Gender Reality on Video[Yang Xiaoyan, Art Critic, 2009.Vol.10 "Art China"]


Putting Cui Xiuwen and Weng Fen together has at least two reasons: First, in terms of gender, Cui is female and Weng is male, which represent different gender identities respectively views, and mirror reflecting each other. Second, they share common feature in some of their works. That is, a symbolic female image appears repeatedly to build a different imagery space, which completes an utterly different expression. Of course, outwardly similar, though, they differ in appearance and differ widely in meaning in the use of the female symbol. Even there is a gender confrontation between Cui's and Weng's. In addition, they both specialized in fine art, neither of them is a “pure” photographer. Photography is simply a media to them.

Quite a few of Cui Xiuwen’s works caused much controversy, and even cause legal dispute. For example, the erotic imagery in her video Lady's drew reproach upon her, and even a lawsuit against her and Guangzhou Art Museum during the first “Triennial Art Exhibition in Guangzhou” in 2000. That case was somewhat a joke, and the appellant was suspected of attempting to make a name, so he lost the lawsuit. Apparently, this work was yet proved to be indeed very sensitive.

Cui Xiuwen’s works are deemed to be linked to feminism by many, and to body politics with female bodies as targets, which of course is a kind of convenience. The sexual consciousness in Cui's works also seems to provide convenience for the argument. But, according to critic TongYujie, “feminist art” is a “paradox”, which only means female artists have been perplexed by the value orientation of gender identity. Cui Xiuwen also calleda spade that why she did so is not because of her gender, instead it generates from needs (In case of instinct need, the gender characteristic is nothing unusual). 

In 2008, when answering a question by a reporter from Shanghai Securities News, Cui Xiuwen stressed: “People cannot see the world from a single angle. Gender perspective is just one part. Nothing but my work can represent my existence as an artist. For years of experience in art, it was my works rather than myself, that came into view of curators or exhibition institutions, which in most case my gender remained unknown in the process. Either domestic or foreign exhibitions, the curators or institution contacted me through various channels and ways because of my work. So it is good artistic ability that receives acceptance and approval in this world, not gender.

About the video Lady's, no one can explain more adequately than the artist herself. For Cui Xiuwen, the bathroom “is a public place exclusive to women”. Her sensibility in this definition expresses clear. First of all, she understands that this is an intimate space exclusive to women; and secondly, she understands that this is a “public sphere”. They are contradictory but harmonious in daily life. It is such a mutually ambiguous defenation that reveals the uniqueness of the place Cui Xiuwen faces, and bear witness to her own gender identity. As the artist breaks into this intimate space as a female, so she can fade among others and views it as an onlooker. Likewise, the intimacy of this place also finds expression in the arbitrariness of those “bar girls” who come in trimming, for here they need no “disguise”, but relaxation and even presumption. And relaxation and presumption themselves prove that this is indeed a public space, a territory for them all. As a result, “voyeurism” is called into question instinctively in such a place. Yes, the artist is an invasive voyeur as she sneaks in from the outside. At the meantime, the public space provides a cover for the intruder so that she can observe. Then, as soon as the work puts into display, the “voyeurism” was conveyed by the astonished general public.

Lady's is not a photograph, but a video. But obviously, its contradictory expression has significantly influenced Cui's subsequent photographs. Shortly after Lady's, Cui Xuwen began to use the sexy image of a high school female student as a sign to establish her beguiling innocence and vicious beauty.

Unlike Lady's, the image of the female student appears ubiquitous in series of Cui Xiuwen’s works, as an “angel”, as everybody in “Last Supper”, as an innocent girl leaning against the red wall of the Imperial Palace, as a girl who is pregnant and as a victim. In short, the girl is an omnipresent idol which manifests the artist’s complex and intense desires. The girl plays various peculiar roles that constantly come into collision inside and out with the set “theme” (such as “Last Supper”). Here, what matters is not the “theme”, but the image. Wha significance does this missionary idolized“female high school student” indeed convey?

