A Beautiful Disorder: Chinese diaspora sculpture in the English countryside

Cass Sculpture Foundation in Goodwood, near Chichester has spent the last three years commissioning new work by 18 emerging Chinese diaspora artists.

On 3 July 2016 the works were unveiled as “A Beautiful Disorder”, an exhibition that will remain on display until November 2016. Art Radar had the opportunity to travel to Chichester and see the show as it was about to open to the public.

Song Ta, 'Why do they never take colour photos?', 2016.Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016 © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Song Ta, ‘Why Do They Never Take Colour Photos?’, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

The ethos of Cass Sculpture Foundation originated with the feeling of its co-founder Wilfred Cass that sculpture parks were too static. Along with his wife Jeanette, they wanted to create a more dynamic model where every commissioned sculpture was for sale and could potentially leave the site. Once sold and the production costs are deducted, they split the profit between the artist and the foundation. Almost 25 years on, they have commissioned over 400 pieces by 200 artists, although this project is the first time they have supported international artists.

The Chinese artists, including Xu Zhen, Wang Yuyang and Cui Jie, were invited to visit the sculpture park last year to understand its unique challenges, spirit and opportunities. They returned home to conceive and fabricate the works before having them shipped to the UK in the run up to the exhibition opening. The grounds of Cass Sculpture are prevented from being entirely wild by a team of two gardeners; however, as curator Wenny Teo attested, no-one could stop it raining throughout the installation period, which took place in one of the wettest Junes on record.

Cui Jie, 'Pigeon's House (rendering)', 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 20162016 © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Cui Jie, ‘Pigeon’s House (rendering)’, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

That the sculpture park represents both systems and the uncontrollable is conceptually resonant with this group of works. For visitors, “A Beautiful Disorder” is a complex journey through a range of perspectives on China, politics, globalisation and modern life, interweaving with unrelated previous commissions, against a backdrop of the English countryside and the elements.

The title for the show, as the press release describes, was taken from

an 18th-century term used to describe the ability of the Chinese garden to provoke violent and often opposing sensations through a series of theatrical framing devices, which had a huge effect on garden culture.

Works by Zheng Bo, Wang Wei and Jennifer Wen Ma reference landscape and even gardens more directly. But amongst the work of the 18 artists there are many that explore the tension of wildness and order, as well as a sub-theme of testing boundaries and traversing borders. This is epitomised by Li Jinghu’s Escape (My Family History) (2016) comprising two high chain fences illuminated by searchlights, evoking his childhood in Dongguan on the border between Mainland China and Hong Kong.

Art Radar will focus on 8 of the artworks and artists in A Beautiful Disorder in more detail.

Jennifer Wen Ma, 'Molar', 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016 © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Jennifer Wen Ma, ‘Molar’, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

1. Jennifer Wen Ma

As Claire Shea, the foundation’s Curatorial Director points out, the opportunity to work with Cass came at a pivotal point in the career of Jennifer Wen Ma (b. 1973 Beijing). Ma has been based between New York and Beijing since 1986 and incorporates installation, drawing, video, public art, design, performance, and theatre in her work. The artist was in the process of directing her first opera, which debuted at an arts festival in South Carolina in 2015, when Cass approached her.

The foundation encourages artists to depart from their previous work or push it further and for Ma this meant a chance to produce an interdisciplinary installation, using music composed by her collaborator Huang Ruo, part of the stage set from Paradise Interrupted (2016), blown glass she describes as being “healthy and cancerous cells”, and landscapes painted on screens enclosing an intimate topology of water, stone, ink and pathways. Ma says that her piece at Cass titled Molar (2016) “picks up the story after Eve’s eviction from paradise”.

Lu Pingyuan, 'Ghost Trap', 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016 © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Lu Pingyuan, ‘Ghost Trap’, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

2. Lu Pingyuan

The work of Lu Pingyuan (b. 1984 Jinhua, Zhejiang province) more overtly uses the woodland as the stage or film set for his narrative – a ghost story. According to the story etched onto three sides of a nearby rock, a burnt out car in a slightly spooky clearing is presented as the very car that

A young man named Raymond found himself driving to the woods not far from his house… As soon as he entered, dark clouds began to gather overhead, covering the entire sky. A heavy rain started to fall…

Documentation and storytelling characterise the work of this artist, now based in Shanghai, who according to MadeIn Gallery has been involved with the digital art publication PDF and since 2012 has “started to collect and edit various mysterious or extraordinary stories that happened in the art world”. Lu is also exhibiting at Liverpool Biennial, launching July 2016, where his work will be shown across three venues and in the biennial book.

Wenny Teo says that she and co-curators Ellen Liao and Claire Shea deliberately selected younger artists to participate in this show; the majority were born in the 1970s and 1980s and did not live through the Cultural Revolution. Despite this, many of the artists use their practice to understand and process 20th-century Chinese history.

Wang Yuyang, 'Identity', 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016 © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Wang Yuyang, ‘Identity’, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

3. Wang Yuyang

Wang Yuyang (b. 1979, Harbin) presents for this exhibition a six-metre-high sculpture that at first glance looks a little dated, maybe even inspired by the colour palette and idiosyncratic forms of the Memphis Group. But this appearance belies its origins in the world of computer science, as Wang has used 3D rendering and modelling software to translate the book Capital: Critique of the Political Economy by Karl Marx into sculptural form. Wang’s work Identity (2016), Teo says, questions authorship and the role of the artist. The software dictated its shapes, colours, materials and structure. The book, of course, was one of the texts that informed the ideology of Maoism and the ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ that the Communist Party of China practices to this day.

