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The Dimensions of the Contemporary Artist’s Duty

The Dimensions of the Contemporary Artist’s Duty — on Lei Yan’s Art

Written by Luo Fei, this essay has been published in the book of To Start From Art

Lei Yan was born in 1957 to a military family, and herself served in the military for thirty years (1970-2001). After being discharged in 2001, she became a contemporary artist, creating works in the forms of installation art, photography and soft sculpture. She held her first solo exhibition at TCG Nordica in 2007. At that time, I noted her deftness at transforming rich personal memories into public memories, and at transforming such objects of the past as camouflage cloth, old photographs and badges into moving artistic forms.

Lei Yan began shifting away from military subject matter in 1997 in a clear shift to the expression of individual emotions and identity through contemporary art. Her art that followed can be categorized into four different aspects, these aspects being the four key words in Lei Yan’s works: form, heart, culture and public events.

Lei Yan, The Traffic Rule1, Printmaking, 1998

Lei Yan, The Traffic Rule1, Printmaking, 1998


French art historian Henri Focillon held the view that “Perhaps, in our secret selves, we are all artists who have neither a sense of form nor hands. The characteristic of the true artist, however, is that he does have hands.”[1] Thus, the difference between the artist and the average person or even the intellectual is that the artist uses his or her hands to create forms. The forms created by the artist realize his spiritual perceptions in time and space.

In Lei Yan’s works, form encapsulates two levels. The first refers to handcrafted working methods, such as collage, sewing, cutting, knitting and modelling. The second refers to the individual experiments she engages in terms of artwork material, medium and structure rooted in the surface appearance of the artwork and its relation to space. From Lei Yan’s early paper prints The Conversation, Traffic Rules and Environmental Color (1997-1998), her mixed media prints Scenery, Still Life and Wall (2004), and her single print seriesWilderness (2007), we can see her great interest in form, material and crafting methods during her flat painting phase. By 2002, when she began formal experimentation with such diverse mediums and materials as digital photography, cloth sculpture, paper sculpture and blocks of ice, she appeared quite at home.

In art, correct form and materials can realize the emotions and visual forms the artist wishes to express. For instance, in the paper sculpture installation How Can I Protect You, Lei Yan used fragile, translucent parchment to recreate a scene of rubble from a collapsed school in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake[2], along with students’ book bags, shoes and flowers. The artist used this method to memorialize the young lives lost in this earthquake while also voicing suspicions about shoddy construction. Sometimes form and material themselves can bestow meaning onto an artwork. Those spiritual perceptions and memories that have been already expressed artistically can take on a feeling of freshness through an artist’s formal re-expression, giving people a new understanding of their spirits and their memories. For instance, in the Frozen series (2007), Lei Yan froze various mementoes from her soldier days, such as medals, badges portraying political leaders, a book of Mao quotes, uniforms and photographs with her comrades into blocks of ice, bestowing these all-too-familiar images with a new spirit marked by sentimentality, desolation and emptiness.

Her experiments in formal material and her infusion of emotions allow Lei Yan to consistently present a cohesive and incisive voice in the right formal materials.

Lei Yan, A Summer from Age 15, Paper Sculpture, 2011

Lei Yan, A Summer from Age 15, Paper Sculpture, 2011


An important trait of the heart is that it constantly describes itself. The heart is a pattern in a state of constant flow, a state of constant weaving and unraveling. In this sense, the activities of the heart are artistic activities. The heart wishes to turn the external conditions of a person into its own things, bestowing them with intelligent forms. The heart believes it can bring people youthful forms of life that overturn old models. This is the heart’s instinct.

On this level, I see that in Lei Yan’s early mixed media prints, she used materials such as paperboard, hair and cloth to create pictures full of motion, tension and texture: that is a vivid pattern of the heart, an ultrasound image of the artist’s heart.

In another series of melancholy oil paintings entitled Song of Four Seasons (2001-2002), Lei Yan depicted a girl with no clear facial features or traits running around in a closed space. In the Woman Soldier’s Dream oil painting series, she employed a style reminiscent of children’s drawing books to narrate a surrealistic journey of a woman soldier. In the photography series A Bullet through the Young Heart, she took soldiers, those followers of orders and protectors of the nation, and restored them as a series of young hearts, expressing her deep longing for the fragile hearts of her comrades lost in battle.

