Reclaiming their Bodies: Contemporary Chinese Women Artists
How have Chinese female artists been dealing with the female nude? Have they reclaimed women's bodies from the male gaze? Have they presented women's bodies from women's points of view, and women as active on their own behalf and in charge of their own lives? To find out we shall look at work by sixty-seven contemporary Chinese female artists, ranging in age in 2006 from 26 to 73 and with a mean age of 41.1 years, and including possibly three in Hong Kong, three in Taiwan, and ten in Amsterdam, Australia, Berlin, Japan, London, Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, and South Korea (see Appendix).
We do have to watch out for artists saying they are female when they are not, just as non-Aboriginal artists in Australia have posed as Aboriginal; and with Victoria Lu calling herself 'Mister Lu,' [Victoria Lu, 'The Rise of Feminist Awareness and the Feminist Art Movement in Taiwan,' N. Paradoxa, no.16, July 2002, on the internet.] and Jiang Congyi signing herself 'Mr. Jiang Congyi,' [http://jiangcongyi.com] we can keep our eyes open for the opposite as well.
'Women reclaiming their bodies' is now mainly an advertising catchphrase used by commercial tattooists, but it began life as a slogan of 1970s feminists working to end the patriarchal subordination of women, epitomised in the Western art tradition of the female nude as a passive and available sex object for heterosexual men, who dismembered it and fetishised its sexual bits, and polarised women/body/nature and men/mind/culture. [See Gill Saunders, The Nude: A New Perspective, London: Herbert Press, 1989, where there are chapters called 'Active versus Passive,' 'The Fetishized Female,' and 'Nature versus Culture.'] As Lisa Tickner wrote at the time, 'the colonized territory must be reclaimed from masculine fantasy, the "lost" aspects of female body experience authenticated and re-integrated in opposition to its more familiar and seductive artistic role as raw material for the men.' [Lisa Tickner, 'The Body Politic: Female Sexuality and Women Artists since 1970,' Art History, 1: 2, June 1978, p.239.] Chinese artists (including women such as Pan Yuliang, 1895–1977 [See John Clark, Modern Asian Art, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1998, p.286 and note 9 on p.298; Jennifer Cody Epstein, Iron Orchid, New York: Norton; London: Viking, 2006; and the film 'A Soul Haunted by Painting,' in which Gong Li plays Pan Yuliang.]) inherited that tradition when they saw reproductions or went overseas to study, they perpetuated it in much of their work in the first half of the twentieth century, including in erotic posters of the 1920s (female life models were officially used in China for the first time in Shanghai in 1920 by Liu Haisu, 1896–1994), and revived it in the China Nude Art exhibition in 1988.
Chinese artists are also heirs to long traditions of Confucianism, which subordinated women to men and confined them to their domestic roles as daughters, wives and mothers; and of Buddhism: the occasional Indian-influenced sensuous stone bodhisattva might appear in the Tang dynasty, but it was never naked like some Indian counterparts. [William Willetts, Chinese Art, 2 vols, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958, vol. 1, pp.384–86; William Watson, Style in the Arts of China, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974, p.82, plate 71.] Most have also experienced the Communists' suppression of anything to do with sex as a distraction from Party dictatorship and industrial and agricultural work and as a sign of feudal or bourgeois decadence. Chinese who are traditional Muslims include women who reclaim their bodies from unwanted male attention by wearing protective clothing.
Although Neolithic clay 'Venus' figures have been found in Liaoning, [Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China, 4th edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, p.8.] and there must have been many ancient images of the fertility or earth goddess Hu Tu, [See section on Xing Fei in Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky, Who Am I: Chinese Contemporary Art by Chinese and Chinese-American Women Artists, exhibition catalogue, New York: Chinese-American Arts Council, 2004; www.karetzky.com/whoami-text.htm] the most extensive portrayal of the naked female body has been in erotic drawings, paintings, ceramics, ivories etc, including in the kind of Ming dynasty erotic paintings reproduced in Michel Beurdeley, ed., The Clouds and Rain: The Art of Love in China, 1969, and in Robert Hans van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period, 2 volumes, 2004. Even though such work was mainly by and for men, it also included 'pillow books' for the sexual education of brides, and it does usually show women taking an active part in the sexual pleasuring of themselves and their partners; but, as in the West, erotica or pornography is not included in art textbooks and is not usually on display, so that many female artists remain unaware of it: it is only selected visitors to the Unique Hill Studio, Shanghai, for instance, who are ushered into a locked room containing such work. Around 2000 the Chinese female artist Zhang O found a book of Ming dynasty erotic paintings in London:
Seeing these pictures, I was at first dumbfounded and almost burst into tears. The images are incredibly beautiful and graceful, as well as seductive. Their esoteric narration is meaningful and mystical. I became proud of this artistic heritage and being Chinese. But Chinese living in China are not able to see these images because of government policy; this made me want to do something with this theme all the more. I wanted to translate these pictures into a contemporary setting, combining them with my interpretation, injecting them with feelings. I produced slides of the paintings and then projected them onto a model seated in a bathtub. [Zhang O, in Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004.]
Female nudes reappeared in the Stars Group's first exhibition in Beihai Park in Beijing in 1979, and in Yuan Yunsheng's Water splashing festival mural at Beijing airport in the same year (it has been argued that the survival of the latter for two years was because they depicted ethnic minority women, who in Han Chinese eyes are 'sensual natives' [Dru C. Gladney, 'Constructing a Contemporary Uighur National Identity: Transnationalism, Islamicization, and State Representation,' Cahiers d'études sur la Méditerranée orientale et la monde turco-iranien, no. 13, January–June 1992.]). China's state council's approval in April 1985 of the nude in art [See Clark, 1998, p.286.] was followed by the China Nude Art exhibition of 1988. Even so, in 1986 when a nineteen-year-old woman working as a life model in the Nanjing Art Academy was recognised in a television series about Liu Haisu she was driven into mental illness by the harassment of fellow-villagers. In 1998 Cui Xiuwen, Feng Jiali, Li Hong and Yuan Yaomin set up their feminist Siren Art Studio in Beijing, and by the early 2000s there was a popular outbreak of commercial body painting on bikini-clad girls and young women, [Hsingyuan Tsao, 'Fun, Pleasure-Seeking, but Thoughtful: On Urban Popular Culture in China,' Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 3: 2, June 2004, pp.89–102: see pp.100–01.] there were debates about college girls rushing to be photographed nude, numerous blogs by young women displaying their bodies on the internet, and the female painter and photographer Shi Tou came out as a lesbian on a Hunan province television talk show and starred in China's first lesbian film, Fish and Elephant.
The works of our sixty-seven artists present female bodies in five main ways:
1. Lubricious nudes
In mainland China Zhou Nan specialises in highly fetishised super-glamorous airbrushed paintings of breasts, pursed lips, and bottoms, in the midst of hyperreal hothouse flowers and tendrils, in imitation of the luscious and seductive advertising images of women's beauty products.
Jiang Congyi has painted countless totally fetishistic and highly sexualised female nudes: the passive torsos of nubile young women in sexy underwear, centred on the open labia, and girls with a come-hither look pulling up their T-shirts to display big breasts, in acts of wild abandon and even sluttishness (in 1994 Lu Qing, 1964– , made a poster with a photograph of herself and the caption 'I am a slut' [Xu Hong, 'Dialogue: The Awakening of Women's Consciousness,' translated by Claire Roberts, in Dinah Dysart & Hannah Fink, eds, Asian Women Artists, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1996, pp.16–23: see p.23.]), all with perfectly made-up pouting red lips, lacquered fingernails etc.
Shen Na paints frilly and sprightly young women in non-stop light-hearted lesbian lovemaking such as nipple-licking: 'they are only interested in signing a contract with happiness, life and desire. Although they are shallow and wanton, they certainly leave a deep impression,' says the artist. [Shen Na, artist's statement on Art Scene Warehouse website.]
Cui Xiuwen did a series of two naked women (and also possibly a woman and a man) having sex, with the added interest of the people involved having different skin colours. Feng Qianyu made (digitally altered?) photographs of young women naked together in a bath. Guo Qingling painted a gorgeous series of scantily-clad sexy women showing off their charms and offering themselves to the viewer. Zhang Yaxi celebrates sexuality in her more erotic sculpted female figures such as Nude II. Fu Xi has painted the torso of a naked woman lifting her breasts up to be admired. Guo Yan has painted a man and woman in various states of undress having sex. It was said of Nie Mu's series Lovers, 2002, that they were 'both visually forceful and sexually explicit... [and] dynamically represent the physicality and ecstasy of sexual pleasure.' [Xenia Tetmajer, 'She at Art Seasons China,' Asia Art News, 14: 3, May/June 2004, p.77.] Zhao Mengge paints only nudes in exaggerated postures of lively sexual longing, with limbs and breasts flying, in expressionistic brushwork and colours, usually much more vigorous than her gallery suggests:
Either the self dancing alone, fairy lady wandering in the garden or narcissistic goddess twiddling with her beautiful hair proclaims an oriental beauty with a little bit of sadness, drifting between the illusion and reality. [Fa Fa Gallery website.]
