Painted into a corner

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-12-10 9:32:00

Shadow Count installation by Monika Lin. Photo: Courtesy of OV Gallery 

By Nick Muzyczka

In recent weeks, two shows in Shanghai have thrown light on women's issues. Beyond the Body at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) showcases the work of 14 female artists from China and Japan, while Shifting Definitions at OV Gallery aims to "create a platform to discuss women's issues."

There is a massive gender imbalance in the Chinese art world. While statistical evidence is not readily available, curator Rebecca Catching of OV Gallery suggests that the problem is markedly worse in China than the US, where the lack of women artists is a well-defined phenomenon.

"In my nine years in Shanghai, I cannot recall ever seeing a solo show of any contemporary woman artist in a museum," Catching said. "In fact, if pressed to name five major female Chinese artists, most people in the art world would be stumped."

Feminist issues are very much alive in modern China. "Earlier suffragette movements were concerned with issues such as reforming marriage and employment laws and stopping the practice of foot binding. More contemporary issues would include the sex industry and the position of the shengnü ('leftover ladies')," said Catching.

Shengnü refer to older women who find it difficult to find a husband while balancing social pressures to settle down with career progression.

The boys' club

Monika Lin, a Shanghai-based artist and writer who has researched women's issues in contemporary art, suggested that, "there is still a boys' club mentality among male artists in China. They eat, drink and smoke together and many young women artists don't wish to engage in networking in these circles."

Lin also alluded to the idea that traditional crafts (cloth, paper, pottery), which were often used by female artists through history, are still viewed as inappropriate as "high-art."

It might be thought that Chinese women artists would have formed their own groups as a reaction, but this has not occurred. According to Lin: "They didn't seem to want to work together and it was very difficult to get straight answers on why. For many women it seems that participation in a movement that is directed against some form of authority - in this case the established art world - is actually contrary to the concept of harmonious living."

"There is also the wish to differentiate between Eastern and Western forms of feminism, " Catching added. "There are some associations made with the idea of feminism as a Western import - hating men, burning bras, abandoning child-rearing duties - that did not sit well with the Chinese way of thinking."

Catching told the Global Times that for Shifting Definitions she was especially interested in discovering male artist's views of women's issues. When putting out feelers for the project she found that many male artists were not interested in contributing. "They either claimed that there weren't any relevant issues, or suggested that they knew nothing about them."

"One artist showed me a video of a guy carrying a woman through the streets of Pudong New Area, before handing her to a security guard who then takes her to the metro, where she finally wakes up," continued Catching. "He suggested to me that the theme of the work is that there are just some things that women don't need to worry about - things that men can worry about for them."


Make Beautiful by Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weiling. Photo: Courtesy of OV Gallery

A feminist education

The history of feminist art is not covered in detail in Chinese universities, according to Lin. "There is not much in the way of critical thinking and things tend to be learned by rote. Students typically are shown examples of feminist work but there is little accompanying theory."

Artist Wu Meng said it is "very rare to come across this sort of thing in school. The things we were taught didn't even reach the level of contemporary art. It was mostly examples from art history and technique. We were always told about how strong women are, how lihai (formidable or strong) they are, but the connection to feminist ideas was never made."

For Wu, women's issues find their way into her art, but the artist said she doesn't start the creative process wearing a feminist hat. "The feminist side of me comes out when I need to assert my independence, but it doesn't dominate my way of thinking," she said.

MoCA's current exhibition, although containing a number of worthy pieces, seems somewhat arbitrary in its decision to include only female artists. There is very little in the exhibition that speaks of important concepts in contemporary women's studies.

"I think it does a disservice to women artists when you bundle them together simply because they are the same gender," said Catching.

Lin hinted that galleries may often think of women artists only show in very practical terms, "almost like they are aiming to hit their quota of women artists for the year. Why not have a show around a theme and happen to choose all women artists? Using the gender of the artists as a theme is pretty much meaningless."

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