Undersong: Secrets, Dreams, Truths and Power: Chen Haiyan & Tao Aimin

June 22 - August 18, 2019


This is an exhibition about you

This is contemporary art about everyone

These are works that relate to us all

This is not only a story about her

This is a story about us



INK Studio is proud to present Undersong: Secrets, Dreams, Truths, and Power, a two-person solo exhibition of artworks by Chen Haiyan and Tao Aimin, which explore the power that is constituted by ordinary women when they share their intimate stories, secrets, truths, and dreams. 


For much of human history, the stories of women have been silenced, erased, trivialized, and submerged beneath the dominant, patriarchal discourse. In a similar way, women’s quotidian lives have all too frequently been belittled, constrained, and treated as insignificant, unbeautiful, and too mundane to be worth remark, commentary, eulogy, or memorialization.


The title of the exhibition comes from a book of poetry, also called Undersong, by the feminist poet Audre Lorde. An archaic word for what was once known as the “burden of a song,” or the chorus or refrain. An ‘undersong’ was both a subordinate melody and undertone in a song, and also the part of a song that carried the weight of its main meaning, theme, idea, or motif. The concept of ‘undersong’, then, is reclaimed by Lorde to speak to the often unsung meaning of the struggles of women, particularly women on the margins, dispossessed, disenfranchised, and alienated from their own sense of their power. 


In this same vein, Undersong draws on feminist poetics more generally to illuminate implications of the artworks brought together in the exhibition. In her celebrated poem For Strong Women, Marge Piercy wrote: “Strong is what we make each other. / Until we are all strong together, / a strong woman is strongly afraid.” Stories kept silenced, secrets left unshared, and dreams held to one’s chest in the dark, with eyes closed, fail to realize their latent power. Silence can only perpetuate status quo powerlessness. But, as Muriel Rukeyser famously asked:


“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?”


Curated in this spirit by Maya Kóvskaya, the show features works from across nearly four decades of Chen Haiyan’s acclaimed printmaking and ink painting practice, and works from almost two decades of Tao Aimin’s multidisciplinary work. Placing these oft-submerged secrets, dreams, and truths of the lives of ordinary women at the center of their works, their long-standing art practices show the quiet, yet formidable power brought into being through the celebration of the quotidian and the sharing of women’s dreams and intimate stories.


Chen Haiyan is one of China's greatest printmaking artists, and stands out for her long-term practice of keeping dream diaries upon waking each morning. With ink painting, woodcuts, copperplate prints, painting with ink on board, and a hybrid genre that combines her board painting with her woodcut practice, Chen Haiyan bares her intimate inner world, encoded in dream texts carved into the tableaux of her works. She exposes with disarming candor, and without fanfare, subtle truths of complexity and contradiction, fears and anxieties, desires and hopes, as well as observations and insights about herself, the lives of women, and indeed people, everywhere.


The dreamscapes of Chen Haiyan’s works immerse the viewer in a farrago of flashes of daily life’s pleasures and pressures, as well as roiling subconscious states that are both strange and yet hauntingly familiar. They are intimate metonyms of universal experiences. She mingles bemusement and confusion, persistence and resilience, as well as humor and horror, with a frank intimacy.that is revealed in works such as the interconnected series of an unfolding dream about a bull. 


Across several panels, the bull is chasing and spying on her, writing sloppy letters, drinking wine, and wanting to dance with her and get lucky, while Chen Haiyan tries to escape. While the frustrations she expresses and countermeasures she takes are specific to a particular dream—the knife she has is too small to protect her properly but she has no time to get a longer one, so she encourages the bull drink more wine and dance with others before she has to dance with him in hopes that drunk he will be easier to kill—these absurd elements bespeak more general, common, all too familiar anxieties about aggressive men and toxic masculinity that most women have lived through. 


Likewise, any woman caught between the conflicting imperatives of incommensurable gender roles, foisted on us by a world that demands we “do it all and have it all” whilst making our formidable efforts seem effortless, can relate to the feeling of being thrown off balance and having to nevertheless persist—a feeling that is embodied in the dream in which Chen Haiyan finds herself wearing a bizarre combination of one high-heeled pump and one clunky flat shoe.


Twenty-years her junior, Tao Aimin embraces the variegated language of a multidisciplinary artist working at the intersection of an anthropologically grounded, sometimes documentary, and always material-culture sensitive practice. 


Tao Aimin first came to international prominence with her washboard series of installations, rubbings, ink painting, and other treatments that draw out the secret language inscribed through the use-wear marks left by the lifetimes of manual labor of ordinary rural Chinese woman. 


