I started collecting images from newspapers as reference materials for my paintings back in the early 90s before computers were popular. My reference materials also draw from photos I’ve taken across China on bus and train trips or out of car windows. While travelling from small towns to villages, on several occasions I have been confronted by the local police who have tried to stop me photographing or filming.
Once I travelled and stopped at a small hotel in a Tibetan town and saw a scroll painting that looked like a panorama photo of the city of Lhasa. It looked typical of photos that can be seen around almost every town in China and reminded me of famous Chinese paintings. I looked at the still, calm and peaceful photo and thought about the unrest that was in reality taking place inside the city. I bought a poster of a similar photo to start working on with the photos and images I had been collecting. Halfway through finishing the work, police came to my studio and took me away, and deported me from China after two weeks of detention in 2014.
A year later when I was back in Australia after spending time in New York, I saw replica versions of the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival by a different artist and from a different dynasty online for sale. Along the River During the Qingming Festival, also known by its Chinese name as the Qingming Shanghe Tu (Simplified Chinese: 清明上河图 Traditional Chinese: 清明上河圖), by the Song Dynasty painter Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) is considered one of the most renowned Chinese paintings and sometimes called ‘China’s Mona Lisa’. Over five metres long, it celebrates the festivity and commotion of the Qingming Festival and contains scenes that reveal lifestyles of people from all levels of society - rich and poor - and different economic activities in rural and city areas. I ordered a print but for some reason only received it recently.
For 52 ACTIONS, I’ve started painting my reference imagery into this replica as a subversion of the original form and a reflection on my experiences in contemporary Chinese society. The work transforms a classic work by connecting past and present to comment on issues of contemporary significance, including surveillance, economic inequality and corruption.
Guo Jian 郭健 was born and grew up in China but has been living and working in Australia since 1992. He tells stories through art that relate to his own experiences and reality. Guo Jian and his art are products of the last fifty years of violence and tumult in China, from the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, to the Sino-Vietnam war at the beginning of the 80s, and through to the horrors of the Tiananmen Square incident. Guo Jian’s art is not about preaching or converting others but rather a reflection of his observations from both sides of propaganda and art. As a result of his firsthand perspective both from within and outside propaganda systems in China, he sees abundant commonalities in the Chinese and Western approaches to ideas of persuasion. Guo Jian’s work has been exhibited and collected in Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden, USA, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and China, including Musée de Picardie in France, Brussels Art Festival, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Queensland Art Gallery and the Australian National Gallery. He has been featured in Art Profile Magazine, The New York Times, CNN, the Sydney Morning Herald, ABC Radio and TV and on the cover of the Asian Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Magazine.