The Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney and the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra have joined together for the first time to present a unique exhibition. Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture is a cross-city exhibition that features 55 works drawn from the pre-eminent Sigg collection, shown here in Australia for the very first time. Portraiture is used as a broad theme; the artists in the exhibition use figures and bodies as a means to explore complex social, political and cultural themes.
The SCAF, being the smaller venue, acts as an introduction of sorts to the exhibition. We are introduced to Uli Sigg, the now-legendary man behind the collection, through a life-size sculpture by Ai Weiwei. Sigg first went to China as a businessman in 1979 after its Open Door Policy, and shortly afterwards started to collect contemporary art. Sigg’s collecting ethos is museum-like in that he creates a ‘document’ of China without personal preferences or prejudices. Ai Weiwei’s Newspaper Reader captures the intellectual and curious spirit of Sigg by portraying the man during his favourite past time.
The main gallery at SCAF is home to a dynamic installation by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Old People’s Home features thirteen realistic sculptures of elderly men in motorised wheelchairs who move amongst themselves in the gallery space. Many of these figures bear an uncanny resemblance to former dictators and world leaders, and force the viewer to consider not only the passage of time, but also political power.
To truly appreciate the breadth and depth of Go Figure!, a visit to the National Portrait Gallery is absolutely essential. It is here that we get a real sense for the vision of the exhibition, as well as the strength of the Sigg collection. Rather than group the artworks chronologically, the curator Claire Roberts has organised them by four themes that consider some aspect of portraiture. The National Portrait Gallery is therefore a perfect setting for the exhibition because it opens up a dialogue with the very notion of portraiture.
Many artists in Go Figure! use the face as a means to comment on the difference between the private and public self. Geng Jianyi’s Second State consists of four large colourless canvases featuring laughing faces. The laughter in this case is forced, almost like a grimace, and there is a disparity between the positive expression and the interior anguish.
This cynical theme is also expressed in Fang Lijun’s Untitled. Painted as a reaction to the 1989 student protests, Fang’s depicts a group of generic looking youth alongside the artist’s figure with his back turned to us. In contrast to Geng’s cool colour palette, Fang uses bright hues and saturated tones to highlight a similar despair.
One of the central themes that contemporary Chinese artists address is undoubtedly the Cultural Revolution. Wang Guanyi’s Mao Zedong, red grid no. 2 is a large painting of the former leader with a red grid painted over his face. These grids were employed by artists during the Cultural Revolution to translate smaller image into larger paintings. In Wang’s work, the red lines become the main feature, and act as a buffer to ‘neutralise’ the portrait of Mao.
Other portraits about China’s past use less direct imagery to achieve a poignant effect. Qiu Xiaofei’s It’s Almost 7 O’clock is a not a portrait featuring a human body, but instead uses fibreglass sculptures of everyday objects to evoke the artist’s childhood memories of the Revolution. In this case, a television sits atop a desk, while a hanging clock implies that it is nearly time for the official television broadcast.
This notion of absence is also present in Yue Minjun’s Founding Ceremony. The artist recreates a famous 1953 painting depicting the official founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China. Yue however, removes all traces of the officials from the podium in his miniature version, and leaves only the four microphones. The missing people become a comment on the changes of history.
In this way, many of the works in Go Figure are not portraits in a traditional sense, but perhaps should be considered ‘anti-portraits.’ One of the interesting inclusions in Go Figure! is performance art, and the way that Chinese artists use their own bodies as a way to combine personal expression and social criticism.
Rong Rong’s photographs of the community of fringe artists living in the outskirts of Beijing are a document of these early performances. Rong Rong captured performances such as Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Metres, where the artist sat in a public toilet for an hour, covered in honey and oil.
In addition to photography, there are also performance pieces captured on video, such as Sun by Hu Xiangqian. In this video the artist films himself sunbaking nude on his balcony, his skin becoming darker over time. Hu is interested in self-transformation, but also issues of race and class in China today.
As a new generation of artists are born into a post-Revolution China, their concerns no longer focus on China’s past but rather turn to the uncertain future. Go Figure! includes a number of younger artists who are mainly concerned with the increasing consumerism of the nation.
Han Yajuan’s Perfect Ending depicts exaggerated mutant women and their pets shopping for luxury goods and beauty products. Painted from a bird’s eye perspective and adorned with false jewellery, gems and sequins, we are invited to evaluate this superficial world.
Yang Na’s Pimple presents a similar portrait of superficiality. Inspired by pop culture, anime and video games, Yang’s portrait focuses on a self-absorbed girl gazing at herself in a mirror. Yang’s critical stance is clear from the emphasis on the girl’s outwards appearance and vanity. The painting is not only a social critique, but also a personal critique about the direction of China’s youth.
Go Figure! is a fascinating exhibition that examines the changing ‘face’ of China through portraiture. Featuring some of the most pre-eminent artists living and working in China today, the exhibition is a considered and intelligent investigation into the ways that artists use the body and figure to consider broader themes and ideas about China’s past, present and future. More than mere portraits of Chinese people, this is an exhibition about Chinese society.
Originally published on ArtsHub Australia on September 28, 2012.