Five venues in the United Kingdom offer an insight into the variety of work being produced by some of the most exciting female contemporary artists working in China today.

“Gender in Chinese contemporary art”, one of the most ambitious exhibitions of contemporary Chinese women artists ever, involves over 20 practitioners and venues in Manchester, Middlesbrough, Margate and Nottingham, complemented by a symposium at Tate Modern, London, a film screening programme and input from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (CAFA).

Geng Xue, 'Mr Sea', 2013, film still. Image courtesy the artist.

Geng Xue, ‘Mr Sea’, 2013, film still. Image courtesy the artist.

The works on display vary from architectural-inflected to bodily, intensely intimate. The exhibition programme claims to “reinvigorate discussion around the role of female Chinese contemporary artists in the wake of trends and feminist movements of the past” and ask “whether gender still matters in contemporary arts practice”. Although it actually fails to convincingly engage with these questions, the exhibition introduces UK audiences to some artists that deserve to be well-known beyond China.

Peng Yun, 'Miss Melissa and Mr Fish at 2.31pm', 2013, film still. Image courtesy the artist.

Peng Yun, ‘Miss Melissa and Mr Fish at 2.31pm’, 2013, film still. Image courtesy the artist.

As part of the “NOW” programme, on 16 February 2018 the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art (CFCCA) opened its exhibition of work by Na Buqi (b. 1984), Wu Chao (b. 1977), Yang Guangnan (b. 1980), Li Shurui (b. 1981), Luo Wei (b. 1989), Hu Xiaoyuan (b. 1977) and Geng Xue (b. 1983). The exhibition continues until 29 April.

Na Buqi, 'Floating Narratives', 2017. Image courtesy the artist.

Na Buqi, ‘Floating Narratives’, 2017. Image courtesy the artist.

At CFCCA the eye is immediately drawn to the piece Floating Narratives (2017) by Na Buqi. Na graduated from CAFA in 2013 and currently lives and works in Beijing. Her works have been shown in solo and group shows in Beijing and New York, as well as the Gwangju Biennale in 2016.

Floating Narratives combines gravity and air, giving equal weighting to light and matter. Fake plants, flower pots, wires and fans are all divorced from their domestic functions. Other works by the artist deftly use colour and space in architecture-inspired forms. At the Tate Modern conference, Na Buqi explained how she played

with absences and architecture, domesticity, light and qualities of materials… constructing spaces for the mind.

Yang Guangnan, Action No. 1, NOW at CFCCA (2018).

Yang Guangnan, ‘Action No. 1’, “NOW” at CFCCA, 2018. Image courtesy CFCCA.

Also at the CFCCA exhibition is the work of Yang Guangnan, a multimedia installation artist from Hebei Province. Her stripped-back pieces mechanise and motorise simple actions. Removing the body, her pieces, several of which are included in this show, still remain semi-human, exposing “the absurdity of daily interactions” and labour.

The body is also the topic of Geng Xue’s RR (2013). Geng Xue was born in Jilin, China, and graduated from CAFA with a BFA in 2007. In her photographs and moving images, intimate sections of the body – hands, necks, knees – are highlighted with red paint in a deliberate reference to storytelling forms from the Qing dynasty.

Geng Xue, RR at NOW, CFCCA (2018) Constantin Brosteanu.

Geng Xue, ‘RR’ at “NOW”, CFCCA, 2018. Photo: Constantin Brosteanu.

Luo Wei’s Wave Transmitter Company-World Line (2018) comprises video screens and free-standing ‘billboards’, merging the analogue and digital, aesthetics and e-commerce and multiple previous works by the artist. Also on the topic of how the digital and online intervene in the everyday is Hu Xiaoyuan’s video You came too early you came too late (2016). In the video, chickens are gently carried by drones, accompanied by an ambient soundtrack. The piece, in a feint echo of the controversy regarding the use of animals in the show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York last year, the piece has generated debate at the Manchester gallery.

Li Shurui, 'Crack in the wind', 2017. Image courtesy the artist.

Li Shurui, ‘Crack in the wind’, 2017. Image courtesy the artist.

