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Guan Wei’s Unfamiliar Land dealt with a complex geo-politics: empire, globalism, population movement, large-scale environmental change, militarism and militarily imposed order, border control, resource control. So, a big picture.
The first room stated the neo-imperialist military theme: the walls populated by black, dramatically large, silhouettes of fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft, a group of charging soldiers, destroyer class ships. Beneath glass on a table in the centre of this room ran a long—and famous—antique Chinese scroll painting, in reproduction, showing village life along a river. Moving through this gentle and varied scene, again in menacing, stealthy black, Guan Wei placed modern soldiers in hunt-and-pursuit mode. They contrasted strongly with the daily peasant life of fishing, harvesting, wood gathering, etcetera, importing chaos and, effectively transforming all village activity into suspicious behaviour. Was that a bundle of sticks on the worker’s back, or a bomb? Were those peasants clearing a river or seeking to camouflage something? And so on. The piece is entitled Looking For Enemies 2006. The effects were to demonise, to polarise into good and evil and restructure the narrative into one of terrorising search-and-destroy and a countervailing furtive hurry and hide. That this might be computer-game imagery—scenarios of warfare, hunt-and-pursuit, search-and-destroy was an added irony.
Room two had a table set up in its middle as for a meeting, with places set and copies at each of Kyoto protocols to be ratified. Around the walls were hung identical die-cut and flattened cardboard packages: they suggested aid or emergency kits. Each was devoted to particular issues that were identified almost unobtrusively between the United Nations serial numbers and formatting: fierce flood, famine, acid rain, pollution, great plague, contagion, locusts, drought…. They were identified with charmingly innocent insignia: a rat, a fish eating a larger fish, a row of kissing heads (blemishes appearing on the cheeks, indicating contagion), and regular heads or faces indicating thirst, heat, cold, hunger, and so on. These faces were in Guan Wei’s trademark baby pink enclosed in a thick flat line, with most detail suppressed: just a mouth, maybe one eye.
Room three featured wall paintings again (done, as were the others, with assistant Frank Hope) showing silhouettes of Victorian-era ladies and gentlemen, Australian natives, and Australian fauna, but also a number of beautifully rendered scenes in which generic, stylised human shapes crowded aboard rafts at sea, with additional figures attempting to board or drowning. Though more tragic, the stylisation and colouring of the figures was cousin to that of the figures in room two.
These last provided a bridge between rooms two and three. But the central focus was upon two rows of 24 panels (Unfamiliar Land, 267 x 677 cm, 2006): the narrow spacing between the panels produced a white grid. This framing read as mere gap or as quasi-physical, a frame in front of a scene beneath. It suggested readings of the overall image as cartographical and ‘printed’, or as having illusionistic perspectival depth. The readings tended to alternate. The regular, sinuously decorative line and schematic flatness of colour suggested print, or at least artefact—suggested ‘Chinese scroll’, in fact. The combed, raked-sand stylisation of ocean water (resembling scalloped butter or orecchia pasta) read as pattern, a wall-papery effect at the same time as conveying genuine turbulence, energy and process.
This viewer applauded the apt way in which the framing grid asserted a kind of objectivity: a regular, documentary procedure, an even view, a kind of distance. It was a view made up of snap-shots, vignettes. It was, alarmingly, a little like the ‘distance’ we ourselves feel from events—a kind of helplessness, inability to intervene—as the momentum of empire becomes globalism and cultural and climactic effects begin to be felt and develop a momentum of their own.
There was the suggestion of topographical accuracy—or, because it was fictional, of particularity, and it is a history, but one wound forward. In fact it collapses, conflates times and worlds: ancient sea-monsters (those ‘devices’ on old maps) share space with contemporary asylum-seekers.
The late 17th and early 18th century beginnings of Western Empire and expansion (the silhouetted crinolines, bustles, top hats for the gentlemen) is correlated with the climate change and population pressure we see now as part of a longer process. We note that this same Rococo period was the era of Chinoiserie’s first flurry of appreciation in the West. Guan Wei’s decoratively regular yet changing coastal contour, the patterned quality of whole areas, the elegant panel presentation, indicate a punning overlap or ‘fit’ between the aesthetics of rococo and the Chinese tradition.
Again, Guan Wei’s overall conception is full and very savvy, alert to readings we will make, associations brought to bear because he is Chinese. Australians know that their own history is pertinent: the southern continent having long been an unmapped absence that the Old World had to ‘imagine’, or predict as its Other, which maps have projected knowledge onto, the unknown but desired—and also the feared. We know the Chinese too may have visited in the Ming period—600 years ago—and would certainly have had strong intimations of its existence.
Guan Wei uses silhouettes drawn from the military and computer games so their source is indeterminate but suggests danger and aggression. This infects the genteel eighteenth century and Victorian era silhouettes as well.
None of this is likely to be unthought by any thinking contemporary gallery-goer. Its value here lies in the way the imagery collects and organises one’s thinking beneath or behind it, synthesizes it into an ‘argument’. And if we have made such arguments before—literally or mentally—(or entertained them as fear or misgiving) then now they have been given endorsement, form, a visual statement that is equivalent to their complexity.