Chinese-Australian artist Guo Jian has been making art that is unapologetically political and satirical for more than 20 years, but his latest work takes quite a different turn. His background as a painter of propaganda posters, and then a young soldier in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, informed his well-known paintings of soldiers in the thrall of garish femme fatales; men seduced to war by hypnotic, erotic performances. More recently, Guo Jian attracted significant media and government attention for his diorama of a war-torn, meat-covered Tiananmen Square that precipitated his arrest in Beijing and subsequent imprisonment and deportation in 2014. Two years into a five-year ban on returning to China, Guo Jian continues to conduct striking, poetic and urgent cultural commentary from a distance.
Sue Hampel, co-director of Arc One Gallery in Melbourne has been working with Guo Jian for nine years. With regards to the shift that has occurred in Guo Jian’s practice, she explains, “His early paintings were relevant to the experience he had in Tiananmen Square and as a young soldier in the army, and the trauma of that experience. For some years, it was a great outlet for him to paint these very colourful, strong, satirical paintings.” Hampel goes on to explain that in recent years, “He has become more and more affected by what’s going on [now], the massive cultural changes.”
Having lived in Australia from 1992 to 2005, Guo Jian was shocked upon returning to China to discover a glut of rubbish in previously pristine landscapes, particularly in his home province of Guizhou in southwest China. In an artist statement describing these new works, Guo Jian links the physical trash – food and domestic packaging plastered with famous faces – with a cultural demise epitomised by mass-market movies and TV shows. Over the phone, he explains, “my parents and relatives sit around and watch TV all the time… just rubbish series. One day I was taking photos of rubbish in the landscape and I realised those people on the packages – they’re everywhere! The rubbish is not only in the rivers, but it is on the TV and movie screens as well. We are living in a rubbish culture now.”
Celebrity endorsements are a huge market in China, manufactured goods from skincare to fast food to cleaning products sport the glowing faces of movie, TV and pop stars on packaging. With China’s population sitting at over 1.38 billion people, consumer goods are purchased, used and discarded on a massive scale. According to Xin Wang, Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at Baylor University, a growing Chinese middle class is defining itself through the consumption of specific commodities. In The Changing Landscape of China’s Consumerism (2014) he writes “With its increasing purchasing power, the middle class is reshaping China’s urban consumerist and popular culture.” Xin Wang goes on to say that “television in China is the most preferred entertainment medium”, indicating a correlation between the way China’s middle class chooses to spend their time, and the products they consume. In his artist statement, Guo Jian echoes this connection with rubbish “scattering out of TVs and movie screens into the rivers around villages and cities.”
This environmental and cultural degradation is reflected in the large-scale mosaic images that comprise Guo Jian’s current show, The Encroachment. Images of landscapes, birds and flowers are peaceful and serene from a distance, but break down upon closer inspection. Each is a mosaic of tiny faces, a matrix of pixels, a catalogue of disposables. Guo Jian photographed the trash he encountered when living in China between 2005 and 2014, and details of the packaging have been cropped and compiled to create these large-scale pieces. Some of the over-all images are landscape photographs Guo Jian took in his home province of Guizhou; others are his favourite Chinese paintings from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties – extremely rich periods in Chinese cultural history.
Of the work in The Encroachment, Hampel enthuses, “I’m really excited by the relevance of his work, and the power of it to hopefully make us aware of the loss of cultural and spiritual values. To look at the beauty that was part of Chinese life and is gradually being eroded.” Guo Jian explains that although his work looks specifically at cultural changes in China, he has also noticed significant cultural change in Australia since he first arrived over 20 years ago. “It’s happening everywhere,” he says. “We’re not just culturally changing, but spiritually changing as well.”