The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Saturday, April 2, 2022

三 界: The Three Realms of Ah Xian

Ah Xian, Fledging No.9, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x 70 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

I had the privilege and pleasure of being invited to Vermilion Art earlier this month to be "in conversation" with Chinese Australian artist Ah Xian on the occasion of his exhibition "Fledging". Surrounded by his works, and with a small audience - acknowledgement of the spiking Covid-19 case numbers in Sydney - we spoke about how two years of a global pandemic changed his practice. Prevented by Australia's closed borders from returning to his sculpture studio in Beijing, or to the porcelain city of Jingdezhen where he has found much inspiration in the past, he wondered what he could do. The result of his period of contemplation is revealed in this exhibition, and it represents a distinct change in his practice, perhaps best expressed in the poem he wrote for this beautiful, ambiguously gendered,  viridian green figure with a bird perched upon its head:

Freely thinking soars up high
Peace can perch and also fly
Where there’s truth and righteous men
There I make their hometown mine

Wandering through the exhibition of his new works alone, on a rainy Sunday afternoon prior to my conversation with the artist, I was reminded that in ancient China, painting, poetry and calligraphy were not considered as separate artforms. They were the "san jue": the "three perfections".  In the isolation of his locked down Australian studio, Ah Xian found a new direction. Using photographs of selected sculptural busts and figures, juxtaposing their reproduced images with his own poetry (written with very beautiful calligraphy in traditional Chinese characters) and seal carving, he created a suite of works on xuan paper, reactivating his figurative sculptures in a new form.

Ah Xian is at once an absolutely contemporary artist, yet also grounded in Chinese traditional art forms; highly cosmopolitan and global in his outlook, yet profoundly influenced by his own and China's histories. Before arriving in Australia, firstly in 1989 as a visiting scholar at the University of Tasmania’s Tasmanian School of Art and settling in Sydney in 1990, Ah Xian was a member of Beijing's avant-garde artistic circles. He became a self-taught painter during a period poetically described by writer Linda Jaivin as "that time when everything seemed hopeful". 

Since the 1990s and his transition from painting to sculpture, the artist (who was born Liu Ji Xian but took the name "Ah Xian" in the early 1980s) has been internationally known for figurative sculptures cast from human bodies. The first series, China China, consisted of 40 hand-painted porcelain body casts. The best-known of these are a set of busts, cast by Ah Xian from the bodies of family and friends before being made and fired in the kilns at Jingdezhen and hand-painted by local artisans. Often painted with the cobalt blue glaze for which Jingdezhen (the "city of blue and white") is so famous, the figures appear melancholy, their closed eyes suggesting they are lost in a private reverie. There is a faint echo of the death masks that once memorialised people in a pre-photographic age. Decorative patterns across their heads and torsos partially cover their mouths, suggesting that they cannot, or will not, speak. Asked about possible interpretations of their closed eyes  - apart from the obvious one that it is required by the casting process - Ah Xian was reticent; he prefers audiences to make up their own minds. I have a sense, though, that a certain melancholy silence attends the work of many, if not all, Chinese artists of his generation. Sadness, too, is a part of the diasporic experience, a sense of loss and longing for an irretrievable past life. The poem written for Fledging No. 4 suggests both the joy found in familiar cultural rituals and the sorrow in remembering:

This auspicious day
Crowded lion dance
Red silk and red belts
Jade faces, jade folk

Ah Xian, Fledging No.4, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x 70 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the China China series, and of later busts made from other sculptural materials including  concrete, resin-fibreglass, cinnabar, cloisonné, jade, bronze, and latex, is the very intentional cultural hybridity of Ah Xian's visual language. The portrait bust is a Western form, deriving from classical Greece and Rome, while the motifs that proliferate across these figures are purely Chinese, referencing traditions of shan shui landscape painting, bird and flower painting, and porcelain painting. Ah Xian points out in conversation, though, that notions of east and west are not so easily defined by simple binaries: we must not forget the carved figurative sculptural forms of Buddha, and of various deities and Immortals, found in temples across China. 

Ah Xian, Fledging No.2, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x 70 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Ah Xian's first series of busts represented a ten-year period in which he oscillated between Australia and China, seeking a way to bring aspects of his Chinese background into his work as a contemporary conceptual artist. The series has been described by QAGOMA curator Reuben Keehan as "an equilibrium finally struck between Chinese and European modes of making". 

Each of the nine works selected for this exhibition represents a distinct phase of his practice, including the standing female nude, now in the collection of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, made of beaten copper and cloisonne enamel. It reveals the influence of Western art history; the nude figure is not a part of traditional Chinese iconography, although there was certainly plenty of spicy erotica in both art and literature. Ah Xian's poem for this work references that history, and the evocative encoded language commonly used in classical poetry and the lyrics of Chinese opera: 

Lotus ladies stand 
Dense mists float, sly scent 
Whispers: You… 
Why not Join me in my bower? 
Ah Xian, Fledging No.1 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 146 x 76 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Interestingly, none of the nine sculptures selected for the works in this show feature the blue and white glazes of the China China series. Instead, they range from celadon to cinnabar, and from cloisonne to concrete. The term "fledging" refers to the point at which young birds have grown the adult feathers that will allow them to fly. Ah Xian says that his sculptures are heavy, solid, singular, three dimensional forms - earthbound if you like - whereas these two dimensional works on xuan paper are light, airy and editioned as multiples (although the calligraphy on each piece is unique, the work of the artist's hand). His work is "taking flight" in a new direction. 

Ah Xian, Fledging No.5, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x 70 cm
signed, inscribed and marked with seals of the artist
Image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Above all, Ah Xian wanted these works to be beautiful - a solace, he says, for difficult times - and they absolutely are. But there is darkness here, as well as a Buddhist-influenced sense of acceptance. His poem for Fledging No. 5, a solid concrete figure that, adorned with leaves, appears to be sleepwalking into a new reality, is disturbingly apt for our time of war and plague:

One day, perhaps
Beyond aeons, when new civilisations shine
We are already enclosed by tree rings that were once green
Turned human fossil upon fossil
Concrete dolls

Ah Xian's original poems have been beautifully translated for the exhibition texts by Archibald McKenzie. The exhibition continues at Vermilion Art, Sydney. See more on the gallery website: