Man Yee Lam's work entitled Silk Cocoon Photo: Courtesy of Abby Chen
In modern China how is feminism viewed? Is there a necessary link between feminism and females? How can the public engage and participate in the debate about feminism? And how do artists investigate and interpret these issues?
These are some of the questions a new exhibition at EMG Shanghai in Baoshan district attempts to pose and answer. Women Us which opened recently is the debut exhibition for the venue, and the official exhibition for the Conference of Global Chinese Women and Visual Representation 2011. The conference was organized by the University of Michigan and the Journalism School of Fudan University and held at Fudan University last week.
The exhibition features 13 works from 10 Chinese artists working in different mediums including performances, installations, videos, drawings and sound works. Some of the pieces address violence and prejudice against women, some explore the desire, ambiguity and hybrid nature of sexuality, and others illustrate programs that promote social justice, gender equality and empowerment.
Mu Xi's creation Moth Photo: Courtesy of Abby Chen
According to the curator, Abby Chen, visibility, authority, and possibility are the three focal points of this exhibition. She said Women Us seeks to listen to the sounds of individual females that can often fade into the background and be lost. "What I care about is whether the work can present a new discourse and if the work can help understand today's gender space, as well as extend the imagination of what has been regarded as reality."
Probably the smallest and most curious exhibit in Women Us, N Quan is a light-hearted work created by Gao Ling, a young Chinese independent artist in her 20s and her friend, Elaine W. Ho. It is actually a ceramic woman's urinal and looks like a small hand-held funnel. Gao told the Global Times this work was inspired by the embarrassment she and her women friends experienced when they are walking in the countryside. "We cannot always find a convenient and hygienic place to urinate," Gao said.
So N Quan was born. Gao tested it herself and took the photographs that make up her segment of the exhibition. "This is no Duchampian overturn, no Lady Gaga feeding frenzy, not even a 'real free true lady artist' worthy of the great Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (the 20th century German-born avant-garde artist)," Gao said. "N Quan is a delicate little thing. We are outside where there is no toilet and we are having a piss. In an ironic way we are reaching an equality with men."
Man Yee Lam is a 47-year-old artist from Hong Kong. Her work, Silk Cocoon, involved the artist creating a separate space in the exhibition hall, wrapping herself with silk threads and cocoons from which she struggles to escape.
Lam said she wanted to investigate the choices that women have under cultural patterning. Despite the extraordinary efforts women have made to create opportunities for independent choices, "I am questioning, in a cultural context, whether these hard-earned choices are real choices or just the illusion of choice," she said.
"My original hometown is Shunde in Guangdong Province. For hundreds of years, the main industry in the Pearl River Delta, where Shunde is located, has been silk production. The industry was reliant on a workforce of women. This allowed women in the area enough economic power to defy the feudal marriage system. At that time, instead of having to marry a man at a proper age, women in Shunde created for themselves an additional option - the legitimate, socially-acceptable status of spinsterhood. Any woman in Shunde at that time, if she chooses to, can perform a special hair combing ceremony and take a vow to be a spinster."
"My ancestors broke the 2,000-year-old social system in China just by raising vulnerable little silkworms. They gained independence by creating for themselves a choice that was unheard of in Chinese history," Lam said. "However, at that same time, they had to sacrifice a lot. As modern women, we thought that we were lucky enough to have wide range of choice, but we still have to work very hard in this modern world of business and we have to sacrifice a lot to create our own financial independence."
Even though this is a feminist exhibition and mainly showcases the work of women artists and promotional materials from agencies that help women victims of sex attacks and other organizations that help arrange finance for women in rural areas, it includes works by men.
Curator Abby Chen said: "From the very beginning, I intentionally didn't avoid works by male artists. My intention was to increase the possibilities and diversities in the exploration and expression of feminism. Through this exhibition, I also wanted to present to the public a variety of approaches to feminism."
Visual art designer Mu Xi is one of the male artists featured in the show and the 28-year-old's video work, Moth, shows scenes of a caterpillar turning into a moth, intersected with scenes of a semi-naked young man dancing for most of the time. "You can see that the dancer only shows his back to the viewers so we cannot really tell if the dancer is male or female which is what the artist intended," Chen explained. Moth sets out to create an androgynous creature with the ambiguity and hybrid nature of gender. "It is this artist's understanding of feminism. He believes that feminism will succeed when gender differences can be put aside - and that is something I agree with," she said.
Date: Until January 1, 10 am to 6:30 pm
Venue: EMG Shanghai
Address: 3000 Yixian Road, Baoshan district
Call 6083-2866 for details