Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Gender expression &
repression in China

Fine Arts

Still from Moth, a video about gender identity by Mu Xi (2011).
(Photo: Courtesy the artist)
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Transformation is the dominant theme and would be a fitting title for Women, a thought-provoking, eye-opening new show at the Chinese Cultural Center that discusses feminism, gender and expressions – and repression – of diverse sexual identity in modern China. Women may seem like a confusing misnomer, but the Chinese character for "women" is the same as for "we," an indication perhaps of the traditional cultural view of female autonomy.

This small but daring exhibit of drawings, paintings, videos, photographs and installations by a dozen, mostly straight (and a few LGBT) male and female artists from the U.S and China sent shockwaves through Shanghai when it debuted there last year, and elicited a deluge of angry responses; a warmer reception is anticipated here.

While it's not an occasion for great art, and doesn't claim to be, the exhibition does represent an important pulling-back of the veil on hidden sexual minorities who haven't ventured forth until very recently, and rarely declare themselves. Self-identifying as anything other than straight is still a risky proposition in China; such declarations can still bring shame and social stigma, and threaten one's professional career. If you're an outspoken, independent woman there, you're not on easy street. Think of the bad old, backward days in the U.S. during the 1950s and early 60s, when women were on valium and stuffed themselves into girdles (literally and metaphorically), and gays entered into sham marriages and led double lives, and you get a picture of the social climate in China, where the tentative emergence of gays mirrors, but has not kept pace with, the country's rapid urbanization. Increasingly, Western influence and the Internet, despite strict government controls, have allowed feminists and LGBT people access to information and connections to like-minded souls around the world. Though some may have gained more space to be themselves, many still feel safer remaining invisible. In My Little One, a documentary about the experiences of gays living in Guangzhou Province, the interviewees wear masks on-camera – a fashion designer even dons a rabbit's head – to disguise their identities. Filmmaker Er Gao, a dancer/choreographer whose avant-garde dance-theater dramas address gender, spoke with college students, members of advocacy groups, gay men married to unwitting women, and lesbians, who, confronted with the added burden of being female in a patriarchal and sexist culture, face the greatest discrimination.

For historical perspective, there's Qui Jin, China's answer to Joan of Arc. A feminist prototype and women's rights activist in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, she attempted an armed uprising and became the first female martyr for China's 1911 revolution. Her exploits are chronicled in Autumn Gem, a film by Bay Area husband-and-wife team Rae Chang and Adam Tow; it can viewed at the show in iBook format.

Among the works most emblematic of a spirit of metamorphosis is 29-year-old Shanghai artist Mu Xi's Moth, a striking video that poetically illustrates the ambiguity and fluidity of gender during adolescence, a period of sexual curiosity and experimentation. Derived from his painting "Portrait of Youth" and utilizing simple animation techniques, it shows a dancer, seen from behind, as he sprouts wings and evolves into other beings.

Silk Cocoon, installation and video by Man Yee Lam (2011).
(Photo: Courtesy the artist)

Hong Kong-born, San Francisco artist Man Yee Lam's installation "Silk Cocoon," a web of heavy white silk string leading to a life-size cocoon, is accompanied by a video in which the artist weaves herself into it, then cuts her way out of a confining structure of her devise, a process symbolizing rebirth. It's based on stories of ancestors in her hometown of Shun De, where the silk production industry was run by a predominantly female work-force. These financially self-sufficient women, contrary to custom, rejected marriage, took a vow of celibacy and were known as "self-combing" women.

Though most of the artists here are not part of the contemporary Chinese art boom, He Chengyao, a prominent and controversial performance artist in China, should be. In searing images that document her staged art and the toll of her troubled family history, she uses her naked body as canvas and battleground and her traumatic autobiography as content, an approach reminiscent of audacious Serbian provocateur Marina Abramovic. A former oil painter, He Chengyao was born to an unwed, disgraced teenage mother who, hounded by the incessant gossip in her town, went insane and ran through the streets naked; the humiliating spectacle and her mother's mental illness are specters that haunt her work. "She was always running around naked with her hair in a mess," the artist recalled in an interview on "I'm always having flashbacks. I could never get away from it. When I grew up, I used to feel that it was me running naked, not my mum."

Those blurred boundaries between mother and daughter are poignantly revealed in Mother and Me, a series of color portraits in which her mother is seated in a chair, slouched, vulnerable and childlike, nude except for a pair of white pants, while He Chengyao stands behind her, also half-naked, suggesting an inescapable legacy of pain passed down through the generations. Another photograph shows the artist hiking along the Great Wall partially nude – Chinese critics charged that she strips for sensationalism – but a group of pictures called 99 Needles tells a painful story of a woman wrestling with inner demons. Triggered by memories of her mother enduring an "acupuncture cure" – He Chengyao has compared her mother's screams to those of a pig being slaughtered – she photographed her own face and body pierced by multiple needles, her contorted expression channeling bottomless anguish.


The Chinese Cultural Center is in on the 3rd floor of the Hilton Hotel, 750 Kearny St. Women runs through Nov. 30; free.


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