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Chen Yanyin: Giving form to emotion

Author: Claire Roberts Translator: Wu Chenyun 2015

Chen Yanyin: Giving form to emotion

Claire Roberts      

Chen Yanyin came to prominence in 1994 with a solo exhibition of the ‘Box Series’
(箱子系列) held at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute, where she worked (and continues to work) as a full time artist. In the centre of the gallery she created a room within a room titled ‘Point of Origin’, the walls covered with sharp conical wooden spikes, the whole painted red. Viewers were lured down a corridor into an interior zone transformed by red light and the pulsating sound of a heartbeat toward a box containing a TV monitor with close-up video footage of a vagina as a woman reaches a state of climax. Elsewhere in the gallery seven exquisitely crafted box-shaped sculptures made from wood (a soft material chosen for its connection to life) were placed on the gallery floor. The works, titled ‘Box 1’ and so on, were also covered with aggressive looking spikes. Some are square in shape, others triangular, many with clam-like lids open or closed. ‘Box 5 ‘and ‘Box 6’ were given more explicit sub-titles, ‘The Unfertilised Egg’ and ‘Abortion’ respectively. ‘Abortion’, quite unlike other works in the series and strictly speaking not a box but a towering edifice pierced all over by tubes of metal, suggests the invasiveness and unnatural intervention. ‘The Unfertilised Egg’, the artist’s favourite work in the series, a square wooden box, made from honey-coloured wood chosen for the beauty and interest of its grain, stands somewhat precariously on a series of tapered conical spikes that attempt to pierce its base.  A further set of spikes stand on the rim suspending the lid in mid air. They appear to pierce through the edges of the cover, creating a menacing decorative effect. Yet more spikes are attached to each of the four sides of the box below the rim, giving a feeling of attempted rupture. The box is at once solid and vulnerable, the bright light emanating from its smooth interior symbolic of the potential of love. ‘Point of Origin’ and works in the ‘Box Series’ confronted viewers with imagery not normally seen in public, and with abstract forms that gave shape to a female perspective on love. Chen Yanyin later reflected that in ‘Point of Origin’ she first achieved ‘intensity of sensitised and psychological stimulus.’ ‘The audience,’ she said, ‘can enter the box and directly participate in my emotional world.’

Through a conscious use of visual and conceptual language Chen Yanyin objectifies her complex emotions related to life, love and womanhood. The works suggest a connection between emotional states and the broader cultural environment, between the body and the body politic. ‘I am always searching’ Chen says ‘for the right form to express my emotions. In the process of exploration it is important for me to quieten my mind, get in touch with my inner self and awaken my own consciousness of symbols.’

The ‘Box Series’ was quickly followed by ‘Membrane’ (薄膜 1995) and ‘Discrepancy Between One Idea’ (一念之间的差异 1995), works that also explore a female perspective on life. ‘Membrane’ was included in an exhibition curated by Wang Nanmin called Installation, The Place of Language held in the former Shanghai residence of Song Qingling (1893-1981) which became a memorial museum in 1988 but in 1995 faced an uncertain future.  Song Qingling is widely regarded as the ‘mother’ of modern China, a consequence of being the wife of Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the first Provisional President of the Republic of China. Wang Nanmin invited artists to select a location in the house for a site-specific installation. Chen Yanyin chose a discreet section of wall with a doorway at either end. ‘Membrane’ involved covering one of the doorways with taught plastic film, pinning 24 pure white silk handkerchiefs on the wall in three neat rows, and placing a carefully folded silk handkerchief on each of two stools placed either side of the plastic membrane to create the impression of a mirror image. The work relied on audience interaction: walking in though one doorway and in the process breathing life into the hanging silk handkerchiefs which gently moved and fluttered as people displaced the equilibrium, and perceiving that the second doorway was in fact sealed and not a mirror. The silk handkerchiefs are, the artist says, ‘like young girls’ hearts in a state of flux, due to the lure of the outside world.’ The work may be understood as a poetic response to the age-old taboo against pre-marital sex. As Chen Yanyin has explained: ‘In China we have a tradition to determine the morality of a young girl. There is only one way. On the wedding night the groom’s parents give the couple a pure white handkerchief. On the morning of the second day the couple must show the parents the handkerchief and the necessary trace of blood indicating virginity.’  