Reading some texts relevant to Cui Xiuwen, especially some of her own words, I found that she is straightforward and not obsessed with “theory”. She hopes her works, not interpretation will appeal to people. This is very important. Interpreters tend to regard Cui Xiuwen as a feminist, but for her, she takes no interest in whether she belongs to feminist or not.. Cui Xiuwen interests in observation, an intuitive observation. Lady's is an accidental result from her observation. Because of this result, a firm view occurred to her. She was determined to turn whatever she observes into an image sign. Later, she created a “female student” symbol. All kinds of words are derived from “her” (the female student). Thus a peculiar generality goes to this image---- a specific sign in Cui Xuwen’s, and develops into the public understanding through repeated copying and, thus embroils the society’s eager anticipation for “art”.

I do not trace the source of the “female student” in Cui Xiuwen's work. But, from the perspective of growth, Cui Xiuwen has at least an innate sensitivity to the conflict of sex arising of this age, including the inner closure and the outside world’s excessive imagination close to eroticism. As a matter of fact, the so-called “isolation” and “erotic imagination” does not occur in the same role. The former is psychological feature common to maidens, but the latter is hidden and wicked lust common in men for women of this age. Perhaps due to the lasting observation of and the fierce reaction to this conflict, Cui Xiuwen constructs such a lovely and hateful role, and imposes instinctively such a complex social meaning onto this image. But, in my opinion, a further meaning should conceal within this image----- perhaps an absurdity of this age Cui Xiuwen is aware of. She understands, as long as one does not deceive oneself, the so-called “erotic imagination” does not always occur in men, but in women as well, in their concealed desire. That is to say, “concealment” and “erotic imagination” will both become the psyche of the female student, and let her play roles in conflict. Interestingly, she acts unctuously, roaming in a state of blessed hurt, innocent pregnancy, mischievous prude and ignorant sacredness with a vivid sex appeal and a look of black humor. Undoubtedly, Cui Xiuwen, through this image------unique but lack of individuality, elegant but popular-----makes a purely personal perceptual judgment of the gender reality in China and reveals the essence of its dullness. The dullness offers a case utterly different from traditional lens for us to understand the gender reality on video and thus see through the gender reality in China.

If, in Cui Xiuwen’s photograph, the symbolic “female student”, is itself an object, the artist put her in a scene and a frame meant to be subverted, “hurt”, “pregnant”, leaning against a red wall or walking alone. Weng Fen then is the opposite. In his Fence-Sitting Series, the female image-----only a back view of a young woman always looking into the distance------is simply a guide and a foil for the audience to witness the silent and massive sexy expression of the city through her action and body.

In a sense, Weng Fen’s real object is a city skyline erecting like a penis. Fence-Sitting Series contains a fantastic ambiguity in terms of either subject or image. In the picture, the woman seems to be the same person, dressed in simple blouse and skirt, and with a pair of sneakers on her feet, which reminds an unfamiliar scene form an age of barbarism. She sits astride the wall all day long looking into the distance. Obviously the city is a combined one, monotonous, towering and fast-growing, forming a contrast with the woman in volume and imagery. It is this contrast that suggests a given view order: the viewer looks at the woman, and the woman looks into the distance. The distance then reflects back the viewing information to confuse the woman, and finally the woman returns the confusion to the viewer. The circulating line of sight constitutes a hidden subtle labyrinth so that the viewer, the woman and the distant city skyline contribute to the entirety.


Then, the woman turns round, covering her face with a black cloth only left her eyes and mouth be seen, like a robber in thrillers, producing more ambiguity. A conflict between the ignorant young girl and the black cover for robbery arose simutaneously from the image itself, presented to the viewer. Naturally, the background is still the noisy and crowded city, or a beautiful sea occasionally, which was nearly equivalent to taunts.


Anyway, the image of sexual factors in Weng Fen's work are putting behind the image, and thus creates such ambiguity. But lately, he took a series of pictures entitled My Olympics, where a naked beautiful woman portrayed in various athletic poses, such as playing ping-pong, boxing, running, hurling a javelin, fencing, etc. In fact, in this new series, the so-called Olympics is nothing but an excuse. Weng Fen’s real purpose is to present sex in a stagy way. Here, Weng Fen made an attractive “athletic meeting” as an overwrought mockery of the present society.

Xiaoyan Wang