Duan Jianyu’s Sister No. 14 is expansive in scale – the largest piece by the artist ever to appear at auction. Exuding an ethereal, enigmatic aura, the work hails from Duan Jianyu’s iconic Sister series that centers upon a fictional airline stewardess. Always clad in her sky blue flight attendant uniform, the mysterious stewardess journeys around the world with an entourage of animals – across deserts, snowy alpine peaks and forests, as in the present work. Present within this particular line-up is a deer, a hare, a boar, a koala, a panda, a squirrel and a bear cub, amongst others; Pu Hong observes: “It is much like Life of Pi […] animals endowed with counterpoints to the cowardice, greed, and sometimes earnestness of humanity” (Pu Hong, ‘Duan Jianyu: Attaching Reality to Surface’, LEAP 19, 13 May 2013). Duan Jianyu’s fixation on “the journey” reflects a poignant state of unsettledness of urbanity and the contemporary world, with the artist herself using the word “wandering soul” to describe the sensation: “Going home, going home; the fragrance of wheat, a willow leaf in my mouth, a wide-open heart, riding carefree on the tractor […] A wandering soul, she belongs not to the city, nor to the country” (the artist cited in Ibid.). A young but critically acclaimed artist, Duan Jianyu has been included in public exhibitions including the Venice Biennale (2003). In 2013, the artist was subject of the exhibition “A Potent Force: Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan” at the Rockbund Art Museum; recent group exhibitions include Times Heterotopia Trilogy III: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, Times Museum, Guangzhou (2017); Canton Express: Art from the Pearl River Delta, M+Pavilion, Hong Kong (2017); and One Hand Clapping, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2018).
Born in 1970 in Zheng Zhou, China, Duan Jianyu’s faux-naive visual lexicon incorporates references to both Western modernist tradition and Chinese art history, from primitivism and abstract art to Socialist Realism. Stringing together surprising and occasionally bizarre narratives of personal travel experiences and fabricated characters, Duan draws on a set of favored imagery including fruit, flowers, flight attendants, farm animals, and more exotic creatures like camels to populate the awkwardly framed compositions of an otherwise generic and banal visual practice. At stake in this rustic and sentimental work is the status of genre, focusing attention in particular on the conventions of and boundaries between the cliched definitions of landscape, portraiture, and still life, employing devices of rhythm and rigid pictorial readings to transform the living narrative of the scene into the latter category. Her palette is almost amateurish, approaching the extremities of taste in order to deprecate the mechanisms of choice and fantasy mobilized by the painter in the name of innovation.
Duan Jianyu exists outside of China’s mainstream artistic circles, with the present work epitomizing a core part of her oeuvre that deals with issues of identity and (dis)placement. After graduating from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, the artist chose to move to Guangzhou instead of Beijing, the beating heart of China’s art world. Preoccupied with the growing tension between China’s modernization and its rural identity, Duan Jianyu’s singular iconography always seem to embody the local essence of her native town in Henan rather than the city of Guangzhou, combining scenes of bucolic beauty with portrayals of local ethnicity. Nostalgia for one’s rural hometown is a theme that unites many Chinese artists born during the 1970s. Having been born in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, this generation moved quickly away from home to study in cities and towns whilst retaining a fond longing for the countryside. Duan Jianyu’s own hometown forms the background and central theme of many of her works, which teases out cultural anxieties of modernization and the problematics of regional identity. The artist once commented 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”. Peculiar and bizarre yet intimate and poetic, the present work epitomizes Duan Jianyu’s liminal visual lexicon that teases out allegories of contemporary society.
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