【评论文章 | 曹雨】Luise Guest | 吃苦:三位中国艺术家作品中的哀悼、记忆与母性

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【评论文章 | 曹雨】Luise Guest | 吃苦:三位中国艺术家作品中的哀悼、记忆与母性 曹雨 艺术家 中国 作品 母性 Guest 文章 我有 录像 彩色 崇真艺客

曹雨,《我有》,2017,单频高清录像,彩色/有声,4'22",6 版 + 2 AP,图片提供:艺术家及麦勒画廊
Cao Yu, I Have, 2017, Single channel video (colour, sound), 4'22", edition of 6 + 2 AP, Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Urs Meile


Eating Bitterness: Mourning, Memory, Motherhood in the work of three Chinese Artists

1. 哀悼 Mourning




—赖内·马利亚·里尔克,《Girl’s Lament》

Suddenly I’m as if cast out,
and this solitude surrounds me
as something vast and unbounded…

—Rainer Maria Rilke in Girl’s Lament 


I have been having strange and vivid dreams since early 2020. Sometimes I am a child looking formy mother. Or my daughters are tiny children once again, and we are fleeing some terrible danger. Apart from the small matter of a global pandemic, my disturbed dream life is no mystery—my mother died in February, just a few weeks before the whole world shut down. For ten years before that, living in a fearful world of dementia, she sometimes asked me: “Who are you? Are you my mother? Where is my mother?”

As I work out how to mourn while the entire world seems consumed by grief and fear, the subject of mothers and daughters occupies my mind. Long ago, in rural China, illiteratevillage women in Hunan Province invented a slanted script to write their stories of loss and bitterness. Nüshu—a syllabary, not a language, and no secret despite the romantic myths that have grown up around it—was a vehicle to communicate gendered hardships that would otherwise be unrecorded and unremembered. Bridal laments—or kuge (crying songs), stylised performances of grief sung at weddings as girls prepared to leave their natal families forever—became a female canon of lamentation.

I find myself wishing for such a convention of sorrow. Denied consolatory rituals of mourning by Covid-19, I am at a loss. A funeral with only myself and my daughters in attendance, a larger gathering to celebrate her life and scatter her ashes indefinitely postponed, has left me in a kind of limbo. Drifting through months of sadness, trying to summon up the will to write, I turned to my various conversations with other women on the subject of daughters, mothers and grandmothers.


2. 记忆 Memory

Through this time of closed borders and lockdowns, I revisit my interviews with women artists in China over the last decade. Since I cannot return to China, I have conducted new interviews in the virtual realm. I’ve also been reading old transcripts and listening to conversations recorded in two languages, always punctuated by the sound of pouring tea, ringing phones, and the ubiquitous barking dogs that wander around the artists’ villages in Beijing. I am struck by how often these conversations turn to difficult memories of primal maternal relationships.

I have talked with daughters whose parents were bitterly disappointed they were not sons; with daughters separated from mothers imprisoned or exiled during the anti-rightist campaigns; with mothers who desperately wanted more than the one permitted child, and with younger women pressured by mothers who were denied their own education during the Cultural Revolution. These are complicated matrilineal connections, ruptured by political history, social change and patriarchal systems of power and patronage. Women born at the start of the Cultural Revolution experienced the untethering of their own mothers from Confucian-inflected ideals of ‘the good mother’. A generation of younger women, products of the One Child Policy, are now being pressured to have two children: women’s fertility is still controlled by the patriarchal state, and it seems they are still required to ‘eat bitterness’.

What it means to be amother, or to be a daughter, is continually reinvented. My recent conversations with three artists reveal how they navigate the emotional fallout, and how their work interrogates notions of gender.

3. 母性:吃苦 Motherhood: Eating Bitterness


In my conversation with Cao Yu via WeChat and email, we spoke about the video work that made her notorious in Beijing. Shown at her Central Academy of Fine Arts graduation exhibition, Cao’s video Fountain (2015) is shot from her ownpoint of view as she looks down at her lactating body. At the bottom of a vertical video screen, in dramatic chiaroscuro, jets of milk spurt into the air as the artist’s hands rhythmically squeeze her breasts. It’s aesthetically beautiful, visceral, funny—and very subversive. With its title alluding to Marcel Duchamp’s iconoclastic readymade (a porcelain urinal turned on its side) and to a 1966-7 work by Bruce Nauman (showing the American conceptual artist spitting out an arc of water), Cao’s Fountain deflates the phallic conceits of the two ‘seminal’ works and disrupts the male gaze.

