GUAN WEI was born 1957, Beijing, China.  Guan Wei is a major figure in both the Australian and Chinese contemporary art scenes. For almost 30 years he has been creating work that interweaves imagery from his Chinese heritage, his life experience in Australia and his personal mythology.

In 1989, three years after graduating from the Department of Fine Arts at Beijing Capital University, Guan Wei came to Australia as artist-in-residence at the Tasmanian School of Art. He migrated in 1990. Further residencies followed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (1992) and the Canberra School of Art, Australian National University (1993). In 2008 he set up a studio in Beijing and he now lives and works in both Beijing and Sydney.

Guan Wei’s works display a heightened socio-political awareness. Many of them incorporate European-style maps and Chinese-style landscapes as the foundation on which he addresses a range of topics: cross-cultural issues, environmental awareness, Australian politics, immigration, the plight of refugees. His distinctive style and highly personal visual vocabulary – floating clouds, map coordinates, isobars – are vehicles for statements that have a profoundly felt moral dimension. Some of his works incorporate the timeless theme of journeying, a theme prevalent in classical Chinese literature and scroll paintings, though transported by the artist to the present day when so many journeys are made to escape persecution or seek a better life.

At the same time his art is laced with whimsy and humour. Human figures depicted in his delightfully idiosyncratic manner play hide and seek in a forest or cavort on the beach, which, for Guan Wei, is the epitome of hedonism and freedom in Australia. “I try to emphasize three elements in my work”, the artist says, “wisdom, knowledge and humour. I believe people need wisdom to choose from the many different cultural traditions that confront us every day; knowledge is the key to opening our minds to the diversity of the world; and humor is necessary to comfort our hearts”.

Guan Wei has held more than 50 solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas and participated in significant group exhibitions including Face Up: Contemporary Art from Australia at the Hamburger Bahnof Museum in Berlin in 2003, the China Project at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2009, and the Shanghai Biennial in 2010. He has won several major awards, including the 2002 Sulman Prize. He has been the recipient of numerous Australia Council awards and fellowship grants and was artist in residence at the Greene St New York studio in 2003 and the Cité International des Arts in Paris 2007.

Guan Wei’s work has a profoundly felt, if implicitly ironic, moral dimension. In their complex symbolic form, his subjects potently embody current social and environmental dilemmas. They are equally the product of his rich cultural repertory of symbols and his informed socio-political awareness and art-historical knowledge.

Guan Wei. A Great Southern World was on show at the NANCY SEVER GALLERY, 4/6 Kennedy Street, Kingston from Saturday 14 March until 12 April 2015. Gallery hours: 11am-6pm Wednesday to Sunday. For further information please contact Nancy Sever on 0416 249 102.



Works from the exhibition currently  available for purchase :

(for details of the works, please hold cursor over the image)