The exhibition venue sharpened the socio-cultural dimension of work. Song Qingling, the daughter of a leading Shanghai Christian family, became one of China’s most influential modern women. Educated at the McTyeire School for Girls established by American Methodist missionaries, and later at Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Georgia, she travelled to Japan in 1914 to replace her sister Song Ailing as the English secretary of the exiled revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen. Sun Yat-sen and Song Qingling quickly developed a close and intimate relationship and married in 1915, despite Sun’s prior marriage to Lu Muzhen and an age difference of 26 years. After their marriage, Song Qingling dedicated herself to Sun’s revolutionary cause. She suffered a miscarriage in 1922 and thereafter remained childless (Sun had a son and two daughters with Lu Muzhen).  After Sun’s death Song Qingling continued to be actively involved in politics and took a great interest in the welfare of children, and women’s rights. Late in life she adopted two girls and persisted in advocating for women to be freed from the ongoing social expectation of obedience to fathers, husbands and sons.  

The 1990s, like the early 1900s, was a period of major cultural change in China. Rapid socio-economic growth and increased exposure to the outside world challenged traditions, including sexual behaviour, impacting on the lives of ordinary people, in particular women. ‘Membrane’, which uses thin plastic film stretched across a doorway to suggest the intact hymen that is penetrated and broken upon sexual intercourse and which on the marriage night immediately cast a woman as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, involved visitors to the exhibition in a conversation regarding behaviours and cultural mores linking the past to the present.

‘Discrepancy Between One Idea’ was displayed in a three-woman exhibition (with Jiang Jie 姜杰 and Li Xiuqin 李秀琴) at the art gallery of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. The gallery, located in Xiaowei Lane, off Wangfujing Street, was purpose built for the Academy and opened in 1953. It is diagonally opposite the Xiehe Hospital, in a zone frequented by art students and patients. The focal point of Chen Yanyin’s work was a bed of fresh red roses connected to intravenous drips that were in turn connected to clear glass transfusion bottles labelled with the names of physical and emotional afflictions commonly ascribed to women, as well as prescribed treatments. The bottles, placed on tables either side of the ‘sick bed’, created an inescapable barrier between the ‘patient’ and the outside world, contributing to a feeling of claustrophobia made all the more resonant by the proximity of the gallery to the hospital. The only relief was provided by a TV monitor showing footage of a blue sky shot with clouds located at the foot of the ‘bed’. Over the course of the exhibition the long-stem roses wilted, discoloured and died, suggesting the passing of youth, love and ultimately life. The work creates a powerful connection between love and illness (physical and mental) giving expression to the feelings of heartache and collapse when love fades. Chen Yanyin has said of the work: ‘As a result of discrepancies which arise from communication; in conversation; in physical contact; in expressions of eye contact; and in emotional contact, each occasion of contact, each instant of contact, the differences continue and develop, we conscientiously try to make them up yet the discrepancies just get larger’.  As in the ‘Box’ series and ‘Membrane’, ‘Discrepancy Between One Idea’ gives form to amorphous feelings and emotions. The title of the work points to discrepancies that arise in intimate communication, and the pain that ensues for which there is no simple cure. ‘We live’, Chen Yanyin says ‘in those discrepant spaces’.

Chen Yanyin’s emotional world has long been the wellspring of her creative practice. Her point of origin is the family: her mother, father, siblings and extended family. Chen Yanyin (Yanyin means ‘beautiful sound’) was born in October 1958 at the height of the Great Leap Forward, a period of frenzied activity dedicated to the rapid establishment of socialism. Her family background, like so many in China, is complex, impacted by the dramatic social changes of the twentieth century. Her maternal grandfather owned a factory in Shanghai connected to the automotive industry and the family lived in a large house in Jing’an district. Her grandmother was the first of two wives. After 1949 the company assets were confiscated and her grandfather became a member of the Red Capitalist class pledging loyalty to the Party. He stayed on as the ‘deputy’ factory manager and received a monthly salary until he retired. He was the black sheep of the family; his eight brothers all left for Hong Kong and continued as successful businessmen. Chen Yanyin’s paternal grandfather was a Customs officer. It appears his family had less difficulty making the transition from the old to the new society. Her mother Wu Ruidi (吴瑞娣 1934-1999) attended a private girls’ school established by Christian missionaries. Her father, Chen Jinkang (陈金康 1929-1989), one of seven children and the oldest boy had to provide for the family and so missed out on an education and ended up working in the office of a factory connected to the army. Chen Yanyin’s parents were married in 1957 and she was born the following year. She had a difficult and unexpected entry into the world. She was born two months premature as a result of a bus accident and spent the first month of her life in a humidicrib, a new technology at the time. Chen Yanyin’s father took an interest in the arts. He loved classical music, took good photographs and was Chen Yanyin’s earliest teacher. Another early teacher was Gu Bingxin (顾炳鑫,1923-2001), her uncle (the husband of her father’s older sister), a prize-winning serial-picture book (lianhuanhua) illustrator who together with his wife were very much part of their family. In 1977 Chen Yanyin was assigned by the state to study jade carving at the Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts (上海市工艺美术学校), one of the few art schools in Shanghai at the time.  There were 21 students in her class, including 9 women.  Over the course of three years she received foundational training in art and art history, and specialist instruction in jade carving. She excelled at the school and her graduation work Apsara (飞天), a female spirit of the clouds and water inspired by mural paintings in the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang (an early sign perhaps of her interest in Buddhism), was one of two works collected by the School.  

