Echoing Mao Zedong’s famous words “Women hold up half the sky”, we united eight of China’s most creative, outspoken, and talked about women in art to find out what it means to be a female artist in this day and age, and to see the view from their half of the sky.
Editor: Cecilia Chan
Long under-examined, female artists have been a pivotal force in putting the country on the map as a new center of contemporary art. Start with a look back to China’s first national avant-garde art exhibition in 1989, when emboldened female artist Xiao Lu’s two gun-shots at the site of her Dialogues art installation signified the curtain call of the enlightened ’1985 Movement’ era.
From almost nothing, the 90s saw the rise of a powerhouse art industry in China that has created a whole roster of high-powered artist-celebrities. Yet their numbers are conspicuously short on women, who have quietly worked behind the scenes to create some of the industry’s most innovative works and build their most beloved galleries. Now is their time to shine.
Actress and host Huang Xiaolei plays an active part in the support and promotion of Chinese female artists over the years. She is a collector of art and was nominated to the ‘Youth Art 100’ in 2013.
VANTAGE: How did you start collecting art?
Huang Xiaolei: It was because of one person, an artist I met at a home store by chance, as he was very enthusiastic to help me carry the things I’d bought. After that we met six times on the streets of Beijing, and I joked that if we met seven times then I would marry him. Through him I discovered that the artists’ life is very impoverished, and I was moved by his dedication to painting so I made it my purpose to help him. We would often talk about his paintings, and he has drawn things for me too. One time I even asked him to draw something that reflects me, and he painted little yellow landmines (little yellow landmine is a homonym of Huang’s Chinese name).
VANTAGE: Do you have a collection of other works of art?
Huang Xiaolei: Recently I acquired Guo Zilong’s Heart Sutra, he had copied the Buddhist Diamond Sutra onto rice paper. I also have this in a transparent resin. At that time, I was working on Female Heart Sutra, on some insights from my female friends and their girlfriends, about how each will have a different perception at various stages of their lives. During the creation of this work we participated in the ‘Youth Art 100’ art exhibition. In a recent charity event I also collected two clown paintings.
VANTAGE: Did art find its way into your life purely by chance?
Huang Xiaolei: Yes, art has always appeared inadvertently in my life.
VANTAGE: What do you think about the current creative atmosphere for female artists?
Huang Xiaolei: At this stage it is still relatively small. For every ten artists I know, only two or three are women. I think perhaps it’s down to a women’s physiology. It’s difficult to persist as we’re limited by taking time out to get married and have children. When the choice comes down to art or relationships, many may not give the former the same amount of attention.
Born into a large family in Harbin, photography and video artist Cui Xiuwen made her mark with a bang when her controversial Lady’s Room video into the private lives of women resulted in a very public lawsuit. Her work explores women’s issues and feminism in our modern age.
VANTAGE: What do you think are the most typical characteristics of female artists working in China are right now?
Cui Xiuwen: Overly emotional, lack of rational and logical thinking. There’s a lack of expressing ideas, of lacking the means and capability to explore multi-media.
VANTAGE: So do you think women should think like men, or should gender identities be separate?
Cui Xiuwen: It’s not really important if you’re a man or a woman, but how you, as an artist, participate in the field of art where you are.
VANTAGE: Do you need a global perspective to see these distinctions?
Cui Xiuwen: Yes, contemporary art is an expression of thinking in a global context, so confining myself to predefined boundaries of ‘woman’ or a particular nation is too small for me. My location and gender is the starting point for my humanity, but does not define me.
VANTAGE: How would you define yourself?
Cui Xiuwen: I exist along two lines; one is the art of continuous self-denial, self-breakthrough, self-transcendence; the other is the way of life that attempts to go beyond ignorance to find awakening and consciousness
Shanghai-born Cui Jie is one of Chinese art’s rising stars. Despite having only graduated in 2006, her work has made waves in the art world and is exhibited worldwide. Her multi-perspective paintings are a mediation between China’s urbanism and personal aesthetics.
VANTAGE: What is your greatest motivation for creating art?
Cui Jie: I don’t need motivation to create art – I was born a painter.
VANTAGE: To you, what is the role of art in society?
Cui Jie: I think art is a necessity if you want society to progress. I cannot imagine a society in which it does not exist.
VANTAGE: What do you think is the most important quality in an artist?
Cui Jie: I don’t know about artists, but painters need to learn how to observe without preconception, to just see.
