China’s pioneering modernist woman painter is on show through 19 November 2017 at the Guangdong Times Museum.
Examining the figure of one of China’s most enigmatic painters, “A Journey to Silence” focuses on the biographical archive of Pan Yuliang.
Featuring new commissions from Theatre 44 and contemporary Chinese artists Fang Lu, Qin Jin and Song Ta, the exhibition investigates on Pan Yuliang, one of China’s seminal female artists, at the Guangdong Times Museum.
Defining, tracing and outlining the figure of Pan Yuliang as she lives in the archives, the exhibition “A Journey to Silence” focuses on the biographical accounts of the famed artist, who lived from 1895 to 1977. Gathering art historical papers, essays, newspaper reviews and a wealth of other archival material, it locates how collective history remembers Pan Yuliang, connecting it to the broader conversation surrounding gender and the politics of remembrance in art history.
Pan Yuliang occupies a special place, albeit on the margins, of Chinese art history: one of the first women who achieved recognition as an artist in Europe, she is primarily known for her self-portraits and female nudes, executed in oil. She began studying art in Shanghai, and eventually made her way to France and Rome to further her art education. Pan lived and worked in Paris for the majority of her life, teaching at the École des Beaux Arts, exhibiting, and even winning awards for her work. She did not achieve the same support in her homeland during her lifetime. Criticised for her adoption of modernist sensibilities, as well as for her adoption of the nude as her subject matter, Pan Yuliang noticeably did not reach the same status as her male counterparts. As the museum notes,
While many of her male peers and acquaintances with western educational background advocated their social, political and cultural visions in public, and made their way into mainstream history, Pan Yuliang’s own accounts related to major decisions on changes in her life… Pan Yuliang and her paintings were neither part of the canonical narratives of western modern art history nor were the mainstream in the state-funded museum system in China.
Today, Pan Yuliang’s works reside in the National Art Museum in Beijing, as well as the Anhui Museum in Hefei. Although Pan left behind paintings that have been, since then, praised for their sensuous combination of delicacy and expressiveness, not much remains known about her philosophy on art, her motivations, or her artistic processes. Noting that her name continues to remain tied to some of the more sensationalist features of her life, such as the fact that she was sold into prostitution when she was 14 years old, the exhibition ponders the framing of Pan as a figure in history.
The exhibition breaks the impasse on Pan Yuliang. In some sense, it calls for a re-evaluation of her memory, her work, her story. This is the second in this series, a continuation of the original series that started in the Villa Vassilieff in Paris. Curated by Guangdong Times Museum curator Nikita Yingqian Cai, “A Journey to Silence” is a research-oriented project that delves into the memory of Chinese artists in the Marc Vaux archive, which contained images of Pan Yuliang painting in her studio.
The first iteration of the exhibition saw the artists Hu Yun, Huang Jing Yuan, Wang Zhibo and the art historian Mia Yu constructing the archive, building it from surviving material such as photographs, personal notes, letters, journal entries, police records and video records. Displayed in archival collage installations, the exhibition took place in the earlier half of this year, running until 24 June 2017. Informed by literary theorist and critic Gayatri Spivak’s notion that any work that involved delving into and resurrecting the archive has to be a task of “measuring the silences”, the exhibition bravely tackled the issue to trying to gauge how exactly Pan Yuliang was framed in the annals of history.
This current iteration sees the findings of the first exhibition being presented at the Guangdong Times Museum. As an expansion of the research already done, the artist Fang Lu, Qin Jin, Song Ta and Theatre 44 have also added their own interventions.
Fang Lu (b. 1981, Guangzhou) presents her new video work, which was exclusively commissioned for the exhibition. In China Wonderland (2017), the main character Li Lulu is an artist reconsidering her career in the arts. Expressing the difficulties and uncertainties of being a female artist, in a parallel between her life and Pan Yuliang’s, Li Lulu performs a chant-like monologue in her video, revealing tensions between herself, her female identity and her desire to be an artist.
Song Ta‘s video installation Who, What, Why, Nirvana (2017) confronts taboo head on. Comprised of visual images depicting human bodily secretions, Song Ta brings these images together in a cacophonic, almost psychedelic visual installation. The video attempts to reframe such organic material as silent witnesses to issues of gender and sex. Referencing Pan Yuliang’s background as a prostitute, Song Ta explores the world in which sex work was still largely legal in China, attempting to see past taboos, moral subjectification and objectification of the female self. Addressing the narratives that often paint Pan Yuliang’s life in sensationalist terms, such as “from prostitute to post-Impressionist” (as per Editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic, Hrag Vartanian’s terms), Song Ta attempts to address these narratives by deconstructing the taboos that have dogged the terms in which Pan Yuliang’s life has been framed.
Through another method of approaching the subject of gender and sexuality in art, the artist Qin Jin draws on Pan Yuliang’s reputation for nude drawing. Introducing a two-week-long nude sketching class, usually taught in the curriculum of Western art academies, Qin Jin references the processes of learning the skill of painting that Pan Yuliang herself would have gone through. Pan Yuliang graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, and would go on to assume the role of Chair of the Department of Western Art herself at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts in 1928.
Qin Jin’s contemporary exploration of the Western nude sketching class introduces a similar curriculum to what Pan Yuliang would have went through herself, and would have adopted for the Shanghai Academy. Questioning if the female nude is still a challenge to conservatives today, and how the question of aesthetics would be approached from our contemporary standpoint, Qin Jin’s classes are a unique response that attempts to interrogate these notions of gender and the role it plays in art and society.
In a manner similar to Qin Jin’s methodology, Theatre 44 investigates how Pan Yuliang has been framed through history by reconstructing a theatre-forum. Made up of writers, art practitioners and activists, the theatre-forum attempts to critique the power structures that lie beneath the infrastructure of the art landscape. Dismantling and investigating the methods that produce knowledge and shape discourse about art and its artists, Theatre 44’s theatre-forum Stage Sets / 5 Scenes invites five groups of guests to interact with prepared props, and to reenact scenes from a series of biographical films during the exhibition period. By filming and recording the re-enacted scenes, Theatre 44 hopes to invite a discussion about the process and politics involved in writing, and even re-writing, biographies. These reenactments are filmed over select weekends of the exhibition period, and will be fully produced after the exhibition’s closing, serving as a commentary on the nature of biographies and the processes through which they are made.
“A Journey to Silence” is hardly a usual retrospective of any given painter. Rather than directly interrogating the paintings of Pan Yuliang themselves, the exhibition has deliberately chosen to address how we would see the artist and her work, questioning how our perception of her has been coloured by a whole host of other factors. Confronting the often problematic issues of gender through the writing of histories, the exhibition parses the politics of the archives, questioning the tectonics behind knowledge production systems of the people we uphold in the histories of art.
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