China Underground > China Views > Su Yang’s Feminist Art in Contemporary China, Interview

Su Yang’s Feminist Art in Contemporary China, Interview

Feminist Chinese Artist Challenges Patriarchy & Beauty Norms Using Her Artwork Across Various Media

Su Yang is a contemporary Chinese feminist artist. She received her Bachelor’s Degree from the Academy of Arts and Design, Tsinghua University. In 2014, she received her Master of Fine Arts in painting from The State University of New York at Buffalo; and a PhD scholar in Chinese feminist art at The University of Melbourne. She has held outstanding solo shows in New York and Melbourne. Her art has also been featured in select group exhibitions in China, the United States, Australia, and Canada. She has given lectures at international feminist art and academic conferences held at major universities and galleries in Canada and Australia. She integrates an intensive investigation of the portrayal of the feminine form with art practice in order to examine the characteristics of female attractiveness and the body.

Su Yang’s official website and Instagram

Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you become interested in painting? Who have you looked up to as a person and an artist?

I was born and raised in China, and I proudly identify as a Chinese feminist. My artistic practice involves painting, photography, video, and film, through which I explore various topics within feminist studies. These include representations of women, mother-child relationships, and the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community in mainland China. My parents first noticed my talent and interest in drawing when I was very young, possibly even before I turned two. Throughout my childhood, I spent a significant amount of time enjoying myself in my father’s studio and attending his art classes. From the age of ten, I began formal training in drawing and painting taught by my father in the similar way of traditional academy of art. My father, Professor Yang Jie, has been a significant influence on my artistic journey. He introduces me to a wide array of both historical and contemporary European, American, and Chinese artists. I have also drawn inspiration from the artists my father introduced to me.

For instance, I honed my drawing skills by studying the figure drawings of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Adolph Menzel, Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin, and Mao Yan. In addition, I developed my understanding of paintings and color by studying the figure paintings of Lucian Freud, Rembrandt, and Liu Bingjiang, as well as the color theory evident in Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings and the works of Impressionist artists like Mary Cassatt. Furthermore, my father introduced me to Jenny Saville’s paintings, which expanded my appreciation for the expressive power found in the works of female artists. Moreover, I have a deep respect for my professors. My MFA advisors, Professor Adele Henderson, Professor David Schirm, and Professor Joan Linder, broadened my review of artists and helped me identify my research interests in feminist art. My PhD supervisors, Professor Barb Bolt and Professor Jon Cattapan, enabled me to establish myself in the field of feminist art studies and interdisciplinary creative artistic research.

Su Yang also creates videos and short films about the changes in society’s beauty ideals and how women adhere to these standards through drastic and even hazardous cosmetic surgery procedures

When did you get started? What did it mean to you and what do you love most about painting?

During my undergraduate studies in design at Tsinghua University, I learned drawing, painting, calligraphy, traditional Chinese painting, sculpture, design foundations, graphic design, glass art, and specialized in lacquer art for both studio projects and public space decoration. Upon deciding to pursue my MFA degree in the USA, I developed an interest in feminist philosophy and began creating a series of paintings exploring cosmetic surgery at the University at Buffalo. To further my research in feminist art theory, I relocated to Australia for my PhD studies at the University of Melbourne. For me, painting serves as a means to propagate feminist ideologies. It acts as a bridge through which I can communicate my ideas to audiences and the public. I consider my paintings feminist paintings. The purpose of feminist thought in my paintings is to contrast patriarchal aesthetics and structures and to reveal the impact of these on real bodies. Painting, unlike new media, requires particular methods of production. Especially, for representing a specific form with oil, the tradition of production requires a painter’s abilities and control to manipulate paint, combine the amount of paint, the weight of the hand, and movement of fingers to execute the desired image. These aspects are what I love most about painting.

What were the main challenges at the beginning?

