A system refers to the whole of a certain range or the same kind of things, combined according to a certain order and internal relations.
What kind of artist can be regarded as building a “system” of his own?
He does not just win with his abundant work, but he should also have his own thoughts and comprehension which are different from ordinary people at a certain time and space. He can stay level headed within complicated changes of events and his work as a crystallization reflects his thinking process. Among his diversified work, he might continue with some logic related to his own consciousness, but at the same time this is closely related to society, environment and history, forming an association of differences and similarities between the individual and the era, “small ego” and “big self”.
Since 1997, Sui Jianguo has explored the rich context of “classicism, realism, modernism, to political pop, conceptual art, post-conceptualism”, and he has tried multiple expressive media such as sculpture, performance arts, installation, and moving images. Meanwhile he continues to develop in the era of “3D printing” and “Industry 4.0”. It can be said that he has stationed countless personal coordinate points on the huge map of art and the seemingly indistinct “system” has gradually become clear.
Sui Jianguo’s solo exhibition themed on “SYSTEM” was held at the OCAT Shenzhen at the end of January this year, which could be taken as the accumulation of the art of Sui from “2008 through to 2018.” On September 28, 2019, Sui Jianguo with the same curator Cui Cancan and his team brought the “Echo of System: Sui Jianguo 1997-2019” to the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum. The exhibition features six sections interspersed with several subtitles and more than 200 works, making it the largest phrasal retrospective in his artistic career to date. For the first time, the Museum showcases the creations of an artist on all its three floors. The exhibition is sponsored by China Minsheng Bank and Beijing Minsheng Art Museum, and it is co-organized by Beijing Minsheng Foundation for Arts and Culture.
Among the enormous energy formed by these fields that gathered an artist’s thoughts and artistic creations, the exhibition will also bring a variety of interpretations. Among them, a clue running though the exhibition that cannot be ignored: the exhibition provides us with a representative and outstanding view of case study in retrospect, while sketching and reflecting on the overall development of Chinese contemporary art. In the past 20 years, what kind of system did Sui Jianguo construct and how was it explored?
“The revolutionary era is over, but none of the Chinese have truly taken off their Mao Suits.”
Sui Jianguo was born in Qingdao, Shandong Province in 1956. He graduated from the Department of Sculpture, Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) with a master’s degree in 1989 and he remained at CAFA as a teacher. In 1997, as the curator Cui Cancan referred to his work as this, “was not a starting point for Sui Jianguo, nor for the sculpture art in China. More or less, it was a time when experiences were superimposing and trends in literature and art were occurring repeatedly.” The year 1997 means a lot to Sui because it was in this year that he came out with “The Legacy Mantel” which was included in the history of Chinese contemporary art and it became a symbol of art of the time.
Meanwhile, Sui Jianguo, who was in his early 40s, served as the Director for the Department of Sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Together with the teaching team, he reflected and analyzed the basis of the previous experience model while conducting research in universities at home and abroad. It is the first time that he has introduced the concepts such as “modernism sculpture, conceptual sculpture, and postmodernism sculpture” into the education programme at the Department of Sculpture. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of CAFA (in 1998), he succeeded in comprehensively promoting the teaching reform of sculpture. During the period around 1997, Sui Jianguo has opened up a broader exploration in art and he thus started a variety of trans-boundary experiments.
Reconstruction of Classicism, Complexity of the Epoch
Before the reform and opening up, the Western classical realism system from Europe, America and the Soviet Union became the model. In the following 40 years, modern and contemporary sculptures in China began to undergo developments and tremendous changes.
“Cloth Vein Study—Right Hand” in the central gallery on the first floor, invites spectators to enter into the exhibiting area of “Legacy Mantle” with a group of works with the theme of “CLASSICISM IN THE CONTEMPORARY THEORY” right in front of the entrance. At the end of gallery, “Mao Suits” look silent and grand, they are parallel to each other and in juxtaposition which creates a sense of solemnity. It creates an illusion, as if one stands in a Louvre-style gallery of classical sculptures, or in a temple with “Heavenly kings” with intricate thoughts and imagination.
While looking around, “Jesus”, “Marx”, “Discobolus” and “Great Slaves” dressed in Mao Suits show a dramatic contrast. Western “thoughts, doctrines, models” have led to a judging of standards, so where can Chinese own modern roads and aesthetic beliefs be found? Does it ignite the equality of values when a unified modelled coat is put on? Under the huge hollow body, what should be used to fill the spirit? Sui Jianguo reinterprets the classical category of works and presents reflections and deconstructions on the national and artistic roads over the past century.
