Alpesh Kantilal Patel
September 15–December 15, 2012
Chinese Culture Center, San Francisco
EMG Gallery, Shanghai
In her 2011 op-ed piece for Le Monde, feminist scholar Julia Kristeva briefly sketches out the history of women’s rights in China. She notes that the country’s early-nineteenth-century bourgeois revolution was feminist as much as it was nationalist and socialist—Chinese suffragettes invaded parliament in 1912—and that the women’s rights movement inspired the 1919 May Fourth Movement, which called for equal rights for men and women, an end to polygamy and arranged marriages, and access to higher education for women. By 1950, the People’s Republic abolished a marriage law that would not allow women to keep their maiden name, bequeath property to their children, or earn property rights.
In contemporary China, women routinely outperform men on entrance exams to college and have become integral to the country’s strong economy—they make up 46% of the workforce.2 In contradistinction to this evidence, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report indicates that the disparity between men and women in China—not only in categories such as economic participation and education attainment, but also political empowerment, economic opportunity, health, and survival—is still significant: in 2012, China ranked 69 out of 130 countries assessed.
Kristeva surmises that the international community’s interest in the economy of post-millennial China has eclipsed concerns for woman’s rights.4 Her op-ed piece—later translated into English and published in the Guardian Weekly5— focused on the problems faced by two co-winners of the 2010 Simone de Beauvoir prize for women’s liberty—which Kristeva founded—in upholding woman’s rights in China. One recipient, professor of comparative literature and filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, was not allowed to leave China to accept her award; the other, lawyer Guo Jianmei, was allowed to leave the country, but two months after her return, Beijing University severed its relationship with the non-governmental organization (NGO) she founded in 1995, Women’s Legal Research and Services Center, one of the most well known legal aid NGOs in China and abroad. No definitive reason for the closure of the center was given, but it was suspect since the other three NGOS with which the university cut ties at the same time were largely “empty shells.” 6
Curator Abby Chen was invited in 2009 by the aforementioned Ai Xiaoming and her colleague Ke Qianting to serve on a panel discussing documentary film in China, and while there she was introduced to a number of scholars, feminists, and artists in Guangdong. Through this experience Abby Chen began to develop the exhibition titled WOMEN , which took shape initially as an exploration of feminism through contemporary Chinese art and visual culture, a woefully unexamined topic in the art world.7 Mobilizing the metaphor of a contagion to speculate about the dearth of exhibitions on gender identity, curator Hou Hanru in an interview with Abby Chen on January 28, 2013 provocatively said that the contemporary Chinese art world is “contaminated and driven by commercial success” and that its “disengagement of political and social issues” is tantamount to a “generalized disease.” The latter echoes Kristeva’s observation that an emphasis on commerce has led to a general occlusion of women’s rights in China.
The Historical and Contemporary Roles of Women in China
Two works in WOMEN , both performative, by mid-career artists are exemplary in linking the historical and contemporary contradictions embedded within women’s rights.8 California-based, Hong Kong-born Man Yee Lam’s Cocooning—Self-Combing Woman (2011) concerns her ancestral hometown of Shunde, the workforce of which has been dominated by women for hundreds of years. Silk production is the chief industry of Shunde, and women who tended the silkworms not only wielded significant economic power but also reshaped the prevailing feudal social structure. Instead of marriage, the women of Shunde could choose “spinsterhood” by performing the “self-combing” ceremony. Traditionally, families hired married women with many children to recomb a bride’s hair into a matronly bun—to signify her transition from girl to woman and daughter to wife; on the other hand, the self-combing ceremony involved women combing their own hair to signify their commitment to lives of self-reliance. Man Yee Lam’s performance involves her literally weaving herself into a cocoon with white pigtail yarn; by doing so she foregrounds the sobering truth that although the women of Shunde could choose a role outside of that of a housewife, it was in exchange for a life-long vow of chastity taken in front of family members and other women as part of the self-combing ceremony.
The installation is accompanied by two video monitors, one of which includes interviews with the few surviving self-combing woman (the society of self-combing women faded away after the China’s republic era); the other depicts Man Yee Lam, herself, in high-heel shoes, a business suit, and her hair pulled up, which seems to imply her own ability to be self-reliant. Of course, today, Chinese women certainly do not have to take a vow of chastity to be self-sufficient. At the same time, in an artist’s statement on the wall of the exhibition, Man Yee Lam notes that although she has a greater range of choices than her ancestors did, she considers herself as emblematic of a contemporary variant of the predicament of the self-combing woman. She is able to support her artistic practice through work in the financial sector, but this has necessarily meant a delay in marriage, which is still largely looked down upon from a dominant hegemonic point of view. CNN Hong Kong recently referred to unmarried wealthy women as “golden spinsters.”