At school in China during the Cultural Revolution Hu Ming was allowed to draw only Mao Zedong's portrait. In 1970 she joined the army, where she worked in a hospital as a broadcaster and librarian. In the library she found a book of Michelangelo's life drawings of human anatomy that was banned at the time as pornographic. Her website says that it changed her life forever; it also says that because women could not 'display their femininity' during the Cultural Revolution she 'did not see shampoo until the mid 1980s, hence the womanliness of her army girls in her painting.' She then trained as an army nurse, spending much time studying anatomy in the morgue. She attributes 'a reason for the prevalence of bottoms in her painting' to the year she spent jabbing needles in soldiers' rear ends. Also, 'During this time as a nurse Ming witnessed daily the dead and withered bodies of illness, so consequently she loves to paint the healthy voluptuous bodies. She came to hate the view of an ill body.' Between 1979 and 1983 she studied at art school, and then worked on army films for five years before leaving to study English in New Zealand, moving to Australia in 1999. 'Her paintings express dearly her worship of the female form depicting both physical strength and feminine beauty' [All quotes from http://hu-ming.com]: they are also clearly lesbian in their sexuality, as though inspired by Anchee Min's autobiographical novel set in the Cultural Revolution, Red Azalea. [Anchee Min, Red Azalea, London: Victor Gollancz, 1993; New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.]
Also outside mainland China, Yin Ling has her male partner photograph her in provocative poses wearing bits of bikinis, sometimes with a political slogan as a ruse: as Susan Kendzulak noted of one performance in Taiwan:
In Let Lovemaking Lead the World Towards Peace, Yin cavorted with a skeleton on a pink bed positioned between uniforms symbolizing Mao and Chiang. This tableau of erotic kitsch was well attended, especially by local male townsfolk and the visiting male arts crowd. [Susan Kendzulak, 'Bombs Away! Cai Guoqiang's Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art,' Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 3: 4, December 2004, pp.44–51: this quote from p.48.]
Zhang O, frustrated at the restrictions on her freedom to express herself at art school in Beijing, began using a camera after classes at night.
In my first series of photographs, Masterpieces in My Eyes of 1998 I tried to explore the aesthetic and political aspects of the female body in the history of art. I took slides of masterpieces painted by men, then projected the slides on the real female models, literally imposing the masterpieces, the male standards, on the female form...This raised questions about sexual distinctions and domination, about seeing and being seen. [Zhang O, in Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004.]
After moving to London and discovering Ming dynasty erotica she made the Water moon series, which was followed by the Black hair series: 'Again I posed nude models in a bathtub, and then I arranged their long black hair on their skin as if painting strokes on a blank canvas. This is similar to Chinese calligraphy and ancient landscape paintings.'
For me, water has an erotic connotation: two people having intercourse feel a similar sensation of wetness, and one can feel something of a link to the ancient book of love...I wanted to create a sense of feminine vulnerability and fragility. For me, the images of the body, hair, and water are full of innuendo. These are an aesthetic expression of the seductive and ominous feelings of human sexuality, beauty, and death. [Zhang O, in Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004; see also Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky, 'Zhang O: In Transit,' Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 3: 2, September 2004, pp.28–31.]
Whether of same-sex eroticism (lesbianism) or self-love (narcissism, autoeroticism), all the above works pander to many women's beautiful masturbatory fantasies and emotional longings; in psychoanalytic terms they are instances of projection.
Women painting naked women plays havoc with feminist discourses of (male) subject and (female) object, of active (male) and passive (female), and of (male) surveillance and (female) display, and even with the idea that the mere pursuit of visual pleasure ('scopophilia') is inherently masculine. ['It is too easy and self-restricting to identify the gaze as unilaterally male': Jennifer M. Green, 'Subject, Object, Camera: Photographing Women in The Unbearable Lightness of Being,' in Ronald Dotterer & Susan Bowers, eds, Sexuality, the Female Gaze, and the Arts, Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1992, pp.53–63: this quote from p.59; see also Ann Kaplan, 'Is the Gaze Male?,' in Women and Film, New York: Methuen, 1983.] Are female artists, then, being sucked into identifying with the male gaze?
As Avis Lewallen asked regarding the new wave of blockbuster sex novels written by women, 'Do they merely contribute to the further objectification of women within our misogynist society, inculcating male power, or do they offer a form of representation that facilitates the female gaze?' [Avis Lewallen, 'Lace: Pornography for Women?' in Lorraine Gamman & Margaret Marshment, eds, The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture, London: The Women's Press, 1988, pp.86–101: this quote from p.86.] One feminist, in talking about television programs, argued that 'the female gaze is not produced simply because women are behind the camera or because the main characters are women...the female gaze can be a mask for a male point of view.' [Lorraine Gamman, 'Watching the Detectives: The Enigma of the Female Gaze,' in Gamman & Marshment, 1988, pp.8–26: this quotes from p.18.]
'Awareness of this danger,' wrote Gill Saunders in 1989 of Western female artists, 'has led most of the women artists working with the nude to use their own bodies as subject and by so doing they escaped the traditional artist/model subject/object relationship, using the body as a locus in which art and artist are interchangeable.' [Saunders, 1989, p.118.] Certainly, Western feminist art in the 1970s was full of naked self-portraits, but feminist intentions alone could never protect such art from being ogled by heterosexual men (that it is also ogled by lesbians [Cassandra L. Langer, 'Transgressing Le Droit du Seigneur: The Lesbian Feminist Defining Herself in Art History,' in Joanna Frueh, Cassandra L. Langer & Arlene Raven, eds, New Feminist Criticism: Art, Identity, Action, New York: HarperCollins, 1994, pp.306–26.] is neither here nor there: we live in a society run by and for men, not by and for lesbians). Nor, according to Mary Kelly, does it overcome the object/subject problem, for the female artist painting herself still sees herself in the feminine position as the object of the look and as an artist in the masculine position as subject of the look. [Mary Kelly, 'Desiring Images/Imaging Desire,' in her Imaging Desire, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996, pp.122–29.] It is altogether too hopeful to say, as Xenia Tetmajer did of an exhibition in Beijing in 2004, 'The naked bodies on display in She represent either the artist herself or her friends and thus falls [sic] outside the traditional objectifying male gaze,' [Tetmajer, 2004, p.77.] objectification not being decidable by reference to the sex of the artist, to the subjects being the artist or friends, or even to the artist's intentions.
In 1973 Maryse Holder reported on the 'amazing phenomenon' of women all over the US 'describing unprecedentedly explicit sexual content' as they began 'redeeming their cunts from male pawn shops, [and] appropriating the entire matter of human sexuality as well.' [Maryse Holder, 'Another Cuntree: At Last, A Mainstream Female Art Movement,' in Off Our Backs, 1973, reprinted in Arlene Raven, Cassandra L. Langer & Joanna Frueh, eds, Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988, pp.1–20: this quote from p.1.] Many Chinese female artists now seem to be manifesting a similar eruption of sexuality after decades of prudery. They are celebrating the sexual beauty of young women (never of men), and the idea of beautiful sex with themselves or another woman, and occasionally with a man.
2. Tasteful but saccharine cuties
Whereas those who have painted lubricious nudes are the youngest contingent, with a mean age in 2006 of 34.8 years, the artists we are going to look at now are the oldest, with a mean age of 44.2 years. (The mean age of those in category 3 is 43.7, in category 4, 40.1, and in category 5, 38.6.)
Zhang Shumei paints nothing but dozens of ethereal buxom nudes, singly and in groups of two or three, in pastel colours and in flowery landscapes, all in the stiff life-class poses of Western-derived nudes of pre-Communist times, with some looking non-Han Chinese or non-Chinese Asian, in a kind of internal or reverse Orientalism. Zhou Ling paints voluptuous exoticised young earth mothers of varying ethnicity in natural tropical settings, often with wild animals and birds.
