Dong Yuan: Everything Under Heaven

Stage 6 Visual Arts Case Study

Dong Yuan       董媛       Everything Under Heaven

Dong Yuan in her Beijing studio, 2019. Photograph Luise Guest
For PRELIMINARY, HSC and IB students, this Case Study is focused on:
o   Reading and analysing extracts of art critical writing to model descriptive writing and critical analysis and interpretation
o   Understanding ‘visual codes’ and iconography – applying the structural frame to understand how artists create meanings in their works through their choices of materials and their visual language
o   Understanding how contemporary artists work in ways informed by art history as well as the present-day issues in society, and how art historians explain works in their context
o   Examining how contemporary artists reinvent genres and art conventions
o   Comparative writing – learning how to compare works (by the same or different artists) to make well-supported inferences and deductions

For Teachers – Some Information About Teaching / Learning:
This Case Study focuses on the practices of the artist and the critic. In the first instance, students encounter the artworks themselves, in the gallery and/or in reproduction and/or online. A sequence of learning activities begins with a discussion of selected works, followed by reading the examples of art writing provided (models of critical practice), and responding to focus questions. Whole class and small group tasks are suggested, with links to other artists, and to other useful resources. An extended response question, with marking guidelines, requires students to develop an argument that demonstrates their understanding of the artist’s practice in his social and historical context.
Dong Yuan, Grandmother's House and Bosch's Garden, Installation view, 2013, Image courtesy the artist.

The Case Study may be approached in a range of different ways, depending on the particular interests of teachers and students. Strategies may include:

o   Independent research or collaborative investigations
o   ‘Socratic Dialogues’ that unpack a range of meanings in specific works
o   Debates or dialogues exploring how Dong Yuan depicts intensely personal spaces and objects that yet have universal resonance and significance
o    The creation of student blogs or websites for the publication of critical art writing

AIndividually, students read each of the three texts and answer the focus questions before attempting the extended response.
B: To extend this case study, working independently or in small groups, students may choose to investigate:

o   The relationships between works by Dong Yuan and western traditions of still life painting such as Flemish still life by artists such as Pieter Claesz. Here is a useful source of information with examples from the Metropolitan Museum:

o  Dong Yuan creates immersive installations in the art genre of 'interiors' with her organisations of (literally) hundreds of canvases. Compare her work with the interiors painted by Edward Hopper, Felix Valloton or Yuan Yuan. 

o   How does Dong Yuan’s practice connect with other art practitioners and their works such as Gao Rong's 'Static Eternity', Lin Tianmiao's 'The Proliferation of Thread Winding' or Do Ho Suh's fabric installations of his New York and/or Korean apartments

Dong Yuan, Grandmother's House (installation view, Beijing, 2013). Image courtesy the artist.

Essential Terminology for this Case Study

Still Life
Tromp l'Oeil
Feminism / Feminist Art

Dong Yuan, Painted Kitchen (detail), image courtesy the artist

"Dong Yuan never glamourises the ordinary things on which she focuses her astute gaze, but they are beautiful — and melancholy — nonetheless. With meticulous realism, she records the here and now, classifying, documenting and ordering her world. A meditation on the everyday, her works become a quiet memento mori, not unlike those of the Flemish painters she admires."

Dong Yuan, Grandma's House (detail) 2013, acrylic and oil on separate canvases, image courtesy the artist

Background Information
Dong Yuan (b.1984) graduated from the Experimental Arts Department of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2008. Her MFA work focused on discovering new ways to work with paint and canvas – creating large-scale 3D installations that simulate places invested with personal and cultural memory.
She applies a meticulous illusionist technique to paintings on separate small canvases that are placed together to make up ambitious installations, recording aspects of memory and a changing world.
Dong Yuan lives and works in Beijing.

To the young artist Dong Yuan, the world within her grandmother’s house was the context of her life’s initial visual memory as well as the earliest source of her world-view. These represent the most unadorned and down-to-earth way of living and experiencing. Dong Yuan reassembles her visual memory of grandmother’s house through one after another large or small picture. Each object in grandmother’s house, although mundane and plain, contain a soulful, ritual essence. (Busan Biennale, 2014

References and Resources

A Short History of Everything: the painted world of Dong Yuan:
In Grandmother’s House: Gao Rong and Dong Yuan
Secret Language of Women: ‘Subterranean Feminism’ in the Work of Three Chinese Artists
Luise Guest, ‘Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China’. Piper Press, 2016
•White Rabbit Collection:

Readings and Questions

Answer the questions after Readings 1 and 2, and complete Activity 3 before attempting the Extended Response question.

