Guan Wei has said there are three elements he strives for in his work: wisdom, knowledge and humour. ‘I believe people need wisdom to choose from the many different cultural traditions that confront us everyday: knowledge is the key to open our minds to the diversity of the world; and humour is necessary to comfort our hearts. I also like to tell stories ...’1 The narrative in Guan’s work is alluded to rather than spelt out: it is up to the viewers to use their imaginations to make a story from the visual elements of each painting. The large, multi-panelled ‘Revisionary’ was painted during a residency at the Canberra School of Art in 1998 and when fully installed it requires four walls for the different groupings of panels. Illustrated here is an alternative hang devised for one wall which comprises the main group of 20 panels and a single panel with an angel flying out of it.
‘Revisionary’ is one of a series of large-scale paintings in which Guan Wei has devised a cosmography which refers to scientific and evolutionary developments, the natural environment and its degradation, and to political, philosophical and social mappings of the world. Guan has referred to ‘Revisionary’ as representing a form of last judgment. An aqueous bright blue plane dominates the painting, representing both the heavens and the ocean. A bolt of lightning connects through both layers of panels, as do other elements which sometimes resemble cartographic and meteorological lines. Legs and hands appearing from and disappearing into clouds seem to represent mythical creatures such as angels, gods and goddesses in the upper panels, while a row of clone-like eyeless faces look out. In the lower panels a hand points up, one head talks to another and a cluster of people represent the mass of humanity discussing the omens in the skies. Areas of murky brown pollution are painted with considerable texture in contrast to the flatness of the rest of the surface. Arrows, reminiscent of military maps, suggest movements of armies and political power. Land masses are represented in green in both the terrestrial and celestial levels, preventing a simple schematic division of the painting.
When fully installed, two separate panels hang opposite the main grouping. In one we see the back of a head and in the other a one-eyed face screams with mouth wide open. The figures look out from a single point of view, and Guan Wei has suggested that their other eye is turned in upon them-selves. The distinctive narrow, vertical panels of his paintings recall the form of traditional Chinese scroll paintings although they have a more prosaic derivation: when the school Guan was teaching at in Beijing threw away a large number of narrow window frames, he used them as stretchers. Since moving to Australia in 1990 Guan’s work continues to be imbued with Chinese elements – such as the four compass directions ‘dong’, ‘xi’, ‘nan’, ‘bei’, in ‘Revisionary’ – while he has developed a distinctive visual language in response to being in Australia. As the title of this painting suggests, there has been both a revising and a new vision.
1. Quoted in Melanie Eastburn, ‘Wisdom, knowledge and humour, the work of Guan Wei’, in ‘Guan Wei, looking for home’, Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore 2000, p 12
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
26 panels; synthetic polymer paint on canvas
installation dimensions variable :
a-u - 21 large panels, 120 x 50 x 3.3 cm, stretcher, each panel
v-z - 5 small panels, 60 x 45 x 3.3 cm, stretcher, each panel
Signature & date
Signed and dated verso panel , black fibre-tipped pen "Guan Wei 1998/..." and verso panel ['Opposite 2'], black fibre-tipped pen "Guan Wei/ .../ 1998". Signed l.r.corner panels [20 and 21], black synthetic polymer paint "G.W.".
Rudy Komon Memorial Fund 1999
© Guan Wei
Shown in 4 exhibitions
Guan Wei, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, 24 Sep 1998–18 Oct 1998
Guan Wei: Nesting, or the Art of Idelness 1989-1999, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, 04 Jun 1999–09 Aug 1999
2000 Kwangju Biennale, Kwangju Biennale, Korea, 27 Mar 2000–07 Jun 2000
In one drop of water, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Jun 2019–21 Feb 2021
Referenced in 8 publications
Sue Cramer (Editor), Guan Wei: Nesting, or the Art of Idelness 1989-1999, 'Happy day: Guan Wei talks to Linda Jaivin', pg.16 - 21., Sydney, 1999, 10, 11, 18-19 (colour illus.), 23. illustration ia a detail, panels 1-20
Ben Donaldson, Postwest, '10 Years in Australia' by Guan Wei, translated, pg.12-17, Sydney, 2001, 13 (colour illus.). illustration is a detail, panels 1-20; illustration is back to front
Melanie Eastburn, Guan Wei: looking for home, "Wisdom, knowledge and humour. The work of Guan Wei', pg.12-17, Singapore, 2000, 17, 32 (colour illus.).
Maud Girard-Geslan, Guan Wei, 'Guan Wei, an adventure, from east to west', Canberra, Sep 1998, front and back covers (colour illus.). illustrations are details, front cover - panels 1-20, back cover - panels 22 and 23
Philippa Kelly, Artlink: The China Phenomena, "Thinking about Guan Wei', pg.48-49, Adelaide, Dec 2003, 48-49.
Jackie Menzies (Editor), The Asian Collections Art Gallery of New South Wales, 'The Shanghai School and Modern Painting', Sydney, 2003, 180 (colour illus.).
Lynne Seear, Beyond the Future, the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 'Guan Wei: the view from the master's chair, Guan Wei's Feng Shui', pg.180, Brisbane, 1999, 180, 181 (colour illus.). illustration is a detail, panels 1-20
Wayne Tunnicliffe, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Cultural memory, critical distance', pg.154-203, Sydney, 2006, 172-173 (colour illus.). illustration on pg.173 is a detail