(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.