I find it hard to stay on track and write about only Canadian outsider artists. The world is an (art) playground for me. So, a quick detour to a Chinese artist, Guo Fengyi (1942 – 2010), who had an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver last month. Guo Fengyi came to world attention when she participated in the 2002 Long March Space – a Walking Visual Display – in Beijing. Since then, her work has been exhibited in Lyon, Taipei, Prague, Yokohama and VANCOUVER!
Guo Fengyi was involved in Qigong, a Chinese health maintenance practice that cultivates qi energy throughout the body as a way to alleviate illness. She also studied mysticism and it was during that time that she began having powerful visions that she felt compelled to put on paper. It was her way to balance her body and the spiritual world. She has been drawing since the age of 47. Her biography notes that the subject matter of her drawings “comes from traditional Chinese systems of thought, cosmology, acupuncture energy maps, divination, sage kings, geomancy and dynastic grave sites – all of which have become dispensable in modernizing China.” She preserves the “cultural memories” of Chinese society.”
The sheer size of Guo Fengyi’s work is impressive. She mainly worked on long scrolls of paper (some of them 16 ft long). The works in the exhibit were typically 2 x 10 ft vertical hangings, attached to the wall with push -pins. I cringe at the thought of trying to preserve these fragile works of art. The drawings are delicate and finely drawn in black ink and coloured pencil. You would need a magnifying glass and many hours to pour over the detail of each piece. The pieces are right-side-up and upside-down at the same time, covered in scrolls, faces, swirled patterns. The entire effect is hard to describe. Have a look at the Long March Space website and see for yourself.
Guo Fengyi talks about her work in a video. She says that people in China don’t like her drawings. They are superstitious and wonder why she is in contact with the spirit world. “To them I am a monster,” she says. Guo Fengyi paints and draws until she gets a person’s “essence” on paper, and no two people are alike. She does not know people by looking at them; she knows them by drawing them.
The explanation that Guo Fengyi gives for her work reminds me a little of Madge Gill (1882-1961), a mediumistic artist, who is highly regarded in the outsider art world. After a long and severe illness, Gill was ‘possessed’ by Myrninerest, her spirit-guide, who directed her drawing for the rest of her life. Guo Fengyi does not speak of the spirit world in such a direct way. Rather, she explains it as getting messages from beyond that encourage her to continue her art work. As always, I was struck by the “normalcy” of this artist as she talked about her own work. She is certainly in touch with “something”, whether it is the spirit world or her own essence.