One of the most distinguished contemporary artists of his generation, Sun Xun (孙逊) deploys traditional Chinese ink painting and printing techniques to create drawings, paintings, animated films and installations of ambitious scale. Full of references to sources as diverse as Chinese mythology, European art traditions, literary classics and contemporary events, Sun Xun's thought-provoking works expose historical and current-day consumption, exploitation and political corruption.Read More
As a result of the discrepancies between state-sanctioned and personal histories he observed as a child, Sun Xun is skeptical of history books. At school, he learned about the great achievements of the Communist Party without any mention of its darker moments, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. However, at home, his parents told him about his family's past, which was one that lacked the glory he was taught in school. Consequently, many of Sun Xun's works are concerned with the inextricable relationship between history and power. Often taking a personal microcosm as a departing point, Sun Xun combines it with symbols and cultural references to explore the gaps in both individual and collective memory and consciousness.
Mythological Time (2016) is representative of Sun Xun's approach to black holes in history. Commissioned by the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, the animated film consists of 5,000 frames hand-drawn by the artist in his characteristically bold, expressive brushstrokes. It opens with the landscapes of Fuxin, Sun Xun's hometown in northern China. Once treasured for its open-pit coal mine, the town now suffers from over-extraction and poverty. Sun Xun builds his sequences of energetic images from historical, contemporary and imagined sites and events: the Natural History Museum, a monumental statue of Chairman Mao with a group of revolutionaries gathered at its feet, falling trees, men climbing a giant fish, tanks, and mythological creatures morphing into the monument Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman (1937) and then the Statue of Liberty. Coal is a consistent presence throughout the video, at times depicted as crystal coffins with fossils inside, which refers to the memory of the coal-mining industry in Fuxin. By interweaving scenes of the city with those of other coal-mining regions across the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, however, Sun Xun suggests that the depletion of natural resources is by no means unique to Fuxin or China, but universal. Mythological Times brings attention to a history of exploitation that mankind has overlooked in favour of progress and profit.
In Mythological Time, a top-hat-wearing magician often appears to watch as the array of images unfold. He is one of the oldest and most recurrent motifs in Sun Xun's work, first appearing in Shock of Time (2006)—a stop-motion animation composed of 150 paintings and drawings on old Chinese magazines and newspapers from the 1950s and 1960s. Opening with the phrase 'History is a lie of time', and positioning a figure who is paid to play tricks on people as the animation's protagonist, Shock of Time's narrative disputes whether newspapers truly reflect the history of China. In the words of the artist, the magician is 'the only legal liar'.
The magician also figures large in the multimedia installation Republic of Jing Bang, Citizens Wanted! (2014), where he is the mentor of the imaginary world of Jing Bang ('Whale Nation' in Chines). Presented at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014, the artwork comprised a briefcase containing various items—a manifesto, a passport, an identification card and a national flag, among others—and an immigration booth that offered Jing Bang citizenship to 100 people for $10,000.
Sun Xun's distrust of authority and aptitude for satire were also evident in Brave New World (2014), a solo exhibition at Hong Kong's Edouard Malingue Gallery. Deriving the title of his show from Aldous Huxley's 1931 eponymous novel, the artist was also inspired by the dystopian literature of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1924) and George Orwell's 1984 (1949) to reflect upon recent Chinese history. As the centrepiece of the exhibition, the film installation What Happened in the Year of the Dragon (2014) included a screen attached to the rear of a taxidermy horse and flanked by two columns with orbs at their bottoms. The animated film begins with a battle between two dragons that alludes to the political scandal between the Chinese government and Bo Xilai (now imprisoned for corruption) in 2012 (the Chinese zodiac year of the dragon).
The installation was accompanied by Script for What Happened in the Year of the Dragon (2014), a 38-page album of comic-like sketches that recounts the same battle in the form of ancient myths. One line from the script, 'Today, everyone is pursuing a new world order in a global context', echoes the tendency among some Chinese artists to avoid censorship by avoiding direct criticism of the Chinese government. Sun Xun's solution to this quandary is to replace recognisable figures with visual metaphors—such as the dragons—as a means of criticising power on a global level, without explicitly stating names. As his works are loaded with symbols, however, their interpretation also depends on the viewer. In an interview with Ocula Magazine, Sun Xun explained that 'anyone can decide [the points at which they think about a work's meaning]. As long as you're willing to think you're welcome to do so'.
Sun Xun is the founder of the π Animation Studio, established a year after his graduation from the printmaking department of the China Academy of Arts, Hangzhou, in 2005. Initially based in Hangzhou, the studio moved to Beijing in 2009. In addition to holding multiple exhibitions at ShanghART in Beijing and Shanghai and Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, Sun Xun has recently showed his works at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney (2018); Arario Gallery Seoul (2017); Yuz Museum, Shanghai (2016); and Hayward Gallery, London (2014). In 2017, he was a part of the exhibition Zhongguo 2185 at Sadie Coles HQ, London, which invited ten Chinese artists born after 1976 to share their visions of the past, present and future.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2018
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