Published in Art in America, February 2002
After seeking political asylum in Australia in 1990, AhXian discovered, in an old medium, a new way to express his experience of the Chinese diaspora and the reconciliation of his past and present lives.
An orange butterfly is draped across the nose of a gleaming porcelain bust of a woman, its wings covering her eyes, the fine curve of its antennas echoing that of her naturalistically stippled eyebrows. A yellow blossom rests against her lips while a larger, pink bloom hangs down over her forehead. Other colorful, exquisitely detailed butterflies and flowers and a host of leaves in many different shades of green are scattered about her head, neck, chest and shoulders, nearly covering the whole of her form.
A traditional Chinese landscape is painted on the portrait bust of an older Chinese man. His eyes and lips are closed; he appears lost in reverie. Rocks, cliffs and hills climb his shoulders, clouds hover around his head, craggy trees stretch across the mountain lake upon his chest, where an old man with a walking stick crosses a small stone bridge.
Both are works by Ah Xian, a Beijing-born artist who has lived in Sydney, Australia, since 1990. Upwards of 30 of his painted porcelain portrait busts were included in an exhibition titled “China, China,” which was first presented in 2000 at Beijing Teacher’s University and later at art centers in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The exhibition’s title refers to the artist’s country of origin, to the Western name of a once-coveted ceramic material and to a major series of works by Ah Xian. It was while living in Sydney in the mid-’90s that Ah Xian, who had previously worked in a wide range of mediums and techniques, turned to porcelain. With this, he embarked on a journey that would cany him both literally and in spirit back to the land of his birth, and more specifically to Jingdezhen, the historical center of China’s fine-porcelain production. The journey would culminate in a mature, fully realized art expressing his experience of the Chinese diaspora and the reconciliation of his past and present lives.
Ah Xian’s work melds two artistic lineages: painting on porcelain, a long-standing tradition in China, and the portrait bust, a form which originated in ancient Rome. His porcelain busts have their source not in carved or molded likenesses but in direct body casts. They feature anonymous Chinese men and women, young and old, heavy and slight, with short hair or long. The lustrous busts are painted with adaptations of traditional Chinese patterns commonly found on plates, bowls and vases, most of them derived from designs made for the imperial court in the Ming (1364-1643) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The designs wrap around the figures like tattoos, as if to demonstrate that these individuals, whoever they are and wherever they live, are inescapably marked by their heritage.1
The perceived preciousness and fragility of the material, the exquisite painting and the manner in which the busts are sometimes displayed (at the Powerhouse they were spotlighted and set in glass cases in the museum’s Asian Galleries, like antique treasures) suggest that they be viewed as beautiful, decorative objects. However, the works are also didactic in intent. Close examination of individual busts reveals a range of symbolic meanings, the “‘China, China” series as a whole deriving from the artist’s sense of dislocation and self.
Born in Beijing in 1960, Ah Xian belongs to the post-Cultural Revolution generation. Both of his parents held posts at universities, his mother as an English teacher and his father as an administrator. Although he had decided at a young age to be an artist, he never received formal training. Upon completing high school, he went to a technical school and became a mechanical fitter in a factory. He devoted his spare time to art. In 1983, he began to use the nickname Ah Xian rather than his given name, Liu Ji Xian. Also in 1983, Chinese government officials knocked on his door and took him into custody for one night, questioning him about his artist friends and artistic practices, particularly about painting nudes, which was frowned upon under the “anti-spiritual-pollution” campaign and forbidden to artists who were not linked to the official art academy. A few of his paintings were confiscated. While much shaken by this encounter, he continued to paint nudes, such as his surrealistic “Palace Lady” series (1985-86), in which nude females populate vaguely defined architectural settings consisting of enclosing walls and archways. In the late ’80s, he produced a series of large-scale drawings in ink on rice paper that consist of fragments of nude figures set against rubbings made from brick walls. These works convey the sense of confinement and constriction he felt at that time.