Lei Yan, The Frozen Youth N0 26, Photo, 2007

Lei Yan, The Frozen Youth N0 26, Photo, 2007

Another form of the heart’s expression is memory, because memory is a richly stocked warehouse that is accessible to each of us at any time. Memory training is a kind of spiritual form that some artists cultivate in their minds. In the artist’s hands, those memories bestowed with form have a special nature. Lei Yan’s memories of her military career and the Mao era have provided her with a rich treasure trove for her art. TheFrozen Red and Frozen Youth series are testament to that fact. In another soft sculpture series, 15 Years Old in Summer, Lei Yan turned a pair of army shoes into butterflies taking flight.

Lei Yan sometimes says that she got involved in contemporary art too late. Truly, taking up art after retirement at almost fifty is something that many young artists can’t imagine, but in her works, we can see that her heart has never rested from her army days, and the life in her heart (perceptions and reflections) has made preparations for her heart in space (art).

Lei Yan’s artworks are constantly describing the heart’s perceptions. This is a powerful voice in her work. If it weren’t for the saturation of her works with soulful emotion, we would not be able to sense the existence of a person from within her artworks, and those artworks would not be able to produce emotional resonance with the audience. Because of the self-awareness, memories, sentiments and consolation expressed in artworks, the artist has become the guardian of the human heart.


Culture refers to the models of thinking, values views, modes of behavior and ways of life that people form over long periods of time. When living in a group, people will inevitably come to face a certain culture and become a part of it, and thus culture is regional. Culture also possesses fluidity and openness; it is not an unchanging specimen. Through the expression of, and intervention in, the values, modes of behavior and other aspects of people and society, the artist takes part in culture and reshapes it, bringing it new vitality while inspiring independent thinking, imagination and joy among others.

In the relatively early installation work Screen (2005), the artist expresses a sense of anxiety regarding the complex and subtle relationships between people. The artist also engages in the alteration of everyday objects to push people to look at the things around them in a new light. In the Camouflage Cloth-Making (2007) and I Love Kitchen (2009) series, she used camouflage cloth of different colors and patterns to remake cooking utensils, appliances and other everyday objects. The camouflage cloth lends these everyday objects militaristic traits, placing them in a state of tension between order and poetry, farce and sincerity. Lei Yan says it is just like women.

In another series, a set of photographs asking “what if,” (2006), Lei Yan probes the memories of a city. She asks, What if I Can Still Go Through My Memory Here, What if I Can Return to Grandma’s Home, and What if Our Factory Were Still Here. In What if You Were an HIV Patient, she uses a dark, empty room with a window to convey the pitiable straits of HIV patients.

In the series that followed, Be Fond of the Problem of Colorful Bird (2009), Lei Yan appears as a bird made out of camouflage cloth around the ancient towns of Dali and Lijiang, as well as the surrounding mountains, constantly asking questions: can man truly conquer nature? Is documentation more important than exhibition? Where are you, my partner? Will I be able to return to such a beautiful scene in future years? Can the tourist industry spur domestic demand? Why are words and deeds always so different? Is this really how cultural heritage is passed down?

Lei Yan, If They Are Women, Photo, 2002

Lei Yan, If They Are Women, Photo, 2002

Against the cultural backdrop of patriarchal society, Lei Yan created two images marked by strong feminine awareness in a dialogue with prominent Western feminist artist Judy Chicago in 2002, titled If They Were Women and If the Long March was a Women’s Rights Movement. In the first image, she used computer editing to add 1930’s-style women’s hairstyles to the male leaders of the Long March to humorous effect while also raising questions about the allocation of power. The second image is a group photo of the female revolutionaries in the Long March. In both pictures, the artist stands at the bottom right corner in camouflage, looking off into the distance with binoculars to try and find a local movement regarding women’s identity. In If Women were Written (2006), Lei Yan once again addresses women’s issues. For this artwork, the artist photographed the covers of the various women’s magazines for sale at the Xinhua Bookstore and combined them into a massive image, with the giant word “WOMAN” alluding to women’s historically passive role.