Reading 1: Excerpted from 'A Short History of Everything: the painted world of Dong Yuan', 

ART LIFEJul 03, 2017

When Dong Yuan learned that the place of her happiest childhood memories –– her grandmother’s house in the countryside near Dalian –– was about to be demolished, she decided to re-create it in paint, one room at a time, in a two-year-long project that she described as ‘fixing it in memory’. Exhibited in 2013 as ‘A Short History of Everything: Grandma’s House and Bosch’s Garden’, this installation of more than 800 separate paintings marries the fantastical universe imagined by Hieronymus Bosch in ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ with a rural Chinese family home, replete with heavy furniture and cabinets filled with teacups, rice bowls, folded flowered quilts and New Year pictures. Bosch’s Paradise (2013), is a part of this larger work, an installation of more than 300 paintings and objects. Hanging on the walls and filling the drawers and shelves of ornate wooden cabinets, they depict elements taken from Bosch’s fevered imaginings, including tiny naked figures, monsters, animals and insects, plants and flowers, and landscapes that recall the rural beauty of the countryside around Dalian, long ago. Exhibited in Beijing alongside the painted contents of her grandmother’s house, these juxtapositions of Spring Festival folk art, porcelain figures of household gods in their shrines, mass-produced calendars, pictures of Mao, and all the patterned quotidian objects that once filled a humble rural home sit comfortably alongside a visual catalogue of Bosch’s imagery: removed from their original contexts they suggest that reality and imagination are two sides of the same coin. An astonishing feat of trompe l’oeil, it’s a reflection on Dong Yuan’s personal journey from rural Liaoning Province to the global megacity of Beijing, connecting her dreams and memories of a fast-vanishing world with the purely physical elements of everyday life.


1. Why did Dong Yuan decide to make the 'Grandmother's House' installation?
2. How does the work create a record of Dong Yuan's own life journey?
3. Can you speculate as to the connections she makes between her grandma's house and the fantastical world imagined by Hieronymus Bosch?
Dong Yuan, 'Grandmother's House' (details of works in progress in the artist's studio), 2019. Photograph Luise Guest

Reading 2Excerpted and adapted from 'In Grandmother's House', Ran Dian, 2012

Dong Yuan reflects on the significance of the quotidian; recreating in paint, object by object, the interior of the house near Dalian where she spent much of her childhood. Paintings of plants on the kitchen window ledge, an umbrella leaning in a corner (and even the individual raindrops it sheds on the floor), her uncle’s pants hanging from a hook on the wall, a portrait of Mao, are stacked against her studio walls. It is a process of “fixing it in memory” she says. Working from her own memories, conversations with relatives, sketches, photographs and diagrams, she has already completed more than 400 paintings. Previously she has painted the view from every stairwell window of her apartment block, and the entire contents of the tiny apartments in which she lived as a student [ ... ] her reflection on her own personal journey has taken her back to reflect on her family.

Dong Yuan’s works are a meditation on the beauty of the everyday and the familiar, providing a connection to the unsung domestic labor of women. They also memorialize childhood for her generation of artists, in the way that Cultural Revolution 'scar art' imagery functioned for the previous generation. In a similar way, albeit more nuanced and without the bitterness, her work can be seen as a response to the dramatic pace of change in China. At once personal and universal, she records a way of life which has ultimately turned out to be fragile and ephemeral. They are artifacts of memory.


1. How might it be possible to classify Dong Yuan's 'Grandmother's House' installation as a feminist work?

2. In what way does this work represent social change in China?

3. Why do you think the writer describes Dong Yuan's works as 'artifacts of memory'

Comparing Dong Yuan with Song Dong

Read this passage about Song Dong's 'Waste Not', an installation of 10,000 objects taken from his mother's house:

Write a paragraph describing Song Dong's installation 'Waste Not'.

Write a paragraph describing Dong Yuan's installation 'Grandmother's House'.

Write a paragraph comparing the two works in terms of both material and conceptual practice.

Dong Yuan, Grandmother's Cabinet No. 5, acrylic on multiple canvases. image courtesy the artist.

To conclude this Case Study, select THREE works by Dong Yuan and write a detailed description and analysis of each work, using the Structural Frame. 

Finally, attempt this Extended Response question. Refer to works by Dong Yuan and ONE additional artist in your response.

How do contemporary artists explore themes of private memory and/or public loss?

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