Bird Island

Solo Exhibition By Guan Wei

6 July - 6 August 2011


By Dr Adele Tan

"The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?" - Milan Kundera "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

For many Chinese artists who left China in the wake of the Tiananmen Incident on 4 June 1989, the West was presented to them as a fabled land filled with purported opportunities and freedoms, or at the very least an effective socio-cultural counterpoint to the strong arm rule of the Communist Chinese government. Most chose to go to Europe and America but a small group of artists ventured eastwards towards another continent – Australia, a country less involved in art world shenanigans but nonetheless still affording the Chinese artists a breather from the convulsive politics in reformist China and the ossified academic art styles of the Socialist Realist tradition. In this group was Guan Wei (b. 1957), part of a stream of artists including Ah Xian, Shen Jiawei, and Guo Jian, who emigrated from China to Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Guan first went to Australia to take up an artist-in-residence at the Tasmanian School of Art in 1989 after graduating from the Department of Fine Arts at the Beijing Capital University and returned in 1990 only to remain in Sydney for the next twenty years, taking up Australian citizenship in the mid 1990s and finally exhibiting for Australia in the third Asia-Pacific Triennial in 1999.

Much of Guan Wei’s career was fomented in Australia and the indelible imprint of Australian history and current affairs is also what makes Guan’s practice uniquely different from other Chinese-Australian émigré artists. As with almost every other Chinese artist abroad, the retention of distinctive cultural markers and acknowledgement of impeccable Chinese academic training are often cited as personal identity imperatives, a demonstration of their rootedness as Chinese persons. Guan Wei is no exception to this but he seems less willing to use his Chineseness as cultural crutch or capital, deploying it as an aesthetic and philosophical prism through which to refract his own comprehension of Australian life and issues. His latest series of paintings, Bird Island #1 - #6 (2011, acrylic on linen, 65 x 80cm) continues in a similar vein to previous works such as Dao/Island (2002), A Passage to Australia (2003), and Unfamiliar Land (2006), combining the visual records of Australia’s colonial-settler past with contemporary socio-economic conflicts in immigration, racism, political asylum and military aggression but transposed onto a Chinese graphical terrain, dotted with classical Chinese imagery and stylistic motifs. Resembling the pseudo-scientific natural history drawings that white settlers, convicts and officers made of the continent’s flora and fauna in the 18th and 19th centuries, Guan’s illustration of distinctive indigenous birds underscore the birds’ symbolic importance in inculcating new visions, attitudes and morals for the incoming residents: nature is made to become instructive in ways either welcoming or hostile. The cartographic survey and outline of Australia as if from the time of Matthew Flinders in the 1800s is juxtaposed with depictions of boatloads of either early explorer-settlers or current refugees, both coming into acrimonious contention with native creatures and aboriginal peoples already living on the land. Incongruously, Guan Wei has also infiltrated this series of pictures with Chinese auspicious symbols of dragons, traditional wave patterns and stylised clouds and mountains, undercutting the inherent menace of the situation with the decorative appeal of the Chinese motifs.

Yet, rather than speaking of cultural dislocation and assimilative difficulty, Guan is instead looking to identify points of collision and similarity. The conquering of the New World by the Old World is a history not so unfamiliar to Guan Wei as he is a direct descendent of Manchu nobility, the Manchurian bannermen who overthrew the Ming dynasty to form the Qing court in the mid-1600s, just a century shy of the golden ascent of Western colonialism . Guan’s great-grandfather was the Comptroller of Yihe Yuan, Empress Dowager Ci Xi’s Summer Palace; and his great-great-aunt was the birth mother of Xuantong Emperor Aisin Gioro Puyi, the last imperial ruler of China. The Communist takeover after the Sino-Japanese war and the ensuing Cultural Revolution meant that all vestiges of traditional or feudal Chineseness had to be expunged. The vestiges of Chineseness that Guan reinstates here however are also typical of the Qing dynasty, the symbols and motifs originating largely from decorations commonly found on textiles, robes and ceramics. Moving from China to Australia because of Tiananmen, Guan experiences again the transient fortunes of his family but now can imagine himself as part of the wider global ebbs and flows of people in search of better lives. The vast blue sea and sky which first seduced and liberated Guan Wei in Hobart, no longer can exist as innocent inspiration for his work but become part of an affliction charged with the exercise of power such that his “using of Chinese eyes to create Australian stories” must necessarily be complicitous with the act of mythifying histories.

The mental shifts that Guan Wei had effected in moving from the Middle Kingdom to a continentally-sized island has also led to his perceived absorption and cooptation by the Australian establishment. But Australia does not appear to be always on Guan Wei’s mind, if one looks to the series of white-painted bronze sculptures named Cloud (2009) and his miniature acrylic on card paintings in Buddha’s Hand (2010). Whimsy is the antidote to the heavy-handedness of historical and mythic narratives and it is in these works that Guan finds some counterbalancing humour by revisiting some classical Buddhist figuration in an absurdist line of inquiry. The tumescent hands that appeared in Bird Island were first shown as variations on the Buddhist mudras, defined and sacred hand gestures in the representational imagery of the Buddha produced from the fifth century onwards. Communicating subtle meanings in equanimity and holiness has been the task of the Buddhist artisan but in Guan Wei’s irreverent treatment, Buddha’s hands are alternately playful and lascivious, or supportive and generous but always seen teasing his iconic rotund and asexual character that is the avatar of the human race in its manifest follies, foibles and joys. Perhaps Guan cannot resist also taking a humorous dig at his own style: his series of five Cloud figures perch delicately on white pedestals belying their own heft and each naked smooth-skinned figure cannot seem to get rid of the cloud that has become one of Guan’s signature motifs. One cross-legged seated figure has its head stuck in the clouds and another bears the weight of the cloud on its back; one prepares to throw the cloud as if a giant rock and another has one foot stuck in the cloud. It has been said that the cloud is Guan’s metaphor for thought and action in the world, the imperative of acting on the world that does not discriminate between creed, race, ideology or nation. By seeking to move beyond the affairs of the day, Guan Wei prospects for a potential transcendence that can take place via poetry and art.

The balance between lightness and weight in art is a perpetual battle waged by artists who do not want to appear to be without gravitas but who also find that this might edge them towards distasteful didacticism. The “clouded” views perpetuated in Guan Wei’s works exemplify this eternal tug-of-ambivalence which the artist seems to take on as cheerful labour. The clouds are themselves variously portentous symbols of uncertainty, traditional Chinese imagery, manifestations of flight and escape (in contrast to the besieged island/continent), or philosophical representations of munificence and change. While most of us would like to deny the freight the clouds carry, these burdens can only usefully become Guan Wei’s creative ballast.

Dr Adele Tan is a Curator at The National Art Gallery, Singapore


  • Guan Wei

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