Exhibition Review: Magnificence of Embroidery: Yao Hong Ying Embroidery Art Exhibition

(This review was originally posted on ArtsHub a few days ago. Although this particular exhibition is over now, I’d still recommend checking out Fo Guang Yuan Art Gallery, particularly for their tea house’s great selection of teas and tasty vegetarian treats.  Their next exhibition may or may not be worth checking out, there’s the temple and the gift shop if you’re interested, but yes, I can definitely vouch for the lasting worthiness of their tea house.)

Magnificence of Embroidery: Yao Hong Ying Embroidery Art Exhibition
(Free, at the Fo Guang Yuan Art Gallery, 141 Queen St, Melbourne)

If you’ve always thought that embroidery was just a hobby handicraft, then seeing this impressive exhibition will immediately break down all your preconceptions. In fact, the range of artwork within The Magnificence of Embroidery shows such a diversity of styles, approaches and subjects that you may have trouble believing that every artwork was created with nothing more than needle and thread in the deft hands of just one woman: Yao Hong Ying.

Born into a family of embroiderers in 1970 in Suzhou, China, and growing up in the village of Zhenhu, which is famous for its embroiderers, Yao Hong Ying’s profession may almost seem predetermined. But whether naturally gifted or exceedingly disciplined, she has managed to stand out and excel in her art.

With a mixture of artworks, ranging from vibrant and luminous to simple and elegant, this eclectic exhibition offers a great introduction to Yao Hong Ying’s work. Although many of the works are reproductions of paintings or photographs, each one is meticulously realised and given new qualities in appropriation.

A reproduction of a portion of Along the River During the Qingming Festival (deemed by some to be China’s Mona Lisa) showcases miniscule details and a talent for both subtlety and broad, proportioned landscapes.

There are other natural landscapes, such as Snow Mountain and Oak Forest, that seem almost like photographs, with finely textured foliage and intricately shaded hillsides, all made through variations of thread patterns. Other photo-like pieces such as Incense Burner seem to be glowing and appear to almost bulge into 3D.

Elsewhere, The Eight Immortals, although a reproduction of an old painting, seems to almost resemble a modern manga or comic book with its bold outlines and stylised figures, demonstrating the union between traditional and contemporary art apparent in many of her appropriations.

One of the most striking pieces is Wang Zhao Jun, with a serene, porcelain face at its centre, surrounding by a swirling, brightly-coloured dress, spilling across the screen. Also of special note is The Kiss, a radiant reproduction of one of the most famous works by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, which is notable for being one of the pieces that transcends East-West dualisms.

Some works demonstrate the art of double-sided embroidery, like Mountain and River, mirrored on either side and set within an ornate, free-standing frame. Looking through the thin, semi-transparent canvas, you can see the large wooden Buddha statue facing you on the other side.

Several other works also represent the Buddhist element of the exhibition: Eighteen Arhats, for example, and various depictions of Avalokiteśvara, ranging from works that resemble pencil-drawn line art to more traditional murals. The descriptions that accompany these works also provide a great insight into some Buddhist tenets.

Beyond that, a fair portion of the exhibition consists of simpler still lifes of flowers, or renderings of birds. Although these aren’t overall as textured, detailed or immediately impressive, they remain beautiful.

My biggest quibbles with the exhibition would be with the plaques and descriptions throughout. None of the works have dates listed, so it was difficult discovering to what extent the exhibition represents the breadth or progression of Yao Hong Ying’s work over time. Additionally, roughly half the exhibition lacked any background detail beyond a title, though perhaps this is more about letting the pieces speak for themselves; I realise that not everyone shares my nerdy desire for the trivia behind every artwork. But all up, these issues didn’t significantly detract from a great experience.

If you already have an affinity with embroidery or Buddhism, or if you have a curiosity or willingness to learn about either, it’s unlikely that you’ll walk away from this exhibition disappointed. Like me, you might even find yourself thoroughly impressed. Amid the scent of temple incense, the gentle tones of Chinese flute music and the lure of the nearby tea house, it’s definitely worth immersing yourself in the surprisingly magnificent world of Yao Hong Ying’s embroidery.

(Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfman-k/3850115933 / CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Review: Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories

(So ends another blogging hiatus, hopefully the last for a while. Back to at least one post a week, yes? Yes! Okay! So! Here’s a review of a comic book I read recently)


Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories

by Warren Ellis (writer) and John Cassaday (artist)

Ever since I read his incredible Transmetropolitan series, I’ve been keen to devour more Warren Ellis (his work, not his flesh), so although I didn’t know what the heck Planetary was about, when I saw the volume one trade paperback, collecting the first six issues of  27, I had to grab it.

Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories begins with a superhuman fellow named Elijah Snow (able to freeze the air around him and such, hence the name), who is drinking bad coffee in a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. Out of this nowhere arrives Jakita Wagner (of superhuman strength and speed) who enlists Elijah into a highly secret organisation called Planetary, which is dedicated to investigating some highly fantastical goings-on. He soon meets the third member of Planetary, The Drummer (able to manipulate things like data and radio signals with the power of his mind), while another member, the shadowy Fourth Man, is only hinted at. Up to this point, I felt the beginning was a little thin and shaky, and I didn’t really see Elijah’s deeper motivation for going into it all so readily (well, besides the million-dollar salary). But my doubts were soon gradually eroded by a series of spectacular happenings.

In just the first issue’s mission, both Elijah and the reader are faced with otherworldly artefacts, a computer built in the 1940s that can recode the fabric of reality, and superheroes coming through an interdimensional portal to defend their dying planet.

If the presence of Ellis and an introduction by the well-respected Alan Moore hadn’t already given a hint, this isn’t a run-of-the-mill superhero action comic, not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with some good WHIFF, BAM and SNUH. But while other stories would be content to just follow in a straight line from this beginning, instead, issue two has a Japanese cult leader/novelist taking his followers onto a secret island, littered with what appears to be the decomposing corpses of Godzilla, Mothra and all their pals.

Not enough? How about the ghost of a Hong Kong cop seeking to avenge his own murder? Disappearing skyscrapers? A secret Nazi space program? Yup, and then some.

It’s not until about issue five that things start making some crazy kind of sense, just as I was wondering if all the disparate pieces would ever come together. As I wondered if these superhumans would do little more than just observe one extraordinary spectacle after another, Elijah seems to voice the same concerns. The grand events continue, but Elijah, shaking off some of the befuddlement the reader may be sharing with him, takes the reigns and gives the plot a clearer drive and focus. The adventures of these archaeologists of the impossible were cool enough, but with Elijah’s help, it looks like Planetary might start using its resources to take action and actually get involved in what they’re investigating.

Throughout this great six-issue story arc there are also some nice jabs of coarse humour and a good dose of righteous indignation at the horrors so often inflicted by those with power. By the end of this first collection, I felt as if I’d just witnessed a mighty, satisfying introduction to an awaiting adventure. I trust Mr Ellis will not disappoint in the following 21 issues.

Warren Ellis, with writing implement and pokemon

It’s not just him though. Besides the inker, letterer, colourist and the like (all probably unfairly underappreciated), it’s artist John Cassaday who helps bring this story to life with his illustrations. Most of the time his art is solid, sometimes subtly bleeding or exploding across the page, other times deftly capturing the action in so few frames that it stunned me. Sometimes I found the illustration a little patchy, or it didn’t quite hit the mark, but overall – though I’m still learning when it comes to the visual aspect of comics – I thought the art was great.

My only other criticism would probably be that while issue five’s “pulp novel within a comic” was a nice idea, it came off as a bit tacked-on and disorientating, which detracted slightly from the tying up of threads that was in motion at that point.

It’s hard to guess how the series will progress; I’m sure the rest of it will be just as unpredictable. There are still so many questions that need answering: who’s the Fourth Man? What’s hidden in Elijah’s past? And seriously, what’s the go with all of this crazy crap going on?

To me, sometimes the best works of fiction are like glimpses into a strange parallel universe. Weird, somewhat like our own, and offering us a chance to make sense of our own world in a different way, no matter how bizarre it all seems. Planetary got me thinking, amongst the spectacular setpieces, about all manner of such things. That’s something I love about Ellis: he fills his work with such varied and outlandish ideas and possibilities, yet it all seems to slot together so nicely. He packs insight into his comics, subtly playing with their conventions. As far as I can see so far, in Planetary he seems to be interrogating the 20th century in an interesting way, via the alternate history of a parallel Earth (or Earths), along with an exploration into comic book-related history and mythology. But it’s also just a none-too-dense, plain fun read.

I thoroughly enjoyed this in the end. I’m keen to read the remaining issues and it might be interesting to review the series as a whole when I do. Heck, this just confirms that I really want to absorb everything with Warren Ellis’s name on it. He’s a mad bastard genius and with Planetary, it looks like he’s given us a transhuman, transdimensional epic worth pursuing. With John Cassaday at his side, I trust that the near-infinite worlds of possibilities will continue to coalesce into something wonderful