Guan Wei's Solo Exhibitions

2017       Cosmotheoria, White Box Art Center 798 Art District Beijing

2016       Guan . Perspective, Scene Sense Art Gallery, Beijing

 2016      Bird, Map, Shadow, Heiser Gallery QLD Australia,

 2016     Salvation, ARC ONE Gallery, VIC Australia

2015      Panorama, Art of Guan Wei, Jia Pingwa Cultural Museum of Art Xi’an china

2015      From Stars To Soul, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

2015      A Great Southern World, Nancy Sever Gallery, Canberra

2014      How Far Heiser Gallery Brisbane

2014      Archaeology ARC One Gallery Melbourne

2014      From the water to the sky Glasshouse Port Macquarie Reginal Gallery NSW

2013      Twinkling Galaxies, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

2012     The Enchantment, Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

2011     Spellbound, He Xiang Ning Art Museum, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal  Shenzhen, China

2011     Bird Island, Chan Hampe Galleries, Singapore

2011     Play on the Beach, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

2011    The New Classic of the Mountains and Seas, Red Gate Gallery Beijing, China

2011    Play on the Beach, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

2011    Spellbound - Guan Wei 2011 Solo Exhibition, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal,

2011     He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, China

2010    Cloud in the Sky and Water in the Bottle, Shuimu Art Space, Beijing

2010    Cloud, ARC One Gallery, Melbourne

2009    Fragments of History, Kaliman Gallery, Sydney

2009    Longevity for Beginners, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong

2008    Zodiac, Turner Galleries, Perth

2007    Day after Tomorrow, Red Gate Gallery 798 Artist’s Village, Beijing 

2007    A Mysterious Land, ARC One Gallery, Melbourne 

2006    Other Histories: Guan Wei’s Fable for a Contemporary World, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

2006    A Distant Land, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide

2006    Jiang Hu, Liverpool Regional Museum, Sydney

2006    Echo, Sherman Galleries, Sydney

2005    Secret Histories, ARC One Gallery, Melbourne 

2004    Looking for Enemies, Sherman Galleries, Sydney 

2004    Prediction-Reflection, Church Gallery, Perth International Arts Festival, Perth 

2003    Looking, Greene St Studio, New York 

2003    A Passage to Australia, School of Art, Australian National University, Canberra 

2002    Dao, Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, Singapore

2002    Island, Sherman Galleries, Sydney 

2002    Exotic Flowers & Rare Grasses, Sherman Galleries, Sydney 

2001    Studio Show, Parks Victoria, Warrandyte, Melbourne 

2000    Horoscope, Red Gate Gallery, Beijing 

2000    Domino, Arrivals, Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, Sydney 

2000    Zen Garden, Sherman Galleries, Sydney 

2000    Looking for Home, Earl Lu Gallery, Singapore 

1999    Floating, Sherman Gallery, Sydney 

1999    Nesting or Art of Idleness, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 

1999    Span Galleries, Melbourne 

1998    Revisionary, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra 

1998    Internal Circulation, Red Gate Gallery, Beijing 

1997    The Last Supper, Tokyo Gallery, Tokyo 

1997    Ex/inspire, Sherman Galleries, Sydney 

1997    Anonymous Invader, Sydney Grammar School, Sydney 

1996    Return to Paradise, Red Gate Gallery, Beijing 

1996    Umbrella Studio, Townsville, North Queensland 

1996    Magic Garden, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong 

1995    Treasure Hunt, Sherman Galleries, Sydney 

1994    The Great War of the Eggplant, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra 

1993    Test Tube Baby, Sherman Galleries, Sydney 

1992    The Living Specimen, Plimsoll Gallery, University of Tasmania, Hobart 

1992    Dick Bett Gallery, Hobart

1991    Waverley City Gallery, Melbourne

1991    Despard Street Gallery, Hobart

1991    Plimsoll Gallery, University of Tasmania, Hobart

1991    Photospace, School of Fine Art, Australian National University, Canberra

1989    French Embassy, Beijing


Selected Group Exhibitions

2016        Contemporary Australian Drawing #6, Bury Art Museum, UK 2016:

2016         L’Ceil du Collectionneur, Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain Strasbourg, France

2016         Borders, Barriers, Walls, Monash University Museum of Art Melbourne

2016     Mir Zehnen Do, Glen Eira Art Gallery VIC

2016       We Are Here, Glen Eira Council Art Gallery Melbourne

2016       Archibald Prize, NSW Art Gallery

2016       Foreshadow Vermilion Art Gallery Sydney

2016     Open Field Peacock Gallery and Auburn Art Studio and Bubrun Botanic Gardens, Sydney

2016     Essence an exhibition of contemporary art Mougolian National Art Gallery, Central Palace of Culture

2016        Sukn Boatar Square-3, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia,

2016      Wen She Tao Yuan, 1st Sanya International Coast Art Xiang Shui Wan, No.1 HaiNan Island China

2016      2016 on Paper.supreme, 1/2 Art Space, Shanghai

2016      15 Artists 2015, Redcliffe City Art Gallery QLD Australia

2016      Birth of a Nation exhibition, Ning Gallery 798 Beijing

2016      Review & Prospect, NSW Parliament House, Sydney

2016      Chinese Short Film Festival in Ulaanbaatar 2016, Mongolian National Art Gallery

2015      On the Beach, Monrnington Peninsula Regional Gallery VIC

2015        Inspired by Buddhism, Nan Tien Institute Gallery, Wollongong, NSW

2015        Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe 2015, Perth 

2015        ANZAC commemoration exhibition, The Casula Powerhouse Art Center Sydney 

2014        Crossing Boundaries - A Celebration of Asian Australian Art, Sydney Town Hall, Australia. 

2014        Mud Maps, Penrith Regional Gallery Sydney. 

2014        The Gathering II - A Survey of Australian Sculpture, Wangaratta Art Gallery VIC. 

2014        Global Chinese Painting & Calligraphy exhibition, The Cultural Palace of  Nationalities, Beijing 

2014        Chinese Whispers, Goulburn Regional Gallery NSW 

2014        Transforming China - Australia Contemporary Art Exhibition 2014, Meijiang International Art Gallery Tianjin China 

2014        Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi 2014, Sydney 

2014        Celebration 60 Anniversary of Beijing Capital University, National Art Museum of China, Beijing 

2013        Snake, Snake, Snake, Sydney Town Hall, Australia. 

2013        MCA Collection exhibition Volume one part two, MCA, Sydney. 

2013        Seeing Red Meijiang International Art Centre, Tianjin, China. 

2012        Converging Worlds,group exhibition at Drill Hall ANU Gallery ACT, Australia. 

2012        Negotiating This World Contemporary Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. 

2012        Contemporary Australian Drawing 2: Drawing as Notation, text and discovery, Wimbledon Gallery, University of the Arts, London. 

