Walking on Broken Glass [Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky, 2010.Vol.10 "Art Value"]

Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky, Bard College, NY

Despite the apparent simplicity of some of Cui Xiuwen¡¯s images, the content is deeply resonant, and looking at her body of work from the last decade produces insight into its complex and multifaceted meanings. Born in the 1970s to a large family in Haerbin, north China, Cui now lives in Beijing, and was one of the four members of the Sirens along with Li Hong, Feng Jyali, Yuan Yaomin. All four began as figurative painters who trained at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts, they were not avowed feminists, though naturally being female, their works reveal themes related to feminine issues. After graduation, their main agenda was to find places to exhibit, as during the 90s such venues for women were few. The Sirens showed work in their small apartments, drawing an appreciative crowd. Their manifesto reveals a non-aggressive stance:
The creation of sirens in Greek tales is a typical aesthetic version of a patriarchal society where women are always described as the combination of apparent angels and inner devils. Under the belief that women are the origin of all crimes, female wisdom and the artistic value of feminist arts have long been denied. It¡¯s time for a change. The image of all-powerful man, the pattern in most societies, is bound to be abandoned. Women¡¯s voices will be increasingly heard and their natural endowments will benefit people of both sexes.

Their group name alludes to the story of Ulysses who had himself bound to the mast of his ship and had his ears stopped up so that he would not be seduced by the siren¡¯s song as his boat passed through the straits they inhabited.

Cui¡¯s early paintings were somewhat notorious as they featured naked men. Despite the modern curricula with its emphasis on Western oil paintings at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts and in art colleges throughout China, such themes, especially when executed by a female artist, were startling. Cui¡¯s works from this era are in direct response to Chinese art school practice where female nude models were available, but men were rarely used, and when they were, they were modestly covered. At the lower center of one such composition is a sprawled nude male seated in the darkened interior of the artist¡¯s studio, harshly lit, and drawn with extreme foreshortening. (Figure 1 Rose and Fresh Mint oil on canvas (160 x 180) 1996-8) Due to the placement of the image, the strong directional lines of sight established by the placement of compositional elements that move the eye to the lower center of the canvas, and the highlighting which illuminates that area, the figure¡¯s genitals are inescapably the focus of the painting. The lounging posture of the figure and the spotlight illumination convey a sense of narrative, a narrative interrupted. We, in the shadows, are privy to an intimate view of the scenario.
By the turn of the century Cui had turned to video. In these she explored the issue of sexuality in contemporary China. In one video from 2000 entitled ¡°Ladies¡± a hidden camera was placed in the ladies room of a Beijing night club. Young women adjust their make-up, hitch up their bra, fix their hair, change their clothes, and roll up small wads of cash and hide them in their undergarments. (Figure 2 Ladies video 2000, 6¡¯12¡±) Their continuous banter reveals the illicit nature of their liaisons. For example one irate girl threatens to tell a patron¡¯s wife of their affair, if he does not pay up. This kind of interaction was unknown a decade earlier, for communist China clearly promulgated decorous behavior, eschewing displays of intimacy. Couples did not touch each other in public, applied for permission to marry and bear a child; moreover, the state vigilantly outlawed commoners¡¯ engaging in prostitution, alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, and the like. In an interview from 2004, Cui averred that she did not wish to proselytize or comment on the social situation in China, nor was she promoting any feminist interpretations.  Rather, she maintained she wanted only to present the situation for others to experience, without commentary.

