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Ah Xian CH A LLENGING T HE SPAT I A L LIMITAT IONS OF SCULPTURAL ART » M ABEL LEE Ah Xian was born Liu Jixian on 7 May 1960 found lodgings in Sydney, and a…
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Ah Xian CH A LLENGING T HE SPAT I A L LIMITAT IONS OF SCULPTURAL ART » M ABEL LEE Ah Xian was born Liu Jixian on 7 May 1960 found lodgings in Sydney, and a month later in Beijing, six years before the beginning of the was joined by his wife Mali. To provide for their social engineering project in China known as daily needs, Mali worked in a factory cutting the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). This grand- mounds of old sheeting into rags with a circular scale project was the culmination of successive saw, and Ah Xian worked as a housepainter, political campaigns to remould the population kitchen hand, and at various other jobs. Though into perfect socialist beings by eradicating engaged in manual labour, his mind was focused human individuality. As an adolescent at the on art. He made the time to create a new series time that the Cultural Revolution ended, Ah Xian of paintings, and then began to explore ways of began to exert his intellectual potential to define resolving the complex practical issues associated a career path for himself as an artist, despite with his idea to produce figurative sculptures the lack of opportunities for formal art training. based on plaster moulds of real people. Through critical study of art publications as In 1998 he showed his first figurative they gradually became accessible, he resolutely sculptures to Richard Dunn, director of developed his own aesthetics and art practice. the Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) at the His first solo painting exhibition was held at University of Sydney. Soon afterwards he was the Old Observatory in Beijing in 1986, and he offered a two-semester residency at SCA during participated in a number of group exhibitions at which he completed ten ceramic busts. In the the National Art Gallery of China during 1986 following year he was awarded a grant from the and 1987. Around the same time he also began Australia Council that enabled him to move to to establish international credentials through Jingdezhen in China where he completed forty being selected for group exhibitions: during 1987 figurative works. Suddenly his unique sculptures at Salon d’Automne in Paris and at Harkness saw him launched as a significant presence in House in New York; during 1987–1989 at the the Australian and the international art worlds. Beijing–New York Art Exchange in New York and Since then his work has been showcased in solo Boston; and during 1988 at the Salon du Grand exhibitions at public galleries and museums: (above) Palais in Paris, an exhibition that afterwards once in China, five times in Australia, five times Scales: 4 (reclining toured France. in Germany, once in the United States, and once on the side) In early 1989 Ah Xian travelled to Australia in the Netherlands. At present his solo exhibition Human, Human 2006–2007 to take up a two-month residency in the School Metaphysica is on a 2013–2015 tour of fourteen See page 33 for of Art at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Queensland regional galleries. His sculptures source image and Returning to Australia in September 1990 he have been selected for group exhibitions at information. Humanities Australia 47 are part of collections at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), the Asia Society Museum (New York), and the Kirishima Open-air Art Museum (Kagoshima, Japan). *** For an artist talk at QAGOMA in Brisbane on 29 March 2014, Ah Xian prepared a PowerPoint file titled ‘A Solitary Journey of Self-exile: Ah Xian’s Art Practice from Early Times to the Present’ that chronologically documents 200 images of representative pieces of his major works. ‘Solitary journey’ alludes to his solitary personality and also to the fact that he likes to be in a dream state, to drift away from crowds, to be silent and alone. The phrase also indicates his conscious avoidance of participation in political or social groups, or even any art group. In his art it is only his solitary self that arbitrates, and he sees himself as a reverent pilgrim prostrating himself in prayer as he travels along a road that will lead him to art.1 The 200 images of ‘A Solitary Journey’ (SJ)2 are the primary source material for the present study, with each image closely examined as artefacts of the aesthetics informing Ah Xian’s art. Ah Xian states in a matter-of-fact manner that he is a self-taught artist, who did not undertake formal study in an art college or university.3 While he does not declare himself to be free from obligation to any master artist or school of art, it is clearly the case. In other words, Ah Xian public galleries and museums in Australia, has been free to develop a unique brand of Germany, Korea, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, (above) aesthetics and art practice. He states that he is a United States, United