A significant moment in 798 Art history occurred on Saturday April 8 (2014) when curators Wendy Zhao and Catherine Cheng hosted the reception for Etheral Conclusions in the naturally illuminated Bauhaus factory.
Both Zhao and Cheng have been working in 798 district for over 10 years and have witnessed firsthand the soaring successes and upcoming challenges of this ambitious art district. The paintings of Ma and Feng were placed on opposite sides of the old munitions factory, like arsenals of art.
Feng’s paintings explored liberation, identity and intellectual pursuit through the realms of humanity and the universe. Slogans to inspire factory workers were painted overhead close to the ceiling, they were written decades ago, when the past was another country. These were carefully preserved by artist and manager of the space Wendy Zhao who saved them from the renovators a decade ago. On the factory’s floor glass panels Feng’s characters ‘Art inspires Freedom’ in a conversation between floor and ceiling.
The femme fatale portraits on the opposite side by Ma displayed the elegant silver screen stars of 1930s-1950s China with a few wild cards included such as Marylin Monroe and even Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife. Issues of beauty, femininity and social control are confronted. Each portrait is covered with thousands of fine brush lines (using an 18 hair chinese brush I later found ) creating a gauze like layer over each face. The combination leaves you with the feeling that the colourful portraits underneath are almost bleeding into the gauze threads above – a wonderful visual tease. A line used on the Press Release mentions “unveils a memory by dissolving the past”. Even Johnny Depp couldn’t walk away without purchasing two of these works. Depp was not at the reception I have to add but had seen the work a week earlier while using the space for a documentary film.
A collective past and present were addressed by these two impressive artists. It really felt like a celebration of all things woman. Even the posters for the show are striking showing the two artists striding in their long dark coats across that functional cathedral to art.
Feng’s performance of a tea ceremony facing a mirrored box within which later was revealed a younger woman. The tea ceremony continued with guidance and instructions to the young self, facilitating the tradition of what tea drinking is all about. Feng later told me that tea drinking is about opening the heart and mind to learning and to new ways of thinking.
I have come to know Ma Yanling over the years as she has collaborated with the Irish Wave exhibitions with her performance work and photography. Much of her performance work is related to either the written word or to cloth bandages and confinement. Nushu ( a secret women’s script of long ago used to communicate secretly when women were confined to the home without education) was taught to daughters and granddaughters after their feet were bound and before they were married. Such words would often be embroidered into gifts and dowry fabrics.
Ma’s performance began with wheeling out a heavy suitcase which she opened and withdrew a roll of gauze, she cut into separate panels on the ground and began to write with traditional ink. Then a younger woman (Ma’s neice Ma Zhiran) inside the suitcase sits up and cuts her way out of the bandages. The younger Ma poured red acrylic paint (of contemporary life) in a container and began to paint over the panels of the older Ma’s writing. The younger performer quickly catches up with Ma Yanling and things become intense. Finally they work on the last panel together having built up a momentum on their separate goals in a frenzied manner and finally there is completion. It is a struggle, a confrontation for voice of older and younger generations. Both performers left exhausted and the younger visibly emotional. The panel was an illegible mess but they wrote what they needed to.