Archive: printmaking

‘Sheltering from the Storm – Artistic Residencies and Environmental Change’ – Leonardo Journal Transactions

7th March, 2011

Extract from the essay:

Living as an artist in Beijing on an open-ended mostly self-generated residency, UK artist Helen Couchman independently navigated the construction site for the Bird’s Nest Stadium in December 2007 before the 2008 Olympics where she asked construction workers to pose for 143 haunting photographic portraits whose anonymous faces look out of her resulting book capturing a moment of intense reality in a feverishly rebranding city. (1)

Couchman’s London exhibition last year ‘Cloud series, Yellow lining’ was inspired by a journey above the Beijing skyline: ‘The inadvertent starting point for these works was ….noticing, as the plane in which (I) was travelling descended towards the as yet unrevealed Beijing metropolis, a thin layer of bright yellow cloud, delineating a relatively fine line of material through which the aircraft quickly passed. From the ground nothing of this curious narrow band was visible, only a clear blue sky. There is some irony here in the application of the English expression ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, which suggests that everything bad has its positive, if perhaps at first hidden, aspect. In the present case the matter is reversed, the clear blue of the sky being discreetly penetrated by an invisible layer of tangerine haze. It is difficult to see the ‘silver lining’ in this ominous yellow vision.‘ (2)

(1) WORKERS 工人 (Soloshow Publishing, 2008)

(2) Cloud series, Yellow lining 2009


‘Sheltering from the Storm-Artistic Residencies and Environmental Change’

Published in Leonardo Journal Transactions, March 2011. Written by Bronac Ferran, Royal College of Art, London

Exhibition – Cloud series, Yellow lining

19th September, 2010

Exhibition of lino-cut, woodblock, etched and Chine-collé prints. Shown at the This Is Not A Gateway (TINAG) 3rd, Festival On Cities.

Opening 7pm on Thursday 21st October. Then 22-24th October. Hanbury Hall, 22 Hanbury Street, (off Brick Lane) London E1 6QR

Cloud series, Yellow lining

This new, ongoing series of landscapes employs and variously combines – lino cut, woodblock, etching, embossing and one-off Chine-collé prints, and utilises as its point of reference cloud imagery. To some degree Couchman is paralleling cloud motifs, which she has observed in temples, public architecture and large courtyard homes, (siheyuan) across China. This traditional subject, being usually depicted in stone or wood, materials that are in acute contrast to the ethereality of actual clouds. This mirrors the printmaking process where the cloud is carved in lino or wood or etched in copper.

The inadvertent starting point for these works was Couchman noticing, as the plane in which she was travelling descended towards the as yet unrevealed Beijing metropolis, a thin layer of bright yellow cloud, delineating a relatively fine line of material through which the aircraft quickly passed. From the ground nothing of this curious narrow band was visible, only a clear blue sky.

There is some irony here in the application of the English expression ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, which suggests that everything bad has its positive, if perhaps at first hidden, aspect. In the present case the matter is reversed, the clear blue of the sky being discreetly penetrated by an invisible layer of tangerine haze. It is difficult to see the ‘silver lining’ in this ominous yellow vision.

Couchman’s depictions of clouds are somewhat stylized, presenting age-old Chinese imagery in a modern form that owes much to the technical devices and conventions employed in western comics. Her pairing of Chinese wood and stone clouds with references to 20th century cartoons and design have allowed for a fantasised depiction of a grey and yellow cityscape.

Cloud series, Yellow lining No. 6


Cloud series, Yellow lining No. 7

Featured – China Daily, ‘Private fantasies, creative vulnerability’

29th March, 2010

Feature article, ‘Private fantasies, creative vulnerability‘ about Helen Couchman’s work is in the China Daily newspaper this morning.

English artist Helen Couchman at work in her Beijing home. Wang Jing / China Daily

British artist presents cultures in photographs. A look at her bio makes it sound like English artist Helen Couchman has taken her art on a journey all round the world, the UK, Cyprus, Armenia, the United States, and for the past four years, China.

Couchman, however, would be more inclined to say that it is the other way around, that it is her art that has taken her all over the world. And for the last four years, it’s Beijing.

“I’ve lived in lots and lots of different places, but being here it’s pushed forward. I’ve taken it further.”

The question Couchman has been pursuing in her recent work deals with her how to identify ourselves with where we are, what is an ideal city and what makes Beijing Beijing?

