Exhibition highlights the influence of traditional cultural and artistic practices in contemporary Chinese culture

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Exhibition highlights the influence of traditional cultural and artistic practices in contemporary Chinese culture
Chinese Emperor’s semi-formal court robe (Jifu), late 19th-Century, silk, silk and metalic thread, gilt, 141.0cm (centre back) 66.0cm (sleeve length). National Gallery of Victoria.
Melbourne. Gift of Mr A. J. L. McDonnell, 1949.

MELBOURNE.- Juxtaposing ancient Chinese masterpieces alongside compelling works of contemporary art and design, "China – The Past is Present" highlights the influence of traditional cultural and artistic practices in contemporary Chinese culture. Creating a dynamic and anachronistic dialogue between ancient artisans and contemporary artists, the exhibition reveals surprising synergies that bridge millennia, subject matter and form.

The exhibition features more than 120 works drawn primarily from the NGV’s historical and contemporary collection of Chinese art and design, which, combined, span over three millennia and an array of art forms – including painting, calligraphy, ceramics, metal works, lacquer ware, textiles, furniture, video, posters, photography and mixed media.

Offering a new interpretation of the NGV’s expansive collection of Chinese art and design, the exhibition features never-before-displayed and recent acquisitions, including a photographic sequence by Sydney-based Xiao Lu, who is widely considered to be China’s first feminist performance artist and one of the best-known artists from China’s Avant Garde art movement of the late 1980s. In the photographs, the artist references traditional Chinese spontaneous calligraphic expression by tipping calligraphy ink over her body.

A further display juxtaposes a monumental six-metre-long 1770 brush and ink landscape painting by Yuan Yao with a digitally animated landscape by Yang Yongliang. A former student of traditional Chinese painting, Shanghai-based new-media artist Yang creates visually elaborate animated videos that subvert traditional Chinese landscape paintings (sansui zu) by creating the landscape through a digital collage of thousands of high-rise buildings, cranes, power lines, roads and cars.

Pairs of photographic group portraits by Hai Bo document everyday social groups and individuals during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and then again in the 1990s. As well as highlighting the inexorable march of time, the images illustrate the seismic shifts in Chinese culture through each group’s changing modes of personality and self-expression.

The exhibition also features work by members of the first wave of contemporary artists in China, who were granted asylum in Australia after the 1989 Tiananmen protests, including Guan Wei and Ah Xian, alongside works by a new wave of young Chinese and Hong Kong-Australian artists active in Melbourne and Sydney that include Scotty So and Louise Zhang.

The exhibition explores themes of spirituality and contemplation, power and prestige, compassion, auspicious symbols, belief and obsession, as well as the importance of the natural environment, mythology, ancestor worship, scholarship and formal training in traditional practices.

Tony Ellwood AM, Director of the NGV, said: ‘This exhibition is the culmination of several years of strategically collecting contemporary work that facilitates critical dialogue with major historical works in the NGV Collection. The exhibition will explore important cultural movements from Chinese history in a manner that promotes a greater understanding of modern China, as well as highlighting the work of some of its most creative contemporary minds working today.’

"China – The Past is Present" is on display from 15 October 2022 – 20 February 2023 at NGV International, St Kilda Road, Melbourne.

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