Sun Xun Shock of Time
THE D R AWI N G CENTER
Sun Xun Shock of Time
February 20 – March 28, 2009
D R AW I N G R O O M
Curated by João Ribas
D R A W I N G P A P E R S 85
Introduction by Jo達o Ribas Essay by Richard Vine
At the core of the work of Hangzhou-based artist Sun Xun lie the shifting notions of time that have defined China’s growth in the post-socialist era. The provincial fishing villages of Shenzhen, for example, in the hilly region of China’s southern Guangdong province, were still bucolic countryside in the early 1980s when the area was designated the first of China’s Special Economic Zones by thenreformist party leader Deng Xiaoping. The resulting economic liberalization turned this small agrarian outpost on the northern border of Hong Kong into one of the fastest growing cities in the world, a financial and industrial capital that now serves as an emblem of China’s startlingly rapid modernization itself, a unique collision of planned and nascent market economies that brought about, among other things, the country’s inclusion into the Word Trade Organization in 2001.
Such exhilarating if reckless expansion, after decades of an authoritarian ideology known as “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” has lead to a society continuously subjected to dramatic and irreversible change. The profound results have not only redefined the socioeconomic landscape of contemporary China but also its relationship to its own temporality. As meditations on contingent notions of past and future, Sun’s films act as allegories of a society that has seen itself both ‘falling’ behind and hurling itself forward—culturally, economically—toward parity with the West. Made from hundreds of drawings on Communist newspapers, and using some of the traditional Chinese printing techniques and brush painting rejected by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Sun’s Shock of Time (2006) animates a series of vignettes about memory and the passage of time through various tropes of duration and transience. Lie of Magician (2005) makes use of the artist’s own body as a landscape, its natural imagery evoking cycles of creation and decay. Reflecting a new generation of artists born into the prosperity of the reform era—but in Sun’s case, living in a city famous throughout China for its historical heritage—these films belie a search for stable points of reference for a society swept up in the rush to modernize, where time and memory are caught between an accelerating future and a ruptured past.
Sun Xun: History as Myth
We are used to creating a boundary between the present and the past. But actually, history has no such boundary. –SUN XUN
Born in 1980, Sun Xun is a member of the third wave of experimental artists to emerge in China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. His animated videos—fast paced, casual-looking, fractured in their narrative logic, and thematically dismissive of fixed truth— reflect his generation’s fascination with new media and its skepticism toward history, whether received or in process. Sun’s easy embrace of occasional commercial activity (he founded the animation studio Pi in 2006) is typical of today’s Chinese artists, who see no conflict between making serious artwork and owning a successful business or two. To fully grasp Sun’s attitude and projects, Western viewers need to consider his biography within a wider cultural context and a longer chronological span than his own youthful 28 years. For this critic
of the historical enterprise is, ironically, best understood in light of his country’s recent social and esthetic history. At the turn of the 20th century, China began to supplement its millennia-long artistic traditions (dominated by calligraphy, ink painting, ceramics, religious and palatial statuary, decorative objects, and textiles) with modern, Western-influenced work. Unconventional materials (e.g., oil on canvas), techniques (perspective, modeling, chiaroscuro), motifs (models in the studio, scenes of everyday life, pure abstraction), and mediums (photography, cinema) were adopted with increasing frequency. Foreign artists visited China, and a number of Chinese art students studied abroad. This exchange was encouraged by some, and resisted by others, as part of a much larger push to make China a world power, one no longer susceptible to the humiliations it suffered in the 19th century when Western nations forced the long-closed empire open to world commerce, especially the mass importation of British-grown opium. China’s early experiments with modern art were progressively snuffed out, however, by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), by renewed civil war between Nationalist and Communist forces (1921–49) and, finally, by the triumph of Mao and his authoritarian state in 1949. As early as 1942, the Great Helmsman had prescribed “art for the people”—meaning that visual expression, along with literature and the performing arts, should serve the masses