Beijing-based performance artist He Chengyao’s photographs allude to past and present roles of women but through a more specific personal relationship—one between herself and her mother. He Chengyao was born out of wedlock, and her mother, unable to bear the societal scorn, became mentally ill when He Changyao was quite young.10 To begin to understand what her mother might have gone through, the artist staged a series of performances re-enacting various scenes such as one involving the forcible insertion of acupuncture needles, 99 Needles (2002). According to He Chengyao, her re-performance of the procedure—originally performed as a potential cure for her mother’s increasingly fragile psyche—functions as a kind of atonement given that she had witnessed the event yet was unable to intervene.11 Particularly poignant is the photographic series Mama and Me (2001–02), in which He Chengyao takes a photo with her mother for the first time. She explains that when she visited her mother in Rongchang, the rural hometown in which she grew up, she found her in the courtyard sitting by herself “on a stool at one side of the courtyard, half naked and playing with a rotten apple.”12 Eventually, her mother took off her top, so He Chengyao, too took off her shirt in solidarity for this mother–daughter photograph; and thereby satisfied “a yearning of more than thirty years to support, touch, and embrace her.13 He Chengyao’s works are metaphors for the deeply embodied and generational wounds connected to the failure of women’s rights to change the lives of a great many of the women in China, especially those outside of urban areas.
Kristeva’s aforementioned article appeared a little over two months after France banned the wearing of full-face veils in public.14 Subway Performance (2012)—a collaboration between emerging Shanghai-based artist Gao Ling and the NGO Shanghai Nvai, a lesbian advocacy group—productively connects feminism in China with the politics of the veil; and is exemplary of the manner in which Abby Chen’s exhibition incorporates transnational feminist discourses. Subway Performance is in large part a comment on the response of Shanghai’s Metro to the sharp rise in sexual harassment of woman on its trains. The Metro asked women to “please be self-dignified to avoid perverts.”15 That is, one might say that instead of seeking redress through asking male perpetrators to change their ways, women were asked to literally re-dress. In a protest against the response that effectively shifted blame from men to women, Gao Ling and other women rode the subway wearing clothing that resembled reworked burkas and full-face veils—ones like those that France has banned—while holding tablets that read “It’s a dress, not a yes” and “Want to flaunt, not a taunt.” The work moves beyond the confines of the national and signals complex, transnational connections between the politics of the dress of women and tradition across vastly different cultures: China, France, and implicitly even other Islamic countries.
This is, of course, not to minimize the importance of the work Subway Performance within Chinese national discourse. For instance, when Sina Weibo—China’s version of Twitter—asked some 45,000 people what they thought of Shanghai Metro’s call for modest dressing, 70% of the respondents wrote that women should be careful to dress in such a way so as to avoid sexual harassment.16 This is the sort of reaction Gao Ling hopes to curb, and it points again to the complexity of feminism in the current moment in China. Rather than replacing the national with the transnational, I argue that Subway Performance indelibly links them together. The women in Subway Performance also wore tea strainers as bras. In the exhibition, the installation Hey! TTTTouch Me! (2010) by Gao Ling includes tea strainers hung up as if on a kitchen rack; the sexualization of a domestic item conflates—and thereby disrupts—the construction of women as either housewives or whores.
The title of the exhibition, WOMEN, is a play on the English–Mandarin homophone meaning “women” and “we.” It succinctly reveals the crux of the exhibition’s curatorial conceit: to examine issues relating to women in China while shifting and stretching the very terms of what the categories of woman and China signify as Gao Ling’s collaborative work does. The exhibition keeps the category of woman under question through its inclusion of artists who are not biologically female and works concerned with gender ambiguity or gay male sexuality. For instance, Shanghai-based emerging artist Mu Xi’s video installation Moth (2011) depicts a graceful, semi-naked, and androgynous dancer onto whose back digital drawings of a caterpillar becoming the titular lepidopteron are superimposed. While caterpillars do not have morphological characteristics that distinguish males from females, moths do: usually female moths are larger than their male counterparts, even though the genetic blueprints dictating development and growth are the same for both.17 However, by juxtaposing the equally ambiguously gendered caterpillar and dancer with the supposedly mature and gendered moth—whether male or female is beside the point—the work suggests that sexual dimorphism is as “natural” as the fluidity rather than fixity of gender. My Little One (2009) by Er Gao and Li Zhe—collectively, Er Gao Production—is less metaphorical than Mu’s Moth. It is an hour-long documentary, which includes reflections of various members of the LGBTQ community in Guangzhou on their lifestyles. While homosexuality is not illegal in China, there is a lack of official recognition of its existence. Underscoring the danger in making non-normative subjectivities visible, some of the participants wear masks of various kinds; yet these often carnivalesque and exaggerated masks ultimately serve more as bold avatars rather than something to hide behind.