Kingdom, and Switzerland. Fig. 1. (sj: image 89) conceptual artist: he begins with a concept, and In Australia, Ah Xian’s sculptures have Bust 67 works out the exact details of every stage of the China, China 2002 won two major national art prizes: in 2001 actualisation of that concept prior to engaging the National Sculpture Prize at the National Porcelain cast with in the production of the artwork.4 The main applied decoration Gallery of Australia and, in 2009, the Clemenger of kingfisher-blue concern of Ah Xian’s art, however, is the human Contemporary Art Award at the National Gallery feather design body, which is the opposite of what is generally of Victoria. His sculptures have been collected 41 x 40 x 22.5 cm considered as conceptual art with its geometric (h x w x d) by several Australian public institutions: the icons, machines, angles and lines, and scant Made in National Gallery of Australia and National reference to the human figure. Questioned Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Portrait Gallery (Canberra); the National Gallery Province, China. about this, he asserts with conviction that he of Victoria and RMIT Gallery (Melbourne); is a conceptual artist because the concept is COLLECTION AND Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern COURTESY OF THE ARTIST decisive in each of his artworks. But he rejects Art (QAGOMA) (Brisbane); the Powerhouse outright the notion that he belongs to any Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art and Art trend or school of conceptual art. He regards Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney); the Art his own art as ‘characteristically personal and Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide); and the unique’, and states categorically that ‘the core University of Tasmania (Hobart). Overseas they 48 Humanities Australia of art is about creation and soul’, and that ‘art’ virtually all his time reading about global art does not necessarily result if someone paints a movements of the past century as art books and painting. For him both the language and style magazines became increasingly available; he also of an artwork must be ‘new, personal, special, taught himself basic painting skills. His close unique, and creative’. Of equal importance is friends were young artists, poets, playwrights, whether a work can ‘touch and move people’s novelists, editors, critics and musicians who hearts’.5 So, while a certain school of art may were united in their protests against government (below) have appropriated the term ‘conceptual art’, censorship. In making their demands for Fig. 2. (sj: image 143) Ah Xian has staked his own claim to the term, freedom of expression, they produced works 17: Nelumbo and authoritatively given it meaning. that audaciously flaunted the official guidelines nucifera (Lotus) Such an understanding of art has its for cultural production. He found he could sell Concrete Forest roots deep in Ah Xian’s love of art from early his paintings to scrape together a modest living, 2008–2009 childhood. Even at kindergarten he was aware and so adopted ‘Ah Xian’ as his art name, and Concrete, wax of his affinity for art. As a junior high school committed himself to a career in art. 52 x 47.5 x 25 cm student he seized opportunities to attend the Ah Xian’s father, Liu Fengyi, was a cadre at Made in Beijing, China. occasional art classes offered after school at Renmin University in Beijing and his mother, the local cultural centre, where he took basic Wu Yuling, an associate professor of English at COLLECTION AND COURTESY OF THE ARTIST lessons in drawing, seal carving, calligraphy the Beijing Institute of Technology, which meant and ink brush painting. But his school years that the family lived in a university residential coincided with the Cultural Revolution, when all books that failed to promote socialism were considered reactionary or counter-revolutionary, and summarily seized and destroyed, or locked away in library basements. His parents obtained an art book that had been a textbook at the Central Academy of Fine Arts during the 1950s. It was about the drawing techniques of Russian portraitist Pavel Petrovich Chistiakov (1832–1919), and Ah Xian treasured it as a sacred text throughout his junior high school years. On reaching adolescence, Ah Xian’s impulse for artistic expression intensified; frustrated by the lack of opportunities for art training, he lost interest in his senior high school studies, and his marks plummeted.6 Ah Xian graduated from high school in 1979 with mediocre grades, and afterwards trained for two years as a mechanical fitter at a state-run factory technical college. From childhood he was good at doing things with his hands: painting and calligraphy, making model planes and ships, constructing a beautifully designed steelyard for a physics project, and making wardrobes, cupboards and sofas. In his home there were several bicycles that he had pulled apart about ten times and put together again.7 Ah Xian had no inkling that such practical skills would later prove invaluable for his art creation. At the time he simply