Emergence - A Contemporary Chinese Art Exhibition


Alan McNairn

An exhibition of emerging artists from China is a cause for celebration. For the artists this is an opportunity to expand the audience for their works. The objects in this exhibition presage the artist’s establishment of a prominent position in the global art community. For collectors and the gallery going public this exhibition is a rareopportunity to acquire first-hand exposure to a segment of the creative outburst of thevisual arts in China.

It is the cutting-edge of Chinese art that makes exhibitions like this one so fascinating. Through the works of these eight Chinese artists we are exposed to new culturallyspecific approaches to communication through the visual arts.

However unwise it is to attempt to elicit a common thread tying together the works of such a diverse group of emerging Chinese artists, one can, with caution, suggest that for all of them visual representation of their thoughts is paramount. The thinking behind these works variously draws on individual and cultural memory, science,philosophy, poetry, mythology and most significantly, throws light on the complexity ofliving in the contemporary world.

Memory, individual and cultural, is a cardinal point in the map of visual art. The most assiduous efforts to resist the pull of the past, whether it be one’s own or one’s culture generally, through framing the new, are bound to be at least partially unsuccessful. The perceptive artist recognizing this truism seeks to uncover the potential in the emanations of personal or collective memory. The eight emerging artists in this exhibition have mined memory and visualized particular aspects of the past utilizing a contemporary vocabulary of form. All have succeeded in adapting personal and cultural experiences to the aesthetics of the contemporary world.

For each of the artists, the contemporary world is not exclusively revealed in their individual stylistic choices. It also depends on their considered understanding of the challenges posed by the real and imaginary dichotomies between the phenomena of nature, human reason and the dilemma of identifying the precious in a world rife with a profusion of goods.

Li Wang examines the present through an adaptation of the traditional ink and wash medium which works as a form of visual dialogue between a utopian version of the past and the present. Classical Chinese ink and wash painting as practiced by scholars or literati from the fifth century on focussed on an ideal world promoting a harmony between man and nature. This contrasts with the concerns of the modern world, where the natural spiritual underpinnings of life as represented in ancient drawings are threatened.

Li Wang infuses his works with the implication of tradition by creating a generic relationship to ancient Chinese ink and wash painting. The subjects of his vision touch on intellectual curiosity about the natural world and the happenstance of human interaction with species of wild and domesticated creatures. His drawings which are conceived in a thoroughly contemporary, post-modern graphic style are cautionary images that insist that we recognize the fragility of life in the pursuit of progress.

The discourse between the past and present is made concrete in Jia Shanguo’s project that is based on the concept of the book as a precious vehicle for the transmission of ideas through words. The words he has chosen to represent this concept are those of the sacred Taoist text the Tao Te Ching. These words combined to convey spiritual truths are widely available today in various versions and translations. In contrast with their inherent value, they offer little commercial value. Jia Shanguo’s two books emphasize the textual value to the Tao Te Ching. His two books created using traditional Chinese craft techniques are presented as precious examples of book art. The black version of the text, with characters in negative relief, is the yin or dark side of the interconnected duality whose opposite yang is the white text with characters in positive relief. The mirrored texts demand effort to read. The intent of the artist is not to promulgate the ideas conveyed by the words in the texts, but the idea of the book itself.

In teaching young artists, an instructor is constantly aware of his or her own education in the visual arts. Many of the traditions of art education are readily dismissed as archaic and inappropriate for contemporary students. This is in large measure true with respect to students’ being required to produce repetitive drawings of classical and neo-classical plaster sculptures. For Li Hongbo the hours of drawing plaster casts from various perspectives is a strong memory of his years as a student. He has celebrated this recollection and memorialized the intensity of observation in drawing by creating sculptures that invert the process. His flexible paper busts are a clever visual statement. In this case, a student drawing one of these busts need not move to change perspective. The student can achieve the same goal by manipulating the now pliant subject itself. The paper bust is much like an artist’s model in that it is moveable. In a second work Dream Li Hongbo expands on memories of the processes of study exploring form, colour and texture by using stacks of paper similar to those he experimented with in a favourite childhood art-making toy.

