Guo Zhen: My Heart Is Red
Guo Zhen established herself early as part of the burgeoning art movement in China in the 1980s following the extremes of the Cultural Revolution. She moved to the U.S. in 1986 and has worked and lived in New York City for more than two decades. Many of Guo’s works are autobiographical, demonstrating some of the most intimate and somber moments in her life, and the raw honesty and emotional depth reflected in them are at once hard to look at but impossible to resist.
For instance, in Waiting, the artist’s mother is sitting at the bedside of her father in a hospital. The father is already prostrate and on oxygen, his life approaching its end. Yet all one can do is simply experience every minute, every second of this agonizing process in stillness and silence. What binds the characters together? Love? Hope? Or is it a brooding, expansive sense of inevitable doom and waiting in vain? Similarly, in New Life, inspired by Guo’s experience of giving birth to her first child, a daughter, at the age of forty, the newborn infant is left alone, confined and abandoned, crying yet not heard. In both paintings, the artist has deliberately excluded herself from the scene, yet we can clearly feel her gaze and her attachment to the predicaments of the characters, for they are none other than her own mother, father and daughter, in essence, herself. From beginning to end, the cycle of life and death is enveloped in a universe of isolation.
Guo entitled a series of self-portraits Choking, which are dramatically exaggerated, visually painful facial expressions of her own as the literal result of suffocation. We may compare them with some of the already iconic self-representations in contemporary Chinese art, such as Fang Lijun’s famous baldheaded, yawning or expressionless figures, or Yue Minjun’s almost self-cloned, mask-like, eyes-closed faces of an invariable laughter. These male self-representations hint at an ambiguous, allegorical, oftentimes political or social violence. However, the same violence, to a great degree, also has endowed these characters with a certain cynical, yet free, agency, which was why they were embraced under the critical term of “cynical realism.” In contrast, Guo’s Choking, with distinctly gendered undertones, is too earnest, personal and intense to be cynical, and makes the audience wonder at the exact source of this choking. She calls for help, yet she cannot even scream out, unlike Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Choked and muted, she cannot help herself; and no one can truly help her.
To make herself seen and heard, one of Guo’s most radical options is, ironically, to inflict ritualistic self-violence. That is, to expose herself naked, to reveal her own heart and offer it as a sacrifice. Hence her own poem, as scripted in the painting My Heart Is Red:
My heart is red
When love cares for her
I have a red heart
When love makes her tender and beautiful
My heart is still red
When love joins two into one
My heart is really red
When love is abandoned
In fact, a heart may not be beautiful, may not be clever or wise. Clumsy, exposed, irredeemable, it is like a wounded baby beast. The only knowledge that it has is that it is red, literally, faithfully, truly, in a world of various grey or dim colors, awaiting the moment of being completely sacrificed or disposed thereafter as totally useless.
Guo adopts a style that is a hybrid of psychological realism and expressionism, and much like what we call confessional poetry in modern literature. This style serves her subject well, shows her great artistic control, and has its own strange cool. Particularly, the series of works like My Heart Is Red, Last Supper, and The Cross of Love, could find resonance with the Mexican female artist Frida Kahlo. However, Guo’s material and approach are also distinctively Chinese, and her own. She once said:
Some think there are some similarities between my and Frida Kahlo’s paintings. I think, Frida and myself belong to two different generations. If there are any similarities between us, they lie in the fact that we both tried our best to use painting to express in maxim our own most memorable experiences of life and love. There is no covering up, no shyness, no frivolity, no utilitarian calculation, no falsehood. There are only true feelings, deep emotions, a trembling soul and its unreserved presentation. No matter whether these scenes may appear too shocking, these feelings too unsettling, they all originate from a heart that is extremely sensitive, fully tested by life, battered and beaten over time, and with profound feelings.
In this regard, Guo may claim her unique position among contemporary Chinese artists, male or female, by possessing a “brave heart.” Anyone who had similar experiences of death and new life, would immediately notice in these works, including her most recent, unfinished series Women’s Channel, the palpable existence of a heart that beats, struggles, quivers, and suffers inside a woman’s naked body, and set against an oppressive, suffocating world. Through this travail, Guo’s art gains an undeniable, unsettling yet enduring power of authenticity. My heart is red. If you have any doubts, please allow me to pluck it out with my own hand, from my own chest, and place it right in front of you. A heart has its own color, shape, weight, and unalterable destiny.