chinese contemporary art

Beijing Exhibitions>> From Jingdezhen to PVC

Sculptors in China have not traditionally held a place of high esteem. Magnificent sculptures have been made to adorn temples, burial sites, public places and buildings but rarely has the name of the creator been remembered. Sculpture was regarded closer to craft than a fine art because it involved manual skills, unlike the intellectual and rarefied nature of calligraphy or brush painting. Although sculptures were readily seen and appreciated, those who created the works remained anonymous. When the first western style art academies opened in China in the early twentieth century and artists returned after studies in European art academies, the idea that sculpture could be other than a craft, a fine art in fact, was more readily accepted. The advent of Socialist Realism after 1949 monopolized the development of sculpture for a few decades. Socialist Realism was championed as the only style befitting the public art of the communist revolution. With the greater exchange of ideas in China in the 1980s and 1990s and the flourishing of individual approaches to creation, artists have brought their own thoughts to sculpture as they have to all the fine arts. The result has been an unrestrained and rich variety of creation which has extended and surpassed all old boundaries of ideology, form and function. We have sculpture for sculpture's sake, no longer subordinate to the needs of temples, religions or politicians. The rapid changes of contemporary society have led artists to experiment with new ideas as well as with new materials created by the new consumer society.

This exhibition of contemporary sculpture presents works made with a wide variety of materials from porcelain to pvc. ZHANG DALI presents two bronze self-portraits in which the viewer is confronted directly with violence as the work is the artist with a gun pointed at his head. Zhang Dali believes that the function of the artist is to reveal the ills in society and in so doing to begin to identify solutions. Personal crisis is clearly the topic here. Suicide, being self imposed violence, raises complex psychological questions as well as those of how violence permeates the world we inhabit.

WANG JIN uses polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as the material for his sculptures because he feels that plastic is the ideal symbol of contemporary society. It is a consumer product and omnipresent in developing countries, a material that the artist has referred to as "high tech rubbish". The series presented here is of banknotes from different countries printed on pvc, dollars, pounds, renminbi, marks and francs. They are large banners proclaiming the new god of the land - money, both international and national.

MA LIUMING's sculptures were inspired by his Baby paintings series. On canvas, Ma Liuming's baby images are disturbing enough, while their reincarnation into three dimensions reinforces the disquieting nature of these forms. The artist chose not to paint his resin sculptures leaving them pure white thus giving the works an other-worldly quality, a ghostly appearance suggesting unreality as well as purity. They are eerie prompts that lead us to ponder the nature of the birth cycle and existence. Ma Liuming's art investigates potential and varying realities by provoking alternate perceptions and forms of communication.

In his work titled "A Grain of Sand", LU HAO makes a powerful statement about contemporary society using traditional materials and techniques. This sculpture commemorates an ordinary person, Mr. Hu, a worker from Hubei Province who was killed by his patron for demanding his back pay. His biography is carved on the grain of sand using a traditional Chinese technique. This single grain of sand containing such a tribute to an ordinary person is a poignant comment on the vulnerability of the individual in contemporary society.

HUANG YAN is an artist concerned with the presence and place of traditional art in contemporary society. Many of his works incorporate traditional Chinese painting and his sculptures are made of Jingdezhen porcelain. Jingdezhen, located in northeastern Jiangxi Province, is known as the "Porcelain Capital" in China. For centuries, the city has been considered to be China's most important centre for porcelain production going as far back as the Han dynasty (206-220BC). In a subordination of icons to Chinese tradition, busts of Mao and the Venus de Milo are covered in various traditional glazes: blue and white or Jingdezhen yellow. The theme of violence reappears with the Mao Missile, Mao's head atop a missile shell, nevertheless rendered beautiful by the traditional glazes.

Porcelain is also the medium used by the young artist LI MINGZHU, in a series of amusing works entitled "Eating Mao". Plates of what appears to be small cabbages actually reveal themselves to be little Mao heads surrounded by cabbage leaves. On one hand Mao is reduced to a consumable just like anything else and on the other he still permeates all levels of life, even oneีs evening dish of cabbage.

SHENG QI's installation of tanks surrounding an imperial building is concerned with the relationship between total power and impotence. Some of the tanks, machines of war, are toppled over and thus rendered impotent. They are however still reminders of force and violence since, even though models, one assumes they were toppled in combat. The power and impotence tension is also felt in the stillness of the old building in the centre. Undamaged it appears serene but surrounded by tanks, even toppled ones, it emanates a feeling of desolation and emptiness.

MA HAN uses a mixed media technique with rice, fibreglass and porcelain. He captures the chaos of the new expanding Chinese cities, the frenzied race to achieve. Old Chinese buildings are engulfed in swarms of small people, rice and cars arriving from all directions like Gulliver overwhelmed by the Lilliputians. An atomic bomb shape of minute figures conveys with extreme clarity the unleashing of forces and power driving the development of this new society. Some figures are mastering the climb to the top while others are dangling within an inch of their lives.

SUI JIANGUO's dinosaur sculptures play with illusion and appearance. The dinosaurs, "Made in China", were created by the application of traditional enlarging techniques using small ready-made toys as the model. The artist plays with sizes and weights, large versions of the dinosaur, looking heavy, may be made of fiberglass and be surprisingly light while smaller ones are made of bronze and surprisingly heavy. Both will be painted and look like plastic. As Sui Jianguo remarked, many regard the dinosaurs as a symbol of China, big, powerful, scary and as old as the Middle Kingdom.