The stories of women and their quotidian lives have often been relegated to the background, considered unbeautiful or too mundane. Their narratives have been silenced, erased, trivialised, and submerged beneath the dominant, patriarchal discourse. Challenging this tradition is the Beijing-based art gallery INK Studio, which is presenting Undersong: Secrets, Dreams, Truths, and Power, a two-person solo exhibition of artworks by Chinese artists, Chen Haiyan (1955), and Tao Aimin (1974), curated by Maya Kóvskaya (PhD, UC Berkeley). “The exhibition explores the power that is constituted by ordinary women when they share their intimate stories, secrets, truths, and dreams,” writes Kóvskaya in her curatorial note.
The title of the exhibition comes from a book of poetry, also called Undersong, by feminist poet Audre Lorde. It refers to an archaic word for what was once known as the ‘burden of a song’, the chorus or refrain. Much of the work by Tao Aimin and Chen Haiyan is a bid to reclaim their lost heritage and to return to the vanishing narratives of women who were often caught in the spaces between their pastoral and urban lives.
Aimin is from a village in Hunan province and spent much of her childhood in the countryside. Her father was an artisan, who painted wooden furniture, and her mother worked in a factory, and in many ways their lives were ‘typical’ of their time. “As China sought to build an urbanised modernity, much of its traditional culture was devalued or abandoned, and from an early age, as the city encroached on the countryside, Aimin found herself caught in the interstitial space between a rural and an urban existence,” writes Kóvskaya. Aimin later moved to Beijing to study art.
The works that comprise the powerful section of Aimin’s exhibit include her documentary photography work, washboard installation with calligraphic text, short videos, and nüshu calligraphic work on ‘secret’ fans, which record the knowledge and power shared between mother and daughter along with other women’s bold confessions. Aimin first came to international prominence with her washboard series of installations, rubbings, ink painting, and other treatments that draw out the secret language inscribed through the use-wear marks left by the lifetimes of manual labour of ordinary rural Chinese woman.
In her photographs titled Lotus Fragments, we see the hands and feet of an older woman along with quotidian objects like a fan, slippers and the washboard. Documenting with video and photography, Aimin captures their struggles against a slowly degenerating life, but also the fierce independence and tenacious dignity of women like her elderly landlady, who was of that last generation of foot-bound women.
Next we are introduced to a set of powerful inks on board by Chen Haiyan, which tell us of tales and dreams. “I saw in my teacher's house that she had a lot of fish. They stayed in the room for a while, then turned into different kinds of birds, and flew away over my head.” - Dream: April 13, 2003. This short verse by Haiyan encapsulates her idiosyncratic yet narrated dreamscapes – with text from respective dream diary entries. Haiyan is from Liaoning and studied woodblock printmaking at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou.
“The dreamscapes of Chen Haiyan’s works immerse the viewer in a farrago of flashes of daily life’s pleasures and pressures, as well as roiling subconscious states that are both strange and yet hauntingly familiar. They are intimate metonyms of universal experiences. She mingles bemusement and confusion, persistence and resilience, as well as humour and horror, with a frank intimacy,” writes Kóvskaya.
In one of the series expressed across several panels of woodblock print, Haiyan tells us the story of a bull that is chasing and spying on her, writing sloppy letters, drinking wine, and wanting to dance with her and get lucky, while Haiyan tries to escape. The narrative is a metaphor for aggressive male stereotypes and toxic masculinity that most women have lived through. Another work by Haiyan, High Heels, comment on the conflicting imperatives of incommensurable gender roles, foisted on us by a world that demands we ’do it all and have it all‘ whilst making our formidable efforts seem effortless.
Undersong celebrates the joyful possibilities for solidarity and engendering new, generative forms of power that awaken when the old world upheld by our collective silence is split open by the breaking of silence.
The exhibition Undersong: Secrets, Dreams, Truths and Power is on display till August 18, 2019.