I first came across the work of Chinese artist Gao Rong at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney in 2011. At this time, I was in the middle of writing my Honours dissertation on Chinese contemporary photography, and my mind was filled to the brim with my research and writing. The White Rabbit, a privately-owned public gallery committed to Chinese art post-2000, had only opened its doors to the public two years prior, but it already indicated the explosive growth and interest in this area of contemporary art. There was no denying that I was constantly pulled to the gallery, both as a source of research and comfort, reminding me of the things that I had already learnt about Chinese art, and yet the things I did not know.
I remember Gao’s sculpture on the second floor of the gallery, set against a corner in order to fool us into believing it was really an apartment door that opened to a private realm behind. Gao’s sculpture, titled simply after the address of her home in Beijing, appeared so innocuous at first glance that when I approached it for a closer look I experienced something like a visual jolt. A quick scan of the accompanying text label confirmed what my eyes told me, that this was a carefully rendered sculpture of the artist’s home, made entirely from fabric, embroidery and stuffing. I spent the next ten minutes closely examining the details of this work, from the rust-stained pipe, gently sagging under the fabric’s softness, to the ‘graffiti’ on the wall. I was reminded of my own grandparent’s home in Dalian, and how striking similar these two facades were, even as one was an artifice made from materials and thread.
At this time, Gao Rong was an unknown artist to me. She was only 25 when I first saw this work, and like many other artists at the White Rabbit, she had only recently graduated recently from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing and had been quickly plucked up by Judith Neilson, the director and founder of the White Rabbit. I never forgot Gao’s name or her work however, and it wasn’t long until I next had my encounter with her. In 2012, I was lucky enough to meet, and work alongside the artist while I was volunteering for the Sydney Biennale; I was called in to provide some translation support to Gao and her team while she was installing her most ambitious sculpture to date, a recreation of her grandmother’s apartment, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Slotting the pre-prepared pieces of her sculpture together, I was reminded of what I felt about Gao’s work the year before. That in translating these scenes from her quotidian life through the detailed process of embroidery, Gao’s work was not only a memorial to her past, but also revealed something of the magic potential of art, in all its emotive, affective, and evocative power.
I reached out to Gao in early 2014 to conduct a short interview. I was writing my second dissertation on contemporary Chinese art, this time while a Masters student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. I had decided to write about textile practice in Chinese art, marrying two of my passions – contemporary art and craft. Gao was an obvious choice for my research. I intended to publish the following interview as an appendix to my dissertation, but sadly due to timing constraints I did not receive Gao’s replies before my printing deadline. (That’s a 3 month dissertation for you!). I have finally decided to publish the interview here, in the hopes that it will introduce even more audiences to her work. My translation skills are limited, so I have also included the original text in Chinese.
SC: Thank you Gao Rong for answering my questions. Firstly, please tell me about your formal art education, and how you decided to start focusing on embroidery? What was your previous experience at art school?
I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. I studied in the Sculpture Department, which focused on the traditional techniques and skills of clay sculpture and realism. But I was not interested in traditional clay sculpture, because I felt as a woman there was no advantage for me to use this material. Instead, I started to applying materials and techniques I was good at to sculpture, and began to use fabrics and embroidery.
SC: Can you tell me a bit more about your working process – how do you decide your subject? Do you work from photographs? How long does a work usually take? Do you employ the assistance of other labourers?
My process is to: 1) select certain schemes or ideas, 2) to collect images and survey the subject in order to complete an accurate sketch of the scene or object I want to make, 3) to source the right fabrics and stuffing, 4) to make small models with fabric, 5) to outline the embroidery on the fabric, 6) to test areas of embroidery with my own handiwork, 7) to allocate repetitive embroidery work to other workers, 8) and finally, to completely sew and stuff the completed embroidered fabric cloth.
The focus of my work is the preparatory stages; I hand-make repeated trials of embroidery until I am happy with the result, and only then do I hand over my work to workers to complete. I work from images to draw or outline the embroidery patterns. The production time of my work varies depending on size, but a small work requires at least two months to complete.
SC: You have mentioned elsewhere that the use embroidery comes from your childhood, and watching your mother and grandmother at work. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
My grandmother earned a living from her hand sewing; she was born into a wealthy family of landlords, and grew up with talents in embroidery. Her family’s social position, however, declined rapidly after her marriage which coincided with the Cultural Revolution. In order to provide for her seven children, my grandmother helped her neighbours by making wedding dresses and also hand-sewed ordinary clothes in exchange for food. My mother was the sixth child, and she helped my grandmother by making clothes and shoes for her brothers at the age of 10. Although my grandmother’s life was tough, and her furnishings were shabby, she still made her house a warm place because of her skilled hands. She never gave up hope, and always overcame any difficulty with her tenacity and optimistic spirit, which truly impressed me.
