Sunday, 20 September 2009





Contemporary Chinese art has made  remarkable rise to international prominence during the pat few years, restoring China to the central position it enjoyed before the misfortunes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hu Xiancheng, whose exhibition has just opened at the Shanghai Museum of Modern Art, enjoys an unusual position among China’s most innovative artists.


He has extensive international experience, but this has not been in the West. He has spent a substantial time in Africa, and he has become well-known in Japan. Traces of both these cultures cn be found in his work. So, too, can things he learned from a period of residence in Tibet.


In China he has been an activist for conservation. He has a house in Zhou Zhuang, a now celebrated and much visited ‘canal village’ close to Shanghai, and had much to do with the decision to preserve it rather than destroy it – a decision that has brought prosperity to its inhabitants.


Though he is a conservationist, he is certainly not a conservative. As his new exhibition shows, he is a restlessly experimental creator. Basically the exhibition consists of three elements. There are large installations - one on the theme of ‘measure’, featuring numerous measuring tapes and a huge sphere made of cotton wadding that may represent the world. There are paintings – some abstract and some figurative. The figurative ones show the impact made on him by prehistoric African rock drawings. And finally there are large sculptures, some standing isolated, some integrated with the installations.


A characteristic of the installations is that they use a wide variety of different objects and materials. Some of these objects are ‘readymades’ – such as old television sets or broken children’s toys. The idea of the ‘readymade’, contrary to the story generally told in art history books, entered Chinese art long before it was promoted in the West by Marcel Duchamp. The ‘scholar’s rocks’ that feature in Chinese gardens, and which were a regular decorative feature in the studies and libraries of Chinese literati of the Imperial epoch, are found objects promoted to the status of works of art. And in this sense they are precisely equivalent to Duchamp’s celebrated ‘Fountain’, which is an unaltered porcelain urinal. Other components are materials usually associated with making buildings rather than with making art – such as planks and metal poles.


What Hu Xiancheng wants to say in these installations is that life itself is an open ended process, never quite predictable. He also wants to say that we are responsible for the human environment – the setting we create for ourselves, simply in the process of living our daily lives. We are all in this sense artists, though we usually remain unconscious of the fact.


The sculptures, which are among his most recent works, mark a movement towards the examination of nature, rather than society. Their forms owe some to the capricious shapes of the scholar’s rocks already mentioned. But the voids are more important than the areas that are solid, and this makes them unlike most sculpture. We are meant to feel the wind blowing through them, or the possible movement of water. In this sense, they are a contribution to the great Chinese landscape tradition, which stretches back for more than a thousand years. They are also completely personal. And now, no doubt, Hu Xiancheng is ready to move on to the next stage. One thing the exhibition tells us is that he will always be restless. Another is that he will always be creative, and always in ways that will surprise his audience.




This site was last updated 20-09-2009