Cui Xiuwen[Karen Smith]

Cui Xiuwen is a very attractive woman. This is not the kind of comment one expects a serious art critic to make about an artist whose work they are to discuss. It would even be construed as irreverent to begin with a physical evaluation of a male artist. Worse, supercilious, as, in truth, it is to do to a woman artist, except that for Cui Xiuwen this fact is very much part of the reality of being a female in a highly male dominated world. The advantages of natural features that are blessing to some, are, in this light, something of a burden: as is wont to happen, a pleasing fa?ade invites all manner of unsolicited or misdirected attention, and whilst feminine wiles can get a girl ahead, they can also hold her back. Thus, we are steered towards recognising the issues to which Cui Xiuwen responds, i.e., the complex nature of navigating, not merely her presence in this male world, but of how to be taken seriously by it. So much so that the accumulation of exactly this seam of personal experience incites Cui Xiuwen to pursue art as a vehicle for analyzing the state of woman in the modern world, her world, China, but of a manner that is certainly not very far outside the sentience of women everywhere¡ªthough at times in China it takes an exaggerated form that the West has long since sought to dispense with.

The scenarios Cui Xiuwen depicts in her art are rooted in her local arena. These also lend the work a distinctive edge. As seen in the approaches of women artists such as Shirin Neshat, Tracy Moffat, Mariko Mori, Lee Bul, and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, there is something about the Asian¡ªi.e., non-white/western¡ªwoman, their exotic oriental allure and pervasive mystique, that, for western audiences at least, utilises the subtlest of means whilst packing a powerful punch as the viewer becomes aware of falling into the trap of matching these subjects with intractable cultural and sexual stereotypes. In many ways, that is their least invective aspect: racial prejudices form part of the collective social consciousness, whilst ideas about the female sex are formed much closer to home and individual familial and social circumstances. Beyond social mores and surface appearances, Cui Xiuwen explores the functions and facts of womanhood itself. Here, in Angel she presents the biological body; pregnant, yet countered by such a force of emotional introspection that the enduring impression one takes away is of having encountered a penetrating psychological portrait. Shortly before his death in 2002, British social and medical historian Roy Porter described the greatest difference between peoples West and East in the following terms. ¡°[As a result of the Enlightenment]¡­the West discovered, championed, and honed a distinctive self unknown to earlier times, an inner, individualist psyche unfamiliar to the great civilizations of the East¡­¡± Even where China has not experienced an ¡°enlightenment¡±, Angel would suggest that though it might be less individualist than its western peer, the psyche is not entirely unfamiliar to the Chinese people. Slowly taking form in Cui Xiuwen¡¯s work through recent years, the manifestation of the ¡°anima¡± has clearly migrated here into mature form: the indictment of the psyche in this series is unmistakable. This group of photographs pivots on an intuited grasp of the psyche that is rarely seen in the work of other Chinese artists, neither in previous history nor in contemporary circles. There one finds allusion to the spirit, yes, but not conjecture on the subliminal consciousness; the internal self that guides us in all we do, and is perfectly capable of tormenting us too. Much of the insight pivots on the multiple appearances of the same girl. The immediate sense is of the swell of anguish that builds in a Hamlet-styled soliloquy, for it captures all manner of ill ease. Yet we might well be misled in the first instant, so used to seeing teenage models paraded in fashion magazines and portrayed as adult femme fatales. We read the disparity yet go along with the fabrication, because we understand it is part of the fantasy of fashion. Here too, it is possible for a moment to squint and think of the similarly draped figure of Kate Moss pregnant.