After the millennium, trends of thoughts and standards have been constantly innovated, and everything has been greatly affected by the influence of consumerism. In the chapter “THE COMPLEXITY OF GLOBALIZATION AND CONSUMERISM” the “dreary” pile of works reveal a form of information: Sui Jianguo has also stepped into a ‘disorderly middle ground” in his art explorations.
The symbolic sculptures of “Mao Suits” are reproduced in multiple colors and array; representative of social entrepreneurs and public figures who are embedded in the flesh of the “new discobolus”, lined up with the same posture and different appearances; lovely pandas, as well as fairy tales of the windmill cows create a pleasant atmosphere, where realism and contemporary art are juxtaposed. All the works, in a complex and magical exhibition space, mirror and blend with each other which stimulates people’s visions.
When curator Cui Cancan talked about the works in this area, he said: “Sui redirected his attention from the idea of sculpture itself to the focus of conflict of sociological narratives and popular culture.” Here “MADE IN CHINA AND THE DINOSAURS” are presented as special units. Both of them adopt the concept of ready-made products. “MADE IN CHINA” branded the most realistic and specific social relationship. The giant red stamps of “MADE IN CHINA” and the deconstructed slice of dinosaurs obtained a visual dominance through amplification while challenging people’s experience of visiting the exhibition.
As Sui Jianguo once said, “An epoch creates individuals, and individuals also highlight the epoch.” In the era of globalization, artists’ perceptions, reflections, and feedback on cultural symbols are concentrated under the externalization of these ideas. They do not just witness and tell about the past, but they do hint at the future.
The Motivation of Conceptual Art
Sui Jianguo’s solo exhibition has aroused a strong sense of “feelings about change along with the situation”. When he shuttles through different “systems” he will suddenly jump to the era when he “presents”. In 2006, he entered a crucial period of conceptualism. Through 900 kilometers away from the remote control of other people he created paintings; more than 10 positions set to record the video of a travelling train; jointly pushing a car to more than 50 meters away…Obviously, Sui Jianguo’s eyes shifted to the study of creative behavior and the process of presentation.
The image and result of creation cease to be the artist’s purpose, the concept is prioritized and the moving images, installations, and performances become another means of “sculpture.” Manuscripts, sketches, and production methods in action become a part of the work. This also opened up new perspectives and new models for Sui Jianguo.
The work at the latter exhibition hall, “Three Stones” reinforces the conception. Stones that have been grabbed at random become the creative body and the origin, and it has the meaning of “nature is the creator.” The artist broke an established purpose. The contingency and randomness dominated the creation. Everything was attributed to fate, but then they were given new meaning by human beings. At the end of the first floor, the huge ball of the movement was recorded differently. The image of the trajectory may be a metaphor for the trajectory of Sui Jianguo’s trekking. He walked between various “isms”, introspected, reconstructed, and communicated, with thousands of turns and often overlapped, but never stopped. At this point, “Sui Jianguo’s joint work with other trends that began in 1997 is approaching its end.”
Shuttling through Clouds in the garden to Capture the Shape of Time
“Limited scenes. Form a space that is indispensable, everything is visible, considerable, and sensible; infinite creations, pointing to a trend of change at any time, like the beginning of a dark tunnel.”
Although a tunnel is dark, there is light guiding in the darkness. The 50-year-old Sui Jianguo found a “skull” which was dug up occasionally, and he naturally accepted the thought of “knowing one’s fate in one’s fifties” which also triggered the capture and interpretation of “uncertain”.
Since 2008, he has pushed the concept further, and the second floor has concentrated on important works from 2008 to 2019. The “Cloud Garden” series built by the scaffolding in the middle hall is like a silver stalactite cave, glittering and light, but also huge and heavy. This “cloud” is not a cloud, “cloud” is intended to be a drive storage, created by 3D printing via photosensitive resin, hand-scratch traces and fine fingerprints are enlarged, subverting the inertia idea, the original accidental small piece of “mud” through an art conversion has obtained the monumental attention of the public, the ancient “mud” has been re-interpreted. Sui Jianguo once expressed his views on new technologies: “3D printing technology has become a new ‘artificial organ’ beyond the original vision and the touch of human beings.” The original sculpture characteristics have obtained vitality with the intervention of emerging technologies. With extraordinary shock they occupy the entire field.