2012        Volume One MCA Collection, MCA Sydney, 

2012        Silence Power - Chinese Contemporary Art Exhibition, Dialogue Space Gallery, Beijing, China. 

2012        Sifting Time The Chinese Museum Melbourne. 

2012        Cooperation Non Cooperation Er He Double Joint Art Exhibition, Lotus Art Museum, Beijing, China 

2012        The Price of War Exhibition , Chinalink Gallery, Sydney. 

2011        Journeys, Plimsoll Gallery, Tasmanian School of Art Hobart. 

2011       Collaborative Witness: Artists responding to the plight of the refugee,The University of Queensland Art Museum.

2011       20 years – two generations of artists at Red Gate, Red Gate Gallery Beijing, China

2011       Found/Lost, Osage Gallery, Beijing China

2011       Yi He, Lotus Art Museum, Beijing, China 

2010      Shanghai Biennial, Shanghai Museum China 

2010      Song Zhuang Festival, Shangshang International Art Gallery, Beijing. 

2010      Comings and goings, Chinalink Gallery Sydney. 

2009      10th Havana Biennial, Cuba. 

2009      Spectacle to each his own, Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei. 

2009      Rave Forum, Li Space Beijing 

2009      The China Project, Queensland Art Gallery, Australia 

2009      Coming Home, Linda Gallery 798 Village Beijing. 

2009      Midway, Yuan Center of Art Beijing, ShangHai, Xiamen, Tianjin China & Wollongong City Gallery & 14 regional galleries in Australia. 

2009      Anamnesis and Extrapolation, PKM Gallery Beijing. 

2009      Stars of China – Past & Present, Museum Jan Van der Togt, Amstelveen, Netherlands. 

2009      Strange Eden, Kaliman Gallery Sydney. 

2009      Allegorical Aftermath, Shanghai Gallery of Art, Three on the Bond, Shanghai. 

2009      Controversy & Acclaim, Mosman Gallery, Sydney. 

2009      2009 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, National Gallery of Victoria. 

2009      Tempting God, Depot Gallery, Sydney Australia. 

2009      Transcendence Reflections of an East West Fusion, Art Atrium Gallery Sydney, 

2009      Fringe Art Program My Australian Life 2009 ANZ Australian film Festival, SLT Village Beijing.

2008      Yin-Yang: China in Australia, the National Trust S.H. Ervin Gallery

2008      Handle with Care, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia

2008      Australian, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre Sydney

2008      Lines in the Sand-Botany Bay Stories from 1770, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Art Centre, Sydney

2007      Down Under, Den Haag Sculptuur 07 Hague Sculpture, Netherlands

2007      Voiceless, Sherman Galleries Sydney

2007      Science as art, Art Gallery of NSW Sydney

2007      Culture Trackers 24HR Art, NT Centre for Contemporary Art Darwin NT Australia

2007      News from Islands, Campbelltown Arts Centre Sydney

2007      National Artists Self Portrait Prize,the University of Queensland Art Museum

2006      Between River and Lake, Jack Tilton Gallery, New York

2006      15th Anniversary Exhibition, Red Gate Gallery Beijing

2006      Living Water Dreaming Water, Sydney University Museums

2006      Fleurieu Peninsula Biennale McLaren Vale South Australia

2006      Yours, Mine & Ours 50 Years of ABC TV, Campbelltown Arts Centre

2006      2006 The Year in Art, S. H. Erwin Gallery Sydney

2006      Harmony Sydney 06, Cheng Shifa Gallery Art Center Academic Shanghai

2005      Text Me – an exploration of body language, Sherman Galleries Sydney

2005      The Nature Machine Contemporary Art Nature and Technology, Queensland Art Gallery

2005      Xa Competition of Painting Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Japan

2005      The Wynne Prize Exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney

2005      The Sir John Sulman Prize Exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney

2005      In Between Realities… Three on the Bund Gallery Shanghai, China

2005      Western Front: art is a social space, Blacktown Arts Centre, Sydney

2005      Future Tense – security and human rights Dell Gallery Queensland College of Art, Griffith University

2004      Process Asia – Australia Art Centre, Sydney

2004      Cycle Tracks will abound in utopia Australian, Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

2004      Terra Alterius: Land of Another, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, COFA, the Uni of NSW

2004      The Plot Thickens, Narratives in Australian, Art Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

2004      Art TV 2004 Australian Centre for the Moving Image

2003      Australia – Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, Berlin

2003      Science Fiction, National Art Gallery Singapore

2003      The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, Exploring Still life Academy Gallery School of Visual and Performing Art University of Tasmania

