In discussions surrounding Chinese women artists and feminism, Liao Wen’s name is an authoritative historical presence. Yet, this association is not one that she easily embraces. With an expansive career in Chinese contemporary art stretching from the 1980s to the present, the art critic and curator Liao Wen is nevertheless best known for her work in the 1990s and early 2000s, which was centered upon women artists in China and the question of feminism surrounding their work.
In 1995, Liao Wen curated one of the first exhibitions in China that highlighted the work of Chinese women artists, titled: Women’s Approach to Chinese Contemporary Art. In 1999, she published Women’s Art: Feminism as Method (pictured) which traced the history of Chinese women artists and their changing social contexts to argue that method and consciousness are significant elements in the evaluation of what constitutes women’s art. In 2002, her research moved towards comparative study. She examined feminist art that emerged in United States during the 1960s and 70s from a Chinese perspective, and eventually published No More Nice Girls: Interviews with American Feminist Critics and Artists. A focus on the crossings of Chinese women, contemporary art, and the question of feminism may have been a pioneering contribution of hers, but to understand her work solely in these terms would be to misunderstand her logic.
By her own account, the desire to trace and to situate Chinese contemporary art in the cultural context and traditions of China is the guiding principle of Liao Wen’s work. She situates her positions as curator and art critic firmly in the context of China and the genealogy of Chinese art history. Her work in the 1990s and early 2000s was then a reflection of her observations at the time, when she noticed that woman-identified artists in China were creating work that utilised their internal experiences of gender as a method of visual expression. In Liao Wen’s own words: “I saw that their works were more focused on personal experience and feelings. Men would often place the focus on grand concepts, whereas a lot of the women’s art was intricate and complex, with intertwining lines and blurred imagery. It seemed to express the inexpressible.” The visual language employed by women artists such as Cai Jin, Liu Liping, and Pan Ying in the 1990s not only differed from the work created by “men artists” but also presented a distinct departure from the guigehua (Chamber Painting) style that was popular amongst previous generations of women artists. It was this pronounced shift in artistic expression that led Liao Wen into researching, writing, and curating exhibitions to explore this phenomenon.
Guigehua, with its depictions of an idealised feminine world through representational paintings of flowers, birds, and plants, was a remnant of dynastic China when women were cloistered in the private sphere. The work of Chinese women artists and the valuation of traditional femininity changed, however, when the notion of the “Chinese woman” was reshaped in the throes of a modernising project that culminated in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. For the revolutionaries, the bounded feet of Chinese women stood as a symbol of the backwardness of the nation, and the liberation of women from the private sphere meant progress into a new future for the nation as a whole – away from the corruptness of dynastic China. In the ascendance of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, both cultural production and the liberation of women were regarded as central to the making of a new nation. At the very inception of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, socialist feminism was professed as a core value of the party, and cultural production in the socialist era frequently depicted women as active figures in the public, engaged in the ongoing revolution as soldiers, farmers, scientists, and so on.
And yet, guigehua persisted. It was an artistic response to the suppression of the feminine that came as a result of conflating the economic, political, and social liberation of women with being like men and “holding up [their] half of the sky”. Liao Wen remembers: “Women were still expected to perform traditional wifely duties at home, but they were also ‘liberated’ to work outside of the home, with the expectation that they would perform like men. They were answerable to one man at home, and then to a group of men in society.” The artistic change in the 1990s was then an indication of social change that shifted the response away from utilising guigehua to reclaim their experiences as women.
With growing distance from the gender experimentations in previous eras, being masculine was no longer the primary signifier of being a liberated woman. The emergence of Chinese contemporary art as a new category of art making in the 1980s also untethered art from the politics of nation making. As such, some artists began to move away from idealised representations and to depict the abstract internal experiences of being a “post-liberation” Chinese woman. They expressed what it was like to be caught in the contradictions and intricacies of both public and private worlds – of both being liberated and doubly burdened by this liberation. Liao Wen observed the visual representation of this experience in a recurring motif: meandering, intertwining lines that traversed the paintings, sculptures, and installation art pieces made by a significant number of Chinese women artists.
The emergence of “women’s art” as a category of art in the 1990s was further influenced by an increase in international and transnational feminist contact after the 1978 Open and Reform Policy. Through these exchanges, Chinese women’s art became associated with Western feminism and feminist art. On the state level, Chinese socialist feminism and white Euro-American feminism met at the Fourth UN Conference on Women, which was proudly hosted in Beijing in 1995. It was meant to signal to the international community that China had not only modernised through their liberation of Chinese women, but also that its socialist feminism led the world in gender equality. In the same year, Liao Wen curated her groundbreaking exhibition: Women’s Approach to Chinese Contemporary Art. However, a bilateral exchange of different feminist ideas was never fully established (as Min Dongchao writes about). Increased socio-economic contact brought in more translated English texts that introduced American feminist art from the 1960s and 70s to a Chinese readership. This work then served as a historical point of reference for artists and for curators and writers like Liao Wen who had just began to delve into what it meant to make art based upon gender experience. This eventually led Liao Wen to conduct research in the U.S. in 1999 and to write her book: No More Nice Girls: Interviews with American Feminist Critics and Artists. Her task, however, was not simply to learn from the Americans. It was also to present their stories from her perspective as a Chinese curator and art critic who was situated in a history of Chinese literati tradition and socialist feminism. Nevertheless, the association between her work, women’s art, and Western feminism stuck.
Reflecting back on the past, Liao Wen still stands by the notion that differences in gender experience can produce differences in methods of artistic expression. However, she resists the suggestion that her work was primarily about feminism or that women’s art is necessarily feminist art. Liao Wen said on her blog, “Thinking back to that time, many of my ideas were influenced by Western feminism. I wasn’t able to engage in a deeper analysis and truly identify the difference [between feminist art and women’s art]. …The sad thing is, I have worked hard over the past 20 years to bring the question of ‘women’s art’ back into the context of contemporary art, …but I wasn’t able to. [This work] is always just simplistically labeled as ‘feminist’.” Her qualm with this labeling is not to do with a rejection or disavowal of feminism, but rather that the “feminist” label is often synonymous with Western feminism. Reading Western feminism onto the work of Chinese women artists would then be to view Chinese women and their art out of the context of their cultural traditions and history.
The discomfort that Liao Wen expresses with the “feminist” label echoes the discomfort expressed by women artists when their work is categorised as “women’s art” due to fixed stereotypes about their gender. At the core of Liao Wen’s work, both in the past and in the present, is a holistic exploration of Chinese contemporary art and its movements. The work that she does – and that she calls for us to do – is to pay careful attention towards the complex contexts from which these movements emerge.
Christina Yuen Zi Chung is a writer, translator, and PhD scholar in Feminist Studies at the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Department of the University of Washington. She was born in Hong Kong and raised in Shanghai, PRC and Vancouver, Canada. Some of this blog post was drawn from Chung, C.Y.Z., “Writing a New Chapter for Chinese Contemporary Art” in Vosper, Michelle ed. Creating Across Cultures: Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (East Slope Publishing Ltd., 2017). Image credit: SCMP / K.Y. Cheng.