“Everyday Legend” asks how relevant traditional culture is in the production of Chinese contemporary art.
The group exhibition presented at Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum until 7 December 2016 explores traditional arts and crafts’ role in the creative process of Chinese contemporary artists.
“Everyday Legend”, running at Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum from 8 November to 7 December 2016, is an extensive exhibition of Chinese contemporary art that probes into the extent to which traditional Chinese arts and crafts are still part of the creative process of contemporary artists both in terms of materials and techniques as well as history and culture.
With this show the organisers aim is not only to show how traditional handiwork can be applied to contemporary art practice, but also to bring attention to the marginalisation and even endangerment of these traditions in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese people and the cultural disconnect that exists today.
The exhibition is the result of three years of research by the curators Jiang Jiehong and Nan Nan, which was enriched through studio visits to artists and craftsmen, as well as field surveys and thematic seminars. The curators chose 19 Chinese contemporary artists whose works highlight their interest and reflection on the convergence of traditional arts and crafts in their contemporary art practices. They consist of young, mid-career and senior artists whose oeuvre is representative of a variety of art forms including painting, sculpture, installation and animation.
The 19 participating artists (in alphabetical order) are:
- Hao Liang
- He Xiangyu
- Hu Xiaoyuan
- Liang Shaoji
- Liang Yuanwei
- Liu Jianhua
- Lu Pingyuan
- Ni Youyu
- Sui Jianguo
- Sun Xun
- Shao Yinong
- Shi Jinsong
- Wu Yiming
- Yang Mushi
- Yang Xinguang
- Yu Ji
- Zhan Wang
- Zhao Zhao
- Zheng Guogu
In their research the curators have tried to highlight that “legend” is a product of both material and non-material culture. The curators want to
retrieve what has disappeared and to question […] shoddy and low-quality techniques […], and to re-evaluate the creative insights lying in folk crafts as well as the cultural value it could generate today.
The exhibition has been divided into four strands, with the first termed “Inheritance”, concerned with learning from one’s ancestors and from nature. The second theme, called “Borrowing the Shape”, does not simply refer to the appropriation of visual forms, but rather to the re-discovery of its contemporary aesthetic value. The third strand “Referencing the Materials” emphasises deriving a new visual vocabulary from insights gained from traditional materials and techniques. And lastly, “Legend” highlights the fact that traditional crafts are in most cases passed down orally from generation to generation and usually do not exist in written form, an aspect which over time creates some knowledge gaps. However, these gaps offer spaces for innovation and new interpretations.
Curator Jiang Jiehong states:
Unlike design, art is not to resolve questions but to raise them. It aims to critically reflect on the loss of traditions and its impact [on] China today. Artistic thinking and practice intend[s] to inform the cultural policies, and strategies for development of urbanization, social environment and educational system in the country. The unique situation of contemporary China with fragmented traditions provides challenges as well as opportunities, certainly for art, where traditions can be reassessed and reinvented through creative practice. The ‘legend’ is not merely imaginary, but origin[ate]s from the cultural traditions, tangible or intangible. It is formed to re-examine, draw from and be inspired by Chinese traditional arts and related cultural heritages, and more importantly, as a generative process of knowledge re-production.
Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being/Nature Series No. 79 (2013) by artist Liang Shaoji (b. 1945) incorporates a series of heavy metal chains, a symbol of eternity, covered in white silk thread woven by silk worms over time. As the artist has stated:
Fragile as the silk threads were, they could hardly be broken. Softness could beat hardness, which in a way, formed a poetic metaphor of life.
Zhan Wang (b. 1962) draws directly from the tradition of Chinese rockery stone (also known as ‘scholar’s rocks’. Initially interested in directly copying those stones, over time Wang found his own unique interpretation of this traditional art form executed in industrial looking stainless steel sculptures such as Artificial Rock No. 123 (2007).
Liang Yuanwei (b. 1977) is one of the artists that represented China at the 2011 edition of the Venice Biennale. In this series the artist draws inspiration from fabrics that she collects and attempts to carefully recreate them in her oil paintings. Her canvases are very labour-intensive and yet also have a meditative quality.
Yang Mushi (b. 1989), the youngest artist in the show, spent three years working like a labourer to produce a body of work that questions the value of industrial production, the destruction of old structures and shows his disappointment with both socialism and capitalism, neither of which answer the needs of his generation. His work is made out of wooden beams from old demolished houses. Functional construction beams that hold up a structure are turned into violent weapons by sharpening both ends like spears. As the artist explains in an earlier interview with Art Radar,
this condition corresponds to the “unscrupulous” and “unintentional” acts of people produced by the violent changes of society in order to survive the state of affairs. It is a retrogression of civilisation.
Chinese characters are one of the most recognisable symbols of its culture and in ancient times influenced the development of script in its neighbouring countries. However today non-Chinese words are creeping into the language. In response to this linguistic phenomenon, Wu Yiming (b. 1966) invents new character combinations that correspond phonetically with that of Western pronunciation of Chinese words such as tofu or kung fu (in Mandarin pronounced as dofu and gong fu) and thereby rendering them meaningless. He is worried about the survival and continuation of the Chinese language and characters into the future, and laments the lack of interest among the younger generation. He asks:
“What is the path forward for Chinese characters?”
Sun Xun’s (b. 1980) animation film is made from wood printing block, a technique which has a unique place in the history of China and was used during the Cultural revolution as a “cultural weapon”.
He Xiangyu (b. 1986), recently announced winner of the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA) Best Young Artist Award, is represented by his work Wisdom Teeth, which as the artist explains, are a part of everyone’s physiology and which despite their beautiful name are useless and have to be removed in a process usually associated with pain. He explains that the two concepts of wisdom and pain always appear together in different contexts from religious to secular:
This work aims to transfer the subjective experience of the individuals to the audience intuitively through a universal language.
As the title of Zhao Zhao’s (b. 1982) work Countless suggests, it is made up of countless 1-cube-centimetre cubes cut from ruined and decaying Buddhist statutes, pointing to the destruction of cultural and religious symbols in the recent history of the country and yet they persist – even if in a miniscule and deformed shapes.
Veteran Chinese contemporary sculptor Sui Jianguo’s (b. 1956) work Shape of Time is a long-term project that was conceived on his 50th birthday when he was contemplating the passage of time. Twice a day a wire was dipped into a tin of enamel paint. With every dip a new layer of paint was added. We can now observe how the small drops of paint have grown over the years to become the size of a human head, aptly covered with a wrinkled surface, an innate characteristic of the material.
This research-based curatorial project was launched in 2014 by New Century Art Foundation (NCAF) in an effort to understand “the inheritance of Chinese culture from the perspective of contemporary art […] and to reveal the cultural dilemmas that are faced by China today. In 2016 the research project received the International Network Project award from the Leverhulme Trust, one of the most prestigious foundations that supports academic research projects in the United Kingdom.
In the next two years, the project team will organise on-site visits, workshops and seminars in Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Groningen, London and Birmingham, and build a website for the updating of the research progress and results. In 2018, a final report of the research project will be published.
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