Fu Jiying does paintings of female nudes in styles from the past, one being described by a commentator as, 'Three naked Court Ladies enjoying themselves in the water as described in the excerpt from a Song Dynasty poet, Li Qing Zhao,' and others showing a goddess-like nude with flowers in her hair posing with wild animals.
Liu Yousha paints pairs of pastel-coloured stylised female nudes floating in Cubist-derived landscapes with titles like One summer day. Yang Xiaojun paints decorous female nudes with gorgeous hair-styling and makeup against generic Chinese flowers and landscapes. Xu Jie has made oil paintings of standard Western-style posed female nudes, impassive, with eyes averted, closed, or hidden, and in Hong Kong Nancy Chu Woo draws and paints glamorised life-class female nudes, usually from behind.
Cao Weihong paints cute nudes, modelling them and their domestic surroundings on what might have been in old painted scrolls, as though the artist were retrospectively inventing a Chinese counterpart to the Western tradition of the female nude; they are idealised, slim, young, without pubic hair or labia, standing in lotus flowers, simpering behind fans: the epitome of passive, available sex objects, and amusing despite or because of that.
Xu Hualing has painted pale nude female torsos with heads cut off by the frame; of others Xenia Tetmajer wrote:
[T]he viewer is presented with the artist's almost ephemeral body. She looks at the viewer from behind a veil-like pattern emitting soft sexual innuendo. The artist's powerfully questioning gaze, however, undermines the docility of her body. [Tetmajer, 2004, p.77.]
Yang Fan painted a series of idealised cuties bathing, their nakedness against bright pink or blue backgrounds partly covered by blurry water or steam. There is a lot of cuteness in modern Chinese art, although it is still a long way behind the infantilised popular culture of Japan. In psychoanalytic terms it connotes regression. 'Cuteness fetishizes powerlessness,' is one opinion; from children and virtuous young women to sweet old ladies, to be cute connotes 'the need to be saved, and creates the longing to rescue.' [Laurie Essig, on the internet.]
This group of artists also celebrates youthful women's sexual beauty (and again, never men's), but unlike the first group they present the female nude as passive.
3. Subordinated to the art
Jin Weihong has done an enormous number of ink and colour paintings of one or two people in domestic or garden settings, with the people and their surroundings being but lightly sketched, giving no more indication of narrative than their minimal titles, such as Looking at flowers, or People and bird. Although the figures usually seem to be unclothed, the genitals are never depicted, so that the frequent suggestion of breasts seems to indicate that most or all of them are women. Either way, the depiction in ink and colour of people singly or in pairs engaged in leisurely pursuits, in which they are so absorbed that mere material considerations such as dress can be forgotten, carries the viewer back to the classic literati paintings of the Southern Song dynasty. By grafting quite notional nudes on to the indigenous tradition of ink and colour brush painting she is the artist whose work is least able to be seen as (even though it may be in fact) diaristic or the working through of her own personal experiences.
Jin Weihong: 'Nude figures, unbound by social conventions, seem to be an ideal way to express my feelings freely.' 'I prefer the kind of emptiness there in my paintings, which leaves spaces for viewers' imagination.' 'I have to be in a very relaxed and merry mood to paint and I want my paintings to be as natural as possible.' 'Line drawing is very important in Chinese paintings and one brief line can save unnecessary brushwork, while telling much.' [Jin Weihong, quoted in Anna Zhong Tong Yue, 'Jin Wei Hong,' 2004, Shanghart Gallery website.]
The depiction of ungendered human bodies brings to mind Georges Bataille's concept of 'formless' (revived in more recent times by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss among others [Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless A User's Guide, New York: Zone Books, 1997; Rosalind Krauss, 'Claude Cahun and Dora Maar: By Way of Introduction,' in Bachelors, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.]), with its slippage and blurring of categories, its impossibility of definition, and its fluidity of identity. Krauss envisaged a 'field of the Imaginary that allows for its positions to be occupied by more than one gender at once,' [Krauss, 1999, p.50.] on which Sasha Si-Ling Welland commented, 'This way of seeing disrupts any fixed notion of the male gaze, in which the eyes of a default male viewer fall upon a represented female body with the simple effect of fantasy fulfillment, manipulation, and control.' [Sasha Su-Ling Welland, 'On Curating Cruel/Loving Bodies,' Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 4: 1, March 2005, pp.17–36: this quote from p.18.] It also caters to trans-gendered and trans-sexual people who disprove the binary masculine-feminine stereotype, and speaks to the feminine in all men and the masculine in all women. The racial indistinctness of the figures similarly blurs the Chinese-foreigner distinction.
When nakedness, lesbianism etc are reworked so that the artistic work involved is of greater interest the psychoanalytic term is sublimation. In her 25:00 [or 25th hour] series, Chen Lingyang shows a greatly enlarged female nude crouched on a rooftop at night, or lying front down on top of a Beijing building with her hair hanging down the wall, which may convey to some a discrepancy between human and particularly female sensibilities and the modern city of highrise apartments. [Wang Yun, 'Brave Spirit – Chinese Female Artist Chen Lingyang,' in Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004; Huangfu Binghui, ed., Moving On: Contemporary Chinese Art at NUS [National University of Singapore] Museums, exhibition catalogue, Singapore: NUS Museums, 2004, pp.56–75; Bernhard Fibicher & Matthias Frehner, eds, Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, exhibition catalogue, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2005, pp.310–11.]
Cui Xiuwen in her video Lady's room secretly filmed prostitutes at work.
The choice to film in the unique location of the 'Lady's room' is very significant, as the lavatory serves as the only 'rational' place to go on a break from work. Here, the prostitutes uninhibitedly exhibit the abnormal state of the shameful 'work' for which they must sacrifice self-respect, youth, beauty and health, here they can also evade their clients for a while. Through this is revealed the real background of consumer sex in China, taboo on the surface but thriving beneath... [Karin Bergquist, www.culturebase.net]
In the video Twice, 2001, Cui Xiuwen is shown alone in her apartment having phone sex while she rubs herself. In another video, Toot, 2001, a naked standing Cui is wrapped in toilet paper, which then disintegrates as water is applied. The musical accompaniment played on the pipa is associated with the occasion when the Han were about to defeat the Chu and the Chu leader's favourite concubine killed herself, whereupon the Chu leader sang this song of mourning before he too killed himself. [See Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004.]
Wang Yingchun in 2003 showed her 'Comfort Women' looking pained, desperate, and humiliated. 'Comfort Women' was Japan's term for women forced to have sex with Japanese troops during Japan's invasion of China and many other countries between 1931 and 1945. The painter said that she hoped to record history by painting these miserable Chinese women, many of whom had already died. It was the first time that Chinese paintings of 'Comfort Women' had been displayed in public.
Li Hong, a long-time feminist, has used female figures in a number of settings, sometimes disturbing as in her Conspiracy series from 1996, in which naked women are mangled in car engines, a reference to the fate of women in today's society. She has also made pencil drawings of pairs of young women naked on city streets, clinging to each other for protection, or looking out at the viewer: the possibility that they could be prostitutes is not ruled out, but would seem unlikely in view of Li Hong's statement:
To me portraits are the most direct way of depicting the human spirit...they reveal the problems of women in society. I really want to explore and expose the sexual identity and the status of women living in a male-dominated world...These are contemporary women, confused and depressed...they have lost their sexual and cultural identity. [Li Hong, quoted in Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004.]
Feng Jiali used paint and embroidery to decorate farmers' worn-out shirts and jeans with images of cheerful naked women unconcernedly doing things at home or getting ready for a night on the town, a combination of closeness to nature (her studio is a restored farmhouse courtyard near Beijing), Western easel art, use of traditional women's sewing crafts, and feminist feeling for the female body. The title of one such series, Xiaoxia Zhuang, 2001–03, relates to ancient stories of the wives of emperors. One critic commented:
From the feminist perspective, the artist calls up the 'cruel beauty' of patriarchal aesthetics in which the pain of female bodies could be codified into beautiful verbal expressions. Here she juxtaposes this brutal aesthetic with clothing and utilitarian found objects. Parts of women's bodies adorn these quotidian things. In this way the works criticize the modern consumerist culture that focuses on [the] female body and makes it the trifling object of fetishism and increasingly subjects women to market control. Thus for Feng Jiali, the Resurgence of the Real means a return to the authentic existence of the female. [Daozi, 'Feng Jiali: Her Handiworks and Conception of Medium,' translated by Zha Changping, in Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004. See also Sue Dewar, 'In the Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Wang Jin and Feng Jiali,' Art AsiaPacific, no. 15, 1997, pp.66–73.]
