Part of Sun Xun’s painting installation The Lying Machine and The Fire (2015). Picture: ShanghART

From the wreckage of China’s industrial northeast, artist Sun Xun builds raft of memories to carry us to the future

The artist has memorialised the industrialisation of China’s northeast and its more recent decline, capturing the experiences of voiceless millions who lived through the country’s bloody march to modernity

Sun Xun is a rising star on the Chinese, if not international, contemporary art scene. Represented by ShanghART, a leading gallery on the mainland, the 36-year-old also has a work on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, as part of a big group show on Chinese art.

His most recent exhibition, “Prediction Laboratory”, which ended last week at Shanghai’s Yuz Museum, echoed the tradition of intellectuals and artists such as Lu Xun, Liang Sicheng, and Ma Desheng, whose gloomy reflections on social problems are fuelled by their love of traditional Chinese aesthetics.

Sun’s short videos were compressed kaleidoscopes of painful memories and fantastic dreams, an accumulation of the folk history of China’s march to modernity, bought in blood. He smuggled the subjective experiences of China’s common people, curated by American art critic and author Barbara Pollack, into the heart of the country’s shiny showcase city.

Sun’s Mythological Time (2016), a two-channel HD animated video on display at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
Heavy, dark, brooding; like China’s north­east, the videos on show at the Yuz Museum were cryptic, Sun leaving it up to the viewer to interpret them. Set side by side, it was difficult to watch all of them in their entirety. Instead, the viewer oscillated from screen to screen, grasping at fragments of meaning and piecing them together, even though, as Sun explained, “these images are loaded with clues”.

Fuxin, in the industrial, decaying north­east, where Sun was born, in 1980, was the subject of his latest works. The region was one of those most brutally colonised by the Japanese, and became a heartland of com­munism, supported in its factories.

Part of Sun’s recent exhibition “Prediction Laboratory
The oil fields of Daqing, the car factories of Changchun, the aeroplane factories of Harbin – the heritage that Sun refers to in his work is of industrial development, the sort of thing that led Mao Zedong to claim the most beautiful landscape he could imagine would be Tiananmen Square filled with smokestacks.

The northeast is now in a profound state of economic decay, much like post-industrial regions in the United States and Europe; China’s new economy has created winners but also losers. Artists native to the region, from the painter Liu Xiaodong to filmmaker Wang Bing, who created the gruelling nine-hour documentary West of the Tracks, have taken its realities as artistic inspiration.

Liu and Wang are realists but Sun takes a more surrealist approach, to painting and installation work, as well as videos.

Sun’s films are radically new but his work is steeped in the tradition of Chinese land­scape painting, of the northern variety; his films are characterised by austerity and minimalism. The artist’s landscapes, though, are not of mountains or streams, but of factories, streets, statues, soldiers; and they’re moving towards a future that may never come.

3D piece Prediction of Skyline (2016), part of Sun’s Shanghai exhibition.
Sun’s work is formally innovative, showing the same collage-making method that his ideas reveal. The videos are like nothing you’ve ever seen before, but seem to allude to the entire history of art: from Ma Desheng’s politically charged woodcuts of the 1980s to Tadanori Yokoo’s experimental animated videos and Liu Ding’s Beijing-inspired instal­lation work. With references to painting, woodcuts, traditional Chinese ink, Sun’s films are constructed of materials as diverse and historically significant as his messages.

The artist’s Mythological Time (2016), which is being shown at the Guggenheim as part of the exhibi­tion “Tales of Our Time” (supported by Hong Kong’s Robert HN Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative), approaches the coal industry in Fuxin in the same manner.

China’s huge population makes it difficult, if not impossible, to visualise or to understand in human terms; a city of millions is a banal commonplace. Sun’s work seems to fuse the shared experience of the forgotten ones into a searing archive of what we’ve felt and what we’ve seen, predicting the future with recollections of the past.

“Prediction Laboratory” has been extended and will now run until March 5, 2017 at the Shanghai Yuz Museum.