Cui Xiuwen

Article Bio Works Projects
Visual Arts (video art)
Asia, Eastern
created on:
July 17, 2003
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Light on female sexuality in China

The young artist Cui Xiuwen portrays modern female lives in China in video installations.
As a young avant-garde artist from China, Cui Xiuwen has the guts to approach the female sexuality.

´Sex´ in China is certainly not something that has been a taboo since ancient times. 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.

However, there was a necessary ban on discussing sex openly, as this could prove harmful to public morals, corrupting the poor and leading women astray. Furthermore, when the aristocratic males who had the ´right´ to enjoy pleasure discussed sex among themselves, they did so under a mist of euphemism, finding this way to be more interesting and appealing.

Consequently, classical era works of art with a sexual theme are mostly of the ´Spring Palace Painting´ type, erotic paintings created for private amusement, and the artists are all male.

´Sex´ in China was made an all-out taboo during the abnormal years of the Cultural Revolution. As the targets of revolutionary utilitarianism, neither men nor women could have the slightest form of personal private relationship, and the various relationships between people were reduced and simplified by politics to a single transcendent form: ´comrades in revolution´.

In art from this period, insane revolutionary fervour reaches a great height, with the colour of the symbolic ´red ocean´ like a raging fire, washed clean of anything related to sex. In the last 20 years, following the negation of the Cultural Revolution, after the great waves of commerce and the rising of the sediment of popular culture, two things that were originally very basic to traditional Chinese culture found a new lease of life. One was ´food,´ the other was ´sex´. The difference was that, while ´food´ could be indulged in brazenly and without scruples, ´sex´ was still covered by a torn and moth-eaten veil of ´taboo´.

But in fact this was merely an outward appearance, in reality sex was thriving; the more taboo it was the more it thrived, quickly becoming an inexorable social undercurrent. The regrettable thing was that the all-out taboo of the Cultural Revolution years had left sex in a dry and barren state, stranded on an increasingly more dissipated ´consumer´ level; what´s more, men still played the leading role in this consumer activity.

Male artists were naturally unlikely to avoid social convention; changing pretty girlfriends was very fashionable and telling dirty jokes was routine, but their works seldom addressed the issue of sex. And for female artists, it almost goes without saying that the sex issue was a big risk.

From the mid 1990s, some female artists began exploring women´s issues and methods. Recently, in the works of younger female artists, we have seen a conscious concern with the female body and ´sexual´ issues.

Cui Xiuwen in her video ´Lady´s´ secretly films unlicensed prostitutes at ´work´. The choice to film in the unique location of the ´Lady´s room´ is very significant, as the lavatory serves as the only ´rational´ place to go on a break from work. Here, the prostitutes uninhibitedly exhibit the abnormal state of the shameful ´work´ for which they must sacrifice self-respect, youth, beauty and health, here they can also evade their clients for a while. Through this is revealed the real background of consumer sex in China, taboo on the surface but thriving beneath, and the really shameful ones are not these prostitutes who sell their own bodies, or even the sex trade itself, but the hidden identities of the clients who buy their services. In Cui´s series of photographs ´Chengcheng and Beibei´ young children are used to express issues of adult sexuality in a way that is not just direct, but even evil.

Cui Xiuwen is among these girls, born in the 1970s, a ´new kind of human´, who grew up in a relatively open social environment and came of age in the increasingly more globalised information age. They have not been subjected to an excessive amount of the standard, traditional suggestions that men and women are not equal, and neither have they been too much in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution ideology that men and women are absolutely equal. Their works race through the forbidden territory of ´sex´, marking a new course of development for Chinese women artists.

"Every minute, every second, people are in different spaces doing the same thing, or different things. Some of the things they do excite my interest, because within a certain relative period of time they can alter the function of the space. This can be seen in my earlier work Lady´s Room," says Cui Xiuwen.

"Underground 2 is another example: a woman unconsciously tearing off the peeling skin on her lips for more than 20 minutes. On a conscious level she is already immersed in the situation, and the underground is no longer everybody´s underground, but has turned into a public space of private necessity.

As an observer, my desire to watch is obstructed by the people in this public space; my watching has become a sort of spying. I used video technology to stretch this sensation into a film that lasts for three hours.

This extension of time alters the meaning of the woman, the obstruction, the observer, and the surrounding environment, and also the way they relate to each other. This is what I want to show in this work," says Cui Xiuwen.
Author: Karin Bergquist


1970: Cui Xiuwen was born in 1970 in Heilongjiang, China.

Lives and works in Beijing, China

Selected Group Exhibitions

2003: Out of Red, Chinese the Present- Art Exhibition, Italy
Guangyin, Chinese Art Exhibition, Italy
Prague Biennale, Prague
Alors, la China?, Center Pompidou, Paris, France

2002:Sorry for the Inconveinience: Under Construction, Project 304, Bangkok (CAT.)
run jump crawl walk, The East Modern Artcenter, Beijing, China
Chinart: Contemporary Art from China, Duisburg, Germany
Guangzhou Triennal, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangdong, China
East Asian Women and Herstories/The 2nd Women;s Art Festival, Korea
C´est pas du cinema, France
Under Construction/New Dimensions of Asian Art, Japan
The First Srae International Image Biennale

2001:Constructed Reality: Beijing Conceptual Photography, Hong Kong Arts Center Pao Galleries, Hong Kong
Up; Rice, Museum of Site (MOST), Hong Kong and other venues
Cross-Pressure: Contemporary Photography and Video from Beijing, Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
Made in China, Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, New York, USA
Scar; Chinese Photography and Video Exhibition, BASH, Beijing, China
China; Germany New Media Arts Week, LOFT, Beijing, China
Dialogue with Dali, Galerie de France, Shanghai, China
Dialogue; Others, Bari City Museum, Italy

2000: News Today´s: Conceptual Art Exhibition, Art Commune, Hong Kong
Plane: Beijing Contemporary Painting Invitation Exhibition, Beijing, China
About Me: Chinese Conceptual Photography, New Vision Gallery, Shanghai, China
Post Material, Red Gate Gallery, Beijing (CAT.), China
Australia New Media Exhibition, Australia New Media Art Department


Lady´s Room

Exhibition / Installation,


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Images of Asia

(08 August 03 - 26 September 03)