Cui Xiuwen

崔 岫 闻

Painter + Videos *1970 Harbin, Heilongjian, studio Beijing

Cui Xiuwen
in her Beijing studio with 'Angel No. 9',
Photo NY Times, 2006

Cui Xiuwen, born 1970 in Harbin, China, graduated 1990 from the Fine Arts School of Northeast Normal University. Then graduated from China's Central Academy Of Fine Arts, Beijing, in 1996. In her early years, she focused on oil paintings on canvas, while since 2004, most her works are videos and photos.

As a young avant-garde artist from China, Cui Xiuwen has had the guts to depict female sexuality. 'Sex' has certainly not been a taboo in the classical art of China. Traditional Chinese culture viewed it as something that was beneficial to physical health, and researched it in great depth. Sex was an essential part of the extravagant, hedonistic lifestyle of aristocratic males, and only 'forbidden' as far as the poor and women were concerned. She resolutely took on the rôle of a feminist artist as early as her years at the Central Academy Of Fine Arts.
Her early paintings are, possibly for reasons of their content, ommited from presentations of Cui's oeuvre, yet they are very strong and form some of the best part of her work.

In this undertaking I will try to let Ms. Cui speak for herself, wherever I can find her comments in her autobiographical material on her website.

Painting shown at her first exhibition, Beijing 1995
photo CuiXiunwen

In 1997, before graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts she produced a series of 16 oils entitled 'Rose and Mentha', in which she depicted explitedly, though not graphical, the relationship between a woman and a female transvestite. - They were shown while she was still at the Academy and predictably raised a storm.

Rose and Mentha, 1996/1997

In her autobiographical notes (2009) Ms. Cui recalls
“I began my artistic dialogue with the world as early as in my oil painting series in 1996, Rose and Mentha, and the Chuan series in 1998. The works evoked controversial responses among the public and became a hotly debated topic among art critics and in the media.
In these works, I completed the first phase of my spiritual quest, i.e. the physical experience, through concrete images. My focus at that time was to explore through painting the relationship between the sexes, and my oil paintings at this stage feature the public representation of the private, physical experience.
I remember at that time a senior professor shook his grey head after seeing my work, and sighed with the best intentions, “why did you take up this subject, out of everything?” I shrugged his disapproval off with a smile. My peers’ favorable reviews, on the hand, spurred me on to my own path. A fellow male student who came to watch me painting daily once commented, “You will definitely become a dark horse in the artistic circle; take my word for it.” From such kind encouragements I drew a lot of confidence in myself.”

She continues rather self-sure –- however remember, by 2009 she had become famous by having her work shown at over 70 solo and international group exhibitions --


The year 1996 marks the start of my career as an independent artist. As a graduate from the training class of Central Academy of Art, I held an exhibition featuring 'Rose and Mentha' and other works, which created no small stir in the spectators.
To me, that exhibition is a prophetic sign: there had been no lack of controversy in my later works: sexual, psychological, social, artistic, philosophical, and so forth. In the juxtaposition of these different angles, the spiritual essence of my art has gradually taken shape. It, together with my life experience over the past dozen years, has in turn found expression in the changing style of my paintings.

An artist may start with painting the physical while reaching for the mind and the soul; or, she may base her work on experience at first, and later on knowledge and philosophy. The destinations of the two routes—the soul and philosophy—are no stranger to each other, but interwoven and interlinked. Nevertheless, the two routes more often than not represent a divide among contemporary artists: artists who take the former route attend more to sensibility, instinct, and embodied experience, while those who follow the latter route are keener on sense, logic, and ideas.
The former route happens to mirror my growth as an artist and as a human being.
The following review of my serial paintings reveals stages of my mental growth as well as my artistic qualities and limitations. It is undeniable that if I could go back in time, I would have painted many of these works differently. However, the clock can never be turned back, and imperfection lies in the very heart of art.”

Selfportrait, 1997

Chuan Series

Chuan Series 1998
photos CuiXiuwen

The Chuan Series of 20 oils in 1998 shows clear influences of Max Beckmann in subject, symbolism, and color palette – it alo appears to have a heterosexual relationship as subject for a change? Cui Xiuwen is obviously searching for a suitable symbollism to express her inner turmoil.
Beckmann's animal symbolisms doesn't satisfy her, and she abandons further experimentation in painting. Apparently she went through an unspecified serious illness in 2000 after which her brushstrokes become indecisive and weak. In her last series of oils she turns to children and young, troubled women.

Girls – Woman, 2002
photos CuiXiuwen

Videos and Photographs
In 2000 Cui began to explore photography and videos as her new medium. She ceased to paint entirely.

Full-length Cui videos are practically unobtainable. Videoartworld offers four at an exorbitant price.
The following is a list with links to screenshots on Cui Xiuwen's website:

Lady's 2000
Lady's was produced with a hidden camera in the "ladies room" of a Beijing nightclub where prostitutes are chatting as they prepare for their clients.