Lei Yan, The Confusion from Choices, Soft Sculpture, 2010

Lei Yan, The Confusion from Choices, Soft Sculpture, 2010

At its root, culture is religious. The exclusive worship of certain values by an individual or a state is their religious logic. The Confusion from Choices (2010) is a group of five different fist-sized pink cloth sculptures of the Communist Party flag, the American Statue of Liberty, a Guanyin statue, a church and an ordinary cheesecake. These symbols of political faith, religious faith and consumer ideas have been turned into the form of cheesecakes. Lei Yan has seen the predicament of faith that all individuals and nations face within this culture of consumerism, pragmatism and entertainment.

In these culture-themed artworks, I see Lei Yan taking on the role of constant skeptic, of cultural observer.

Public Events

Public events are those events that have a broad impact on public opinion, those events that touch on the interests or even lives of every citizen in a nation, that affect the public order. They can be natural disasters, accidents, social group events, political movements, wars or the extreme moral behavior of individuals.

Lei Yan grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and afterwards took part in quite a few battles in the military. This experience has given her a strong participatory mentality towards public events. The never-ending parade of public events has led her to profound thinking on the future of humanity and humankind while shaking her spiritual world. As a result, her works often nimbly shift between individual emotion and public events.

A Bullet Through the Young Heart (2002) is a triptych on the Sino-Vietnam War. The picture comprises countless martyr tombstones arranged together in a dense wall. The left image is red, the central image black and white, while the right image is green. A caption on the left introduces the 1979 war between China and Vietnam. A caption on the right recounts the history of Sino-Vietnamese relations, from the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1950 to the war and on to reestablishment of relations. For Lei Yan, who took part in this war, this special experience has opened up a contradictory world where collective honor and individual life have been buried. Critic Wang Nanming uses this artwork as an example of trans-feminist art. He believes that women can also be political forces in the public sphere. They can discuss anything that is discussed in civil society and thus criticize the feminist theories that recognize only needlework as a trait of Chinese women’s art.

This is an era of internet-enabled, self-driven media, and this has led to a profound shift in the role of the artist. The artist has gone from using painting or photography to convey a subject in studio or natural light, and shifted towards making reactions to social phenomena found in the media, using the materials of public events to express their desires as citizens.

Lei Yan, How Can I Protect You?, Paper Sculpture, 2010

Lei Yan, How Can I Protect You?, Paper Sculpture, 2010

In Ten Years the Death (2012), Lei Yan used parchment to create three tombstones that record the death tolls of various natural disasters that took place around the world from 2001 to 2011. Like How Can I Protect You (2010), with its depiction of an earthquake aftermath, this artwork also reveals the fragile, fleeting nature of life. In Disappearing Image, the artist printed out eight copies of a missing child poster she downloaded from the internet, and using computer software, digitally blurred each copy successively until the final image is completely blurred. The young girl in the photograph is just one of millions of missing children in China. Her hopeful gaze speaks of her longing to return home. The face on that missing child poster will slowly disappear with time, but the pain will always linger over the hearts of her loved ones.

Lei Yan, Little Souls, Photography , 2013

Lei Yan, Little Souls, Photography , 2013

On January 4 2013, a fire broke out in a residence in Chengguan Township, Lankao County, Henan Province. A foster mother in the building, Yuan Lihai, lost seven foster children in the fire. It was determined that the children started the fire when playing with fire. This incident elicited broad discussion on private adoption and the public welfare system. This gave Lei Yan inspiration, and in an artwork titled Little Souls (2013), she collected various articles of children’s clothing, burned them to varying degrees, and photographed them in the air. It is as if those little souls who lost their lives in the fire were telling us of their hardships from heaven.

Another time, on a visit to a friend, Lei Yan witnessed some small birds crashing to their deaths because they had mistaken a window for the sky. She conveyed this scenario in the artwork Lost Birds (2012), using foil to represent glass-lined skyscrapers and cloth paper to create small birds laying quietly crumpled on the ground. There are also a few birds in the air, flying for the towers. In this artwork, Lei Yan expresses her anxiety over environmental issues and blind urban expansion.

In these artworks, we can see that the artist uses her public identity to reflect on certain public events that have taken place around us, leading people to focus on and discuss them.


Form, heart, culture and public events are key words that repeatedly arise in many of Lei Yan’s artworks, and thus her artworks are marked by multiple meanings. I could easily switch the works described above from one key word category to another to come up with a new interpretation. This is the allure of Lei Yan’s artworks. She has established an internal connection and unity between formal experimentation, the guarding of the heart, concern for culture and the voice of the people.

