In 1993 Australian printmaker Michael Kempson met Chinese printmaker Su Xin Ping and expressed a wish to initiate a cultural exchange. Fifteen years later that idea comes to fruition in Silk + Sand, currently on show at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery. It has been a long time coming, but Silk + Sand, an excellent exhibition of Chinese and Australian prints, is the result of this interaction and mutual respect between printmakers.
With all eyes on the spectacle of the Beijing Olympics this year, topical cultural events are bound to appear. In Australia there are several Contemporary Chinese Art exhibitions coming up including Body Language: Contemporary Chinese Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, and Ai Weiwei: Under Construction at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and Campbelltown Arts Centre. These exhibitions aim to foster political dialogue in the arts community through the presentation of works by artists such as Sheng Qi and Ai Weiwei who are renowned for their critical attitude towards the Chinese Government.
Silk + Sand is not one of these shows. It is permeated by a sense of camaraderie and common passion for quality printmaking that is characteristic of the friendly connection between its initiators Xu Ping and Kempson.
The cultural exchange came to fruition as an institutional collaboration after Kempson and Xu Ping came to head Printmaking Departments at, respectively, the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales (COFA) and The Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (CAFA). As such, the exhibition is a showcase of artists associated with each institution.
Due to current events, it is tempting for the viewer to consider the political relationship between China and Australia in their interpretation the works, but this does not do justice to the exhibition. As a showcase, the prints by the 29 Chinese and Australian artists were not created specifically for the show around a common theme, nor did the artists initiate the works with a cultural exchange between the two countries in mind.
What is interesting about the show is the unlikely interconnectedness of the prints themselves. Despite the Chinese and Australian components of the exhibition being curated independently, there appears to be conceptual relationships between works from each country.
Many of the works are concerned with common social and environmental issues. Chris O’Doherty aka Reg Mombasa shares a quirky and animated concern for environmental destruction and the excesses of industry with Chinese artist Wang Hua Xiang. O’Doherty’s print Skirting the Rim of Hell, a depiction of his iconic “Australian Jesus” fleeing a landscape ridden with factories, smoke stacks and flames seems to connect with Hua Xiang’s City, Car, Car woodcuts, depicting bizarre monsters trampling mountainous piles of cars.
Concerns about the social and psychological effects of technology are echoed in the prints of Jane Fontane and Wu Hong. Fontane’s screenprints of children’s heads with the bodies of Transformers™ robots represent the trend towards an extended adolescence and child-like behaviour of young adults with the increasing popularity of technology such as video games. Wu Hong’s deeply psychological Watcher lithographs are haunting portraits of a hooded youth, of which the artist says:
“The watcher appears calm while inside his heart he is lonely. Modern life has brought us abundant materials but it has also made us sink into deep anxiety”
The exhibition also reveals an interest in referencing the rich history of printmaking. Despite the ease with which an image can be duplicated using new technology, several of the artists including Kang Jian Fei and Rew Hanks revert to the most laborious methods of printmaking: the woodcut/ wood engraving. There are also visual references to the past such as Hanks’ stylistic references to playing cards, the earliest examples of Western printmaking on paper, and Jian Fei’s use of the traditional Chinese seal.
The show is visually bold and impressive, leaving no room for doubt about the continuing relevance and vitality of print mediums in the contemporary art scene. Any show that encompasses such a diversity of techniques and thematic concerns is in danger of appearing disjointed, however the careful curatorship of Silk + Sand has resulted in a show that feels unified despite the broadness of its scope. It is characterised by a sense of community, of artists drawn together by their explorations of print mediums transcending language and cultural barriers.
Silk + Sand is a celebration of printmaking more than anything else, showcasing the experimental formats and techniques of some of the best printmakers that China and Australia have to offer.
The exhibition is closing on April 12 at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery. It tours to The Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing in December 2008.
i Silk + Sand Exhibition Catalogue, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Paddington, 2008, p.31