Geng Xue explores Buddhist cosmology in “Mount Sumeru” at Klein Sun Gallery, New York
“Mount Sumeru“, the first major solo presentation of Chinese artist Geng Xue’s porcelain and bronze works in the West, will be on view at Klein Sun Gallery until 17 June 2017. Art Radar has a look at her current exhibition as well as her artistic practice.
Mount Sumeru and religious cosmology
In her latest project at Klein Sun Gallery in New York, Chinese multimedia artist and sculptor Geng Xue returns to working with her favoured medium of porcelain. In “Mount Sumeru” a series of porcelain and bronze sculptures rest on podiums while a sound installation plays in the exhibition space. For this project, Geng Xue departs from research conducted around the sacred mountain Mount Sumeru, which lies in the Garwhal Himalayas, in the Uttarakhand region of India and is said by diverse religious followers to be the centre of the physical and spiritual universe for the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religions.
The body and environment
Geng Xue’s installation consists of a series of fragments of the body, moulded as a disparate collection of truncated body parts that blend into sparse strips of landscapes. Also present in the exhibition space are two sculptures of human figures cast in bronze. The exhibition productively draws on the contrast between the two sculptural materials of bronze and porcelain, characterised by contrasting qualities of softness and hardness, heaviness and lightness, strength and fragility.
The exhibition’s conceptual exploration also plays on these polar opposites, which are central to the artist’s exploration of the relationship between spiritual and physical self. With the additional sound piece weaving a narrative between the fragments of land and body displayed on podiums, Geng Xue constructs a surreal and almost cinematographic visual landscape in the exhibition space – a means of mapping the intricacies between perception and embodiment in Buddhist cosmology.
A central theme in “Mount Sumeru” (and her wider practice) is the relationship between the body and the environment. Many works depict parts of the body melded and fused with strips of landscape – geological and biological hybrids made as inseparable from each other. For example, in View Delusion 1 (2016) Geng Xue surrounds a human head with mountains and small ponds, their ripples frozen as if in a photograph.
In her bronze work Big Woman Statue (2015), inspired by Michelangelo’s acclaimed David (1501–1504), Geng Xue depicts a female figure standing with a whip suspended behind her, while her left hand holds another hand, which belongs to no one. In Big Woman Statue the unidentified hand suggests a void or an unavailability, leaving room for imagination of whether or not there is another human figure, reinforcing the exhibition project’s overall interest in the absence and presence of bodies as well as the tension between the whole body and its parts.
A central piece in the exhibition is Mountain Gate, which depicts a series of porcelain bones resting (but also perhaps growing from) a catastrophic split in a mountain. The dramatic image, which draws a link between the rock of the mountain and the bones that constitute the human skeleton, evokes simultaneously a sense of slow geological change (and disaster) as well as emotional or psychological breakdowns. In another piece entitled Radiates a Light, Geng Xue features a mother holding her baby, serenely watching the reflected light on a pond and the mountains beyond. It is this terrain, between the psychosomatic and the geological, between the spiritual and the geographical, where Geng Xue situates her practice.
Geng Xue and porcelain
The choice to work with porcelain in an exploration of the spiritual and physical body in the current exhibition is not arbitrary: porcelain has certain metaphoric connections with fragility and purity (a kind of soft skin) as well as a geological rarity. Porcelain has been central to Chinese art history, from the work of the masters of Jingdezhen to contemporary art. When Europeans first saw Chinese porcelain, for example, it seemed so fine, translucent and superior to anything they could fashion that they concluded it must have been made with magic and called it “white gold”.
Porcelain thus occupies a unique place in our collective imaginary: it is durable enough to be the material of choice for domestic objects and yet it is fragile and delicate enough to have connotations with the fragility of bone or skin. Of her choice to work with porcelain, the artist stated recently:
My preference traces back to my passion for Chinese traditional art and porcelain carries a long history. I was playing with modeling clay since I was a kid, and the first time I tried to craft some pottery was at school. I was fascinated by the richness of transformations this material can undergo.
This is not the first time that Geng Xue has worked with porcelain. In fact throughout her decade-long mixed-media career, the artist has continually returned to working with porcelain in her film, installation and exhibition projects. Porcelain and metamorphosis were central to her recent film work Mr Sea (2015) (Hai Gongzi in Chinese).
The short film is based on a collection of supernatural tales from the Liaozhaizhiyi (which means “Strange Tales of Liaozhai”). The book, written by Pu Songlin, was a Qing dynasty classic and is well-known in China. Geng Xue decided to focus on a story entitled “Killing the Serpent”, which tells the tale of a young explorer who finds himself on the shores of an unknown island and meets a series of challenges ultimately succumbing to a spiral of passion and death. Many have compared the tale to the Western myth of Ulysses and the Sirens. The film is a breath-taking stop-motion animated film set in a world of porcelain fabricated by the artist. Talking about the work the artist has stated:
Mr Sea can be considered my first experience with video and I wanted to try a new language and combine it with my love for porcelain. I did everything on my own and I had friends from the industry teaching me how to deal with a camera and lights.
The exhibition “Mount Sumeru” overwhelmingly deals with stories of the body in moments of transformation and metamorphosis. Through the artist’s delicate craft of producing whimsical ghost-like figurines in porcelain and melding them into similarly enigmatic landscapes, Geng Xue constructs a nuanced space in which human fragility meets spiritual otherworldliness.
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