“While I’m observing the city and what it means to go around and observe. I only see what I think I understand,” she said. “But I love the otherness of all of these things, and when they get filtered down they form, well, these fantasies, really.”

Couchman has chosen to visually articulate these “fantasies” through the manipulation of scale.

“With some projects there are tiny high rises or huge dragon statues. I feel that the dislocation or manipulation of scale make a playful landscape. And that’s been quite a recurring theme.”

In her series Untitled (Collecting and Dropping) Couchman presents this juxtaposition of cultures in a sequence of photographs, where she poses nude behind a massive Chinese fan from which the paper is gradually removed.

Couchman’s latest book, Workers, was a project that documented the men and women hired to construct the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube prior to the Olympic Games. Photographing 143 individuals posing in the same position in front of these massive structures they have helped construct, the book is a singular portrait of both the workers and Olympic-fever Beijing.

While her primary medium is photography, she also works in other mediums. Her most recent work, a linocut series, Yellow Lining 12345, an exploration of clouds and the typography of the sky as a landscape.

She says the inspiration for the series came when she arrived back in Beijing in February. “It was a blue sky day, but when we landed there was a smog of white, and what really struck me was that on top of this was a band of yellow, a sort of layer of tangerine.”

She decided to use relief printing for the series because of its rough-and-ready graphic appeal. “Because of the nature of woodblock printing, it really lends itself to a sort of crude form of printing, the positive and negative and little in-between. They’re a little more like a comic strip. A bit explosive,” she said.

Work from the series will be on sale at the Affordable Arts Beijing fair on April 24-25.

However, it was a photograph that first drew her to China. “I had seen pictures in the back of a glossy weekend newspaper supplement and one time they had a picture of the Harbin Ice Festival and it burned a trail in my mind from about 2000. After that, I was obsessed with coming.”

In 2006, Couchman was finally able to make her way to China via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

“I had never been to Asia before so it was great to go by land,” she said. “When I arrived in 2006, I decided after three days I wanted to live here and a year later I moved.”

But for someone whose living is made from exhibiting her ideas in public, Couchman’s creative method actually requires a lot of privacy.

“Even my friends don’t know what I’m doing,” Couchman said. “I just need a space. I don’t want to have to deal with other people’s points of view at this stage. I want people to see it and know what they think, but I think in the creative process you have to almost stop and go on with it. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in.”

Still, like any artist who deserves the title, she is comfortable with vicissitudes of her creative drive. Private fantasies, creative vulnerability

“I’ve got boxes of notes,” she said.

“Things I might come back to later because it might just be not the right time.

“I think that ‘s why I don’t understand why people harp so much about originality,” she said.

“Art’s all a melting pot of a bunch of other things people have seen and heard. The discipline is that I keep pushing myself on my own terms not a race against other, But a race against myself.

Christine Laskowski
Arts, China Daily

See the same on the China Daily online here:

New Work landscape prints reviewed – Crafts Council magazine, ‘Contemporary Chinoiserie’

1st November, 2008

chinoisery article small

…The vision of China represented in this exhibition is, as its title suggests, still a romantic and fanciful one, though more actively engaged and critical than its antecedents. Moments of darker realities do pierce through uncomfortably, with Helen Couchman’s paper works commenting on the changes in Beijing’s built environment and Gayle Chong Kwan’s detached observation of the deserted English-style satellite town outside Shanghai. …

Gigi Chang was assistant curator of China Design Now at the Victoria and Albert museum.

Crafts. Nov/Dec 2008

Private View – Contemporary Chinoiserie

10th September, 2008

Contemporary Chinoiserie
Curated by Day+Gluckman

Private view: 6pm tonight
11th September – 26th November 2008

Collyer Bristow Gallery
4 Bedford Row


An exploration of a modern day concept of Chinoiserie; relationships,
aesthetic responses and perceptions of China.

Lisa Cheung, Gayle Chong Kwan, Helen Couchman, Stephanie Douet, Ed Pien, Neil Stewart, Pamela So, Karen Tam and Erika Tan

This exhibition brings together artists from the UK and Canada whose work or practice is affected by their connection to China. The exhibition explores how pervasive Chinese culture, industry and aesthetics are in our everyday lives, be them actual or perceived.

