Transitional Environments

Early in November 2016, ShanghART Gallery marked its 20th anniversary with the opening of Holzwege. Founded by the Swiss gallerist Lorenz Helbling, who is now considered to be an influential figure in the promotion of Chinese art, the exhibition takes its title from the German term that the philosopher Martin Heidegger describes as a forest full of untrodden paths which are visible only to “woodcutters,” and “forest keepers.” Comprising an amalgamation of styles and methodologies by some Western but mostly Chinese artists, the works not only reveal how these practitioners respond to their immediate environment, but also how they channel the influence of other cultures in their work.

For instance, Yo Youhan’s portraits of 5 Women, 2001, that are a part of his Ah, US series that he began in the late 1990s, appear to consecrate ordinary women from daily life. Painted in subdued hues of blues and grays, Youhan’s expressionistic style that distorts and exaggerates the women’s features makes them come alive. The audience comes to admire a quiet heroism about these sober, nondramatic figures. A similar kind of energy can be seen in Zhang Enli’s large abstract oil painting Soilred and Bottlegreen (2016). Brown and green patches realised by bold horizontal brush strokes convey a technique that is reminiscent of Josh Smith’s spontaneous and exuberant application of paint.

Facial expressions become highly contentious in Geng Jianyi’s smiling portraits, The Second State, (1987). One of the earliest experimenters with smiling faces that addressed issues of misperception and miscommunication between how one felt and what people perceived, Jianyi’s work would go on to influence Yue Minjun’s acclaimed self-portraits. Jianyi’s work might well be considered seminal in the way that he captures a different kind of Chinese socialist realism during a period of unrest followed by the student uprising and massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Even Liang Shaoji’s Lonely Cloud (2016) is remarkable for the way in which it resembles something other. Made from camphorwood that was originally used to carve Buddha figures, the sculpture is displayed on an elevated bamboo pedestal and covered with silk thread. Slowly, its  peculiar life-like shape bears an uncanny resemble to the Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruckyere’s white cadaverous fleshy figures, taking on a completely different avatar. Shaoji’s cloud begins to resemble a human body — and the strength of these new experimental forms lies in their ability to evoke multitude experiences and interpretations.

Similarly, Ouyang Chun’s Infinity Column, (2016), that is inspired by Euro-American installation art, can be seen as both a celebration and a condemnation of materiality. Made from found objects such as a discarded computer, car tyres, books, an old telephone, a concrete slab, and a turtle, amongst other objects, the work speaks to creativity whilst it also points to our slavish dependence on consumer goods. Built like a tall rising tower, Ouyang’s sculpture resonates at both a visual and a conceptual level.

Perhaps one of the most iconic pieces is Sun Xun’s acrylic painting on paper, The Darkness Period History (2016). Made during a residency in Oberhausen, Germany, ominous black and white images inspired by the development of the Ruhr Valley in Germany in the early 20th century is an ode to the way in which Sun Xun commingles “official historiography with personal experience.” Hung off the wall to resemble the bellowing flaps of an accordion, it recalls ancient Chinese scroll paintings made on extended lengths of fabric. Known for experimenting with different forms, this three-dimensional painting filled with dark skeletal trees, trains, craggy edges, and Stalin’s profile cast against a black treacherous landscape reflects the current condition of fascist leaders the world over.

Xu Zhen’s installation Eternity – Reclining Woman: Elbow, Othryades the Dying Spartan, Adorant, 2016, that combines inkjet prints mounted on chevron board of classical Greek sculptures and a print of Henry Moore’s Reclining Woman: Elbow, 1981, to inject contemporary representations of traditional forms — ensure that the audience, as keen “woodcutters,” are inducted into the world of Helbling’s Holzwege.

Bansie Vasvani

Holzwege runs until 15 February at ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai. For more information:

1. LIANG SHAOJI 梁绍基 Lonely Cloud. Installation. Wood, silk, cocoons, steel pipes. Courtesy of ShanghART Gallery.