Below are three exhibition reviews I wrote up for Time Out Beijing’s June issue
The Edge of Vision
The Edge of Vision brings together the recent works of four artists born in the 1950s, whose work came to prominence in two stages, first within the strict confines imposed on artistic expression in the 1970s, and secondly in the 1980s new wave. Li Shan, Shang Yang, Sun Liang and Xia Xiaowen all followed similar paths from promising graduates of the major academies, to principle figures in the energetic iconoclasm of the 1980s. Since then, however, their works have diverged into multiple forms. Part of the exhibition’s intention is to, through the paths of these four artists, challenge the contention that contemporary art is at a dead end, drowned in its own excesses.
The most striking works in the exhibition are Xia Xiaolong’s ‘spatial paintings.’ They are images pulled apart and painted across layers of glass. Placed back to back, these layers form mysterious, floating, three dimensional images. A portrait of the Buddha made up of images of animals and humans on a total of 23 glass sheets, in particular, appears hauntingly ephemeral.
Both Shang Yang’s and Sun Liang’s works, though different in appearance, utilise more raw materials. Shang’s work melds painting and installation. It uses bamboo, reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings, alongside the industrial materials of steel, tar and resin to create something powerful in its brutishness. Sun uses porous and coarse animal skin on which to sketch mystical images somewhere between representational and abstract.
Though by far the softest on the eye, Li Shan’s delicate and colourful paintings offer penetrating commentary on humans and their place in the organic world. His works contest the comfortable boundaries we place between ourselves and nature and foreshadow their likely collapse in the genetically modified near future.
The linking point for this group exhibition is the artists themselves. Bound together in one generation which has experienced so many upheavals, their art has moved from stricture to rebellion and finally to today’s mature and diverse expression. Their paths demonstrate, the exhibition’s curator Wang Yifei proclaims, that ‘art will not die … Instead it will gain new and tenacious vitality.’
6th Annual Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition
This month sees the annual exhibition of the Three Shadows Photography Award short list, a total of 28 young Chinese photographers. As with any group exhibition, the works are hit and miss. But where they shine, they do so brightly.
The photography on display ranges from portraiture to landscape to abstract musings on the medium itself. Their intentions range from aesthetically pleasing to aesthetically challenging, and narratively playful to conceptually serious.
In terms of landscape photography, Wang Yuanling’s ‘Habitats’ series, shot in the dusty and bleak outback of China’s north west, stands out. His works, landscapes with hints of humanity, suggest the unbreakable connection between land and life. And yet, with such desolate, barren scenes, the imagery suggests a crisis in this relationship.
Li Zhiguo’s ‘Friends Series’ is a visually arresting look at the beauty and fragility of animal life. Glimmering like molten silver, the dozen endangered animals captured in monochrome starkness are given an appearance of jewellery-like preciousness.
Surprisingly, only one of the photographers fully embraces humour. Liu Hui snaps unexpected moments in the crowded urban environment of Hefei. In one, a pudgy man sits at a grimy plastic table, engrossed in a video game. In the background a photo-shopped, pure as snow girl on an advertising board stares doughy eyed in admiration and adoration at the distracted man – a coincidental beauty and the diaosi (Chinese slang for bona fide loser).
These are just a few highlights. The exhibition also contains very strong portraiture and more. It is an exhibition well worth seeing, and one which foreshadows great things to come in the Chinese photographic art scene.
We The People Danh Vo
The Statue of Liberty is this month on display at the Faurschou Foundation. Or, at least, segments of a life-size reconstruction of that iconic symbol of freedom. As small parts of the enormous whole, the pieces of Vietnamese artist Danh Vo’s giant lady of liberty are rendered abstract and unrecognisable. Made of copper, as yet unoxidised, they shine a dull, muddy gleam, registering more as industrial than elegant, particularly on the inside of each piece, where the smooth exterior’s less presentable supporting network of brackets and welding is visible.
The title of the exhibition, We the People, is the familiar first line of the United States Constitution and the adage of ‘the free world.’ The torn apart pieces of the Statue of Liberty on display express quite literally that this freedom is a concept constructed by society, and can just as easily be dismantled. With such small, unrecognisable fragments of the grand whole on display, Vo confronts us with the question; ‘and who would be able to reconstruct it?’ The mishmash supporting structure required by the soft copper façade further suggests freedom’s fragility.
The exhibition has a personal side too. Vo was born in Vietnam but fled with his family in 1979, bound, illegally, for the harbour which the iconic lady stands watch over. As chance had it, the family were picked up en route and settled in a harbour town guarded by another iconic, though less grand, female statue, the Little Mermaid of Copenhagen.
Danh Vo’s work is an important musing on freedom and liberty at a time when these ideals appear in peril across the world. Rather than simple critique, Vo’s work offers a sharp warning on the fragility of freedom.