They ask me why I live in the green mountains.
I smile and don’t reply; my heart’s at ease.
Peach blossoms flow downstream, leaving no trace
And there are other earths and skies than these.
– Li Po, Tang Dynasty
Each month I climb the stairs to Nancy Sever’s gallery in Kennedy Street, Kingston feeling as excited as a child entering a magical toyshop. The magic is in the way that the gallery shifts from one world to another overnight. Last month I walked into the rugged Dreamtime landscape of the Kimberley and on Saturday afternoon I stepped into a new world. A world which blurs the boundaries between reality and illusion – where nothing is certain yet everything makes perfect sense. A world of light hearted whimsy and profound truth. This is the fabulous world of Guan Wei.
Guan Wei is a diasporic artist whose stories hover in a nebulous and wonderful space between cultures, histories, imagined realms and actual places. He often tackles powerful and moral socio-political issues about injustice, repression, the environment and the hybrid identity of immigrant Australians but he does so with quirky humour and a marvellous deftness of touch. His art is not brashly confronting yet it pushes us firmly out of our comfort zones. My favourite paintings in this delightful exhibition are the five beach paintings, the two phenomenal Ned Kelly paintings and two small pictures titled Buddha’s Hand No. 3 and Buddha’s Hand No.9.
Guan Wei’s beach paintings are joyful light filled spaces which speak directly to the Australian consciousness. We recognise the towels and dogs, the game of beach cricket, the signs warning against crocodiles, the seagulls, windsurfers, flags and boats. And then before we get too relaxed we notice the scatter of small green mountains and the crimson stamps of calligraphy. We realise that the cool washed colours are from a different palette (they lack the boldness of bright sky and golden sand that we expect in an Australian beach painting) and that the swirl of pearly cloud and dainty furls of wave in the pale blue sea come straight out of traditional Chinese art. Guan Wei simultaneously soothes us with familiar details and shakes us out of our complacency with his bizarre and exquisite images of flamingos, parrots and oriental fans jostling against stripy umbrellas, beach balls and bikini clad bodies.
The Ned Kelly paintings are on traditional Chinese scrolls (painted using the ancient technique of ink block and water on rice paper). At first glance they look like intricate Chinese landscapes but almost immediately we notice that the graceful filigree of trees, pavilions, mountains and river is not what it seems. In Tracking Down Ned Kelly the peaceful natural scene is patched with sinister black silhouettes of Ned Kelly in his tin helmet, army tanks, helicopters and guns. The hard pattern of red lines, circles and dots overlaid on the painting remind us of the blood thirsty violence in this quintessentially Australian story. This is the painting that first greets us as we come up the stairs to the gallery. It stops us in our tracks and foreshadows the startling and original work throughout this exhibition.
The second Ned Kelly scroll is titled Ned Kelly Escapes from the Troopers Down the Yang Tse River. This glorious painting is a fantastic and capricious piece of myth making drawing on the iconography, history and narrative tradition of two cultures. Guan Wei’s imagined story, painted in the time honoured technique of his birth country, pays splendid homage to this unlikely Australian folk hero whose story features so largely in our national identity.
There is so much to say about Guan Wei. He is a significant figure in both the Australian and Chinese contemporary art scenes and his work is part of the collection in many major galleries. I was lucky enough to talk to him and he told me that while his work is shown frequently in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide as well as Beijing, Suzhou and Shenzhen, this is his first solo exhibition in Canberra. So congratulations to Nancy Sever for bringing his breath taking work to our city.
Guan Wei’s art is distinctive and original. His human beings lack the kind of individuality that is so important to western painters. They are mostly faceless or simply represented by a part of the body. Prosaic, exotic, imaginary and mythological creatures and objects cavort in harmony on the same canvas and the language of maps and signs is used alongside traditional depictions of nature. All these things make his pictures extraordinary. However the most profound aspect of his work, for me, is his articulation of the diasporic experience.
Some years ago I wrote a piece titled A Chinese Bowl and A Summer Dress in which I express my own experience as an immigrant Australian:
As I gaze longingly at a halter neck dress that would look great on one of my teenage daughters I confront my identity with sudden clarity. An identity that is as deeply embedded in Australia as it is in Asia. This is the reality for those of us who migrated here as children or teenagers. We are not just caught between physical worlds but between imagined worlds and remembered worlds. Shifting from one world to another means that we start to accumulate a different set of dreams and memories. We become new selves. The wistful recollection of my teenage self in an Australian beachside suburb is as inextricably tangled with my sense of place as is my reflection on childhood in my grandmother’s Malaysian house. Part of me sits forever on that park wall in Cronulla eating chips in summer sunshine and dusting the sand off my bare legs and part of me remains in a garden full of orchids waiting for Ah Mui to feed me my breakfast egg from a beautiful Chinese bowl.
(excerpt from A Chinese Bowl and A Summer Dress by Anita Patel published in Block 9)
Guan Wei’s art hovers and paces between physical, imagined and remembered worlds. It speaks, with particular resonance, to the hearts of those of us who have accumulated different sets of dreams and memories and who have spent a lifetime caught between cultures, histories and places.
© Anita Patel, 2015