In the same manner, whilst the art world in China forgives much of a pretty face, it is not so easily drawn to Cui Xiuwen¡¯s art. This has nothing to do with a qualitative judgment of the works, more a reflexive retreat from the tough subjects she tackles, for a verbal description of the content is often enough to make people uncomfortable, including those ¡°actors¡± Cui Xiuwen works with as we shall see. From the early paintings, through the first video works (one of which is Ladies, which remains her best known work to date), the animations and the photography-based pieces runs a subtext of abuse, violence, incidents enacted against women at various ages or stages in their life, the scars of which the adults carry. In China this is particularly marked against the backdrop of a maximal socio-economic transition: the contradictions between the pre-modern ideas which continue to prevail amongst what is today best described as the of the ¡°grandparent¡± generation, next to the generally Victorian sensibilities of the ¡°one-child parent¡± generation as compared with the other extreme represented by today¡¯s adolescents, who are beginning to demonstrate a 21st-century degree of promiscuity. In China, women were once much less valued than men, to the degree that today they are significantly outnumbered by the male population, and in alarming proportions in the countryside whence so many women flee to the more civilized urban metropolis¡¯. And from which it is not unheard of, for women to be kidnapped and rustled out to the rural regions, just as once was the case in the wild, wild, west¡­Cities are today hotbeds of new cultural entertainments, with their profusion of hostess bars, strip joints, et al, These then serve as models for provincial copycats, which are much less regulated¡ªif city ones are at all¡ªand as unsafe as Victorian slums. The reality, as Cui Xiuwen suggests¡ªagain Ladies being one example¡ªis that not every girl can take care of herself like Lara Croft.

Emotionally driven subjects in art are not the exclusive domain of women artists. However, in the work of male counterparts, they are approached for the most part as external problems, as a projected gaze that dissects the bodies and mindsets of others. Do women take this stance because women live with a physical body that is never able to free itself completely from its essential function: procreation. Do women live with an undertow of fear in every liberal act of intercourse; fear of being undone by the reproductive organs, as Cui Xiuwen believes? Again, with the dramatic change in attitudes towards female sexuality in western societies through the last fifty years, and the availability of information and preventative methods of birth control, western women are already less familiar this sense of ¡°fear¡±. In China, this area of human activity remains locked in a nineteenth-century mien.

In her pursuit of this course, Cui Xiuwen became aware of the proportion of women artists who make work about women, about the female body. If we accept that artists are usually drawn to comment directly on their own personal experience of life, the world according to their own particular vision, then it figures that issues of fertility, procreation, birth, etc. would feature predominantly in the work of women artists. Cui Xiuwen made this comment in particular reference to women artists in China, whose approach and subject matter confirms her own sense of the female predicament as witnessed and experienced in her immediate cultural framework. ¡°From the first menstruation to the final curtain of menopause, women live with the possibility that every time they have sex they might become pregnant,¡± she says. In China, and for Cui Xiuwen¡¯s generation demonstrably, the social implications of this question are far-reaching: a world apart from those that would be read into it in the US or Europe. The context is of a foundation of highly conservative social attitudes, which are teased out of proportion by the official policy of ¡°one-child¡± and the efficient administrative organs that have long been in place to ensure this policy is carried out. The situation is better likened to that of the pre-sexual revolution-early twentieth-century in the same western communities mentioned above. The aura is aptly captured in the words of an Ian McEwan character named June speaking in the early 1990s about Britain in the 1940s: ¡°What your generation doesn¡¯t know¡­is how ignorant we were still, how bizarre attitudes were then¡ªto sex, and all that went with it. Contraception, divorce, homosexuality, VD. And pregnancy outside marriage was unthinkable, the very worst possible thing¡­Girls killed themselves trying to abort. It looks like madness now but in those days a pregnant girl was likely to feel that everyone was right and that she was mad, and deserved everything she got.¡± 
   
These are also the forces at work in China that compelled Cui Xiuwen to explore the question (plight) of a single, pregnant women in China: in short to create Angel. It is also the reason that the girl who stars in the new works was needed to replace the cheeky, bob-haired model who has been a regular feature of Cui Xiuwen¡¯s photographic and video projects in the last three of four years. To contemplate having their thirteen-year-old daughter portrayed in such a delicate condition at such a tender age left the original girl¡¯s parents feeling unconscionably uncomfortable. This necessitated a replacement. The new model is also thirteen, a common age amongst models in the West, and the difference in her parents¡¯ attitude is due to the fact that the family had emigrated to Australia when the daughter was five. They returned eight years later with an experience of the world, and a more sentient view of aesthetics and the role of art in contemporary culture. We will come to a discussion of this particular work later. First, it seems relevant to establish the thread of personal experience running through Cui Xiuwen¡¯s career, and how these have functioned as broader points of departure in her body of work.

Cui Xiuwen was accorded an early taste of the power a woman artist could wield¡ªspecifically in terms of China¡ªin the late 1990s, as a fresh graduate of the Central Academy in Beijing, and in the form of an obsessive fascination on the part of local media in the sexually graphic compositions of her paintings. That she even dared to tackle a subject matter, which was, by and large, taboo indicates the precocious side of her character. Like the depth of quiet waters, this young woman was already in possession of a forced awareness of sexuality. Whether this was the early blooming of puberty, the fact of a prematurely mature adolescence, she does not specify, but leaves enough silence in blank spaces to indicate a past that continues to inform her present.