That Chen Yanyin was assigned to the jade carving group at the Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts was fortuitous. She had a natural aptitude for three-dimensional modelling. Early on she was inspired by the work by leading Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953), in particular her monumental stainless steel sculpture ‘Rabochiy i Kolkhoznitsa’ (Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 1937) of a man and woman striding forward together holding high a hammer and a sickle respectively. The work was created for the Soviet Pavilion of the World’s Fair in Paris and later installed outside the Russian Exhibition Centre, Moscow. Determined to continue her studies Chen Yanyin was attuned to local opportunities that would assist her gain entry to the prestigious Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou (now the China Academy of Art). After working for two years she was eligible to sit for the entrance examination. She secured a job in her mother’s work unit, the Shanghai Mint, creating designs for presentation coins. While working at the Mint she was invited, through her teachers, to participate in the 1982 Shanghai Exhibition of Designs for Urban Sculpture (上海城市雕塑设计展览). Her entry ‘Monument to China’s Martyrs’ (龙华英雄纪念碑) was awarded a prize for outstanding work (优秀作品奖) and admired by Zhang Chongren (张充仁 , 1907-1998), a senior sculptor who in the early 1930s had studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels with the oil painter Alfred Bastien, and was head of studio practice at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute. The following year she entered the sculpture department of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, one of two female students in the intake of six. While studying at the Academy her sculpture ‘Love’ (1986) was included in the First Exhibition of Sport in Art held at the National Art Museum of China and was acquired by the National Sports Commission. Upon graduation in 1988 Chen Yanyin was employed as a full time artist at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute, established in 1965 as a dedicated practice and research organisation for artists in Shanghai. In a career that now spans close to thirty years she has produced for the Institute a long list of prize-winning exhibition works, commissions and public sculptures. Among these are ‘Old Woman’ (老妇 1989) submitted to the Seventh National Art Exhibition and awarded a bronze medal; ‘First Generation Female Soldier’ ( 第一代女战士 1990) included in the Shanghai Art Exhibition, awarded second prize; ‘Oppose Starvation, Oppose Persecution, Oppose the Internal Student Movement’ (反饥饿,反迫害, 反内战学生运动 2007), her contribution to the Important National Historical Subjects commission topic and one of nine successful submissions from Shanghai, acquired by the National Art Museum of China. In 2008 she won the main prize at the Inaugural China Sculpture Exhibition for ‘My Mother 1953, 1957, 1998’; third prize at the Eleventh National China Art Exhibition (2010); a bronze medal for ‘New China’s First Generation of Young Pioneers’ exhibited in the 2012 National Art Exhibition and acquired by the National Museum of China; and the Jury Prize for a curated project in the Second Liu Kaiqu International Sculpture Exhibition (2012). She contributed to the design and scaling of the massive public sculpture ‘Monument to People’s Heroes’ (1994) on the Bund in Shanghai, and has created a number of public artworks in Pudong, including ‘Tree of Life’ (1997) in a park in Pudong’s financial district.

Looking back on the last 30 years of contemporary art in China it is somewhat unusual for an artist to actively and consistently straddle the complex terrain that constitutes China’s contemporary art world. Chen Yanyin’s oeuvre points to the difficulty of drawing a clear line between the so-called official and unofficial art worlds which have in fact been closely linked since the early 1950s through the art education system in particular, but also through the related systems of publishing, exhibiting and collecting. Throughout her career Chen Yanyin has maintained an active profile as a professional public artist while at the same time participating in exhibitions and activities that are part of the international contemporary art world, both within China and overseas (she has Master of Arts from the Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney University and maintains a studio and family life in Sydney). The ‘Box Series’ including ‘Point of Origin’ which was first displayed in the gallery of the Shanghai Sculpture and Oil Painting Institute was later exhibited in various configurations including in Copenhangen, Denmark (1996), Bonn, Germany (1998), and most recently at the private Yuz Museum in Shanghai (2014) where three of the ‘Box’ series have been acquired. Featured in a gallery devoted to art of the 1990s, which forms part of an exhibition surveying the development of contemporary Chinese art over the past thirty years, the ‘Box Series’ works displayed at the Yuz Museum works do not incorporate the element of light that was so important in the original display.  Following the installation of ‘Discrepancy Between One Idea’ at the Central Academy of Fine Art Gallery, the work was included in the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial, held at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane (1996) but with clear plastic intravenous drip bags replacing the glass bottles, which instead of being placed on tables either side of the roses, were suspended from the ceiling above the roses forming two neat grids. The modified installation created a more potent visual effect. The work was later displayed in that format in Kassel, Germany (1998), Vancouver (1999), Singapore (2000), and in the Third Shanghai Biennale (2000).
Chen Yanyin’s interest in the female heart/mind began to be expressed in her sculpture as early as 1988 in her graduation work titled Door (门, 1988), an installation of two locked doors with a staircase either side and a sculptural image of herself seated at the top of one staircase and at the bottom of the other (though earlier works such as Apsara show an attentiveness to female subjects).  Speaking in 1996 she pointed to the challenges she and other women faced in relation to the dramatic changes that had occurred in twentieth century Chinese society:
My emotional experiences began from as early back as I can remember. My maternal grandmother was my maternal grandfather’s first wife. Her indecisiveness often made me nervous of her. In pre-1940s China, if men had money they could have many wives. This was legal and honourable. Thus our family consisted of a grandfather between two women. My grandmother lived in constant expectation [anxiety]. In my mother’s generation, the new direction of society brought about more stable relations between husbands and wives. They spoke of equality of men and women. Free lifestyles of corruption were uprooted, as a result, divorce was considered morally degenerate and the leaders had the power to intervene. Social comment created a lot of pressure. Even though a marriage may have been fundamentally ruptured, in order to appear content, the majority of people wouldn’t even think of divorce. For people of my generation however, love is an even more complicated thing…we are positioned in a period of cultural change and changing outlooks on life and values…The majority of those amongst us have no way of casting off the old or moving between the new and the old in this great vortex.

Despite the efforts of early twentieth century Chinese feminists and the progressive ideas espoused in the early years of Communist China, that women should be paid the same as men for equal work and in so doing ‘hold up half the sky’, real equality of body and mind has remained a utopian goal for women in China, as in so many parts of the world, including in many developed countries. A central figure in the birth of Chinese feminism is He-Yin Zhen (何银珍1884-c.a. 1920), a theorist concerned with patriarchy and gender subjugation, married to the scholar and revolutionary activist Liu Shipei.  He-Yin (Yin was her mother’s surname) published a series of important essays on women, including ‘On the Question of Women’s Liberation’ (1907); ‘On the Revenge of Women’ (1907); and ‘The Feminist Manifesto’ (1907). In ‘On the Question of Women’s Liberation’ she expressed her wariness about men’s call for women’s liberation which she characterised as self-interested, regarding it as: 1) men’s pursuit of self-distinction in the name of women’s liberation, 2) men’s pursuit of self interest in the name of women’s liberation, and 3) men’s pursuit of self-comfort in the name of women’s liberation.  If we fast-forward 80 years to 1990, and an exhibition of oil paintings by eight female graduates of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, titled The World of Women Painters (女画家的世界), one of the earliest exhibitions in contemporary China devoted to the art of women, it was still the case that most of the commentary on the exhibition was by male artists and critics.  One of the first pieces of writing to discuss contemporary Chinese art from a female perspective was ‘Emerging from the Abyss: A Letter to Women Artists and Critics’ (1994) by the artist and then emerging critic Xu Hong.  Xu Hong begins her article:
China’s contemporary art surges and ebbs, critics’ artist nomination exhibitions in Beijing close and open, and we are up to the second iteration of the Guangzhou Biennale. While in terms of organisational structures and the evaluation of works for selection these exhibitions are different from the official National Art Exhibition, fundamentally they are a continuation of an outmoded male chauvinist tradition of art event. A bunch of men sitting together, discussing which female artists work will be included, which are no good, in the end selecting works by female artists that suit their standards and tastes and expounding on them.  

