What does feminism have to do with Chinese art?

What does feminism have to do with Chinese art?

OV Gallery’s new exhibition, "Shifting Definitions," asks if women’s issues are only Western issues

When Rebecca Catching, the director of OV Gallery, sought proposals for a group show with womanhood as its theme, many female Chinese artists resisted the suggestion that they might have something to say about their gender.

“They don’t want to be considered a woman artist and they also don’t want to be considered a feminist. There’s this idea that feminism is a Western import that doesn’t have anything to do with China,” Catching says.

Phoebe Man, one of the artists participating in the show, “Shifting Definitions,” says, “I take the position of a human being rather than a feminist when I work.”

Women’s (art) work: Papercuts and collages?

While Man distances herself from the F-word, she certainly doesn’t ignore gender-inflected issues. She uses paper cutting, traditionally a female art form, to create pictures that bravely address her own experience of sexual assault.

In several of her images, memories and fears of sexual harassment place wolves’ heads on men’s shoulders, or reduce them to disembodied hands.

Subway cars extend like groping hands from a man’s head in a piece entitled “MTR,” inspired by the statistic that most sexual assaults in Man’s home city of Hong Kong take place on public transport. 

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 Shifting Definitions - Phoebe ManPhoebe Man says deeply personal artworks like “MTR” allow one to “revisit bad memories, express one's point of view, confront misconceptions, and regain one’s power.” While Man is an academic, feminist theory is a much more prominent part of Australian artist Sally Smart’s work.

“I was a beneficiary of the enormous increase in women’s participation in the Western art world during the 1980s and 1990s,” says Smart.

Feminism also contributed to the title of her wall-mounted multimedia piece, “Femmage Frieze.”

“The word femmage was used by the American feminist and theorist Miriam Shapiro in 1976 to describe work made by women historically and the multitude of techniques, including collage, photomontage and embroidery, that women have used,” she says.

Not all of the works in “Shifting Definitions” are made using traditionally female media.

Cui Xiuwen’s video piece, for instance, was recorded using a James Bond-style concealed camera installed by the bathroom mirror of a KTV parlor.

The exhibition also features a squat toilet, mounted on the wall like a urinal that uses a microphone to pick up sounds and, through a kind of sonic plumbing, emit them in another part of the gallery.

Yet Catching is conscious of the number of "craftsy" pieces in the show. 

“People who have a prejudice against craftsy stuff, I’ve really fought against that,” she says. “But, I do feel embarrassed because women artists have this stereotype of working with cloth and stuff that’s really craftsy, and a lot of the work falls into that category.”

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 Shifting Definitions - Cui XiuwenCui Xiuwen filmed all these single ladies in the bathroom of a KTV parlor.

Male feminism

The show has also challenged male Chinese artists.

“When I first brought up the idea, I think a lot of male artists thought, ‘What problems do women have? We’re all equal,’” says Catching.

In fact, one of the motivations for the exhibition was that in the art world women don’t yet “hold up half the sky,” as the Chinese proverb suggests they should.

“Over 50 percent of the artists going to art school [in China] are women, but when you look at the number that are actually practicing there are so few,” Catching says. “Ask someone to name five female Chinese contemporary artists and they would have trouble to do so.”

In many ways Chinese ideas about women’s roles are relatively progressive but even before opening “Shifting Definitions” has shown that there’s room for improvement.

“I had this one artist who proposed this video piece,” Catching says. “I said I really liked it and asked him what it means. He said, ‘Well, it’s like women are really stressed in their lives and there are some things they don’t need to worry about; they should let men worry about them instead.’ All I could think of is ‘Is that really where we’re at?’”

"Shifting Definitions," November 6 to December 18, OV Gallery, 19C Shaoxing Lu, near Shanxi Nan Lu 绍兴路19C号, 近陕西南路, +86 21 5465 7768, www.ovgallery.com
Sam Gaskin is an arts and culture journalist based in Shanghai.
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