Niu An (Ann New) does paintings of female nudes that are almost lost in swirls of acrylic paint or of calligraphic ink lines, making her work as much about energetic mark-making as it is about feeling the sensuality of the women's bodies — the latter emphasised by the emphatic explicitness of vaginal openings. Alonzo Emery:
New sees the blending of gender roles and sexuality as a natural result of modern urban life. 'I myself am not a lesbian, but there's nothing wrong with me trying to understand women and to be close to them,' she says. This attempt to be intimate with her subject informs her artistic process, as well. 'I don't like to take photos when I'm working, because the process is about intimacy, it's about making love. How can I let people watch or photograph that?' [Alonzo Emery, 'Angst and Erotica,' South China Morning Post, 23 May 2004, on the internet; see also Jonathan Thomson, 'The Tragedy of the Figure,' Asian Art News, 15: 6, November/December 2005, pp.74–77.]
In ink and colour Chen Yadan does ethereal pink and blue naked woman and infants floating in the air. Shao Fei did a screenprint, The freedom, 2004, that is virtually a montage of some of Picasso's cubistic female nudes. Liu Hong has painted surrealistic posed female nudes, their style and content such as the wrapping around the heads eerily reminiscent of René Magritte. Zhang Yaxi does very strong realistic or abstract sculpted naked female figures such as The gate of life, 2001, Pregnant (Fertility), 2001, and Standing woman, 2005. Zhang Yongping paints large female nudes, playfully exaggerating their bodies and diminishing their heads in an artfully stylised way. Zhang Tiemei painted images of naked women sitting and sprawling in a garden on her ceramic, The landscape of life, 1998. Feng Qianyu exhibited light box 'advertisements' featuring female nudes, with what (if anything) was being advertised raising questions about the advertising industry, if not about the artist's intentions. He Chengyao showed herself topless at a table in her Play chess with Duchamp, 2001.
Liao Haiying and Zhu Bing play in various ways with resemblances between female sexual organs and flowers, fruit, and plants. Of Liao Haiying it has been said:
With a passion that resembles that of the ancient rite of worship of the reproductive organ, she carved out strange striking variations of bonsai-like sculptures featuring the union of sexual organs. [Jiang Mei, 'Private Space and Public Space – Dissecting Chinese Feminist Art of the Late 1990s,' in Text & Subtext: International Contemporary Art and Asian Woman, Earl Lu Gallery, Singapore, 2000, pp.68–73: this quote from p.69.]
Outside mainland China Lin Tianmiao made Initiator, 2004, an installation in which a sculpted frog held the incredibly long hair of a sculpted naked standing woman. Chen Yanyin has used video images of female genitalia in her installation work. [Han Hanru, 'Somewhere Between Utopia and Chaos: Contemporary Art in China,' in Chris Driessen & Heidi van Mierlo, eds, Another Long March: Chinese Conceptual and Installation Art in the Nineties, exhibition catalogue, Breda: Fundament Foundation, 1997. pp.54–91: see p.83.] Amanda Heng in her photographic series, Narrating bodies, 1998–99, appeared topless before photographs of herself and her mother, in an effort to overcome an estrangement that began when she took up art; [See Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, 3rd edition, London: Thames & Hudson, 2002, pp.462–63.] she and her mother appeared topless together in 2005. Chang Hsing-Yu in her The song of skin 'dismembered' a female nude in the well-worn Western way by showing only her crouched back as a limbless and headless torso. Again, Mei-Hua Lai and Yan Ming-hui see female sexual organs in flowers, fruit, and plants. One commentator wrote of Yan Ming-hui:
From the half covered fruit core in Three Apples (1988), to the close up of the concave part of a plum in Plum Concerto (1988), from Tomatoes and Breasts (1990) to Wax Apples and Breasts (1990). In all of these works, the artist symbolizes the vagina or describes the breasts, as an affirmation of the anatomical characteristics of the female body and the existence of its child bearing and nurturing function. Going still further, she uses the flavor of sub-tropical fruit as a vehicle to praise female sexuality. From 1990–1992 the 'core imagery' of fruit became flowers. [Elsa Chen, 'Reading Feminist Dimensions of Contemporary Art in Taiwan,' in Text & Subtext, 2000, pp.75–87: this quote from p.80.]
Yan Ming-hui herself said:
Often when I paint fruit it is almost as if I am painting a woman, it is just that I do not know whether I am painting other women or myself. When I am painting, a powerful emotion tells me that I am painting women. Sometimes, when men and women get along, men make women feel that women are like fruit, tasty, sweet, soft and juicy, but I placed grapes and breasts together completely as a result of intuition. In my experience it feels like 'eating grapes'. I say this in praise of women. [Yan Ming-hui, in 'Art Works by Yan Ming-hui 1988–90,' Taipei Glorious Era Art Publishing, 1990, cited in Elsa Chen, 2000, p.81.]
4. Bodily investigation
Psychoanalytically this can be thought of as rationalisation, and it is often therapeutic. Twenty-eight years after Judy Chicago photographed herself removing a bloody tampon from her body in Red flag, and made Menstruation bathroom, Chen Lingyang graduated from art school in Beijing and 'found herself in a period of withdrawal. I had no job, little communication with my friends. I would stay at home inside all day long.' [Chen Lingyang, in Huangfu Binghui, 2004, pp.61–62.] In such circumstances she became extremely aware of the cyclical rhythms of each day, week, month, year. One result was that she took the dozen months in a year, her own dozen monthlies over that time, the ancient poetic concept of a dozen flowers in their seasons, and a dozen mirrors based on old designs also to be seen in the doors and windows of Chinese gardens. Each month she had someone carefully arrange, light, and photograph her bleeding genitals in one of the mirrors, matched the result with the appropriate flower, and presented the prints on paper that is round, leaf-shaped, or fan-shaped etc. She also made a video called the Menstruation Fairy, in which 'a fairy godmother invades a modern office and with her wand strikes workers, both male and female, with the "curse".' [Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004.]
Given her psychological state at the time one critic (Zhang Li) had grounds for saying that these works represent 'the artist's reckoning with the complicated emotions of selfhood.' [Zhang Li, in Huangfu Binghui, 2004, p.57.] Chen Lingyang herself admitted:
In facing the real world, I feel that I am usually frightened and at a loss. In public places and social gatherings, I always have to force myself to remain composed, I always have to suppress inner feelings of nervousness. I have a serious sense of inferiority, and I don't know how to handle my affairs. I lack a sense of security when walking down the street, I even want to become invisible, because I'm so scared of people paying attention to me; however, with art, I have a definite level of freedom. I can transform those feelings of craziness into creative interests, and don't have to feel ashamed when facing the deepest aspects of myself. In addition, I can also appreciate the wisdom and humor of others, at which I feel the value of being human. [Chen Lingyang, quoted by Zhang Li, in Huangfu Binghui, 2004, p.58.]
Another way she found of coping was to invent Chen Lingyang 2, so that she could 'play different roles in different situations.' Zhang Li may have been right in saying that by revealing something conventionally kept hidden her work is 'a roundabout way of expressing the pressures felt by women in a male dominated society.' [Zhang Li, in Huangfu Binghui, 2004, p.57.] All that Chen Lingyang herself would venture was that 'When people see this work in public space, it may provoke various reactions. But the work itself also offers the possibility of dispelling such reactions...Only through the process of provoking and dispelling can new possibilities emerge.' [Chen Lingyang, in Huangfu Binghui, 2004, p.62.]
The female artist and curator Xu Hong's comment is apposite: 'To use the body as subject to confront this notion [of body as object — that the female body becomes an object of control and suppression] is the most real and powerful of artistic choices.' [Xu Hong, 1996, p.21.] Chen Lingyang did her first menstruation work, Scroll, in 1999. It is noteworthy that in the following year a male artist, Xu Zhen, showed 'menstrual blood' dribbling down a man's leg in Problem of colourfulness. Was the artist subjectively identifying? Was it a sign of the patriarchy crumbling?
Xing Danwen's photographic series I am woman, 1994–96, shows a knowing, sexy, healthy and beautiful naked young woman, sometimes posed with what look like a young man's naked legs close by; later there are pictures of a naked pregnant woman, and one of two naked people sleeping face down. The sexual cycle is accepted as involving bodily enjoyment, cohabitation, pregnancy and eventually the birth of a child. Gu Zheng considered this not only 'the earliest images of nudity shot by a woman in China's photographic history,' but saw it as boldly rejecting the representation of the female body under the male gaze:
In an enclosed space, Xing Danwen, through rich and varied visual angles, tricky shadows, and interwoven female bodies, concocted a private space for women, intangible for others. This pictorial space could only be shot with the mutual trust and interdependence of the women involved...By representing the woman's body, Xing Danwen provided for the first time a concrete shape to the existence and advocacy of the new woman in China. [Gu Zheng, 'Projecting the Reality of China through the Lens: On the Artistic Practice of Xing Danwen,' Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 5: 1, March 2006, pp.91–96: this quote from p.93.]
