Guan Wei: Paint Me - Art Collector

Issue 20, April - June 2002

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Guan Wei practises the art of idleness. But for him, idleness results in a prolific output of works and enviable success, writes Linda Jaivin.

Guan Wei’s home in Sydney’s western suburbs is ringing with laughter and Mandarin chatter. It’s the Chinese New Year and Guan Wei and friends are in the backyard hoeing into a meal of steamed dumplings and other Beijing dishes. The table is chockers with plates, platters, glasses and beer bottles. Guan Wei’s wife, Liu Pin, comes out with a watermelon, but there’s nowhere to put it. “How about clearing the table for dessert?” she suggests. Guan Wei surveys the mess, shrugs and chuckles, “Why not just bring out another table?”

Guan Wei once composed an essay describing his philosophy of life as “nesting” or “the art of idleness”. In it, he regrets that whereas “in classical times, people used to nest in the mountains, forests and lakes, and from their ‘nests’ hatched poems about the fields, and landscape paintings – today, nests must be cleaved from the jungles of steel and concrete.” Yet, nesting or idleness, he insists, is a “kind of attitude, a lifestyle”, and when contemporary urban living makes it difficult to be idle – well, you just have to try harder.

Anyone familiar with Guan Wei’s solid sense of discipline and prolific output might protest that he has been anything but idle. Since his first solo exhibition at the French embassy in Beijing thirteen years ago, he has had some 25 solo exhibitions in Australia and a handful of other countries, and participated in group shows including the Berlin and Shanghai art fairs last year, the Kwangju Biennale (2000), the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery (1999), the Sulman Prize Exhibition (1998) and Mao Goes Pop at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (1993), as well as countless other exhibitions in Australia, Mexico, the USA, China, Singapore and elsewhere.

Yet Guan Wei’s work is idle in the most aesthetic sense of the word. Even, for instance, when he is expressing his passion for the natural environment and distress at its degradation, a theme of much of his art in recent years, or his concern for boat people, which comes out in the recent large-scale work, Island, he does so in a visual language infused with playfulness and humour.

Guan Wei is a descendent of the Manchu nobility who ruled China under the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). His great-great-grandfather was the comptroller of the Summer Palace, and his great-great-aunt was the mother of the last emperor of China, Aisin Gioro ‘Henry’ Puyi. As Geremie Barmé wrote in his catalogue essay for the exhibition Ex/Inspire (1997), Guan Wei not only has the typical stature and accent of a Manchu nobleman, but he is heir to that culture’s fascination with diversions and entertainments, including poetry, painting and opera.

The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911 and the family fortune ran out soon after, thanks in part to the decadent lifestyle of Guan Wei’s grandfather, a man who famously expired in a rickshaw on his way home from an opium den. Guan Wei’s father became an actor in the Beijing Opera, playing the role-of generals. He taught Guan Wei to sing as well. Guan Wei might have followed in his father’s footsteps, but at fourteen, his voice broke and never came together again in quite the right way. His father began teaching him to paint instead.

Guan Wei’s voice wasn’t the only thing that broke in 1971. For five years, China had been in the grip of the ultra-left Cultural Revolution, a relentless, violent campaign to enforce ideological conformity and a cult of obedience to Chairman Mao Zedong. That year came the shocking revelation that Mao’s “closest-comrade-inarms”, Lin Biao, had died in a plane crash following a failed assassination attempt on Mao himself.

It began to dawn on people that the Cultural Revolution was as much about power struggles as revolutionary principles. The final fracturing of Maoist ideology wouldn’t occur until after the chairman’s death in 1976. But the profound disillusionment that dates from that time led to the birth of underground movements in art and literature.

The Democracy Wall movement and Deng Xiaoping’s launching of the twin policies of economic reform and an open door to the outside world in late 1978 emboldened the underground to come up into the light. The passion of expatriates in the capital for collecting “dissident” art tended incidentally to sideline artists cultivating a more personal vision.

Guan Wei, who was then in his early 20s, wasn’t impressed with what he perceived as a lack of technique in the more political works he saw at the time and determined to go his own way.