These practices, the unthinking result of thousands of years of patriarchal society has she says, resulted in generic criticisms of women’s art as ‘too personal’, or observations such as ‘female artists are not interested in big issues and are only interested in small, trivial things that are close at hand, and individual feelings’. In closing Xu Hong decries the state of contemporary art: ‘People need to realise that without clear headed and conscious women’s art contemporary art cannot be truly contemporary.’

The following year, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, drawing attention to the status of women in China and elsewhere around the world. At the conclusion of the conference the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) was adopted. Among four critical areas of concern identified, number one was: ‘the advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women’s issue.’  The high profile conference placed women’s issues at centre stage of an evolving debate about gender in China, providing international support to those seeking to bring about change.

Century Woman (世纪:女性艺术展), a large scale exhibition held at the National Art Museum of China three years later provided a fine opportunity to showcase women’s art. The large-scale exhibition included work by some 77 female artists, many of them young (Chen Yanyin was not included). Xu Hong was a member of the organising committee, one of a number of women involved, and a contributing artist. While the primary historical essay was by Tao Yongbai (b. 1937), a distinguished female art historian, the overall curator of the exhibition and the person who wrote the foreword was male. In his foreword Jia Fangzhou (b. 1940), a respected critic and curator, wrote: ‘”Women’s Art” is a fact of Chinese contemporary art. It is not an inane concept for it is in no doubt’. Jia then went on to define what he perceived as six ‘essential characteristics of women’s art’. The first four characteristics were expressed in negative terms: ‘1) Not paying close attention to those extrinsic objects that have nothing to do with personal feelings and life… 2) Seldom taking motif analysis rationally… 3) Being apathetic towards politics, history and philosophy, and on the contrary, concentrating on themes of nature, life, humankind and survival...4) Being generally disinterested in the men’s world…5) Their methods of discourse are developed from traditional handicrafts…6) Materials are often chosen from daily life and a sense of propinquity’.   While Jia Fangzhou was supportive of women’s art he continued to measure it in terms of dominant male trends, which he regarded as normative.

Back in 1995 the female art critic and curator Liao Wen (廖雯) had offered a more helpful and nuanced way of thinking about the practice of contemporary art by women in China. She published an article (and curated an exhibition) identifying aspects of artistic language relating to psychology, physiology, and life experience that were particular to women. This she described as a ‘female approach ’ (女性方式) to art making.  In her later book Women’s Art: Feminism as an Approach (1999) she explained the approaches as: 1) Intuitive choice of media (including the depiction of matter, materials, techniques, methods of expression) and a feeling for the correspondence of the medium in terms of its selection and use; 2) Experience accompanies process, and an emphasis on experience as part of the creative process; 3) Qualities of indistinctness, latency, provocation.   Liao Wen’s definition of art making resonates strongly with approaches adopted by Chen Yanyin (and other female artists of her generation such as Lin Tianmiao and Yin Xiuzhen), whose work demonstrates a great sensitivity to materials, an attentiveness to life experience, and is at once provocative and open to a variety of interpretations.

Chen Yanyin’s recent work ‘Mother Series’ (母亲系列 2007-2015) brings together two previously separate approaches in her art making: conceptualism and realism. The new series manifests Chen Yanyin’s regard for giving form to complex female emotions, seen in earlier conceptual works such as the ‘Box Series’, ‘Membrane’ and ‘Discrepancy Between One Idea’, and her technical ability to create prize-winning representational sculptures. The idea for the series came after the death of her mother in 1999. It was motivated by a promise she had made to create for her a portrait bust. With her mother no longer alive, a single bronze bust seemed inadequate and instead she conceived a series of sculptures and paintings inspired by photographs taken at different stages during her mother’s life. The work would not only be a portrait of her mother, but a portrait of her mother’s generation; a cohort born during the Republican era and who came of age in the early Communist period; a transitional generation whose life experience was unlike any other. It was a way for Chen Yanyin to memorialise her mother and give shape to aspects of her mother’s emotional life that had been covered over by the sedimentary strata of life. Chen Yanyin’s selection of photographs from the family album, a form of curation, maps the life of her mother onto a 49-year period within the life of China, from 1936 to 1985. Through her choice of images Chen Yanyin reintroduced difficult or untidy elements from the past into the meta narrative of her life: a daughter’s ultimate homage to her mother.

