By Angela Butler
Sydney based printmaker and writer angebutler.tumblr.com
China. In my imagination it had been, for some time, the Ultimate Printmakers’ Paradise. A place where tradition allowed for the depth of experience needed for exquisite execution of print in a contemporary context.
Have you seen the work coming out of this place? I had to get there.
So when I was invited by Michael Kempson to exhibit as part of COFA’s contribution to the 11th Annual Print Works Exhibition of Institutions of Higher Education, I jumped at the chance to go along. We would also be travelling to Xi’an for the opening of the Australia/China “Personal Space” exhibition. Teho Ropeyarn, a graduate of COFA and current exhibitor in the MCA’s Primavera, also had a print in the show and made the trip along with Michael and myself. The 2012 exhibition and symposium was held in Guangzhou, China, and it was the first year that international Fine Arts institutions had been invited to participate.
It was called “Begin with Printmaking: the Practice of Mixmedia and Transboundary”. The two day event started with an opening of the exhibition, which was held in a huge gallery on the grounds of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and featured over 800 works by students, graduates, lecturers and professors of the major Fine Arts Academies in China, as well as University of the Arts, London (Camberwell), and UNSW College of Fine Arts, Sydney.
My excitement at the prospect of finally seeing all this quality work was high, yet my excitement for seeing student works and meeting other printmakers overtook this long-standing expectation and I found myself engaged beyond my wildest dreams. These printmakers were just like us. The works were diverse, used a range of mediums along with printmaking, and were essentially dealing with the same concerns. Life, the universe and everything.
I interviewed a couple of students to find out about their lives as art students in China, and found that they have very similar challenges and opportunities as I do. I asked one student if she thought it was going to be difficult to find work after graduation. It was going to be no problem, she said, “…people who are smart and can work will always find work, but it won’t be doing something they like.”
I laughed at this, empathising with the realities of slim pickings for future gainful employment in art.
After two days in Guangzhou, we headed north to Xi’an, where the latest exhibition of “Personal Space” was opening at the Xi’an Art Museum. This exhibition was curated by Michael Kempson, Director of Cicada Press, and features print works by 25 Australian artists and 25 Chinese artists. It has been touring Australia since 2011 and recently arrived in China where it will tour over the coming months.
The Xi’an Art Museum was a colossal space which had threatened to be too big for the works that were on show, but which turned out to be perfect. There was a quality of space, light and sound which allowed us to properly spend time with each work without disruption. Furthermore, the exhibition was opened by way of several formal speeches, including two vice presidents of Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, COFA’s Head of the School of Art, Sylvia Ross, and the exhibition curator, Michael Kempson. A fitting venue and opening for works which so expertly exemplify the heart and the skill of printmaking.
I had seen this show when it opened at Manly Art Gallery and Museum in 2011. At that time, I had been studying printmaking for about five minutes and felt every bit the novice – in the art world, in printmaking, in being a student again. My experiences since then, and particularly since having time in Guangzhou and Xi’an, the works in the Personal Space show have peeled back some of their delicate layers of meaning. It was a meaningful and inspiring experience to see this work in a new context: talking with fellow students from China about Chinese and Australian prints in a Chinese art museum. All of a sudden, the whole thing was very real. And I loved it.
I think meeting students and artists in China and getting a glimpse of how everyone works has opened a new door. The feeling of belonging to this community, this community of Australian and Chinese printmakers – students, teachers and artists alike – has strengthened my passion and dedication to taking part in the discourse.
For me, this was the greatest opportunity possible to learn more about the practice that has begun to fire my heart. Printmaking in China was everything I thought it would be, and so very much more. I look forward to exchanging prints with the students I met there, and creating our own community of transnational student printmakers! I am already incredibly proud to be a part of what is to come.