Three Women Went to China: An exhibition essay by Luise Guest

Luise Guest is an educator, writer, independent researcher, blogger, critic - and student of Chinese. As Director of Education and Research for the White Rabbit collection of contemporary Chinese art she provides access to the collection for students, educators, artists, writers and scholars, and carries out her own research. Her recently published   book 'Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China' is based onencounters with more than 30 artists over a period of five years, visiting studios in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Xi'an and Chengdu.

Three Women Went to China: Suzanne Archer, Hanna Kay and Sarah Tomasetti

‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself,

It leads to transformation of dust into pure gold!’ (Rumi)

Three Women Went to China. These five words suggest a mythical journey: a crossing of mountains and oceans; the possibility of danger; adversity overcome and the getting of wisdom. It evokes legendary heroines. Pilgrimage. A fable, perhaps, or a metaphor. Alternatively, it’s a bald factual statement. Three women did go to China, together and separately, more than once. And returned, but not unchanged. 

Suzanne Archer, Hanna Kay and Sarah Tomasetti are established artists with distinguished exhibition histories. The convergence of three such very different women, one living and working in the Wedderburn region of New South Wales, one in the Upper Hunter Valley, one in Melbourne, may have seemed unlikely except for a serendipitous event. In 2012, each artist showed her work in ‘From Paper’, an exhibition organised by Sydney’s Janet Clayton Gallery in Beijing, and travelled to China as part of an artistic exchange.  Each returned to Australia to find that her work had been imprinted by this experience, in ways both subtle and profound, like the red seal stamped on a misty ‘Shan Shui’ ink landscape that showed it had been pored over by a scholar.

British born Suzanne Archer was awarded the Wynne Prize in 1994, and the Dobell Prize and Kedumba Drawing Prize in 2010. She has undertaken residencies in New York and Paris, and exhibited widely, but it is her recent experiences at the Red Gate Gallery studios on the outskirts of Beijing that currently influence her work. After that first trip to China in 2012 she was determined to return, seeking new inspiration. An artist who responds directly to visual stimulus, Archer was charmed and energised by Beijing, with its terrain of grey walls, red courtyard doors and dusty, narrow ‘hutong’ alleys. She was struck by the bustling restaurants and street snack stalls, and the chaotic traffic of bicycles and tricycles carrying everything imaginable, from loads of stacked firewood and electrical appliances to piles of fruit, and, memorably, a small child sandwiched between his parents, eating a bowl of noodles. These vivid impressions provided the impetus for a series of paintings and installations reflecting on her immersion in a very different culture. 

Archer’s work is characterised by her intense engagement with materiality. She works across mediums including drawing, painting and sculpture, revelling in the sheer physicality of paint. She describes the act of painting as ‘visceral’. Images from direct observation, memory and photographs become palimpsests of texture and colour, different viscosities of paint richly layered with energetic, almost calligraphic mark-making. ‘China Tiles’ (2015) began with two photographs - the typical Beijing subject of a bicycle laden with bundles, and some vivid tiles, seen in the finished work only as a loose reference in the right-hand corner. Starting with acrylic, intuitively applied as a form of drawing, the work is developed in oil paint. Archer builds layers, overpainting, erasing, re-drawing and overpainting again. The tactile surface records this painterly journey. She says, ‘The act of painting on a large scale for me is a mix of frantic high power energy and intuition.’

 ‘Velocipede’ (2016) was inspired by the sight of the pedal cabs lined up in the square between the Drum and Bell Towers at the central axis of old Beijing, waiting for customers. Their overlapping shapes become a complex calligraphy, Chinese red against a ground of blue and grey. The surfaces of Archer’s canvases reflect her engagement with the forms on which her astute eye has fallen, architectural structures activated by loose gestural brushwork and the formal interplay of colour, line and mark. 