by portraying the evils of imperialism and private ownership, vividly offset by the joys of a collectivist striving toward an imminent socialist utopia. Socialist Realism—based on Soviet models and promulgated, in part, by visiting Russian teachers and by Chinese artists trained in the USSR—soon became the only officially sanctioned “modern” style in the People’s Republic of China. Practitioners grew adept at dark depictions of exploitive landlords, and of the “red, bright, and shining” world of beaming soldiers, peasants, and workers—all united, with eyes and arms raised, in the socialist cause. Absent from this “realist” iconography, of course, was any treatment of such unsettling facts as the persecution of some 400,000 citizens during the anti-rightist campaign of 1957 or the starvation of as many as 40 million during the Great Leap Forward (1958–60), Mao’s quota-
driven collectivization of agriculture coupled with massive publicworks projects and the backyard production of iron and steel. Socialist Realism reached its apogee during the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when Mao, now politically embattled, endorsed fanatical, countrywide purges by the youthful Red Guards. A sustained assault on the “four olds” (old ideas, old customs, old culture, old habits) entailed the expulsion and/or beating of many professors, inadequately zealous Party officials and others deemed “black elements” (rich peasants, landlords, rightists, counter-revolutionaries, criminals). Universities were closed, and students and urban professionals were sent into the far countryside for “re-education” in communes and factory complexes. Untold literary and artistic treasures were destroyed in looting rampages. Meanwhile, the Mao personality cult blossomed in some two billion images of the Chairman mounted in every imaginable public and private space. The Mao suit became standard garb throughout the society, and the Little Red Book of his excerpted thoughts proliferated by the millions, to be clutched, read (silently or aloud), or quoted obsessively in a fervent show of devotion. Following the death of Mao, the worst of these excesses abated, as his successor Deng Xiaoping opened the country once more to Western influences, ushering in reforms in governance and economics under the much-cited principle that “poverty is not socialism; to grow rich is glorious.” His policy of government-monitored capitalism eventually resulted in a roughly 10-percent per annual growth rate for the last 25 years. During an early 11-year period, from 1978 to 1989, a genuine artistic avant-garde emerged in China, manifest in scores of groups and movements and culminating in the massive China/Avant-Garde exhibition that brought 293 works by 186 artists to the National Museum of China in February 1989. That show was cut short when one of the participating artists fired a pistol at her own installation—an action that seemed to foreshadow both the defiance and the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators just four months later in Tiananmen Square.
Many of the Chinese artists who are today best known in the West—Chen Zhen, Ai Weiwei, Huang Yong Ping, Yan Pei-Ming, Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang, Gu Wenda—left the PRC in this period to establish careers abroad. Those who remained suffered neglect and occasional harassment in the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen Square, gradually reassembling in squalid “artist villages” such as Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan and East Village areas. Although local support remained virtually nonexistent throughout the 1990s, a number of experimental artists began to receive recognition abroad, thus becoming bohemian celebrities at home. By 2000, the year in which the Shanghai Biennale became a truly international survey, a handful of progressive galleries were flourishing in Shanghai and Beijing, and shows of avant-garde Chinese work were becoming a staple on the global exhibition circuit. Prices for this art began to escalate phenomenally—780 percent between 2001 and 2008, according to the online auction-tracking service Artprice—resulting in a marketing fever that now has Beijing awash with new galleries and collectors, even though the speculative bubble may have already burst due to the worldwide financial crisis. ••• Sun Xun grew up in Fuxin, an inland industrial town with a coalbased economy, located in the otherwise agricultural Liaoning Province in northeast China, bordering on North Korea and the Yellow Sea. The area has a long record of strongman factionalism, which was ended only by overwhelming force. In 1928, Japanese operatives killed the area’s dominant warlord, prior to launching the 1931 invasion that established the puppet state of Manchukuo (1932–45), nominally run by vestiges of the Qing court under China’s last emperor, Pu Yi. Mao’s 1949 victory brought the entire country under Communist Party control, and some 40 years later, when Sun was growing up, Fuxin still bristled with loudspeakers and publications spouting the Party line on a daily basis. From 1997 to 2005, Sun received his art education first at the high school affiliated with the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou,
