Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Uncensored portraits of life in China

21 February 2023

With international tensions high, exhibition “Beijing Realism” is timely, says Belinda Hermawan, offering a glimpse into the day-to-day of those at the bottom of China’s socio-economic strata.

‘Beijing Realism’, Han Bing, Hu Xiangqian, Li Xiaofei and Tami Xiang
Goolugatup Heathcote

In keeping with its name, the exhibition “Beijing Realism” offers sobering insight into the realities of the working class in today’s China, a country ruled by communists whilst also being the most industrialised in the world.

Curated by Perth-based Chinese-Australian artist Tami Xiang and Australian academic Darren Jorgensen, the exhibition features four contemporary Chinese and Chinese-Australian artists who take us beyond factory doors and school gates to capture uncensored portraits of daily life.

The workers in Han Bing’s New Culture Movement series (2001 – 2006) are photographed at construction sites with bricks in hand, symbolising what Han identifies as their labour on site and at home. Whether stoic or smiling, it’s hard to ignore their sun-weathered skin and apparent age, some looking too old to be working and some too young.

While these images evoke the ideal that people are the building blocks of society, the stark reality of mass labour is masterly conveyed in Li Xiaofei’s videos. Firstly, in Chongming Island (2015) Li takes us behind the scenes to interview and film both locals and migrants as they work achingly long hours on the assembly line making pots and pans.

I found it confronting to watch the production of basic items we take for granted, the uniformity of the end products juxtaposed with the routine tiredness and hunched posture of the workers.

A work from Beijing Realism shows 16 portraits of Chinese children looking straight at the camera. They are dressed warmly for cold weather.
There is a broken innocence in each of the waiting children’s eyes in Tami Xiang’s ‘Family Portraits’ . Photo: Artdoc

Li’s rolling footage of open lockers in My Locker + Sisters (2018) is a simple but effective concept, with everyday items such as water bottles, packaged snacks, condiment jars, plastic bags and writing utensils coming across as forlorn. Although each cubby is labelled with a name, we can’t put names to faces, emphasising dehumanisation.

The faces we do see in Tami Xiang’s Family Portraits (2018 – 2023) are those of the left-behind children from regional China, a generation raised by elderly grandparents while parents live in the cities to work.

The photographs of these children are cleverly displayed in grids on opposing walls, like countless windows into the lives of those essential to but not benefitting from the country’s rise in prosperity.

There is a broken innocence in each of the waiting children’s eyes that is haunting, unshakeable even after you leave the room.

In comparison, the children in Hu Xiangqian’s video work Speech at the End of the World (2013) are older. Here, Hu passionately addresses students at his old middle school during an outdoor assembly.

While the intent is to deliver a life lesson to, as he puts it, “warn them that if they do not make the necessary efforts, they will spend their whole lives stuck in the middle of nowhere”, the students appear bored or confused as they stand in neat rows in the yard under a grey sky. The gymnastics formation eerily evokes a military exercise or production line where they have no choice but to obey as an individual and a collective as soon as the sun rises.

The most visually striking work in the exhibition is Tami Xiang’s Lucky 88 (2019), photographs of pensioners printed on silk in what is effectively a series of red banners triumphantly hung from the ceiling.

Commissioned to buy goods worth 88 yuan (~$16AUD) – equivalent to one month of their pension – these elders stand like pillars with their grocery items. With red traditionally being celebratory and auspicious, I find it interesting to grapple with the idea of how such a small amount must feel like a windfall, only for the purchasing power to be so limited even though the products are made in China.

As political tensions dominate our news headlines, this timely exhibition is a worthwhile look into the lives of ordinary people in China.

Pictured top: Tami Xiang’s ‘Lucky 88’ as part of the group exhibition Beijing Realism‘. Photo: Artdoc

“Beijing Realism” continues at Goolugatup Heathcote until 26 March 2023.

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Author —
Belinda Hermawan

Belinda Hermawan is a graduate of UWA Law School (2009) and a fiction writer whose short fiction has been published in Australia and the United States. She is a summer school alum of Parsons, The New School of Design in New York. Favourite piece of playground equipment: playground car on springs!

Past Articles

  • A blaze of glorious people

    Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery blazes a trail with an exhibition of remarkable portraits, writes Belinda Hermawan

  • Bold and striking art from Hatchlings

    From weaponised jewellery to hand-blown glass breaths, cosplay to vibrant projections, top graduates from our nation’s arts schools have created works that are variously immersive, disruptive and discomforting, writes Belinda Hermawan.

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