‘Banquet’ (2016) is a deceptively simple composition. Objects are scattered across a surface that is the rich ruby-red of chili oil in a Sichuan hotpot. Beginning with photographs of memorable meals in China – round tables covered with round and oval dishes – Archer removed these dominant shapes to concentrate on the forms of the food itself. Sculptural sliced lotus root, tiny dumplings and moon cakes, ginger and spices, peppers and dishes of sauce punctuate the surface like notes on a musical score. The overhead perspective suggests the vantage point of memory, and the greenish vertical lines that form a scaffold across the surface reference its distortions, the jumble of confusing impressions. This is painting as a kind of mapping, in which the grid of horizontal brush marks on the red tablecloth (there really was one, at a banquet in Tianjin), and the darkly opposing vertical lines that tether the still life objects to the table become referents of latitude and longitude – the geography of memory.

Hanna Kay’s life has been marked by significant journeys. She left her native Israel to study in Vienna, spent a decade living and working in New York, another decade in Sydney, and now makes her home in the beautiful landscape of the Upper Hunter. A prolific practitioner, her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, and throughout regional Australia. Her work, too, maps memory and experience. An interest in landscape and natural processes of growth and decay are central to her practice. 

In China, Kay was more interested in mountain and desert landscapes than the urban centres. Travelling west, to the start of the fabled Silk Road, she became fascinated by Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, and its relics of the Tang Dynasty. She saw the Longmen Grottoes, with their legendary ‘Caves of the Ten Thousand Buddhas’, and travelled to see the vast Labrang Temple Complex in the Tibetan area of Amdo. In Xi’an she was awed by the entombed terracotta army of the first Qin emperor. Visiting museums and mausoleums of the imperial past, she reflected on her own past life in Israel, her experiences as a soldier in the Six-Day War and of the ancient sites of the Middle East. Kay has returned to China several times since to develop her research. Her experiences there have become central to her work, which shifts between her first medium of painting and new, experimental forms of sculpture.

A series of works on fine Chinese rice paper reference traditional scrolls. In ancient China the subject of landscape was deeply imbued with philosophical and spiritual meaning. Taoist and Buddhist beliefs about the harmonious structure of the universe, and scholarly ideals of a retreat from the chaos of dynastic collapse and the political machinations of the imperial court, each played their part in ensuring the primacy of landscape painting during the Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties. It is still important today in China, when the subject of landscape sometimes becomes a lament in the face of pollution, environmental destruction and corruption. Kay, too, shares such concerns, in earlier bodies of work that reference the environmental destruction of the Hunter Valley due to mining, and the consequences of climate change and human interventions in the landscape. She has a longstanding interest in diasporic histories, with a major body of work focused on the Jewish cemetery in Maitland. The Chinese references in her recent work add further layers of meaning.

The ‘Cline’ series (2015) consists of long vertical compositions on rice paper. Photographic prints of serried rows of terracotta warriors are juxtaposed with slivers of forest, lonely, spindly limbs and branches emerging out of darkness. The growth of the forest, mist rising between ghostly trees, is contrasted with entombed soldiers, symbols of mortality and the inevitable fall of kingdoms and rulers. Layered with subtle washes of ink and acrylic, they evoke mourning and memory. Yet the term ‘cline’ possesses both a biological and linguistic meaning: it refers to a continuum with an infinite number of gradations from one extreme to the other. Kay sees connections between the ancient landscapes of western China and those of her adopted Australian homeland. In some panels the soldiers emerge from behind tall grasses, as if they have been transposed across time and space to an Australian paddock. 

These works are solemn, recalling the experience of entering the archaeological pits in Xi’an and seeing the partially excavated figures of soldiers and horses emerging from the earth, awe-inspiring and melancholy. Like Chinese paper itself, they are at once fragile and strong. Kay says her work is focused on the liminal: ‘Between liquidity and solidity, between absence and substance, between deserts and forests, caves, rocks and remnants of rocks, between dust, mist and smoke.’ Order and disorder, past and present, transience and permanence are the poles between which her practice is suspended. Kay’s work is a dialogue between cultures, and between states of being. 