Cui was attracted to video explaining that it provided greater freedom of expression, was far less personal than oil painting, and had a range of potential images that was without limit. The video Twice, created in 2001, was a further exploration of the new sexuality in China. Here Cui tackles the subject of phone sex: a young beauty, who is Cui herself, is alone in her apartment, engaging in licentious banter with an unseen partner. Lying on her back, Cui caresses herself. (Figure 3 Twice video 9¡¯ 17¡±) In response to the work Cui explained, ¡°Desire is wandering between the spirit and flesh. Rejection and acceptance have become a contradiction. Sometimes when you enjoy the happiness brought on by the flesh, you give up the pursuit of spirit; and sometimes when you seek the spiritual, you have to restrain your desire.¡± A third video, Toot, from 2001, is certainly the most lyrical of the three works. (Figure 4 Toot video 3¡¯ 33¡±) A statuesque Chinese beauty is wrapped from head to toe in a long swath of toilet paper. Looking like a mummy, her body totally obscured, she stands motionless. Slowly, drops of water cause the toilet paper to disintegrate. As her arms rise up freeing her body, she stands triumphant and naked. Cui had intended to use a model for the shot, but circumstance led to her not showing up and Cui had to take her place. Many saw this performance as a controversial stance.     Watching the figure being stripped of its delicate wrapping evokes many associations, and the passivity of the figure enhances identification with the traditional male sexual gaze. Looking at this object of desire, standing so submissively and slowly losing its protective covering, makes one feel like a voyeur. But like the erect goddess of Botticelli¡¯s Birth of Venus,  the figure emerging from her wrapping creates a sense of expectation, of creation in the making, of imminent action. In the end it is a statement of being freed from the bonds of convention. The work represents freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of identity, freedom from the restriction of clothes, freedom from painting. Cui explained:

This work attempts to approach the attitude that people have towards neutrality, analyzing it from a spiritual, consciousness-related, but not physiological point view. I used toilet paper and the human body as source materials, and then I slowly dropped water on it to disintegrate the paper wrapping up the body, video-recording the changing physical integrity of the paper itself and the resultant exposure of the body. In the beginning this was a performance piece. Then through a technical procedure, I completed it. I added a revised version of the Chinese traditional tune ¡°The Ambush on All Sides¡±.  
This tune, which is played on the traditional lute, the pi-pa, has no lyrics but is based on a romantic tale of war during the bitter battle to establish the Han dynasty in 202 B.C. On the eve of defeat by the Han, the very beautiful, deeply beloved concubine of the Chu leader killed herself with his favorite sword so that she not be taken alive by the enemy. Upon seeing her corpse, her lover wept in despair. The next morning, deserted by his soldiers, the Chu leader stood alone with his horse, sang a song mourning his lack of good fortune, cried out his beloved Yu Ji¡¯s name twice, and fell on his sword. In the context of the music one has to wonder about the tragic associations of romantic love and this ancient beauty¡¯s acts of self-sacrifice to maintain her purity that the song conjures.

Though at first Cui worked in a lab to have access to the technical equipment for processing and editing her film, with the recent evolution of video cameras she was able to work in her studio by herself. Cui was continually drawn to working on themes that deal with nudity, sexuality and self exploration. In an interview by Wang Yuwin, she explained this aspect of her art:

Q. Why are you making these images?
A: I have to do so for the sake that there is a voice in my heart asking me to do so and that¡¯s the reason.

Q. What are you trying to say about the image of women as a sex object in China?
A: As to these images of woman as a sex object, I do not want to make any remarks on them¡ªwhether emotionally or morally. Instead I hope those who see them can get something themselves.

Q. What are you trying to say about female sexuality? About the freedom of women to appear nude?
A: The freedom of woman to appear nude is decided by the specific time, situation, and field. There is no such case for one to be restricted because she used her own nude body to create an artwork until now.
Q. About the freedom of women to have sex in China now?
A: It is decided by every specific woman, take for example the environment they live in and the education they received. China is such a big country that it is really hard for me to offer a definite answer.