2003      Creating Paradise on Earth, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre

2003      Ned Kelly Framed National Trust’s SH Ervin Gallery

2003      Austral-Asia zero three, Sherman Gallery Sydney

2003      Isle of Refuge, Ivan Dougherty Gallery COFA UNSW Sydney

2003      Witnessing to Silence, Art and Human Rights, Drill Hall Gallery ANU Canberra

2003      Hothouse: The Flower in contemporary art, State Library of Victoria (touring),

2003      Art & About 2003 Open Gallery Banner on Street City of Sydney

2003      New Borders – New directions, A space on Cleveland Sydney

2002      Dialogue with the Watchtower, Brisbane Jan Murphy Gallery, Melbourne Art Fair, Singapore Art Fair

2002      Points of View, University of Technology Gallery Sydney

2002      Borderpanic, Performance Space, Sydney

2002      Fesitivus, Sherman Galleries, Sydney

2002      The Year in Art S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney

2002      Dressing & Dreaming, Sherman Galleries, Sydney

2002      Deeper Places, Casula Power House Arts Centre, Sydney

2002      Sulman Prize Exhibition NSW Art Gallery Sydney

2002      Sydney 2002 Hill on Hargrave Gallery Sydney

2001      Berlin Art Fair

2001      Shanghai Art Fair

2001      Osaka Triennial 2001Contemporary Art space Osaka Japan

2001      7th NICAF International Contemporary Art Festival Tokyo

2001      Low-down. Monash University Gallery, Monash University Melbourne

2001      Hermanns 2001 Sherman Galleries, (touring)

2001      Woolongong City Gallery. Neram (Armidale), Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery

2001      Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Art Centre, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery

2001      Asia in Australia beyond Orientalism, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane Queensland.

2001      Clues to the Future, Red Gate Gallery Beijing.

2000      Kwangju Biennale 2000, South Korea.

2000      A Long Life, Water Mall, Queensland Art Gallery, Australia.

2000      Nepean Collection Penrith Regional Gallery, Sydney.

2000      The Redlands Westpac Art Prize Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney.

2000      Lines of DescentThe family in Contemporary Asian Art, Queensland Art Gallery/Travelling Exhibition

1999      Five Continents and a City, Second International Salon of Painting, Museum of Mexico City, Mexico

1999      Sydney 99, Australia & China Cultural exchange art exhibition, SGI Australia Cultural Centre, Sydney and Cheng Shifar Gallery                 Art Centre  Academic of Shanghai China

1999      Third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery

1999      The Rose Crossing, Brisbane City Gallery, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Singapore Art Museum, SH Ervin Gallery Sydney

1999      Chicago Contemporary Art Fair, USA

1999     Sulman Prize Exhibition Art Gallery of NSW

1999     The Artful Cello, 3rd Melbourne International Music Competition and Festival, Melbourne.

1999      Persuasive Humors, Mosman Gallery & Cultural Centre, NSW

1999      The 4th Kochi International Triennial, exhibition of prints

1998      Canberra Drawing Biennale, Drill Hall Gallery, the Australian National University

1998      To the Wall - and Back, Span Galleries, Melbourne

1998      Ways of Being, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, the University of NSW

1998      Culture Graft, 4A Gallery, Sydney


Awards, Residencies and Commissions

2010    Artist-in-residence at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, USA

2008-10 Awarded an Australia Council Fellowship Grant

2007    Ambassador, 2007 City of Sydney Chinese New Year Festival, Sydney

2007    Australia Council Grant, artist in residence at Cite Internationale des Art, Paris

2006    Artists’ Camp, Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), Western Arnhem Land, through 24hr Art, Darwin (Australia Council Grant)

2006    Artist-in-residence, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney

2005    Australia-China Council residence grant at Taipei Artist Village

2004    Commission, ‘Feng Shui’ Mural Painting for 700 Collins St, Docklands, Melbourne

2004    Commission, ‘Paper War’ for SBS & Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

2004    Artist-in-residence, The Church Gallery, Perth International Arts Festival, Perth

2003    Australia Council Greene St Studio artist-in-residence, New York

2003    Visiting Fellowship, Canberra School of Art, Australia National University, Canberra

2002    Awarded 2002 Sulman Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales

2001    Awarded 2001 Mosman Art Prize, Sydney

2001    Awarded 2001, 39th Festival of Fisher’s Ghost Art Award, Campbelltown Art Gallery, Sydney

2001    Artist-in-residence, Bundanon Trust, Nowra

2001    Artist-in-residence, Parks Victoria, Melbourne

2001    Artist-in-residence, Casula Power House Museum, NSW

2000    Grant from Asia Link Australia

2000    Artist-in-residence, Lasalle SIA College of the Arts, Singapore.

1999    Awarded 1999 Nillumbik Art Award VIC Australia

1999    Awarded 1999 Geelong Print Prize

1999    Awarded 1999 Rena Ellen Jones Memorial Print Award

1999    Artist-in-Residence, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University

1998    Visiting Fellowship, Canberra School of Art, Australia National University, Canberra

1998    Awarded an Australia Council Grant

1998    Gold Coast City Conrad Jupiters Art Prize

1997    Artist-in-Residence, Sydney Grammar School

1997    Awarded 1997 Australian Print Media Art Prize, University of Western Sydney.

1997    Biennial Art Exhibition Diary Award, Sutherland Entertainment Centre, Sydney.

1997    One of the eight artists commissioned to produce the fine art limited edition prints for the Sydney 2000 Olympic poster program

