This is Guan Wei month in Sydney, with the Museum of Contemporary Art displaying its holdings of this popular Chinese-Australian artist; the University of Western Sydney hosting an exhibition at its Parramatta South Campus, and Martin Browne Contemporary showing new work. Not many artists can say they’ve had three exhibitions running sumultaneously in the same city but since leaving China in 1989, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incidents, Guan Wei’s career has shown a sustained growth that would be the envy of any big corporation.
By his own admission Guan Wei is a lucky man. He’s also shrewd and talented – although it’s not the kind of talent that makes viewers stand and gasp in amazement. On the contrary, he has produced an insinuating body of work that asks us to examine an array of precisely-drawn signs and symbols, puzzling out possible meanings. His paintings are as engaging as a game of chess, or perhaps Mahjong.
Those clear, sharply-outlined forms will never satisfy every taste, but spend time with these works and you’ll inevitably find yourself drawn into the game the artist has set in motion. There is always some kind of story but with multiple layers combining reflections on Chinese and Australian history, migration and exile, nature, religion, literature and numerous other topics.
Aldous Huxley used to take a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica with him on holidays and read it cover to cover. I can imagine Guan Wei doing something similar, so various and free-ranging are his interests. The difference is that Huxley was a dedicated essayist who saw each Britannica entry as an aid to understanding the world. Guan Wei absorbs information as an artist does, translating ideas into images. These images don’t add up to a coherent philosophy of life, they teem like organisms under a microscope. He doesn’t attempt to join the dots, preferring to leave that up to his audience.
At the time of writing I’ve yet to see the UWS show, Energy, Essence, Spirit, which runs until 21 February, but there’s more than enough to discuss in the other two exhibitions. The highlight at the MCA is a multi-panelled wall piece called Feng Shui (2004) originally commissioned for an office building in Collins St. Melbourne. Consisting of 120 separate panels in slender, aluminium frames, the work measures 5.4 by 18 metres when fully installed. It was a major logistical feat for Guan Wei, which probably gave him the courage for further large installations such as the Other Histories project for the Powerhouse Museum in 2006-07.
Feng Shui was donated to the MCA in 2017 and this is the first time it has been exhibited. It proved too big for any wall in the groundfloor gallery and has had to be positioned in the corner of the room, an arrangememt that succeeds surprisingly well. In keeping with its vast size the work has an equally capacious theme: “the harmonious relationship between all living things and the planet” as exemplified in the ancient Chinese practice of Feng Shui, which some see as a science, others mere superstition.
In a manner typical of many modern Chinese, Guan Wei takes his Feng Shui lightly, but doesn’t rule it out. As an attempt to harmonise humanity and nature, harnessing the invisible forces of the universe, it’s too attractive as a purely poetic concept. In the MCA painting, which takes the form of a gigantic map, he includes references to the tides, winds and land masses; to animals and marine life; to the early voyagers making their way to Australia. The stylised clouds, the patterns of the tides, and floating allegorical figures mimic the fantastic nature of early charts in which gaps in geographical knowledge were filled in with decorative devices or pictures of mythical beasts.
The subtext, as in all of Guan Wei’s work, is his own life’s journey from China to Australia and back again. Over the years he has learned to take a whimsical view of his adopted country through Chinese eyes, as strangeness has given way to familiarity. At the same time he has been able to achieve a critical distance from China, in all its socal and political complexity. Nowadays he has studios in both countries.
He was less sanguine when he migrated to Australia in 1990, as one can see in the 48 small pictures that make up the series Two-finger exercise (1989-90), his first works to enter the MCA collection. Each gouache and pencil image is accompanied by a few lines of Guan Wei’s verse. One can download an app and listen to the artist reading these poems in Chinese and English.
Even in those days, when he was feeling saddened and outraged by the events of June 4th, Guan Wei was cultivating the same artful ambiguity. Two fingers can mean ‘Peace’, ‘V for victory’, or ‘Up yours’.
The quirkiness of Guan Wei’s work may have emerged in part as a response to a Chinese milieu in which it was difficult and even dangerous to make political statements, but it is also a function of his personality. He is fascinated by history and politics but prefers to take an oblique approach, avoiding any suggestion of a message. It is the antithesis of propaganda, which was the only type of art allowed in China during the final phase of the Maoist era.
In The Divine Comedy at Martin Browne Contemporary, Guan Wei returns to the map format in a series of paintings and painted screens that combine astrological imagery with discreet references to the Apollo 11 mission. These images are joined by a familiar repertoire of mythical creatures, beasts and fish, spread out against a surface carved up by the abstract points and lines of the cartographer.
The iconography hints at a portentous symbolism but most likely what we are looking at is simply a free play with images drawn from a wide range of visual sources. Guan Wei has amused himself by imagining the small forms of astronauts and lunar modules floating around the cosmos in close proximity to the monsters and dragons of the old maps and the signs of the zodiac. It’s a view of an imaginary world in which the fantasies of the astrologers are as real as the American space program, and the astronaut as fantastic as a flying dragon.
Museum of Contemporary Art, 11 October, 2019 – 9 February, 2020
Guan Wei: The Divine Comedy
Martin Browne Contemporary, 17 October – 10 November, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November, 2019