then at the Academy itself. This new environment was substantially different from the one Sun was familiar with from Fuxin. Instead of agriculture and coal, the major industry of Hangzhou, a prosperous city renowned for its beautiful, pagoda-studded West Lake, is tourism. The art school, second in prestige only to Beijing’s Central Academy, is considered by many to be the nation’s most formally progressive. (When the academies reopened after the Cultural Revolution, both traditional and modern approaches were again taught, with instruction remaining much more skill-based than is now the Western norm.) Sun majored in printmaking, but also developed a passion for video and animation, an interest that coincides with the China Academy’s instructional strength in new media. It is important to note that video art arrived late to China. Zhang Peili (himself a China Academy alum and head of a new specialty center for the medium) made some of country’s first examples in the late 1980s, when video became available to Chinese artists, like many cultural influences from abroad, in a postmodern, everything-atonce manner. Rather than working their way though developmental stages of the art form, Chinese video-makers had the full range of its formal potential set before them. They could pick and choose among techniques, although their choices were conditioned by their degree of access to expensive equipment. Direct links with Sun Xun’s heavily graphic approach to video can be found in the work of two graduates of the Sichuan Institute of Art, renowned for its painting program. Zhou Xiaohu is widely known for comic claymation videos and for his The Gooey Gentleman (2002), in which cartoon figures cavort on nude male and female torsos. Qiu Anxiong, with a style that melds traditional Chinese ink-wash with a William Kentridge temperament, creates thousands of drawings for his animated videos fancifully updating ancient tales of creation and destruction. Sun Xun’s Lie of the Magician (2005), completed the year of his graduation from the China Academy, presents the artist’s face and naked torso as the field for a quickly changing series of drawn patterns
and images: clouds, rain, plants, fish, birds, animals, sun, moon, and stars. The artist, in effect, becomes his art, subordinating selfhood to esthetic function. We see Sun clothed in black-and-white stage attire at the beginning and end: he greets us, performs nude, and then— costumed again—bows at the conclusion. Even submerged in iconography, Sun persists, not in his man-inthe-street identity but as the persona that every artist can lay claim to: the magician, seeming to create something out of nothing, dazzling us with quick, mysterious changes. His act’s radical fluidity seems innocuous—a harmless entertainment—until we consider the time-honored analogy between the artist and a larger creator. Is the evolving universe itself—life and the cosmos from which it springs— no more than a trick, a magician’s lie? So the title would suggest. Sun’s performance, we should note, transpires between two passages of lightlessness, like the dark eternities that bracket all worldly existence. Shock of Time (2006) grounds such thinking in more historical material. Here the opening and closing sequences feature images of construction equipment, tractors, and straining workers—standard fare in the pages of the Cultural Revolution publications that serve as the ever-changing surface for Sun’s drawings. A throbbing field of black and white dots (the basic elements of printed matter) gives way to a cement mixer, then to the words “history is a lie of time,” consonant with the implications of Lie of the Magician. Thereafter, in rapid succession, follow a faceless, top-hatted man with cane and cape (the magician himself), a clock, turning gears and a pendulum. A headless man comes to break through a wall with a sledgehammer, creating a black shape that turns white and then begins to morph, occasionally resembling the map of China. (“No construction without destruction,” Mao said.) Loudspeakers spill ink, and the video reaches its crescendo with the phrase “mythos expels truth.” That all this takes place with the Cultural Revolution—specifically its print propaganda—as literal background is no accident. Truth was indeed, as we have seen, the victim of myth in that duplicitous
era. The sobering aspect of Sun’s two videos is that, schooled in the mercurial, repeatedly “corrected” chronicle of China, and immersed in the nation’s current social transformations, he has taken flux, indeterminacy, and the equivalency of “history” and “lie” not as products of particular conditions but as fundamental principles of reality.
