The Shanghai exhibition features select work by international women artists from the Long Museum collection and important loans.
Launched at the end of July 2016, “SHE: International Women Artists Exhibition” at Shanghai Long Museum West Bund presents a collection of works by female artists that are, according to curator Wang Wei, “gathered together not only by their gender, but also by the true creativity”.
Exhibitions of women’s art have been hesitant to define women’s art as ‘Other’ and yet seek to produce a unity of concerns or sensibilities that are of women’s experience. Key exhibitions of the last 10 years such as “WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution” (2007) at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “elles@centrepompidou” (2009) at Centre Pompidou in Paris or “GOOD GIRLS: memory, desire, power” (2013) at National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest have been thematic rather than chorological.
The new exhibition “SHE: International Women Artists Exhibition”, at the Long Museum West Bund until 30 October 2016, is also not a survey but a compilation with much of the work, by 105 artists from 13 countries spanning over 10 centuries, being drawn form the depths of the existing Long Museum collection. This amazing resource is augmented by some cleverly conceived loans. For curator Wang Wei it is a courageous and subtle statement, forging a new trajectory for the women’s art exhibition, away from gendered politics and activism towards involvement and purpose.
For this reason perhaps Wang eschews many of the established figures who have come to stand for feminist practice. There is no Martha Rosler, Mary Kelly, Carolee Schneemann, and despite the historic sweep no Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven or Claude Cahun. Wang produces a reading of women’s art aligned to parity of form, subject and attitude with art in general. Not different, not clamouring, but suggesting simply, as Wang states, “how much a society concerns about women’s living and mental conditions symbolizes the level of civilization.”
Chinese female artists are commonly underrepresented in the country’s art scene, overshadowed by their male counterparts. According to Wang Wei, this is partly due to the pressure women face regarding family duties and other social challenges.
“SHE” divides the show into four themes that reflect the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir’s words, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The sections are “The Annihilation of Self”, “The Liberation of Self”, “The Introspection of Self” and “The Expression of Self”. They imply not separate states of being but a journey of self-affirmation and empowerment. In keeping with this reading the themes are not marked in the show so that transition between them is fluid.
The scene is set by three elegantly poised sculptures, arranged in an oblique triangle against the nave-like orientation of the galleries. A smooth concrete wall hides the works from one another, averting visual conflict, but retaining a sense of spatial continuity between them. The first impression is Louise Bourgeois‘ Crouching Spider (2003), hunkering lower than some versions of this emblematic Bourgeois motif. The form commands the huge space making it a secure, albeit not very homely, refuge with a protector who means business.
Hugging the wall with her back to the spider, but gently turning to give it a steady look is Otherworld — Will Things Ever get Better (2011), a sculpture by Xiang Jing of a rose grey horse. Classical, but with a cute tousled main and a synthetic sheen, the sculpture conveys an uneasy balance between aloof irony and nature. Yoko Ono’s To See The Sky (2015) provides a different means of rising above the world. The work is a simple free-standing spiral staircase, painted bright blue – leading nowhere but upwards. Visitors are invited to climb the stairs one person at a time. Maybe Ono’s presence in this exhibition, in this particular place, is the most stridently gendered statement of the show as it is a reworking of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912).
The transatlantic hit of the New York Armory Show I of 1913, where Duchamp’s painting pivots on the dismantled figure of a naked woman, reduced to abstract forms, Ono’s sculpture reverses many of the tenets of Duchamp’s painting, notably the colour and the direction of movement. But, it is the displacement of the work itself that is beguiling. Duchamp’s work travelled from Europe to the United States. Ono, an Asian artist, resident in the United States, initiates a transpacific movement, suggesting new structures and blue-sky thinking.
Adjustment is required after the drama of these commanding works to appreciate the numerous subtle paintings hung close by, particularly a brave collection of works on paper, including the earliest work in the show, a measured set of Chinese characters from the 13th century Song dynasty. Empress Yang Meizi’s Quatrain on spring’s radiance is an inscription on an oval fan connecting the Empress’ personal reflections on mortality to an image that was once on the reverse.
Wang has a way of pinpointing commonalities between diverse works, such as in the particular raw coloration of three different abstract paintings by Brazilian Beatriz Milhazes, Bridget Riley from the United Kingdom, and US artist Joan Mitchell. Both modernism and socialist realism are strongly felt too, suggesting not a feminine alternative but thoughtful participation with common concerns. Tracy DiTolla suggests:
Feminist artists often embraced alternative media, incorporating fabric, fiber, performance, and video as these materials did not have the same historically male-dominated precedent that painting and sculpture carried.
Wang, however, refuses to allow the work to suggest feminine tropes or idioms. For example, where Yayoi Kusama’s twin chromatic figurines Chii-Chan & Chin (2004) suggest lightness or sweetness, Wang sets the work against Xiao Lu’s two telephone kiosks, Dialogue (1989), a work that became highly charged when the artist shot at it in an impromptu action that caused the immediate temporary closure of the “China Avant-garde Exhibition” in Beijing. The damage from the bullets completes the work.
Wang suggests that the artists are “gathered together not only by their gender, but also by the true creativity”. This agenda softens other juxtapositions and their rationale is not always easy to follow. Sometimes the exhibition can seem like a succession of discontinuous materials and subjects, such as the hanging of Yin Xiuzhen’s livid cerise Pink Rainbow (2009), a hexagonal work stitched together from discarded clothing, opposite two figurative paintings, Xia Junna’s 1997 The Edge of the City and Duan Jianyu’s Sister No. 10 (2007) – the former set in a ripe wheat field overlooked by industry, the latter an episode with a bear in a snowy forest.
These works are found at the point where the stairs to the lower gallery turn back on themselves leading to Tracy Emin’s neon inscription The Last Great Adventure is You (2014) and an extensive crimson rose coloured carpet Protruding Patterns (2014) by Lin Tianmiao. Both works evoke and redirect Betty Friedan’s edict in The Feminine Mystique,
The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.
This exhibition as a whole succeeds by demonstrating how the view of creative work has been repositioned since 1963 when Friedman was writing. Now personal creative integrity is seen to be enacted in concord and on global, social and political platforms. Yoko Ono says:
We wanted to fly, and invented aeroplanes. We wanted to see the other side of the moon, and we have. This time, we want to heal our planet, and bring peace to this world. We will.
“SHE: International Women Artists Exhibition” is empowering. Without being explicitly feminist the show indicates what it means to act together, to act creatively, to be true to oneself.
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