It depends on the journey. The outset of learning drawing and painting foundations is fraught with frustrations stemming from anatomy and techniques. The challenges include mastering the ability to draw accurately within a specified timeframe, gaining confidence in drawing, and ensuring that my drawings effectively convey characters and make objects vivid as subjects. Embarking on art-practice-led research presents its own set of challenges, particularly in identifying research topics and questions. These topics and questions must not only align with personal interests but also demonstrate potential contributions to academia and society. Additionally, they should offer avenues for engagement with the community and audiences.

How long does it take you to complete one of your paintings, from concept to finished canvas?

Each painting may require a different amount of time to complete. Before physically painting each piece, I conduct research on the context of the project, considering research as an integral part of the creation process. The research phase often involves extensive literature reviews regarding the significance of initiating a new series. The first painting in each new series typically demands more time, perhaps around three months or even longer. However, subsequent paintings can be completed within a shorter time frame, ranging from one month to just one week.

What role does feminism play in your artworks?

I consider my paintings feminist paintings, thus referring to “feminist painting,” or “feminist art.” The debate around it has been in contention. Robinson’s insight into it provides the definition of feminist art, as an approach to art making informed by feminist thinking. The purpose of feminist thought in my paintings is to contrast patriarchal aesthetics and structures and to reveal the impact of these on real bodies.

Some surgeons consider themselves as artists. Some believe that cosmetic surgery is like sculpting with bodies. In your artworks, we see the suffering side. What do you hope people can feel and understand when they get to your artworks?

In my early paintings, I saw cosmetic surgery as having the same function as the historical, social regimes, which impose foot binding on vast numbers of Chinese women in history. Both celebrated the maiming of women for the sake of beauty. Later, I painted large-scale paintings to exaggerate the process and outcomes of cosmetic surgery so that they become surreal and unnerving images. These images show the desensitized nature and subsequent physical traumas of cosmetic surgery that question the idea of the “perfect body” and interrupt (heterosexual) male sexual desire and demands for an ideal female body.

Su Yang is also a researcher who focuses on Chinese feminism and feminist art studies

For millennia, the human body and nature have remained central subjects of artistic beauty. Achieving perfection can become consuming for some individuals, raising the question: Is cosmetic surgery an attempt to exert control over nature?

It’s more about exerting control over nature. The evolving social norms reflected in depictions of women, both in classical Chinese oil paintings and on social media, bear similarities to traditional European nude genre oil paintings and those found on platforms like Instagram. This reflects cultural influence and suggests that women are commodified within the global advertising and media landscape. The beauty standards propagated in cosmetic surgery advertisements perpetuate anxiety among women, fostering a sense of inadequacy. Whether cosmetic surgery is viewed as a feminist choice or a patriarchal tool, the beauty standards promoted in cosmetic surgery advertisements, along with the notion of femininity, become products of capitalist consumerism.

Since I was a little girl I have heard the phrase “Chi bella vuole apparire delle pene deve soffrire” which means “Whoever wants to appear beautiful must suffer pain”. Why should women suffer in the name of beauty?

Women shouldn’t have to suffer in the name of beauty. I see these ideologies as part of patriarchy, perpetuating the idea that a woman’s worth is solely determined by her appearance as a sexual object.

Scars are often viewed as imperfections on a woman’s body, whereas on a man, they may symbolize courage or valor. Similarly, society tends to place less value on the aging process in women compared to men, with men sometimes being associated with fine aged wine. What are your thoughts on this evident double standard?

The beauty standard has never existed in isolation; it has been shaped by various factors including culture, society, history, and politics, among others. This standard often reflects underlying issues of gender and race discrimination. That’s why I aim to address these issues in my artwork, prompting questions and raising awareness among the public.

How do you see the role of women in today’s culture and society? Do you think art can contribute to awareness by showing points of view that are not always taken into consideration?

Given my expertise in Chinese feminism and feminist art studies, I’d like to discuss the role of women in Chinese society today. Women have become increasingly competitive in various fields and have benefited from the social and economic changes over the last three decades in China. However, few women have made it into positions of power in the contemporary Chinese art world. Regarding the second question, yes, I do believe that art can contribute to awareness by showcasing viewpoints that are not always considered.

Photo and illustrations courtesy of Su Yang

Last Updated on 2024/03/17

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