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Review: Gender in Chinese Contemporary Art Symposium at Tate Modern

On 16 February,  the multi-venue collaborative exhibition NOW: A Dialogue on Female Chinese Contemporary Artists was launched at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester. Led by CFCCA, but taking place across five other venues including HOME (Manchester), Middlesbrough Institute of Modern; Nottingham Contemporary, Tate Modern (London) and Turner Contemporary (Margate), this project examined the positions adopted by women artists within the ecology of contemporary China. Through a series of exhibitions, commissions and events, NOW explored diverse artistic practices which transcend notions of gender difference to offer multi-faceted perspectives on contemporary social realities.

Tate Research Centre: Asia’s contribution to the NOW programme was an international symposium co-organised by the centre with Central Academy of Fine Arts China on February 22, 2018. This international symposium explored the role that gender has played in the development of Chinese contemporary art. The symposium was split into two sessions, the first gave a critical overview of the subject, and the second session focused on individual practices. By engaging the history of women’s artistic production in China, this symposium sought to recuperate an often-elided narrative, while also asking what it means to be a woman artist working in China today, and whether gender still matters in contemporary practice.

Gender in Chinese Contemporary Art Symposium, Tate Modern, February 2018 © Jacob Perlmutter

The first panel began with a paper by Monica Merlin (Programme Leader, MA Contemporary Arts China, School of Art of Birmingham City University), which provided a history of contemporary art by women in China, arguing that until recently, much of this work has been left at the margins. Merlin’s paper reappraised the presence and practice of women artists in China by offering a critical historical overview of their creative endeavours since the 1970s. The paper highlighted moments of rupture in the development of Chinese contemporary art, and proposed gender as a methodology for rethinking timelines against the backdrop of its attendant dominant narratives. While canvassing an alternative picture of the history of contemporary Chinese art, this talk discussed some complex notions relevant to the understanding of women artists and their practice, such as the category nüxing yishu (women’s art) and feminism, as well as the intersections of their work with gender, society, politics and the environment.

The panel continued with a paper by Ros Holmes (Research Fellow, Christ Church, University of Oxford) which examined a series of online artworks by Ye Funa and Miao Ying. Contextualising their practice in relation to China’s online culture and media spheres, it situated the contemporary art world’s engagement with internet art in relation to anti-aesthetics and the rise of Chinternet Ugly. From Ye Funa’s Exhibitionist project (2014) to Miao’s Lan Love Poem series (2014), the talk explored how these artists employ elements of the crude, the vulgar, the kitsch and the ugly as a means of confronting the complex and contradictory facets of China’s online realm and the often gendered expectations of its social media and commercial platforms. Offering a satirical take on the commodity fetishisation and online self-posturing that has often come to characterise China’s digital realm in the early twenty-first century, Holmes argued that these works could be seen to emerge out of the broader contradictions of internet art practices that parody the relationships between The Chinternet and the World Wide Web, global capitalism and Shanzhai (fake or pirated) aesthetics, online propaganda and media democracy, and the art market’s relationship to the virtual economies of an art world online. These two rich papers were then followed by a panel discussion chaired by Wenny Teo (Manuela and Iwan Wirth Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Asian Art).