Art Down Under: A Chinese Tale
The Arts in my home country of Australia are diverse and widely celebrated. Artforms in performance, music, literature and visual art are often boxed into categories of Australian history, bad accents, landscape paintings and Steve Irwin. I assure you, we have definitely made a transition (however the accents are still undesired and we really miss our Steve).
Australian visual art is particularly blossoming into an innovative era, mixing tradition with progression – and it’s revealing that we think outside the frame.
Ah Xian produces contemporary sculptural art and is based in Sydney, Australia. Xian has lived in Australia for 23 years, though was born in Beijing in 1960. The art of this sculptor presents us with his clear perspective on the human form. It is through his modern methods of construction, conceptual strength and a distinctive cultural point of view that Xian enables viewers the insight to his sculptural expression.
He fled China in 1990 to Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre at age 30. Now, Xian continues to explore his native cultural identity despite this relocation from his roots. His particular works in the Metaphysica series (2007) and Concrete Forest series (2008/2009) articulate the representation of the body through his intricacy of skill and meaning.
Xian’s ceramic works are body casts (or ‘busts’) that have been hand-molded from the living human form. Xian employs the contemporary use of ancient mediums including porcelain, lacquer, cloisonne, jade and bronze. His art making process preserves traditional practices and techniques of his Chinese background. From this, Xian maintains his cultural heritage by intertwining historical representations of myth and humanity with Western art influences. The strange beauty of Xian’s busts is seen through the juxtaposition of modern Western mediums and construction, fused with traditional Eastern motifs. His use of motifs – dragons, lily pads, trees, great waves and mountains – helps produce a defying blend of social, cultural and political undertones.
Xian has used unconventional materials and methods of construction to form his signature sculptural pieces of the body. In Metaphysica, bronze has been revived as his modern material of choice. His Concrete Forest series also has moved away from using traditional decorative materials to cast the busts by using the material of concrete; the foundations of skyscrapers, footpaths and structure that signify contemporary life. This series was the first experience in working with cement for the artist. His general method of construction to create his body of work consists of the application of petroleum jelly to the body of subject. From this, layers of plastic bandages or a quick-setting mold material called alginate is applied on the contours of Xian’s live body subjects. Fiberglass models are made from these initial castings, and so the mold is able to be replicated in his material of choice.
Xian’s method of colouration on his castings often feature the cloisonne technique. This technique is Xian’s incorporation of cultural tradition often seen in Chinese ceramics, integrated into his contemporary Westernised artforms. The cloisonne technique involves the positioning of shaped copper wires onto his subjects during the process of enameling. These are then filled with coloured ceramic by hand. A glaze on the sculpture may proceed; dependent on the aesthetic Xian aims in achieving or material of the work used. Xian undergoes the art making process of his sculptures in Beijing due to the significantly lower cost of materials and resources than if he produced them in Australia. He also often commissions sculptural artisans from Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi Province of China to create renditions of his castings, who are celebrated for their Indigenous porcelain, craftsmanship and kilns. Xian’s art making is very laborious, intimate and precise; proving to present intricate forms of beauty as a result.
Metaphysica is Xian’s 2007 series of bronze busts with each casting slightly different in finish and detailing. A range of custom objects are perched on each of the busts’ heads including cultural spirits, temples and animals. Ah Xian describes them as “auspicious symbolic objects which reflect what people believe, love, appreciate and enjoy”. The series signifies influences of Buddism, historical myth and the imagination. As the works’ title suggests, metaphysics is the study of the nature of being and the world. Xian aims to uniquely explore humanity’s existence and allow deeper understanding of the subconscious worlds of the mind beyond the physical human body. A common thread in all of Xian’s works is that his philosophy and conceptual niche lies with the discovery of identity and exploration of self through expression of the body; the exterior as a passage to the inner mind.
His sculpture Red Fish in the Metaphysica series engages audiences in the notion of the human body and its parallels to other forms. The bronze and brass bust allows the red fish upon its head to be emphasised, challenging audiences perspective in their seemingly irrelevance to each other. Their connection of freedom and fluency of form on a conceptual level further allows their aesthetic qualities to create a unity. The texture of the fish’s scales contrasts to the smooth surface of the figure, alluring the viewer’s sense of touch. Red Fish is a fine piece in the series, presenting the tone of the remaining busts in the collection. Xian describes Metaphysica as “ever-precious, exploring our peaceful, bright and never-ending imagination.”
The Concrete Forest castings consist of a 36-piece collection with each bust delicately imprinted with the foliage of many species of plants. The busts are cast from a selection of Xian’s Australian and Chinese friends and family. These busts display feelings of tranquility and a suggestion of human power through each sculptural representation. At first glance the collection appears to be mass produced of a singular casting. On closer inspection, one can appreciate Xian’s concern of capturing individualistic qualities of his subjects’ personal identity. The Concrete Forest series embodies a meditative and peaceful expression reminiscent of a Buddha or higher power – however Xian explains he “consciously decided to do a copy from the lives of ordinary people rather than famous ones”. This establishes a connection to which the majority of his receiving audience can relate.
The concept of this series resonates with a diversity of Australian and Chinese audiences. It symbolises environmental degradation in today’s society, the violation of urban sprawl on the natural world, and also the instinctive vulnerability of life itself.
Most notably, the sculpture Sagittaria trifolio from the Concrete Forest series is renowned in his collection – and in Australian art – due to its merit in skill and beauty. Xian’s raw colour palette of the untouched concrete surface allows a sense of harmony to resonate between Sagittaria trifolio and the pieces in the collection. This is also reflective of the uniformity between what the castings represent: humanity and the affiliation of East and West. The life-like scale of Sagittaria trifolio allows clear view of the repetition of line and shape on its surface. This is created from the imbedding of leaves. These lines have caused the facial cracks in the sculpture’s finished stage, forming a texture that emphasises its facial features. Shapes are layered around the bust’s mouth and neck which can be seen to symbolise Xian’s struggles of liberty, metaphorical suffocation of political hierarchy and suppression of speech. Before Xian’s migration to Australia, creative right of expression was suppressed in communist China at this time. Therefore, from Xian’s past of Tiananmen Square horror and lack of artistic freedom, his art is a clear depiction of important concepts: his gratefulness of life and the nostalgic link to one’s heritage imbedded in their identity.
Despite their obscure beauty, eeriness presents itself to the viewer from the stillness of their visage. Audiences can further appreciate Xian’s understanding of contrast, in the cohesive juxtaposition of the hard exterior of concrete and the work’s concept of life’s fragility. Xian cleverly symbolises these powerful ideas in his sculptures. It adds to their depth of point of view in the reinvention of perspective on the human form.
Ah Xian is a commendable artist. His embrace of heritage and identity allows him to stand apart from the scope of contemporary artists of Australia’s industry. It is through Xian’s mode of representing the human form that allows the channelling of subjective emotions of displacement, cultural barriers, loss and freedom. His art carries true emotion for audiences – whether Australian, Chinese or global – to empathise and relate in the structure of the physical body that links all of humanity.
What do you think? Leave a comment.