By Owen Lee, Staff Writer
On Friday, October 13 at 3:00 p.m., internationally acclaimed author Madeleine O’Dea arrived at UMass Darmouth to provide insight into her seminal book, The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance, and the Making of Modern China, published last year.
Our school is the second stop on her United States tour, which includes stops like the China Institute of New York, and the University of Colorado in Boulder. She spoke to an enthralled audience in the Grand Reading Room of the Claire T. Carney Library.
Part memoir and part history, this book details O’Dea’s experience with contemporary art in China and how the art reflects China’s social and political health. She witnessed the art scene’s transition during China’s Cultural Revolution, immediately before and after the Tiananmen Square, and in the 90s to the 2000s. The Phoenix Years is the result of 30 years of living in China, and a lifelong love of contemporary art.
“Part of the inspiration for writing this book was to make China’s story more personal.” O’Dea told the audience in a preamble before her talk. “China, it’s not just a mass, it’s all people.” The book gives profile to nine different artists of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and roles in Chinese history during and after its Cultural Revolution.
O’Dea first describes how she began living and caring so much for China; In 1968 she was a correspondent for the Australian Financial Review in Beijing, writing an article on the opening of China in the global market. She describes the artists she met while she was writing her book, detailing their lives and hardships as they struggled in a hostile political environment.
She also points attention to the pieces of contemporary art produced in Chinese history noting the differences in tone made by each generation after Tiananmen Square. She brings special attention to Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Series, monochromatic paintings that demonstrate a sense of grief and tragedy, and Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism, which mixes propaganda imagery and the symbol of Coca-Cola to communicate a rejection of the Chinese communist party and an embrace of foreign ideas.
Through communicating these artists’ histories and showcasing their art in her book, O’Dea offers a perspective on living in China in the late twentieth century.
O’Dea is commonly credited as one of three Australian authors who have written on China in the past decade. The event was free and open to the public, and afterwards O’Dea remained to sell and sign copies of The Phoenix Years.