I believe that these four key words can open up four dimensions of the contemporary artist’s duty: the artist as formal experimenter, the artist as guardian of the heart, the artist as one who cares about culture, the artist who gives voice to the people. These four dimensions form the core of contemporary art, with formal experimentation as the core within the core, in that it sets the artworks of one artist apart from those of other artists and other times, and bestows the other three dimensions with lasting vitality in time and space.

August 9 2013
Translated by Jeff Crosby

[1]  Henri Focillon, Life Forms in Art, 1934; Chinese translation by Chen Ping, Peking University Press, 2011, p. 111.
[2] The 2008 Sichuan earthquake or the Wenchuan Earthquake was a deadly earthquake that measured at 8.0 Ms and 7.9 Mw, and occurred at 02:28:01 PM China Standard Time at epicenter on Monday, May 12, 2008 in Sichuan province, killing 69,195 people, with 18,392 missing.


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白雪娟,陈玲洁,陈曼妮,费敏,费雪梅,郭俊秀,贺晓璇,雷燕,李红菊,饶斯琪 宋梓萍,苏亚碧,王钰清,王海琳,叶松青,杨丽花,Marjan Verhaeghe (比利时)

何雾,刘双,李竞飞, 吕丽蓉,马丹,普华仙,孙谨,孙素秋,宋欢,王爱英,武妍希,徐芸,杨文萍,杨雁楸,朱筱琳











“Four Seasons: Summer” Yunnan Female Artist Group Exhibition

Curatorial team:

Sponsor: Dantong Group-Xinghe International Art Town
Organizer: TCG Nordica Gallery

Curator: Sun Guojuan
Academic Host: Luo Fei
Artistic Director: Lei Yan
Producer: Mao Di
Translator: R. Orion Martin (US)

Artists(Part I):
Bai Xuejuan, Chen Lingjie, Chen Manni, Fei Min, Fei Xuemei, Guo Junxiu, Huo Xiaoxuan, Lei Yan, Li Hongju, Rao Siqi, Song Ziping, Su Yabi, Wang Yuqing, Wang Hailin, Ye Songqing, Yang Lihua, Marjan Verhaeghe(Belgium)

Artists(Part II):
He Wu, Li Shuang, Li Jingfei, Lv Lirong, Pu Huaxian, Ma Dan, Sun Jin, Song Huan, Sun Suqiu, Wu Yanxi, Xu Yun, Yang Wenping, Yang Yanqiu, Wang Aiying, Zhu Xiaolin

Opening time:
Part I: 8pm, Dec,9th,2011
Part II: 8pm, Dec,30th,2011

Exhibition Duration: Dec,9th,2011–Jan,21st,2012(Sunday Close)

Address: TCG Nordica, Xibalu 101, Kunming
Tel: 0871-4114692
Web site: http://en.tcgnordica.com
Email: info@tcgnordica.com

Introduction – Four Seasons: Summer

By TCG Nordica

The creations and exhibitions of Four Seasons, Yunnan Artist Group Exhibition, are based on the seasons: Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall. Planned by Sun Guojuan, Four Seasons is a series of four exhibitions to take place annually for four years. Beginning with Winter in 2009 and continuing to Spring in 2010, the theme of this year’s exhibition will be Summer. Each exhibition gathers the most excellent artists in Yunnan, be they residents of or travelers to the province, and presents their newest work. The purpose of the Four Seasons Project is to increase the cohesiveness of Yunnan female artists, to encourage persistent creativity, and connect with a wide audience.
This exhibition, Four Seasons: Summer, focuses on the season of summer. The artists express their individual sentiments, life experiences, and human-nature relationship with works ranging from oil painting to hand-made installations. As the artists realize their art they give us the chance to encounter a pleasant summer in the midst of this frigid winter.
This exhibition will feature the newest works by 33 artists in the forms of oil painting, installation, photography and others. Because there will be some 100 works, Four Seasons: Summer will be divided into two exhibitions. The first half will have a reception on December 9th at 8PM and the second half will have a reception on December 30th at 8PM.