So then, what of the paintings? Well, they were read as provocative, tantalizing, because at that moment that a woman might paint scenes of sexual intimacy was unthinkable. In truth, the paintings are nothing more than titillating, coy, certainly far from being explicit. This did however mean that they were publishable with impunity. Cui Xiuwen found herself the subject newspaper articles, magazine features, and even a guest on TV talkshows. In retrospect, the paintings are not great. In spite of the decisive form and the obviously passionate engagement with paint whence they sprung, as Cui Xiuwen would admit, there was a little too much ¡°Paula Rego¡± going on. The paintings do provide evidence of a dynamic force of conviction and clearly a distinct perspective on the subject of heterosexual relations.
   
What had already suggested itself as a focal interest was the gap between one¡¯s inherent awareness of self, and with that which society constructs for, and imposes upon us. By far most disturbing example of this is the photographic series titled Beibei. The inspiration for the work was incidental, but clearly touched a nerve with the artist. To backtrack for a moment: returning from Hong Kong in 1998, Cui Xiuwen abandoned painting. The decision was entirely unpremeditated yet demanded nonetheless, by an encounter with new means and forms of art to which she has previously been oblivious. The route is convoluted but, in short, resulted from the knock-on effect of being invited to participate in a group exhibition in Hong Kong, that featured the work of five Chinese women artists. Initially she did not wish to go, seeing no reason to leave the studio and break the flow of inspiration. Being persuaded to the contrary would change her life. The works sold well, and she returned to Beijing with an unimagined windfall. It was whilst having a night of celebratory fun that she encountered the girls who were to become her Ladies. Equally, this arose out of an attempt to adjust her thinking to new art forms glimpsed in Hong Kong. Ultimately, she discovered video and turned her back on canvas. However, this would not have happened either if it weren¡¯t for the press interest in the paintings, which led to a TV appearance. For now she was talent spotted, given an audition and rewarded with a role in a television drama series. She put her down time on set time to use learning all she could observe about camerawork, lighting, and direction. Thus the stage was set for Ladies.

When Cui Xiuwen returned to Beijing, exhausted by filming, she discovered she needed minor surgery on her throat. During the required period of convalescence she stayed with a friend, spending her days with the friend¡¯s children. It is they who are the subject of Beibei. Here, Ciu Xuiwen presents us with a frightening glimpse of sexual awareness at the tenderest of ages; even in prepubescent a child. We reel at the gaze in the little girl¡¯s eyes, which demonstrate just how far in advance she is of her giggling brother. Before the lens, she is as demure as any young woman, as poised as any starlet, and apparently alive to the implications of posing nude for a camera.
   
This was but an early experiment, and not one which Cui Xiuwen actively discloses for obvious reasons. She has worked with her own body in a particularly poetic disrobing (Toot) that plays to its obvious parallels with striptease, yet maintaining the claim to innocence. Another work in which she features, invokes the intimacy of a phone conversation between lovers, and the mutual masturbation provoked by tender words (Twice). In 2003, she began working with Xizi, the first model who features in so many works. Their collaboration began with the video¡¯d recreation of the Last Supper, an oil painting, developed as an installation piece which divided the 13 guests across 13 monitors, the girl playing the individual figure in each. Cui Xiuwen then used her again for the series One Day in 2004. Here she appears slightly older¡­and indeed tracing through Cui Xiuwen¡¯s works we gain an added sense of intimacy with her watching her grow up. To whit, her most recent appearance in the 2005 video piece Drifting Lantern, where she seems quite the young lady, wandering with her thoughts in the dark. 
   