VANTAGE: Do you prefer that your works reveal things on a personal level, or do prefer to focus on abstract or natural figurative scenery?
Cui Jie: I don’t really subscribe to any one focus, as this would undermine the classification and analysis of how I feel about my painting.
VANTAGE: Since your graduation several years ago, how would you describe the changes in style that your art has undergone?
Cui Jie: There have definitely been creative changes, since I always have new ideas to express. These changes are not limited to style and meaning however; I tend to think more of how to start and how to end it right. Often timing will determine how a painting of mine will look.
Vice President of Shanghai Ming Yuan Group and the curator of Ming Yuan art gallery, Ling Feifei is a real estate mogul who single-handedly founded the Shanghai Ming Yuan Cultural Arts Center out of her love for the arts. A long standing patron of art, Ling actively supports the growth and promotion of young artists.
VANTAGE: What’s the history of your museum, the Mingyuan Museum?
Ling Feifei: The Mingyuan Museum is one of the longest-standing private museums in Shanghai, founded in 2003. It measures over 2,000sqm. It came about when some friends and I wanted to do something to build up a larger framework for contemporary art. For various reasons, others left, but because I was so determined to carry out this vision I insisted on going ahead. When we opened, there were many in the media who said we would be lucky to last even a year, but now, a decade later, we have overcome our difficulties and we are still here.
VANTAGE: Shanghai is now home to a number of private art museums, how have they affected the artistic atmosphere here?
Ling Feifei: There are a growing number of entities, including the Shanghai Museum of Art and the Power Station of Art, which have both received large injections of funding. However, compared to Beijing, the market is relatively weak and underdeveloped – there are not as many galleries or auctions. A mature market requires a lot of investment to promote, and has not yet been fully established in Shanghai.
VANTAGE: Have you acquired a personal collection over the years?
Ling Feifei: My favourite works are from young artists, many of which were funded by our patronage, thus allowing them to dedicate themselves to painting. We do not chase short-term interests and do not have the same demands of artists that other galleries do, which is to ask them to do paintings that sell better. These kinds of demands can often destroy or stifle the creativity of young people.
VANTAGE: What is your opinion of the current state of female artists in China?
Ling Feifei: As a woman, I’ve paid a lot of attention to this issue. Although there are some who are very good, they are still few in number. Female artists need more care and support. Compared to our male counterparts, women have to put in so much more in terms of dedication and perseverance.
The youngest on our list, Shanghainese artist Yu Ji was born in 1985. She founded ‘am art space’ the same year she graduated. Along with her creative partner, Yu attended the Sino-French Art Exhibition in 2009 to represent China and bring Shanghai’s artistic message to young artists around the world.
VANTAGE: From starting out as a young artist until now, what has been your most important creative focus?
Yu Ji: The creative foundation for my works centers on the subject of the body and movement. The subject of ‘body’ has always been present in my work, whether it’s concerned with physicality and labour as it was in my earlier pieces, or with body language as it is with my recent sculptural works. My interest and concern with human material remains unchanged and I am always working to delve deeper into this subject.
VANTAGE: Do you think that contemporary art should have a more emotional, or rational focus?
Yu Ji: Contemporary art cannot be defined by the medium in which it’s created, you don’t need to engage in video, painting or installation works to be considered contemporary. Contemporary is the artist’s concern to go beyond the field of art and visual creation to seek and recognize social reflection.
VANTAGE: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a female artist?
Yu Ji: I cannot choose my gender, but I can say that as a woman I was born with the subtle sensibilities and persistence that give women their innate courage and giving nature. I feel that as a woman, we are vulnerable to the physicality of our bodies, since over time we cannot keep ourselves at our peak.
VANTAGE: What have you been working on recently?
Yu Ji: Most recently I’ve been focusing on live acts and on cooperation projects with other artists. I am currently preparing an exhibition for the Guangzhou Times Museum. In September I will be in Belgrade (Serbia) for a month on a residency, which will include visits and exchanges with local artists and performance artists. After October, I will be featured in the China-France Palais de Tokyo group exhibition.
Sophie Wu opened Jing Gallery in the spring of 2011. Located in Cao Chang Di Art Zone, the gallery is a bedrock of support for frontier and Avant-garde artists in China’s ever shifting art scene.