In a second body of work, Lotus Fragments, Tao Aimin spent years in the late 90s into the 2000s documenting with video, photography, and quotidian objects, the struggles against a slowly degenerating life, but also the fierce independence and tenacious dignity of her elderly landlady, who was of that last generation of footbound women. 


In her most recent body of work, Tao Aimin picks up the thread the secret language from the washboard, paying homage to the power of sharing the intimate secrets of everyday life. Studying what has been hailed as a “secret language of women” – nü shu 女书 – she joins a small group of local women from Jiangyong county in her native Hunan Province, and scholars of linguistics, women’s studies, and Chinese traditional culture, to help, through her artistic practice, to preserve and re-invigorate this unique writing system developed by and passed down through generations of Hunanese women that is now dying out. 


By using nü shu in her art practice, adopting many of its traditional forms (including letters, books, fans, embroidery, couplets, and other calligraphic forms) to express contemporary predicaments, preoccupations, and experiential realities of modern women, she infuses this dying art of sharing women’s secrets with new context of usage. Just as she spent years collecting rural women’s washboards, she has begun collecting women’s secrets, stories, confessions, wisdom, and knowledge, from which she creates powerful contemporary nü shu works, reinvigorating the time-honored forms of the genre with the urgency and relevance of contemporary content. At the opening, she will engage in a performance intervention, inviting participants from the audience to share with her their secrets, which she will render into calligraphic nü shu works on paper.


In Undersong, Chen Haiyan’s idiosyncratic yet universal narrated dreamscapes – with the text from the respective dream diary entry carved into the face of the work—join Tao Aimin’s documentary work, washboard and nü shu installations and calligraphic work, such as her new body of “secret fans,” which record the knowledge and power shared between mother and daughter, and women’s bold confessions.


Power comes from the sharing of quotidian truths; from bringing that which was submerged and suppressed back up to the surface and into the light. This conversation among artworks across two generations of Chinese women is also conversation amongst the dreams and secrets and truths of women’s everyday lives. When our voices are all raised together, we find our own powers in ways unavailable to us in atomized, isolated silence, alone. 


In this spirit, the works of Chen Haiyan and Tao Aimin are offered as an undersong spanning generations of women, from theirs to ours, or as Muriel Rukeyser put it, “my lifetime listens to yours.” And in response to her poetic query: “What would happen if one woman told the truth abouther life?” Rukeyser answers:


“The world would split open.”


Undersong celebrates the joyful possibilities for solidarity and engendering new, generative forms of power that take form when the old world that was upheld by our collective silence is split open by the breaking of silence, and the sharing of secrets, stories, truths, and dreams.



~Maya Kóvskaya, PhD



About the Artist

Chen Haiyan

Born in 1955 in Liaoning, Chen Haiyan graduated in 1984 from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou studying woodblock printmaking. Uniting traditional Chinese elite aesthetics with a rough vernacular quality, style and medium, Chen Haiyan renders her subject matter — dream images from her unconscious — with an unparalleled sense of emotional directness. She has held solo and group exhibitions in important museums, galleries and institutions worldwide, including the Pacific Asia Museum in Southern California (1987), Marlborough Fine Art in the UK (1987), the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (1992), Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (1993), Räume der Hessstraße, Munich (1996), the Portland Museum of Art, Oregon (1996), the British Museum, London (1996), the Art Institute of Vancouver, Canada (1998). Over the last decade, Chen Haiyan has begun to attract deeper attention in her native China with exhibitions at the Shanghai Art Museum (2004), the National Art Museum of China, Beijing (2010), China National Academy of Art, Hangzhou (2011), and the Zhejiang Art Museum, Hangzhou (2011). Most recently she has had a major solo exhibition at INK Studio, Beijing (2013), Fujian Museum of Art (2016), and Pera Museum, Istanbul (2019). 


Chen Haiyan is currently a senior professor in the Print Department of the National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. She is featured in the documentary film, The Enduring Passion for Ink, and her work is the subject of the scholarly monograph Carving the Unconscious, edited by Dr. Britta Erickson and distributed in the United States by D.A.P. Her works can be found amongst others in the collections of the British Museum, the Museum of Sydney, the Portland Museum of Art, the Pacific Asia Museum in Southern California, the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Tianjin Art Museum, the Lingnan Fine Arts Museum in Dongguan, the Guangdong Museum of Art and the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.