‘Chinoiserie’, a French term meaning ‘Chinese-esque’, derived from the Seventeenth Century as an entirely European style that was influenced wholly from China and the East. The China that was being emulated was in fact fictitious. Very few real images of life in China had reached the west. Instead a Utopian land was described and repeated through the use of decorative motifs and styles. The influence and desire for China, it’s trade and culture ramified in to the 19th century, opium wars, trade and colonialism.

In Contemporary Chinoiserie we look at the work of nine artists’ whose practice explores their relationship with China through photography, prints, film, sculpture and ceramics. The artists all reference a contemporary response to a China, neither fully understood nor real; from stylistic responses, mythical tales, and references of racism and displacement to a desire to understand what China means to them. Whilst many of the artists’ are of Chinese descent, others are linked to China through family or, in one case, live in Beijing.

Artist Stephanie Douet is interested in Chinoiserie as the birth of leisure in Europe. The fractured, fictional idyllic life the aristocracy in Europe imitated of China is explored in her bizarre sculptures. Douet, whose two young nieces are adopted from China sees a similar distance in Europe’s understanding of the country today and a continuation of trade and misunderstanding from that of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The sculptures resemble furniture and antiques with indiscernible meaning and use. Their quirky shapes and beautiful craftsmanship are a contemporary take on the curios that came from trade missions in the beginning of Chinoiserie.

Karen Tam, based in Canada, creates installations looking at the influences and cultural particularities of Chinese communities. Her work, like Douet’s, directly references Chinoiserie as she looks at contemporary issues and misconceptions of the culture. Paper cuts, a traditional Chinese craft, adorn the walls, referencing take away menus, railway posters, racist political cartoons and export chinaware.

Ed Pien, also Canadian, was born in Taipei, Taiwan and in this exhibitions presents new work including The Blue Vine. The blue references the Delft Blue colour iconic of exported Chinese porcelain whilst the drawing technique mirrors the hand-painted effect of glaze. As with his earlier works, creatures of all sorts abound. Here the politically motivated and denigrating caricaturization of the “Orientals” in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s comes into play.

Lisa Cheung works often works with people, creating events and group activities. For Contemporary Chinoiserie she will show work created over the past few years for various commissions. One such piece is from a project in Plymouth with the local Chinese community. Working inside the Plymouth City Museum she made new porcelain pieces to go along side those exported though Plymouth’s history as a trade seaport. The crockery showed stylised portraits of the people she worked with at the time they first came to the UK. A recent work used light to shine the last texts messages of the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers to their loved ones in a haunting installation.

Erika Tan’s work evolves from an interest in anthropology and moving image having studied Social Anthropology and Archaeology at Cambridge and film at the Academy of Arts in Beijing. In Contemporary Chinoiserie she shows ‘Shot Through: Journey of Connections’, a film looking at her own relationship with China through the memories and notes of well known philosophers such as Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva.

Pamela So employs the manipulative qualities of digital photography to re-interpret and re-present history based on her Scottish/Chinese background. So looks at the pick and mix attitude towards the use of Chinese motifs and extravagant and playful elements of Chinoiserie. Developing a lightbox piece, ‘Gaming with pigs‘, based on her own family history of gambling and her own fortunes of being born in the year of the pig she explores the destructive decadence of the genre.

Helen Couchman is currently living in Beijing. As the Olympics approached she sought to understand some of the human impact on the site. A new publication of her photographic portraits of the workers on the iconic ‘Birds Nest’ Stadium and ‘Water Cube’ has just been published with funding from Arup. For Contemporary Chinoiserie she shows a series of woodblock print landscapes. A traditional Chinese medium Couchman has learnt since living in the country. The images, striking on the surface, question the current regard for culture in the city she is watching change before her eyes.

Neil Stewart’s, whose wife is Chinese, has long standing interest in Chinese philosophy, which informs his work. He uses video to explore the very different concepts of time that exist in Chinese and Western cultures. Stewart videos of a traditional Chinese landscape and the room in which Mao lived after the Long March are in fact models.

Gayle Chong Kwan also creates models with everyday objects to investigate cultural environments. Her work is crammed with historical references that comment on contemporary culture.

Satellite dishes

27th November, 2007

There is something about the silent communications that huge satellite dishes suggest that I find intriguing and an inspiration in my work.

IMG_2689 for web

IMG_2225 for web

Landscape No. 2 (80 x 100cms)