Being Realistic
In the pursuit of a good story, sometimes journalistic rigor takes a back seat.

Beijing Realism has caused a stir—but what is it? A key exhibition in the 2023 Perth Festival programme, Beijing Realism included a dozen or so photographic and video works by four Chinese and Chinese-Australian artists: Han Bing, Tami Xiang, Hu Xiangqian, and Li Xiaofei. Curated by Tami Xiang and Darren Jorgensen, the show explored the everyday experiences of labourers, students, and peasants in China.
        On entering the main gallery of Goolugatup Heathcote, one is surrounded. Tami Xiang’s series of large portraits of elderly farmers are suspended in the centre of the room. To the left and the right are photographs of builders and migrant workers by Han Bing. In the side galleries, the photographs and videos present further glimpses of Chinese society and working life in ways seldom seen in art galleries in WA.
        Beijing Realism reflects recent efforts by WA arts institutions to give voice to Chinese and Asian artists and foster scholarship on their work. It has only been two years since the Art Gallery of WA instated its first curator of Asian art. International residency programs have returned after years on ice, including the Asia Pacific Exchange Program, organised between PICA, Taipei Artist Village (Taiwan), and Grey Projects (Singapore). Beijing Realism and its organisers are a part of this change. The curators have crafted an exhibition that comes at a critical time, when better understanding the lives and cultures of our Asia-Pacific neighbours is crucial and long overdue—particularly in the realm of the visual arts.
        Then, controversy struck! In the last days of the exhibition an article published in ArtsHub ran with the inflammatory headline: Curators’ responsibilities in spotlight as Chinese audiences feel ‘let down’. Its authors, Jo Pickup and Celina Lei, raised many questions but answered very few. The article, not a review per se, has three key segments; a passing description of Beijing Realism; the concerns of an anonymous “group of Perth university students of Asian descent”; and some brief, thought-provoking remarks on the ethics and pressures of curatorship by Shuxia Chen, Curator of China Gallery at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney. But unfortunately, the meat of this compliment sandwich lacks nutrition. Neither Pickup nor Lei provide a critical response to either the exhibition or the criticisms raised. In fact, the only critical voices present in the article are those of the anonymous group. The authors’ silence wastes an opportunity for robust and insightful discussion about this important exhibition. Disappointingly, the authors leave the students high and dry, and their readers hungry for further context.
        So, why do the students feel “let down”? Their main contention is that “the complexities of their Chinese culture and history had not been responsibly considered by the curators.” The students point out two examples: the first is a supposed lack of historical context around Tami Xiang’s work, the second is the ambiguous title of the exhibition. “None of the works are about Beijing,” one student told Artshub. “None of the photographs were taken in rural Beijing.” Sure, this second observation is true to a degree: Beijing-based artists Han Bing and Hu Xiangqian look beyond the capital for a backdrop to their work, and Beijing makes no visual appearance in the works of either Tami Xiang or Li Xiaofei. However, it is the metaphorical presence of Beijing that permeates throughout the show.
        The work compels me to wonder about the broader political significance of the title. Beijing is the political centre of China, the heart of Zhōngguó (the ‘Middle Kingdom’). From this centre stretches political authority, complex and nuanced. For artists working in the mainland, Beijing’s influence is ever-present. The title deliberately emphasises the pressures faced by artists, workers, peasants and students living under difficult conditions. Issues of protest, censorship and political criticism are sensitive and complex ideas to articulate for many artists. Here, in Beijing Realism, such ideas are evoked by images that have been curated with discernment and awareness. The political implications of their work are on full display, the viewer must simply look.
        The students’ other concern centres directly on one of the artists, stating:

I know that the artist of this work [Tami Xiang] has previously spoken publicly about the background of the Cultural Revolution to provide audiences with the necessary context around these events. However, in this exhibition’s catalogue, there was very little mention of that context, so audiences didn’t have a way of properly understanding the history behind these portraits.

Yet, in Xiang's statement in the catalogue, she explains that the subjects of her Lucky 88 portraits are:

elderly people aged between 65 and 90 years. Some were born before the establishment of People’s Republic of China. They have lived through the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) which caused more than 30 million people to die from starvation, and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which caused violent chaos across the country in a chaos and millions of people died from the ten years violence [sic].

These are portraits of the defiant. Perhaps the students' complaints are not due to a lack of context, but are responding to an undesired context. What could it be that the students had wished was included that was not already there?
        It is worth mentioning that the catalogue for Beijing Realism is indeed brief; it is a small 18-page brochure with five pages of text in both English and Mandarin. While the text included in the catalogue does not satisfy the needs of the students, we must keep in mind the conclusion reached by Shuxia Chen; that “there is only so much text you can write in an exhibition, and different people will have different perspectives. You can’t please everyone.” This comment stresses the very reason why Pickup and Lei’s article should have provided further insight beyond the context that is already available about the show.
        I thoroughly enjoy reading criticism that cuts deep, takes a side, advocates a point, and encourages me to rethink, reconsider, and, ultimately, to question art and ideas. I cannot help seeing the ArtsHub article as a missed opportunity for Pickup and Lei to draw upon their own expertise as critics and provide further insight into the complexities of Beijing Realism—after all, what else is the point of their article? To the anonymous students, all I can do is encourage you to write your own review, because, as we can see, well-considered art criticism matters.

Image credit: artdoc