The co-curators of the exhibition are Taree-born Brian Wallace, who founded the internationally renowned Red Gate Gallery in Beijing in 1991 and Catherine Croll, Director of Cultural Partnerships Australia. 2012 is The Year of Chinese Culture in Australia. We talked to Brian Wallace about his work in China and the importance of bringing this exhibition to his hometown of Taree …
In 1991, you founded Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. The gallery is located at the 600-year-old Ming Dynasty Watchtower in Dongbianmen … what spurred your interest in contemporary Chinese art?
While studying Chinese at university in Beijing in the ‘80s, my Chinese friends were artists. At that time, there was no support in terms of galleries and museums for young contemporary artists, so we started to organise shows at different spaces around town.
The shows were over a weekend and quite often in Ming structures, such as the Ancient Observatory and the Temple of Longevity. The shows I organised were in 1988 and 1989.
Everything stopped for a couple of years, while I worked as an editor and then attended a year-long bridging course on Chinese art history at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
Having been in China for five years, I was deciding what to do – go home, get a job, or to possibly open a gallery. I went to the Observatory to see if we could use that space; they said no, and so I subsequently made enquiries about a Ming Dynasty Watchtower … we had a very good introduction.
Prior to opening Red Gate Gallery, what considerations had you given to the somewhat precarious meeting of art and politics in China; and by extension, art and censorship in China?
It was early days, and there was some concern from the authorities, but the audience was very limited – mainly to the artists and the small expat community, so we were a bit under the radar. Those were the days when things were beginning to loosen up, and the economy was starting to move forward. Lots of things were happening!
Over time, have the Chinese authorities been supportive of Red Gate’s work?
Yes, and the best form of support is allowing us to use the Dongbianmen Watchtower as the venue for so long. Other than that, we’ve had a pretty good run … of course, everyone knows what can and what can’t go up on the walls.
Tell us about the exhibition, Two Generations: 20 Years of Contemporary Chinese Art.
To celebrate our 20th anniversary with something special, we asked artists who have been with Red Gate Gallery for a long time – now in their 40s and 50s – to nominate a young artist, or an emerging artist … someone they consider has a lot of promise.
The 10 senior artists took this very seriously. We then placed them with eight younger artists, or ones who have only been at Red Gate for a short time, and then we had it – two generations!
You’ve been a mentor to emerging Chinese artists for nearly two decades … Is this exhibition a realisation, of sorts, of the progress you have made in providing artists with the opportunity to create work in China?
It is a culmination of that work, but also a continuing commitment to these artists. The art scene took a long time to grow. Up until the early 2000s, there were really only four galleries of contemporary Chinese art. For a long time, only a few artists had representation.
However, there were many artists moving to Beijing and working away in studios, and you could really feel the scene was growing. There was an excitement and an edge to what was happening.
How differently have the artists approached their work from the first to second generation and with the changing face of China?
Good question. Generally artists of this second generation (loosely born in the ‘80s) are obsessed with themselves, the consumer society they have grown up in and life in a socially engineered one-child family concept. They can be lost and lonely.
The older generation grew up in the turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution, where everything was turned on its head and many families suffered. These artists have a background rooted in politics and the greater issues of life – something very different to the younger generation.
The younger artists in this show, both those nominated and the existing Red Gate artists, all have a broader view of their world, and their role in it. They have not taken the commercial path, but have almost decided to stay away from it. They concentrate on their art and their concerns. So, they are very much like our older artists – assessing and criticising societies’ problems. Global concerns, dislocation, government and politics, inequalities, rich-poor, consumerism …
What’s emerging on the contemporary art scene in China right now?
The scene has exploded over the last seven years, with many galleries, exhibition spaces, museums, art fairs, biennales and auctions occurring in the main centres and in many regional areas. There are a good number of international galleries opening, which will bring international art to china.
We have managed an Artist in Residence program for over 10 years, which helps to bring 40 to 50 artists from around the world to work in Beijing. Many artists have located there with their own studios, and more are on the way. It’s not NY or Berlin, but is a very lively and stimulating art scene.
Is the image titled Chen Qingqing No and Keng 2010 of a pregnant fibreglass sculpture and a seemingly protesting facing sculpture, a comment on the one-child policy in China?
No … ‘No’ is a state of mind. A foreigner once said to Qing Qing that the Chinese have a lot of positive attributes, but they do not know how to say ‘no’. So she told herself she should learn to say ‘no’ and since then, life has become a lot easier…
‘Keng’ is another mindset, one that refers to being steadfast and persistent. With this mindset, it is possible to make an achievement or two – no matter how difficult life is. Have confidence that life will be filled with happiness!
‘No’ and ‘Keng’ are two works from the same series of figurative sculptures characterised by big feet and dolls’ heads … ‘No’ represents a direct communicative style, which goes against the Chinese tradition, whereas ‘Keng’ is inspired by the enduring virtue of determination. Together, the two figures ‘No’ and ‘Keng’ are like the emotional alter egos of the Yin and Yang.
How important is it to you to bring this exhibition to your hometown of Taree?
It will be great to show everyone what I have been doing in China for the last 25 years. Also, being able to take the show to places other than Sydney or Melbourne is very important.
Two Generations: 20 Years of Contemporary Chinese Art is on at Manning Art Gallery from 6 February.