Then, the four spaces of “behavior and action”, “proportion and cutting”, “material and surface” and “work site” are connected and followed the previous space. Since 2008, Sui Jianguo has used sculpture as an object of imitation. He started with the basic modelling rules, smashing, pinching, pulling, smashing, and cutting from the combination, zooming in, zooming out, cutting, etc… The core is placed on exploration and dialogue, and he realizes the infinite possibilities between “the instrument and the Tao”. The massive group of objects have different forms, mixed with time and behavior, and they become the “material evidence” of the externalization of thinking, the record of action and the concept.
Through this pile of meteorites in various shapes, the reverberating “system” will excite more intense resonances in the cavity. More than 1,430 manuscripts in different sizes and shapes in the South Gallery run through the central axis. At the end, the “Shape of Time” is the starting point for the whole story. The blue paint ball that has solidified for twelve years suddenly broke the fantasy for time: people will feel incredible, does time really have shape? What is the shape of other people’s time?
The existence of the abstract change of “time” is still inconclusive. People can only describe it by individual reference. The artist Sui Jianguo throws his understanding in this way as a mysterious will with some “impermanence” and “fortune” that also makes us unconsciously contact the works such as “Uncertain” and “Three Stones” mentioned in the previous article. This kind of implication and mystery is not separated from its source. As Cui Cancan said: “ ‘The Shape of Time’ echoes the most central part of Sui Jianguo’s concept of creation, that is, the constant transformation of time and space, the beginning of a dark tunnel, the formation of a new concept of time and space and a world view.”
On the two sides of the central axis of the exhibition hall, there are six different spaces which display the earliest mud drafts and various details of the Portrait of the Blind, and the artist’s creative process is clearly visible. Speaking of this series of works, Sui Jianguo said: “From the time of ‘The Blind Portraits’ in 2008, I put my body and its movements at the core of the work. As practice accumulates, I become more and more aware of it. In day-to-day work, the sculptor’s body and repetitive sculptural movements (behaviors) are as important as the finished sculptures. The sculptural medium is the field of the sculptor’s actions and movements; The sculpture is a proof of the presence of the sculptor’s body and sculpture.”
In this long and complicated system, the intervention of behavior, the accumulation of time, and the change of ideas are all revealed, and one of the factors that we cannot ignore is the technical renewal, and its intervention has no doubt a great influence on Sui Jianguo’s creation.
Both the curator and the artist mentioned the important value of technology. “If there is no 3D printing, the traditional sculpture cannot be used to cut the fingerprints.” The production method is only one level, but the more valuable is the artist. The impact and suggestion of ideas, this is also the place where the artists with positive motivation are represented by Sui Jianguo, who do not stop thinking on how to accept the propositions given by the epoch, which is an issue that artists should face in the present and in the future.
“Body in 3D” becomes the final conclusion of the exhibition hall. “It ends the history of imitating nature, expressing emotions or ideas in the history of sculpture.” Obviously, from “The Shape of Time”, more than 1,430 manuscripts to “Body in 3D”, Sui Jianguo injected these thoughts into the works for more than ten years, and the “unfinished, lively feelings” which are deliberately reserved will inevitably create a situation of dialogue with the audience, and he also intends to stimulate different thoughts.
When technology has a qualitative impact on the connotation and extension of sculpture, the boundaries of art are constantly being dispelled and expanded. The old system is being broken, the context is expanding, and the future is going to evolve. No one can predict 100%, but it is unique. The artists, as if they were born with insight, thinking, and action challenge the solidified experience. The system can be reformed, destroyed, and restructured to welcome the establishment of a new system. From the beginning to the end, the artist is the core of energy.
Text by Zhang Yizhi and translated by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
Photo Courtesy of the Organizer
About the exhibition
Opening: 2019.9.28 15:30
Venue: Beijing Minsheng Art Museum Hall 1\2\3
Host: China Minsheng Bank, Beijing Minsheng Art Museum
Contributor: Beijing Minsheng Foundation for Arts and Culture
Chief Director: Zhou Xujun
Curator: Cui Cancan
Assistant Curator: Chen Yu, Liu Hanwen