A series of three-dimensional works refers to Kay’s interest in Chinese burial practices, and the materials used by the craftsmen who made the terracotta inhabitants of the vast imperial tombs. Her ‘Repository Boxes’ are like reliquaries; tiny clay figures of animals and male and female angels are nestled within their hollowed forms, the artist’s response to the tomb guardian figures of ancient China. They recall the Han Dynasty tomb artefacts –terracotta houses, temples and farms that contain tiny human figures, horses, oxen and pigs. Angels appear in many religious traditions, and in secular iconography as well. Kay plans to make one thousand of these simple ceramic forms. They are guardians of souls, intermediaries between one world and the next.

Melbourne artist Sarah Tomasetti’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and regional New South Wales, as well as London, New York, Palermo, Monterchi (Italy) and Hong Kong. Her connection to China involves three generations of women in her family. Tomasetti’s grandmother travelled to China in the 1930s, accompanying her businessman husband. Her mother, a folk singer, toured China with a group from Australia in 1958, at a time when the Chinese government wanted to show ‘foreign friends’ from the west the glories of socialism. Both women kept diaries, a fascinating discovery for the artist, who felt that her own full-colour photographic images did not quite convey the elegiac sense that she was seeking. She says her body of work is an attempt to ‘capture that incoherence, to speak broadly of journey, memory and loss and an encounter with what is difficult and strange.’

Tomasetti explores ideas about the journey of three generations of women, their courage and familial relationships, the grief of loss and the consolation of memory, in her paintings of mountains. In traditional Chinese ‘Shan Shui’ (mountain water) painting, the mountains represent the transformational power of landscape connecting the individual to the world, strongly linked to Taoist philosophy. Tomasetti’s paintings ‘Gonga Shan’ and ‘Minya Konka Traverse’ (2016) evoke the awe experienced in the shadow of mountain peaks, but they also suggest impermanence, the melting away of ancient ice floes. The artist says her initial exploration of the karst landscapes of southern China led towards an aesthetic, and imagery, that she did not feel was culturally hers to use. Instead, she decided to use the metaphor of the glacier: ‘I set about researching the mountainous and glacial regions of China as these are similar the world over, and therefore outside dominion in a sense.  I seek to engage very precisely with that topography that has formed over millennia.’ 

While developing this body of work, Tomasetti discovered an old, treasured book by the Victorian traveller and adventurer, Isabella Bird. In its pages she found the photographs Bird had taken with primitive, early camera equipment in remote places. These faded images provided the key to this series of paintings - the collision of past and present. Tomasetti has juxtaposed nostalgic images of people long dead with Himalayan mountain peaks seen via satellite technology, or glacial landscapes that may be all but unrecognisable a few years hence. Her paintings are pale and ghostly, like the scenes recorded by Isabella Bird with silver nitrate and light sensitive paper. 

‘Traverse Frieze A’ (2015), with its small figures silhouetted against rocky backgrounds, partially obscured by swirling mist, reminds us that life requires stoicism and endurance. We are small in the face of nature. The European conventions of the sublime, of the seeking of God in the magnificence of nature, are here instead an elegy of loss and mourning.

Tomasetti applies a painstaking antique process, learned in her years studying in Italy, to create images in a mixture of buon fresco and fresco secco technique, finally adding layers of stripped back oil colour in the most muted shades of grey, cream, grey-green and pale ochre. This technique ensures that the very materiality of each work is imbued with a sense of impermanence, a nostalgic longing. It is as if we are looking at these mountains in a cracked and clouded mirror, underlining the artist’s concern for the fragility of remote and threatened places and the delicate balance of nature.

Apart from their recent experiences of the Middle Kingdom, there is another significant connection between the work of the three artists. For each, the materiality of their work is central to their practice. Immersed in painterly traditions, yet re-inventing them, working with tempera, acrylic, oil and fresco, their works are imbued with a haunting sense of the passage of time. Each is dealing with memory and loss: the memories of personally transformative journeys, things witnessed and people encountered all too fleetingly. In the fast-paced contemporary world it is well to grasp at semblances of the permanent – human connections around a dinner table, journeys over mountains, or through forests – even though we sense that these things too are ephemeral, and will pass just as surely as the Qin Emperor and his army of clay soldiers, buried under the earth for thousands of years.

Luise Guest

Sydney, April 2016