The ideas animating Zhou Song’s art come from the scientific disciplines. Thus, because scientific knowledge is derived from observation and is conveyed through precise description of observations, Song is in part an optical realist artist. He recreates what he sees. It is the contexts in which his recreations are presented that reveal Song as an intellectual habitué of the nexus where science, philosophy and art converge. He deals with perception and representation in works such as Trouble of the Consciousness, where a human heart is presented with the precision of a medical specimen. This animated reproduction, accurate except in scale, is projected with a sensor so that its beat changes as a spectator advances or recedes. Song’s heart is completely disconnected from the body. Also contradicting the organ’s function within the body is the title. In a second work, Song represents entropy, the physical property of the universe that works to transform our thermodynamic system from order to disorder. Triangles of photo-realist painted portions of a highly polished robot are arranged floating in white spacewhere they will as a result of entropy gradually decline into disorder. The future for Song, well versed in the laws of physics, is indeed unpredictable and potentially chaotic. Wang Fei not only references the phenomena of the natural world but also delves into the realm of physical geography and the mythos of the human relationship to other creatures. His tripartite paintings call to mind aspects of the oriental traditions of painting in lacquer. The iconography of these works is a curious mixture of heraldic beasts such as the ferocious masculine Russian bear and the American eagle. The sole human in the images is a Chinese man who works to subdue an heraldic crossbreed between a lion rampant and a lion couchant. Fei’s visual vocabulary for a new global mythology was borne from a surreal fantasy about human interaction with the environment. It is a fantasy where animals take on traditional symbolic roles – the vicious shark, pacific whale and threatening jaguar.

The thought behind Jia Xinyu’s highly personal approach to painted form is distinctly unscientific and imprecise as far as memory and cultural traditions are concerned. Her enigmatic images reflect her penchant for the ambiguity of poetic imagery, the playful imprecision of some modernist paintings and the world as it is comprehended through myth. The rough treatment of surface and her preference for undramatic colours combine to create an ethereal ambience in her paintings. The indeterminate formal reference and apparently casual even random approach to space in her paintings are evocative of the musings of pastoral poets. The emotional content of her works may be inspired by traditional Chinese poetry, but she rejects the formal strictures that distinguish it from Western poetry. Xinyu’s work is rooted in Postmodernist aesthetic in that its formal elements acquire meaning through interpretation of the spectator. Her pictures thus depend on unhurried contemplation.

The paintings of Zhang Chunhua are also works that spring from an intensely personal mental space. It is the locus where contemplation of tradition and the contemporary intersect. For Chunhua the conundrum of the relationship of the past with the present is disconcerting. It troubles him to think that the past of his culture is indeed a foreign country. He represents his melancholy state in bright and dark images that convey the push and pull of contemporary life with all its contradictions. His artistic response to the psychic stresses of living and working in a country in the throes of unprecedented change is salubrious even to those with much less concern for loss caused by cultural transformation. The man in The sight of his back who we observe through an oval window is looking backward in space or time. If we see his back as a reflection in a mirror he is looking forward beyond the space of the canvas into our contemporary world. This visual enigma can stand as an iconic representation of Chunhua’s state of mind facilitating our response to his other work.

Among the myriad of changes in China as it leaps forward in pursuit of progress is that surrounding the architectural environment. Architecture takes on a symbolic function in a society in transformation representing change and, in turn, giving impetus for yet more change. In urban China it is architecture, built structures that represent what is and what will be. Long gone are the days of the imagined simpler life. Yang Shuwen’spictures reflect the modern, the new and the structured aesthetics of contemporary life. They bring to mind the reflections on glass towers where sometimes the old and the new cohabit. In Heaven Eyes the façades of the new buildings are set against the facades of older apartment buildings sporting drying laundry. The intense perspective has two functions. Its dynamism evokes the energy of the modern Chinese city. It also works to force the viewer to consider the yin and the yang of progress.

The works of the emerging artists in this exhibition combine to create a picture of the concerns of creative people working in an environment of a kind that is virtually incomprehensible to those in the west who experience cultural change at a comparatively slow pace. In the contest between maintaining traditions and forsaking them in a mad rush to the future, these artists all seem to be on the side of caution. Do they see themselves as the keepers of collective cultural memory? Examination of their works suggests that they do just that. Their subtle works present an intriguing look into the complexity of change and the essential role of cultural preservation in the face of commercial and economic interests.

Academic Advisor

Alan McNairn

Alan McNairn

Dr. Alan McNairn is a former curator at the National Gallery of Canada. He is the author of articles, books and catalogues on art and artists from the 17th to the 21st century. Alan McNairn has also served as Director of The New Brunswick Museum, Manager of a Canadian experimental film distribution cooperative and Director of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He has taught art history in various Canadian Universities.