【评论文章 | 曹雨】Luise Guest | 吃苦:三位中国艺术家作品中的哀悼、记忆与母性 曹雨 艺术家 中国 作品 母性 Guest 文章 我有 录像 彩色 崇真艺客

曹雨,《泉》,2015年,单频道高清数码录像(彩色,无声),11'10",10版 + 2AP,图片提供:艺术家及麦勒画廊

Cao Yu, Fountain, 2015, single channel HD video (colour, silence), 11’10’’, edition of 10 + 2 AP; image courtesy the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne


Through this work, Cao makes us see new motherhood as a strange combination ofexhaustion and exhilaration. At the time, the artist was suffering from mastitis, which causes high fevers and unbearable pain, so to express her milk was both excruciating and an exquisite relief. But Cao was also newly aware of the power of the female body; her breasts, she says, were like active volcanoes: “I felt for the first time as a woman that my body could have aneven more violent power to release tension than a man’s.”

【评论文章 | 曹雨】Luise Guest | 吃苦:三位中国艺术家作品中的哀悼、记忆与母性 曹雨 艺术家 中国 作品 母性 Guest 文章 我有 录像 彩色 崇真艺客

Cao Yu, Everything is Left Behind, 2019, canvas, fallen long hair (the artist’s), h.135cm, w.90 cm; courtesy artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne

【评论文章 | 曹雨】Luise Guest | 吃苦:三位中国艺术家作品中的哀悼、记忆与母性 曹雨 艺术家 中国 作品 母性 Guest 文章 我有 录像 彩色 崇真艺客

Cao Yu, Everything is Left Behind, 2019

【评论文章 | 曹雨】Luise Guest | 吃苦:三位中国艺术家作品中的哀悼、记忆与母性 曹雨 艺术家 中国 作品 母性 Guest 文章 我有 录像 彩色 崇真艺客

Cao Yu, Everything is Left Behind, 2019, detail

而在她的作品《一切皆被抛向脑后》(2019)中削弱了女性的力量感,从而明确地展现了大众价值观如何定义女孩和女性。白色画布上缝着很多话语,这些语句揭示社会对于女性根深蒂固的文化信仰,而缝字的线不是别的,正是曹雨本人长长的黑发。第一个画面以1988年艺术家的父亲在其出生时所说的一句话作为开篇:“哎, 咱家没福,生了个丫头......”比如另一个画面中写道:“这个丫头没点女孩样太淘气了,再不听话就不要你了......”该系列后来的一些画面上强调了曹雨周边的人在学业及保持美丽上给予的压力:“你看你现在都胖成什么样了,吃啥啥没够,一个姑娘家这样还不让人家笑话......”从这些作品的表面——用头发缝着的每一个笨拙的汉字——愤怒和悲伤的混合体是显而易见的。

Everything is Left Behind (2019) undercuts that sense of female power with explicit references to how girls and women are valued. White canvases are embroidered with sayings that reveal deep-seated cultural beliefs about women; the thread is Cao’s own long black hair. The first panel begins with a quote from the artist’s father at her birth in 1988: “Alas, we are so unlucky, we gave birth to a baby girl’. Another reads: ‘If you’re not a good girl, I will abandon you.” Later works in the series emphasise parental pressure to succeed academically and also to be beautiful: “Look how fat you are, there’s never enough food for you.” In the physicality of these works—their awkward Chinese characters sutured with hair—a simmering mixture of anger and sorrow is palpable.


I Have (2017) examines gendered pressures more pointedly. Speaking to the camera, Cao proceeds to boast. She begins with her appearance (“I have an envy-inducing figure… I have an hourglass waist…”), her marriage (“… I have a husband who dotes on me…”) and adds: “I have a child prodigy for a son.” Cao satirises the ambition, material accumulation, consumerist desire and success of the Chinese zeitgeist: “I will have everything an artist has or could ever want…”yet to be truly successful, it seems, a woman should produce a “child prodigy for a son”. Cao also defies the expected gender performance of modesty and humility. She says, “People are unable to distinguish between genuine and fake, and what they really like to hear and see is weakness in a self-comforting way, to protect their fragile glass hearts.”

【评论文章 | 曹雨】Luise Guest | 吃苦:三位中国艺术家作品中的哀悼、记忆与母性 曹雨 艺术家 中国 作品 母性 Guest 文章 我有 录像 彩色 崇真艺客

曹雨,《我有》,2017,单频高清录像,彩色/有声,4'22",6 版 + 2 AP,图片提供:艺术家及麦勒画廊
Cao Yu, I Have, 2017, Single channel video (colour, sound), 4'22", edition of 6 + 2 AP, Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Urs Meile

Text by Luise Guest

英文文章节选自Luise Guest受邀为澳大利亚4A当代亚洲艺术中心撰写的评论文章,文章发布于4A当代亚洲艺术中心官方网站,请点击“阅读原文”了解更多信息。

English text excerpted from the text by Luise Guest. The text was originally commissioned for 4A Papers in 2020 by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Australia. Please click "read more" to get more info.

【评论文章 | 曹雨】Luise Guest | 吃苦:三位中国艺术家作品中的哀悼、记忆与母性 曹雨 艺术家 中国 作品 母性 Guest 文章 我有 录像 彩色 崇真艺客

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