1996    Curatorial Team Member, Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT2), Queensland Art Gallery

1995    Awarded an Australia Council Grant

1994    Awarded 1994 Gold Coast City Conrad Jupiters Art Prize

1993    Artist-in-Residence, Canberra School of Art, Australian National University, Canberra.

1992    Artist-in-Residence, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

1990-91 Artist-in-Residence, Tasmanian School of Art, University of Tasmania, Hobart

1990    Awarded an Australia Council Grant

1989    Artist-in-Residence, Tasmanian School of Art, University of Tasmania, Hobart


Selected Collections

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Art Gallery of South Australia

Art Gallery of Western Australia

Art Bank

Australian Embassy, Beijing

Australian National University, Canberra

BHP Billiton Collection

Contemporary Art and Culture Centre, Osaka, Japan

Campbelltown Art Gallery

Deutsche Bank Collection

Geelong Art Gallery

Gold Coast City Art Gallery

Griffith University, Queensland

Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong

He Xiang Ning Art Museum, China

Ian Potter Gallery, Melbourne University

Monash University Museum of Art

Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

National Gallery of Australia

National Gallery of Victoria

Nillumbik Art Collection, VIC

Powerhouse Museum Sydney

Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra

Parks Victoria, Melbourne

Queensland Art Gallery

Sydney Grammar School

Tokyo Gallery, Japan

University of New South Wales, Sydney

University of Tasmania

University of Technology, Sydney

University of Western Sydney, Nepean

Wesfarmers Collection

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing


Extracts of reviews and writings


Guan Wei was born 1957, Beijing, China. In 1989, three years after graduating from the Department of Fine Arts at Beijing Capital University, Guan Wei came to Australia to take up an artist-in-residence at the Tasmanian School of Art. He was invited to undertake two further residencies: one at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (1992), the other at the Canberra School of Art, Australian National University (1993). Since then he obtained many grants, including Australia Council’s grant for Greene St New York studio in 2003, Cite International des Art Paris in 2007 & Fellowship in 2008-2009. In 2008 he set up a studio in Beijing. Now he lives and works in both Beijing and Sydney. Wei’s work has a profoundly felt, if implicitly ironic, moral dimension. In their complex symbolic form, his subjects potently embody current social and environmental dilemmas. They are equally the product of his rich cultural repertory of symbols and his informed socio-political awareness and art-historical knowledge.


Guan Wei is a story-teller, a myth-maker and a social commentator. He is also a fabulist who blends real and imaginary histories, both Chinese and Western, in order to create a parallel universe, a floating world which invites us to question our cultural certainties. He has said that he likes to work in the space between imagination and reality, and his work is deeply personal, reflecting his unique experience of the world, and of a hybrid identity, moving between cultures. He is perhaps the most significant artist currently working between Australia and China, showing regularly in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide as well as Beijing, Suzhou and Shenzhen. His characteristic imagery of pink fleshy faceless people, Chinese clouds and swirling seas, mythological beasts and disembodied Buddha hands is well known and distinctive. However, he is not an artist who stands still, nor is he content to merely repeat what has brought him success, as I found when I visited him this month in his Beijing studio.

Guan Wei has had the same small studio in Sydney’s Newtown since 1994, but in China artists know there is no certainty in any rented space. Studios are summarily demolished with little notice and no opportunity for negotiation, to make way for new developments. His current large, airy Beijing space, ironically located close to the vast outlet malls filled with the real and fake big-name brands beloved of Chinese shoppers (where he assures me he has never been) is his third studio since his return to China in 2008. Filled with paintings and sculptures from different phases of his life, it is also now the space where he is experimenting with ink painting, screen printing, lithography, and painting on ceramics created with artisans in the famous porcelain center of Jingdezhen. It is also home to his collection of sketchbooks, filled with intricate drawings and plans for works – paintings, sculptures and the designs he intends to paint onto the new ceramic works. The tiny drawings in these books, delicate and deft in execution, are like storyboards for a film. In some ways his work is cinematic – narrative, often epic in scale, and featuring multiple overlapping plotlines. Guan Wei’s sense of humour, as well as his keen awareness of both Chinese traditional practices and the contemporary art world underpins his practice. His work is deeply moral, frequently dealing with injustice and repression; yet also calmly reflective, and highly attuned to a sense of the ridiculous. There is a disarming lightness of touch which actually lends greater weight to the seriousness of his purpose.