Ah Xian went to Australia for the first time in 1989, as a visiting artist at Tasmania’s school of art. He returned to Beijing a few weeks before the June 4 massacre at Tiananmen Square. He says he felt “shocked, depressed and angered” by the Chinese government’s violent response to the student demonstrations.2When he and his brother, an artist who does photo-based and computer-generated work, were invited to participate in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney in 1990, the two decided to seek political asylum and stay in Australia; Ah Xian’s wife followed a month later.With no money or connections and only limited knowledge of English, Ah Xian began working at a series of odd jobs, such as short-order cook and house painter. While the art he produced at this time varied greatly in medium and style, he fixated on the subject of the Tiananmen Square debacle. In a group show at the Sherman Galleries, Sydney, in 1991, for example, he exhibited paintings from his “Heavy Wounds” series, which are executed in a linear, Social-Realist style derived from Chinese Red Cross propaganda posters issued during the Cultural Revolution. The posters, which demonstrate how to bandage wounds and deal with trauma, were redirected by Ah Xian to apply to the victims of the massacre. In a large exhibition of works by Chinese artists at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1993 (“Mao Goes Pop: China Post 1989”), Ah Xian showed works from his “Pervasive Spirit” series, in which plaster casts of disembodied hands and feet are enclosed in coffinlike boxes (actually, wooden ammunition boxes). These were nailed to the wall or piled on gauze atop pillars built up of wavy horizontal layers of plaster, like a cross-section of the earth, from the crevices of which red or blue paint seems to seep like the blood of the dead and wounded.
By 1994, wanting to continue working with body casts but finding plaster cheap and unappealing, Ah Xian thought of turning to porcelain. He began to read books and collect information and by 1990-97 was experimenting, making crude porcelain sculptures from plaster casts of his left hand. Some of these he roughly painted over with fish or flower motifs based upon traditional designs.
Just as he was about to make what, in retrospect, can be identified as his breakthrough, he detoured into a series of conceptual works involving photocopiers and fax machines. In these pieces, an individual image of the Mona Lisa, the Buddha, the late Princess Diana, his mother or himself would be reproduced time and again, one copy from the other, until they deteriorated into illegibility. He intended, through a melding of Western technology and Eastern philosophy, to illustrate mortality, showing life (or traces of life) fading into pure spirits.
At this time, Ah Xian’s mother was gravely ill. He was trying desperately to return home to see her, but lacked the proper papers. He was finally able to go, but he arrived in Beijing two days after her death. Following the funeral, he traveled for the first time to Jingdezhen, a small town ringed by mountains southwest of Shanghai. For centuries it has been one of the most important kiln sites in China, where the finest porcelains were produced for the emperors. Work of lesser quality, including reproductions of famous court porcelains, continues to be made there for domestic use, export and the tourist trade. Ah Xian went to Jingdezhen to observe and learn, seeking to improve his technical skills as well as to establish contacts for possible future visits.
Upon returning to Australia, he began a yearlong term as artist-in-residence at Sydney College of the Arts, which provided him with studio space as well as with access to materials and kilns. He planned to create another series of works expressive of his pain and frustration with China: the porcelain heads were to be distorted and set atop body parts made from lead sheets, the whole squashed into narrow, vertical boxes hung upon the wall. While a few of the earliest busts display some distortion of form, he soon recognized the power and expressive possibilities of the unaltered busts, and the first group of works in the “China, China” series proper was created. To make the busts, he wrapped the heads, necks and shoulders of friends and family members in multiple layers of plaster-soaked bandages in the manner of George Segal, and used the casts as molds for porcelain (as many as five busts could be made from a single mold). The surfaces of the busts were polished and smoothed and then painted with simple designs derived from Chinese porcelain pattern books, most often in cobalt blue, although some touches of copper red are also seen. He used allover designs such as leaves and flowers or fish, or he employed sparse, asymmetrical arrangements of a few trees or flowers that climbed over the form.
