Pamela See (Xue Mei-Ling) considers the lively east-west exchange supported by Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery, drawing on the thoughts of Confucius, Plato, Mao Zedong and Edward Said.
Whilst researching in China in January 2020, I was asked to explain the vitriol of the Australian government. Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic the dialogue between Australian and Chinese organisations, across a plethora of fields, has become as inhibited as the migration of people. Despite China cooperating with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in their investigations, a precarity born of mutual distrust prevails alongside increased tariffs on Australian barley and wine. However, in Beijing, there remains a gateway open for intercultural exchange.
A gateway opens
2021 marks the beginning of the fourth decade of operation for Red Gate Gallery, and the third for its artist residency program which immersed over seventy creatives per year in pre-COVID-19 times. The first privately owned gallery in Beijing was founded by Brian Wallace, who arrived on the crest of the New Wave during the mid-1980s. During 1988 and 1989, he organised art exhibitions at a Ming Dynasty Observatory. According to Wallace, the monument had similarly welcomed the Jesuits in the seventeenth century. They brought with them Western pictorial conventions such as linear perspective and chiaroscuro. The former employee of the Foreign Language Press studied art history at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, prior to opening his long-running establishment at the Dongbianmen.
The Watchtower provided the perfect vantage point to witness the re-emergence of the Beijing contemporary art sector. Prior to mid-1989, artistic events had provided unique opportunities for Chinese nationals and foreigners to intermingle. In the months that followed, many artists relocated to Western countries, such as Australia, where their commentary on homeland affairs was highly anticipated. In China, artists seeking to break with either social realism, which had prevailed since the 1950s, or the government sanctified return to traditional forms, which included a folk-art revival during the 1980s, sought inspiration from Western postmodernism.
Between the deaths of Mao Zedong in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping in 1997, Chinese Contemporary Art transformed into a critique that is critical of both the propaganda circulated by the Chinese Communist Party and advertising disseminated by Western corporations. This manifested in both the Cynical Realism and Political Pop movements. During the late 1990s, a distinctive Chinese variation of post-modernism emerged at international art forums such as the Venice and Sydney biennales. It exhibited a resistance towards Western materialism through the incorporation of indigenous Chinese elements.
Red Gate Gallery continued to provide an interface between Chinese artists and foreigners. Over the 1990s, its market changed from predominantly ex-pats living in Beijing to international art buyers. In 2001, its client base further diversified into creatives through its artist residency program. The burgeoning of Chinese contemporary art as a cultural export presented a drawcard to artists from a broad array of disciplines. Artists who took leave of the country after the June 4th Incident returned. Some had received acclaim in the countries they sojourned. There were also overseas Chinese artists, diaspora like me, coming to China to become acquainted with their cultural roots. Non-Chinese artists seeking an immersion in otherness present a third category.
Questions at the gate to Guan Wei
Arguably the most highly acclaimed of the visual artists to have migrated from China to Australia during the late 1980s was Guan Wei. The graduate of the class of 1986, Department of Fine Arts at Beijing Capital University, undertook an artist residency at the Tasmanian School of Arts in 1989, followed by residencies at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992 and the Australian National University in 1993. Although his artwork may be viewed through a similarly critical lens to his compatriots, Wei directs his “witty” and “knowledge[able]” commentary towards the Australian political landscape. The Chinese Australian artists to have reflected upon Chinese Communist Party policies by appropriating its social realism included: Ah Xian, Guo Jian and Hu Ming. In contrast, Wei’s compositions critiqued both the role of the Australian government in the post-9/11 military incursion in the Middle East and the subsequent arrival of asylum seekers in boats. In 2008, he established a studio in Beijing. Solo exhibitions of his artwork were also presented at Red Gate Gallery in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2007 and 2011.
PS: During the 2000s, what drew you back to China to work as an artist?
GW: It is not in the 2000s. In 2000, I had a show in Red Gate Gallery. But I came back to China, opened my studio in 2008. This had a couple of reasons. One reason is the China Olympic committee invited me to go back, and gave me a chance to have an exhibition… This is one of the reasons. Another reason, each year I go back to China, I look… it is very exciting. My many overseas friends who had gone back to China had big studios. The materials, the workers… everything is cheaper than Australia and the market is also very good. All the reasons together, I think, okay I go back to China. But, I will not totally go back to China… I spend half a year in China and half a year in Sydney.
