Chinese-Australian artist Guan Wei stood deferentially in front of his self-portrait ‘Plastic Surgery’ (2015) at the launch in July of this year’s Archibald Portrait Prize at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales. Descended from the Manchu nobility whose great-great-aunt gave birth to the Qing Dynasty’s last emperor, he cut an elegant and imposing figure.
At just over four metres wide ‘Plastic Surgery’ is a large, politically charged self-portrait where four disembodied heads of the artist chart a metaphorical transformation from an early portrait as a black-haired Chinese man, an image that would have been on the cover of his Chinese government personnel file – “The government keeps a file on everyone” he says – to one showing his face which has morphed into a blue-eyed, fair-skinned, blonde, fully assimilated Caucasian surrounded by the trophies of his new migrant life: Medicare card, ABN, bank account and passport numbers, plus the most precious of all items, a Certificate of Australian Citizenship. ‘Plastic Surgery’ presents a deft exposition on the needs all migrants face when it comes to assimilation.
Guan Wei is of the generation of artists that left China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square events of 1989, although he insists that he was more an observer than a participant. He never witnessed blood running in the streets as did his friend, the artist Ah Xian. Even so the series of small mixed media paintings, ‘Two Finger Exercises’ (1989) painted in Beijing that year, and populated with his now familiar anonymous lumpen figures making defiant “V” for victory salutes, make it clear where Guan Wei’s sympathies were, and it was not with the totalitarian Chinese communist regime.
“One of the reasons I left China was Tiananmen but that was not the main reason. I left for artist residencies at the Tasmanian School of Art in Hobart,” he says. The first time Guan Wei came to Australia was January 1989 and he spent two months in Tasmania. “When I arrived back in China in early April the student movement just started. I received a letter from Geoff Parr (from the University of Tasmania) who invited me to come back. He was worried that China was not a safe place to be,” Guan Wei says.
The two residencies in Tasmania were followed by a permanent move to Australia in 1990 and a year-long residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in 1991 that proved propitious. He was able to develop an iconography that combined Chinoiserie allusions with Australian symbolism. The Great War of the Eggplant series of 1994 shows this growing concern with Eastern and Western.
By the early 2000s Guan Wei’s political concerns had sharpened and his subject matter now included refugees to Australia and the global concerns of migration and exclusion. A degree of confrontational violence had become part of Guan Wei’s lingua franca in works like ‘Echo’ (2005) which had assumed a semi-historical narrative and a folkloric mythical whimsy.
However Australia in Guan Wei’s eyes was a sparkling, lush country surrounded by blue oceans and sandy beaches where families frolicked. Australia presented not only a safe refuge from the political machinations taking place in China but an opportunity to explore and develop a lucrative trope predicated on Australia’s hedonistic lifestyle conveyed with a humorous vocabulary saturated in wit and whimsy. Paintings such as his Beach series were immediately popular. Guan Wei was and remains caught between two worlds, between East and West, and the sense of dislocation and not belonging in any one country came to a head in 2008 and brought about a partial move back to China, a country vastly different from the one he left years earlier.
Culturally the country may have shifted to one of being more accepting of artistic diversity but the authoritarian way of doing things remained intact. Twice in the years following his return he found himself peremptorily ejected from studios he had leased.
Guan Wei’s whimsical, decorative view of Australia sells well and his work, that now encompasses painting, sculpture, ceramics, installation and most recently, video, is popular, accessible and engaging. Commercially he has become an astute and savvy operator, careful to ensure that all price points in the gallery system are catered for.
Much as the mythological four winds blow across many of his canvases, Guan Wei instinctively knows how to bow with the wind and he has been fortunate over the years in receiving numerous residencies and awards that have taken him to New York, London and France. Last year he was in London for three months on an Australia Council for the Arts residency which allowed him to research subject matter for an upcoming exhibition at Sydney’s Martin Browne Contemporary. “I was interested in when English people discovered Australia. I did some research in museums and galleries looking at the First Fleet. I will do something about this history,” Guan Wei says.
There is no criticising Guan Wei’s work ethic. He is a productive and assiduous artist with work in a recent group show at Monash University, Borders, Barriers, Walls dealing with the global diaspora of migrants and refugees. His painting ‘Boatman No 1’ (2005) hung alongside such international heavyweights as Isaac Julien and Allora & Calzadilla.
Just closed at the Heiser Gallery in Brisbane was a solo show Bird.Map.Shadow where he showed his most recent series of sculptures, Salvation (2015) alongside an eponymous painting series, Bird.Map.Shadow (2016) plus a few paintings from his series Beach (2014). A three-panel work from this series, ‘Beach No. 5,’ showing sun, sand and families frolicking on the beach, won the $50,000 Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize in 2015.
In October this year bronzes from the Salvation sculptures were also exhibited at Arc One Gallery in Melbourne and they seem to mark a significant and welcome shift in Guan Wei’s sculptural practice away from what he describes as his previous bronze “cloud sculptures” from 2009, where the artist’s familiar lumpen characters are seen to cavort with clouds often balanced precariously on their extended limbs. The new Salvation series works are domestic in scale and show mask-like faces of the Buddha from which playful figures emerge or sit poised adroitly on Buddha’s head.
Bruce Heiser says the sculptures were well received but only four of the 26 paintings were sold. The sluggish sales must have been a blow to Guan Wei who relies on painting sales to finance his Beijing work. But he’s a pragmatist. “Sculpture, video and installation are hard to sell so I must paint for a living, and to work on my art in Beijing,” he says.
In January next year there is a museum show at WhiteBox Art Center in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone. “I will doing big works, because this is like a museum. I will do installation with mirrors,” he says. More recently at Lotus Art Museum in Beijing he created installations that referenced European domestic interiors into which he added his work. Guan Wei’s oeuvre, with its humorous ironies, caters for a particular aesthetic, and the dark sting of the earlier works seems to have become diluted over the years in favour of a more “interior décor” canon; colour and whimsy seem now to be substitutes for what was once a sharp political satire.
Back at the AGNSW ‘Plastic Surgery’ told of Guan Wei’s need to conform and achieve a balance between his birth heritage and that of his adopted society. It’s a sagacious self-portrait, a powerful, challenging work. But as we all know it didn’t win. Louise Hearman took out the $100,000 prize with her portrait of Barry Humphries. Guan Wei shouldered the defeat with equanimity. As we parted I couldn’t help but muse on how many years that money would have kept Guan Wei painting in Beijing, making pictures for a marketplace that seems more concerned with whimsy rather than social commentary.
2 – 26 March 2017
Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney
Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney.