Citing the old maxim “women hold up half the sky,” Mao Zedong decreed that China’s female populace would have equal rights and responsibilities in his new Communist state. But things did not quite work out that way-not under his regime and not during the 35-year liberalization that has followed. Blatant abuses-foot binding, traditional concubinage, child marriages-have been eradicated, but more subtle forms of discrimination linger stubbornly to this day, even in the highest echelons of business, government and the professions. Moreover, combating China’s boys-club cronyism is rendered doubly difficult by the Party’s strictures against independent political groups and public gatherings. For most feminists in the People’s Republic, the political can be only the personal.
Hence the “just do it” air that pervaded this survey of 24 contemporary Chinese women artists. The exhibition, co-organized by Drexel University and the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), revealed a wide range of private strategies for exploring both female identity and artistic means.
At the neo-domestic pole were works that put traditional women’s handicrafts to new high-art ends. These included Lin Tianmiao’s stitched self-portrait with shaved head, along with her obsessively thread-wrapped bicycle; Liu Liyun’s dangling cloud pillows; Shi Hui’s screens woven from knotted rope; and Yin Xiuzhen’s giant red bladder form made from old clothes, looming over her fabric cityscapes that pop up out of open suitcases.
Traditional ink painting was pushed into the third dimension by Bingyi’s layering of silk surfaces stained with misty washes that, from a certain angle, seem to project into the viewer’s space like a ghostly memory of China’s past. Cultural memories of a more troubling sort are evoked by Lin Jingjing’s large close-up photographs of pink rose blossoms held together with surgical stitches; Chen Qiulin’s video of herself, costumed as a sprite, wandering mournfully through the rubble of a town demolished for the Three Gorges Dam project; and Xiao Lu’s photographic series depicting herself with a pistol aimed dead-level at the viewer-
recalling the two shots she fired at her own artwork during the opening of the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition at NAMOC in 1989, just four months before the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Zhang O brings past and present, East and West, disconcertingly together with her dark, closely cropped photographs of Western art historical masterpieces projected onto the nude bodies of Asian women, and her “Daddy and I” series showing young Chinese girls somewhat creepily embraced by their adoptive Western fathers.
But nothing more clearly demonstrated the distance Chinese women have-and have not-come in recent years than the room devoted to Tao Ai’min’s photographs and videos documenting the daily life of her impoverished 100-year-old landlady. There, one confronted not only a full-frame shot of the compliant granny’s broken, doubled-over, callused feet, once “daintily” bound into the revered lotus-blossom shape, but also images of her withered flesh, her long morning struggle to dress herself while still lying in bed, her routine market trek and meager food preparation, even her use of an outdoor toilet. While the physical and mental constrictions of earlier times are long gone, so too are the former social protections, both Confucian and socialist. Yet the old woman, with her accepting but indomitable spirit, could well serve as an exemplar for these 24 artists quietly dedicated to their individual work.
Photo: Tao Ai’min: From the “Sunset,” project, 2006-11, color photograph, 24 by 16 1/2 inches; in “Half the Sky” at Drexel University.