Four Seasons: Summer

By Sun Guojuan

Our planned four year exhibition has passed through Winter and Spring. We have now come to the third year, the year of Summer.
Summer has always been dear to my heart; it is my favorite of Kunming’s four seasons. During Kunming’s summer, rain is so common that we often call summer the rainy season. This rain gives Kunming an indescribably beauty. It cleans the air, it moistens the soil, and it refreshes the trees, turning them from a tender to a deep shade of resounding green. In summer, girls come and go wearing their beautiful outfits, the flowers are always blooming, and the mushrooms are sprouting, full of the delicate flavor of summer air after a light shower. Sitting in a garden or on the banks of a river when it rains, listening to the sound of the falling drops, this is the pinnacle of rainy season revelry. The sound of rain has a kind of magic that can turn chaotic hearts tranquil. Whenever the night draws near and you find yourself on the outskirts of the city, you will find the Milky Way is sprinkled across the night sky. At times you will see a shooting star dash across the horizon.
There is a chance encounter etched into my bones and carved into my heart, one that can only occur during summer. Perhaps it is because I have always regarded summer as the season of love.

Interview with Sun Guojuan and Lei Yan: http://blog.luofei.org/2011/12/interview-sunguojuan-leiyan-en/

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“Four Seasons: Summer” Yunnan Female Artist Group Exhibition Interview

Lei Yan, Sun Guojuan, Luo Fei and Orion Martin

“Four Seasons: Summer” Yunnan Female Artist Group Exhibition Interview

Luo Fei (TCG Nordica Curator)
Sun Guojuan (Artist, “Four Seaons” Yunnan Female Artist Group Exhibition Curator)
Lei Yan (Artist, “Four Seasons” Yunnan Female Artist Group Exhibiton Director)
The content of the interview has been revised by Luo Fei.
Translated by R. Orion Martin

2pm, Nov/17/2011
TCG Nordica Gallery

Luo Fei (abbreviated Luo below): First I want to thank you Ms. Guojuan and Ms. Yan for inviting me to be the academic director of the “Four Seasons: Summer” Female Artist Exhibition. “Four Seasons Yunnan Female Artist Exhibition” first began in the winter of 2009 and has exhibited “Winter” (2009) and “Spring” (2010). This year’s “Winter” will, like previous exhibitions, see Sun Guojuan assuming the role of curator and Lei Yan that of academic oversight. Can you please introduce the ideas behind “Four Seasons” and explain how you came upon the plan to run an annual series of four exhibitions?

Lei Yan (abbreviated Lei below): The idea of “Four Seasons” was one that Sun Guojuan had early on. Sun Guojuan has always been a leader among Yunnan female artists. She already began practicing contemporary art in the ’85 period. Later she lived for some time in Beijing (1996-2000 and 2006 until now) and brought new art styles back to Yunnan. My own work has also been influenced by her. These years Sun Guojuan has been living in Kunming organizing Yunnan Female Artist exhibitions, for example “Flexibility of Flexibility” in 2004, or “O,” named after the shape of an egg, in 2005. These two exhibitions were not limited to Kunming artists, but also included a few female artists who were living in Kunming at the time. For the Guiyang Biennial in 2007, curated by Ye Yong Qing, Sun Guojuan organized a team of Yunnan female artists for the collaborative piece “Pink”, an enormous furry pink egg that became a highlight of Guiyang Biennial.

Taking a break to gather herself in 2008, Sun Guojuan was constantly debating whether or not she wished to continue organizing Yunnan female artist exhibitions. Based on the popular demand of Yunnan female artists and the encouragement and support of Teacher Mao Xuhui, Sun Guojuan resolved to assume responsibility for organizing exhibitions by the Yunnan Female Artist Group. Following her decision Sun Guojuan proposed the concept for “Four Seasons.” Using an long duration and forward looking method, she began planning a four year long series of Yunnan Female Artist exhibitions. Over the past two years, “Four Seasons” has indeed given many female artists power and opportunities. For example, Ma Dan has said that when she felt bewildered or was overcome by hopelessness, it was the “Four Seasons” exhibition that gave her the strength to continue. She said, “If I can’t create a new appearance every year, then I might as well not be an artist. This four year plan has really encouraged female artists to maintain a creative state.”