rationalised that as a mechanical fitter he would be able to make a living to support his art. After classes he spent Humanities Australia 49 (right) complex. Although there were no art books, they Fig. 3. (sj: image 175) did have a splendid silk-bound hardcover first 13: Taihu Stone–1 Evolutionaura edition of Arts and Crafts of China at home, and 2011–2013 Ah Xian notes that its high quality photographs Bronze, gold, of the finest examples of China’s traditional Taihu stone artisan art left a deep and lasting impression on 72.2 x 53 x 26 cm him.8 The impact of that book is clearly evident Made in Beijing, in his sculptural art although, while growing up, China. he could not have imagined how those images COLLECTION OF THE ART GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH contributed to shaping his artistic sensibilities, or WALES, SYDNEY, 2014 how he would later creatively appropriate those ancient crafts in his artworks. The first image in ‘A Solitary Journey’ is a pencil sketch of the head of an ancient Greek statue, which was completed while Ah Xian was at high school; the second is an oil on canvas portrait of Mali, then his girlfriend, painted in 1980. The paintings that follow, however, suggest the directions to which his art would gravitate. In 1983 he painted a large three-panel work in oil on cotton titled Daily. Beijing that captures the colour and vibrancy of Beijing youth after the standard monotone grey and indigo garb of the Cultural Revolution had been abandoned. within the corridors and courtyards of ancient Lime-green flared trousers and floral shirts are in palace buildings. Secluded within the palace evidence. He shared the anger of his generation walls, women are off limits to men. In all cases about the insidious forms of repression inflicted their faces are turned away, obscured, or cut on the individual by the state, especially state off at the edge of the canvas. Their nudity and interference in sexual relationships between men the anonymity generated by their lack of facial and women. Above all, his goal in art was the features endow the women with the quality of portrayal of the naked human body; his reasons abstractions: they are universal woman. Without for this are explained in the following paragraph. any distinguishing facial features and clothing, The fact that he was not enrolled in an art the women are reduced to a state of equality college, however, meant that he was unable to in their predicament of being enclosed within practise painting or making sculptures using forbidding palace walls, denied expression of the nude models, and could only rely on images in innate sexual instincts embodied in the fullness magazines or in his imagination.9 His fascination of their breasts and hips. with painting nudes led to his spending a night This anonymity of the person is retained in police custody in early 1983 at the beginning in The Wall Series, works of ink on rice paper of the Anti-Spiritual-Pollution Campaign containing the shadowy figures of nude women. that year.10 The setting for these works is distinctly urban. Two series of numbered paintings represent Deconstructed bright yellow traffic signs, iron Ah Xian’s first deep meditations on art. Palace grilles on window spaces, occasionally red grilles Lady Series (1985–1987) and The Wall Series and red strips, stand in stark contrast to pale (1987–1989) are both anti-realist depictions grey brick walls. White shadowy shapes of nude of the human body, and register his reaction women are visible through the window grilles, to state prohibitions on male–female sexual or their shapes appear to have been etched into relationships. The Palace Lady Series are works the walls. in oil on canvas that portray nude women with As stated above, Ah Xian sees himself big breasts and hips engaged in various chores as a conceptual artist, something already 50 Humanities Australia demonstrated in these early works. Even his the back of the T-shirt is unmistakably a 1980 portrait of his girlfriend Mali is anti-realist, shadowy image of a PLA soldier with a rifle. and he has not deviated from this position. By September 1990 Ah Xian had settled in He maintains that realism has never been the Sydney. The events of 4 June still reverberated objective of his art, that he has never depicted in his psyche, and resulted in a series of oils on landscapes or real life scenes. He began making canvas called Heavy Wounds (1991). These adopt AH XIAN RET UR NED TO BEIJING IN M AY 1989 AND WEEK S L ATER … WITNESSED THE MILITARY CR ACKDOWN ON ST UDENTS IN THE E ARLY HOUR S OF 4 JUNE . friends with foreigners and attending parties the painting style of first-aid posters issued held by the Western community. The locals in during the Cultural Revolution, and are clearly Beijing certainly had neither the money nor ironic statements about distorted reality. While the inclination to buy art, but members of the purporting to demonstrate the procedure for foreign community were buying and collecting wrapping bandages, Ah Xian describes the the work of local artists. Australian writer and