- Xiyadie born 1963
- Original title
- Dye and pigment on paper
- Support: 1375 × 1364 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by the Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee and Sunpride Foundation 2021
This one of a group of paper works in Tate’s collection by the Chinese artist Xiyadie. The works come from two separate series of works which subvert in different ways the traditional and intricate art of papercutting, recognised in China as an ancient folk art that can be traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE). Three works from 2020 (Gate (Tiananmen), Fish on a Chopping Board and Train, Tate T15927–T15929) are large-scale papercuts from white ‘xuanzhi’ (宣纸), a type of paper which is also used for traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink-wash painting due to its resilient yet absorbent qualities. Once cut, each of these works is hand-painted with food colouring more commonly used for identifying the fillings of steamed ‘bao’ buns, a humble snack often sold at street food stalls throughout China. Though each of these works represents figurative subjects, they are highly stylised according to the parameters of cutting folded paper: an intricate skill which has generically been described as a ‘matriarchs’ art’ due to the way in which it has traditionally been passed down through generations of women within the domestic sphere.
Gate (Tiananmen) depicts two nude male figures embracing in front of the gate to a palace, its imperial status indicated by the decoration of two dragons. Fish on a Chopping Board depicts a crowded kitchen filled with cooking utensils and foodstuffs, at the centre of which – and to the fascination of two predatory cats on a shelf – is the amorphic form of two embracing men in the shape of a fish. For the artist, this is a metaphorical expression of the vulnerability one experiences as a ‘tongzhi’ (同志) – which translates from Chinese as ‘comrade’ and since the 1990s has been used in the Greater China Region as an informal expression of gay solidarity. Train is an autobiographical work that portrays the artist’s first gay relationship with a train conductor. In this complex composition, the artist plays with scale, portraying the central figures as much larger than the rest of the scene to express the intensity of their romance.
A smaller, earlier work, Flying 2000 (Tate T15934), depicts the artist’s late son who was affected by cerebral palsy. Here the artist depicts the fantasy of his infant child soaring from his wheelchair and reaching out to a smiling, anthropomorphic crescent moon.
A series of four smaller square works, dating from 2001 and 2017 – Fun 2001 (Tate T15932), Fun 2001 (Tate T15933), Fun 2017 (Tate T15930) and ‘No Worries, My Mother Is Next Door’ 2017 (Tate T15931) – conforms to the style of traditional Chinese red papercuts against white backgrounds, with an emphasis on plants and animals. In dramatic contrast to these, however, the subjects of Xiyadie’s papercuts are in fact acts of intimacy between men: two works show the act of fellatio; in another, two nude male figures ride closely together on a bicycle, surrounded by a fantastical scene of flora and fauna; in a fourth, what looks like the form of a flower turns out to be buttocks and genitalia. In resembling the more conventional forms of papercutting, this series acts as a ‘trojan horse’, surreptitiously depicting relationships that have often faced discrimination in mainstream society.
Though each of Xiyadie’s papercuts is unique, the nature of the craft is such that it is easier to manipulate and cut several layers of paper at a time. Therefore, similar versions of each papercut exist, although the artist considers this a process of refining and often adds different details in each version, such as different animals or patterns.
Writing in 2019, the historian Hongwei Bao wrote of Xiyadie’s artistic trajectory:
What is remarkable about Xiyadie’s life is his transformation from an ordinary Chinese farmer and folk artist whose name was little known inside China, to a contemporary queer artist who has recently launched an international career … His experience speaks to a postsocialist context where class politics gives way to identity politics in cultural production, and it calls for a reinvigoration of Marxist and socialist perspectives for a better understanding of contemporary art production and social movements.
(Bao 2019, pp.2–3.)
Hongwei Bao, ‘Metamorphosis of a Butterfly: Neoliberal Subjectivation and Queer Autonomy in Xiyadie’s Papercutting Art’, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, vol.6, September 2019, pp.2–3.
‘The Siberian Butterfly – Full Length Version’, sexybeijingTV, YouTube, https://youtu.be/XTsXO1fQ2CQ, accessed 2 September 2020.
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