Sasha Su-Ling Welland’s Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art

Picture by Jason An

Sasha Su-Ling Welland. Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art. Duke University Press, 2018.

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949-), the national exhibition system has employed a list of strict categories (traditional Chinese paintings, oil paintings, prints, and sculptures) to select artworks. Alongside this top-down, medium-based curatorial limitation, female artists have experienced more inequalities than their male counterparts. During the Mao era (1949-1979), women artists were often excluded from major administrative structures or only took a small percentage of the standing committee members.1 In contrast to the well-known slogan, “women can hold up half the sky (funü neng ding banbiantian 婦女能頂半邊天),” female artists, in reality, did not fully gain egalitarian participation in the art world. Furthermore, the writing of Chinese art history has rarely focused on women artists and their art.

Considering this art-historical lacuna, anthropologist Sasha Su-Ling Welland’s Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art contributes to the field by offering an account of the recent development of contemporary Chinese art through a feminist lens. Interdisciplinary in nature (art history, anthropology, and gender studies), Experimental Beijing draws long overdue attention to marginalized and forgotten voices—women artists and uncanonical artworks—within the male-dominated field of contemporary Chinese art. Through her conversations with artists, art teachers, and migrant workers and keen observations of the art scene of Beijing from 2000 to 2002, Welland presents both an overarching picture of the intersection of art and gender (chapters 1-4) and case studies of lesser-known female artists, highlighting their lived experiences (chapters 5-7). As a result, Experimental Beijing is a sophisticated analysis of a set of power dynamics, namely that of center-peripheral and East-West, that suffuses and sustains the inequalities Chinese female artists have faced.

This volume comprises three parts: “Art Worldings,” “Zones of Encounter,” and “Feminist Sight Lines.” Observing a trend of how a narrative of universalism often frames Chinese artworks, Welland lays out two counteractive, analytical approaches in the introduction: first, she considers contemporary Chinese art as an expanded, multiregional field as opposed to one defined by national boundaries, and secondly, she suggests we take seriously the potency of “worldings.” The former, which alludes to art historian Rosalind Krauss’ writing, suggests “how a field like ‘Chinese contemporary art’ needs expanding beyond historicist and hegemonic constructions: as either belated arrival on a global scene dominated by Western genealogies, or national patrimony of a China on the rise” (22). The latter denotes how Chinese art developed throughout the three overlapping stages of the (gendered) world—semicolonial, anticolonial, and late socialist—within “the expansive archive of images, and the webs of meaning in which they [worldings] are implicated, that artists pull from as they develop their repertoire and potential to differentially remake the world” (29). Indeed, throughout the book, the author warns readers of universal meanings—be it the notion of art or feminism—in the discourse on global art history.

Following the introduction of these two conceptual approaches, the first part of this book, “Art Worldings,” includes the first two chapters: “Xianfeng Beijing” and “Showcase Beijing,” collectively exemplifying the significance of considering Chinese artistic production within a cross-cultural context. In “Xianfeng Beijing,” Welland traces the history and use of xianfeng (先鋒), which is often translated as “avant-garde,” in a Chinese intellectual context. Arguing against a Eurocentric and singular understanding of the avant-garde, which prioritizes originality, the author proposes that Chinese artists have instead explored the possibilities of making art—the adoption of foreign techniques or subject matter—having the agency to challenge the universalist interpretation. Meanwhile, the male-dominated narrative of the Chinese avant-garde has made female artists invisible. Welland moves from offering a historiographic discussion of xianfeng in Chapter 1 to insert a class-conscious reading in Chapter 2, where she uses the case study of the East Modern Art Center. Financed by the real estate developer Ocean Paradise, the fleeting East Modern Art Center, which was established in 2001, provided a compelling story of the artist’s changing identity in a state-led and privatized urban setting and the lived experiences of low-paid migrant workers. For example, Wu Wenguang’s Dancing with Mingong (2001), which was financially supported by the Center, documents dance performance by thirty rural migrant men at the museum, which was then a desolate factory. Intended to “set up an encounter between rural migrants and urban art enthusiasts,” this performance, however, showcased the contradictions between people from different economic backgrounds within the increasingly transnational capitalized city (94-96). In examining Dancing with Mingong, Welland also notes that women are neglected: “The predominantly male corporeality of the performance reinforced the marginalization of demobilized women whose labor had once built and run the factory” (96-97). The author’s attentiveness to class and gender further highlights the unevenness in the art world.

