It’s difficult to watch as Chinese artist Xiao Lu smears the blood pouring out of her wounded hand all over the huge ice block from which she is attempting to hack herself free. But that’s the idea. The viewer’s discomfort becomes part of the struggle.

Xiao Lu, who is one of nine female Chinese artists taking part in the Sworn Sisters exhibition which opens at the Vermilion gallery in Sydney on Friday May 25, has been accused of staging the injury and using fake blood for dramatic effect. However, she insists the blood came from luck not design.

“In performance art unexpected things happen and that’s the most beautiful part,” she says this week via phone from her studio in Beijing.

“When I was changing hands with the knife, I cut myself and when I saw the blood, I wasn’t scared. I was excited. It was beautiful. It was a real experience.”

Xiao is no stranger to controversy. Her first major artwork, Dialogue, appeared in an exhibition in Beijing in February 1989, four months before the Tiananmen Square massacre. At a politically-charged time in China’s capital, Xiao walked into the National Art Gallery and fired two live bullets into her installation, which was of a man and woman standing in separate phone booths, with a red phone hanging off the hook in between them. It earned her an arrest and instant fame as the incident became known as the first shots of Tiananmen.

Chinese artist Xiao Lu is one of nine women artists featured in the Sworn Sisters exhibition.
Chinese artist Xiao Lu is one of nine women artists featured in the Sworn Sisters exhibition.

Later, when she explained events in her personal life had motivated the artwork, rather than it being a political commentary, there was a negative reaction.

“When I told the public it was triggered more by personal feelings than anything else, I was criticised by men for reducing a great work to something small in scale. The social, political and environmental context gave it certain meaning. But it was also the result of something very personal and emotional.”

Heavily censored

Xiao’s more recent artwork – a video of her ordeal in the ice, which will appear in next week’s exhibition – is also open to interpretation. The performance is about a personal struggle but it could also be the representation of a struggle against constraints of gender, society and government control. In China the arts is heavily censored and monitored by the Communist Party and Chinese society, while changing, is still deeply patriarchal. Xiao offers no explanations for the artwork, leaving it up to the audience to decide.

Former Australian Ambassador to China and the exhibition’s curator, Geoff Raby, says he wanted to challenge the stereotypes about Chinese women.

“I wanted to show Chinese women are edgy and out there and can think for themselves as opposed to being homemakers, passive wives and tiger mums.”

Raby has also been highly critical of the government’s management of its ties with China. In a column for this newspaper during the week he suggested the Turnbull government should appoint a new foreign minister to reset the relationship, prompting an angry response from the current chief diplomat, Julie Bishop.

“I hope exhibitions like this will help change the tone of the conversation on China,” he says.

Sing Along East-Red by Hu Ming. Krause, Johansen
Sing Along East-Red by Hu Ming. Krause, Johansen

“All of these artworks are strong expressions of individualism and freedom. This is not a state-directed medium, it’s one that is enormously effervescent and bubbly, filled with parody and criticism. I hope people will talk about Chinese not as agents of influence but as artists challenging and pushing the boundaries.”

Raby singles out a work in the exhibition by Chen Qingqing in which she massages the head of a pig, which is clearly enjoying the experience, for its clear reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The exhibition also includes photographs from rising star Luo Yang, which Raby says capture its theme, with their sensual and defiant depictions of young Chinese women.

Powerful work

Raby says this is the first all-female exhibition of Chinese contemporary art in Australia and it is notable for its mixture of older, established artists and young and upcoming artists, such as Luo and Geng Xue, whose fantasy sculpture is in demand.

Xiao says, “There are so many talented female artists in China but most of the artists with an international profile are men.

“There are many strong female artists but their weakness is they don’t chase fame like the male artists. They don’t spend a lot of time and resources seeking recognition for the work. It’s a good thing for art but it means they can be overlooked.

“Many Chinese men who curate female artist exhibitions chose works they assume women would work on. They are supposed to be beautiful, gentle pieces. They don’t usually choose me. This exhibition is a collection of more powerful work.”

After Tiananmen, Xiao eventually moved to Sydney. She has mixed feelings about her time in Australia because she says was lost and confused and didn’t develop greatly as an artist. She moved back to China in 1997.

Asked about the heated debate in Australia about Beijing’s growing influence over politics, academic institutions and the local Chinese community, Xiao says: “There might be these debates about politics and diplomacy but good art cuts across countries and across people. That is the most important thing. When I see a good artwork, I don’t think where does the artist come from, I just think about the work.”