Memories drifting across the room
Text: Luo Fei
English Editor: WenLan
Over the past three decades, the description of Chinese contemporary art has largely consisted of a series of macro narratives about the present and the future around mainstream topics such as globalization, identity politics and consumer society. The recent COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing uncertainty of global mobility, the atomization of individuals and the fragile reality of interpersonal relationships seem to make people want to look back to the past and reflect on those experiences of growth and intimate relationships. This looking back may provide some comfort to our current state of fragility and uneasiness. In the science fiction novel “Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin (刘慈欣), humans in crisis constantly spit out the memories of a golden age, ruminating on them at leisure. In the novel, the UN Secretary General launches the Human Memorial Project which collects materials and objects that represent the memory of human civilization. These materials of civilization, these human diaries and other objects are ultimately sent off into space with unmanned spaceships and released. Whether in times of crisis or in more prosperous times, memories and memorials are essential, because people are forgetful animals.
The recovery of personal memories that have been involved in the torrent of history forms a description of the history of personal growth. It is a method that diverts from cultural integrity or social framework. This kind of work starts with a partial description of something: lingering images, a traumatic experience or unforgettable years. Sometimes, artists will start by unconsciously collecting everyday objects, and these will result in a story by themselves. This practice has already produced some excellent works in Chinese contemporary art. Song Dong’s (宋冬) early video works document him stroking his father’s body and collecting old things in cooperation with his mother. He Chengyao (何成瑶) took a nude photo with his mother suffering from mental illness. Ma Qiusha (马秋莎) talks about her experience of repressed development with a knife in her mouth, and so on. These traces with loved ones and their own past also constitute a process of self-healing, a path to growth and reconciliation. These micro-narratives based on personal development history and family relations constitute another clue to understanding Chinese contemporary art, which is rooted in Asian society in general and interpersonal relationships in China in particular. This provides us with an angle to view the next two rooms with.
Lu Lirong’s room
Lu Lirong (吕丽蓉)is from Yuanling County (沅陵县) in Huaihua (怀化), western Hunan Province. Her parents are both local middle school teachers. Lu Lirong and her younger brother enjoyed a comfortable and warm family life in the 1980s. In Lu Lirong’s memory, her parents often visited the small town to find skilled tailors to have fashionable clothes and skirts they saw in magazines made. New clothes were worn almost every month. This was the most exciting memory of Lu Lirong’s childhood.
Lu Lirong attaches great importance to familial affection. Subtle things and scenes will evoke her yearning for her family, which is inseparable from the harmonious and warm family environment she experienced as a child. Almost every week they would walk down the mountain road to their grandmother’s house, a smoke-blackened timber house filled with the smell of burning wood. Here, she would sit by the fire and watch the adults chat. Since childhood, she has had a particularly close relationship with her father. She can still recall the image of her father carrying her in a bamboo basket on his chest, and the smell of fried meat with chili peppers cooked by her father. However, when she was fifteen years old, her father fell ill and passed away. From then on, her mother carried the burden of managing the family on her own. At 24 years old, Lu Lirong had just started working, and then her mother died. She collected and sorted out her mother’s belongings, which mostly consisted of her clothes. These clothes, a whole pile of them, had always been with her. Even the quilt that was made by the family for her mother when she was ill in hospital is still preserved today. Lu Lirong said that she was reluctant to throw it away in order to preserve her mother’s smell. All items of her mother’s clothing are still well kept, and in Lu Lirong’s later creations they have become lingering images.
Lu Lirong not only collects the everyday belongings from her parents and grandparents. Over the past two years, since she became a mother, she has also deliberately collected biological samples. After giving birth to her second child in 2019, Lu Lirong saved the placenta, together with a glass of breast milk. These particular samples originate from the unique human tissues and liquids of a mother’s body, and they also become “items” that the artist intends to keep. They are the link between her mother’s world and the world of her child, and represent the biological cycles of gestation and nutrition. They maintain Lu Lirong’s imagination of the maternal realm and the memory of the family. In another recent exhibition, she created a womb-like environment where people can step inside and experience the baby sounds.