Toot 2001
Cui Xiuwen goes on stage and appears like a mummy, wrapped from head to toe in toilet paper. This is the image of women subjected to the gaze of men. Water drops slowly disintegrating the shell, leaving the woman naked and triumphant as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

Sanjie 2003
Sanjie was inspired by The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. The unique figure of a young schoolgirl is playing all the characters of the painting, magnifying their gestures. She wears a red scarf as did the Chinese Young Pioneers. This scarf represents a part of the Cui Xiuwen's youth. The shirt has remained very white in her memory, although Cui Xiuwen knows that souvenirs fade realty. The colour of history tries to erase horrors of the past. Judas may be any of us....

Them 2005
The conversation of an older man with a young girl - in an overexposed video strip.

Red Lanter n 2005
A red lantern as the Chinese sign of a brothel.

Spiritual Realm 2010
See below.

Zixing 2011
A series of three abstract videos symbolizing the evolving self.

One Day in 2004

Ms. Cui explains;
Photographing the same subject as in 'Sanjie', 'One Day in 2004' replicates the little girl’s 'student' image—a red scarf, a white shirt, and a checked skirt. The interpersonal relation is only suggested in one single female character, which at that stage of my artistic career serves as a vehicle for my reflections over female psychology and social structure.”

Three Realms, 2003
photo CuiXiuwen
The red scarf and white shirt had been important cultural symbols from the 50s to perhaps the 70s; even in today’s China they have largely held their ground. To me the red scarf stands for memories of a certain stage in my life: the aspiration for glory, the excitement and anxiety spurred by the martyrs’ sacrifice, the identifying, doubting, and questioning processes in the triumph of the collective over the individual, etc. The shirt is always as white as snow, even in our remotest dreams; it deluges everything that is not pure. However, in reality the history is fading away, the youngsters are growing up, and the memory seems hazier every day. This reminds me of the controversy over which figure is Judas in the “Last Supper”; to me Judas is nobody but we ourselves. As I grew older, I came to realize that human beings are the simplest and yet the most complicated creatures on earth. In this series, I take the youngster’s innocence as the point of departure, cut off the long maturation afterwards, and juxtapose the little girl with the burden of history. Let the image work out its own balance through the endless ruptures, identities, transmutations and duplications.”

Angel Series

Angel No.9, 2004
photo CuiXiuwen

Angel trapped in Chinese Society, No.3, 2004
photo CuiXiuwen
At the center of the picture are red walls and red-brick historical buildings, both emblematic of the social problems and of the human nature. The work encapsulates the collective memory of the 1970s in China, which has found many expressions in contemporary Chinese artworks. Through the juxtaposition of visual aesthetics with cultural emblems, the work probes into the submerged reefs of Chinese society.”

Angel pregnant, No.13, 2006
photo CuiXiuwen
She seems to be changing and growing up among us, yet we are unaware. She is abstract and yet real. My relationship with her is unified and yet separate. Watching her grow up, I am often lost in the logical relationship between me and her – her in me and me in her. My senses about her and my relationship with her have become elongated like an abstract memory. These are two threads, two paths of life, both in my memory and the girl’s.”

After Angel, A Chinese Art Paper Project

After Angel, Chinese Art Paper Project, 2007
photo CuiXiuwen

Existential Emptiness

Existential Emptiness No.3, 2009
photo CuiXiuwen

Existential Emptiness No.20, 2009
photo CuiXiuwen
The series 'Existential Emptiness' represents my mental state after I entered the stage of spiritual maturity. I began to explore issues in the mental domain rather than dwell on the material space in my previous works. Although in terms of formal presentation the work continues to adopt the “student” image, it has essentially detached itself from the material world and displayed instead, in a three-dimensional manner, the spiritual tension between human beings and nature and among human beings ourselves. It therefore marks my spontaneous maturation from body to mind and spirit. In the 3-year-long creation process from the beginning of the conception to the actual photographing and processing, I underwent profound extreme experiences and gleaned illuminations and inspirations here and there. My joy and sense of fulfillment in the spiritual growth have even overwhelmed the pleasure at the completion of the work. It is inexplicably delicious to trot along from the mental space to the spiritual space and from the 2-dimensional thinking to 3-dimensional thinking. I have completed many powerful, imaginative works in my mind and will become more creative in technical and artistic expression. Art knows no boundaries and so do humans. Contemporary art needs to embrace modernity, culture, spirituality, thoughts, ideas and religion. Human beings also need to traverse freely from the material to the mental domain, from the 2-dimensional to the 3-dimensional, from stasis to dynamism, to representation to discovery, from function to energy, from individual to the entire human race.”

The Spiritual Realm

The Spiritual Realm of Man and Woman, Static Videos, 2010
The group photographs are obviously produced by digital means, which would answer the question of how she had pursuaded her Chinese models to appear naked in such numbers. Apart from this, the composition is excellent.

Remarks by Cui Xiuwen
In a sense, this work is an experiment to some extent. An attempt was made for models to enter a natural state after they got rid of their social roles, and then into a divine state. Here are two problems. One is whether divinity is possible for ordinary people. The other is whether their potential for divinity can be accurately expressed and presented. Some discoveries of human nature were made in the process of this experiment....
Men are born with divinity. Women are in search for gods.
We see a new possibility of human nature through this work: hope, yearning and divine power.”

Well, what's next?