VANTAGE: Can you tell us a little bit about your gallery? (Beijing’s Jing Gallery)
Sophie Wu: Personally I favour ‘pure’ styles a little bit abstract and generally from young people. Many galleries might choose more mature artists, but in fact there are some very talented young artists’ works. I wanted to use our gallery to give more opportunities to young painters who have good ideas and skills.
VANTAGE: Can you tell us a little about your personal background? Why did you open an art gallery?
Sophie Wu: I used to deal in antique furniture, and since I had many friends who were doing the gallery I often visited exhibitions. Prior to opening the gallery I already had a collection of works, and since I also had a plot of land available my friends suggested I take advantage of our location (near Beijing’s 798 Art District) to create an environment for artists to put on shows.
VANTAGE: In the beginning, how did you select artists that you featured?
Sophie Wu: When possible my selections were based upon personal preferences; I would choose works in colour, with themes suited to certain aesthetics. I often saw some really high-quality works that were not necessarily suitable to add to my collection, but that were still important to exhibit in Jing Gallery.
VANTAGE: What do you think about the future of Chinese contemporary art?
Sophie Wu: The future is very bright, Chinese people have an increasing interest in cultural pursuits. Now many young people are visiting museums from an early age, going abroad for art education, meaning that as they grow up their concern for art will improve in the future.
Born in 1973 in Jiangxi, Juju Sun moved to America at the age of 15 and came under the tutelage of Op Art master Larry Poons. Her wandering temperament is reflected in her robustly colourful and adventurous paintings. Her art belongs to notable collections across the globe.
VANTAGE: You’ve been described as an American artist, a Chinese artist and a female artist. With so many titles how do you treat your own identity?
Juju Sun: I lived in New York for more than 20 years, and as a New York artist I felt very normal, but then when I moved to Beijing I was suddenly a ‘Chinese artist’, which was a pretty interesting transition. In America there’s less concept of a ‘Female artist’, but when I moved to Beijing I was always categorized this way. To be honest, I hate this label. I’m an artist regardless of whether I’m a man or a woman, and I’m pretty sensitive about this subject.
VANTAGE: As an artist who or what made the biggest impact on you? What gave you the motivation to become a professional artist?
Juju Sun: I always liked to draw, and would paint everywhere. I would draw in textbooks, paint on walls and sheets, it came to me very naturally. My work is in fact not very conceptual, but I like to express my feelings with images as a source of inspiration. Sometimes my works tend to be a little abstract, sometimes more figurative. The appearance of the work is however, secondary to the feel and truth of the work, which is my primary concern.
VANTAGE: What do you think is the most important quality of an artist?
Juju Sun: Passion- it’s the most important part of life. Enthusiasm has the power to turn creative chores into the miracle of art.
Beijing-based Wu Di graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2002, specialising in mural painting. She was awarded the “BMW Art Discovery” Award in 2011, and in 2013, she excited in Berlin as a representative of China’s new art.
A versatile artist, she uses a variety of media to convey her messages, not setting boundaries or limitations to herself or her work.
VANTAGE: What issues have you explored in your most recent works?
Wu Di: Recently I had an exhibition in which I explored my own self-awareness. I really forced myself to forget my previous way of observing things. If you include techniques that you’ve learned, the work itself has the opportunity to influence people psychologically.
VANTAGE: In recent years, has your creative style undergone any changes?
Wu Di: Not really, but it seems as if every day I have new ideas. To me, style itself is not important and is only a tool. I don’t rigidly adhere to any formal style.
VANTAGE: What is the significance of art to you?
Wu Di: It’s a kind of self-development. Because many people don’t really understand themselves, they just know that they have a name only. Their capacity to understand this aspect is limited.
VANTAGE: You’ve been working a great many years now. Does the force of your experience urge you to continue to the end the path of art?
Wu Di: I’m not painting in order to have enough to eat, I want to paint for the sake of creating. The pressure I feel to succeed comes from within, and is my biggest source of inspiration.
VANTAGE: So during your creative process, do you take into account the opinions of galleries and clients?
Wu Di: I think my creative process influences the galleries a little bit, not the other way around. I just want to feel at ease creating my works, and it’s their choice to represent my works or not. More people should pursue their own vision; leaving little regret is always a good thing.
VANTAGE: What do you describe as your usual style? What do you think of as ‘beautiful’?
Wu Di: Calm and collected. People who are like this advance and make decisions that are unlike those of others. I’m beginning to feel that calmness is a form of beauty because it stems from an abundance of self-confidence.