In Grandmother’s House

In December 2012 Luise Guest interviewed two emerging artists and discovered that each was engaged on a quest to examine the past in order to reflect on the present.

“What is real?” one asks when encountering works by Gao Rong (高蓉) and Dong Yuan (董媛). The two emerging artists focus their practice on “things” — the objects with which we surround ourselves and through which we define our lives and personal histories. Baudrillard famously declared postmodernity as “the scene of the object’s preponderance.” From Rauschenberg and Oldenburg to Song Dong’s “Waste Not,” an installation of the thousands of objects collected by his mother over the course of her adult life, “things” have literally become art materials, and the private is made public. In the case of Gao and Dong, however, the things they represent are simulacra, in the sense that the objects themselves often no longer exist, swept away in the tide of demolition and reconstruction that has transformed contemporary China.

Gao Rong and Dong Yuan live and work in the outermost suburbs of Beijing. Both grew up far from the capital, Gao in Inner Mongolia and Dong near Dalian. They have never met. But each has created a work inspired by childhood memories of their grandparents’ house, and the accretion of relationships, objects and rituals contained therein. Unsurprisingly, artists now in their late 20s are reflecting on the enormous social transformation experienced in their lifetime. And in a society where change is the only certainty, artists tend to look inward to family and personal history — and to the “things” that represent them — in a search for meaning and identity.

Gao Rong has transformed the traditions of embroidery, described as “nu hong” — no doubt apocryphally, the phrase is said to have come from the name of an emperor’s daughter in the Zhao Dynasty who spent seven days and seven nights embroidering dragons onto his imperial robes. Using fabric and thread to create large-scale sculptural works, Gao Rong stitches onto fabric which is then wrapped around sponge stiffened by steel frames and wire. Exact representations of peeling paint, electricity fuse boxes and bus timetables take the place of traditional dragons and plum blossoms. “I am a sculptor who uses embroidery, not an embroiderer,” she says. Banal yet poignant, they represent the public and private realms she inhabits — a public telephone, a Beijing bus stop, the entryway to her basement apartment and the house where she spent time as a child. Her most ambitious work to date is a replica of her grandparents’ traditional home in Inner Mongolia, now demolished. Every detail — the rust-stained pipes, enamel mugs and thermos flasks, heavy furniture and ancestor portraits — was created with embroidered fabric. The work reveals itself slowly, initially seducing through sheer technical skill, and then by its evocation of an all-surrounding memory. “The Static Eternity” is a trompe l’oeil labor of love in which the minutiae of humble domestic spaces and the lives lived within their walls are a palpable presence. Gao’s work speaks of family history, memory and filial duty. She honours the traditions of her ancestors by memorializing their vanished home.

Gao Rong confided that she was a rebellious “bad student” when she started at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, lacking a sense of artistic direction until she discovered the work of Tracey Emin. She realised that she could use the embroidery skills taught to her by her grandmother — a language traditionally taught to little girls by women — in a completely new way. “In the act of sewing there is a connection,” she says. Her new work satirizes the materialism of contemporary culture. She is embroidering 20 designer handbags with stains — instant noodles, make-up, coffee — in a reflection on the lives of urban young women. They make one think about the lives of the women who collect such bags as evidence of their success, but they are also a reminder of the “factory girls” who make them. Breaking away from the private, feminine realm of embroidered birds and flowers, Gao critiques the world in which she lives.

Dong Yuan, too, reflects on the significance of the quotidian; recreating in paint, object by object, the interior of the house near Dalian where she spent much of her childhood. Paintings of plants on the kitchen window ledge, an umbrella leaning in a corner (and even the individual raindrops it sheds on the floor), her uncle’s pants hanging from a hook on the wall, a portrait of Mao, are stacked against her studio walls. It is a process of “fixing it in memory” she says. Working from her own memories, conversations with relatives, sketches, photographs and diagrams, she has already completed more than 400 paintings. Previously she has painted the view from every stairwell window of her apartment block, and the entire contents of the tiny apartments in which she lived as a student. In a trajectory similar to Gao Rong’s, her reflection on her own personal journey has taken her back to reflect on her family.

Dong Yuan’s works are a meditation on the beauty of the everyday and the familiar, providing a connection to the unsung domestic labor of women. They also memorialize childhood for her generation of artists, in the way that Cultural Revolution imagery functioned as a kind of “nostalgie de la boue” for the previous generation. In a similar way, albeit more nuanced and without the bitterness, her work can be seen as a response to the dramatic pace of change in China.

At once personal and universal, the work of each artist records a way of life which has ultimately turned out to be fragile and ephemeral. They are artefacts of memory.

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