Sun Guojuan (abbreviated Sun below): I can also say from experience that many female artists are caught in a very solitary predicament. During the 80’s and the first half of the 90’s, very few people would see my work in any given year. Perhaps in one year not even a single person would come to look at my works. In those days there were few exhibitions and even if there were exhibitions I wouldn’t be there. I think that in the 90’s my relationship with the conditions of Yunnan art was not particularly close.

Luo: During the Long March Project, American artist Judy Chicago, the “founder” of Feminist Art, came to Yunnan and met with female artists at Lugu Lake. Conversations and collaborative projects with her were very important to you, is that correct?

Sun: Yes that’s right. Some collaborative works from that time showed that art could be like this, a comparatively open way of thinking. At that time everyone wanted to make new proposals, try fresh methods, discuss works and collaborate, etc.

If the Long March were a Women’s Rights Movement, Photo by Lei Yan

Luo: Are you influenced by Feminism?

Lei: For me I would say yes. Right now I am working on a series of image-based works named “If They were Women” and “If the Long March were a Women’s Rights Movement,”which involve characteristics typical of Feminist Art.

Sun: I’m more prone to discuss societal problems. Right now I’m working on an image installation named “Stuck on You, Leaving You,” a reflection on travel culture.

Luo: How many artists participate in “Four Seasons”? Can you tell us a bit about how old they are, where they’re from and what kind of work they do?

Sun: On average we have about 37 or 38 artists participating, and many of them are young. This is related to the Yunnan fine arts education system, for example many students of Mao Xuhui at Yunnan University take part in the group. Many of the artists live in Kunming but the majority come from various states in Yunnan, for example Su Yabi or Bai Xuejuan. The works are primarily oil painting and installation, with most of the installations involving manual labor as opposed to readymade items. I hope they can experience the special features of female art for themselves.

Su Yabi, oil painting and silk

Luo: Is Feminist Art the orientation you’ve chosen or is it enough to be female artists? What is the criterion for the artists you have selected?

Sun: It is the art of female artists, not Feminist artists. We have no prerequisites emphasizing Feminism. Rather, our standard is simply a contemporary style. Works must be distinct from traditional and educational institutional styles. They must not be cliché, and they must be the product of an independent creativity.

Luo: You often hold exhibitions in Beijing and other locations. Do you see points of difference and similarity between the Yunnan Female Artist Group and the domestic artists in other areas?

Lei: We are a group, so the individual artists aren’t lonely. I believe the artists of the Yunnan Female Artist Group are quite active and cohesive, much more than other artists in central and Southern China. But last year I participated in a Chengdu exhibition and discovered that the scene there appears to be more active. Sichuan also has a tradition of group movements.

Luo: You remain very open to men; your assistants and academic support, etc. are all men. Do you expect women to fill these roles or is it unimportant?

Sun: We hope women will also fill come to fill these roles, but currently it’s not an option because a more open mentality is needed.

Luo: On the whole, the works exhibited in “Four Seasons” are focused on the artists’ individual sentiments and not societal problems.

Lei: Expressing individual sentiments is a special quality of female art. They’re more focused on internal qualities.

Sun: Today’s society really is like this. We also tend to select works that are focused on internal circumstances.

Luo: In past exhibitions, have there been artists who touch upon International Feminism by using art methods which participate in the public sphere? I am referring to (contemporary art critic) Wang Nang Ming’s concept when describing Lei Yan’s “A Bullet Passes through a Young Heart.

Sun: No, more of them focus on individual creation. But since commercialization has become so important, many artists have begun to consider whether or not their work could have market value. Consequently, it’s impossible to make works that are very biting. But we encourage young artists to focus on installation or other kinds of art. This can inspire their creativity and prevent market influence.

Four Friends, oil painting by Fei Min

Luo: Could we say that Yunnan Female Artists are not particularly attuned to the public sphere?

Sun: It could be that they have not reflected on the public sphere, or that they do not know how to express their thoughts. Our artists lack an experimental spirit, their works are always complete and lack experimentation.

Lei: Education is also a factor contributing to this.

Sun: It requires courage. As artists, we fear failure.

Luo: Have you imagined what form or state the Yunnan Female Artist Group may take in the future?

Sun: It will continue as before. Female artists will continue to move us with their art and energy.

Luo: Have the past three years brought any pleasant surprises or disappointments? Did you ever consider abandoning the project?