The finished work comprises five sculptural groups, six supporting oil paintings, and reproductions of the original photographs on which the works are based. Chen Yanyin’s decision to draw inspiration from family photographs enables her own sculptures and paintings to be situated squarely within an historical context. The act of translating the photographs into sculptures and oil paintings allows Chen Yanyin to move between two and three dimensional space to tell a version of her mother’s story inspired by the selective memory inherent in the photographic record. The five sculptural groups are based on photographs taken in 1949, 1956, 1963, 1966 and 1998 and form the backbone of the ‘Mother Series’, whereas the oil paintings introduce the core cast of characters who shaped her mother’s life. The paintings function as fragmentary reminders of the important contextual backdrops to life, the social units of family, school, rebel faction, work unit and nation.

The first work in the series ‘Childhood’ (童年)is based on a photograph taken in a studio in Shanghai in 1939, with her mother, maternal grandmother, young brother, and mother’s brother, representing three generations of the maternal line of her family. A painted studio backdrop of a living room decorated with auspicious paintings and couplets, with a table displaying a vase of flowers and an Art Deco clock, creates an environment of scholarly affluence; the overt illusionism a hallmark of the studio photographer’s art. Chen Yanyin’s stylised rendition in muted sepia tones presents the family group as actors on a stage, captured in the stark light of the studio. Wu Ruidi holds her mother’s hand but looks to one side, distracted by the antics of the photographic studio. The painting is a translation of the photograph rather than a faithful reproduction, communicating an air of detachment no doubt felt by the subjects in the studio but easily lost in the apparent accessibility of an old photograph. Wu Ruidi’s baby brother sits in his grandmother’s lap, a precious boy, who was one year old and the reason why the photograph was taken. He ended up having a difficult life and some thirty years later was killed or committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution.

The first sculpted work in the series, ‘New China’s First Generation of Young Pioneers’ derives from Wu Ruidi’s graduation photograph taken in 1949, a line-up of classmates and teachers at the Christian girls’ school in Shanghai that she had attended since primary school. Wu Ruidi does not wear a red Young Pioneer necktie, indicating that her family background was not sufficiently progressive – they were not workers, peasants or soldiers – to become a member of the first generation of Young Pioneers. The 15 figures were first modelled in clay and then moulds were made for bronze and fibreglass editions. The finished work is painted white, inspired by the neutral backdrop in the original photograph, a blank canvas symbolic of the hope that was held for New China.

The third work in the chronological sequence of Wu Ruidi’s life, but the first to be created, is based on separate photographs of her mother and her neighbour and childhood sweetheart Zhang Genfa dating from 1956. The two photographs are like generic images of beautiful happy youths in the prime of their life, full of hope for the future. Zhang Genfa, a member of the People’s Liberation Army, was accepted into the Harbin Military Engineering University and left Shanghai promising Wu Ruidi to wait for his return. The photograph of Zhang was taken soon after he arrived in Harbin and sent to his mother and Wu Ruidi as a keepsake. Despite the Chen and Zhang families being close, Zhang’s mother considered Wu Rudi’s background an obstacle to marriage and conspired against the union. Heartbroken, Wu Ruidi married Chen Jinkang and the following year gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Chen Yanyin. Chan Yanyin had long known about the story of her mother and Zhang Genfa. Her mother was entrusted with the education of Zhang Genfa’s nephew while his parents worked for the airforce out of town, and asked Chen Yanyin to support him in his studies, at which time Wu Ruidi told her daughter about the connection between the two families. That story and a series of questions became the starting point of the series. What would her mother’s life have been like had she been able to follow her heart, a life that necessarily would have precluded her own. The two busts that comprise ‘Farewell to First Love’ convey the form and spirit of two young people in the bloom of youth. Both faces are painted in life-like tones but only Wu Ruidi’s hair and attire are in colour, suggesting that Zhang Genfa is but a distant figure conjured by the memory of a photograph.

