Ah Xian

Working with materials as diverse as cloisonné, porcelain, concrete, fibreglass, bronze and, most recently, latex, Chinese-Australian artist Ah Xian has won major sculpture prizes and much acclaim here in Australia, his adopted home for the last 25 years, yet he is still not represented by a commercial gallery. And in his former homeland of China, where he has a studio within Beijing’s Songzhuang artist community, he is barely known and has never been exhibited there.
Artist Profile recently spent time with this quietly spoken artist discussing his work, his complex relationship with China, and the philosophy which guides his inventive, cross-cultural creative vision.

Chinese-Australian artist Ah Xian is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, and our recent conversation at his home in Sydney’s northern suburbs began with a dramatic announcement by him that he is no longer making the porcelain busts and cloisonné figures that propelled him to overnight success when he won the National Gallery of Australia’s inaugural National Sculpture prize in 2001 with ‘Human human – lotus, cloisonné figure 1’ (2000/01). With its beguiling otherworldly aesthetic, the life-size cast female Chinese figure demonstrated a unique and highly individual artistic language. Now in the Queensland Art Gallery collection, it showed the artist totally at ease in the cross-cultural space between his classical Chinese heritage and the western figurative canon that he had explored since seeking political asylum in Australia in 1990 following the Tiananmen Square crackdown the previous year.

The busts he refers to as now being finished are the China China series (1998-2004) of which there are 80 pieces and which regularly sell for six-figure sums. “Yes, the porcelain ones are for now finished. I do not want to repeat myself and end up working without passion,” he explains.

Ah Xian is modest, self-deprecating and, by his own admission, a touch shy and rarely attends gallery openings. He does not, and never has, tried to influence the way things happen in his life and art, he explains, preferring instead the unpredictability of fate. “I never try to influence life and art direction. I let opportunities find me. This is the way I live.” It might seem a Buddhist, even Taoist, path to plough with its simple adherence to the principle of harmonious living but Ah Xian insists he subscribes to neither philosophy but accepts that “at the bottom of my heart and soul there may be something deposited there from my early years”.

We talked lounging on wicker furniture in a loggia at the front of the house. To one side is an old shelving unit where a patina of white dust has settled over a raw cast in resin fibreglass of one of his signature busts. The model’s eyes are closed and the head is hairless yet it retains a contemplative repose, and an almost casual mélange of eastern inscrutability and western symbolism. “I believe the closed eyes provide a more inward looking feeling. For a little while I considered open eyes, it can be done. But I soon changed my mind,” he says.

Ah Xian had just returned from China where he now spends half of every year working in a “tiny 250 square metre studio” in Beijing’s Songzhuang artist community. The rest of the year is spent with his family in Sydney.

Ah Xian’s practice is tranquil and calm as is the man himself. “I believe naturally the calmness flows out of me,” he says. He speaks fluent English in a quiet, thoughtful and mannered way and our conversation runs as smoothly as a mountain stream. “I was born in 1960 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution when art schools were closed. Therefore I am more or less self-taught.”

In 1979 he was involved on the periphery of the avant-garde Stars Group of painters when the group’s founders, which included Huang Rui, Ma Desheng and Wang Keping hung their contemporary paintings on the fence of Beijing’s China Art Gallery. This defiant act challenged the accepted Communist Party doctrine that art should serve the people. Ah Xian acted as a runner for the group, helping move paintings and sculptures on the back of an old tricycle. He met the painter Li Shuang – the only female founder of the group – and studied informally with her. “She lent me art books and journals on western artists like Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Modigliani and Surrealism.”

“I have always been amazed at the shape of the human body and how it has formed the centrepiece of art for thousands of years.”

The dramatic 1989 events in Tiananmen Square, when the People’s Liberation Army ruthlessly crushed the fledgling democracy movement, shocked Ah Xian but also helped form the conceptual undertow for all his subsequent work.

On the morning of 4 June he was on the streets and the group he was with swarmed to Fuxingmen Hospital at the south side of China Avenue, three kilometres from the square. “It was like a war zone. I saw 21 dead bodies lined up in the hospital bicycle shed,” he says.

I asked whether the bust’s inherent solemnity alludes to 1989. “At the time I don’t think it was that much political. I simply focus on something more beautiful with Chinese tradition and history, something more cultural. Some people understand them as political because of the way the model’s eyes are closed and how patterns cover their faces. But in my mind I think they are just beautiful aesthetic objects rather than political statements,” he says.