Xing Danwen's Born with the Cultural Revolution series again shows a pregnant woman, who was a close friend of the artist and a collector of Mao Zedong memorabilia. Xing Danwen wrote of the series, 'Under Mao, there was no separation between the private world of the individual, the family, and the public political realm.' [See www.danwen.com]
Cui Xiuwen did a series of photographs of naked girls (and boys) around ten years old, which Karin Bergquist pronounced 'evil,' probably because of its paedophile implications. [Karin Bergquist, www.culturebase.net] In 2003 Cui Xiuwen painted a girl of around ten with her legs up to show her vulva, which raises the same concern.
Jiang Jie used mass-produced fibreglass figures of babies in installations, fully aware of the One Child Policy and of the widespread practice of abortion, especially of female embryos: 'I felt it was something that touched my heart.' [Jiang Jie, in Huangfu Binghui, 2004, p.111.] In Magic flower she placed a plaster female figure on the floor and linked it with threads to the acupuncture points of a male figure, the cycle of sending and receiving reminiscent of Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy. Jiang Jie:
My mother worked in a hospital. I often saw this medical equipment. Subconsciously I built this fear of anything related to medical matters. I am actually really frightened of the smell of the antiseptic. I almost never went to the hospital. When I was young, I would feel very nervous at the sight of a hospital. When I saw a bandage I imagined the blood and the wound. But that kind of excitement and nervousness were needed in my work...If I fear something then I will make works out of those fears. That ranges from acupuncture to a baby. [Jiang Jie, in Huangfu Binghui, 2004, p.113.]
In Men in parallel with women, 1996, she posed an armless plaster model of a naked woman next to a similar one of a man, as though to counter the usual assumption that nakedness asserts one's individuality, by showing that it can emphasise sameness, even between the sexes.
Yang Yi named a 2005 series of her paintings Dantian, after supposed primal health and nerve hubs in the human body (hence Chinese stomach protectors, as worn by 'Alice Mannegan' on the dust-jacket of Nicole Mones's novel Lost in Translation [Nicole Mones, Lost in Translation, New York: Delacorte Press, 1998; see p.77.]).
A Taoist medical essay says there are three such 'crimson fields (Dantian)' in our body. They are located three inches under the belly button (Lower Dantian), just underneath the heart (Middle Dantian) and in the space between the eyes (Upper Dantian). The Lower Dantian is the location of the source of life (for men, it is the sperm centre and for women, the womb). The Middle Dantian supplies the heart and the Upper Dantian stores our spirit of life.
In Yang Yi's delicate works on silk, she covers the Lower Dantian and the Middle Dantian of a nude female body with some meticulous depictions of Tibetan religious icons, thus forcing viewers to search into their souls for sentiments that are either innate, inert or confined. She leaves the Upper Dantian for the viewers' imagination. She states her points and leaves without passing judgements. [Notes to Yang Yi's 2005 exhibition, Art Beatus Gallery Hong Kong website.]
Xiang Jing makes sculptures in fibreglass, plastic and bronze of modern women including adolescent girls, life-size or smaller, naturalistic or distorted, including one of a naked young woman on the toilet, and in Your body, 2005, one of an older naked woman, hairless as though undergoing chemotherapy, and slumped in a chair with legs apart. In each case the woman appears caught up in a novel realisation that this is what she is like, or that this is what life, in its various stages, is really about.
Yu Hong's Nude, 1988, a realistic painting of a middle-aged naked woman in a full-frontal ungainly stance contrasted with the idealised academic nudes by male artists in that year's China Nude Art exhibition. [Clark, 1998, pp.285–86; Andrea Ash, 'Text and Subtext: Women, Sexuality, Image and Identity in Asian Art,' in Text & Subtext, 2000, pp.96–105: see p.98.] In 2002 she did a pastel on paper series called A woman's life: The art of Yu Hong, showing her at the ages of 2, 4, 6, 9, 10, 13, 21, 26, 27, 28, and 34. The one of her at age 28 shows her standing naked examining her pregnant body.
He Chengyao, as a way (she says) of dealing with childhood memories of her mother stripping off in public, has often done the same, beginning with her taking off her shirt during another artist's performance at the Great Wall. [He Chengyao, 'Lift the Cover from Your Head,' Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 2, 2003, pp.20–24.] Her 99 needles performance was a replication of her mother's ordeal of an amateurish village attempt at a cure with acupuncture. In Fish-woman she stood in the ocean holding a split fish resembling female genitalia, and in Public broadcast exercises she performed naked the calisthenics done collectively in schools and work units, but having wound tape around her body sticky side out, her movements were irregular and caused tearing sounds. [He Chengyao, 2003; Welland, 2005.] Sasha Su-Ling Welland described He Chengyao's Figure series, 2004, as:
coloured-line sketches of nude female bodies contorted to fit into the rectangular frame. One consisted mainly of a yellow pair of legs, forming a triangle composition on the canvas, seen from behind as a woman bends forward. Her genitalia would be completely exposed except that the figure's hands reach back to barely cover up this area. [Welland, 2005, p.33.]
Zhang Jie paints introspective portraits of a very young woman half-undressed, hugging herself, with big sad worried eyes. Qin Jin has done a series of photographs of a young naked woman, face hidden, as though to document her ample breasts and bulbous nipples. Of Ma Yanhong it has been said, 'She has developed a fresh and original pictorial vision which is centered on the growing self-awareness of her circle of female friends in the frenetic and free environment of modern China'; [Gallery statement on the internet.] she and her naked friends are not so much reclaiming their bodies as discovering them, along with other 'girls who just want to have fun' all over the world. In Giving birth, 2002, Xing Fei, who describes her works as a woman's self-discovery, [Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004.] included images of the ancient fertility goddess, and a photograph of herself naked and about to give birth.
Xiao Huixiang in the early 1980s made a big mural at Beijing airport called The Spring of science, using female nudes to symbolise an open, dynamic and scientific future for China. Now she paints, among other things, bright red female genitalia, believing that female private parts can be feminist subjects. In a 2005 exhibition she included twenty female nudes who appear to be masturbating, painting them in strong colours and distorting and exaggerating aspects of their bodies. She called them 'feminist paintings.' 'We cannot look at women's private parts merely from the perspective of sex,' said the artist. 'These private parts are the medium I chose to express my view of feminism, which is very popular in the United States.' Xiao Huixiang said her paintings expressed her insight into the lives of sexually frigid women. 'Masturbation is a sensitive topic Chinese people have avoided talking about in public,' she said. 'But it is no longer a taboo subject for a painter of my age [she was born in 1933] to explore.' [Xiao Huixiang, on the internet.] Xu Sa has painted questioning works about sex, love, and modern life, such as painful desire, 2002, showing a naked woman masturbating on a leopard skin and surrounded by signs of bars, men, and the internet.
Much of this kind of art relates to Julia Kristeva's notion of the abject: that which 'disturbs identity, system order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.' [Julie Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p.4.] Moving from the surface of the patriarchal female body that is looked at and moving into the feminist inner body that is lived in can be very shocking to many people; that it also acts as a kind of Brechtian alienating device, jolting people out of the illusions of art and forcing them to think, is a possibility. Gill Saunders reported on Western feminism in 1989: 'Feminist art strategies involve breaking taboos surrounding childbirth, menstruation, vaginal imagery, and celebrating what have hitherto been areas of shame for women and thus weapons of subjugation.' [Saunders, 1989, p.120.] To break the bounds, to be transgressive, is to feel liberated, even though the outcome may be the opening up of these formerly shameful areas to the onslaughts of advertising and commodity marketing.
5. Laughter, mockery, playfulness
In the midst of the patriarchy, it has been argued, a female gaze may be achieved 'through strategies like mockery, which disrupt the male gaze...the female gaze as mockery of machismo offers spectators the possibility of identifying with the pleasures of activity without the sort of mastery or voyeurism associated with the male gaze position of classic Hollywood cinema.' [Gamman, 1988, p. 25; see also Jo Anna Isaak, Feminism & Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter, London & New York: Routledge, 1996.] Laughter can also indicate and achieve the kind of release known as catharsis.