Activism as Art and Art as Activism
As I previously noted, Abby Chen originally conceived of this project to explore feminism in Chinese art and visual culture, but eventually expanded her focus to include intersecting concerns such as gay male sexuality. By including authors of works who are not always of Chinese descent in the exhibition, Chen further pushed beyond nationalist and ethnic boundaries. Indeed, the San Francisco version of the exhibition included the video Ice Queen (2011), by the Mexico-born, US-based artist Ana Teresa Fernandez. In preparation for the work, the artist constructed a mold of a stiletto, which would fit her feet, filled it with water, and then put it in the freezer. Fernandez’s work is a looped, five-minute video of her standing on a grate wearing her form-fitting stilettos of ice—only her legs from the knees down are visible—on International Boulevard, a seven-and-a-half-mile-long strip in West Oakland, California which is notorious for being “an open-air sex market for young children,” especially Asian-American girls who are in high demand.18 The pain involved in wearing high heels made out of ice is evident; the artist’s legs shiver and from time to time she pours water down her legs to speed the process of the melting of the ice. Fernandez’s icy shoes look perversely like fairy tale glass slippers; as they become pools of water, any economic value they signified literally goes down the drain and the subject wearing them is metaphorically and literally freed from a seemingly interminable labour of waiting—one with no necessarily inherent economic value in and of itself—for a morally dubious “prince.”
The strategic placement of a poster produced by the China Sex Worker Organization Network Forum next to Fernandez’s work allows for a consideration of sex work through a transnational frame. Established in 2009, the Forum connects sex worker advocacy groups from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and fifteen other sex worker organizations in mainland China. The text on the organization’s 2011 poster, “Chinese Sex Workers Say No To Violence and Crackdown,” sits above a drawing by an unknown artist of a chain link fence, the center of which is broken by a ruby red stiletto; flourishes of red behind the shoe look as much like lipstick as they do blood. Whereas Fernandez’s artwork itself is not necessarily activist and the forum poster is not necessarily art, installing them together seems to blur these distinctions.
Even as I write, the exhibition tries to break free from fixed geographies and subjectivities, the specific inclusion of materials from activist groups in China keeps the exhibition from drowning out the embodied politics and sited-ness of the project. That is, the posters connect to specific locales and ensure that the artworks and the queer and feminist bodies to which they are attached do not become too abstracted. Installed in a section separate from the China Sex Worker Organization Network Forum poster and Fernandez video are posters from other NGOs such as Aishang LGBT, a Shanghai-based group that promotes the advocacy and visibility of gay men; the aforementioned Shanghai Nvai, which promotes rights for lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender subjects; and PFLAG Guangzhou, an organization founded in 2008 that works in eight regions across China and connects parents, friends, and supporters of lesbians and gays. All of these NGOs operate under the radar to avoid scrutiny and are creative about getting their messages across—often through what Abby Chen refers to as “guerrilla tactics” that are more synonymous with performance art such as the aforementioned Subway Performance.19 Indeed, perhaps some of the most provocative art interrogating identity is happening outside of the supposedly official contemporary art world in China.
To conclude, it is worth considering the reception of this exhibition. To do so is not to gauge WOMEN ’s success or failure but to reposition the discussion in the context of the art world. In an email to the author on January 9, 2013, curator Abby Chen notes that the feminist conference, which the exhibition in Shanghai was part of, was under the scrutiny of the National Security Bureau; however, the exhibition itself seemed not to generate any specific negativity from the government or the art world.
Chen ironically surmises that WOMEN ġwent largely “unnoticed due to the highly commercialized art scene.” It is interesting to note that at least one review of the exhibition suggested that the exhibition had upset the supposedly “official” Chinese art community or the state.20 This suggests the default position continues to be a belief that the state and the Chinese art world are oppressive towards liberal culture in China which might have led to a paucity of exhibitions exploring gender and sexuality in Chinese art and visual culture; yet the fact that there has been no backlash, makes the omission seem even more curious and problematic. Have the discourses of post-identity—effectively considering identity as a historical formation— in Euro-America moved to China? At the same time, the antidote to this cannot be the sort of clunky identity-themed exhibitions that essentialize and fall back on fixed or known subjectivities. It is in this regard that the curator of this exhibition has marvelously succeeded: Not only does Abby Chen suggest that there is an extraordinary amount of visual material being produced by emerging and mid-career artists in both China and abroad that is providing fresh perspectives on gender and sexuality, but, also, she does so in a way in which identity categories elude fixity—without sacrificing embodied politics. That is, eluding fixed identity categories can sometimes also abstract the bodies connected to them; and, here, this is avoided through the inclusion of activist content.