As part of their "Did you know China is more than just the Olympics?" series, the New York Times sent art critic Holland Cotter to China for a month to look at art made by women. Cotter poses the same two questions to each artist: Is your work political? Is it feminist? For each female the artist the answer is the same: the category "political" is too narrow and "feminist" is too broad.
The artists' work itself doesn't fit very neat into categories, however. Cotter's sample ranges from the elegant, Chelsea-ready sculptures of Lin Tianmiao to Cui Xiuwen's voyeuristic look at Beijing prostitutes. The most evocative art comes from the women who were born under the hard times of the Great Leap Forward. These artists include Lin (born 1961) and Yin Xuizhen (born 1957). Lin and Yin create "apartment art"--art made from small household objects, each one charged with the tension of the tenacious hoarder. It's as if every small object, every morsel of food is a precious thing in the workers' utopia. This art is the most conventionally feminine, and the opposite of the gallery-chewing artworks produced by China's top male artists. And yet these small objects seem to address the conditions of history more directly than some of the more allegorical work of other explicitly political Chinese artists.
Another interesting artist working in the same hermetic vein is Lu Qing. Every year she buys an 82-foot-long bolt of fine silk and spends the year painting the scroll with grid patterns. If she can find the time, she finishes the entire bolt. If not, then she simply buys another bolt and begins again. Her scrolls have neither use value nor exchange value. They are produced by labor that is an end in itself. The scrolls are like a continuous but illegible ticker tape from the recent past. Nothing could be further from the mass production of China's current economic expansion and the heroic nationalism that has accompanied it.
In addition to her film Lady's Room, Cui has produced a series of paintings featuring adolescent girls dressed in uniforms of the Maoist Young Pioneers. The girls stare off into space in ready-to-be-seen poses, but they're often bruised and battered, as if they’ve been roughed up by Jiang Qing herself. These are striking paintings, and their political intend is obvious enough. (Sample above in a photograph taken by Natalie Behring for the Times.) However, in the context of the often ambiguous depictions of Mao by other contemporary Chinese artists, it's not clear if the paintings are unalloyed repudiations of Communist authority, or wistful glances backward to simpler times. Totalitarian regimes rarely disappear without leaving some traces of nostalgia--just look at Russia today.
Looking at contemporary Chinese art, sometimes it can seem as if artists are creating for Western consumption a radical chic flirtation with Mao, a far cooler product to buy from the new China than lead-infused Thomas the Tank Engine toys.