I see a good deal of mockery in the work of Shen Ling. She has made many oil paintings on canvas and brush drawings on paper of a woman (herself?) and a man (her husband the artist Wang Yuping?) together in domestic and intimate settings. In many of these they are naked, with her often fronting brazenly to the viewer as a person who is not afraid to be herself or to show herself as she really is. There is a humorously cynical view of the man as well, but because it is a female artist who is doing the mocking it seems to me that female viewers are more likely than men to identify with their counterpart in the pictures: the woman is seen to be mocking herself, but the man is seen to be mocked by a woman.
Wang Nanfei has painted a great range of naked women, young and old, fat and thin, several masturbating, a group on bikes in the street, several singing and smoking at the same time, others being approached by men, many crowded around banquet tables with equally naked men, etc. Wang Nanfei in her comments sounds more lonely than happy, but the effect of most of her work on viewers must be to send them into fits of laughter.
Liu Yan is a fan of both Chinese opera and rock music, of Chinese tradition and Western ways, and reads Confucius and Mencius as well as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Her paintings are a wild mixture of Chinese opera male and female actors (probably including males dressed as females) and more modern types exuberantly engaging in a range of madcap sexual activities.
With biting humour Zhang Ping has also caught naked women sitting on the toilet and smoking, or making up in front of the mirror, in her 2004–05 series Making up, Smoking, and Private business, making them pathetically funny with enlarged heads and cartoonish postures, even as they expose their genitals to the viewer; she has also done a number of paintings of a naked girl looking in a mirror, or at a picture of other girls, and some even more lesbian-inclined paintings of two girls naked together. Ji Xiaofeng also paints young modern women going about their life, singly or in pairs, often topless, sometimes naked, always sexy and amusing.
Yu Hong painted a series called Routine, in which she showed herself naked and as though snapped enjoying an everyday activity: her casualness is disarming. The female writer and curator, Jiang Mei, included Yu Hong (along with Hung Liu and Feng Jiali) among feminist artists who painted self-images in which the relationship between imagery and viewer
is one of 'mutual (reciprocal) gaze'. The 'viewer' and 'the one being viewed' can exchange positions anytime. 'They' (the pictorial imagery) send out a strong hint: that we do exist, and moreover, we are capable of thinking in our own ways; we long for an equal relationship with the world. Because such longings are often frustrated in real life, 'they' intentionally or unintentionally show expressions of loneliness, detachment, wonderment or even helplessness. [Jiang Mei, 2000, p.68.]
Liu Manwen sometimes paints naked female figures, perhaps with white paint on their faces like dancers in tribal ceremonies (compare Feng Jiali who gave her women bright pink faces 'to illustrate,' according to Sue Dewar, 'the ambivalent and sometimes duplicitous nature of their roles' [Dewar, 1997, p.72.]). Xu Xiaoyu's photographic work Super image – Guangzhou, sex product, made in China included a street poster advertising sex, and was one of a series of juxtaposed photographs that drew attention to the Westernisation of many aspects of Chinese life, and the Chinese manufacture of many consumer products for the West.
Yuan Yaomin places images of seductive and combative women over pictures of the terracotta soldiers from emperor Qin's tomb near Xi'an, and paints women in sexy underwear incongruously wearing face-masks of the soldiers. Yuan explained: 'I remember visiting Xi'an for the first time as a university student...When I saw there was not a single female warrior, it led me to wonder [about] the long history of inequality between the sexes in China.' 'The main thing is to attract the viewer's attention. Then people will see that my paintings are a challenge to a world dominated by male power.' [Yuan Yaomin, quoted in Karetzky, Who Am I, 2004. I have read that female warrior figures have been unearthed in emperor Qin's tomb. See also www.yymin.com] In 1995 she did a series of a pair muscular women being sexy together. Gao Xiaolan, in bra and G-string, asked viewers to write 'woman' or 'female' in their language in lipstick on her body. Zhang Jihong has written Chinese characters on cards while naked in a performance piece.
Not all of Fu Xi's work is sardonic, but her 01, 2005, is a painting of a skinny woman sitting back on her heels and naked except for a pair of red high-heeled shoes and a bra with big red plastic flowerpots for cups. As well as anorexic nudes she does overweight ones with drooping bellies, all marked and scarred as though battered, which takes away any sense of fun.
In 1990 in Berlin Qin Yufen performed Painting happening naked, playfully smearing paint on herself and on paper spread on the floor. In Kan Xuan's 2001 video, Looking, looking, looking for..., a spider explores all the recesses of a naked man and woman lying side by side.
Yin Ling was born in 1978 in Taiwan, and grew up in Japan. A model and actor at sixteen, she met a Russian photographer named Hiraokanovsky Kuratachenko when she was nineteen, and they began collaborating on performances and photography that are sometimes political and always erotic. In Let lovemaking lead the world towards peace anti-war slogans are written on a dressmaker's female dummy; in another work a clothed Yin Ling poses in front of a sign reading: 'People from various sectors in the motherland strongly condemn Japan's Koizumi visiting the Yasukuni shrine.'
For Chinese female artists the unclothed woman is a sign of their new liberty, of their freedom to fantasise, to discover what they are like, to experiment with who they are, to be honest about themselves and their desires and needs, to find new identities as individuals in a capitalist economy. In their authoritarian society, where governments do not speak truth to the people, and the people cannot speak truth to governments or to each other, their portrayal of the naked body is a powerful example of candour, and a resounding condemnation of secrecy and hypocrisy.
That so much of their work is similar to the Western tradition of the nude is not surprising, for they live in a patriarchal society, and have inevitably absorbed prevailing attitudes about appropriate behaviour for women and approved notions of what constitutes art. Even when they rebel against that conditioning they may still choose to exercise their new freedom by making art that offers the female body as a passive and available sex object for the gaze of heterosexual men. They may do so because that is the art that sells, or because it is in line with their own fantasies, or because they think it is the most challenging gesture they can make against their parents, teachers, government etc.
Lynda Nead wrote that Western feminists of the 1970s fought 'for representations of the female body that express women's identities, desires and needs.' [Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, London & New York: Routledge, 1992, p.4.] We can conclude that so do many Chinese female artists now; but the dominating patriarchal culture of China is somewhat different:
China maintains, officially and with many tokenistic gestures, that there is already equality between the sexes
China's official art history does not boast a long tradition of the nude, male or female
It is only in the past fifteen or twenty years that sex, the body, contraception and prophylaxis, and bodily functions in general have been re-allowed into public discourse, including their representation in art
Extreme overcrowding in most places makes heterosexual sexual relations extremely difficult and often impossible, even between married people, but encourages and facilitates (because of the widespread sharing of beds) same-sex sexual relations
China has a One Child Policy
There is a long history of female infanticide, now changing into the termination of a high percentage of pregnancies when ultrasound scans reveal a female foetus; with the resulting surplus of 41 million men (on the way to 120 million), Chinese women can afford to luxuriate in their privileged position, to primp and plump themselves, to shop around and to take their time until the very best father for their single child comes along; the shortage of women may also explain the Communist authorities' tolerance of prostitution, with hundreds of thousands of brothels masquerading as beauty salons, barber shops, truck stops, and karaoke bars throughout the country, one estimate being that in Shanghai there are more than 100,000 female prostitutes, equal to the number before 1949 [Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai, Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 1997, p.39.]
There is an expectation that all women should participate in the (under-)paid workforce
Female artists, feminists and non-feminists alike are able to draw inspiration from Western feminist or feminist-inspired works of art produced over the past forty years
Traditional erotica in China shows 'people indulging in every single aspect of sexuality to a mutual satisfaction. This is quite different from the erotic imagery in many other cultures where there is often an element of violence, particularly violence against women. In Chinese erotic art one does not see that...It is a culture that traditionally adored sex, with all kinds of rationales and philosophicals as to why one should have sex. There was the belief that sex existed for both genders, not just for the gratification of the male' [John Vollmer, 'Sex Among the Lotus,' Asian Art Newspaper, January 2005.]
Nead saw two historical periods in feminist art in the West. The objective of feminist art in the first period 'was to transform woman from the passive object of representation to the speaking subject. Feminist art articulated the right of women to represent their own bodies and sexual identities through vaginal imagery, performance work and the body, the representation of previously taboo subjects such as menstruation and so on.' Much of it implied a 'universal category of "woman".' [Nead, 1992, p.63.]
The theory is that women have a womb, menstruate, become pregnant, lactate, have pre-menstrual tension, go through menopause etc, and that therefore they live inside their bodies, identify with their bodies, and take a greater interest in their own bodies than in men's bodies, and a greater interest in their own bodies than men do in theirs; and this all makes them closer to nature than men.