A comparable pair of busts of her mother and father dating from 1963 depicts Wu Ruidi and Chen Jinkang after five years of marriage. The two busts are placed close to one another, their shoulders almost touching, heads tilted towards one another in a gesture of shared intimacy. The busts capture what Chen Yanyin describes as ‘a short happy period in their lives’, after the birth of a son, her brother, in a case of third time lucky. (Wu Ruidi and her son together with an aunt and nephew are represented in one of the contextual paintings titled ‘The Birth of Two Boys’). Wu Ruidi’s short haircut and plain attire reflect the period of committed austerity and a levelling of difference (at least on the surface) between men and women.

‘Elderly Mother’, a single bust of a confident, smiling, attractive older woman represents Wu Ruidi in 1998, the year before she passed away. Her husband Chen Jinkang had died nine years earlier and at Chen Yanyin’s instigation her mother had re-established contact with Zhang Genfa who had had a successful military career and was retired in Beijing. In the years prior to her mother’s death she and Zhang Genfa met up a number of times. In the series of three busts that refer to her mother’s private live she is presented in full, albeit muted, colour in only the first, suggesting that that was when she felt most alive.

The remaining sculptural work in the series is a tableau of the Cultural Revolution Rebel faction (造反派), of which Wu Rudi was a part. The Rebels comprised disaffected people, many of whose families had been deposed during the early 1950s. Inspired by a photograph taken in 1966, Wu Ruidi squats on the ground along with four other women in front of a large group of standing men, most of whom sport armbands, Mao badges and small shoulder bags containing Quotations from Chairman Mao. A companion piece is a painting of a commemorative photograph of members of the group taken on the Bund.

Among the final group of paintings is an image of her mother with Chen Yanyin’s sister and brother (Chen was away at art school) taken by a neighbour in 1978 (developed by Chen Yanyin at home in her father’s darkroom), and a profile view of her mother taken by Chen Yanyin during an outing to the Workers Cultural Palace in Putuo District four years later. In 1982 Chen Yanyin was employed by her mother’s work unit, the Shanghai Mint, and had taken her mother to the park in an attempt to lift her spirits. Her father had returned to Shanghai following a number of years working far away from home. Family life was tense and unhappy. The photograph was taken from a high vantage point, the profile of her mother placed against the reflection in the lake of the nearby bridge heightening the pensive mood.

At the Shanghai Mint Wu Ruidi was in charge of managing and archiving technical documents. She began work there in 1956 and finally retired around 1989. During the 1950s the work unit was regarded as the ‘big family’ and the biological family the ‘small family’. It was expected that one’s primary allegiance was to the ‘big family’ and the project of socialist construction. In recognition of the significance of her mother’s working life, Chen Yanyin recreated her office. The installation is based on a photograph of her mother seated at her desk, smiling and reading the newspaper. The seat is empty but the desk is clean, with the necessary accoutrements: fountain pen and ink, covered teacups and two telephones. The photograph shows a woman who had overcome the humiliation of her family background and made good her life. Wu Ruidi was at the end a successful cadre.

In the composite work ‘Mother Series’, Chen Yanyin uses intermediality to explore the spaces between the life of the body and the mind, history and memory, reality and desire, work and family. It is at once a deeply felt artwork that stands as a tribute to her mother, and a public work that speaks to the lives of many women who came of age in the early 1950s and in the course of their lives negotiated radical change. It is a daughter’s reflection on the complex emotional life of three generations of women, a curated set-piece that draws on the tangible and intangible: remnant images, personal knowledge and random conversations. Chen Yanyin has created a powerful portrait that adds complexity to the historical meta-narrative of history that remains dominated by male perspectives. It is a discursive cross-generational portrait, a meditation on the relationship of the small family to the big family that leaves open many questions. Unlike Luo Zhongli’s monumental oil painting ‘Father’ (1980), which in effect replaced the head of Mao Zedong with the generic head of a farmer to great conceptual and dramatic effect, Chen Yanyin’s ‘Mother Series’ draws inspiration from her own mother, the first generation of Communist youth. And yet Chen Yanyin’s series is no less monumental. In creating a series of fragmentary memorials to her mother, Chen Yanyin gives form to the light and darkness of life; to lives lived as well as those not lived, to achievements and disappointments, loves and losses, reality and emotion, the private often unspoken experience of her mother, her mother’s mother, and the everywoman.

Related Artists:
Related Exhibitions:
Files - So Far So Close


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