Graduating in 1986 from the Department of Fine Arts at Beijing’s Capital University, Guan Wei began teaching in one of the capital’s high schools. I met him and Liu Pin that year, through a mutual friend, Ah Xian (who has since settled in Australia, last year winning the inaugural National Sculpture Prize).

At the time, Guan Wei was creating black and grey renderings of plump humanoids on which fancifully titled acupuncture points were labelled in red. Red and grey were the colours of Beijing – a city of red slogans and grey walls. Despite this oblique reference to a sense of oppressiveness, Guan Wei’s irrepressible sense of fun and quirky, individual aesthetic set his work apart from that of many of his contemporaries.

Guan Wei painted on long, vertical canvases. Later, art critics would relate their unusual shape to traditional Chinese scroll painting. Guan Wei’s explanation was simpler: “The school was renovating. They were throwing out all the old window frames. I was poor and couldn’t afford much in the way of materials. I thought, they’ll do for stretchers, so I nicked them.”

In 1989, Guan Wei made his first trip overseas, travelling to Australia to take up a three-month residency at the Tasmanian School of Art. He returned to Beijing in time to witness the heady start of the protest movement in April and the brutality with which it was crushed by the Chinese army on 4 June. Guan Wei’s artistic response, the 48-piece series in gouache, Two Finger Exercises, is his most overtly political work. In it, figures frolic with their fingers extended in the V-for-victory sign adopted by the demonstrators. It communicates the sense of rowdy innocence and exuberance on the streets of Beijing before the tanks moved in.

Concerned for his safety, the Tasmanian School of Art sponsored Guan Wei back to Australia in 1990. The following year, he showed his work to Dr Gene Sherman, director of Sherman Galleries (then the Irving Gallery). She invited him to show in her gallery, and helped to organise his application for permanent residence. He was successfully admitted under the Distinguished Talent Scheme and Liu Pin joined him in Sydney two years later.

Guan Wei has enjoyed enviable success. He has had numerous residencies, including one with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, been awarded grants from the Australia Council and Asia Link, and has also won major art prizes. He was one of eight Australian artists commissioned to produce limited edition prints for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and his art has appeared on the front page of a special Australia Day edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. His work is widely collected by institutions and individuals and his shows are often sell-outs.

Though he doesn’t have to nick old window frames any more for stretchers, he remains fond of the form and enjoys playing consciously with its cultural associations. Some recent works have been influenced by traditional Chinese landscapes; others are grand suites of paintings, such as Island (2002), which consists of 48 vertical canvases (102 x 51 cm) arranged on a wall with seven centimetres of space between each row and each panel. When Guan Wei uses multiple but separate panels, he typically links them with such dynamic conceits as lines of arrows, drops of water or a march of insects which seem to leap off one canvas only to neatly land on the next.

Gone is the austere monochrome of his Beijing paintings. Today Guan Wei draws on Australia’s natural palette, with its brilliant blues and sea greens sparkling on the canvas alongside other, earthier colours. He is fascinated by Australian animals and plants, both native and exotic, and has developed a unique iconography, with real and imaginary animals, compass points, stylised clouds and one-eyed, voluptuous figures which chase after pharmaceutical capsules,play with toys, and assume Buddha-like poses.

Integral to Guan Wei’s art-making today is the notion of installation. He complements his two-dimensional works with constructions that may require anything from fresh eggplants to plastic flowers or, in the case of Island, one ton of sand in which sits, among other things, a television playing a video loop of waves striking a beach.

Guan Wei gets many of his ideas from reading – everything from genetics and alchemy to Western and Chinese art history. He aims for the trifecta of “wisdom, knowledge and humour” in every painting, and has a little story for each one. Among three early pieces he’s given me is one with a six fingered figure looking up into space full of squiggles. “That’s you,” he explained. “You’re thinking of what you’re going to write, and you’ve got an extra finger so you can type faster.”

But who wants to type that fast? Idleness sounds like a much more desirable proposition.

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