An Equivocal Status Quo
Created in 2003, Duan Jianyu’s Artistic Chicken No. 6 hails from the artist's most iconic series from the 2000s – her Artistic Chicken series. The chickens sometimes represent satirical and ironic observations about art, and on other occasions they reflect the conflict between the urban and the rural. The works also tend to focus on combining scenes of bucolic beauty with portrayals of local ethnicity, creating an extremely unique artistic style. The same year Duan Jianyu completed Artistic Chicken No. 6, she was invited to take part in the Venice Biennale, where she exhibited 99 Artistic Chicken style installations. Of those works, 40 are now held in Hong Kong’s M+ museum, having been previously exhibited at the Canton Express exhibition, where they became representative works for artists from the Guangdong region – a clear indication of the series’ significance.
Born in Henan province, Duan Jianyu exists outside of China’s mainstream artistic circles; after graduating from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, rather than relocating to Beijing - the beating heart of China’s art world - she instead decided to move Guangzhou, an area not usually considered to be awash with strong artistic currents. In 1999 Duan began to regularly participate in exhibitions, and in 2006 held her first personal exhibition in Guangzhou. Although she herself is based in Guangzhou, her works always seem to embody the local essence of her native town in Henan, intentionally or otherwise. In actual fact, nostalgia for one’s rural hometown is what unites many Chinese artists born during the 1970s. Even though their works differ to an extent, they all came from the countryside originally. Having been born in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, this generation moved away from home to study in the cities and towns, often staying there for some time. Despite this, their hometowns and native places are still ultimately where they choose to settle down and live out their years in peace. Duan’s own hometown forms the background and central theme of many of her works. In fact, she once recounted that “whether it's the simple and honest countryside in the North or the delicate and beautiful scenery in the South, both landscapes are facing significant change; the old China, made up of lots of rural towns, each rich in its own folklore and local custom, is slowly ebbing away”. Duan prefers the sights of her rural hometown to the noise and clamour of the big cities. When depicting this idyll, she excels at the integration of various different qualities in her works; her painting style is occasionally quite crazed, and at other times even vulgar; sometimes her works are imbued with a certain poetic quality, and at others they can be immensely peculiar. This process reflects how actual Chinese society is becoming more grotesque and variegated. Duan’s series Sisters and Artistic Chicken are both excellent examples of this.
Duan’s first visit to Shaoguan in Guangdong, was when she first encountered the American artist Julian Schnabel’s painting, daubed on the tarpaulin of a chicken coop. She was deeply influenced by Schnabel’s fascination with the imagery of China, and this encounter became her impetus for the Artistic Chicken series. Of the series, Artistic Chicken No. 5 and Artistic Chicken No. 7 set their chickens amidst Manet’s Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe respectively, brimming with comedy and absurdity alike. However, Artistic Chicken No. 6 makes no reference to particular works of art; its chicken is merely an onlooker, stealing into the room, its blank eyes coldly observe the intimate figures on the bed. Their legs alone are visible, in the lower corner of the piece, and upon closer inspection there are in fact three pairs of legs. This lustful, sensual performance, staged in an overtly Western style room, mirrors the development and trajectory of modern China. In her works, Duan consistently offers us a realist portrayal of everyday life; occasionally satirical, sometimes self-deprecating, more often than not a highly ambiguous response to the status quo.