The Cosmos of Miao Xiaochun
By Beate Reifenscheid
(Beate Reifenscheid has been the direcor of the Ludwig Museum Koblenz since 1997. She wrote this criticism on Miao’s creations before his first solo exhibition presented at the Ludwig Museum Koblenz, Germany. The following article is completely quoted from her essay. Courtesy of Beate Reifenscheid and the artist.)
The world of Miao Xiaochun is a virtual one – a world wholly generated on a computer. It confronts the viewer with a smooth, perfect world full of riddles, wonders, secrets, and a coloristic subtlety in every way equal to the persuasive powers of the old masters. Indeed the attraction of his photographic works and 3-D animations is situated in their seeming naturalness that arises due to Miao Xiaochun’s embrace of cultures old and new. As in a crossover, Miao Xiaochun not only relates the ancient, almost-lost China to the Super-modernity of the great metropolises, but he also brings the old European culture in the form of its iconic, canonic works (e.g. Raphael’s “School of Athens” or Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”) into relation with possible conditions of the present and the future. Past – present – future: in Miao Xiaochun’s photo-projections they become simultaneous, possible configurations and thereby offer the viewer new opportunities to interpret and become absorbed in the narrative and in the future.
Still, neither the images nor the messages from Miao Xiaochun want to be simple or easily consumable, for – upon closer inspection – the quick look is merely made an offer without fully redeeming the promise. Much more the mysteries quickly pile high, demanding from the viewer both a visual knowledge and a deeper understanding of the past in order to truly follow the traces left behind. Above all this is true for the grand canon of European art history – paintings such as Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (Museo del Prado, Madrid), Raphael’s “School of Athens” (The “Stanze” in the Vatican, Rome), or Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” (Sistine Chapel in Rome). So too, less-known works are integrated into the new cosmos of his idiosyncratic pictorial language – or, less loftily, his creation of images. Miao Xiaochun’s preference for European art may have been present before his time in Germany, but it is primarily since his studies in Kassel and the consequent numerous museum visits in Europe that he has formed not only a deep connection with them, but also built a considerable knowledge. This affects not only the pictorial compositions as well as the knowledge of iconography and iconology, but also his knowledge of the works of the great classical, romantic, and late 19th century composers. Driving around Beijing with Miao Xiaochun one can listen to the most wonderful recordings on his CDs and, in distant China, feel once again closer to home. It is precisely this proximity – the simultaneous experience of otherness and unfamiliarity with an equally present fascination for this very otherness – that Miao Xiaochun deals with once and again in his works.
Already in his first widely received works, from his time in Kassel, that surreal-looking scholar from ancient China appeared, silent and lonely, but simultaneously with an all-encompassing presence, like a warning caller in the desert. It is he – so strange, out-of-place, “clicked” into a modern context, wishing nothing more than to just be there – who makes clear the discrepancy between the ancient, the forgotten, the seemingly vanquished part of our human history. Through him this is clearly seen as a foreign object and, at the same time, it make manifest the evidence of our material as well as spiritual loss. History, it seems Miao Xiaochun would like to say, is not to be conceived of as merely a process that is passed through and overcome, but it is also an act of making aware the responsibility to what must be preserved. For a long time the old scholar stood for ancient China in his work, for its wondrous, rich culture, and for its knowledge. In his immobility and static tranquility he was a counterweight to the turbulent life that usually surged around him. Today, less than 15 years later, one can rightly claim that this figure of the scholar has become a key figure not only for Miao Xiaochun, but for the understanding of Chinese culture at large. In an unobtrusive way, the scholar symbolizes the will to survive of a rich culture that, in a present defined by state-of-the-art technology, a building boom, a will to expand, stock market speculation, and environmental degradation, is significant for more than the Chinese nation alone.
In all of his works Miao Xiaochun searches among this myth of history. In his more recent works he has become the documentarian of his own city, when in “Beijing Index” and his new “Beijing Hand Scroll” he searches for historic sites in which the split between the ancient time and the new one, manifested in stone and concrete, is visible and tangible. By photographing them he radicalizes these breaks, without any intervention, but merely through a sensitive tracing of available, everyday situations. First and foremost it is his personal perception that realizes these moments of reality and, through the photographic as well as technical means, puts on display something that normally falls by the wayside in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, that slips past our perception. It is this moment of an almost irrational intangibility that he holds on to, documents, and indeed comments on from his vantage point. How else is it to be understood when in “Beijing Index (K 17)” he places the Forbidden City on one image axis with an enormous monument, or when in “Beijing Hand Scroll” (070916) he puts the ancient Buddha statues in front of a huge skyline. Many times it is abandoned places or situations in which the individual acts alone, isolated, and vulnerable. Now it is no longer an acient scholar that watchfully alerts us and gives us pause, rather it is Miao Xiaochun’s sensitive documentation, his rare technical interventions, and the computer-animated drawings – based on photographs – that dare this bridge between historical remnants and a new reality. If nothing else it is a tightrope walk that switches between the current perception of contemporary reality and the traditional lineages of Chinese and European (art) history. He performs a lamination that binds all the temporal layers and the most varied cultures into a visual language that could hardly be more contemporary and that has long since left the Old World for its new home in cyberspace.