PS: How do Chinese audiences receive your work? Do you make different artworks for the Chinese and Australian art markets?
GW: My visual language is very international… Everyone can look at it and understand. Chinese audiences looking at my work feel different because after twenty years in Australia my work is so strongly influenced by the environment, like the blue sky colours and like the red earth, and also like the ocean… many waters. Also, if I show in China and Australia, I will be doing something different. I showed in Martin Browne Gallery in 2010, I made the beach series with beach culture. In 2011, I had a show in Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. I make traditional Chinese folk stories.
PS: You mentioned that your arts practice has evolved since you migrated to Australia. Are there certain characteristics of this change that you can identify?
GW: In the beginning, I was quite concerned about the exchange of two cultures, like the western and the eastern. You can look at my Living Specimens series and the Test Tube series. This was like the two cultures exchange period. In my second period, I was concerned about the environmentals. Like in my series Dodon’ts and Roller Creatures and Revisionary, in the New South Wales Art Gallery, the big one… this is my second period. In the third period, I think I was concerned about Australian political situations. I paint a lot of refugee boats, and you can see I did a big mural in the MCA. I think in the fourth period I painted Australian history. I had a big show in the Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo in Sydney. It is called Another History. At that time I started making ceramics and also bronze. When I started making the bronze, I felt it was very interesting. First of all I design… and ask someone like an assistant to help me to make these sculptures and together we make the sculptures. Since 2009 until now, I have made five series works with twenty-three individual sculptures. I think it’s very nice. Also, I made video work and some other different materials.
PS: What is your relationship with Red Gate Gallery and the founder Brian Wallace?
GW: I know Brian Wallace quite early, since before I came to Australia. In 1987? It was quite a… it was thirty years ago. We became friends. He stayed in China in Beijing and I came to Sydney in Australia and then we missed each other. When I first came back to China in 1994, I located Brian Wallace at Red Gate and he asked me to maybe do a show, but my first solo show was in 1998. And later I did a second one in 2000… it is about the horoscope, about the stars. Also, later I did another two. Also, I did a lot of group shows and art fairs. We have a very good relationship. Good friend, and he also is like my dealer in Beijing in China.
Questions at the gate to Jayne Dyer
Hailing from Anglo-Italian ancestry, Jayne Dyer is an Australian artist who has responded to urban environments in China with site-specific installations and performance for two decades. Not unlike Guan Wei, she began working with Wallace in the 1990s through both a solo exhibition managed by Red Gate Gallery and an Asialink residency. In the proceeding decade and a half, she undertook further residencies throughout the region hosted by organisations such as Lingnan University, the Fubon Art Foundation and the Kuandu Museum of Fine Art. Dyer navigated the complexly delineated art scene in Beijing from its experimental underground of unsanctified happenings during the 1990s to the renowned Central Academy of Fine Art. A series of commissions facilitated the transition of her ephemeral paper installations into steel public artworks. She received international recognition for her series The Butterfly Effect. Lasercut from laminated paper, the installations may be interpreted as a reimagining of the craft of papercutting. The organisations and events to host them include the Elizabeth Bay House Museum in Sydney, Art HK 11 in Hong Kong, and Art Bosphorus in Istanbul. Evocative, at times menacing, the swarms of Chinese peacock butterflies are often positioned emerging from books. It was for one of these artworks, that Dyer received an Australian Arts in Asia Award from the federal government in 2013.
PS: What drew you to China?
JD: My first China encounter in 1994 was 8 Australian Artists, organized by Meridian Gallery in Melbourne, and hosted by Brian Wallace, Director of Red Gate Gallery, at the historic Song He Tang in Beijing. Massively impacted by this experience I applied for an Asialink residency so I could stay for a few months to breathe in a little of this complex city…In 1996, I exhibited Site at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Chien Lie Hall. [It was] organised by Brian Wallace and opened by Fan Di’an, now Director of the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), and Ric Smith, the then Australian Embassy Ambassador.
PS: What was it like for you as an artist without Chinese ancestry working in China?