The mood of most of these works is calm and gentle. A sense of inward reflection is conveyed by the closed eyes and mouths and relaxed postures, and by the purity of the white porcelain surfaces. Still, the manner in which the human forms are objectified and marked communicates an underlying tension. The painted motifs spread over the bodies sometimes recall a rash or a disfiguring strawberry birthmark. The blazoning is an act of appropriation; images of living individuals rendered in porcelain are depersonalized and transformed into artifacts evoking a distant past; the weight of history and culture is superimposed upon them, and in a sense obliterates them. The aggressive nature of the artist’s act is revealed by a motif that he has used since the earliest busts. As found in China, China—bust 10 (1998) and variously in busts numbered 33, 36 and 38 (all 1999), the writhing form of an imperial dragon (most often with sharp teeth, serrated fins and menacing talons) extends across the man’s face. The long, snakelike body coils about his head. It is an image of claustrophobia and asphyxiation. The sitter’s mind, sight, speech and breath seem to be controlled by this symbol of the Chinese court, which here might be seen as an allusion to the autocratic Chinese Communist government as well. Traditionally, the dragon appears surrounded by stylized waves that represent the ocean. In Ah Xian’s busts, the waves begin at the sitter’s chest and extend upward onto his or her neck, isolating the head and augmenting the feeling of entrapment.
While the women who modeled for the early busts (Ah Xian’s wife, Mali, and a young part-Asian woman he employed at Sydney College of the Arts) are very beautiful, his male model is not an idealized type. This figure’s weak chin, hunched shoulders and humble demeanor contribute to the poignancy and humanity of the busts. (It is the artist’s younger brother, Liu Xiao Xian.) A small collection of Ah Xian’s early busts appeared in the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial at Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery in 1999 [see A.i.A.,Sept.’00].
In that year, aided by a grant from the Australian Arts Council, Ah Xian spent nine months in Jingdezhen creating a second, larger group of “China, China” works. (In Sydney, he produced about 15 busts; in China, upwards of 40.) Ah Xian’s method of making direct body casts in plaster remained the same. At first he had difficulty finding local people willing to serve as models, but that grew easier as his work and intentions came to be understood and respected. Working in tandem with porcelain specialists, Ah Xian moved from a slip-casting technique to a press-molding method (in the former, a viscous liquid porcelain is poured into the inverted mold, a hard shell forms and the remaining liquid is poured out; in the latter, porcelain clay is pressed into the mold). The help of technicians/craftsmen greatly enhanced the quality of the work. The busts were subtly elongated—more of the chest and shoulders were incorporated—so that they grew in both stature and presence.
Rather than painting the new pieces himself, Ah Xian selected designs from pattern books and catalogues and commissioned Jingdezhen artisans who specialize in those motifs to execute them. While the craftspeople were allowed a certain degree of freedom in the painting, myriad decisions were made by the artist with regard to selection and execution. At once opulent and refined, the Jingdezhen busts feature a wide range of images and techniques; in comparison, the Sydney works appear hesitant and crude. In addition to the cobalt blue and copper red seen in the earlier works, for example, one now finds a full spectrum of color, often with embossed or low-relief designs. High relief is also seen, as in the few busts bearing the traditional “antique objects” (a vase, lantern, musical instrument and other auspicious forms), as well as in one of the three sculptures featuring a pair of legs and feet, from the knees down, modeled on the artist’s own.
According to convention, the base of each piece is impressed with a red seal. Some of the seals incorporate the artist’s name while others describe a mood or type of imagery, such as “clouds and rain,” “wind and moon” or “dancing dragons and phoenix.” A seal reading “free and untroubled immortal” does both tasks; it refers to a placid figure rendered permanent in porcelain as well as to the artist and his state of mind (while “Ah” is a prefix for a Chinese nickname and has no meaning, “Xian” in Chinese signifies “immortal”).
It was in Jingdezhen that the porcelains described in the opening paragraphs of this article were created. A particularly striking work (although not as technically elaborate as some) is the iron red China, China—bust 11 (1999). When I met with Ah Xian at his home in Sydney, he showed me the source for the lion design in this work: a color photograph of a large round platter of the Qing Dynasty, the sole motif he selected from a book showing hundreds of bowls and platters. From a distance, the blood-red color of the lions and of the silk-strip balls and ribbons that cover the woman’s form suggest body organs, blood vessels and the like, as though she had been turned inside-out. On closer viewing, the symmetrical decorations transform her into the beast—a lion, a traditional Chinese symbol of fierceness and protection from evil.
