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
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,
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.
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 Descent, The 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
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of South Australia
Art Gallery of Western Australia
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
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’ . ‘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’.
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.