798 Art Exhibition Review | Tao Siqi: Tender Thorns

Ting Ting Chen , 798 Art, July 17, 2021
In the first half of the 19th century, there was a debate 1 in Europe, between Eugène Delacroix, a representative of Romanticism that emphasized colors, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, a forerunner of Neoclassicism that valued lines. It was also the topic of a long-standing argument between the Poussinists who believed that drawing was the most important thing and the Rubenists who prioritized color. Such a debate has persisted throughout art history. By adopting saturated and soft colors for the images, Tao Siqi seeks a balance between refined Netherlandish textures and dry lines floating on the canvas, trying to dissolve the conflict between the two different languages of painting. She uses unusual light and atmosphere and crops the images into various dimensions, suggesting a gaze behind the images while capturing the “stolen moments of pleasure in Rococo”. Evoking a pricking and tingling sensation2, the paint on the canvas is imbued with emotions like slightly melted cream.
Tao Siqi's paintings seem to grow from and spread on the four space walls. In her studio in an alleyway on Wu Yuan Road in Shanghai, small canvases are carefully arranged as if they are stretching from the easel to the surrounding walls. This has inspired the narratives of rooms of the exhibition "Tender Thorns".
Disturbing images, pistols, bullets, and blood drops often appear in Tao Siqi's works. They are reminiscent of the weapons in Hong Kong cinema, like pleasant rage hidden in the darkness. Working with a variety of media including painting, photography, and graphic design, Tao draws on pop culture to present the "aesthetic visual fashion" in a way of self-construction of the female body and gender anxiety. It may recall the Pre-Raphaelites of the Victorian era3.
The Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism valued the ancient Greek ideal of female beauty and body . Tao Siqi has inherited this classical spirit, with works of diverse characteristics and full of contemporary playfulness. Her works lie between the physicality of painting and the illusion of space, revealing the gradual destruction of beauty -- the candle melting in the hand and the tongue of a young girl licking hypertoxic absinthe. As the view shifts, we find a dodging cat tail knocking over the artist's glass or playing with the mouse in the corner of the wall. An angel's hand caresses the attractive breasts, and a swan burrows into Leda's pocket and suckles. The artist uses imagery references to suggest new textual allegories while maintaining a mysterious halo. For her, perhaps the reality in the image is just a piece of the puzzle, which the viewer often only gets a glimpse of the partial. The image is constantly shifting as the narrative ends at where it begins, just like flowing liquid or sometimes a melting snowman.
In each exhibition room, images are overlaid and pieced together into different narratives. In the first room, you will find the breathtaking pink lightning akin to nourished bulging veins and the purple light orbs flickering at the frequency of the palette. The artist appropriately collects and consumes the classic iconography to give the images a condensed and precise structure. 
Since around 2014, Tao Siqi has been taking pictures around, initially, she photographed with neither a specific agenda nor a rigorous practice. Later, she started to focus on composition and subject matter. In the 19th century, with the birth of photography, the Impressionist painters innovated the painting language to depict the light and shadows of reality. It freed painting from the task of copying reality. Like the artists of that era, Tao chooses the everyday strolls and weekend picnics on the lawn as the source of her narrative. But she always presses the shutter with aesthetic pleasure while remaining skeptical.
She once said, "The details of the tree trunks depicted by John Constable may validate my observation of the tree which embodies the subjective details and the relative reality. Roland Barthes uses punctum to refer to the subjective effect of a photograph on the viewer, such as the surprising details arousing an inexplicable attraction or tingling. I think the artist's growth is similar to that of a tree. Each tree has a different gesture and memory. I think the tree itself is a romantic presence and can evoke an association of various shapes of rhizomes4. "Such an association is often found in this exhibition. For example, the twisted trunks can be the entangled human arms, or snakes and thorns intertwining with each other.
The nature of photography is to document reality. Photography has facilitated Tao Siqi to use her painting experience to summarize and elevate reality and everyday life and learn how to build, deconstruct, and extend the existing iconography unaffectedly. In today's society where the proliferation of consumption and media are constantly changing contemporary perceptions and lifestyles, Tao Siqi draws from the affluent image archives to supplement her subjects and imagery. As the artist asserted, "Today, most people probably spend more time on a screen than in reality. The floating images in cyberspace are helping me to construct my social identity."5
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard proposed the theory of simulation in his book Symbolic Exchange and Death, arguing that everything exists and is perceived via media and that the postmodern reality will be a hyperreal world controlled by paradigms and symbols (simulation), that hyper-reality is replacing reality.6 Nowadays, we are living in an unprecedented visually oriented world, where images and media have influenced our thinking and perception. Our reading habits have gradually shifted from texts to images, which have become part of our lives, and have influenced the artists' perception and construction of the real world. Tao Siqi filters these images through photography and deconstructs the hierarchy of the avant-garde and the vulgar. Through painting, she explores her interpretation and understanding of the imagery and the real of cyberspace and constantly questions the private experience in personal and public spaces.
Tao Siqi's works have been selected as the cover images of Junichi Watanabe's novel series. She uses painting, a traditional medium, to explore the memory of passionate love with the pathos of things (mono no aware), depicting a dimly glowing fountain frozen behind a curtain of white raindrops. She often uses fragments of daily experience to observe her surroundings. The intentional phenomenon is hidden behind those ordinary scenes of daily life.
In the tiny and intimate room at the end of the exhibition hall, the artist installed two paintings under the light, inspired by the "art of rope" which originated in Japan and is widely popular in other regions. The artist magnifies and reconstructs the ropes on the back that resembles a butterfly. The experiment of interacting light and fur quietly seeped the warmth of the body to the entire exhibition space. The artist mobilizes the viewer's sensory synesthesia through the visual experience, perhaps suggesting a plot and space beyond the image, and reaffirming the gaze of the other.


[1] Engel and Delacroix, by Yang Xiaohong, Shandong Fine Arts Publishing House
[2] Excerpts from the artist's autobiography.
[3] Pre-Raphaelites: "In the mid-to late19th century, classicism of academic art was highly praised by the painting circle, with Raphael as a representative, while the flattering and shallow craftsman art was also popular. It aroused the discontent of many artists who were thoughtful and insightful. The young painters William Morris Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Rossetti found that works of the early Renaissance were sincere, simple, and vivid, which was the artistic style they aspired to. They believed that real art existed before Raphael and tried to save British art by promoting art before Raphael. Thus they launched the "Pre-Raphaelites". They pursued art for art's sake, and took nineteenth-century French literature as a forerunner, separating the moral standards of art and prioritizing beauty, without valuing content but only focusing on sensory appeal. The Pre-Raphaelites have influenced many British painters into the 20th century. Later, Dante Rossetti became a pioneer of European Symbolism."
[4] Excerpts from the artist interview with FOTOMAN, issue of March 2019. Tao Siqi: Portrait of a Tree
[5] Excerpts from the artist's autobiography.
[6] Symbolic Exchange and Death, France, Jean Baudrillard, Yilin Press, 2006


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