The posing of such questions suggests the slow pace of the emergence of China from the social restrictions of the past. More importantly these statements, along with others, establish Cui¡¯s desire to let her work speak for itself. Cui wants the images to impart a message, rather than her artistic dictum. In this way her work is freed of a single interpretation and open to many levels of meaning,
In 2004, Cui turned to photographic assemblages, photographs that she took and manipulated in the computer, and printed in large scale. Cui recreated the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. In the computer, substituting for the original figures in the composition a young girl in her school uniform. Dressed in a plaid skirt, white short-sleeve shirt with bow tie and doll-like close cropped hair and bangs, she is extremely beautiful. (Figure 5 Sanjie video 18¡¯ 49¡± and photo 350 x 60.61) Cui eerily reconstructs all of the stylized poses and gestures of the Renaissance painting. Being such a familiar image, the recreation is especially jarring in its modern appearance¡ªfor it is now large-scale, polychrome, and a brilliant flat light dissolves the familiar chiaroscuro effects. This figural substitution raises a multitude of provocative considerations, beginning with the patriarchal nature of the scene and by extension the religion. Where are women in the narrative? There is a readily apparent disparity in the innocent school girl acting out of all the roles of one of the world¡¯s greatest tales of betrayal and forgiveness. As all the figures are the same person, the work poses the question of whether these roles played by the same character are different facets of her individual personality. Intriguingly, Cui affirms the complexity of the human psyche. Are we all potential traitors, disciples, and a betrayed divinity? Posed like a Zen Ko-an, Cui¡¯s work causes us to question the traditional meaning of the scene. What is more, her philosophical conundrum exposes the fallacy of subjective knowledge. Ironically, Cui¡¯s replacement of the fathers of the Christian religion with a female juvenile internalizes the drama and transforms it into a modern work of art.
The young model, it becomes increasingly clear, is an alter ego for Cui. In the second phase of this series, Cui took pictures of an older girl, a pre-teenager, and interjected her into a number of scenarios. In one photograph from the series, One Day in 2004, from 2004, the child, still dressed like a school girl, walks on the deserted streets of the ancient Forbidden Palace; the cloudless sky is luminous. (Figure 6 One Day in 2004  photo NO.4 126 x 156) Here too the work references various cultural traditions¡ªthe architectural setting alludes to the imperial dynasties and their patriarchal agenda; the clear blue sky is familiar in Western art but rarely portrayed in Chinese art; and the girl is surely of our time. Dwarfed by her surroundings, the child seems lost and vulnerable. She is shown in three-quarters profile and looks down to the right in a dejected manner. Her uniform is different: she wears a white dress with blue trim, a red neckerchief and black shoes with straps. The new all white costume adds to the virginal appearance of the child. In the background seated beneath the palace wall is another image of the girl, also seemingly doleful. The isolation of the figures from each other is telling, they have no apparent relationship and their separation is made more emphatic by the composition which comprises broad horizontal bands of color- the golden palatial roof tiles, grey masonry wall and empty red banner. Only the figures of the girls relieve the strong horizontal composition.  In another series entitled Angel 1, from 2006, the subject is yet again older, a teenager. Now much closer to the viewer and in large scale, the girl, dressed in a similar outfit, but without the red scarf, stands in a body of dark blue water near the center of the composition, the moon rises high in the sky, its light illuminating the surface of the sea. Along the horizon are low lying clouds, the further shore, and a small hill on the right. This is a similar composition comprised of horizontal bands of color--the sea, the sky, the clouds and the shore, provide the backdrop for the figure, making her singly important. A gentle wind blows her garments, and she averts the gaze of the viewer. One feels like an intruder. Portentously, the subject holds her belly. (Figure 7 Angel 1, photo, 200 x 158) This scene is somber, the joy of pregnancy is not in evidence; rather it alludes to the problems of unwanted teenage pregnancy. She is alone and troubled. In Angel 13, done in 2006, the teenager, lying on her back at the bottom of the picture, is in the last stage of pregnancy; a tear falls from her eye. The rest of the composition comprises a grand view of the sky and its swollen cumulus clouds. With their strange Kabuki like makeup, these girls¡¯ faces seem bruised, and they are downcast. In Angel 7 of 2008 Cui goes back to multiple figure compositions¡ªthe pregnant teenage appears thirty times in varying sizes and positions on a pyramid of sand by the inner wall of the Forbidden City¡ªthere is no way out, no way to climb the hill of sand, no way to get over the ancient masonry wall. Arranged in various postures, some girls, like dolls, sit with their legs sprawled, some looks down, other look up beseechingly, and the uppermost one, seen from the back, tries to peer beyond the wall. Incongruously a tall electricity pole rises up left of center, and behind it is a blue sky is filled with russet clouds of oncoming dusk. (Figure 8 Angel 6, photo,120 x 100) These works allude to the problems of young women in a society which is still bound by traditional values: they are still subject to the patriarchal conventions of the past, and the on-going preference for male children that results in the abortion of female fetus and the subsequent reduction of the number of women in China. In addition new government policies restrict child bearing and pregnant women wanting medical care need to have a pregnancy certificate. These young girls are trapped by social restrictions¡ªundervalued, used, and rejected. Using these young models,  Cui is able to illustrate the problems of the society.
The first time she used a model  in Sanjie it was the child of a friend. For various logistical reasons new models were needed, and because Cui seeks to establish the intimacy she had with the first subject, she spends at least a month socializing with the girl and her mother before beginning the series. This is in part to make the girl comfortable, but also Cui takes time to assess the subject¡¯s personality and to plan new ideas for a project.  Then Cui orchestrates the series¡ªselecting backgrounds and scenery; next she makes portraits of the girl; finally she merges the two in the computer and manipulates the image, placing the girl in the environment. This is a long and arduous process, one suite of works of a particular model in a specific setting usually take two years to complete. Cui uses one particular model many times in each series, and by doing so she seems to create a brand icon placed in a narrative context that explores a multitude of decidedly spare settings.