Maryse Holder wrote, 'Women are more interested in sex and sexual relationships. And women are discovering themselves. It is therefore not surprising to find that their work is often biomorphic, sexual, narcissistic, and mythic.' [Holder, (1973) 1988, pp.19–20.] And Gill Saunders wrote, 'In many ways the female nude is a natural and inevitable subject for the woman artist; women have a stronger awareness of their bodies than men: their physical cycles are more insistent...' [Saunders, 1989, p.119.] Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon: '...women have historically been seen as in thrall to their bodies to the detriment of their mental development.' [Pam Meecham & Julie Sheldon, Modern Art: A Critical Introduction, 2nd edn, London & New York: Routledge, 2005 (1st pub. 2000), p.177.]
In the West some 1970s feminists had warned that 'in celebrating what is essentially female we may simply be reinforcing oppressive definitions of women, e.g., women as always in their separate sphere, or women as defining their identities exclusively, and narcissistically, through their bodies.' [Feminist Anthology Collective, No Turning Back, London, 1989, p.240, cited in Saunders, 1989, p.118.] Others had cheerfully embraced biological determinism, with Adrienne Rich declaring that women must 'think through the body.' [Adrienne Rich, Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, London, 1977, p.39.] From that experience we might conclude that an initial essentialist view of women, particularly of a biological reductionist or determinist kind, may be a necessary phase in the growth of feminist movements everywhere.
Some Chinese female artists seem to be perpetuating a patriarchal or a Western 1970s feminist idea of women as nature, as essentially a body, governed by hormones etc, by showing naked women with wild animals and cavorting in the fields, and repeatedly likening women's sexuality to fruit and flowers. Depictions of menstruation and pregnancy in themselves do not constitute evidence for that position, because the mere acknowledgement of their existence does not necessarily imply that they are determinative of everything else; they do, however, suggest that they are important. The marvel is that this is occurring in the context of the official One Child Policy. Is it possible that the diminished chances of actually using their defining biology is a cause of some Chinese female artists placing on it an even greater, compensatory emphasis?
There was a shift in the West in the second period, said Nead, to the recognition of a diversity among women related to class, race, and sexual preference. 'Feminism has increasingly recognized that there is no monolithic category of "the body"; there are different types of bodies but many of these have been defined as deviant and rendered invisible by a dominant aesthetic that posits the white, healthy, middle-class and youthful body as the ideal of femininity.'
In some respects we can say that Nead's two periods have been telescoped into one in China, with essentialist art that represents taboo aspects of their own bodies and the presentation of a diversity of bodies occurring at the same time. Lesbian art is already prominent in our sample, and lesbian organisations in China should soon become strong enough to support the same kind of sub-culture of lesbian female artists as in the West (eg, Lesbian ConneXion/s). One paradoxical effect of any lesbian movement is to increase the number of female bodies available for the heterosexual male gaze. Heterosexual men may feel threatened by lesbianism, because it implies they are redundant, but it is also a gift, because they can simply join with lesbians in worshipping the same body and in seeing female exhibitionism as a come-on, and because they imagine that they can move in to get a bit of the action for themselves. In contrast, sales of New York Queer to homosexual men plummeted every time it had a lesbian on the cover. [Avril McDonald, 'From the Editors,' New York Queer, 26 April 1992, cited in Langer, 1994, p.315.] 'Psychologically,' wrote Cassandra Langer, 'we know that lesbian themes have always been an invigorating spectacle for heterosexual men and are the second most popular fantasy listed in Masters and Johnson for both sexes.' [Langer, 1994, p.315.]
'The important issue,' wrote Martha Gever, 'is how to get past this — how to get free from the male gaze, to reconfigure the terms of lesbian representation to negate the past stereotypes and to create a new erotic self.' [Martha Gever, 'The Names We Give Ourselves,' in Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha & Cornel West, eds, Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990, cited in Harmony Hammond, 'A Space of Infinite and Pleasurable Possibilities,' in Frueh, Langer & Raven, 1994, pp.97–131: this quote from p.121.] Or, as Lucy Lippard put it, 'Why not concentrate on what the male gaze cannot see?' [Lucy R. Lippard, 'Both Sides Now (a Reprise),' in Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, no. 24, 1989, cited in Hammond, 1994, p.108.] Some in the West attempted to achieve that by moving away from figuration through 'blurring, superimposing, fragmenting, abstracting, or symbolizing.' [Hammond, 1994, pp.121–22.]
In the future, when obesity is more widespread in China, female artists there can be expected to expand diversity even further into celebrating the naked bodies of fat women (or 'women of size,' to use the feminist euphemism), as Western female artists (eg, Laura Aguilar, Laurie Toby Edison) have done, women with eating disorders being seen as having the same rights as others to self-definition, against patriarchal medicine's 'repressive' attempts to contain their bodies in the interests of their good health.
We can also expect the same recognition that Western female artists have given to the disabled female body (eg, Mary Duffy, Alison Lapper), to the bodies of women who have had mastectomies etc (eg, Nancy Fried, Hannah Wilke, Marlo Broekmans), and to the HIV/AIDS body: in 2004 Song Pengfei, 1982– , an HIV-positive woman, organised an exhibition in Beijing called 'Her Beauty' of twenty-nine works of art by HIV-positive women; the UN predicts that China could have 10 million cases by 2010. Female artists showing the way include Jiang Jie in works such as The magic flower, 1997, based on acupuncture points, [See Huangfu Binghui, 2004, pp.108–27.] Xiang Jing's sculpture of a possible cancer patient, and He Chengyao's 99 needles.
Even so, the impression is of an enormous variety in contemporary Chinese female artists' treatment of their and other women's bodies. Sometimes by vantage point or facial expression etc they convey a subjective appreciation of the body's feel from the inside, which does not prevent the depicted body also being viewing objectively. In other cases they expressly present them at a distance, as objects, as sex objects even, for their own or lesbians' or heterosexual men's delectation. They deal with the bodies of women who are sceptics, masturbators, contentedly heterosexual, lesbian nymphets, exhibitionists, unconcernedly enjoying private nakedness, engaged in motherhood, prostitutes, close to nature, depressed, nervous smokers, centred on their reproductive organs, and as strong and energetic. There are also the occasional instances of women with brown skin, of older women, fatter women, a mentally disturbed woman, and perhaps a cancer patient. What is missing?
First, as we noted above, they show little interest in the male body, only sixteen of the sixty-seven (Chen Yadan, Cui Xiuwen, Gao Yan, Guo Yan, He Chengyao, Jiang Jie, Jin Weihong, Kan Xuan, Liu Manwen, Liu Yan, Nie Mu, Shen Ling, Wang Nanfei, Xing Danwen, Yuan Yaomin, Zhang O, Zhang Yaxi) having also depicted male bodies, and then never as attractive. This may be because of the anti-male element in feminism and lesbianism, or because women tend to agree with most men that women's bodies are more beautiful, or because they are so intent on searching out, constructing, and celebrating their own identity ('I am woman' etc): evidence suggests that women also prefer female stars in films. [Jackie Stacey, 'Desperately Seeking Difference,' in Gamman & Marshment, 1988, pp.112–29: see p.115.] Gill Saunders concluded: 'The role reversal of women gazing at a man, which seems automatically to render him passive, is not comfortable or convincing for an audience of either sex.' [Saunders, 1989, p.119.]
Second, there is little hint in any of the depictions of female bodies by contemporary Chinese female artists that the body is also the seat of the mind, of reason, of the psyche, of the human spirit. In a John Sands greeting card series called 'Off the Ceiling' there is one with a closeup photograph of a bikini-clad woman running by the sea with this caption: 'As Karen bounced down the beach, many gentlemen were instantly captivated by her intelligence, personality and the fact that she did a lot of good work for charity.' [Graphics by Emotional Rescue Ltd, published by The Ink Group.] The works of the above artists are mostly open to the same facetiousness. They remind me of Mary Acton saying of Jenny Saville's art that it 'asks us to think about women not in terms of ideal beauty or the male gaze but in the sense of who they really are' [Mary Acton, Learning to Look at Modern Art, London & New York: Routledge, 2004, p.245.] — when it should be apparent that they tell us little if anything about who they really are, unless we believe that a person is just a lump of meat. Andrea Liss called for 'ways of representing that do not continue to allow the patriarchal scheme that divides women's minds from our bodies and our desires.' [Andrea Liss, 'The Body in Question: Rethinking Motherhood, Alterity and Desire,' in Frueh, Langer & Raven, 1994, pp.80–96: this quote from p.87.]
