…continued from the previous blog

Day 2. I go to the session I’m assigned to by my name-holder on the table. This selection method works for me. I hear about the work of Gu Wenda, who is based in the US though from China. When I hear that he has made a piece using tampons and menstrual blood, I am by this point only mildly surprised. In the end-of-session, round-table discussion I ask, couching my question as much as I can in diplomatic terms (believe it or not), “What the hell was he thinking?" The last bit is a direct quote, which raises some laughter from my western colleagues, but none from the Chinese ones; whether it was a translation difficulty or not, I feel my feminist apotheosis is assured. Do I feel comfortable? No.

There follows a hurried attempt to put images of the ‘offending pieces’ on screen, which eventually succeeds. Gu is not here to explain or defend the work, but it looks from where I’m sitting that he would have an up-mountain battle.

I was having real trouble at this point. Yesterday I had heard a woman artist using quotes from a series of male writers to support the case for women’s art in China. Now a male artist, Gu, seemed to be making a mad foray into female territory. We were here to talk about Chinese and Western art criticism. If, from where I was sitting, the raw material on which Chinese art criticism was to be based was apparently so skewed, how was the criticism itself going to function?

Jiang Qigu: Figure A, 2008, ink on rice paper

Jiang Qigu: Figure A, 2008, ink on rice paper; image held here

If the morning session left me confused, the afternoon left me livid. Things started off well enough in the afternoon, with Jiang Qigu. It is clear that Jiang is very concerned about the future of ink painting in China. He is an artist who does smaller work in the Chinese tradition but, still using ink, does larger-scale figurative works that fuse East and West. He is based in Chicago, but spends part of every year in China. My inadequate notes do not tell me what Yuejin Zou talked about after Jiang, but I can remember what happened next. All of us were assembled in the main hall, and talk turned to defending Chinese traditions and values. You could feel a chill descending. If memory serves, I asked if people were not a little bit concerned about the link between identity, nationalism and violence? Paul Gladston also contributed along these lines, but more diplomatically. I found myself asking again about the identity-nationalism-violence link, citing Northern Ireland as a contemporary example. It seems I, or we, had gone way too far. We were shut out of the (irrelevant) conversation for the next hour, until Richard Meyer got a word in an saved some face.

Throughout the conference, mostly in one-to-one conversation, Gladson proved to be a highly informed, invaluable source of of information and understanding when it came to China. He clearly loves the place. It seemed likely that, among other things, our hosts were getting the impression that we looked down on China. That nothing of the sort was going on for us was a measure of the misunderstanding that had opened up.

A few of us chewed things over that evening, in a local restaurant. We accidentally ordered chicken feet; a bit like the conference, there was more meat on them than I anticipated, but they were still far from what I’d expected to be digging into.

…to be continued