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November 22, 2020

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Artists connected by war, violence, trauma

ARTISTS Miriam Cahn and Claudia Martinez Garay had nothing in common until an ongoing exhibition in Nanjing brought them together.

Entitled “Ten Thousand Things,” the exhibit at Nanjing Sifang Art Museum took a bold move to juxtapose Cahn’s paintings with Garay’s art installation.

The two are from different generations and come from distinctive cultural backgrounds: Cahn comes from an affluent Jewish family in Basel and is one of Switzerland’s most established artists, while Garay is a rising young artist from Peru who lost her family in a civil war. Yet, they are “somehow connected” by their reflection on war, violence and trauma in artworks, said curator Weng Xiaoyu.

Weng was first introduced to Cahn’s paintings in 2017 at Kassel Documenta in Germany, and found it “quite shocking but impressive.” A year later, she visited the artist in her studio at the foot of the Alps.

“Aged 69 (then), she was and still is a powerful woman and very productive. She paints almost every day; Stacks of paintings piled up against the wall in the studio,” Weng said.

“When she showed me these pieces one by one, I suddenly realized that everything is connected, all these images — human figures, animals, plants.”

With the support of Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Swiss Arts Council, Weng managed to bring Cahn’s work to China for the first time.

Cahn’s large-scale landscape paintings took center stage of the main hall on the museum’s first floor.

“In apocalyptic hues,” these pieces are imbued with images of living beings hard to identify.

For example, the mountain chains resemble blood vessels in the piece “My Way,” and the driftwood in “Lying around” reminds people of human limbs or organs. It’s Cahn’s unique metaphor, “violence and exploitation that human beings have been cast on the land,” Weng said. To expand the narrative, the curator paired Cahn’s paintings with Garay’s artworks.

Among them are a dozen tufting tapestries and murals that the Peruvian specially designed for the exhibition.

These installation works are inspired by “Pachakuti,” an idea originating from Andean culture that marks a return to the very beginning in the cycle of time and space.

Borrowing the native concept from her very own roots, Garay explores the imprints of colonialism on culture and lifestyle of indigenous communities.

Installation works entitled “Cockfight,” “Blood Feast” and “Pulling Duck” come from the Peruvian folk entertainment of cockfight and bullfight, which were brought in by the colonists. Together, they demonstrate how colonialism invaded native culture, “fabricate narratives that persist power and violence,” and was gradually internalized, Weng said.

Other highlights include Cahn’s atomic bombs series (1986-91). The artist depicts uprising mushroom clouds and splashing fireballs by throwing watercolor pigments along with the same amount of water onto the paper. In contrast to the exuberant images are her deep fear of war.

The exhibition is wrapped up with Garay’s installation “The Creator,” which comes back to “Pachakuti” — a life-and-death cycle, a “reincarnation borne with scars.” By the balcony on the second floor, Garay created an unexcavated archeological site with ceramic relics half-buried in the soil.

“The minute the relics are unearthed, they have a new life and a new possibility of narrative,” Weng said.

“Ten Thousand Things”


Date: Through May 23, 2021

Venue: Sifang Art Museum

Address: No. 9 Zhenqi Rd, Pukou District, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province



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