Guan Wei is one of a generation of Chinese artists who settled in Australia in the wake of the Tiananmen Square events of 1989, and found themselves balanced between two cultures in a way that was simultaneously confusing and stimulating. While Guan Wei’s work has remained distinctively, unmistakably Chinese, he has drawn a large part of his subject matter from his Antipodean home – from the art, the politics, the history, the fauna and the lifestyle.
Yet it has never been a simple celebration. Guan Wei is an intellectual painter who lists the three crucial elements of his art as “wit, knowledge, humour”. He stresses the different levels of comedy because his pictures seem to slide between the most oblique symbolism and pure slapstick.
This taste for game playing has often been related to Guan Wei’s background as a descendent of the Manchu aristocracy, who ruled China during the Qing Dynasty, from 1644 to 1911. The Manchu began as ‘barbarians’, but soon developed a taste for opera, painting, poetry, and all the other traditional Chinese diversions. Guan Wei’s father was an actor in the Beijing opera who encouraged his son’s artistic inclinations, first as a singer then as a painter.
During his early years in Australia Guan Wei might have likened himself not to the Manchu, but to the gentlemen scholars of the Ming who retired to the countryside when the old dynasty fell. In self-imposed exile in a foreign land, he has turned an ironic and critical gaze on his surroundings. Over the past 20 years he has become the most successful of a diverse group of Chinese émigré artists. His work has been collected by private clients and public institutions. He has received a succession of grants and prestigious commissions.
In 2008 Guan Wei re-established a studio in Beijing and now spends most of his time in China, although he and his family have retained their home in Sydney and travel regularly between countries. He is still fascinated by Australian subjects, making paintings, sculptures and large-scale installations that could be described as genuinely transcultural. “I use my Chinese eyes,” he says, “to create Australian stories.”
Guan Wei tells how moving between Australia and China provided a double culture shock. His first place of residence was Hobart, which felt like a tiny village after the urban chaos of Beijing. Upon returning to his homeland he was horrified by the pollution, an experience that increased his appreciation for the Australian natural environment. One can track the changes in his palette, from the dull, grey tones of the paintings made in Beijing to the bright blues of the Australian works.
Having lived much of his life under a centralised form of government Guan Wei puts great value on the political freedoms enjoyed by Australians. This makes him anxious to defend those liberties whenever they are threatened.
He is a socially committed thinker who believes that art comes with certain responsibilities. As a consequence he has made pictures that present Australian history as a story of invasion and indigenous dispossession. He has produced works dealing with the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and the incipient xenophobia that lurks at the fringes of Australian society.
These works have never been confrontational. Guan Wei is not one of those avant-gardists who set out to shock and offend an audience. He is too well-mannered, too genuinely grateful for all the advantages that Australia has bestowed on him. On the contrary, he presents viewers with a puzzle they are invited to solve, each piece revealing a little more of his thought. This process might entail working one’s way through layers of symbolism, through references to traditional Chinese medicine or astrology, or more contemporary issues such as climate change or genetic engineering.
Guan Wei is an urbane, sophisticated artist-commentator in an era when political discourse has become crude, self-serving and formulaic. When we turn off the TV set in despair, we are in the perfect state of mind to enjoy the playfulness of his paintings.
Promised Land # 1
Guan Wei’s vision of Australia as the Promised Land invites the question: “Who did the promising and to whom was it promised?” Nobody seems to have consulted the original inhabitants in 1788, but nowadays the borders are policed against unauthorised arrivals. Nevertheless, for most Australians, life remains a beach: a vista of sand, surf and sunshine we are privileged to call home – a place where people can fly kites and do handstands. The emu in this first panel is an indigenous equivalent of the red-crowned crane in the third, which is a traditional Chinese symbol of longevity. The wrist tattoo is yang, the symbol for “sheep” or “goat”. The seal – reminiscent of the seals on ancient Chinese maps – reads “Red Mountain”, evoking good luck and happiness.
Promised Land # 2
The stylised clouds in all three works are symbols of good fortune, even though in western culture clouds on the horizon usually mean impending trouble. There is no ambiguity about the cat rubbing itself against a pair of bare legs, the discarded diver’s mask, or the sunbathers relaxing on the beach. Australian comfort, security and hedonism are embodied in these images. This is in harmony with the Year of the Goat, which is generally perceived as one of the more benign signs of the Chinese zodiac. The goat – or sheep – is a sign of kindness and compassion, but also weakness and anxiety.
Promised Land # 3
Guan Wei includes a red-crowned crane as a kind of blessing on the Australian lifestyle, even if it this bird resembles an alien life-form on the beach. In a tiny shoulder tattoo we see a figure flying a kite – a care-free image worn as a membership badge of an exclusive national club. Although those born in the Year of the Goat are said to be worriers, this characteristic is at odds with that great Australian incantation: “She’ll be right.” We need to remember that the Chinese cloud design stands for “never-ending fortune.” Long may the decadent Australian Dream persist.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February, 2015