Written by: Mona Min
Edited by: Alex Hill
Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art @ Vancouver Art Gallery, November 15, 2014 – April 6, 2015
Unscrolled, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s newest exhibit, is designed to showcase contemporary Chinese artists, through 30 large-scale artworks – from installations to digital animations. This exhibition features three generations of Chinese artists who are among the best-known and most significant Chinese artists working today. This exhibition moves from literal depictions of traditional culture to more ambiguous representations that are equally influenced by Chinese heritage, which creates an interesting dialogue with the current exhibition The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors downstairs on main floor.
Defining tradition as an evolving concept, Unscrolled examines and questions its influence on visual culture in contemporary China. The artists selected for this show have been trained in both Western art history and Chinese art and cutural tradition and who engage with their cultural past as a continuation into the contemporary. Re-working traditional aesthetics in conceptual ways with new forms such as digital animation to site-specific installations, it features work by artists Ai Weiwei, Ji Yunfei, Liu Jianhua, and seven others. Although works from the collection are exhibited in an essentially chronological sequence, based on the artists’ year of birth, the galleries’ distinctive design allows that progression to be non-linear, thus emphasizing how artists, movements, and styles coincided, competed and broke new ground in the evolution of contemporary Chinese art.
The first work that catches the viewer’s eye is Xu Bing’s Background Story, which at first glance looks like a traditional landscape painting , but actually takes the form of a sculptural installation. It is lit from behind by a light box, and the “Background Story” becomes more clear when you view the “back” side of the image to see what’s behind. This is another version of the landscape scene, which is actually a sculptural installation. It is made up of bits of twigs, torn bits of newspaper, plastic garbage, leaves, branches and other material. Moving to the next artist, is a series of paintings using the ancient art form of ink and mineral pigment on silk and paper by Ji Yunfei. The following room presents Shihua, Qiu’s minimalist work. Untitled, makes viewers face a row of seemingly white, monochrome canvases. Then in one of the gallery’s main space, shows Weiwei, Ai one of his most prominent work, Bang. It’s a large-scale, dense and hizomatically structured installation. Viewers found themselves immersed in a forest of hundreds of tangled wooden tools. They can both go inside to explore and go to the observation deck on the upper floor to see this marvelous artwork. The rest of the artwork on this floor all offers a bewitching visual presentation while helping the viewers to discover the crossings, confrontations and regroupings that form the historical fabric of the second half of the 20th Century in China. Lastly, hanging from the oculus in the gallery’s rotunda is Hanging Garden in Ink by Jennifer Wen Ma. It’s made of hundreds of plants, many from the west coast. They are covered with black ink, a traditional Chinese painting material. It is said on the artist’s illustration that during the course of the exhibition, the plants will grow and change in a way that echoes the way tradition transforms and reforms over time.
This exhibition presents a diverse selection of Chinese contemporary artists whose practices are informed by their cultural heritage. The overall display contributes to a common theme based on how tradition in Chinese contemporary art is transformed by individual experiences, contemporary challenges and present-day concerns. Every single artwork reveals a bit of history, while it means to address social issues using an old revered oriental form of political commentary.
One such piece is Shihua, Qiu’s large-scale group painting, Untitled, which presents viewers with a study of seemingly contrasting forces. At the first glance, they are all seemingly blank. However, by taking a close look, the subtle color of paint with vivid texture of the pictures became visible. It really acquires the viewer’s concentration to reveal the imagery within. Qiu’s minimalist work embodies outwardly opposing qualities: visibility and invisibility, fullness and emptiness, traditional and contemporary, eastern and western. His work not only reflects the Chinese Daoist philosophy on existence, but also points to the Western discourse such as Minimalism and Romanticism. The cryptic and silent nature of these pieces entice viewers to decipher and discover their own interpretations.
Unscrolled, now on exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery represents an extraordinary occasion for visitors to observe the development of Chinese art on a level of cultural-diversity and internationalization. The exhibition gives a pleasurable and digestible presentation of contemporary Chinese art. Every pieces of art is displayed in an engaging way, which opens a cultural gateway between China and Vancouver. Along with the other interrelated show, Forbidden City, ultimately, reflects a permanent disclosure for Chinese art and culture in the city.
Ai Weiwei Bang, 2010-13 886 antique tools Installation from Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Mona Min.
Liu Jianhua, Traces, 2011, porcelain.Installation from Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Mona Min.
3 & 4. Jennifer Wen Ma, Hanging Garden in Ink, 2012 , Live plants, China ink. Installation from Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Mona Min.