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Exploring Life and Death Through the Art of Chinese Painter Yu Hong

Holding an art exhibition in Venice has fulfilled a long-held aspiration for Yu Hong, a prominent Chinese artist born in 1966. Renowned for her significant contributions to the art scene in China, she has a strong affinity for the historic city of Venice, often visiting its labyrinthine waterways. A few years back, an opportunity arose for her to craft a site-specific masterpiece within the Chiesetta della Misericordia, a church nestled in the Cannaregio district of Venice.

Scheduled to open its doors to the public on April 20, the exhibition, titled “,” showcases Yu Hong’s mesmerizing Surrealist paintings and her profound reflections on the essence of life and death, captivating a global audience.

Featuring a collection of new figurative and narrative artworks meticulously intertwined with the architectural and cultural essence of the deconsecrated Chiesetta della Misericordia, a church with Romanesque-Byzantine roots dating back to the 10th century when it was established by Augustinian friars. Yu Hong eloquently describes the church as a fitting backdrop, resonating with a deep sense of historical continuity that harmonizes seamlessly with her artistic creations, forming a cohesive and harmonious ensemble.

In conceptualizing the exhibition, Yu Hong expressed her desire to engage in a profound dialogue with the religious art present within the church, aiming to evoke contemplation on life’s fundamental inquiries. The resulting paintings delve into phenomenological realms, immersing viewers in portrayals of youthful figures and women captured in contorted poses, exuding sensations of imminent peril and endured suffering. Through this series of artworks, Yu Hong intricately traces the trajectory of human existence encompassing themes of birth, life, longing, intimacy, and mortality, drawing inspiration from her personal reservoir of images sourced from everyday social interactions and her photography ventures.

Accompanying the exhibition is an immersive auditory experience crafted by composer Nico Muhly, set to debut on June 6. The project is curated by Alexandra Munroe, the Senior Curator at Large for Global Arts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, as part of the museum’s Asian Art Initiative.

Before embarking on her journey to Venice, Yu Hong graciously shared insights into her artistic process during an interview at her studio in Beijing, shedding light on the meticulous approach she undertakes in painting her monumental canvases.

Can you elaborate on the new artwork showcased at the Chiesa della Misericordia? How did you commence this project, and who are the individuals depicted in the paintings?

The polyptych masterpiece, “Walking through Life,” encapsulates the human odyssey from birth to demise. Commencing with the poignant moment of a newborn’s emergence and separation from the maternal womb, symbolized by an infant immersed in a bath—a metaphor for the confinement imposed post-birth. Subsequent panels portray four children engaged in rhythmic gymnastics, a subject recurrent in my works due to my daughter’s involvement in the discipline. Observing these young athletes train revealed a juxtaposition of beauty and brutality inherent in their practice. This duality extends beyond the physical realm, hinting at life’s demanding discipline that individuals must adapt to in navigating the world.

The narrative progresses to explore themes of love, featuring two lovers reclining on rocks, their visages partially obscured. This is followed by a scene depicting two prone men, evoking a sense of guilt or transgression, succeeded by a group of women suggestive of sex workers—both segments symbolizing the conflict between desire and societal norms. The subsequent panel showcases a woman enshrouded in plastic wrap, a technique sometimes utilized for weight loss through induced perspiration, subtly mirroring the constraints imposed externally, akin to the impact of gymnastics as an external force shaping individuals.

Transitioning further, the narrative unfolds to depict elderly individuals engaging in exercises with granite bollards, symbolizing defiance and indignation towards the world, embodying elements of resistance and ire. Subsequently, individuals are depicted in a quest, symbolizing the perpetual pursuit of desires in life. The concluding panel delves into the theme of mortality, portraying the feet of the aged, children, men, and women constrained on a rack, with the lowest tier featuring bound feet, serving as poignant metaphors for the inevitability of death. Collectively, these panels traverse the spectrum from life’s inception to its culmination, interwoven with desires, encapsulating the struggle against yearnings before the final denouement.

Describe your studio space using three adjectives.

Tranquil, luminous, nurturing.

Could you provide insights into your studio setup, its location, and the rationale behind selecting this particular space over others?

My studio is situated within the vibrant 798 Art District in Beijing, a creative hub I have been part of for over two decades. The proximity to the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and the functional layout of the former 1950s factory workshops with their lofty ceilings render them ideal for artistic pursuits. At the time of selection, the area exuded a raw and authentic charm that resonated with artists. While the district has since transformed into a bustling cultural precinct, bustling with visitors, my studio retains its serene ambiance at the periphery, offering a secluded sanctuary conducive to artistic exploration and introspection.

Engaging in the creation of large-scale paintings can be physically taxing. Do you have any advice or anecdotes to share regarding this process?

The act of painting inherently demands physical exertion, involving constant movement and adjustments throughout the creative process. Beyond painting, I incorporate simple mat exercises into my routine at home to maintain physical well-being. Fostering a focused mindset devoid of distractions and trivial musings aids in sustaining energy levels during prolonged painting sessions.

In moments of creative stagnation while preparing for an exhibition, how do you navigate through these challenges to regain momentum?

Encounters with creative impasses and stagnation are commonplace in the artistic journey. Embracing these lulls as opportunities for introspection and accumulation rather than impediments is crucial. Persistence in painting, even amidst apparent stagnation, facilitates a gradual breakthrough, allowing for organic progression and growth without conscious realization.

Is there an element within your studio that might surprise visitors upon discovery?

Within my studio, a notable feature that might intrigue visitors is a fish skeleton—an accessory acquired last year for the creation of “The Old Man and the Sea” (2023), adding a distinctive aesthetic touch to the space.

Which artistic tool or material do you find most enjoyable to work with, and what makes it particularly appealing to you? Kindly share an image of this tool.

Among the array of artistic tools at my disposal, scrapers hold a special allure for me due to their elegant design and functionality. While I possess only a limited selection comprising two or three scrapers, their aesthetic appeal and utility significantly enhance my artistic process.

Reflecting on recent museum exhibitions or gallery showcases, could you recount an instance where an exhibition profoundly impacted you, and why?

A few years ago, I encountered an exhibition centered on unfinished artworks, titled “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” at the Met Breuer, spanning diverse artistic periods from Classical to contemporary genres. The exhibition shed light on the intrinsic beauty of unfinished works, offering open-ended narratives that invite diverse interpretations and contemplation, leaving a lasting impression on my artistic sensibilities.

Looking ahead, I eagerly anticipate visiting “An Epic of Chinese Jade for 10,000 Years,” a prestigious exhibition hosted at the Nanjing Museum. The comprehensive overview and presentation of national treasures showcased in the exhibition promise a captivating exploration of China’s rich cultural heritage, fostering anticipation for an enriching artistic encounter.

These insights into Yu Hong’s artistic journey, creative process, and reflections on pivotal exhibitions underscore the depth of her artistic vision and the profound narratives woven into her captivating artworks.