His story as a member of that group of artists who made Sydney their refuge after the events of 1989 is well known in Australia. This diasporic personal history plays out in all his work, with its focus on issues of migration, and imagery relating to the journeys of both the colonisers and the dispossessed. It is often assumed that he came to Australia as a direct result of the student uprisings and their culmination at Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. In fact, he arrived in January of that year with artist friends Ah Xian and Lin Chunyan as a result of a chance meeting with Professor Geoff Parr to take up a 2-month residency at the University of Hobart’s Tasmanian School of Art. During that time, he tells me, he completed thirty three paintings in his ‘Acupuncture’ series, working in his early style of grey, black and red with overtly political themes. He realised that Australian audiences, despite their unfamiliarity with contemporary Chinese art at this time, were able to understand his intended meanings and the political concerns about the lack of human rights and democratic freedoms in China that he expressed in these works.

Returning to China in April of that year, despite the concern of his Australian friends, he discovered what was happening with the student pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing. These events and the resulting repression of artists, writers and intellectuals, made him reconsider his position. He says it made him feel “very badly and sadly about the situation in China, (with) so many intellectuals and students leaving.” In August 1990 Guan Wei returned to Hobart, having been given strong support by numerous individuals including Professor Geoff Parr and Bernice Murphy, at that time Deputy Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and by the Australian Government. Later, after a year in Hobart, came residences at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Canberra School of Art at the Australian National University, and then his productive relationship with Sherman Galleries in Sydney. I wonder aloud what it must have been like for an artist from Beijing to find himself in Hobart, of all places, at the start of the 90s. He laughs and says, “I got two culture shocks. When I arrived in Hobart I got a culture shock; it was so beautiful but so very quiet. After five pm nobody on the streets! When I go back to China after four years (to visit) I got another culture shock because of the pollution. So dirty, even in daytime you could not look clearly. (So) when I went back to Australia I changed my subject. For a couple of years I did a lot (of paintings) about the environment.”

At this time he began to use maps in his work, initially with the idea of creating maps of the apocalypse, and later as a way of exploring ideas about colonisation and nationalism. It was at this time, also, that he began to introduce scientific and biomedical elements into his work, with the ‘Test Tube Babies’ series. Later, he says, “I did a lot of Australian political stories, like refugee and migration stories – mixing indigenous stories and colonisation.” “Are you also thinking of your own journey, and more generally the diasporic experiences of so many Chinese artists in these works?” I ask. “Yes, of course!” he says. Guan Wei points out, though, that he feels a responsibility, living in Australia, to tell Australian stories in his work. “I am different to other Chinese artists living in Australia. My many Chinese artist friends, like Shen Jiawei, are doing Chinese histories, but I am doing Australian histories. If you live in Australia you must serve Australian audiences; that is my opinion. That is why I am interested in Australian history, Australian politics and culture. I did a big show at the Powerhouse Museum called ‘Other Histories’ [2006]. ‘Guan Wei’s Fable for a Contemporary World’ was his first foray into large scale mural painting] about the Chinese discovering Australia. It’s maybe not true!” “A parallel ‘Guan Wei’ universe?” I suggest. “Yes!” he says.

His ambitious wall mural, ‘The Journey to Australia’, commissioned for the new entrance to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art reveals his continuing interest in themes of diaspora and migration. The painting, which shows a fleet of boats heading towards Australian shores, is a pointed reference to the continuing debates about immigration and, in particular, about boat arrivals. He has in the past described his work as a kind of “bearing witness” to these themes. As with other, earlier, paintings, he is interested in layering indigenous history, colonisation, Chinese history and recent political discourses about refugees and border protection. With his distinctive iconography of lyrical floating clouds, map coordinates, and meteorological patterns; and references as diverse as Chinese astrology, necromancy, traditional medicine and 21st century science, he is able to create works which cleverly comment on contemporary paranoia, yet also reflect the universal themes of journeying, so prevalent in ancient Chinese texts, and literati paintings of wandering scholars in misty landscapes of clouds and mountains.

A recent exhibition in Suzhou, Enigma Space, at No. 8 Gallery in Suzhou Industrial Park, represents a new direction in his practice. Small installations of acrylic paintings on boards include found objects such as rocks, bonsai trees and tea, arranged horizontally on narrow shelves. Referencing the Chinese classical design of the garden as a refuge, a spiritual space for contemplating nature in its most perfect form, these works extend his particular visual language in a more overtly narrative manner. Guan Wei has always worked in series, and the paintings move beyond that convention to create tiny landscape vistas which evoke the experience of reading a Chinese scroll. In the catalogue for this exhibition he says, “In our daily lives gardens provide us refuge and spiritual comfort. They are a wonderland within the physical world.” Like many other contemporary Chinese artists, it seems, Guan Wei is reconsidering the traditions of literati painting and the mastery of representing idealised version of nature with ink and brush. In the chaos and confusion of the contemporary world, the artist is continuing to work with deeply felt ideas about the environment, and about the relationship between man and nature.