On multiple occasions both at Sydney College of the Arts and in Jingdezhen, the artist attempted to create near-complete nudes (figures generally terminating at mid-thigh), but each time the forms proved to be too fragile and broke, most often when being fired in the kiln. In light of his interest in depicting the female nude, it is notable that none of Ah Xian’s portrait busts of women display even a hint of breasts or sexuality. A few, however, are painted with traditional Chinese erotica.
The artist hopes to realize the full figures by working with artisans of lacquer and cloisonne. Both are expensive and hugely time-consuming processes. Each piece of lacquerware, for example, requires 16 layers of lacquer per millimeter of thickness and 6 or 7 millimeters are needed, depending upon the depth of the carved relief; each piece takes about six months to complete. At this writing, none of the new works has been shown.
The artist has written that by now artists with a Chinese background “should have learned and been sufficiently influenced by Western philosophy, art and culture as a whole to attain a level of confidence and capability to tell stories about ourselves by using our own languages.”4 In his art. Ah Xian “tells stories” by exploiting and reviving once-grand Chinese traditions (“languages”) that, if not exactly “lost,” are undervalued and overlooked, considered hackneyed and outworn, consigned to the “lower realms” of craft and decoration. Ah Xian diverges from the path taken by the majority of his Chinese and Asian contemporaries who operate within such avant-garde and high-profile frameworks as performance, installation, video and other new technologies. At a time when many Chinese artists are moving into what has been termed “post-orientalism,” producing work that partakes of blurred ethnic boundaries and seeks to go beyond the fact of national origins, Ah Xian staunchly asserts his inescapable connection to China.
Ah Xian maintains that he never would have arrived at his manner of working if he had remained in Beijing, which he describes as “too busy, noisy and crowded.” His “China, China” busts were the products of distance and reflection, conceived in another country, where he claims to have found serenity and release from “the intense political pressures of China.” Living in Sydney, he has had time to recall childhood experiences such as pressing his nose up against windows in the Summer Palace of the Forbidden City to see the antique porcelains contained within. He has had room to examine his soul and his Chineseness—and the freedom and peace of mind to find China.
- In the late ’80s and early ’90s, American artists Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman produced work in porcelain in which the material was exploited for its history and value. Koons created large-scale porcelains based on kitsch motifs (e.g., a portrait of the pop singer Michael Jackson embracing his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles). Made to his specifications by artisans in Italy, these fragile, expensive works were intended to challenge the bounds of taste and notions of preciousness and collectability. Sherman produced an editioned porcelain tureen set at Limoges (with Artes Magnus), Madame de Pompadour nee Poisson (1721-1764), modeled after a design commissioned by Madame de Pompadour from Sevres in 17-56. In a charming parody of the effete Rococo tradition, Sherman transferred a photograph of herself in the guise of the famous courtesan onto the tureen. Ah Xian stands apart from his American counterparts in the absence of irony in his approach to the material and its history.
- Most of the information about Ah Xian’s early work and life included here derives from the author’s interview with the artist at his home in Sydney, Mar. 30,2001.
- The artist’s Chinese origins were asserted in some of these works by the Chinese-style tables that supported the fax machines, by the use of Chinese accordion-fold calligraphy books in the related “Fading Book” series, and by the images of his mother and himself.
- See “Self-exile of the Soul,” a paper presented at a seminar on contemporary Asian art held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1998, reproduced in the catalogue China, China, self-published by the artist, Beijing, 2000, p. 8.
- Gao Minglu, “Toward a Transnational Modernity: An Overview of Inside Out; New Chinese Art,” in Inside Out: New Chinese Art, San Francisco and New York. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Asia Society Galleries and the University of California Press, 1998, p.34.
The author wishes to thank Barbara Flynn, an art consultant based in Sydney, for calling Ah Xian’s work to her attention.
“China, China” appeared at Beijing Teacher’s University [Apr. 15-23. 2001], RMIT Gallery, Melbourne [Oct. 4-28, 2000], the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, [March 14-Sept. 16, 2001], and the Brisbane City Gallery [Oct. 26-Dec. 9, 2001]. The exhibition was accompanied by a 64-page catalogue.