Navigating Liminal Space: Guan Wei
Navigating Liminal Space: Guan Wei
Navigating Liminal Space: Guan Wei

Guan Wei is not only a very compassionate and witty artist, but he is also a very humble and gentle man who exudes a deep altruism for humanity. Guan Wei embodies the spirit of an artist who strives for social and cultural change in our modern world.

by Caitlyn Coman-Sargent

Vermilion Art sits down with internationally acclaimed artist Guan Wei. In this interview, Guan Wei communicates how he navigates the cultural divide between China and Australia through his art practice, and how he sees himself, to some extent, as a translator of the past for present day audiences. We touch on his recent public art installation at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art as well as addressing his experience of curating Wang Lifeng’s exhibition Archives of Longing, currently exhibited at Vermilion Art.

The word liminality derives from the Latin word limen, meaning ‘threshold’, and literally refers to the thin piece of wood at the bottom of a window or door that separates inside from outside. The concept of liminal or liminality is interesting as it symbolises a transitional period or space that is neither here nor there. The works of both Guan Wei and Wang Lifeng occupy just such a space as both artists shift between and reconcile disparate worlds; China and Australia, and past, present and future. While their art is strikingly different, the concept of liminality connects them. Guan Wei transcends borders and speaks on a global level as he draws on cultural traditions from China and Australia, incorporating conceptualisations of East and West and the experience of migrants and Indigenous people. His practice is informed by his own experience of diaspora. Wang Lifeng likewise consciously employs elements from traditional Chinese culture to translate and connect the past to contemporary audiences. It was this commonality that attracted Guan Wei to the project of curating Wang’s work.

Guan Wei was born in Beijing, China, and migrated to Australia during the late 1980s, after graduating from the department of Fine Arts at Beijing Capital University. Upon arrival, Wei became an artist-in-residence at the Tasmanian School of Art. In 1992 accepted a residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, and a year later he moved on to the Canberra School of Art and then the Australian National University in 1993. Whilst residing in Australia, Guan Wei has continued to practise in China, so he literally and artistically moves between two worlds.

Given his personal heritage and experience, it is not surprising that Guan Wei’s work often explores the duality between the East and West. His preoccupation with Australian Indigenous culture, is at first more perplexing, but the connection works on a deeper level as it is underpinned by a concern with the impact of Western colonialism. His recent public artwork Loong (Dragon) located at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney during the 2018 Chinese New Year exemplifies Guan Wei’s capacity to blend practice, meaning and tradition to communicate with audiences. His spectacular mystical dragon came to life, as it towered over the public floating outside the MCA’s entrance.

The work was designed to celebrate the City of Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival as it illuminated the harbour like a traditional Chinese lantern. Guan Wei cleverly combined elements from seemingly disparate cultures through the use of bright colours, such as red and yellow which are reminiscent of the red, black and yellow portrayed on the Australian Aboriginal flag. Whilst simultaneously honouring the significance of the colour red in Chinese culture, symbolic of good fortune and joy.
The relationship between migrants and Indigenous people is also communicated through his illustration of Indigenous figures and native flora and fauna on the sides of the dragon. The lantern resonates with audiences from diverse backgrounds and experiences, as he seamlessly creates a dialogue between cultures and people.

Guan Wei’s work can be viewed as a tool for translating the past, serve as a cross-cultural translator. This theme is apparent in many of his current and previous artworks as Guan Wei pays homage to his own Chinese cultural heritage as well as embodying Australia’s Indigenous cultural traditions. He tells me his work is deeply influenced by his experience of migrating to Australia, and proceeds to explain that he believes Australia is made up of three cultures, comprising of firstly, Indigenous culture, secondly, colonial culture and finally, multiculturalism. These are ideas are present throughout Wei’s art practice as he frequently explores the tension between the East and the West and the relationship between migrants and Indigenous people.

Guan Wei’s artwork addresses issues of diaspora and the complexities of understanding and expressing his Chinese identity in relation to the social and cultural landscape of Australia. Perhaps it is the experience of cultural isolation that many migrants share with First Nation people, as both groups have experienced the long-lasting effects of Western colonisation and imperialism.

Guan Wei reflects on his experience of moving to Australia, and how different his art might have manifested if he had decided to stay in China or move to America or Europe instead. The artist’s practice has been shaped by his experience of migration to Australia and his engagement with a unique environment and culture. Confronted with feelings of disconnectedness and isolation, his works often reflect the challenge of belonging in the context of Australia as a member of the Chinese diaspora. Guan Wei proceeds to describe how his art is deeply influenced by the landscape and imbued with motifs of sky and water.

“For artists, the environment and culture has a very strong influence on their work.”

Guan Wei explains how Australia is such an isolated place because it is an island surrounded by water, while quoting philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of water and how it represents unconsciousness and the unknown. Guan Wei attributes his fascination with the Australian sky to his experience of Beijing’s polluted sky, pointing out that when he moved to Tasmania in the late 1980s, he was captivated by how clear the sky.

“…the first time I came here in Tasmania, it was a very quiet city, and you can see the whole sky.”

Many of Guan Wei’s artworks are quite satirical and witty in nature, highlighting serious social or environmental issues through humour. Guan Wei humbly chuckles as he states that he believes his sense of humour is in his blood as he is a descendent from the Manchurians, who he claims also have a very good sense of humour. Guan Wei’s artworks exude his clever use of subtle irony and wit, evident in his three-panel painting Secret Histories No.9 (2005), which was exhibited for the Charming Confusion exhibition at Vermilion Art in 2017. The artwork cleverly subverts Australia’s colonial culture and gives insight into the assume history that most Australians believe today.

Not only has Guan Wei been a practising artist for almost four decades now, he has also had extensive curatorial experience. He tells me, with humility, that he started curating “a long time ago”, in 1991, when he was involved several exhibitions in Tasmania, whilst simultaneously engaged in the third Asia Pacific Triennial. When Vermilion Art opened, Guan Wei says that the gallery director, Yeqin Zuo, invited him to help.

“On one hand I’m an artist, and on the other I bring Australian culture and artists to China and Chinese culture to Australia.”

Guan Wei jokingly likens himself to a spy, scouting for Chinese artists that he can bring back to Australia and exhibit their work. He proceeds to tell me that he was drawn to Wang Lifeng’s fascinating adoption of traditional Chinese techniques and subject matter, such as his use of Chinese silk and woodblock printing, whilst commenting on contemporary and modern ideas and issues. Guan Wei was enticed by Lifeng’s pretty and delicate approach to painting and mixed media, and thought that it was very important to bring his work to Australia and Vermilion Art as he surmised that not many Australian people would have seen Lifeng’s work before. Guan Wei was thrilled with the success of the exhibition so far, stating that the response to Wang Lifeng’s exhibition has been overwhelmingly positive.

Guan Wei is not only a very compassionate and witty artist, but he is also a very humble and gentle man who exudes a deep altruism for humanity. Guan Wei embodies the spirit of an artist who strives for social and cultural change in our modern world.

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