'My first experience of Spring Festival [aka Chinese New Year] was Chinese people fleeing it, in the same way that I flee Christmas,’ Australian Garrie Maguire tells us with a jovial grin.
Maguire is the curator of China: Chinese, the latest exhibition to grace Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery in Dongbianmen watchtower. Meticulously put together, the 50 works that make up the show– plucked from more than 600 pieces that populate Red Gate Gallery’s abundant stockroom– presents a broad landscape of this country, and the people who in habit it. The provocative purview raises the question: what does the Australian hang his hat on, in purporting to represent a country that he did not grow up in and a culture that– however fond or knowledgeable of it he might be – he cannot claim is his own?
Maguire sees the question coming a mile away. ‘Firstly, I didn’t actually try to represent the entire culture,’ he bristles. In his daily life, Maguire explains, one of the questions he is most frequently asked is ‘What is life in China like for you?’ ‘I thought it’d be really fascinating as an exercise to attempt to explain that [answer to the question], by only using the visual output of the Red Gate stockroom and the Red Gate artists.’ The show does not claim to represent China or ‘Chineseness’ in its totality, nor reduce such complex and multifaceted ideas to something singular. Rather, Maguire insists, it speaks merely of his own lived experience of this place and its people. ‘What you just looked at was my representation of my experience and the themes that come up with me living in China,’ says Maguire.‘ So that’s quite a bit different than trying to represent Chinese people or Chinese culture or China as a nation state or as a cultural state.’
Though Maguire has only lived in China for two years, his relationship with this country and its peoples goes back much further. He traces his burgeoning affection for Chinese culture to a congenital defect – that of being vertically challenged – as a schoolboy in Australia. ‘I was the smallest guy in my class for most of my life,’ Maguire tells us. ‘Being the little guy, and being the artistic guy, I never got selected for the sports teams until last. So, I suppose, even as a child I had a conflict with the Australian warrior masculinity.’ Some years later, while at a parade in Sydney, Maguire stumbled into a conversation with a Chinese man. ‘He explained that in Chinese culture, the scholar is respected, not the warrior.’ Shortly after this conversation, Maguire started noticing the dearth of Asian faces being represented in the Australian media, despite flourishing Chinese and Vietnamese populations. ‘Neighbours [a long-running Australian soap opera], even to this day, has maybe one Asian female character,’ Maguire declaims. ‘[There’s a] huge Vietnamese population in Australia, a huge Chinese population. To me it was strange, it was offensive, because my friends – the people I liked – weren’t being represented in the media we were consuming.’ Maguire’s discomfort with this state of affairs led him to pursue a Masters of Arts – comparing Chinese representations of masculinity to Australian – and then, eventually, to move to Beijing.
In China: Chinese, Maguire’s experience of China takes the guise of things as ubiquitous as the precarious proposition of crossing the street in Beijing. Upon entering the exhibition, we’re greeted by a sculpture by Liang Changsheng, its a benevolent looking creature with a grinning head, no torso, and pair of sturdy legs. ‘Then behind the sculpture you’ve got the traffic,’ says Maguire, referring to Han Qing’s ‘Night Trip No 3’, a large painting showing a torrent of cars coming towards the viewer. ‘It creates a fear for the life of that creature, his extinction almost, by the traffic.’
Elsewhere, it becomes clear that Maguire’s personal experience of China does not exclude commentary on the social, historical, or political. Chen Jiaye’s ‘To Tear No 8’ is a circular canvas painted the texture of white linen, only the linen has a ‘tear’ (a technique called trompe-loeil, meaning ‘to deceive the eye’). Revealed underneath the ‘tear’ in the fabric is ‘another’ painting of birds fluttering in a classical Chinese mode of depiction. ‘It’s the perfect painting of the Cultural Revolution,’ reflects Maguire. ‘We wanted to paint the canvas white and start again, but it’s always going to fray. The old and traditional, the things that give humans meaning – which is that sense of place, that sense of history– is going to come back through again.’ The circular canvas acts as a punctuation point, a full stop that is mirrored on the other side of the gallery with Wang Qiang’s ‘Virtual Love No 2’. This painting shows a pirate’s bounty of jewels, more than anyone could possibly know what to do with. ‘I selected the other dot, the other ‘full stop’ on the other side [of the gallery] because I just love the idea that too much wealth actually becomes meaningless,’ says Maguire. ‘It [represents] what the Cultural Revolution meant to obtain, and kind of where one artist sees the current culture, which I happen to agree with.’
When asked about the title of the exhibition again, Maguire adopts a more defiant posture. It is clear that the same sense of indignation at the under-representation of Chinese immigrants in Australia has extended to what the curator considers to be a widespread belittling of China and Chinese by foreigners. ‘I went with the title China: Chinese to make the expats stop for a second, then read the subtitle [‘A visual explanation of life in China’], then get the story. I wanted it to confirm and deny stereotypes. So in a way, the stereotype of the foreigner coming in and making judgment is undermined.’
Maguire continues: ‘It’s really about understanding this culture, what it’s going through, what’s happening, what the people are thinking and opening up a dialogue’. The title China: Chinese, Maguire insists, is not a statement, but an open question. What is China, and what is Chinese? ‘I kind of want people to come in and have a good argument with me about particular works and the meanings they read in the works. That would be good.’
is at Red Gate Gallery until Friday 28
. See event