Since 1994 Guan Wei has visited China regularly, making the significant decision to set up a studio in Beijing in 2008. “Why return?” I ask. He gives his characteristic laugh and says, “So many reasons.” Firstly, he tells me, the decision was prompted by the transition of Sherman Galleries to its new incarnation as the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and the fact that he was thus no longer represented (at that time) by a Sydney gallery. Secondly, he was invited to produce works for the cultural component of the Beijing Olympics. Thirdly, he says, “Since 2002, each year when I come back to visit family and friends I see big changes; big art communities; many of my artist friends have big studios. I feel very excited! And many of my Chinese artist friends were already back in China.” And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, he wanted to bring his young daughter back to China, to learn about her Chinese culture and background. And of course, he adds, in Beijing it is easy for him to communicate with colleagues, technicians, fabricators and galleries; he has access to spaces, assistants and materials that would be impossible, or impossibly expensive, in Sydney. This has allowed him to explore new possibilities – the bronzes, the ceramics, the current installation of shelf works in Suzhou, that city of beautiful gardens.

For his 2013 show at Martin Browne Fine Art, he completed the paintings in Sydney but the bronze sculptures, large and small, were made in China. The complexities and logistics of this kind of global practice are not to be underestimated. In these works too, the complex layering of Chinese and Western references are clear. The solid weighty forms remind me of the female figures of the 19th century sculptor Aristide Maillol, yet their heaviness is belied by the fact that they are frolicking in water, like the pink figures in his paintings which reference the joyful hedonism of Australian beach culture. The stylised water in these bronze works is a reference to the lotus seat of the Tathagata Buddha. The body in water, unencumbered by its own weight, is able to enter a state of complete liberty. His paintings in this show reinforced the palpable awareness of Australia as an island continent, of a place with edges, and permeable borders. Figures cluster on shorelines, or traverse oceans and seas in tiny boats. The series ‘Twinkling Galaxies’ with its emphasis on constellations and heavenly bodies in the endless darkness of the night sky, reveals the sense of place and the careful observation of particular locations that is so evident in his work, as well as his interest in mythology and science. And, as he said to me with a laugh, he always gets a shock when he returns from Sydney to Beijing and realises that he cannot see any stars through the haze of pollution.

At the end of our conversation he is most animated when he shows me the samples of his ceramics from Jingdezhen. It will be too cold during the Chinese winter to go there to continue the project, he says, so he is impatiently waiting for the moment when he can return to work with the porcelain craftsmen and apply his lyrical human figures, demons and mythological creatures to the seductive curved surfaces of the vessels and bowls. Guan Wei is an artist who never stands still. Just as he continues his regular journeying between Beijing and Sydney, so too his work continues to evolve.

Luise Guest “Floating Worlds: A conversation with Guan Wei”.  26 November 26, 2013


Guan Wei was born in Beijing in 1957 and graduated in Fine Arts from Beijing Capital University in 1986. He migrated to Australia in 1990 and currently lives and works in Sydney. Since his first visit, as artist-in-residence at the Tasmanian School of Art in 1989, Guan Wei has been fascinated by narratives that connect China and Australia. Guan Wei’s art is imbued with wit, humour and a social conscience. It is inspired by themes such as exploration, immigration, the plight of refugees, secret histories and cross-cultural understanding. In creating his fable for a contemporary world, Guan Wei – the artist as storyteller – has extracted what is of use to him from the Museum’s collection and created an exhibition that, in his own words, functions as a ‘floating, poetic corridor in which history and memory, fact and fiction are blurred’.

Powerhouse Museum.


Born in Beijing in 1957 and educated during the Cultural Revolution, Guan now finds himself one of Australia's best-loved artists. Years before Chinese contemporary art became fashionable on the international scene, Guan was impressing curators in China and Australia with his unique comic-book figures and strange, otherworldly landscapes. He has held 36 solo exhibitions, represented Australia at the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial and won the Sulman Prize, and he counts Cate Blanchett among his fans. His work hangs in most major galleries in Australia and he's about to embark on an ambitious joint project re-interpreting items from the Powerhouse Museum.

Yet he grew up in a time when artists, the intelligentsia and much of China's cultural heritage was declared bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. "I remember very clearly when I was in year one in primary school, the Cultural Revolution came. We had just started the class and we were told to go back home," he says. "My whole period of primary school and high school, that was 10 years but it was also the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution."

When most kids his age were joining the Red Guard, Guan was not allowed; his grandfather was a member of the old Manchu ruling class, therefore a class enemy of the revolutionaries. "We had some problems. If you have a problem with your history, you are on the outside," he says quietly. Suddenly: "But it's all right, it's not so serious! Ho ho ho ho!"