JD: Being in Beijing, the political heart of China in the 1990s, can be compared with being in the heart of an active volcano watching the effects of a molten lava spill. Beijing artists were reacting with pop-up one day/night performances, events, spectacles, way before the pop-up phenomenon we know in Australia. Chinese artists would slip me an address in Mandarin for that night. A woman in a bath of blood, tattooed pigs fornicating, treatises scrawled on hutong courtyard walls. Heady stuff. Raw responses to the political climate… In 2007, ready for deep immersion, I moved to Beijing. For the next eight years, I lived in a different China to the previous decade. China appeared more culturally open, but simultaneously was becoming increasingly monitored, certainly with greater capitalist freedoms, a country on steroids.
PS: How did this affect your practice?
JD: My practice is international. Hybrid, socially engaged and collaborative. Projects address issues related to (dys)functional urban and natural environments and realised as installations, site-specific and performative actions. Where I live affects and implicates the type and embodiment of the work I make… Living in Beijing had manifold implications for my practice. It was impossible and naïve to ignore the complexity of China. A long history that revered a singular cultural identity and tradition…. Everything I experienced pointed to the impossibility of separating my ideas, material and process from the politics of place…
PS: Can you tell me about The Butterfly Effect series?
JD: The butterfly effect is the phenomenon where small localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. We are all experiencing the pressing concern to protect our environment in the midst of overwhelming evidence of rapid climate change. The butterfly is very popular in Asia as a symbol of freedom. I present this familiar icon in a less familiar way. Black butterflies, on mass, swarming, cloying, allude to our planet’s increasingly fragile ecosystem. Nature in shock. Laminated paper, laser-cut, up to 18,000, according to the scale of the installation.
The artisan tradition in China is seductive for a maker. I am privileged to develop projects collaboratively with papermakers and metal workers using processes centuries old, and designers conversant with the latest digital media.
The Butterfly Effect series has been translated into public and private commissions. The temporary fragility of the paper butterfly becomes permanent in steel. The scale of museum or corporate commissioned Butterfly Effect series are usually large in dimension and require teams to install.
Open, shut and in between
To the casual observer, artists have a tendency to integrate aspects of Chinese aesthetics or manufacturing into the artwork they produce in their residency. Irrespective of the genetic lineage of the artist, making artwork in China can be a transformative experience. This fertility of ground may reflect the broad proliferation of dialectical materiality between the 1930s and 1970s. This excerpt, from On Contradiction, was written by Mao Zedong in the lead up to the Japanese occupation of Nanjing:
Why can an egg but not a stone be transformed into a chicken? Why is there identity between war and peace and none between war and a stone? Why can human beings give birth only to human beings and not to anything else? The sole reason is that the identity of opposites exists only in necessary given conditions. Without these necessary given conditions there can be no identity whatsoever.
This empowering sentiment, which suggests that materiality can be transformed given the “necessary” conditions, also appears in his little red book of quotations. Ironically, in On Contradiction Mao also overtly signals a departure from the metaphysicality of the Chinese indigenous religious practices:
As opposed to the metaphysical world outlook, the world outlook of materialist dialectics holds that in order to understand the development of a thing we should study it internally and in its relations with other things; in other words, the development of things should be seen as their internal and necessary self-movement, while each thing in its movement is interrelated with and interacts on the things around it.
The approach is influenced by Soviet Communism, which was adapted by Joseph Stalin from the theories of German philosopher Karl Marx, who was in turn influenced by his compatriot Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who critiqued Plato, who disputed Socrates on the concept of being and not being.
Notably, this iteration of dialectical materialism appears to draw on a distinctly Chinese interpretation of the latter concept. The reference to “identity” is incongruous with the aforementioned Western cannon, as illustrated by this excerpt from The Sophist by Plato:
There is at any rate no difficulty in seeing that the predicate “not-being” is not applicable to any being… And if not being, then not to something. It is also plain, that in speaking of something we speak of being, for to speak of an abstract something naked and isolated from all being is impossible.
However, in Chapter 11 of the Tao te Ching, which is a fundamental text for the indigenous religion Confucianism, Lao Tzu wrote:
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on the spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognise the usefulness of what is not.
In the latter interpretation of being and not being, the dichotomy is essential to being and in the former otherness is integral to existence.