When Maurice Merleau-Ponty talked about the primacy of perceptions, and pointed out that they come through the body, so that he emphasised the importance of the 'lived body,' he did not envisage people examining their navels, but thought of the body as our 'point of view on the world.' [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 1989.] We deny ourselves a full sense of 'our body, our selves' (to use a Western feminist slogan from the 1970s) if we never get beyond the vulva or the vagina or menses or even sex. Perhaps it is only people who habitually go naked in the open air, like Australian Aborigines, who can fully experience bodily existence. They become one with their sensory environment, so that the rhythms of nature are their rhythms, with vision reinforced by sounds, smells, tastes, and touch and by the meanings given to everything by stories and ceremonies. The making of nets, bags, spears, burial poles, bark paintings, songs and dances is an intrinsic part of that seamless world; even non-Aboriginal city dwellers can rediscover something of it when they live in the open for long periods at a stretch. This is the only true essentialism, the only true biological reductionism or determinism, because it is how we began, how we evolved, and how we have lived for the past million years, minus a couple of thousand. From this perspective all the nudes and naked bodies of the art world are but half alive. It is up to Chinese female artists to start working out how to represent the body of a woman as her 'point of view on the world.'
In 2000 the female writer and curator, Jiang Mei, arrived at a similar conclusion regarding Chinese feminist art in general:
...Chinese feminist art of the 1990s on the whole is characterised by intimate private space (in explorations), self-contentment, self-cultivation and attainment...Chinese female artists rarely participate in the debates that are taking place on the international [level] or employ artistic means to express their views of contemporary international or local politics, society or culture. [Jiang Mei, 2000, p.73. ]
The Indonesian female artist, Kartika Affandi-Köberl, born in 1934, achieved it in her powerful autobiographical paintings of 1981, Rebirth, and The moment of beginning. [Astri Wright, 'Kartika Affandi-Köberl: Undermining the Order of the Javanese Universe,' in Dysart & Fink, 1996, pp.92–101.] The South Korean female installation and performance artist, Yi (or Lee) Bul, did it outstandingly in her 1994 work, The difference and the power, in which she stands naked, chained by the neck to a metal bed, and holding a pickaxe, 'poised to break the binds of domesticity, sexual submission, or whatever the audience chooses to read into the act,' wrote James Lee, 'but in any case going about it the hard way.' [James B. Lee, 'Yi Bul: The Aesthetics of Cultural Complicity and Subversion,' in Dysart & Fink, 1996, pp.34–41: this quote from p.37.] The Indonesian female artist, Arahmaiani, 1961– , voiced the issue in relation to her performance and photographic installation work, His-story on my body, 2000, when she wrote,
With our imagination, fantasy and ideology about power we control and shape our body, but we often forget this simple fact that the body has its own way, life, and intelligence; we tend to sink into the depth of the mind, into the abstract and the body (as concrete element) has to serve.
I wonder why the body has a small role in determining life? Why it has to serve the belief or the 'ideology'? Why can't we start to think from the body and from a very special part of the body called 'the heart'? [Arahmaiani, 'His Story on My Body,' in Text & Subtext, 2000, pp.16–19.]
The two male Chinese performance artists, Cai Yuan and JJ Xi, explained the use of their own naked bodies in their work as having 'historical reasons behind it': 'Sometimes the body has been used to confront an oppressive regime. In that sense the body can be used as a site for protest against corruption, reflecting the human spirit of freedom.' [Cai Yuan and JJ Xi, in Sally Lai, 'Interview with Cai Yuan and JJ Xi,' Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 3: 4, December 2004, pp.72–78: these quotes from p.73.] They see their role as democratic, as keeping an eye on government and institutions, and criticising and protesting in order to keep society healthy; [Lai, 2004, p.74.] unlike the anti-war protests by Yin Ling (see above), their performances are not intentionally erotic.
The fact that direct and explicit protest is much more dangerous in mainland China and dictatorial Singapore than in and post-martial law Taiwan is enough to explain the absence of protest art, otherwise we might expect to see attention on the bodies of female factory workers in sweatshops, minority women, tortured Falun Gong members, etc. There is obviously a lot more reclaiming of bodies to be done. Let Joanna Frueh have the last witty word: 'Possessing the body empowers us with new sight, speech, and hearing. Moreover, self-possession helps us to shoulder responsibility, stomach criticism, stand on our own two feet, head into the fray.' [Joanna Frueh, 'Towards a Feminist Theory of Art Criticism,' in Raven, Langer & Frueh, 1988, pp.153–166: this quote from p.163.
Cao Weihong, 1971, possibly Hong Kong
Chang Hsing-Yu, 1971, Taiwan
Chen Lingyang, 1975, Zhejiang, Beijing
Chen Yadan, 1942, Beijing
Chen Yanyin, 1958, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Australia
Cui Xiuwen (Cui Youwen), 1970, Harbin, Beijing
Feng Jiali (Jyali), 1963, Beijing
Feng Qianyu, 1974, Guangdong, Beijing, Guangdong
Fu Jiying, 1962, Beijing
Fu Xi, 1970, Sichuan
Gao Xiaolan, c.1975?, Hong Kong
Guo Qingling, 1973, Hunan, Shanghai
Guo Yan, Shaanxi, Xi'an
He Chengyao, 1964, Sichuan, Chongqing, Beijing
Heng, Amanda, 1951, Singapore, Perth, Singapore
Hu Ming, 1955, Beijing, New Zealand, Australia
Ji Xiaofeng, c.1975?, Qingdao, Beijing
Jiang Congyi, 1963, Henan, Beijing
Jiang Jie, 1963, Beijing
Jin Weihong, 1967, Nanjing
Kan Xuan, 1972, Anhui, Zhejiang, Amsterdam
Lai, Mei-Hua, 1948, Taiwan
Li Hong, 1965, Beijing, England, Beijing, New York, Beijing
Liao Haiying, 1967, Sichuan
Lin Tianmiao, 1961, Shanxi, Beijing, New York, Beijing
Liu Hong, 1956, Sichuan
Liu Manwen, 1962, Heilongjiang
Liu Yan, 1965, Beijing
Liu Yousha, c.late 1950s, Hunan, Hangzhou, Canada, United States
Ma Yanhong, 1977, Shanxi, Beijing
Nie Mu, 1973, Xinjiang, Beijing
Niu An (Ann New), 1970s, Shanghai, Japan, Shanghai
Qin Jin, 1970s, Guangdong
Qin Yufen, 1954, Qingdao, Berlin
Shao Fei, 1954, Beijing
Shen Ling, 1965, Liaoning, Beijing
Shen Na, 1979, Sichuan
Wang Nanfei, 1975, Jilin, Texas, Beijing
Wang Yingchun, 1942, Shanxi, Xi'an, Beijing
Woo, Nancy Chu, 1941, Guangdong, Hong Kong, New York, Hong Kong
Xiang Jing, 1965, Beijing, Shanghai
Xiao Huixiang, 1933, Hunan, Beijing, Los Angeles
Xing Danwen, 1967, Xi'an, Beijing
Xing Fei, 1958, Beijing, New York
Xu Hualing, 1975, Harbin, Beijing
Xu Jie, c.1970?, Shanghai
Xu Sa (Sasa), Beijing
Xu Xiaoyu, 1959
Yan Ming-hui (Ming-Huy), 1956, Taiwan, New York, Taiwan
Yang Fan, 1972, Guangdong
Yang Xiaojun, 1971/77?, Tianjin
Yang Yi, 1964, Sichuan, Guizhou and Beijing
Yin Ling, 1978, Taiwan, Japan
Yu Hong, 1966, Beijing
Yuan Yaomin, 1961, Beijing
Zhang Jie, 1980, Sichuan
Zhang Jihong, China, South Korea
Zhang O (O. Zhang), c.1970?, Guangzhou, Beijing, London
Zhang Ping, 1971, Xinjiang, Beijing, Shanghai
Zhang Shumei, 1954, Shandong?
Zhang Tiemei, Jilin
Zhang Yaxi, 1968, Chongqing, Beijing, Zhejiang, Paris, Sichuan
Zhang Yongping, 1979, Heilongjiang, Beijing
Zhao Mengge, c.1978, Henan
Zhou Ling, 1941, Tianjin, Beijing, Yunnan, Beijing
Zhou Nan, c.late 1970s?, Chongqing
Zhu Bing, 1964, Hubei, Beijing