Tao Aimin

Tao Aimin (b. 1974 in Hunan) graduated from the Fine Arts Department of National Huaqiao University, Fujian in 1999. She approaches the lives of rural Chinese women with a combination of empathy and anthropological curiosity, giving voice to their unexpressed and undocumented experiences, which are increasingly at risk of being forgotten. Incorporating found objects, painting, calligraphy, printmaking, video, and installation, Tao’s works move fluently between elite and popular culture and between the languages of traditional and contemporary art. 


Tao Aimin has exhibited in EGG Gallery, Beijing (2017), Dayuntang Art Museum, Beijing (2016), Red Gate Gallery (2016), the KIP International School Pavilion of the World EXPO in Milan (2015), INK Studio, Beijing (2014), Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Istanbul (2013), World Art Museum of China Millennium Monument, Beijing (2005, 2006, 2011), Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, Drexel University, Philadelphia (2011), National Art Museum of China, Beijing (2009), Today Art Museum, Beijing (2008, 2010), National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung (2009), the Fourth Chengdu Biennale (2009), Wuhan Art Museum (2009), Sepia International Gallery, New York (2007), the Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston (2007), as well as the North Jutland Art Museum, Aalborg, Danmark (2005). She has received a Newcomer Award of the 2006 Chinese Contemporary Art Document Exhibition, a nomination for the Xiao Shufang Award from the Wu Zuoren International Art Foundation, and a nomination as Artist of the Year in the Installation and Multimedia category in Art China (2009). Her works has been chosen as one of the most influential installation artworks in the past thirty years in contemporary China, “30 Works for 30 Years” (2016), and can be found in the collections of Yanhuang Art Museum, Chengdu Modern Art Museum, Long March Space, the Museum of Chinese Women and Children, Adam Schall von Bell – Wissenschaft und Kunstforschung e.V., Germany, among others. 


About the Curator

Maya Kóvskaya

Curator, art critic, independent scholar, and translator Maya Kóvskaya (PhD UC Berkeley, 2009), has over twenty years of research experience in China. Winner of the 2010 Yishu Award for Critical Art Writing, Maya has authored, co-authored, edited, translated, and contributed to numerous books and articles on contemporary art. Maya has worked on over 35 Asian contemporary art exhibitions and public art interventions in various capacities, including sole curator, curatorial coordinator, conceptual framer and art critic, project director, and academic adviser. Noteworthy exhibitions include: Dai Guangyu—Making Traces: The Arts of Participation and Refusal, at INK studio, Beijing (2017); Chimeric Landscape: Zheng Chongbin, hosted by the European Cultural Center, at the Palazzo Bembo, during the Venice Biennale, (2015); Earthbound, Project 88, Mumbai, (2015); Some Kind of Nature: Tejal Shah,Outset India and Project 88, New Delhi (2014); Shirin Neshat: Book of Kings, Faurschou Foundation, Beijing (2013); Louise Bourgeois: Alone and Together, Faurschou Foundation, Beijing, (2013); The Secret Life of Plants, Exhibit 320, Delhi (2012); In You is the Illusion of Each Day, Latitude 28, Delhi (2011); Staging Selves: Power, Performativity & Portraiture, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai (2011); Excrescence, The Guild, Mumbai (2011); A Cry from the Narrow Between: Eros and Thanatos in the Works of Tejal Shah & Han Bing, Gallery Espace, New Delhi (2010); Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography, Beijing Curatorial Consultant to Curator Keith Wallace, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver (2009); China Under Construction, part of Fotofest 12th Annual Photography Biennale, Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston (2007), and many others. Maya also taught for eight years at the university level, at University of California, Berkeley, Beijing Capital Normal University, Beijing Polytechnic University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and has lectured extensively on art and curation at universities, museums, and public institutions worldwide for the past 20 years. She is also Art Editor for positions: Asia Critique(Duke University Press) (2011 - present). 


About INK Studio

INK Studio is an art gallery based in Beijing. Its mission is to present Chinese experimental ink as a distinctive contribution to contemporary transnational art-making in a closely-curated exhibition program supported by in-depth critical analysis, scholarly exchange, bilingual publishing, and multimedia production. Representing more than 13 artists, including Bingyi, He Yunchang, Li Jin, Li Huasheng, Wang Dongling, Yang Jiechang, and Zheng Chongbin, the gallery exhibits works of diverse media, including painting, calligraphy, sculpture, installation, performance, photography, and video. Since its inception in 2012, INK Studio has regularly appeared at art fairs such as the Armory Show (New York), Art Basel Hong Kong, and West Bund Art & Design (Shanghai) and placed works into major public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and M+, Hong Kong.