The Quotations of Chairman Mao Tsu-Tung played an integral role in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. The book was used by the Red Guard to assess “bourgeois tendencies”. Chinese citizens were expected to either be carrying a copy or be able to quote its aphorisms. Deng Xiaoping purportedly attempted to suppress its circulation with limited effect. Since the 1990s, Neo-Confucianism has also been growing in prominence. This revival may be viewed as part of strategic essentialism, which also encompasses the reintroduction of indigenous cultural practices to combat Western influences. Traditional Chinese crafts are being endorsed to counter the cultural imperialism imposed by multinationals. For example, Qingyang embroidered sachets, which date back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), are being presented as an alternative to Gucci handbags.
In accordance, it may be argued that the visiting artists are not simply appropriating traditional Chinese culture but partaking in their reinstatement into contemporary culture. They are subsidising its manufacture. They are also assisting in its distribution. However, does their appropriation make the practitioners orientalists? In the seminal Orientalism published in 1973, Edward Said wrote:
…it [is] almost impossible to use the term “orientalism” in a neutral sense, so much had it become a term of abuse… modern Orientalism has been an aspect of both imperialism and colonialism… one of the purposes of the present work is to illustrate, analyse and reflect upon Orientalism as an exercise of cultural strength… the essential relationship, on political, cultural and even religious grounds, was seen in the West, which is what concerns us here – to be one between the strong and weak partner…. the assumption has been made that the orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the West… [However] none of the Orientalists I write about seems to ever to have intended an Oriental as a reader.
The Chinese may not view the relationship between East and West as opposing others with a power differential, if On Contradiction and the Tao te Ching are any indication. They may view the dichotomies of opposing differences as a source of power. Confucius also reputedly said:
By three methods we may learn wisdom:
First, by reflection, which is noblest;
Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
Subsequently, they might find respectful appropriation of their cultural practices and aesthetics acceptable. This is notwithstanding contexts where their inferiority is implicated. The manifold of neo-orientalism includes foreign creatives providing a negative commentary on domestic affairs. It may be argued that the imposition of their Western ideologies is the height of cultural imperialism.
Whereas returning diaspora may bring cultural practices that have fallen out of ubiquity in China, other non-Chinese practitioners may bring iterations of material practices that originated from China but evolved in geographic isolation. European papermaking, as opposed to its Asian ancestor, is a primary example.
In addition to practices, the materials themselves present another entry-point for the visiting artists due to the success of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms between the 1970s and 1990s. Whilst they may not have Chinese heritage, the same cannot be said of many of the manufactured items they encounter in their daily lives. Subsequently, the Chinese landscape may appear foreign yet familiar. Some visiting artists enjoy the egalitarianism of Chinese manufacturing, which enables them to engage in processes reserved for a minority in other countries. The level of development is consummated with the commitment of the artists. Subsequently, it is those who choose to work with artisans to develop their skills that make sustained and, at times, profound transformation.
Space for both east and west
Do the Chinese mind that aspects of their cultural identity are being appropriated? Orientalism, which implicates a stronger and weaker party between East and West, is a Western construct. The Western notion of identity also embraces otherness or the defining of being by not being. To the Chinese, identity may entail both being and not being. Subsequently, notwithstanding contexts where it is being represented as inferior, appropriation of Chinese symbols and aesthetics should be considered acceptable. After all, according to Confucius: imitation is the easiest way to learn.
Red Gate Gallery is continuing to accept applications for its Beijing based residency program. Between July and September 2021, the gallery is also celebrating through its Red Gate 30th Anniversary – Memory Wall Project. The showcase features contributions from artists who have exhibited with the gallery, artists who have undertaken residencies, and affiliated curators and writers. Further information about the residency program and exhibition is available by visiting redgategallery.com.
Firstly, I would like to thank the artists Jayne Dyer and Guan Wei, who generously offered their time to be interviewed. Secondly, I am grateful for the patience of Brian Wallace who supported the creation of this article about his exploits in China over the past three decades. Thirdly, I would like to acknowledge Professor Paul Gladston for helping me navigate the complex topic of “post-West” China.
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About Pamela See (Xue Mei-Ling)
Pamela See (Xue Mei-Ling) is an Australian visual artist who worked with Red Gate Gallery on a group exhibition and public art commission during the mid-2000s. Her observations about the Red Gate Residency program reflect her interactions with the participants over a five-year period. She has a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) from Griffith University and a Master of Business, majoring in public relations, from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). In addition to regularly contributing to Garland Magazine, she has also written articles for M/C Journal, Art Education Australia and 716 Craft Design. Her research interests include: craft, post-digitalism, Asian art, public art and participatory art.
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