Hu Xiaoyuan’s installation A keepsake I cannot give away, 2005, (photo-detail on left by Michael J. Hussman) was given a great deal of prominence in Documenta 12 and for good reason, she is a genuine discovery. The only previous exhibition I can find for her is in 2005: Mahjong–Chinesische Gegenwartskunst (Chinese Contemporary Art) at the Kunstmuseum Bern (Artfacts). I have criticised the curation of Documenta 12 because a lot of work on exhibition either wasn’t very visually inspiring or was presented with such minimal labelling that crucial contextual information was kept from the audience. This was not really the case for Hu Xiaoyuan’s work although, given that she was a new name, a little more context than the no frills–name, title, date, medium, size–label would have been welcome.
My first response to Xiaoyuan’s installation was not favourable: it looked so pretty-pretty. And the vitrines framed the pieces not simply in terms of a museum but also a shopping centre. One gained the strong impression that one was looking at up-market commodities which, at one level, one was. But the interweaving of strong sexual motifs with the ever-so-pretty flora and fauna prevented this installation from being a rather conservative portrayal of femininity. Via her judicious and skillful interpellation of sexual motifs amongst more expected subject matter, Xiaoyuan deconstructs any traditional notions of feminity that might be implicit in this medium, but she does so in a very subtle and sympathetic manner, that can trip up people such as myself who are looking for something “contemporary”.
One was also struck by her use of visual poetry, for example, on one hoop a rear view of a women’s body was portrayed via an abstract and stylised outline.
On reflection this approach to sexual subject-matter resonates with the visual punning of Nobuyoshi Araki; although in Xiaoyuan’s case the puns gain increased potency due to the fact of being produced by a woman. I also have to reflect self-critically, in retrospect, upon my conditioned prejudice towards this typically feminine medium.
You can take a video tour of Xiaoyuang’s installation by clicking here (VIDEO CLIP).
Perhaps my experience was not helped by the rather basic label. The Documenta 12 website provides additional valuable information which—until we all have handheld web-enabled wireless PDAs and full wireless internet coverage across the whole of the exhibition—is not really that much use until one gets home after the trip. And considering the text is only 155 words long it could have easily been added to the exhibition label, it states:
Hu Xiaoyuan’s works touch on questions of human existence in an extremely subtle and intimate way. For her objects, drawings and installations she favours materials that bear signs of wear or have ties of significance. Her motifs come primarily from the everyday environment or are connected to family history.
The work A keepsake I cannot give away (2005) consists of twenty embroideries, grouped in pairs, executed by Hu in white silk in the course of fourteen months with the aid of a wooden embroidery hoop. Each pair displays a traditional Chinese motif from the world of flora and fauna, or metaphors for the happiness of couples in love, and an image of (erotic) parts of her own body. Her own long hair serves her as thread. After an old Chinese custom, women gave their husbands a strand of hair as a demonstration of faithfulness. Hu’s keepsakes are intimate and testify to a sense of loneliness. (Documenta 12)
The first sentence of the background information would not have helped me very much because phrases such as “questions of human existence” are vague to the point of being totally empty. Such phrases are typical of the hyperbole that infests the way in which people write and speak about art. Factual information is always much more useful than hackneyed fine art rhetorical attempts at interpretation. The rest of the information is useful but it omits a few significant details such as Xiaoyuang bought the embroidery hoops from flea markets over a long period and each hoop carries an engraved date. The artist also reports that handling these hoops she can smell the the “warmth of their time”. This additional information is available on the Documenta 12 blog (Documenta12blog) which unfortunately is in only available in German.
Xiaoyuan had another piece in the Neue Galerie, but it was less impressive than A keepsake I cannot give away due to the fact that it was more stereotypically “contemporary women’s art”. Illustration below, photographed by nutbird: