Looking for Form: The Art of Sui Jianguo

By Francesca Dal Lago
Paris, April 2011

Among the many exhibitions that have been organized on the topic of Chinese contemporary art in Europe during the recent years, few have been dedicated solely to the subject of sculpture. This makes ”The Hague under the Heaven” a special event in the presentation of contemporary Chinese art to European audiences. Sculpture is of course a special, often neglected form of contemporary art, one which is not as discussed, exhibited, sold and circulated as other, two-dimensional genres such as painting, photography or even video. In Europe as in China in the last decade, three-dimensionality in contemporary art has often been replaced by the medium of installation, which employs objects and/or structures in a space to create an environment which the visitor can enter or with which he/she can physically interact.

In Europe, sculpture as well as painting for most of their history have served public and official purposes, creating objects of religious worship or political commemoration. Sculpture was normally created to be installed in public, often open spaces, such as squares, palaces and churches, to be visible to large groups of people, marking a specific historical episode and celebrating the protagonist of such an event, or alternatively to elicit worshipers‟ devotion. Ever since the ancient Greek and Roman periods, sculpture was considered as one of the highest forms of art in the West, and some of the most celebrated artists in the history of Europe have been sculptors. Not so in China: Sculpture as an art form as we understand it is a very new addition to the gamut of the arts, dating only to the early part of the 20th century when Chinese artists started emigrating to Japan and to France to learn, among many other disciplines, this new, completely Western form of artistic expression.

Sculpture as a technical practice certainly existed in China for centuries and was used for decorative, celebratory and devotional purposes, in Buddhist grottoes and temples, for example, or imperial compounds. But it was considered to be closer to craft, and its practice was restricted to artisans and craftsmen, not artists. We do not even know the names of important sculptors in the history of Chinese art. In China, “Art” with a capital “A” was always connected to the practice of writing, both in the materials it used and it its formal values. Works carved in stone were too closely associated with manual and physical labor and therefore considered as a product of the lower classes, not of the intellectuals who traditionally were the sole producers of art.

In the early part of the 20th century, many of the artists who formed the first generation of Chinese sculptors came to France to study this new mode of artistic expression. In this sense, and given their desire to master an art form which was completely unknown, we could say that sculpture is the most modern of the arts in China. Taught with methods that remain heavily dependent on European academic models, sculpture is still practiced largely on the basis of the system used at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the early part of the 20th century.

In the period immediately following the founding of the People‟s Republic of China, sculpture was largely employed for the celebration of important episodes or representation of figures in the struggle that led the Communists to victory. Given its use of expensive materials, the need for an appropriate space to produce it and its academic roots, sculpture has then been nearly exclusively employed in public spaces to convey political messages, disseminating the official, orthodox view of history approved by the Communist party. A famous example, considered as one of the highest points of sculptural production in modern China, is the series of neo-classic bas-reliefs wrapped around the base of the Monument to the People‟s Heroes at the very center of Tian‟anmen Square in Beijing, the embodiment of the official and symbolic narrative of the history that brought the People‟s Republic of China into existence. Unlike painting, which offered through the centuries a venue for artists to express private reflections and 2 personal feelings, the young art of sculpture has until very recently only been used to convey very public messages.

This is why Sui Jianguo‟s artistic production is in a way so unique in the panorama of Chinese contemporary art. An amateur ink painter during the time of the Cultural Revolution, Sui first entered the sculpture department of the Shandong Art Institute in 1980, where he stayed on to teach until 1986. He was then admitted to the master program at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where most of the artists who in the 1950s had worked on the Tian‟anmen stele had been teaching. As a proof of his talent, he was asked to stay on as teaching staff at this school, where he has held the position of chair of the Sculpture Department for many years. This long process of technical perfection attests to the serious, academic training that he received in the medium of sculpture.

Sui is therefore, by his own admission, an artist strictly educated in the practice of classic sculpture “from the Greeks to Rodin.” And it is this very structured and rigorous form of practice that he has tried to overcome ever since. As he told me in our recent conversation, “If I use the practice of realist sculpture, there is no way for me to express my personal feelings. As soon as I begin to use realist sculpture, it becomes Socialist Realism.” By this he means that the form of his art and the way in which he has learned it cannot help but define the content of his creation.

Despite his very sophisticated training, Sui has never felt at ease with using the technique and the style for which he was so thoroughly prepared. To express his artistic personality and thoughts, to provide a sense of his reflections on the society and space around him, he has constantly tried to overcome and intervene in the practice as it was handed down to him. He had to act upon a language that was, as he said, forcefully introduced from the outside on the Chinese artistic realm and make it his own.

The necessity to redefine his sculptural language thus lies at the core of Sui‟s varied and diverse body of work. In fact, the trajectory of his artistic development starts with a work that, given its abstract character, could hardly be considered as the product of an artist who for years had only been looking at Hellenistic or neo-Classical models. The series Earthly Force (1992-1994) is composed of a set of more than twenty very large natural stones, each individually wrapped in a mesh of iron bars. In the original installation picture the stones, photographed in dim light, suggest an ominous presence, as if they were dinosaur eggs ready to give birth to their monstrous contents, or packages of hazardous material about to explode. But, at the same time, these massive boulders look light and very natural, suggesting the idea of baskets or ropes wrapping goods just arrived at a rural market. The work is abstract in its reference and yet very material in its quality. There is a degree of naturalness, particularly given the rust that has covered the bars, that makes it look like some kind of industrial debris, not the conscious product of human hands but a leftover of the mechanical age.

In an interview that Sui had few years ago with the art historian and critic Wu Hung, he discussed the kind of cathartic process that led him to this work, begun in 1989 shortly after the events that brought to a tragic end the student demonstrations on Tian'anmen square. 2This work was produced under very specific emotional conditions and resonates with the feelings of despair and repressed anger shared by a whole generation after the violent end of the student movement. The stones in this light appear as silent and static witnesses containing the stifled ideals of a whole generation. The methodical structure of the mesh eliminates the possibility of hope for that energy to be released again, and at the same time it makes an ominous reference to the explosive power contained inside.

Following the production of works created under the influence of the Tian‟anmen trauma, in 1996 Sui Jianguo begun to experiment with the language he was most familiar with, that of academic sculpture. He produced the series which is normally but erroneously known as “Mao‟s suits” and titled Legacy Mantle. The correct title of this work is actually impossible to translate since it refers to a Buddhist term about the act of passing down a monk‟s teaching to a student or a follower, basically the handing down of a tradition, an expression similar to the English „handing down the mantle.‟ The series was inspired by the occasion of hand down of Macao and Hong Kong to the control of the Beijing government, and it celebrates the common legacy held by the countries forming the complex of a greater China. For Sui, the central meaning of this work is that it is in fact a “container” or an empty jacket, which could be seen as either Mao‟s or Sun Yat- sen‟s, the father of the Chinese Republic, recognized as one of the historical founders of modern China by both the PRC and the Republic of China on Taiwan.3 As an empty structure, it can be filled with different contents, or different political messages. As a „mantle‟ it can be handed down as a tradition, either sartorial or ideological, and wore or transformed by the disciple(s).

On the other hand, the size of these jackets, which in some cases reach a height of more than 2 meters, and their headless torsos create a visual reference to the fragments of some of the colossal sculptures of the ancient past, like those of emperors and pharaohs. While they remind us of the immense power these figures once held, they is also offer a statement about their demise: now they are only “fragments” of statues, brought down from their pedestal and deprived of their heads, relics from a distant past.

The series Cloth Vein Studies continues Sui‟s idea of adapting the language of classical sculpture to China‟s specific conditions. His reflections on the theme of the grafting of Academic practice on the language of Chinese art and culture led him in the late 1990s to the production of a series where famous classic examples of Western statues are dressed as Chinese communist cadres. In this exhibition, two of Michelangelo‟s statues of the Captive Slaves in the Louvre are clothed with pants and Mao jackets. Wrapped in such unlikely outfits, the original Renaissance models look particularly uncomfortable, as if constricted and imprisoned by the clothes. The clash derived from such an unthinkable pairing (Maoist clothing and Renaissance plasticity) is a good visual commentary on the difficult meeting of cultural and political elements that has been a leading motif in the practice of sculpture in the PRC since 1949.

In his search for a more authentic form of plastic expression to convey his feelings into a sculptural form and, at the same time respecting his cultural origins, in 2008 Sui Jianguo created Blind Portrait. This work was first modeled in clay and then cast in a larger size. Created first under the influence of Rodin‟s late production, the statuettes of the series Mouvements de Danse, it soon became a way to experiment with the raw material in a form unfiltered by vision. In our conversation, Sui made interesting parallels between this practice and the art of calligraphy, particularly as it relates to the immediacy of the artist‟s interaction with the medium. He created a comparison in the way both media can immediately record human movement and the physical, nearly intimate relationship the artist establishes with his/her material. In the same way as the calligrapher infuses the single brushstroke with his physical energy and creates a record of his character and bodily strength, so Sui molds and shapes the clay leaving the clear mark of his corporeal presence, without trying to figure out the final outcome of his manipulations. Sui decided to experiment with clay while blindfolded in order to establish a more sensual and direct contact with this material, unmediated by vision and thus by pre-defined ideas of shape and plasticity.

In the last decade, Sui Jianguo‟s quest for a more autochthonous forms of sculptural language has lead him in different directions, one of which is the use and occupation of space. He has thus shifted towards the genre of installation but always maintained a strict connection to the sculptural quality of his work. Slanted Paradise, exhibited here for the first time outside of China, is both an attempt to move towards a new direction and the testimony to Sui‟s personal relationship with the Netherlands. Asked to participate in a joint exhibition with the Dutch sculptor Henk Visch on the occasion of the opening of the Dutch gallery C-Space in Beijing in August 2008, Sui used the opportunity to produce a work which reflects his, at the time imaginary, connection with Holland. Melle Hendrikse, the gallery owner, on the occasion of one of his trips to China, had brought Sui a small souvenir plate as a gift. The plate represents a classic, stereotypical landscape that everybody in the world could immediately associate with the idea of the Netherlands: large blue skies streaked by fluffy clouds, cows, windmills, canals, swans and picturesque young peasants wearing wooden clogs. So idyllic is the image that it recreates a paradisiacal land, the perfect material for fairytales. Sui imagines viewing this paradise from the point of view of China, on the other side of the world, with the same inclination that this vision would take if it was possible to extend one‟s gaze across the earth, reaching directly from Beijing to the Netherlands. All the pretty elements of this imaginary landscape hang from the ceiling at 60-degree angle, which reflects the angle of the radius separating Holland from China. While the reference to a picturesque and imaginary view of the Netherlands is unmistakable, the three-dimensionality of the work conveyed by near life-size figures and their tilted positioning in mid-air gives the image a surreal quality that exposes the artificiality of its original meaning. Imagined from the perspective of Beijing, where this work was first produced and exhibited, it also creates a moving commentary honoring a simple and gentle act of friendship. It‟s a big, extravagant way to say thank-you for a gift and a thought brought from afar, and create a connection to a place that the artist at the time did not personally know. Now this work is being shown in the land which it was originally meant to portray from a distance and offers Dutch audiences an ironic and thoughtful recreation of the image their country projects to the outside world, in fact as far as China.

1 The following is largely based on a personal conversation with Shui Jianguo which took place both in Scheveningen and The Hague on January 15, 2011.

2 Wu Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the 20th Century, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998.

3 What we generally call “Mao jacket‟ in Chinese is in fact called „Sun Yat-sen‟ jacket” (Zhongshan zhuang) .