SHANGHAI — For Yu Hong, the absurdity of life dictates that there should be babies sleeping in hell. In “On the Clouds,” a monumental (8′ x 60′) six-panel painting in the first hall of Yu’s current retrospective at Long Museum in Shanghai, anonymous figures ache and writhe in a wild world of clouds. Near-naked girls pose with wooden exhibitionism while faceless crowds slump in despair-induced comas. Capitalizing on a panel break, the very center of the painting displays a clash of lightning, glaciers and flame. To the right, seven babies fan out atop a dense bed of grey smoke, sound asleep. Amid a world of mayhem, perfect peace can be frightening.
Yu Hong is an acute observer of the drastic changes in Chinese society in recent decades, something she shares with her artist husband, Liu Xiaodong. At age 53, she has firmly established herself as an essential contemporary painter whose virtuosity is passionately admired by younger artists. In contrast to the iconoclasm and radicalism that define much Chinese art since 1989, her thematic focus on the personal and quotidian gives voice to a realism that courts intimacy and nuance. This associates her with the “New Generation” movement, which aims to convey social realities at personal scales. The current retrospective, curated by Jérôme Sans, encompasses four distinct “chapters”: epic phantasmagorias, individual portraits, journals of the artist’s life and a piece in virtual reality. Time is the common thread through these chapters and for Yu Hong the essential axis along which reality unfolds and transfigures.
Kafka demonstrated the dissonance between personal and historical time when he wrote his diary entry on August 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.” The quotidian has its own way of seeping into yet floating apart from any systematic historical narrative. In “Witness to Growth,” displayed on the second floor of the museum, Yu Hong probes this gap through the specificity of her personal experiences. Yu has used painting as a form of journaling life ever since the birth of her daughter Liu Wa in 1994. The works in this series juxtapose official journalistic photos with paintings of moments in the mother and daughter’s lives. In the left panel of one work from 2016, an incredulous New Weekly announces Trump’s victory through a frantic photo of the then-president-elect holding crying babies in his arms. The central panel shows a melancholic Yu Hong standing in her empty studio, which is about to be demolished after 13 years’ use. On the right, the young and buoyant Liu Wa, possibly on vacation and dressed in kimono, is engrossed in photography. This ensemble of disparate events seems to convey our hyperconnected society, where concurrence implies no logical relation but only a precarious bond formed by the shared preconditions of all events.
The most striking conflict between personal and historical narratives in the show is found downstairs in the Yu’s portraits of artist Xiao Lu. Most works in the portrait chapter are encores with an interval of more than a decade. Xiao Lu is the subject of “She- Artist, Xiao Lu” and “The Shot.” “She- Artist, Xiao Lu” is a haunting picture. Yu combines a black-and-white rendering of Xiao Lu shooting a gun in her famed performance work from 1989 (just before the Tiananmen Square Crackdown) and a colorful, intimate portrayal of Xiao Lu in her bedroom. The artist’s mournful, aggressive gaze links the two parts: through prints and reflections, it repeats about 12 times across the painting. In the accompanying interview video, Xiao Lu recounts the abusive romantic relationship in her teenage years that gave her the ire and idea to create the performance. However, almost immediately, the work was kidnapped by art criticism as a political activist act and even reattributed to a male artist. With admirable frankness, Xiao Lu reflects that the macho art world is disgusted by the trivial sentiments of personal relations. She remains quite indifferent to the feminist political rhetoric that has cleansed, packaged and recast her work.
In “The Shot,” Yu Hong overcomes the peril of grand narratives with a brute matter-of-factness of symbolic representation. Xiao Lu, now with her back to the viewer and shooting into the dark unknown, is surrounded by pictorial short hands signifying her later performances, such as ice cubes and poured ink. In Xiao Lu’s account, her entire oeuvre continues the same original streak of private anger and loss. In art history’s calculated construction, it is suffused with the evolving political radicalism of contemporary China. Yu Hong’s painting strives to give a simple ontological record of the artist’s actual actions. By doing so, it marks the only meeting point of the two modes of interpretation and throws their fraught pairing into suspension.
In Buddhism, the world of saha is a world to be endured, where suffering is both a consequence of one’s past life and an inevitability of this one. During the public lecture for the show’s opening, the moderator asked Yu Hong whether the artist could assume a savior’s role in this world of sorrows. Yu answered that she could only wish to be an observer, as she was as mired in the saha world, like everyone else. This stance seems to reverberate throughout the show: many pieces are balanced between the myth-maker’s impulse for narrative and coherence and the observer’s taste for chaos and randomness. In a society of increasing mass surveillance, Yu Hong’s paintings carve out a space where we can still write some stories ourselves.
Yu Hong: The World of Saha, curated by Jerome Sans, is on view at the Long Museum (3398 Longteng Ave, Xuhui Qu, Shanghai Shi, China) through May 5th, 2019.