As has been shown, over the duration of the series from 2004-08 the age of the young models¡¯ age progressed from three to five, from eight to nine, and finally from thirteen to fourteen. These ages are not arbitrary. Cui avers children initially become aware of their gender in the first group, of their sexuality in the second, and of their reproductive capacity in the third.  So carefully selected, these girls maybe seen as a reflection of the artist and her experiences growing up though the various stages of physical, psychological, and emotional maturation. In this way they are like an alter ego. Indeed, they resemble Cui as a slender and beautiful youth. Using this kind of self portrait format, enables Cui to explore the events in her own life, by externalizing her early experiences and the feelings they engendered. Cui describes the painful years of being the youngest of a large and poor family living in an industrial zone and the deprivations of her life which included working hard as a school girl to help out; the fear and curiosity of sexual awareness and the sense of isolation and vulnerability that it brought; along with the awful feeling that power and her destiny resided elsewhere than in herself, somewhere in the adult world. In some way recreating these experiences frees Cui of the burdens of the past and allows her to evolve. Through her work she is able to objectively analyze the evolution of her own character, race, gender, and culture.
Despite her urbane and extremely successful existence, some part of Cui remembers her earlier life as an outsider from the distant province of Haerbin in Heilongjiang. The girls in the works also seem to be outsiders, alone, unprotected, and in a difficult circumstance. Women in general have been outsiders in Chinese society, especially in traditional culture where they were usually treated as commodities sold into other families as wives, concubines, courtesans and maids while still young. Cui¡¯s girls, who because of their make-up, isolation, and forlorn stances can be seen as icons of a feminist agenda: the resonant image of a brutalized girl evokes the various problems of contemporary Chinese society¡ªrape, incest, unwed motherhood, venereal disease, AIDS, child abuse, and adoption, and of course all of these problems are not exclusive to China. These girls are damaged, despite their attributes of beauty and youth. Being pregnant, the hope of a normal life is diminished, for the girls, having been used and discarded, have lost what status they might have had.
But Cui disavows a feminist agenda, asserting she is not a feminist artist, that feminist themes do not drive her creative process. She says it took so many years to grow up, to master her artistic techniques, to survive, to accumulate experience that she prefers to see things through the heart rather than intellect. She points out that in the beginning she started painting both sexes, only later did she focus on girls, and she maintains that her subjects, though apparently female, represent the whole of society because the world is inhabited by men and the social context is one of a whole society. But Cui does hope her work will wake women up to being more independent, to make themselves better. For this, education is important and seeing art gives people a broader vision and an exposure to different values. Cui remarks how different society is now, that her first experience of seeing art was in a museum and that was only after she went abroad. Now art is so widespread and there are so many places to see art in the numerous art communities that have grown up throughout China like 798 Gallery where there is a concentration of galleries and artist studios. And opportunities for female artists have improved somewhat¡ªCui herself is extremely successful¡ªand she meets monthly with some of the most prominent women artists in Beijing to discuss their common situations, but this is a private meeting of the minds rather than a professional association.
Thus we must consider Cui¡¯s cautioning that these works are not generated by a feminist concern but by the natural outcome of her meditation on the human condition. Representing the various stages of physical and emotional development, the figure encompasses several generations of experience. For example, the images with young girls dressed in school uniforms place the figure in a specific context and set of activities associated with the lower school educational experience. She is a resonant symbol that elicits the sights, sounds, and smells of school rooms, playgrounds, and childhood games. The viewer is drawn into the drama of a young girl facing the elemental issues of survival. Through the repetitive use of adolescent female subjects Cui narrates a story not only of a single girl¡¯s trauma, but of generations of adolescents and their social problems, insecurities, and fragility. Through artistic manipulation, Cui attempts to transform particular personal images into a universalized image that transcends gender, culture, and time.
To achieve this more general perspective, Cui employs various techniques that  imbue the image with a broader context. First, the scenes are clean and spare, illuminated by a nearly clinical light, which is reinforced by the girls¡¯ white dresses and pale skin. The scene is stripped of quotidian details. In sum it looks like an artificially illuminated stage set, where even the shadows are suppressed. In one sense this is a traditional Chinese use of lighting for there is no single source that consistently illuminates objects in the composition to identify the time of day, like the early morning reading of a letter by a young beauty in a Vermeer painting. Flat broad illumination generalizes the time of day and robs the scene of its temporality. Second, there is a discernable disjunction between the figures and the composition, each having been shot independently and then reassembled results in a disharmony that is sensed more than perceived; the girls appear to have been dropped into each scenario. Again, like a stage set, the pictorial space is shallow. Moreover, the spare backdrops contrast with the very clear and detailed image of the girl. Plus the narrative is incongruous; why, for example, would a modern school girl be alone in the inner confines of the Imperial Palace? Another consideration is the use of make-up. It is always odd to see a young girl¡¯s face painted with cosmetics, making them seem artificial, sexualized, and forced into playing roles beyond their age. This is a multivalent construct that evokes the Chinese opera and actresses who transform the individual and thereby transcend the particularities of a specific time and circumstance. In effect the girls are wearing a mask that conceals their identity. And at the same time the make-up, with reddish blotches around eyes that mar the whitened skin, suggests underlying bruises. But these various disjunctions are offset by the meticulously composed compositions that are a harmoniously balanced arrangement of colour and shapes that are placed in such a way as to effectively direct the eye of the viewer through the composition.

