Guan Wei solo show opening speech by Alexie Glass-Kantor

You [Guan Wei] are an artist for whom ideas are ever present and a constant companion. And that you have the ability to keep going further and further into yourself, to be generous with new generations of audiences and collectors, to influence generations of artists, and to generate, influence, and create language of who it is we are—as not just Australians but citizens of the world, and our social, cultural, and political responsibilities to grapple with difficult and complicated truths is a real gift.

I do just want to say what a great honour it is to speak about, and to speak with Guan Wei. We have been friends for many years and Liu Pin. I first opened an exhibition for Guan Wei in Melbourne in 2007, and I tried to find the notes for that speech recently but my word, the generation of my word that I wrote on that speech no longer exists and it’s corrupted into dark square, which seems somehow appropriate when we think about the histories of voids and collusions and the absence and presence of things, the things that we say that don’t get remembered but the things that we say still resonate and have meaning, and how one moment in time may disappear. Because the technology, the history, the representation no longer exist to hold what was, and instead we need to be where we are and think about where we are going. And that’s what’s really important about being able to open this exhibition today. I have a mixture of both notes and quotes, but I am going to throw some of it away, and just speak. But I will just begin by saying, and I do want to begin with a really beautiful quote.

When I walked in this exhibition, and I will talk more about this in a moment why, what I felt like I was doing with Guan Wei was time travel. This is a beautiful series of works on paper that traverse nearly 25 and 30 years of this incredible artist’s remarkable imagination. The breadth and depth of Guan Wei are so in spirit, and the generosity with which he shares is a singular life force and ability to be funny and human and profane and profound and beautiful and difficult and complicated in one moment is almost singularly inexorable and it is why you are one of the great contemporary artists of our times.

So, I need to begin with the words of Guan Wei from 2001. Because this exhibition works from, as I said, over thirty years and I’m not going to speak to individual works because we are in time capsule together with rain outside today. But in 2001, Guan Wei said to Hou Hanru, the incredible and iconic curator, “My personal way of doing things is to seek creative inspiration from different kinds of culture and art. I often choose things from both old and new, from both East and West, and from various different subjects and then put them together in a new way. This requires some sort of standard. And I’ve laid down three requirements for myself: wisdom, humour, and knowledge. Wisdom is to make clever choices to engender an interesting combination. Humour makes the pictures lively and fun, reducing the gap between the work and the viewer to allow for an intimate and friendly feeling. Knowledge imbues the work with certain depth, so it is not just pleasing to the eye, it stimulates the observer’s mind and involves the audience in the work. These three requirements are always interconnected and evolving.”

I really love that quote, because something I really love about art is that really great artists make works that don’t exist in the moment in which they created. An artist’s career should never be read in a linear way. I believe artists might make a work in a moment that doesn’t make sense for forty years, but in the moment in the future where it makes sense, it lands, and it tells what we need to know about ourselves. Or sometimes an artist makes the work, you know, today, but actually is a work that they could’ve made thirty years ago. And that work then changes the way that everything gets seen going forward. And you are really one of those artists, Guan Wei. And the way in which you make and contribute, and participate with wisdom, knowledge and humour is absolutely extraordinary and I do also believe that humour requires a deep kinship with an understanding of mortality and limits of things.

You can’t be funny unless you actually understand that life is actually not funny. In order to be able to reach that level of pathos and humanity to touch people without to be able to ask them to see something in a different way and to be able to use humour as a device to do that requires you to be vulnerable. And vulnerability is a political act. Many of you grew up in different contexts and circumstances, but many people here today grew up in China in the late 20th century at a time when the vulnerability was the most dangerous and political act. [Guan Wei,] You had to hide your vulnerability and that came out through the works of artist, and Geoff you standing there is such a gift. You’ve had such a remarkable half-century relationship with China and such a deep passion for artists who were able to dig deep in their vulnerability to take a risk, to represent through art and culture, a representation of China through time that wouldn’t otherwise been documented in any other form.

We went to see the MCA work [Sea, Sand and Stars for VIVID Sydney] together and it was such a joy. It was this moment of joy. You’re going to see that work and you are going to see this incredible moving image montage that draws up so much of that symbology and iconography, that you are going to see in every work around you. And you’re going to want to dance and you’re going to want to laugh and you’re going to want to feel human and you’re going to look at the person next to you and you’re going to hold their hand. If you’re on your own, you’re going to feel the energy, the poetry that you [Guan Wei] bring.

I think with Guan Wei, what we see in all the works that are in this room is nobility to work with iconography, symbology, mythology, [he] has such a deep history of art history and politics and culture. [Guan Wei,] You were born in the 1950s; your family are a Manchu family, your great-grandfather was a poet, a scholar, and a specialist in literature, in calligraphy; your father was part of Peking opera and you describe him as the man of wit and of knowledge and of good humour and grace. And that many of the colours that appear through the origins and anemology of Peking opera come into form when you moved to Australia and came to Tasmania in the early 1990s and take one of the first residencies of any artists in the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992. And when your work moves out of monochrome into this colour field, and I think what I love about you, most of all, when your work moves between, and I think paper.

Paper shows are often neglected. Paper is not often seen as what it is, which is essentially the most fundamental of all material forms for an artist. Paper is where an idea begins, begins with the word, begins with the gesture, begins with the line. And the paper folds, shifts shape – shapeshifts, and moves into something else. We have the paper that surrounds us here. We have the boards. And have your marks move back and forth through time. You also have drawings you made for the animation on the façade of the MCA. That animation begins with paper.

From your great-grandfather and his calligraphy, through the notes and sheets that your father would’ve wrote through to now to paper says something. Paper is also what makes your identity something which people try to find. People try to find you as a Chinese artist, Chinese Australian artist, an Australian artist. But you’re actually just an artist. The titular, profane and beautiful elements of your work that are represented in the show are incredible ways in which you use maps to serve collinearity of time of time and to introduce elements of surreal and dream of altered, different consciousness shifts the way we understand how we map out personal relationships.

These incredible new works up here [‘The Sea Beyond’ series] bring together some sort of hybrid Greek mythology with Chinese woodcut paintings that are slightly perverse and kinky, little bit speculative, they look like they might be antiquities but are pure fictions are such a delight. This incredible work behind you [‘Enigma’ series] is one of my favourites in the show. The shelves made particularly for this work. I love the beautiful black-on-white monochrome with the appearance of red. The use of language, the stamp of your name, and the Chinese wax stamps are so familiar. I feel that cat climbing on the fence. I feel the architecture. I walked here today with my very unglamorous Wellington boots, and I thought about this work and how this work evokes through the rocks, through the representation of landscape, through the history of Chinese architecture and culture. Something of how the elements and representation of time can be manifested in form.

I will just say before I finish, when you are looking at the show today, I would ask you to think about the fact that this is just, every moment in the practice of Guan Wei is a beginning. Most of you would think the most important thing about being an artist is to be emerging. But ideas emerge in all stages of an artist’s career. And you [Guan Wei] are an artist for whom ideas are ever present and a constant companion. And that you have the ability to keep going further and further into yourself, to be generous with new generations of audiences, of collectors, influence generations of artists, and to generate, to influence and to create language of who it is we are – as not just Australians but citizens of the world, and our social, cultural and political responsibilities to grapple difficult and complicated truth is a real gift. And thank you for showing up. And thank you for always being present. And thank you for never stopping to begin. Because it is your beginning that will allow us to go somewhere further. And thank you very much.

Alexie Glass-Kantor
Executive Director of Artspace

1 June 2024


Vermilion Art

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