New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia, and the World

The Gendering of Space: From Ruin Aesthetics to Urban Narratives

Shu-chin Tsui

Danween, disCONNEXION, image a3, 2002, 148x120cm, from the artist’s website.

In China’s radical transformation from state-socialism to state-capitalism, the landscape of urban space has undergone startling changes. Development has generated a dialectic between destruction and construction, where interactions reflect demographical as well as ideological power operations. Artistic responses to the social-spatial transition have taken two forms: ruin aesthetics and urban narratives. I argue that works by women artists constitute a serious response to drastic, accelerating changes in the physical landscape as well as in social relations. The artistic vision represented in ruin aesthetics shows demolished houses, abandoned industrial sites, and trash dumps remapping the contemporary urban landscape. I see the relationship between gender and space as paradoxical and ask how the gendering of space informs urban narratives and why women artists associate the aesthetics of ruins with the female body.

The presence of the uncanny in ruin aesthetics is evident in the multimedia works of Chen Qiulin that introduce into the ruins modern figures as well as characters from classical opera. While Chen Qiulin’s works use human figures and the female body to articulate the aesthetics of ruins, Xu Xiaoyan’s oil paintings direct our vision to mother earth as the female sublime and then to the social-ecological reality of the maternal body abused and transformed into a trash dump. I also explore the emergence of urban landscape in fictional visual narratives, taking Xing Danwen’s photographic series Urban Fiction as an example. She photographs the maquettes (scale models) of real estate showrooms filled with self-designed dramas from everyday life. The manufactured architectural models and staged scenes present viewers with urban fictions that pinpoint critical social problems and gender issues in a rapidly changing society.