paintings as ‘critical and cynical’ indictments of academic Nicholas Jose11 made many friends the authorities: what they preached and what amongst Chinese artists and writers, including Ah Xian. When Jose was appointed cultural (left) counsellor in the Australian Embassy in Beijing Fig. 4. (1987–1990), Ah Xian and he had already been Ah Xian friends for a number of years. Geoff Parr, Profile by director of the School of Art at the University David Goodman of Tasmania, happened to be in Beijing and was COURTESY DAVID GOODMAN invited to Jose’s residence for a party to celebrate an exhibition of paintings by a few of his Beijing artist friends. Parr saw paintings from The Wall Series, and this resulted in Ah Xian’s residency at the University of Tasmania in early 1989. Ah Xian returned to Beijing in May 1989 and weeks later, from his vantage point in the Muxidi area, he witnessed the military crackdown on students in the early hours of 4 June. He was immobilised with disbelief and sorrow for weeks, but then began to express his emotional state in a series of works in different media titled Post June. 1989. The first of these is a replica of his 1983 work Daily. Beijing. The colour and they did to people were completely the opposite. vibrancy of the original, however, is leached out The faces of the people depicted are devoid of in this stark black-and-white plywood woodcut. expression, and the eyes that look ahead are The other black-and-white woodcuts of the unseeing. The bandaged heads (SJ: images 53–56) series graphically depict naked women in palace could be interpreted as subliminal metaphors for settings or against brick walls, or else the faces lobotomy or imposed amnesia, despite Ah Xian’s of national leaders emanating evil, and those not having had this specific intention in mind. of ordinary people etched with horror and Following the paintings of Heavy Wounds, the anger. He also produced T-shirts printed on the PowerPoint presentation moves on to two front with an image of the legendary People’s photographs of an installation titled Pervasive Liberation Army (PLA) soldier Lei Feng, who Spirit #2 (1992) (SJ: images 62 and 63) that, in always unquestioningly obeyed his commanders: Humanities Australia 51 decided to make a plaster cast of his torso while at home alone. He used liquid dishwashing detergent as a separator or buffer between his skin and the plaster, but as the plaster set it released heat, the detergent began to burn his chest, and he could barely move. When his wife Mali returned she had to use knives and scissors to free him. His burns required hospital treatment.13 Over the following years he developed a safe technique of making plaster casts and was able to produce figurative sculptures in the backyard of his home, and fire them in the kilns at the Sydney College of the Arts through the kind auspices of Richard Dunn. During his 1998 residency at the college he produced the first porcelain busts for his series China, China. Afterwards he progressively added to the series during 1999, 2002 and 2004 at the Jingdezhen kilns in China. The city of Jingdezhen had for many centuries produced the finest porcelains in the world, and Ah Xian enlisted the help of skilled craftsmen and artisans to assist in producing artworks according to his detailed specifications. He also enlisted local people to model for the plaster casts of human figures that he wanted to populate his installations. To date the China, China series numbers eighty porcelain busts of male and female persons, including ten made at the Sydney College of the Arts in 1998, forty-three made at Jingdezhen in 1999, and another thirty pieces made during 2002 and 2004.14 Each of the busts is of an anonymous person, except for the bust of eminent Sydney paediatrician John Yu (SJ: image 96). As the busts are based on plaster casts of real people, the eyes and mouth are necessarily closed, hence stripping the face of expression (above) fact, belong to the separate series Scattered and endowing it with an air of serenity or even Fig. 5. (sj: image 108) Souls, although this is not specified in ‘A Solitary transcendence. While the busts have different Lotus Cloisonné–1 Journey’. The installation depicts an open black facial features, they are further differentiated by Human, Human box full of plaster sculptures of severed hands traditional Chinese decorative motifs that are 2000–2001 with nametags attached to them. Ah Xian painted, etched, attached to or wrapped around Hand-beaten copper, finely enameled created six such works in the series, using the busts, or else the bust itself is produced cloisonné, lotus genuine ammunition containers, plaster, lead, as cloisonné, sculptured lacquer, overlay, or design steel nails, wax and cotton bandages.12 cut-out porcelain items. In other words, each 158 x 55.5 x 32 cm Soon afterwards Ah Xian began to experiment bust is unique as an art object. This being so, Made in Dachang with making plaster casts of the human body China, China can either constitute a single County, Hebei Province, Ch
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