once more return for that is our rightful place.”

Hojat Amani, from "Cheeky Safavid" series, 2012, inkjet on fine art paper, 90 x 90 cm (35 3/8 x 35 3/8 in.), edition of 5. Image courtesy of the artist and Janet Rady Fine Art.

Hojat Amani, from “Cheeky Safavid” series, 2012, inkjet on fine art paper, 90 x 90 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Janet Rady Fine Art.

Who or what was the inspiration behind your “Cheeky Faces” series?

This collection was inspired by two styles of portraiture and pictorial history in Iran, and is related to different eras of the Safavids (1501–1736) and the Qajars (1785–1925). Qajar was the era of Modernism in Iranian history when photography and photo archiving began. This opus is a collection of old realistic images that can trigger a sense of nostalgia for the past.

Our earliest realistic images belong to the Qajar era, since prior to that there was no accurate way of preserving images – all images were illusory. In both the Safavid (سلسلهٔ صفويان‎) and Qajar (دودمان قاجار) periods, we see the influence of western styles in Persian paintings. I have attempted to bring westernised influence into my work by using modern pop culture and to challenge it by amplifying its effect. Among these collections are the ‘cheeky’ Safavids, with their long, flowing robes, ornate headdresses and amorous glances. The Qajars, on the other hand, with cropped hair, beauty marks and their signature joined eyebrows are reminiscent of a dark, decaying and depraved Persia on the brink of destruction.

Your new “Still Life” series combines traditional and modern imagery. Does this blend represent Iran’s trajectory towards globalisation?

I feel that this collection is more than just a “still life”. These are combinations of fruits from the Qajar era, which represent heavenly fruits since they lack perspective and chiaroscuro, giving us a sense of surrealism. These fruits are juxtaposed with the perspective of the new generation, who consider the West as their heaven, and western brands, such as Coca Cola, as the symbolic representation of their “heaven”. The “Still Life” collection depicts Iranian society’s contradictions of traditional and modern styles, and how the society is operating in a state of limbo.

Hojat Amani, 'Persian Still life', 2014, oil on canvas, 80 x 120 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Janet Rady Fine Art.

Hojat Amani, ‘Persian Still life’, 2014, oil on canvas, 80 x 120 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Janet Rady Fine Art.

Can art bring hope to the youth in your country? How?

Absolutely, this is the essence of art. However, there are problems with contemporary Iranian art, especially among the younger generation. Today, some artists are interested in only making art that is profitable. Though some of the art sold has generated a substantial income locally and internationally, this trend has resulted in artists attempting to mimic each other’s templates and the art being reduced to a commercial commodity.

Currently, two types of art are favoured by auctions and collectors in Iran, especially Arab collectors. One is calligraphy painting and the other is fantasy realism in which there is the depiction of Iranian womens’ hijab. This interest has increased the taste and preference of the public for this kind of art.

Please tell us about any upcoming exhibitions that you’ll be participating in through 2014.

I have just completed a successful exhibition and performance in Pakistan at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi. My work will also be seen in an upcoming exhibition with Haleh Gallery in Germany and a solo exhibition in Tehran. I am also in the process of planning and developing an exhibition in Toronto and Qatar with the Art Clvb.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: calligraphy, emerging artists, interviews, Iranian artists, Islamic art

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