Text by Lu Jie
In the beginning of 2002, co-curator Qiu Zhijie and I went to Xi’an to conduct research in preparation for the immanent launch of “The Long March – A Walking Visual Display.” It was during this trip that I met Guo Fengyi, which, as it turns out, allowed me to gain a clearer understanding of the Long March itself. Her art created a fervor in me, which has subsequently been dispersed throughout the artworld via the Long March. Today, it has already spread into the vast expanses of the public realm.
We invited Guo Fengyi to participate in Site 6 (Lugu Lake) of the Long March, on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan Province. The major theme of this site was feminist discourse. At that time, my curatorial plan was as follows:
Site 6 – Lugu Lake, Yunnan-Sichuan Province border
Background Matriarchal society
– Communism as utopian or spectral – failed or unrealized
– Gender discourse, both Chinese and Western, and its relationship to art practice
– The Utopian elements of a Matriarchal society viewed through two generations of personal experiences
Location: Matriarchal village on the Tibetan and Han border
Time: July 27th– 30th, 2002
Of the 40 Chinese female artists to participate, Guo Fengyi was the only one who did not receive formal art training. She was a so called “Outsider artist.” Once Guo Fengyi arrived in Lijiang, enroute to Lugu Lake, she refused to travel any further. Instead, she displayed her series of works entitled “Lugu Lake” at the King’s Residence in Lijiang. One of the most successful projects of the site was her dialogue with American feminist artist Judy Chicago. After making the expansive journey from Xi’an to the border of Lugu Lake, Guo Fengyi would not go any further. As she explains it, it was because through her “Long March – Lugu Lake Series” and her communications with the Mosou Goddess of the mountain, the American living feminist “goddess”, and the feminist artists from all over China, she felt that the aura was not right, and decided it was time to leave. With regards to feminist discourse, her actions could be said to have arisen from a very unique understanding. Afterwards, at Lugu Lake, we really did begin to have problems. Some of them were administrational, some were gender related, some completely threatened to break down everything, and some were romantic. Sitting by Lugu Lake, I would often think to myself that if Madam Guo was present, what sort of odd figure would she draw?
Upon returning to Beijing, things were just as difficult as they were on the road. Deciding to borrow upon the power of “outsider art”. In 2003, we held the “Long March Space – Power of the Public Realm” exhibition, a major milestone for the Long March. From this exhibition forth, Guo Fengyi entered into the “contemporary” discourse. Afterwards, she participated in the Chinese presentation at the 2nd Prague Biennale and the Chinese presentation at the Yokohama Triennale, both of which I curated.
The body of works by Guo Fengyi and her physical body are closely linked. The particular aura that surrounds her body arises from her ability to understand the most unique mediums in the world through an understanding of herself. This is not an ability that just anyone is endowed with. How was Guo Fengyi, someone who has never before received formal art training, able to realize the transformation from “regular woman” to “artist?” In 1987, Guo Fengyi was forced to retire from her job at a chemical fertilizer factory because of illness. She began practicing Qigong as a way to alleviate her illness. Accompanying her ever deepening study into the philosophies of mysticism, she began having powerful visions which she felt compelled to give form to through drawing, as a way to adjust the balance between her body and her spiritual world. Her earlier works were on a farrago of mediums, including the back of her grandson’s school books, as well as old calendar pages. Guo Fengyi used a variety of basic materials to begin her “Ancient Tombs” series, “Bodily Organs”, “Remedies”, and “Numerology” series, using them to come to an understanding of her visual imagination of the life, fate, sickness, death, eternal, and commemorative of her body and her consciousness.
Guo Fengyi’s work is about the analysis and the recognition of “image” and “vision”, it is an spontaneous visual archive of the visible and the invisible, the know and the unknown, and known present and the unknowable future, that is often expressed in what appears to be a scientific diagram detailing the flow of veins, or a text of numerical chart or calculation from the I-Ching (Book of Changes). At the same time, that which is most real remains the relationship between visual and knowledge that is always set at move on the surface of the paper through innumerable brush strokes, that is presented through the sign of life diagram. The works by Guo Fengyi are not only about the visual recognition of change and development, but more importantly about exchange and mutability. Through her works, she is able to understand herself, but she also is able to alter the power and aura of her subject, which is intermingled with her own subjectivity and consciousness in the process of visual expression. Regarding the distance between truth, real image and mimetic image, as she says: “Whatever I want to draw, I write it in the middle of the paper. Afterwards, it is through energy that I draw stroke by stroke. Before I draw, I do not know what it will become, It is only after I finish drawing that I know. Looking at the work afterwards, I am able to see several other things. I draw because I do not know, I draw to know.” I recall the first time I went to visit her, before my eyes there appeared a long scroll, written in the center with innocent calligraphy was “What is the I-Ching?”. Reading her earlier works on notebooks, there continually appeared a visual and textual language of “What is this?”. This exhibition catalog has been two years in the making, these past two years I have continually been asking myself, “Who is Guo Fengyi?” It is just like Madam Guo’s answer in response to her own series of “What is this?” that appears before her, “I don’t know.”
Wife, mother, grandmother; factory worker, retiree; patient, Qi gong master, doctor, spiritual leader, artist. Guo Fengyi has two homes, one is that of an ordinary elderly person. Between her kitchen and bedroom there lies a narrow hallway with one small table on which she makes her drawings of the mysteries of the universe and ghosts and spirits. One on hand she draws, while also taking care of her grandson. Another home is that manor, within which there is a luxurious and splendid study and garden, as well as an alter room. I do not know if her 16 meter long “Long March” was drawn in that small hallway, or in this peaceful temple. This work has taken her two years. She says that in drawing this work, the historical Long March and our Long March became entangled, completely exhausting her. This work has already been completed, but it is not finished, but rather she finally decided to stop. “What is the Long March” is a similar question to “Who is Guo Fengyi?” It is an eternal question that Guo Fengyi asks of herself through her lifestyle and her drawings. This type of identification between “what is what” is a continual project of the Long March. Within it, it raises the questions from the Long March discourse of what is “folk”, what is “professional,” what is “contemporary,” and what is “art?”