This month we hear from Tall Tales Co-Curator Liz Wewiora on the work of Ma Qiusha, one of the most exciting Chinese women artists of her generation, and how a particular work has continued to create new narratives for both artist and curator.
“It was my first visit to China, and nothing would prepare me for the art ‘theme park’ of an extravaganza that was the 798 district in Beijing. The district comprised of a 50 year old complex of decommissioned military factory buildings, which now houses a thriving if not somewhat overwhelming artistic community. Gallery after gallery, studio after studio, and one public realm sculpture after another there was art for all the senses on every street corner. So much so, that it I began to stop taking any of it in, until I visited the Beijing Commune Gallery.
Amongst all that visual noise, the white clean space of Beijing Commune, was a welcome arrival but more over it was the artist exhibiting within it, that drew me in. I was presented by one of the first solo exhibitions by Beijing artist Ma Qiusha. A series of video works, paintings and sculpture sat with authority yet curiosity in the space. In a city so full of visual noise I was completely transfixed in Ma Qiusha’s ability to create works that left me in a sense of complete calm and control. Her work reflects a special sensitivity with ordinary everyday objects and materials. She carefully re-stages them in unfamiliar environments to tell a story or express suppressed emotions. Often the works, relate to personal memories and emotions to family and identity as well as wider topics around historical, political, social and economic transitions Chinese Society has gone through in the course of the 21st century.
It was an absolute delight, in 2013, to be able to curate and present her first UK solo exhibition at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts, again presenting a series of video works, painting and sculpture. When considering the Tall Tales artistic programme in 2014, I was instantly drew to one particular work, Two Years Younger Than Me, which had been showcased in her solo UK exhibition. The work not only represented a work with a strong narrative in its own right, but more over a newer narrative which through the dialogue around the initial presentation of the work, evolved into a life long conversation and indeed friendship between artist and curator.
Two Years Younger Than Me presents a series of curious found objects by the artist’s late Grandfather and represents a new found understanding the artist had for her relative once she discovered these objects. In first discussing the work with Ma Qiusha, I was fascinated to know more about these curious items, which consisted of a set of small pill bottles with beard shavings, labelled by the year they were collected for 27 years.
When the bottles are laid out in order of their age, we see a delicate shifting greyscale as the beard shavings start to change colour. We also start to see signs of other changes over time, as less hair is captured in each bottle, and the earlier consistent shape and size of bottles shifts to various sizes, colours and with less consideration to label them. So although the idea of collecting and collating beard shavings might seem like an unusual one, as a collection of objects they represented a sense of time; a sense of growth and ageing and a sense of eventual loss. I was fascinated still to hear from Ma Qiusha what she herself made of them and how they related to her relationship and memories of her Grandad.
Ma Qiusha explained “My Grandad is the only elderly family member who have ever argues with me. Unlike most his age, he never spoiled his grandkids. My Grandad was an only child, just like me, and that’s why he was kind of weird. I remember clearly his odd, but always serious manner. He would keep his beard hair in a pill pottle and lock all the bottles up away. It was only after he passed away that I found these bottles in a pile of his personal belongings, which were going to be thrown away. Since 1984 he had used a pill bottle each year to save all his removed beard hairs from the last 12 months. I counted the bottle, 27 in total and exactly ‘two years younger than me”.
The story behind the found objects, and discovering that upon Ma Qiusha finding these curious items, she in fact finally understood her relationship with her Grandad, gave the work even more emotion and for me a new attachment and narrative that I wanted to share. Since this initial conversation, Ma Qiusha presents the work alongside her personal story about her relationship to her Grandfather and it is still something we discuss and adapt each time she presents the work to this very day.
For Tall Tales Ma Qiusha also presents a new video work, Rainbow, which presents to the viewers a dream like scene: three girls in a typical figure skating costume appear to be circling the camera, hand in hand. The film slowly reveals the girls are striving to mash tomatoes under their boots, causing a splash of fruit into nearby glass vessels – every sense and splash amplified by the use of HD recording, creating an immersive relationship between the audience and the figures. The work plays homage to the ring-a-ring-o’rose nursery rhyme and the chromatic contrast between the use of red and white in the piece, echoes an all too familiar play of against good and evil, fight or flight in storytelling.
Like many of Ma Qiusha’s other works, Rainbow uses the visual tool of a blade/ razor in combination with a seemingly soft and dreamlike state. It is even more of charming and uncanny connection then that Two Years Younger Than Me represents her Grandad’s beard shavings. So perhaps they were similar than they ever realised; a little fact I like to keep hold of, that makes me more fond of the work every time I see it”.
Liz Wewiora, Co-Curator, Tall Tales, November 2016
Image credits, Header image: still from Rainbow, HD video, 2013, middle image: Two Years Younger than me, found objects, 2011, bottom image: still from Rainbow, HD video, 2013, all work copyright the artist, Ma Qiusha