The Art of Travel written by Luise Guest on my work for “The Painted Thread”

The Art of Travel

“Journeys are the midwives of thought,” said Alain de Botton in ‘The Art of Travel’. Perhaps this explains why so many artists, often restless, yearning souls, have worn tracks across the globe, seeking new wonders, new experiences, new visual languages.


Sometimes their travels are an escape from a more limited version of themselves, or from a stifling culture (think of hundreds of artists arriving hopefully in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century, pilgrims seeking the elusive ‘centre’.) Sometimes they are diasporic journeys. Sometimes an artist embarks upon a series of journeys through a willingness to seize the day, to embrace new opportunities as they present themselves. Whatever form an artist’s journey takes, it’s not tourism. A thoughtful, reflective immersion in new places, different cultures and languages, embracing the richness of visual experiences: the inevitable result is a new way of seeing and interpreting the world, and, ultimately, a change in the artist herself.


Irish artist Niamh Cunningham has lived in many places undergoing a state of flux and change: South Africa just before Mandela became president, Hong Kong during and after reunification, and Dubai, where she saw a hypermodern city rising from the sands. A year in Prague – a city and nation in transition from one kind of political and cultural identity to another – was followed by a move to China, where she has lived and worked since 2011. Beijing, some might say, is the ultimate transitional, liminal place: a city undergoing constant, convulsive change as the grey-walled hutongs are overwritten by steel and glass skyscrapers and new ring-roads push the city ever further into the countryside.


Cunningham’s first two solo exhibitions in Dubai revealed her ability to see cityscapes and waterways in a fresh way. The rich texture of a restless life appears in her landscape paintings; her interest in humanity and the lives of others imbues her portraits. Her work in China has sometimes focused on hidden aspects of the city, on things that no-one but an artist would notice: the shadowy silhouettes of commuters entering Lishuiqiao Subway Station, or the serried ranks of manicured potted flowers at a Beijing bus stop.


Cunningham is as interested in the ways ordinary people navigate these densely populated urban spaces as she is in painting the beautiful mountain vistas in southern China and Yunnan. Yunnan Hillside, in contrast to her urban images, is a panorama of gently undulating terraced hills, a landscape of sinuous curves and soft greens, resembling a Chinese fairy tale.



Lishuiqiao Ditie 1 and 2 reveal her talent for observing the unexpected beauty in the everyday. Racing between connecting lines she arrived at a quiet platform where a few people drifted gently, reflected in shiny, blank advertising hoardings on the opposite side. She was so struck by this image that she returned next day with a camera intending to film, but her plans were thwarted by fast-moving trains and hyper-vigilant station security. The paintings, in fiery tones of red and orange, are largely based on a vivid memory, an image that struck her artist’s eye with great force and seemed burned into the retina.

Earlier works from her time in Dubai are painted in an energetic impasto that captures the lively traffic of every possible kind of water craft across Dubai Creek. Cunningham spent hours crossing the creek in the ‘abra’ water taxis, mingling with souk workers and local commuters. These paintings successfully evoke a sense of time and place, and reveal her continuing interest in public transport, all the repeated daily journeys of city-dwellers crisscrossing the metropolis, the threads that connect individuals with the places they inhabit.


Niamh Cunningham also works with installation, performance and textiles. The three-metre high ‘Pillar of Time’ resembles an enormous, weighty timber column in a traditional Chinese building, but with a domestic twist: each section is knitted from wool, making a connection with the craft traditions of women, so often exiled from the sphere of fine art. Cunningham suggests that our lives run on two separate calendars, the public and the private. The pillar depicts the big, newsworthy events of our time in roundels spiraling from the top: a chronology of conflict and drama. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the war between Vietnam and America, the moon landing, the end of the Berlin Wall, Hong Kong’s reunification with China, Fukushima – all these public images are juxtaposed with the personal, intimate details that go unrecorded, unremarked, except in our own dreams and memories. A spiral red line punctuated by gold discs symbolises the 450 – 550 cycles of a woman’s life, and the private memories of births and miscarriages. Cunningham knitted sections of this diary-like work in her early days in Beijing, as she travelled around the city by bus: art inserted into the everyday. In other textile works the artist has used her own hair, patiently knitting it into intricate installations that evoke the fragility of life.



Lawrence Durrell, who wrote evocatively of his travels in Corfu, Crete, Rhodes and Egypt, once said, ‘You can extract the essence of a place once you know how. If you just get as still as a needle, you’ll be there.’ Cunningham’s works possess just that quality of stillness, patient observation and the rare ability to notice the unexpected beauty hidden within the ordinary.


Luise Guest

September 2016





The Painted Thread shows the works of three artists Gulistan, Fion Gunn and myself.

If you are in Beijing this week please come by and visit , the gallery is open from 10 am to 10pm  and also open Mondays. Bilingual lunchtime floor talks everyday.  There will be an artists presentation on the work and also a panel discussion with renowned international curator Peng Feng where interesting topics will be explored such as the trend with European public and private collections investing in art by female artists and if this trend is apparent in Asia.

A sincere thank you  to Luise Guest for the essay above on my work for the show.


The preview will be opened by his Excellency Paul Kavanagh, Ambassador of Ireland in China 爱尔兰驻华⼤大使康宝乐(Paul Kavanagh)阁下将亲临现场为酒会开幕

Vernissage 开幕酒会:2016-9-25 2.30pm-6:00 pm RSVP (By Invitation Only 凭邀请函)

Public Opening Hours 公众开放日:
25 September – 3 October,
2016 2016-9-25 到 2016-10-3
Venue 地址:JOY PAVILION – Mission Hills Art & Lifestyle, W109, 9 Jinhui Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 北京市朝阳区金汇路 9 号 W109 (世界城商业街 悦馆·观澜湖艺术生活空间)

Opening Hours 营业时间:
Mon-Sun 10:00 am-10:00 pm
周一到周日 10:00-22:00
Phone Number 联系电话:
+86 1391 020 1975; +86 1368 217 8431