SC: China has a rich textile history and in particular, history of embroidery that spans thousands of years. Is this a tradition that you are interested in? Do you think your works can be located within this craft tradition?
My work does not directly follow traditional Chinese art and craft, or traditional embroidery. Although I am interested by Chinese embroidery, and am inspired by it, I merely use these skills to complete my ideas. I apply my own ideas and creation to these embroidery techniques. I hope that through my art, I can give the audience more of my own personal observation and understanding of the world, as well as bringing a new sensory experience to my artistic creation through the process of handiwork.
SC: Are you inspired by the works of other artists, particularly female artists such as Tracey Emin and Yin Xiuzhen who similarly use fabric and hand sewing in their work?
GR: 我尽量让我自己不受其它艺术家的影响，尤其是在创作时不会关注其它艺术家的作品。但尹秀珍是我喜欢的艺术家，我很喜欢她的 “旅行箱系列”。
I try not to be affected by other artists, and I’m not particularly concerned with other artists during my artmaking. However, Yin Xiuzhen is one of my favourite artists. I love her ‘Suitcase’ series.
SC: Given the connotations of embroidery and textiles with the domestic sphere and women’s labour, do you see your work as exploring issues of gender? Is gender an important thing for your artistic practice?
The question of gender difference is something innate, and I do not want to focus on gender issues in my work. As a woman, I have this rebellious and tenacious spirit as well as the capability for tolerance, and in my art I don’t avoid these attributes or my personal viewpoint. I think they are revealed in the nature of my work.
SC: To me, the strongest quality about your work is that they make the ordinary extraordinary. They are filled with emotion and affection, and conjure up many feelings and memories. How would you describe this expressive quality in your art? And how important is memory to you?
Emotion is the motivational factor that supports me in the completion of my work. The actual production process itself is repetitive boring, and cannot be achieved without my emotional outpouring, which imbues the ordinary things in my life with deep affection. Memories are part of my emotional composition, my feelings change over time and over my life, so therefore my work continues to change.
SC: Another interesting quality of your work is the time-consuming process and the technical skill involved. By spending months on something, you are giving your love and care to a single object. How do you feel about the issue of labour and creation? Are you consciously choosing to resist against the industrial age by doing so?
My work required a difficult production period and a lot of time to achieve the final result. I think as long as I make the effort, I will produce feelings. I like to continue with one thing and persist, and do not like to work on many different things at the same time. However, there will be dull and inspired moments, and if I have other ideas during this time, I will stop what I am doing and attempt something new.
SC: Cloth or fabrics carry with it a number of connotations – we wear clothes, we use blankets – and our bodies are always in touch with cloth. There is an intimate relationship between our bodies and textiles. Is this tactility and physicality of textiles something you consider in your art? How is ‘softness’ explored?
Yes, I do like to work with fabric to make my art because our bodies are in contact with cloth all the time, and cloth will naturally bring forth connotations of intimacy and warm feelings. I hope my work can made audiences feel something in the body before their mind. I do not like to work with technology or industrial materials, rather I like to complete works by hand, and I hope to close the distance between my works and people.
SC: In your more recent works, you have moved away from the theme of home and memory to look at the future of China and its obsession with luxury and designer handbags. What is your key idea with these works, do you want to draw attention to contemporary China and its problems, or does the use of embroidery draw attention to the factory process in China?
GR: “GuangzhouStation” 这件作品我并没有从此把关注点转移奢侈品上，也没有想反应多么大的中国问题，我关注的始终是人的生存状态，人在不同环境不同阶段的生存状态。我只是用我自己的眼睛去观察我的周围。这件与奢侈品有关的作品只是我那个阶段关注到我身边人群存在的一个普遍现象，并通过我擅长的艺术方式表达了出来，至于作品反射出什么样的社会问题就由社会学家来分析吧。
For my recent piece ‘Guangzhou Station’, I did not want to focus on the trade of luxury goods, or reflect on broader problems in China, rather I am concerned about the state of human existence, and our conditions living in different environments. I simply observe my surroundings with my eyes, and this luxury item is commonly owned by people around me, and my art is a good means to express this. As for the social themes in my work, I leave this to be analysed by social theorists!
Interview originally conducted via email with the artist on September 9.