Sun Xun's artistic mission to put Chinese history in perspective

Sun Xun's ink art and animations tackle the big questions about the official and personal accounts of the Chinese experience, writes Barbara Pollack

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 3:55pm

When artist Sun Xun was growing up in Fuxin, a small city in Liaoning province near the North Korean border, he knew China had at least two histories.

In school, he studied Chinese history as presented in official accounts, a version free of such troubling episodes as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Most people look at history like a performance on a stage. They don't look behind the curtains to see what is really happening
Sun Xun

At home, his father would give him a more personal account, describing what had happened to his family during the 1960s and '70s, when his grandmother was marched into a public square, forced to wear a dunce cap, and declaimed as a bourgeois collaborator for her upper-class background.

Today, Sun is obsessed with Chinese history as it is recounted and manipulated in museum exhibitions and books, and as it is recalled by its participants. He examines it through ink art, an inherited tradition, making installations and video animations from thousands of meticulously drawn frames. They often feature a political leader in the guise of a magician, "the only legal liar", according to Sun.

He takes inspiration from political cartoons, biology books, instruction manuals and newsreels, yet like many Chinese artists of his generation - he was born in 1980 - he avoids didactic conclusions about the government, preferring to couch his criticisms in surreal metaphors. Often animals and insects stand in for human emotions, and conflicts and weapons punctuate scenes fraught with paranoia.

Sun, who lives in Beijing where he runs his studio, Pi Animation, is spending several months in New York to research the American scene in preparation for a solo show next autumn. His stay is sponsored by Sean Kelly Gallery, which found him an apartment in Brooklyn, and will exhibit his work next year.

But first his work will be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition "Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China", its first show of Chinese contemporary art, which opens on Wednesday.

Although video art is a comparatively new medium - and certainly new for the Met's Chinese painting galleries, with their focus on classical scroll paintings - artists such as Sun fit in because they "exploit traditional modes of representation in how they narrate their stories", says Maxwell Hearn, the show's curator, who is also in charge of the museum's Asian art department.

"Ink Art", a survey of Chinese artists from 1980 to the present who are experimenting and innovating with the classical medium of ink-and-brush painting, will place Sun in a continuum that begins with pioneers such as dissident artist Ai Weiwei and MacArthur grant recipient Xu Bing.

The museum will show Sun's 2011 animation Some Actions Which Haven't Been Defined Yet in the Revolution, a day in the life of a typical worker that begins with an alarm clock ringing and ends with a bomb exploding. It took more than a year to produce, based on more than 5,000 woodcuts, a technique dating to at least the Diamond Sutra, from AD868, one of the earliest surviving examples of a printed book. But Sun's adaptation borrows heavily from state-sponsored promotional woodcuts used during Mao Zedong's time as an inexpensive means of propaganda.

"Sun Xun is one of the youngest and most prolific video artists active in China today," Hearn writes in a catalogue essay. "Though his images share the same angular, rough-hewed quality of the New Woodcut Movement, their message is darker and less inspiring, a dystopian vision of rootlessness and confusion."

Sun learned calligraphy and ink-and-brush painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, graduating in 2005. He had left home at 15 to attend the academy's high school, experiencing culture shock as he navigated the differences between a newly modernised city and his hometown. "Everyone where I grew up, including my parents, worked in a factory and thought people in business were evil capitalists," he says. "But in Hangzhou, everyone was doing business."

He struggled to reconcile his conflicting experiences: official history versus family stories, state-controlled factories versus the new market economy, and past versus present. He found insights in philosophers Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault.

While in New York, Sun's itinerary included the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Public Library and the US Military Academy at West Point. "Most people look at history like a performance on a stage," he says. "They don't look behind the curtains to see what is really happening. Museums and libraries are windows onto the truth."

Enthralled with taxonomies, Sun ran around the natural history museum, photographing the Hall of Biodiversity and the dioramas of birds, excited to incorporate various species into his new installations.

At West Point, he visited its museum, devoted to military history from ancient times to the war on terrorism, and toured the campus. He lit up at the museum displays of military conflicts. Demonstrating a formidable knowledge of Western political history, he offered details about the Thirty Years' War and the American revolution.

"I always thought if there is a war, I want Sun Xun to be my general because he is the most focused, fearless strategist," says James Elaine, director of Telescope, a nonprofit project space in Beijing, who brought Sun's installation, New China, to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2008. Sun lived in the museum for a month creating a total environment of paintings, as well as showing a new animation.

During his current stay in New York, his apartment is already filled with ink paintings of birds and dinosaurs, explosive images with thick black lines and aggressive colours. Sun does not consider his work as purely political. "As an artist, to narrow your focus only on the political is dangerous," he says.

He recalls watching news of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest on television with his father when he was nine. Asked if he supports democracy in China, he at first doesn't understand "democracy" and looks it up on Google Translate. "Ah yes, democracy, yes, of course, but which democracy?" he asks, ready to debate the differences between the French, British and US systems.

Sun knows what he wants to do at Sean Kelly Gallery next year: an installation incorporating his father's stories about the Cultural Revolution, a subject tricky to pull off in China. Next year he will stay in the gallery for a month, painting on the walls and building props for four new films, a process that will be open to the public.

"New York is a museum with all kinds of people here, everybody with their own stories. I am part of this museum, too, so I should share my father's story. You may or may not believe what I tell you. But it doesn't matter, because this is my art."

The New York Times