In sum Cui insists that the works are not only a form of meditation on her own life, but on human experience. Adolescents everywhere seem to share such feelings as disempowerment in the adult world, curiosity at the changes sexual maturation bring to their bodies and lives, aimless energy, confusion of how to harness it to achieve some positive accomplishment, and bewilderment as to what that accomplishment might be. Such issues are not limited to girls, and many of these feelings do not dissipate with the passage of time. Thus the images have a far greater resonance than is immediately apparent.
Cui¡¯s current series introduces a number of new elements. Entitled, Chuda Mountain (ice and snow mountain), it takes place in Liaoning, near her home city of Haerbin. The actor is now an older girl, about eighteen years of age, joined by a life size doll.  Made in Japan, the doll resembles the girl, but is clearly fabricated, the joints of the arms and legs that allow for movement are visible. Cui explained that she got the inspiration for the series on a recent trip to Japan where she encountered the popular practice of using dolls in art. For Cui, the doll elicits the essential duality of body and soul. These works are now predominantly monochromatic and refer back to the great tradition of Chinese landscape painting in both their restricted palette and horizontal format. Though the time of year is early spring, the weather has not yet become warm. Snow and ice frame the drama. But this is a traditional view of spring in China, best expressed in the Song dynasty landscape painting of Guo Xi dated 1072 in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. In that painting the spring foliage and flowers have yet to manifest themselves, yet the earth is churning with the motion of the germination of the seedlings below ground. But it should also be noted that Cui¡¯s new series takes place during the Spring Festival, which is now a national holiday that commemorates dead ancestors, it is the time when the family returns to the graveyard to clean and to repair the graves and to report the status of the family to the ancestors.

