Art and People
Eazel Sits Down with Zhen Guo (Part II)
Amy Gahyun Lee
Jun 26, 2018
Eazel: Zhen, it’s great to catch up with you again. We heard you just got back from China. Perhaps you can start us off by speaking further to your connection with your homeland. How often do you travel back to China? And what does the experience of visiting mean to you?
Zhen Guo (ZG): It’s great to speak with you again. As of late I have been traveling between the United States and China more often as I have been developing a charity for children there. It’s a small organization I initially founded to memorialize my father. We provide underprivileged children in rural areas with economic support and opportunities to become involved in the arts.
Eazel: Have you participated in any art exhibitions in China lately? What are your thoughts on the art world there? Is it receptive to the feminist narrative your work explores?
ZG: Indeed, recently I have been showing work in various exhibitions in China. Speaking to your question about how the feminist narrative is received by China’s art world, I have observed that most female artists I meet in China prefer not to be associated with the feminist movement. They avoid characterizing themselves or their art as feminist—even though it’s quite clear they are addressing feminist issues.
Generally speaking, the Chinese art world has yet to fully embrace feminist art. In light of where the world is going today, I have to say this surprises me. Nevertheless I have come to accept this as primarily due to Chinese society not yet fully embracing the idea of feminism.
Eazel: Your travels between the East and the West would seem to imbue your work with a unique voice. How does your experience as an immigrant continue to influence your art?
ZG: My life has been—and continues to be—split between two worlds. I grew up, was educated, and learned how to paint in China; however, I would say that I came into my own in the United States—both as an individual, as well as an artist. In other words: I learned about the world in China, and I confronted it in the United States.
I believe my oeuvre is informed by both cultures. I use textures and materials sourced from China—the patterns and colors I create evoking Chinese emotions—however my artistic identity and my confidence speaking to my cultural background have been shaped primarily by my experience as a citizen of the United States. As an artist I believe one must understand who they are in order to truly define themselves in their work.
Eazel: How do you convey your feminist identity in your work?
ZG: From the 1970s through the 1990s feminist art in the United States was characterized by a certain directness and visual aggressiveness. While I appreciate this narrative, if I were to create work in this spirit it wouldn’t be true to who I am as a person—or as an artist.
My narrative is subtle, and my work is oriented around my personal journey of discovering my feminist identity as an immigrant working her way up in American society. As such I combine Chinese aesthetics with a Western philosophy. I believe this is a novel combination that shifts away from the shock value of earlier feminist narratives and invites the viewer to empathize with my experience as a woman.
Eazel: ‘Body’ and ‘Language.’ There are various female artists who use their bodies as language to convey feminist ideas. What are your thoughts on this and how important do you believe it is that female artists develop their own language?
ZG: It’s impossible to discount the woman’s body as a core element informing feminist art. Some feminist artists use their own bodies as language to explain themselves or convey emotion. It’s certainly a direct means of expressing their power and voice, and of course I can appreciate this.
In male-dominated societies women's bodies have tended to signify weakness or subordination. For example, in feudal Chinese society the common view of women being week motivated a prevalent custom of foot binding—the forced deformation of the feet of young girls of age five or six to be fit into three-inch shoes for cosmetic purposes. Indeed, in some parts of the world women and girls continue to suffer involuntary female genital mutilation due to fatuous ideas about chastity. Body mutilation is just one of the many ways in which male-dominated societies have reinforced patriarchy within their cultures.
Over the ages the female body has been a canvas for oppression. Adapting it as language can be challenging as doing so carries the baggage of women who have been oppressed and experienced their bodies as forms of imprisonment and the reason for their oppression. As such I believe that in adapting the female body as language in art it is important that the artist be cognizant of this history of oppression and focus on the social issue their work seeks to address.
Eazel: Conveying an independent voice would seem to have recently become important for women in the arts—as well as in other fields. In the broader context of society at large, what are your thoughts on the role of art as a means of promoting feminist narratives?
ZG: I believe feminist art is still an important narrative in the art world. In the West it seems the feminist movement is large and well established—in spite of persistent issues of inequality and abuse. Of course in other parts of the world—like China, for example—there is still much progress to be seen with regard to promoting the idea that gender should not dictate how people are treated, or what kind of opportunities are afforded to them.
Art is powerful. Art is not just for decoration. Art plays a critical role in education and it has the potential to champion women’s contributions in society. It is my honor to be a torchbearer for art.
Contributed by Tian Weinberg
All Images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise stated separately.