First one-man show in EuropeThis summer the five Period Rooms at the Gemeentemuseum will form the setting for an exhibition of the impressive porcelain busts and life-size porcelain figures made by Ah Xian. Born in Beijing in 1960, the artist has lived and worked in Australia ever since 1989 but this is his first one-man show in Europe. Although he decorates his busts and full-body sculptures with traditional Chinese motifs like dragons, birds, flowers and landscapes, Xian’s work also relates to contemporary Western society.
When Ah Xian emigrated to Sydney in 1989, it was initially to take part in an artist-in-residence programme there. In his home country he had been mainly a painter but in Australia he discovered porcelain (a material traditionally associated with China). He once explained the change by saying, “when you’re away from China, you have a clearer picture of the country and its culture.” Clearly, Xian exists between two cultures. The issue of identity is, of course, central to his work. How can an artist educated in a Chinese cultural context preserve his values and traditions while at the same time engaging with the contemporary world, which is dominated by Western values? The presentation in the Period Rooms will show that Ah Xian has found a unique solution to this problem.
A good example is his China China series of busts (1998 - 2002). He produced these in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen (and in other specialised cities), working in collaboration with artisans from various pottery studios. Under the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), Jingdezhen was the heart of China’s porcelain industry. In those days, the area had no fewer than 300 kiln complexes, each with its own firing specialisations. The styles, designs and techniques seen in Ah Xian’s busts – including lacquer and cloisonné – are the same as those found in traditional pieces from Jingdezhen. By making these designs resemble tattoos, Ah Xian makes a statement about the indelible nature of cultural backgrounds. However, his work is not a simple imitation of Chinese traditions. It is full of oppositions.
The most overt is the tension between the sculptural form of the bust and the painted surface designs. This reflects the opposition between East and West. The bust is part of a Western tradition of portraiture, while the painted designs derive from Chinese traditions of decoration. There is also a contrast between the exuberant colours and the almost meditative air of the form to which they are applied. However, the tension between the form of the bust and the painted decoration can also be seen as representing the opposition between the personal and the political. The busts are in fact generally based on casts taken from the bodies of Xian’s relatives, but through his use of traditional Chinese ornamentation Xian seems at the same time to be making a statement about his perception of his own cultural heritage, viewed from outside China.
The exhibition has been organised in cooperation with the Städtische Museen Heilbronn and is accompanied by an English/German catalogue entitled
Ah Xian: Skulpturen/Sculpture (€ 35).