Guan's father, a performer in the Beijing Opera, took his son's education into his own hands, teaching him the traditional operas until Guan's voice broke. "When that happened, he said, 'OK, stop there,"' he laughs. "My father, [because of the] Manchu tradition, was good at calligraphy and he did some Chinese traditional painting. When he was doing his calligraphy I was always looking and drawing, so he decided to introduce me to some painters. I came to enjoy art."

Guan learned traditional techniques from his father's friends, followed the lifelike Soviet style popularised in propaganda posters and copied his favourite comic strips.

“The Hot seat – Guan Wei”  Sydney Morning Herald.


On the first viewing, Guan Wei’s work can be mildly disconcerting. His crisp imagery leads the observer to anticipate a direct message, a cohesive narrative, a decipherable, if highly symbolic, coded language. The uneasiness sets in when the simple explanation does not come. His mélange of familiar signs resists concatenation despite his intricately balanced composition. It is then that the viewer may empathize with Guan Wei’s cartoon-like human figures, adrift and isolated in a tumultuous sea or panicked and huddled in unfamiliar territory. Guan Wei knows this feeling but does not ask for our sympathy, nor does he engage in moralistic finger wagging. Instead, he comforts us with his wry wit, imbuing his imagery with visual rhymes, subversion of authority and charismatic whimsy.

Born in 1957 in Beijing, Guan Wei came of age during China’s Cultural Revolution. After the turbulent events of the late 1980s, there was an exodus of contemporary Chinese artists, many of whom fled to Western art centers such as New York and Paris. In 1990, Guan Wei took up residence in Australia and developed the artistic idiom he had begun in Beijing. As time went on and he became more acclimated to his new home, he began to address cross-cultural issues, environmental awareness and Australian politics. An often-published quotation of his helps us understand his artistic strategy:

I try to emphasize three elements in my work: wisdom, knowledge and humour. I believe people need wisdom to choose from the many different cultural traditions that confront us every day; knowledge is the key to open our minds to the diversity of the world; and humor is necessary to comfort our hearts.

Guan Wei’s wisdom and knowledge inform his careful choices of subject matter and create a seemingly effortless balance of a myriad of opposing ideas. His signature style sparks the comforting humor that is simultaneously joyful and enigmatic.

While Guan Wei’s iconography has recognizable antecedents in European maps and Chinese landscapes, he presents them in the context of his own personal visual idiom. His distinctive style unites the disparate elements that blend so harmoniously that we do not immediately perceive anomalies. The map-like background, his basic foundation, provides a conducive platform for his iconographic amalgamation. The perspective shifts and disproportionate elements are at home in this format. Guan Wei deftly accomplishes dimension without depth by subtly modeling the figures and formations such that he subverts the cartographic flatness. Furthermore, he delicately varies the tonality of the blue in the sea from dark at the bottom to a slightly lighter hue at the top, giving the vague suggestion of recession and perspective.

The artist presents a playground for deconstructionists as he presents his iconography to represent binary oppositions: East vs. West, logical vs. emotional, science vs. myth. Simultaneously, he collapses time and blurs the distinction between past and present. He presents us with mythical Chinese dragons alongside dinosaurs. Conquering explorers encounter frightened inhabitants, but each share the same quivering flesh. Television weather symbols coexist with wind personifications. Guan Wei homogenises the opposing notions rendering their surface differences irrelevant. What is left is a series of questions about man’s relationship to the environment, man’s relationship to time, and man’s relationship to himself. The cryptic elements of Guan Wei’s language lead to a commentary on the universality of human experiences.

Tally Beck “Navigating Guan Wei”. Red Gate Gallery. Beijing


Guan Wei is a major figure in both the Australian and Chinese contemporary art scenes. For the past 25 years he has been creating work that interweaves imagery from his Chinese heritage, personal mythology and life experience particularly from Australia. He has held more than 50 solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas and participated in significant group exhibitions including the Shanghai Biennial 2010; China Project at the Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery in 2009, and Face Up: Contemporary Art from Australia, Hamburger Bahnof Museum, Berlin, 2003. He was a selected finalist in the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, National Gallery of Victoria, 2009 and has won several awards including the 2002 Sir John Sulman Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 2013 he was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, to create a wall painting for the Circular Quay entrance. He has been the recipient of numerous Australia Council awards and fellowship grants and was artist in residence at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in United States of America in 2010 and at the Cite International des Art, Paris 2007. A monograph of his work was published by Craftsman House in 2006. It was edited by Laura Murray Cree, with essays by Dinah Dysart, Natalie King and Hou Hanru. Guan Wei arrived in Australia in 1989, returned to China in 2008 and now lives and works between Sydney and Beijing.



Selected Bibliography