The growing process perfectly parallels Cui Xiuwen¡¯s working practice. ¡°I am always working on ideas¡­and keep the process fluid so that images can evolve at any point. It is so important to be open to evolving your work, which is why I never have it all mapped out exactly before I begin.¡± Thus with Angel the finished pieces are quite different in parts from the initial point of departure; primarily in the added challenge of working with a new model and coaching her for the role. At first, Cui Xiuwen sensed the girl might not be ideal but in working with her was impressed at how quickly she responded to the directives Cui Xiuwen gave her. Perhaps, it even turned out better than expected. Angel has all the surreal qualities of a Mariko Mori photographic tableau. It is also marked by a similar invocation of the erotic aura of the idealised ¡°oriental¡± woman mentioned at the beginning. Especially with the associations with underage girls, and the advantage of youthfulness that even women of consenting age possess. In the works of Mariko Mori, the oriental aspects are deliberately played as twee, quirky; the orient as a place of the imagination rich with extraordinary experiences but in which nothing scary threatens our delight in the magic she conjures. Equally, we catch the aroma of humour that is pointed but not cutting, designed to alert us to the nature of our responses, and where the boundaries of our concerns, and the margins of political correctness, lie. Mori tries to trip us up by creating alluring visions of another world, sparkling, sexy, full of fun and gentle mystery. There could be no greater contrast than the mood in Cui Xiuwen¡¯s work.
   
To look beyond the surface mystique is to discover that for all the intricacy of the construct, the mechanism is clearly intended obvious. This is part of its success. Cui Xiuwen makes almost outrageous play of the allure of an iconic female figure, a clich¨¦ in its way, which subject to her treatment takes the game to quite another level. There are no jokes here, not the least hint of humour. The unavoidably erotic aspects of the young woman who stars in the piece are far from being saucy, sexy. In Cui Xiuwen¡¯s hands they speak of exploitation, and the isolation of the exploited. Those who are compelled to hold their silence because their fear of society is even greater than their fear of those who do them harm.  The images are clearly constructed but the effect is subtle. In contrast to Mori¡¯s figures, here we find elegance instead of glitz; poise in place of posing. We experience the stirring of associations with childhood stories, of Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks¡­and the landscapes of these tales, so emphatically beautiful, as are the girls, as a contrast to the danger that lies in wait; and as a result of which, we are trained to recognise the danger signs.
   
In terms of the work, then we, too, understand the importance of the girl¡¯s youth; that blossoming age. Across each of the 10 pieces, we see the girl in the same state of advance in pregnancy, but in a variety of settings, locations, physical postures and mental attitudes. The figure is also positioned at various scales, which can be disconcerting at times. The mass of girls overwhelms, and impinges upon the natural welling of empathy, or disdain in the hearts and minds of viewers. The garments the girl wears are designed to look like modified student uniforms, not like Araki uses, but something more discreet; again, more subtle. In many ways the modification makes the girl seem more virginal, the scene more romantic. The girl appears by turn, confused, distracted, conflicted, troubled, but always introspective. The awkwardness of her state is most extreme in the piece featuring more than one hundred figures in which all of the girls have their eyes closed. ¡°No longer wishing to see the outside world, reality, nor to be confronted by it or to have to deal with it¡±, is the artist¡¯s explanation. Falling pregnant has distinctly different meanings and implications at different ages of woman. Both for the woman and in terms of how the external world judges this fact. Do they applaud or condemn. Cui Xiuwen ask ¡°Can a woman choose to have a baby alone, single, because she bows to maternal instinct, and does not feel the need to be married?¡±

This series is powerful on many levels but it is not easy. It¡¯s not the kind of talking piece that a Mariko Mori in the drawing room becomes. The images are haunting, disturbing, and worse, they implicate all of us in a collective guilt: what, they demand, are our attitudes? Don¡¯t we all know innocents that have been misused? How have we treated a friend, a daughter, a neighbour, a student who found themselves in this predicament?
 
Cui Xiuwen does not make categorical statements. She observes, contemplates, and then comes back with a response that habitually entertains the plurality of modern viewpoints, which vary enormously from cultural framework to cultural framework. America might represent religious tolerance, but what of the power of the Christian right, or of the views held by Mormons, or by Scientologists? And what of the canons of Islam and Catholicism? The first showing of this series takes place outside of China, in freedom-of-expression America, which must accept a fanatical pro-life (at any cost) movement, although just a few days ahead of a simultaneous exhibition in Beijing. With all the rights of women in the West, and in spite of the constitutional rights accorded woman in China, why are they made victims of so much condemnation of the choices they might make? In Angel, Cui Xiuwen offers a haunting visual invocation of this question. And for once, whilst we are immediately enamoured by the simple fact of beauty resonating through the images, it does not disarm us before the punch hits home.

                                                                                                                      Karen Smith