In 1990 Ah Xian fled China for political asylum in Australia and eight years working as a house painter in Sydney and part-time artist. “The idea for the figurative porcelain pieces came to me in 1994. I was in the Mao Goes Pop exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1993. I made some casts of my hands in plaster of Paris and put them into military boxes, like animation boxes. I was still stuck with the idea of the Tiananmen killings and the violence but soon recognised that the material I was using seemed too cheap and not durable. So I thought maybe there could be something in porcelain, which is a more valuable and durable material. That was how the idea formed,” he says.

After several months working at the Sydney College of the Arts in 1998 and later at Jingdezhen, the “porcelain capital” of China, in the following year, the China China series of porcelain busts emerged, with hand-painted cobalt underglaze and decorative motifs that float freely over the works’ surfaces. “I have always been amazed at the shape of the human body and how it has formed the centrepiece of art for thousands of years,” he says.

In 2007 there was a shift in the materiality of Ah Xian’s practice as he explored the properties of cast concrete. “I tried a number of new materials in search of one that had less craftsmanship. Concrete was much rougher, heavy and raw,” he says. It worked as a vehicle of Ah Xian’s trope and resulted in Concrete Forest, a suite of 36 busts which won the 2009 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, with their surfaces imprinted with the leaves of plant species such as maple, lotus and Chinese weeping willow, reflecting the artist’s concern for the environment.

Five years ago, bronze, which Ah Xian first explored in 2004, began to preoccupy him. “It is a material which is historical, durable, heavy and strange. It can last for thousands of years,” he says. The bronze busts for the Metaphysica series (2007) were shown in QAGOMA’s The China Project in 2009. These abandoned surface decoration in favour of small everyday objects attached to the bust’s skulls – birds, fish, miniature monkeys, toads, lamps and figurines of Buddha bought at Beijing flea markets, often in contrasting colours. These rest gently on their heads, the place where Ah Xian believes souls and imagination lingers. “I choose the objects carefully. They are things from people’s daily life, mass-produced at affordable prices. People keep these objects at home. So I use them to symbolise people’s beliefs.”

In recent bronze busts such as the Evolutionaura series (2011-13) the domestic objects have been superseded by more ambitious metaphysical stone additions. Some are semi-precious stones, and others are what are known in China as “scholar’s rocks”, which are much prized among intellectuals. They seem almost to teeter precariously on the skulls or cling defiantly to the bronzes, which are covered in gold leaf. “It is,” says Ah Xian, “about beauty and nature. I use gold colour against the natural colour of the rocks to emphasise the contrast between the human body and natural forms.” Eight pieces from the series were shown as part of Dark Heart, the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, and two more from the series were acquired in 2015 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where they form a focal point in the gallery’s Asian wing.

Ah Xian’s success since he moved to Australia 25 years ago has been well earned. However he says he remains unknown in China and has never been exhibited there. “Not many people know my art back in China, apart from the relatively small contemporary art circle. I have been thinking about this conundrum of being known and not known, and I wonder if I should change my approach to commercial galleries.” (Ah Xian has never had commercial gallery representation but has exhibited once or twice at commercial galleries in his early years in Sydney.) “Everyone who sees my work says they like it. But in China only those people who come to my studio can see the work.”
As he wrestles with this enigma it becomes obvious that Ah Xian’s career has arrived at a crossroads brought about by his persistent need to experiment with materials. Currently he seems to have abandoned completely the tactile materials he has favoured previously for one that is altogether more theatrical.

In the 250 square metres of his Beijing studio a new body of work is taking shape, literally. It relies on modern technology rather than artisanal craftsmanship yet still riffs on the familiar theme of the human form. The new works are life-size latex busts and full-length figures, made from extant casts, and which will be enclosed in glass vitrines. They will be inflated by compressed air delivered by an invisible pump and will fill the vitrine completely before slowly deflating in complete silence. The latex surfaces will be undecorated and the eyes will remain closed but, in a dramatic departure from previous bust iterations, the new ones will possess real hair. “Each will inflate beyond distortion to completely fill up the whole glass space. It is a durational kind of work. As the air comes out the figure shrinks back. It is all experimental but well advanced,” he says.

I ask how will anybody learn of, or even see, that he has produced a new body given that he has no gallery representation. The question is answered with an enigmatic smile and a shrug of the shoulders and I am left with a real sense that fate will be called upon in the coming years to play its usual role in this extraordinary artist’s career. “I would rather things took a natural course. If people appreciate my work they will find me sooner or later. But if not, well, I must do something even better, I’m afraid,” he concludes.

Ah Xian | Naturephysica
28 May – 03 October 2016

Courtesy the artist 

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