Song Ta, 'Why do they never take colour photos?' (fabrication), 2015. Photo: JJYPHOTO, 2016© Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Song Ta, ‘Why do they never take colour photos?’ (fabrication), 2015. Photo: JJYPHOTO, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

4. Song Ta

Elsewhere, Mao himself makes an appearance in the work of Song Ta (b. 1988, Guangzhou). Rendered in fibreglass atop a brick wall, Mao is looking typically heroic, many metres across with hair flying free. The artist says that this grey facsimile represents the way that Mao is both present and hazy in the lives of the “post-80s” generation who were born after the Communist Party leader died in 1976.

Further referencing the teenage condition, young people from West Dean College in Chichester are performing underneath the sculpture as nonchalant zombies with grey faces, dancing in the mud as though they have just emerged from a music festival. They are seemingly oblivious to the Chinese historical figure above them and therefore say something about both global interconnection and ignorance. Humour and critique are hallmarks of Song’s work, which is described by Beijing Commune as

rooted in the artist’s observations and sampling of reality […]. Song’s artworks do not emphasize refinement of traditional aesthetics or expression of visual beauty; rather, he adopts a relaxed, comical attitude, enjoying the conceptual freedom art allows him.

Tu Wei-Cheng, 'Bu Num Civilisation Wheel', 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016 © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Tu Wei-Cheng, ‘Bu Num Civilisation Wheel’, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

5. Tu Wei-Cheng

Tu Wei-Cheng (b. 1969, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan) also exhibits a piece that involved the participation of the local community. Bu Num Civilization Wheel (2016) is described in the press release as

the most recent iteration in a long-term project in which the Taiwanese artist investigates the relationship between technology, cultural identity, historical memory and myth-making.

Directly into the ground at Cass, the artist has produced five partially dug up excavation pits in which we see fragments of a large futuristic (Teo calls it “cyber punk”) object. He wants this to prompt questions about how digital technologies and our networked lives make it “increasingly difficult to separate fiction from reality”. In a nice touch, the complete object from Tu’s archaeological dig is presented in maquette form in a gallery space that draws together preparatory pieces by all the artists, along with videos by Cao Fei and her sister Cao Dan, Executive Editor of Leap magazine, that explore the idea of artistic inheritance.

Zhang Ruyi ‘Pause’, Concrete Dimensions variable, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle

Zhang Ruyi ‘Pause’, Concrete Dimensions variable, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle

6. Zhang Ruyi

Several miles from the bustling metropolis of London, the subject of our reliance on technology and networks is bought into sharp focus. Zhang Ruyi (b. 1985, Shanghai) has installed in “A Beautiful Disorder” “perhaps the smallest sculptures to have ever been produced by Cass Sculpture Foundation” in the form of several Chinese-style power sockets, which she has mounted on the trees. Often combining the discipline of installation with drawing or painting, Zhang’s work is concerned with social systems, architecture, ecology and the natural world. Teo was keen to reassure visitors on the artist’s behalf that the concrete power sockets would not hurt the trees.

Wang Wei 'Panorama 2', 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Wang Wei, ‘Panorama 2’, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

7. Wang Wei

Wang Wei (b. 1972 Beijing) complements Zhang’s ecological message and shares her interest in architecture, but instead his starting point is “animal enclosures and their relationship to social organisation”. For Cass, Wang has produced a curved mosaic wall, evoking those at Beijing zoo, decorated with a design inspired by the landscape of the sculpture park. The artist, who also works in performance, invites the audience to view Panorama 2 (2016) from a bench some distance away. This enables the viewer to see both the wall and the real landscape beyond, juxtaposing two environments with different levels of human intervention.

Zheng Bo, 'Socialism Good', 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016 © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Zheng Bo, ‘Socialism Good’, 2016. Photo: Barney Hindle, 2016. © Cass Sculpture Foundation.

8. Zheng Bo

Entering and leaving the park the same way means that “A Beautiful Disorder” is both introduced and concluded by Zheng Bo’s Socialism Good (2016). The piece depicts this slogan in Chinese characters made from red flowers against a backdrop of yellow ones. Zheng (b. 1974, Beijing) teaches at City University of Hong Kong, although most of his projects are realised in China. He says:

For the past few years, I have been working with weeds — marginalized plants — in order to understand the human condition in the Anthropocene… the division between human history and natural history is collapsing

The press release for the show at Cass explains that “Zheng has focussed on how even plants have been mobilised in the service of politics” as he recreates genuine flower displays in China from the 1990s. Zheng says that the piece will stay in situ (it would be hard to sell this particular work) indefinitely. It will not be kept in pristine condition, meaning that weeds will gradually overtake the message. In addition, the changing of the seasons will reap unpredictable consequences. Zheng’s piece, in combining ideas around history, memory and human intervention in the natural world is both an apt beginning and a poignant end to this show.

Linda Pittwood


Related posts: Chinese art, Taiwanese artists, environmental art, landscape, sculpture, galleries/art spaces, events in the UK

Related topics:

Subscribe to Art Radar for artwork from the Chinese diaspora



Comments are closed.