One silvery long horizontal print is a bare mountain landscape, lying in the snow are the barely distinguishable figures of the doll and the girl, separated by some distance.  The figures lie face up in mirror like postures: their heads are directed towards the center of the composition; their feet face the frame of the photo. (Figure 9 Characteristics of Existential Emptiness NO.1, Photo 400 x 110) It is an eerily serene and barren snowscape evocative of monumental mountain landscapes. A second composition also employs the exaggerated long horizontal. In this one, a bare snow-filled wintry forest occupies the entire mid-ground, the trees and their branches seem etched into the brilliant but diffused light of the atmosphere. In a slightly different hue of silver, the girl, holding up the doll in front of her, (Figure 10 Characteristics of Existential Emptiness NO.3) rises up from the center and seemingly hovers among the branches of the trees. Dominating the center of a third composition, again in the same format, is a long flat boat floating in the mid ground. The girl and doll occupy either end of the boat: the former reclines with a dreamy expression on her face; the latter is bent over the side. (Figure 11Characteristics of Existential Emptiness NO.12)  The bleak river, blanched white and the distant wintry shore form a horizontal composition punctuated by the figures. Another composition, now more in the shape of a square, is bifurcated by the horizon. A few small spare wintry trees occupy an uneventful sky and barren landscape. Separated by a considerable distance, the doll and girl stand facing each other at either end of the composition. One can¡¯t help recall Hiroshi Sugimoto¡¯s  solemn and meditative photos of the sea.
The last in this series is quite different: it is triptych with the three compositions horizontally aligned and takes place not in a landscape but in the middle of a highway. (Figure 12-14 Characteristics of Existential Emptiness NO.6), In the left photo, the girl and puppet stand in three-quarter frontal view facing right on a nearly deserted thoroughfare at dusk. The headlights of an oncoming car in the far left lane dimly illuminate the road through the haze of snow. Behind the car is a large truck. On the right, red traffic lights glow faintly in the largely monochromatic composition. The subjects have no coats, only their school uniforms; and the billowing tie of the doll indicates the harsh wind. Pedestrians and bicyclists navigate the highway at its perimeter and the pale silhouette of the smokestacks of an industrial factory sits at the left. In the middle photo the girl holds the doll in front of her, huddled behind its inert body, as they bike down the center of a four-lane road in the snow. Her posture conveys a sense of urgency. Slick frost forms a crusty cover on the dark wet pavement. Seen from the rear, the tires of the bike etch a path in the newly falling snow. The right photo replicates the backdrop of the first one, but here the figures face left and the girl holds up the doll before her to shield her body, the doll¡¯s limp hair flies in the cold wind and they huddle together for protection.
These pictures incite all the senses, one can feel the harsh wind, the damp snow, the approaching darkness of night, the muted sounds silenced by snow. Looking at this series, it is clear that the intriguing use of the doll and the relationship between the two figures is one of the major themes. Whether placed together or spaced apart, they are two parts of a puzzle, evoking the dynamic dualities of body and soul, yin and yang, life and the absence of life. At times the doll is a burden to be carried across a wintry highway, or a shield behind which to find shelter. In the ethereal forest scene they rise together in harmony, transcending the earthly realm. Like the emotional baggage one picks up while living, the doll is an inescapable part of one¡¯s life.

The use of the doll can be linked to the great tradition of Japanese puppet theater, Bunraku.  There, like the masked Noh dramas of the Zen tradition, fiercely emotional themes of loyalty, dishonour, and love are played out by figures bereft of the humanity of actors in Western theater. Through the artifice of the doll and masks, the drama, made more abstract, becomes even more poignant. Being more abstract, it allows viewers to interject the particularities of their own narratives. The doll replaces the younger models of the earlier works and engenders a more apparent symbolic content to the pieces. The artifice of the doll recalls the mask like visages of the young girls with painted faces; the doll¡¯s limp mechanical body resembles the dejected postures of the actors in the earlier series. Though the pictorial context has changed from the inner confines of the Forbidden City to the frozen landscape of north China, the figures are still interjected into an alien environment and the artificiality of this effect still emphatically conveys a sense of isolation. Like the flat light of the earlier series, the murky darkness of a snowstorm or snow-filled sky still suppresses the source of light or shadows and robs the scene of any temporal sense. However, the figures are now diminished and small in scale. The brilliant polychrome of the earlier works is now transmuted and replaced by monochromatic compositions. With this new style, Cui is able to transcend the specifics of a contemporary scene for a more abstract composition which along with the muted palette, long scroll format, and small scale figures elicits comparison with great masters of Chinese landscape painting. Thus the focus is no longer on the image of a young girl, but rather on the universal human drama.