Lie of the Magician
Shock of Time
LIST OF WORKS
Lie of the Magician, 2005 Single channel video 4:14 minutes Shock of Time, 2006 Single channel video 5:29 minutes Courtesy of Fortune Cookie Projects
E S S AY I S T B I O S
Jo達o Ribas is curator at The Drawing Center. Richard Vine is a senior editor at Art in America, where he writes frequently on contemporary art in Asia and elsewhere. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Chicago and has served as editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review and of Dialogue: An Art Journal. He has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the American Conservatory of Music, the University of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, the New School for Social Research, and New York University. His articles have appeared in various journals, including Salmagundi, the Georgia Review, Tema Celeste, Modern Poetry Studies, and the New Criterion, and in numerous art catalogues and critical compendiums. His book-length study, Odd Nerdrum: Paintings, Sketches, and Drawings, was published by Gyldendal/D.A.P. in 2001. New China, New Art, his book surveying art in China from 1976 to the present, was released by Prestel Publishers in fall 2008.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Frances Beatty Adler Co-Chairman
This exhibition is made possible, in part, by The
Eric C. Rudin Co-Chairman
Experimental Television Centerâ€™s Presentation
Funds program, which is supported by the New
York State Council on the Arts.
Suzanne Cochran Anita F. Contini Frances Dittmer Bruce W. Ferguson Barry M. Fox Stacey Goergen
Additional funding is provided by members
of the Drawing Room, a patron circle founded
Iris Z. Marden
to support innovative exhibitions presented in
The Drawing Centerâ€™s project gallery:
Laura Jacobs Blankfein
Jane Dresner Sadaka
Allen Lee Sessoms
Judith Levinson Oppenheimer
Jeanne C. Thayer*
Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation
Elizabeth R. Miller and James G. Dinan
The Speyer Family Foundation, Inc. Louisa Stude Sarofim
Brett Littman Executive Director
Deborah F. Stiles Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee
John C. Whitehead Isabel Stainow Wilcox
E D WA R D H A L L A M T U C K P U B L I C AT I O N P R O G R A M
This is number 85 of the Drawing Papers, a series of publications documenting The Drawing Center’s exhibitions and public programs and providing a forum for the study of drawing. Jonathan T. D. Neil Executive Editor Joanna Berman Ahlberg Managing Editor Designed by Peter J. Ahlberg / AHL & COMPANY This book is set in Adobe Garamond Pro and Berthold Akzidenz Grotesk. It was printed by BookMobile in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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Drawing Papers 84 Selections Spring 2009: Apparently Invisible Drawing Papers 83 M/M: Just Like an Ant Walking on the Edge of the Visible Drawing Papers 82 Matt Mullican: A Drawing Translates the Way of Thinking Drawing Papers 81 Greta Magnusson Grossman: Furniture and Lighting Drawing Papers 80 Kathleen Henderson: What if I Could Draw a Bird that Could Change the World? Drawing Papers 79 Rirkrit Tiravanija: Demonstration Drawings Drawing Papers 77 Frederick Kiesler: Co-Realities Drawing Papers 73 Alan Saret: Gang Drawings Drawing Papers 61 Eva Hesse: Circles & Grids Drawing Papers 57 Persistent Vestiges: Drawing from the American-Vietnam War Drawing Papers 52 Nasreen Mohamedi: Lines among Lines Drawing Papers 51 3 x Abstraction: Homage to Agnes Martin Drawing Papers 49 Richard Tuttle: Manifesto Drawing Papers 40 Mark Lombardi: Global Networks Drawing Papers 29 Ellsworth Kelly: A Conversation Drawing Papers 14 Henri Michaux: Emergences/Resurgences
T O O R D E R , A N D F O R A C O M P L E T E C ATA L O G O F PA S T E D I T I O N S , V I S I T D R AW I N G C E N T E R . O R G
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Introduction by Jo達o Ribas Essay by Richard Vine
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The Drawing Center's Drawing Papers Volume 85 featuring an introduction by curator João Ribas and an essay, “Sun Xun: History as Myth,” by R...