Grouped under the title of “Zones of Encounter,” Chapters 3 (“The Besieged City”) and 4 (“The Hinterlands of Feminist Art”) unfold interactions between Chinese artists and Western curators and artists. Chapter 3 documents a kind of ambivalence engendered through the exchanges between Chinese artists and the curators of the West (for example, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis). On the one hand, Chinese artists want to gain overseas recognition; on the other hand, their works are often misinterpreted by Western curators. Welland, who served as an interpreter and observer in those exchanges, sharply notes that although different parties strive for more inclusion in the art world, their approaches are fundamentally different, hindering the collaboration. Witnessing how Western curators of color (such as Eungie Joo and Doryun Chong) selected Chinese artists for exhibitions based on the racialized politics of the United States, the author argues that there is tension created by the different versions of insider/outsider: Chinese artists “became comrades in discomfort with their dependency on the West (and its interpreters) for this [international] recognition,” whereas Asian American curators “felt besieged in relation to a contemporary art world whose exclusivity they challenged” (131). Chapter 4 accounts how fourteen Chinese female artists challenged the authority of the American feminist artist Judy Chicago (b. 1939) during the preparation for the 2002 exhibition: The Long March: A Walking Visual Display at Lugu Lake. Being afraid of losing attribution of their works, which would become a version of Chicago’s 1972 collaborative work Womanhouse and suspicious of Chicago’s essentialist feminism, Chinese artists voiced their dissidence, manifesting the double binds that women artists have experienced. Western feminists appropriate women from elsewhere to “argue that patriarchy is a monolithic, cross-cultural phenomenon” is a form of exploitation, and Chicago took an advanced position, educating “Chinese women on how to be feminist artists by instructing them in the utopian society of the Mosuo within their own nation’s borders” (147). In the discussion of the Long March project, Welland again reveals the tension between “local” and “global” that sustained the inequality faced by Chinese artists.

The last part of this book focuses on three artists: Li Tianpian (1969-2001), He Chengyao (b. 1964), and Lei Yan (b. 1957). All these artists’ artworks showcase different understandings of feminism and gender issues—the forgotten history of women’s contribution to “New China,” the militant approach to women’s liberation in the 1930s, and the display of nudity—while including historical visual references. In her painting Red Souvenir, which juxtaposes female soldiers with the artist’s self-portrait, Li Tianpian drew her inspiration from The Red Detachment of Women, channeling the female agency of the past to her unrealized dream in a post-socialist context. He Chengyao’s performances and photographs in which nudity takes a prominent role invite the audience to consider the status quo of patriarchy and personal/collective memories. Manipulating historical photographs and considering the ephemerality of materials, the military-trained artist Lei Yan creates a What If series, raising a historiographic consciousness of Chinese feminism and avoiding a stereotypical expectation of how spectacular contemporary Chinese art should be. These three chapters, which delineate various facets of women’s agency balanced with careful contextualization, sharply contrast to Chicago’s involvement with the Long March Project as mentioned earlier, underscoring the author’s overall argument vis-à-vis the danger of monolithic approach to feminism.

After reading this engaging volume, one question arises. In considering gender issues and globalization, what is the role of medium in the post-socialist context? Readers of the book will notice the diversity of mediums and artistic categories, such as mixed-media installation and performance, that female artists have employed. Chinese authorities did not officially approve these artistic practices due to their “uncontrollable” nature until the turn of the twenty-first century, a period in which we witnessed the rise of international biennales. How should we understand the artistic, political, and gendered significance of unofficial mediums practiced by many women artists? Does this medium-based shift allow them to unmake the male-dominated art world? Considering Welland’s notion of “worlding” and its potency, at least, it may be helpful to treat this medium-based shift as another marker of how Chinese artists remake the world. As introduced at the beginning of this review, Chinese art academies and the national exhibition system adopted a medium-based educational and curatorial model, heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, for the training of artists and the selection of artworks. Through the visits of Euro-American artists and their exhibitions, the mixed-media trend appeared in mid-1980s China.2 For Chinese artists, it was a liberating experience to explore the new possibility of making art while signaling the transition from a state-socialist economy to a market-oriented one. Hence, embracing non-academic artistic tendencies was a means for some Chinese artists to rethink the world.

Meanwhile, continuing the examination of worldings, it would be helpful to provide a piece of specific historical information for readers of this book. In “Xianfeng Beijing,” the author notes, “Western gallerists complained that Chinese artists undermined themselves by not following established market rules” (56). An example of this is that Chinese artists place their work in more than one gallery. As Welland aptly argues that this kind of failure to conform could be treated as a critique of Western art institutions. In their highly informative book, The Art of Modern China, art historians Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen have pointed out that in premodern times, the acquisition of an artwork often required a mutual friend or go-between; in the late Qing (1896-1911), fan-and-stationery shops (shanjianzhuang 扇箋莊) served many of the functions of the Western gallery, even though these shops did not represent artists exclusively.3 Nevertheless, this information further exemplifies Welland’s argument that a transnational and transhistorical understanding of Chinese art is often required.

Eloquently written, Experimental Beijing is an important resource for academics from various disciplines, such as art history, anthropology, East Asian studies, gender studies, and media studies. Instead of sustaining canonical artworks or the fame of well-known artists, this book invites readers to consider the significance of processes and varied meanings through a careful engagement with off-center female artists. Notably, differing from other writings on gender in Chinese art, which are often constructed through case studies and potentially reinforce feminist separatism, Welland’s book provides an intriguing example to reevaluate the mode of writing (its subjects and organization) in studying locally situated and globally connected art history while considering the significance of intersectionality. It brings a fresh voice to the field while encouraging more research on this topic to be done.

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  1. Julia F. Andrews, “Women Artists in Twentieth-Century China: A Prehistory of the Contemporary,” positions: east asia cultures critique 28, no. 1 (2020): 38.
  2. For example, the American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) showcased some of his mixed-media artworks at the Chinese National Art Gallery (now the National Art Museum of China) in 1985.
  3. Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, The Art of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 14.