Chinese-Australian artist Guan Wei was awarded the 2015 Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize on the evening of August 28, for his triptych entitled Beach 5 (2014). The work, depicting a leisurely day out, draws from both traditional Chinese motifs and Australian iconography.
Speaking to ArtAsiaPacific from his home in Beijing, where since 2008 he has spent most of his time, Guan said, “Winning the AUD 50,000 helps support my living in China. It is very expensive to maintain a studio and making sculptures and ceramics also require money. These funds will allow me to continue making my art.”
Guan holds the dubious honor of having had two previous Beijing studios peremptorily demolished by local governments with only days to relocate—the most recent incident occurred four years ago. The 58-year-old artist first came to Australia before the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown to participate in an artist residency with the Tasmanian School of Art. Two further residencies quickly followed at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992 and the Canberra School of Art, Australian National University, in 1993.
Since then, the artist has gone on to establish a unique view of life in Australia with multi-panel works that make historical colonial references and reflect contemporary mores, often showing the plight of illegal refugees to Australia set against a stylized traditional Chinese map. Beach 5 is perhaps one of his most personal works in that it shows life in Australia, which for the artist remains a utopian ideal. According to Guan, the painting shows how, “Humans should be in harmony with nature.” He adds, “[The work depicts] blue skies, blue water, golden sand, animals, dogs, birds, and people relaxing on the beach enjoying one another.”
The judges for the 2015 Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize have said that the artist’s work was chosen for its “. . . strong cultural message. It is a painting about Australia and the idea of cultural transformation by a Chinese-born Australian artist that speaks to us about the changing nature of Australian life.”
For Guan, Australia remains a place where he can retreat to, in order to escape the harsh realities of living in China, a country where he says, “the water, the air, vegetables and food sometimes have problems” and the people are “anxious and very worried about these things and the future of China. Despite these woes toward his birth country, Guan’s view of Sydney is tempered by those forged overseas in the maelstrom of global metropolis’s such as London and New York and of course, Beijing. “Australia is very good but a little bit quiet. . . Australia is good for living but if you like looking at more interesting things then I think Beijing, New York or London is better,” he says.
The Arthur Guy Memorial Prize was conceived in 2003 with Bendigo Art Gallery and is presented to Australian artists every two years. Previous winners have included painters Dale Frank and Tim Johnson.
Guan Wei’s painting and works by shortlisted artists of the 2015 Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize is on view at Bendigo Art Gallery until November 1, 2015.