In 1992, Shi Tou moved into the Yuanmingyuan artist community, near the ruins of the Old Summer Palace which burned down in the 19th century. It was the first community of its kind for young artists working in contemporary art. Shi Tou was one of only two female artists in the community. Her art was marked by a powerful feminist consciousness. I believe that China's art world, when it comes to practising artists and critics, is still very male-dominated, and in the early 90s this was even more the case. Shit Tou recounts: "I remember that the male artists were constantly explaining to me and persuading me how women should really be." But she held onto her beliefs, and eventually gained recognition both in China and abroad.
"Whatever your gender, you yourself are a combination of yin and yang, a complete and entire self." – Shi Tou, on the series Concavo-convex
Shi Tou is the first woman to come out openly as a lesbian in Mainland China, and actively supports work for gay and women's rights. In 2001 she played the lead in China's first lesbian feature film, Fish and Elephant, directed by Li Yu. In 2006, she made the film 50 Minutes of Women, co-directed by Ming Ming.
The exhibition Secret Love has chose eight of Shi Tou's pieces from 1997 onward. She and her partner Ming Ming feature in several of these images. They live together in a Beijing suburb, often film together, but also fill their lives by growing flowers, organising tea ceremonies and meditating in Zen Buddhist tradition. Here she explains some of the pieces in the exhibition:
[Yuefenpai are a kind of advertising poster or calendar from the early 20th century. Beautiful women pictured with the goods to be advertised were popular subjects.]
I don't know how many have had the same thought as I did when I saw the old Yuefenpai posters from Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s: the wo beautiful women are probably a lesbian couple. My friends tell me that the posters were made for men, but to me it is still two women in love who want to share the joyful things in life. This is why I have made modern versions of these posters. The two women in the picture are Ming Ming and me. The pictures aren't photoshopped. Ming Ming and I have sawn out a wooden frame, painted it and then stood or sat in the frame and taken the photograph. In the background, we have added popular modern products: the very latest computers and mobile phones, cars, apartments, fast food, etc.
The inspiration for Karaoke in this series comes from an occasion when some lesbian friends met to sing karaoke; I had a detailed memory of two singing a duet, their wholhearted devotion, their gazes meeting, the emotion, the commitment – I wanted to get all of this into my piece. Free, unrestrained, close. It also became a document of our life.
Two Ming Mings
Our home province Guizhou has a natural area called Fenjingshan, with mountains, virgin forests and streams. This is where I photographed Two Ming Mings, Breathing and Performance. This is a beautiful area. When I was in high school, I travelled there with my friend Xixi; we brought very little money – five or six yuan – but stayed there for several days. There were clear streams in the mountains, waterfalls, thousand-year old trees, hundreds of songbirds, deer bounding away. When we saw a snake approaching our feet we stood stock still, quiet, and let it wriggle past. We were at one with nature.
But today, Fenjingshan has met the same fate as many other places in China, become exploited, ruined, step by step. In Two Ming Mings, everything is still; Ming Ming is caught in a moment, apparently immobile in the water. She wants to break free but can't; wants to breathe freely but can't. The work expresses the relationship between human and nature, and also indicates the harsh living conditions in modern society.
I got the idea for the series Concavo-convex in the search for a subtle and abstract way to express myself. I had started painting lines and blobs of paint on a special relief paper, and made the concave parts of the paper convex and the convex concave; I let the concave and convex segue into their opposites. The concave symbolises the yin and the convex the yang. The two terms are often used about gender in China, and it is said that the union between man and woman is the union between yin and yang, a natural balance. But in actual matter of fact, yin and yang are not immutable; constant transformation occurs between the two. Whatever your gender, you yourself are a combination of yin and yang, a complete and entire self. In later pieces in the Relief series, I have added other compositions to express constant change and the completion of the individual.
Shi Tou 石头
1969: born in Tongren, Guizhou
1988: graduated from Guizhou Art Academy
1992: moved into Yuanmingyuan Artist Village
Lives and works in Beijing