Featuring 105 female artists from 13 countries spanning over 10 centuries, She is Long Musuem’s bold attempt in presenting the very first all-women artists show in China. Seen as a curatorial corrective attempt to counterpoint the looked-overness of art history in China, as well as being part of the larger historical discourse worldwide on female artists, the Museum puts together works by internationally-renowned artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Yoko Ono, as well as female artists in the older times of China, such as Yang Meizi (1162 – 1232), Ma Shouzhen (1548 – 1604), Wen Chu (1595 – 1634), etc.
TEXT: Maya Kramer
IMAGES : Courtesy of the artists and Long Museum
While the Long Museum has organized many group shown around various themes, from Yuko Hasegawa’s pan-Asian survey: Breaking Through to the Actual Via the Imagination, to Xu Zhen’s 1199 People, despite the vast difference in subject matter these exhibitions tend to feel oddly similar. Perhaps it’s the cavernous nature of the Long Museum itself which dwarfs most of the work it houses, or the fact that surveys at Long primarily showcase painting and sculpture of divergent quality juxtaposed in often perplexing ways.
The current exhibition She, which amasses over 100 artworks by female artists drawn from 13 countries from over 10 centuries, unfortunately shares many of the pitfalls of its group exhibition predecessors, and it does not distinguish itself or the topic of its inquiry. Though an increased focus on female artists is direly needed in Shanghai’s art institutions, and credit is due to the Long museum for foregrounding this issue, at the same time sequestering female artists into a distinct exhibition category sidesteps the challenge of equally representing them during the remainder of exhibition cycles. Its best if museum-goers have the opportunity to experience exceptional solo exhibitions and artworks by women throughout the year and not just on rarified occasions.
Beyond its conceptual limitations, in curatorial structure and artwork selection, the show falls short of making a strong case for women’s achievements. She is broken up into four rather arbitrary subcategories: The Annihilation of the Self, The Liberation of the Self, The Introspection of the Self, and the Expression of the Self, and these do little to illuminate the works and the complexity of the minds who made them. Such headings also frame the female artist’s journey as a search for self-actualization culminating the artist’s awareness of her abilities and the confidence to express her vision. This myopic focus on the artist’s effort alone fails to point out the context in which art lives and the interplay of forces that create cultural and economic value. The gallerists, critics, museum directors, educators, media and collectors that comprise the art world ecosystem are just as essential to an artist career as the strength of the artist’s vision, ambition and abilities. Exploring the individual environments in which these artists develop their practice and investigating the larger sociological, cultural, and institutional frameworks that support or constrain female artists would have provided a needed perspective on this topic.
She claims it exhibits artwork according to the aforementioned themes, yet in actuality many of the connections between pieces play out primarily through formal relationships, and certain sections are essentially color-coded. To transition from the main exhibition hall featuring figurative works, to abstract paintings in a second gallery, one of Lisa Yuskavage’s signature pornographic inspired nudes painted against a spectral colored background is paired with chromatically rich op inspired abstraction by Li Shurui. It’s an incomprehensible match. In another room black and white works prevail. One photograph each by Marina Abramovic, Shirin Neshat and Ana Mandieta are hung in a corner within visual proximity to Xiao Lu’s charged installation Dialogue. One connects the gun in Shirin’s hand to Xiao Lu’s shooting of her own work, a gesture for which Xiao was arrested, and yet, Diaolgue in turn is flanked by rather tame black and white photos by Liu Shiyan, and adjacent sits a bizarre sculpture consisting of a doll like figure resting on a bed of newspapers. It is these fitful, fast, loose and often superficial connections between works that fracture the shows sense of cohesion and prevents it from realizing its ambition.
Yet despite the curation, its mistakes and missed opportunities, which also include: the absence of Latin American (with one exception), African, and Indian artists, the segregation between the Asian artists and the Western ones, and the over-emphasis on painting and sculpture, some works are undeniable knock-outs and its worth navigating the fray to experience them. Louise Bourgeoise’s Crouching Spider, occupies that first exhibition hall in a way that no other work has. In Lin Tian Miao’s Protruding Patterns, an array of beautifully layered carpets is embellished with raised thread text fragments often used to label and judge women. The fact that one can walk on the rugs makes the piece all the more poignant. Yin Xiuzhen’s Pink Rainbow is delightful, and I could not help but wonder what a Lee Bonitcou wall sculpture might have looked like in conversation with it. The Jenny Saville painting, Shift, which Long bought for a much-publicized sum of money, is a great purchase, and the painting lingers in the mind long after one has stepped away from it.
While She has numerous issues, the experience of seeing a few stellar artworks was still worth it, and the strongest takeaway from this exhibition was how painfully rare it has been to see great works by female artists in this city. I hope Shanghai institutions can step up and diversify, as while the all female art ghetto is not the answer, Shanghai’s disproportionate celebration of male artists is a problem that needs more systematic solutions.
SHE: International Women Artists Exhibition
Long Museum (West Bund)
No.3398 Longteng Avenue, Xuhui District, Shanghai
Maya Kramer is an artist, an independent art writer and arts project coordinator. She was based in New York City for nine years during which time she worked in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim Museum and for private collectors. In 2010 she moved to Shanghai, and has since exhibited internationally in conjunction with institutions such the Hong Kong Arts Centre (Hong Kong) and the Van Abbe Museum (Eindhoven, Holland) among others. She is the recipient of the Jacob Javits Fellowship, her works have been featured in media such as Fortune Art, Randian and Blouin Art Info, and she has written for The Shanghai Gallery of Art, Artlink, and Bank Gallery. She currently lives and works in Shanghai, China.