Sun: The pleasant surprise has been that good works have continually come out. This is most encouraging because the artists do not simply make some works in a year and then bring out one for the exhibition. Rather, they focus on the subject every year in order to produce a special work.
We often meet with artists in advance and express our own opinions. Last year we wrote an “Informing All Artists” letter. This letter was on account of our disappointments and our refusal to give up on any artists. If we do not tell her our thoughts, then when she makes something bad we can only give up on her, but this is not what we want to do.

Luo: Next year will be the last exhibition of “Four Seasons,” Spring. What do you plan to do after “Four Seasons?”

Sun: We will continue. Best would be a four year plan. We would especially like to thank Nordica for their support, really. The words of those people who win prizes are always vapid. They all thank their parents and those that helped them, but afterwards I think more and more that this is very important. Without the help of friends, we really wouldn’t be able to do anything. At the same time, we want to thank Xinghe Group for their help, and Mr. Mao Xuhui for his consistent support.


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An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism and the Metaphor of Camouflage

An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism and the Metaphor of Camouflage
–My views on Ms. Lei Yan’s latest works

Before the interpretations of the two groups of recent works by Ms. Lei Yan – “Frozen Series” and “Camouflage Cloth-making”, we should know of two relevant background factors. One is that she has been a female soldier in the army for 30 years (1970-2001) and then joined the Kunming contemporary art community “Chuangku” to set up her own studio after retiring from army. Lei Yan has experienced the transformation from the traditional art practices on creation of military subjects into the use of pictures, equipment, videos and other media for the creation of contemporary art works, and each article and event could sufficiently constitute the main raw material for her current creation. Secondly, the retrospection and reflection on the Mao Zedong era (mainly during the last 1950s-1970s) by the Chinese contemporary artists have never ceased. In each period Mao and his era’s symbols and images will be appearing in these artists’ narrative methods, which not only is the historical fact of the” Passion Burning Years” that the artists can not shun away from during the time when belief was absent, but also a kind of inquiry about the future. After knowing about these backgrounds, we can proceed with the interpretations of the latest works by Lei Yan.

“Frozen Series”: An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism

Lei Yan’s “Frozen Series” have frozen some military articles and the typical items of the Mao era, such as sleeve emblems, leader badges, the Little Red Books, the Red Guards shoulder badges, military uniforms, red flags, and female soldiers’ photographs etc., which are
photographed and can be seen dimly under the ice. By getting the typical symbols and items of the special years frozen and sealed, the artist is staring at the historical samples from a nebulous distance with a tinge of desolation, and arousing a reflection on that period of time.

As we can see, there are two clues in the “Frozen Series”, one is the “Frozen Reds”, which uses the typical items of Mao era and military articles as the narrating subjects that include sleeve emblems, leader badges, the Little Red Books, the Red Guards badges, military uniforms, red flags etc., they are not merely logos or decorations, but they also carry the spirit of that era. As a person who was filled with ideals and passions regarding the collective values under communism, each had to possess these materials and contents, which represent a miniature of the people’s political life in that period of time, and a miniature of the” Passion Burning Years”. They are also a miniature of Lei Yan’s 30 years of military life. However, since the factors of refraction, distance, and temperature, the items, which are put into the ice body by Lei Yan, display a much unacquainted historical texture and shape. The partial deforming and distortion, blurring and dimness, chilliness
and out-of-touch feeling created by the isolation of the ice layer. They seem like keepsakes from a previous existence. The archaeological-like association of ideas inspired by the sealing under ice. All of these have built a sort of sadness for the time of revolutionary passions, and a reminiscence of the disappeared spirit and resplendency.

The other is “Frozen Youth”, whose narrative subjects are female soldiers’ photographs including personal portraits, busts. Some are Lei Yan herself, but most of them are her comrades in the army. These girls of youthful spirit, each with tenderness, some seem a little depressed, some only being lost, and some with a poise that is typical during that period of time with a bag on shoulder or a machine gun in hands, head high and standing erectly with a passionate face under the willows. Among these photographs are several of military groups, and in these the pure eyes are filled with the young girls’ ideals and longings, smiling with tenderness and without the slightest hesitation for the future which is the typical expression of revolutionary romanticism. However, all of these various expressions and spirit states, with the addition of the classic poise, have been frozen into the cold ice layer and forced to drop in temperature, cold as well as out-of-touch, the high enthusiasm and innocent ideals are suddenly disappearing far away in the cold ice, which is just like a group of archaeological samples from the Mao era displayed ifor all to see.

