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Feminist Art and Activism

For Jiny Lan, art and critique are interwoven; the first can’t exist without the second. Having grown up and studied art in China, she experienced early that speaking and creating art freely is a privilege–one she didn’t have but was willing to fight for. Jiny Lan’s paintings, mixed media works, installations and performances question gender roles, tell stories of Chinese women and critice societal systems. The artist speaks to Nora Partl, Head of Content & Communication, about her experiences leading the feminist art collective BALD GIRLS, standing out in a communist regime, and finding a voice in the art world.

When Chinese police raided Jiny Lan’s exhibition in Beijing in 2012 and ordered paintings off the wall, the artist knew the show was a success. Her art has always been a bit too bold and critical for the Chinese government. In a country where few women dare to say they are feminists out of fear of social ostracism, co-founding the feminist art collective BALD GIRLS is daring.

Criticizing political systems and provoking old structures are ever-present themes in Jiny Lan’s art–an approach that hasn’t changed when the artist moved from communist China to democratic Germany. "I grew up in a communist country where art was only used as decoration for politics," the artist once said. "Living in a democracy means I'm allowed to criticize and doubt everyone in my paintings, and I do."

Paintings of Georg Baselitz or Gerhard Schröder in ironic poses are part of Jiny Lan’s extensive oeuvre, as are moral and traditional pictures of Chinese women. In paintings of distinctive aesthetics, she questions power, gender, and society.

Nora Partl: Jiny Lan, having grown up in China with little to no rights to speak up for females, how did you educate yourself about feminism?

Jiny Lan: As my father's fourth daughter (and my mother's first child), I have had the problem since birth of having to fight against the feeling of being superfluous. This has little to do with the communist system but with Chinese tradition: only male descendants count as carriers of the family line. I remember that in kindergarten I already started to stage scenes to surprise other children and caregivers. In such productions, I had the feeling that I could show that I existed. Many years later, I realized how similar such stagings are to performance art: many female artists have to fight to be seen at all. In this sense, I can say that I am a born feminist artist.

NP: Feminism and the communist regime in China don’t really go well together. Especially back in the early 2000s. What was the crucial point for you to start BALD GIRLS, the first feminist group of artists in Chinese history?

JL: From 2005 to 2009, I worked for the museum Schloss Moyland to prepare an exhibition about Joseph Beuys in Beijing. The 2013 exhibition "Beuys in China: Social Sculpture" took place in the CAFA Museum. During these years, I flew to China very frequently. With the influence of the thoughts of 'Social Sculpture', I made the decision to connect my own art with social issues tied to reality. These thoughts coincided with the intention of a curator and two other artists. So, the group came together very quickly. Since one of the artists, Xiao Lu, already had an international reputation at that time, our group started with a high level of public attention.

Bathing addition, 2011.

NP: In 2012, you founded the collective BALD GIRLS, the first feminist group of artists in Chinese history. What have your experiences been like so far, standing out in a communist regime?

JL: When we decided to start the group, there was a big gap between China and the West on women's rights. In China, there were very few people who were interested in this issue. Even the people who were fighting for human rights felt that we were not developed enough to focus on women's rights. For them, women's rights were not really among the essential human rights. In the West, for example in Germany, feminism was an issue that was kind of felt to be out of time. We had already essentially settled the discussion in the 1970s, although perhaps not everything was well implemented. But this situation has changed a lot in both countries in recent years.

NP: What were some of the most memorable experiences that you had being the founder of a feminist art collective?

JL: When we named the group BALD GIRLS, we didn't think that we would all shave our hair off. At our first exhibition opening, we spontaneously decided to shave each other's hair because several artworks had been censored. The "bald heads" had many effects that we had not expected before. Barber stores refused to receive me and Xiao Lu as customers, obviously out of fear. In Germany, I encountered some amusing situations, such as old women and elderly couples in the supermarket who were taken aback by my politeness.

BALD GIRLS (with Xiao Lu, Li Xinmo), 2012.

NP: In your works you tell stories of Chinese women and stage old white artists in provoking positions, thereby combining art and activism. What makes art feminist art after all?

JL: For me, there is much more diverse feminist art than we think. An artist who consciously uses gender as a theme in art is making feminist art. But an artist who is subjectively unintentional but objectively improves equality in the gender debate is also a feminist artist. Many successful artists are feminists in my eyes, simply because they are career-minded and disagree with the image of women in traditional patriarchal society.

NP: In one of your paintings, for example, you criticize the artist Georg Baselitz after he said that "women cannot paint as well as men" and depict him lying upside down on a waterfall with a baby bump. What were your thoughts after hearing Baselitz saying these words?

JL: I was very disturbed by his words at first. Later, I became grateful to him because he made me think. That the famous artist and art professor who trains male and female artists says something like that is good proof that women don't have the same opportunities in art at all. Especially the argument Baselitz used for this conclusion: Because the art market doesn't lie, artworks by women cost much less than artworks by men. This is a typical example of how some men reverse cause and effect in their reasoning. I am not demotivated because of his statements; just the opposite. The fight for higher prices has become part of my art concept.

Water Flows Down That's a Fact, 2018.

NP: Does art always have to have a critical side to it?

JL: I don't think so. Good art often shows the essence of an artist. Being critical is not the most important thing in life for every artist. For people like me, who grew up in a society where freedom of expression is not a matter of course, being allowed to express critical opinions freely is something existential.

MWB 2A Revision 2a [Bathing addition addition], 2013.

NP: Recently you founded the Jiny Lan Art Foundation to support young talents, especially young women in art. To any artist just starting out who is looking to explore topics of feminism and activism in their own art, what advice would you give?

JL: That is also part of my concept of art. Women should try to be in the position of being able to evaluate art themselves. Up until now, standards of good art have been set predominantly by men. What is vital for women can be superfluous and affectation for men—in other words, kitsch. "Feminist works" have often been judged as kitsch because people (including women) are used to taking looks and standards from men.

MWB 3A Revision 1a [Backwards Movement], 2014.

NP: How do you view the current situation of the art market regarding feminism and female empowerment?

JL: In Western cultures, things are getting better and better. Above all, many people have already noticed where the problems lie. When the problems are recognized as problems, the first important step has already been taken. Since the feminist issue is an international issue, it must also be fought on an international level. If you think that you should care about women's rights only for your own culture, then that is racist to me. I am glad that I live in two cultures, and therefore, I am able to do something about it.

Jiny Lan (born 1970) is an internationally renowned Chinese conceptual artist, who focuses on urban life in the world's metropolises in her large-scale works. Trained at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Zhejiang, China, the painter has lived in Germany since 1995 and combines the artistic traditions of Asia and Europe to create her own visual language. In paintings of aesthetic conciseness, she questions the moral and traditional images of women in China in extensive series. She has exhibited internationally, from Beijing, Hong Kong, and Bogota to Berlin, Vienna, and Venice. She has founded the Jiny Lan Art Foundation, which has set itself the goal of promoting young, talented artists.