In the front of the gallery where the Manchester sun shines in, the artist Li Shurui from Chongqing displays her abstract paintings that use airbrushed acrylic paint to translate the ‘city light’ of Beijing. Meanwhile, the artist residency studio at the gallery presents a single animation work entitled Chasing (2011) by Wu Chao. Wu was born in Sichuan and studied for her MA in Nancy, France, and she is currently a lecturer in the School of Art at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. The artist describes her dystopian work as “about chasing and loosing”, and connects it to the Shakespeare quote:

Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player, who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The exhibition interpretation at CFCCA suggests the red-hooded child-like figures in Chasing are reminiscent of Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, demonstrating how works can be re-assessed and re-interpreted in light of the contemporary mood.

Ma Quisha, 'All My Sharpness Comes from Your Hardness', 2011, film still. Image courtesy the artist.

Ma Quisha, ‘All My Sharpness Comes from Your Hardness’, 2011, film still. Image courtesy the artist.

In a coup for MIMA in Middlesborough, Ma Qiusha (b. 1982) and Shen Xin (b. 1990) have concurrent solo shows. Beijing-based Ma Qiusha, who held a solo show at CFCCA in 2012, is displaying two brand new commissions. Meanwhile Shen Xin, who is based in London, and exhibiting at CFCCA later in the year, is displaying the film Records of Rites (2014) amongst other works. The MIMA shows are on display until 3 June 2018.

Ma Quisha, 'From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiabeili', 2007. Image courtesy the artist.

Ma Quisha, ‘From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiabeili’, 2007. Image courtesy the artist.

Ma Qiusha, along with fellow CAFA alumna Na Buqi and Ye Funa (b. 1986), took part in the artists panel and symposium at Tate Modern titled “Gender in Chinese contemporary art”. Ma’s work evokes the generation gap between those who lived through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and her age group known as the ‘post-80s’. She investigates the bonds of family, in particular the maternal line, explaining at the symposium:

I was educated as though I was a boy. I am closer to my mother […] this is reflected in my work, I address the social status of women in that earlier generation

Ye Funa, 'PeeP stream', 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist and CFCCA.

Ye Funa, ‘PeeP stream’, 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist and CFCCA.

Ye Funa added:

The work I like tends to be created by female artists. I am interested in the feminine aesthetic, although I am not a girly girl in daily life

Ye Funa’s work is on display in the project space at Nottingham Contemporary. The artist produced a new work at the gallery, Ping Pong Stream (2018), which uses a fictional narrative to refer to nation building and romantic entanglements through the prism of ping pong. It is displayed on a screen alongside her collection of ping pong ephemera and the artist’s immersive ‘nail salon’ installation.

Yin Xiuzhen, 'Digestive Cavity', 2015. Image courtesy the artist and PACE.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Digestive Cavity’, 2015. Image courtesy the artist and PACE.

Duan Jianyu, 'Sharp, Sharp, Smart No.10', 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Turner Contemporary.

Duan Jianyu, ‘Sharp, Sharp, Smart No.10’, 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Turner Contemporary.

At Turner Contemporary in Margate audiences have the opportunity to see the work of Yin Xiuzhen (b. 1963) and Duan Jianyu (b. 1970). Yin Xiuzhen has been well-known and successful in China for several decades, due to her work analysing the city and kinship, often using textile. Duan by contrast tells fictions in paint that bring the rural into urban contemporary art spaces. Her work has been shown at the Power Station of Art, Shanghai (2014); UCCA, Beijing (2014); the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial and Venice Biennale. Duan graduated from the Oil Painting Department of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1995 and currently teaches at the Fine Arts Department of South China Normal University, Guangzhou.

Yin Xiuzhen, 'Digestive Cavity', 2015, installation view. Photo: Stephen White. Image courtesy Turner Contemporary.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Digestive Cavity’, 2015, installation view. Photo: Stephen White. Image courtesy Turner Contemporary.

In London at the “Gender in Contemporary Chinese Art” event, Wang Chunchen of CAFA, Beijing spoke about the ongoing controversy of foregrounding gender in discussions about contemporary art. In some ways the “NOW” programme exemplifies this difficultly. However, the entire programme and each individual venue offer the opportunity to see some of the best contemporary art from China at the moment.

Linda Pittwood


“NOW: A dialogue on female Chinese contemporary artists” is on view at multiple venues across the United Kingdom. Check the website for details.

Related topics: women artists, contemporary Chinese art, installation art, multimedia art, exhibitions in Manchester

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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