On the relevance of tradition in Chinese contemporary art: “Everyday Legend” at Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum

“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", 8 November - 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view left to right: Zheng Guogu, ‘Images of Magnetic Resonance: the Age of Elves’, 2014, oil on canvas, 198 x 282 cm; Lu Jianhua, ‘Filled’, 2016, porcelain, 68 x 86 x 3 cm; Yang Xinguang, ‘Tire and Branches’, 2016, rubber branches steel, 200 x 170,400 cm; Yang Xinguang ‘The Remaining Volume’, 2014, wood, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

“Everyday Legend”, 8 November – 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view left to right: Zheng Guogu, ‘Images of Magnetic Resonance: the Age of Elves’, 2014, oil on canvas, 198 x 282 cm; Lu Jianhua, ‘Filled’, 2016, porcelain, 68 x 86 x 3 cm; Yang Xinguang, ‘Tire and Branches’, 2016, rubber branches steel, 200 x 170,400 cm; Yang Xinguang ‘The Remaining Volume’, 2014, wood, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

“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.

Lu Jianhua, ‘Filled’, 2016, porcelain, 68 x 86 x 3 cm. Image courtesy artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

Lu Jianhua, ‘Filled’, 2016, porcelain, 68 x 86 x 3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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:

"Everyday Legend", 8 November - 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view left to right: Liu Jianhua, ‘Rime’, 2015, porcelain, 197.5 x 10 x 12 cm; Hao Liang, ‘Bamboo Hut II’, 2015, ink and colour on silk, 175 x 88.5 cm; Shao Yinong, ‘The Nine Twigs’, 2011, installation of stainless steel chain, tourmaline, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

“Everyday Legend”, 8 November – 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view left to right: Liu Jianhua, ‘Rime’, 2015, porcelain, 197.5 x 10 x 12 cm; Hao Liang, ‘Bamboo Hut II’, 2015, ink and colour on silk, 175 x 88.5 cm; Shao Yinong, ‘The Nine Twigs’, 2011, installation of stainless steel chain, tourmaline, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

Zheng Guogu, ‘Spiritual Tour in The Pure Garden: Fall in Love with a Killer’, 2014, white marble, 38 x 480 x 450 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

Zheng Guogu, ‘Spiritual Tour in The Pure Garden: Fall in Love with a Killer’, 2014, white marble, 38 x 480 x 450 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

"Everyday Legend", 8 November - 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Left: Liang Shaoji, ‘Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being/Nature Series No. 79’, 2013, polyurethane colophony, iron powder, silk, cocoons, dimensions variable. Far right: ‘Snow Cover’, 2016, wickers, silk, cocoons, wooden board, 35 x 122 x 124 cm each, 4 pieces. Far Center: Hu Xiaoyuan, ‘Wood No. 16’, 2016, wood, ink, silk, paint, iron nail, 160 x 120 x 6 cm. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

“Everyday Legend”, 8 November – 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Left: Liang Shaoji, ‘Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being/Nature Series No. 79’, 2013, polyurethane colophony, iron powder, silk, cocoons, dimensions variable. Far right: ‘Snow Cover’, 2016, wickers, silk, cocoons, wooden board, 35 x 122 x 124 cm each, 4 pieces. Far Center: Hu Xiaoyuan, ‘Wood No. 16’, 2016, wood, ink, silk, paint, iron nail, 160 x 120 x 6 cm. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

Everyday Legend", 8 November - 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view, left: Zhan Wang, ‘Artificial Rock No. 123’, 2007, stainless steel, 300 x 170 x 130 cm. Right: Liang Yuanwei, ‘Piece of Life’, 2008, oil on canvas, 190 x 160 cm. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

“Everyday Legend”, 8 November – 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view. Left: Zhan Wang, ‘Artificial Rock No. 123’, 2007, stainless steel, 300 x 170 x 130 cm. Right: Liang Yuanwei, ‘Piece of Life’, 2008, oil on canvas, 190 x 160 cm. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

Everyday Legend", 8 November - 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view. Foreground: Yang Mushi, ‘Subtracting – Pole’, 2015, wood beam, black spray lacquer, 55 pcs, 200 x 9 cm each. On the wall: Ni Youyu, ‘Riverbed’, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 x 2 cm. Far left: Shi Jinsong, ‘Qin Fen Box’, 2016, metal, field device, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

“Everyday Legend”, 8 November – 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view. Foreground: Yang Mushi, ‘Subtracting – Pole’, 2015, wood beam, black spray lacquer, 55 pcs, 200 x 9 cm each. On the wall: Ni Youyu, ‘Riverbed’, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 x 2 cm. Far left: Shi Jinsong, ‘Qin Fen Box’, 2016, metal, field device, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

Wu Yiming, ‘Kong Fu’, 2016, handwriting on rice paper, 70 x 140 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

Wu Yiming, ‘Kong Fu’, 2016, handwriting on rice paper, 70 x 140 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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, ‘Some Actions which Haven’t been Defined Yet in the Revolution’, 2011, single-channel woodcut animation still, 12m:22s. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

Sun Xun, ‘Some Actions which Haven’t been Defined Yet in the Revolution’, 2011, single-channel woodcut animation still, 12m:22s. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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, ‘Wisdom Teeth’, 2013-2014, wisdom teeth, 99% pure gold and copper, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

He Xiangyu, ‘Wisdom Teeth’, 2013-2014, wisdom teeth, 99% pure gold and copper, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

Zhao Zhao, ‘Countless’, 2014, damaged Buddhist statues from various dynasties, limestone, white marble, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

Zhao Zhao, ‘Countless’, 2014, damaged Buddhist statues from various dynasties, limestone, white marble, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

"Everyday Legend", 8 November - 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view. Sui Jianguo, ‘Shape of Time’, 2006-2012, proxylin lacquer, resin insulator, stainless steel rod, 30 x 30 x 70 cm. Back wall: Yang Mushi, ‘Connecting’, 2016, wood, black lacquer, 200 x 300 cm. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

“Everyday Legend”, 8 November – 7 December 2016, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Installation view. Sui Jianguo, ‘Shape of Time’, 2006-2012, proxylin lacquer, resin insulator, stainless steel rod, 30 x 30 x 70 cm. Back wall: Yang Mushi, ‘Connecting’, 2016, wood, black lacquer, 200 x 300 cm. Image courtesy the artists and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

Lu Pingyuan, ‘Ma Liang’s Magical Paintbrush’, 2016, text, multimedia, 130 x 150 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

Lu Pingyuan, ‘Ma Liang’s Magical Paintbrush’, 2016, text, multimedia, 130 x 150 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

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.

Nooshfar Afnan

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, classic/contemporary, identity art, installation, museum shows, events in Shanghai

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