These clues provide us with two key words to understand Lu Lirong’s artistic creation: maternal imagination and family memory. Lu Lirong consciously collects the relics left by her family: clothes, bedding, unprocessed fabrics, and even the wooden pillars of abandoned houses in her grandmother’s village. All of this she carried to her studio in Kunming, as if she could rebuild the Yuanling home of her memories at any time. Lu Lirong’s room at Wu Art Space is therefore an autobiographical memory space, built with these columns.
In this memory space, these objects seem to have retained the smell, breath, gestures and even thoughts of the preceding owners. In Lu Lirong’s room, these objects will tell us about their past and present lives. They will tell us about the spiritual world of their owners, without having to wander in the boundless darkness of space.
Lei Yan’s room
Completely different from the upbringing environment of post-80s artist Lu Lirong, Lei Yan (雷燕) was born in a military family in the 1950s, when a career in the military was regarded as the ideal. Her parents and two sisters are all soldiers. Lei Yan joined the army at the age of 14 remained a soldier for 30 years. It is hard to imagine that this delicate woman has participated in many front-line battles. As soon as she became a recruit, she joined the Laos resistance against the US. Later, she battled in the defense against Vietnam. Lei Yan has performed exemplary service in the army. Her roles have included soldier, cook, health worker, nurse, drawing technician, technician, office employee and so on. Her artistic ability, evident since childhood, has also been recognized by the military. Her works have been exhibited in the National Army Art Exhibition. In the late 1980s, Lei Yan was admitted to the PLA Academy of Arts in Beijing, and here her horizons were broadened. In the late 1990s, she commenced contemporary art creation based on photography and installation. In 2001, she and her friend Song Ziping (宋梓萍) set up a studio in the Chuangku Art Community (创库艺术社区) in Kunming and regularly participated in international art exchange programs. Among her peers, she has a unique career span and rich life experience.
Military life shapes people, and it does so in more ways than making a person part of commandeered collective action through absolute discipline and obedience. On a personal level, she usually hid or suppressed some of her emotions. For someone was not only born into a military family but also grew up in the army, her destiny to become a disciplined, capable and strong character was sealed since before she was born. As is often the case with individuals with strong self-awareness, she consciously notes her own mental state. She privately observes innocuous or, conversely, unusual places and imagines something impractical. These underlying emotions and thoughts find a suitable place to hide, until one day their host invites them to the forefront. For example, in one of Lei Yan’s early oil paintings, a soldier is suspended in the air like a curious child, gazing into the distance with a pair of binoculars.
On display in Lei Yan’s room is a series of “Sacred Objects”. She has been creating these objects since 2016, continuing the artist’s long-time interest in handmade objects and materials. She uses transparent sulfuric acid paper to recreate military objects such as sickles, axes, grenades, mortars, kettles, bugles, candlesticks, satchels, bullet bags, communication equipment, shoes and caps. For a soldier with 30 years of military experience, these objects are the everyday objects that accompanied her military career. These objects also come from scenes that linger in her mind: the daily drills, intense military operations, everything that can happen when you hold your ground.
Sulfuric acid paper is a fragile but highly malleable material. Molded into objects by the artist they look wrinkled, following a specific rubbing process. They look like stone tablets, solemn and quiet in the dim light. They stand like monuments of the artist’s personal history of her development. The works evoke memories of her past life at any time, as if it was a lifetime ago.
Soldiers generally don’t project private attributes, but Lei Yan has transformed these collective military objects into images with private memories and poetic imagination. In this collection of works, the heavy weight of war and history is transformed by an almost frivolous sense of touch. The works can be easily crumpled, bringing a sense of disturbance. This is precisely the effect of this group of works in terms of material, form and feeling. They reflect the artist’s sensitivity to materials. These paper sculptures no longer just seem to be an artist’s imitation of an original. They appear to be a layer of skin shed by the original, left behind in Lei Yan’s memory space.
In the two rooms created by Lu Lirong and Lei Yan the histories of their personal development have been captured, described and commemorated in the form of objects. This has been conceived through reflection on their past lives, the preservation, shaping and narration of themselves or their family and the recovery of personal memories that have been involved in the torrent of history. These images, which were flickering in the depths of consciousness, have briefly been solidified in their respective rooms, and we are invited to enter them and meet them.
Written in a rainy night, Kunming
3 Nov, 2020