The second in our two-part feature on the exhibition ‘Optimism’ (click here for part one, ‘Art in progress’). The space that resembled an artists’ studio is now an exhibition – the artwork is finished and on the walls. However, the exhibition is still undoubtedly unique. The arrangements of the works defy order or categorisation. Works by the two artists, Cai Yuan and Yingmei Duan, as well as by the exhibition’s visitors, swim up and down on the walls, weaving between one another, sometimes communicating. There is a vibrancy and life to the pieces that is exciting to look at.
The themes of freedom and storytelling that were impressed on me on my first visit are enhanced and more clearly apparent to the viewer. The exhibition’s distinctive interactive quality also remains. For example, on the wall of the exhibit there is a box for people to insert memories. There is also a piece of paper stuck on the wall with elements of Chinese script, requesting the viewer to create their own Chinese words below using the elements above (Yingmei laughed at my attempts).
It is fantastic to see the interaction between the artists’ work and work of visitors. The artistic contributions from visitors have grown enormously. The visitors have clearly responded to Cai and Yingmei’s work – they have drawn their own memories, portraits, Chinese paintings and imitated the free arrangement and style of the artists.
What is most exciting for me though was seeing how the Cai and Yingmei’s work had developed. Yingmei’s drawings and paintings grow up the walls and onto the ceiling, resisting boundaries. They have an innocent childlike quality. They appear unconscious and unstudied, resisting affectation or formality – a pencil or charcoal impression on a piece of rough paper, unframed and often crudely positioned at an angle. This is inherent to their charm and communicates her uninhibited, intuitive method of ‘sleep-talking’.
Cai’s work has also visibly grown. The space is filled with different examples of his work. The instructions for ‘how to scream’ which he described to me are on framed on the wall. There are striking ink thumb drawings; a yellow rice painting beside Yingmei’s work at the back. He has cut out newspaper cuttings which communicate with the work they are beside. Unlike Yingmei’s work which seems distanced from reality and appears more a product from her mind than the world around her, Cai’s work grapples with ideas and ‘truths’. These are forcefully communicated through his use of capitalised sentences and stark backgrounds – for example, his work entitled ‘Heroism’ is just a black background with the word in white and capitals, shouting out of the paper. He too explores the idea of memory but through documentation relating to his experience in 1970s China.
The exhibition is an exciting accumulation of different voices and stories, both powerful and whimsical, which cannot help but inspire a sense of optimism in the viewer. All of the works will be for sale through the OCCA. Don’t worry if you haven’t made it yet; the finished exhibit will stay up for the next month.
Office of Chinese Contemporary Art
11 St Clement’s Street
Oxford OX4 1AB