For all its preoccupation with female sexuality and identity in contemporary China, the work of Cui Xiuwen has always transcended the label of feminism with its intimate, emotive yet confrontational aesthetics. From her earlier paintings and videos to her conceptual photography in recent years, the artist's alter-ego has metamorphosed through grief and constraints imposed by the external world, to reach a state of illumination that speaks to the wider human experience.
Cui's latest series since 2007, Existential Emptiness is a deeper, more introspective voyage. The new series continues in a similar vein of digitally manipulated photography as her previous works, One Day in 2004 and Angel, where brilliant light and colourful palettes shine on the contradictions in cultural traditions and violence enacted against women in earlier times in China. The repercussions remain in Cui’s renditions, as the figures of young girls embody the pressure that is inherent in the feminine identity. Through the doleful girl-child in One Day in 2004 and the dejected, pregnant teenage girl in Angel, the protagonists are depicted in self-portrait formats and ethereal settings through which Cui addresses the violation of innocence under social and cultural pressure.
Paradox underlines the image of Cui’s alter-ego, which appears in different guises and settings. In Existential Emptiness, chilling landscapes of Northern China are transformed into monochrome images reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink painting. The solitude of Cui's alter-ego unfolds, framed by ice and snow, against barren backgrounds with hues of silver hinting at the arrival of spring. Existential Emptiness probes deep into the loneliness of femininity: in the fictive domain, the artist’s alter-ego is accompanied by a life-size doll that lays limb in her arms. At times the two are mirrored selves in isolation and enlightenment through their journey; at other moments the doll is a burden the protagonist must bear as she plods along her path.
The narrative acquires a subtly subversive dimension: for Cui, the doll evokes the duality of body and soul in the subject in art. Its presence in the photos symbolizes the artist's confrontation with her own female identity, and the dynamic shifts between helplessness and strength. In 'Existential Emptiness No.5', the girl succumbs under the weight of her struggle and falls onto the snow with the doll on her back, her face obliterated against snowy mountains. The artist's resistance strikes again in 'Existential Emptiness No.7' where her alter-ego, wearing splinters of snow all over her body, drags her doll across a surreal whiteness and misty veils of trees. The image is one of self-assertion, of a relentless search for an exit towards an unknown point in time.
The discovery in Existential Emptiness is an unsettling one for the audience—it presents the pain borne by women in contemporary China, inviting the viewers to experience its thought-provoking representations. 'Existential Emptiness No.6', a triptych of three horizontally aligned compositions, is the perfect culmination of this dilemma. The protagonist and her doll stand defenceless in the middle of a highway, and the doll's sexuality is exposed through her open school uniform amid harsh wind. The headlights of oncoming car, sightings of pedestrians and bicyclists and the pale silhouette of the smokestacks of an industrial factory site come together in a cold, ruthless symphony that plays to the girl's distress.
The motifs in this image are a stark revelation of the oppression that runs through the series: both the girl and her doll, in their school girl personas and vulnerable state, seemingly conform to the stereotyping of female identity as seen through the conventional male gaze. The artist's alter-ego can only hold her doll in front of her while huddling behind its inert body, then shielding it as they ride away from the scene. The city setting points to the universality of such female experience in the society, where women continue to endure and seek to escape from conventional judgement. The flight begins at an early as symbolized by the doll’s bony rib cage and thin pubic hair. Neither a child nor a woman, the girl protagonist struggles in isolation through the abrupt changes in her sexuality. The sense of loneliness lingers into adulthood, which the artist continues to redefine it in her series of alter-egos.
In the universe of Existential Emptiness one finds both oppression and refuge, as the void offers an opening into enlightened, interior landscape. The artist's alter-ego finds certainty in the silent union with her doll in 'Existential Emptiness No.9'. The two engage in a shared meditation, protected from the intrusion of the surroundings by retreating into their selves. The refuge is also a meditation on the wider human condition, as silence is often the only transgression one can rage against cultural and social constraints. And the power of such transgression must come from a true recognition of one's body and soul, which Cui alludes to in 'Existential Emptiness No.16'--an individual must face her selves, in perfect stillness and acceptance, as if one's existence was at stake in a vast, frozen wilderness.
About the artist
One of the most renowned artists in contemporary art in China, Cui Xiuwen graduated from Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1996. Cui's artistic career began with painting and evolved to include video works in the early 2000's, and her works presented a pointed exploration of the new sexuality in China. Since 2004, Cui has turned to photographic assemblages in an intriguing mix of digital manipulation, traditional motifs in both Western and Chinese arts and her singular aesthetics.
The work of Cui Xiuwen has been exhibited in some of the world's most prestigious galleries and museums including Tate Modern and Victoria and Albert Museum in London; International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and Pompidou Centre in Paris. Cui recently had a solo exhibition at Today Art Museum in Beijing.