Most of the above mentioned frozen objects, which were collected during Lei Yan’s military career, are well preserved. To most of us, these items and photographs are merely conceptualized image memories of a certain period, but those specific faces and temperature, are more like the family belongings in some box underneath grandmother’s bed, which are kept by mother for her daughter. When these objects and photographs are seen through the frozen ice, they have been endowed with new concepts, which are the memory of the public images and history of a female soldier, her private memory and feelings, and the reminiscence of ultimate issues such as faith to the land, spirits and resplendency.

If political pop art is “using the shock waves made by the western consumption culture in China, and turning the ’sacred politics’ of the Mao era into a popular and ironic political idea” as suggested by Li Xianting, and with current political pop art walking down a dead end via commercial obsequiousness, then artists, including Lei Yan, are going back to the starting point for art and soul by using a personal and poetic narrate of the Mao era. Let the real impression be explained via personal language instead of following the established groups style, it is a response which surpasses current political pop art.

“Camouflage Cloth-making”: The Metaphors Related to Camouflage

If the “Frozen Series” is the reminiscence and sadness of the long gone Mao era and its spirit and resplendency, then the “Camouflage Cloth-making” is the specific intervention in the current daily situation. Just like before, Lei Yan keeps on using the military goods as subjects, which are very familiar to a person who has 30 years of military service. However, the use of military goods in this series is different from that in the “Frozen Series”. The military goods in the “Frozen Series” belong to the section of borrowing, directly getting the existing goods embedded into ice to make them bring about the changes of concept, context and visual texture, but the “Camouflage Cloth-making” is the conversion and extension of military camouflage uniforms and patterns.

In this series Lei Yan uses camouflage fabric to make some hand-sewn items and scenes, items such as: camera, computer, teapot, vase, cup, tray, telephone, high heels, five-pointed star etc., which are daily mundane items. Setting up the items’ basic outline shape, the sewed items have more plasticity and flexibility. This series of work cross the boundaries between handicraft and sculpture. What is more, the symbolic features owned by the camouflage patterns themselves, give the remodeled daily goods the feeling of being covered by the camouflage with aggression and delusion.

In one group, the metaphor relating to camouflage is more obvious. Lei Yan has sewn with camouflage material into an ordinary family scene: a square table, a bench, a vase, two blurring persons in the picture frame and a crouching dog. The other one is the scene of a dressing table. These two scenes are modeled like reliefs, which simply present any day in our ordinary life without any dramatic moment. Persons, goods and scenes are covered by camouflage, mixing into the background, and therefore they are endowed with the meaning and metaphor of camouflage itself, the edges of people, goods and scenes are disrupted and guided by the camouflage patterns and become indistinguishable, characterless and without personality. So a metaphor related to camouflage, related to women’s identity, family and self-pity, can start. How should women live out their own unique vitality in the trivia of various household affairs? How should women be more visible in society? This is the metaphor and reflection of “Camouflage Cloth-making” by Lei Yan.

As a strong symbol of the military patterns, camouflage has been absorbed into the conceptual art of the female artist, Lei Yan. She would never have had such a profound reflection if she hadn’t had her own deep experience of the military. It is precisely because of this experience that we can see the double metaphors generated from the modeled objects disappearing into the camouflage, in addition to the interference and thawing from external forces. It also points at the internal crisis of the modeled object: a person may be defensive of their own identity, but to some extent they also face the risk of assimilation, of losing their personality and unique vitality. Maybe this is Lei Yan’s thinking in this exhibition. However, as a female artist, Lei Yan has not been assimilated; on the contrary, she has gained the unique vision and creativity. During a conversation with Lei Yan she said: “wherever we are, we should leave a window for our soul, facing the most real place of the heart to talk with your own soul and hold onto the innocence and passion found there.” And with her experience of the years of revolutionary enthusiasm and the attention to other people’s needs during her military career, not only does this become the source material and concept of her art, but it also expands her life experience. She does not rest on the complexities of this material and the hand-sewing but creates a deeper experience.

Written by Luo Fei(TCG Nordica gallery curator)
Translated by Liu Weiqiang

about Lei Yan’s solo exhibition

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