‘I DO NOT believe television. I do not believe the newspapers. I do not believe movies, they all lie. Opera lies. Go to the church or temple to obtain truth? They both lie. The government lies. What I learned in school was a lie. Everything is all lies,’ said the Chinese contemporary artist Sun Xun when we met in Beijing earlier this year. It struck me on first encounter that Sun Xun has a jaundiced view of world. It was a slightly uncomfortable start to an interview, but Xun has been surrounded with lies for so long now that perhaps he finds it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
When he was a child he would spend the evenings after school chatting with his father. ‘My father would drink Chinese saké and tell me stories about the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). What he told me was quite different from the history books at school which only had one page on the Cultural Revolution. My father told me what really happened; people died before his eyes. My grandmother was paraded through the streets wearing a dunce’s cap because of her family’s background in the Qing military. Many stupid things happened that you cannot believe. I just ask, Why?’ Xun continued.
We met at the office of
Pi Animation in Beijing, the film studio he set up in 2006 almost immediately after graduating from the print making department of Hangzhou’s China Academy of Fine Art.
Xun is an artist with a social conscience and a penchant for excavating the truth in history and examining the fracture between historiography and the fallibility of oral history which, he readily admits, can be nuanced by prejudice and personal political viewpoints. His work ranges from drawings, woodcuts, traditional Chinese ink painting and hand drawn stop-motion animation. Since 2006 he has favoured installations which include his large scale hand drawn murals and his animated videos which have made him a favourite on the international gallery circuit while his popularity at home in China has languished in comparison.
Xun was born in 1980 in Fuxin, an industrial town in the northeast of China near North Korea and grew up in the period following the end of the Cultural Revolution, which uprooted families, attempted to eradicate Chinese culture and witnessed disaffected juveniles rampaging across the country in an orgy of uncontrolled violence. What Xun was hearing about the Cultural Revolution from his father and from his school books, did not correlate. ‘Why was this?’ he asked.
He loved drawing as a child and his parents encouraged his talent, even though never quite understanding it. What they did insist on however was that he should stay away from politics. ‘My father told me to stay far away from politics. He wanted to join the army but my grandfather was an officer in the Qing army. So my father could not join the army. He was bitter about this and told me not to have anything to do with the government.’
Xun’s imagination is extraordinarily fertile and his appetite for work prodigious and since encountering the disparity between the official view of the Cultural Revolution and that of his father, has been concerned with the constant inquisition of history, which as he vehemently said, is all lies.
I was fortunate in finding Xun in Beijing as he seems to constantly travel and spends only two to three months of every year there, and when he talks – which he does almost non-stop – his conversation is peppered with the names of the cities he has visited, but not in an ostentatious way.
Asked what city is his favourite and Xun gave an enigmatic answer, Berlin. ‘My favourite city is Berlin. I have never been there. I am waiting for that special time. And then I will go. The special time will be a long residency project or a huge exhibition. Then Berlin will be a gift to myself,’ he said.
Currently Xun is in New York where, along with five other Chinese artists, plus artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, and the Yangjiang Group, he is engaged in creating the group show Tales of Our Time (see page 25 of this issue), the second of the three annual exhibitions of the Robert HN Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative presented at the Guggenheim Museum which opens on 4 November. Xun is making a sight-specific work that ‘explores the dynamics between individual narrative and collective history’ subjects which have become a constant of his oeuvre.
Before arriving at Xun’s Pi Animation studio I had assumed rather erroneously that I would encounter a marble lined foyer beyond highly polished revolving plate-glass doors, so grandiloquent does the name sound. I could not have been more wrong. In reality it is a typical two-storey dusty mezzanine studio space that one enters from an unkempt courtyard. The door was open and there was nobody about. I found Xun in a side room taking a nap on a sofa, a pot of cold green tea on a side table that was supported on a largish tree trunk. He sat up and looked slightly surprised and launched into his personal history and an exposition on what he sees as how the world lies.
He may have studied print making at CAFA, but said, perhaps disingenuously, that he never made a print while he was there. What really interested him was hand-drawn animation, influenced by the animation work of South African artist William Kentridge and there are obvious similarities in the work of both artists although Kentridge locates his art firmly in his native South Africa. ‘I just do animation. I just feel the need and I just did it,’
His stop motion animations, which might take 5,000 drawings for a six-minute video, are rapidly and fluidly drawn with often iridescent broad colours applied within the loose ink contours of the subjects. And the work does not shy away from examining politics or history, but does so in a subtle and nuanced way through the use of metaphor. In his 10-minute animation, What Happened in the Year of the Dragon 2014, dragons confront each other and wrestle above a grim dystopian landscape. It is not hard to understand who the bad guys in this work are.
Pi is a metaphor for the conundrum that resides at the core of Xun’s practice which is the excavation from history of a truth which remains contradictory and unfathomable. Pi itself is an irrational number where the decimal representation is infinitely long, and which never repeats itself. Historical truth, like Pi, according to Xun, can never be definitively reached.
Even so, Xun has employed the metaphorical help of several writers in his pursuit of truth. The French philosopher Michael Foucault for example, helped dissipate the haze swirling around the proposition in Xun’s mind that real truth can never be attained. Truth is a mélange of knowledge and power that each society creates according to its beliefs, values and mores. ‘The truth is there, but we cannot get there,’ opined Xun .
‘I discover Foucault. So I read this and learn something about history, the tool. I am reading that it is not a system … and I am always asking myself, why?’ Xun said. Other writers and philosophers have profoundly influenced Xun, too: Kafta, Jung, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Huxley and George Orwell all of whom presented a dystopian view of a world where personal freedoms are limited and truth is subject to erasure from time’s palimpsest only to be re-written by authoritarian regimes. ‘Memory is short,’ Xun said.
Naturally enough in China where the rewriting of history is commonplace and where the dark cloud of censorship has spread widely, such a quest for the truth could be fraught with obvious dangers. Remarkably though Xun has never been subjected to any government interference. ‘I think they cannot understand. Someone overseas understands my work more than someone inside China,’ he explained. Xun’s philosophy regarding truth may seem radical and quixotic but his art is anything but, quite the contrary, it possesses a distinct aesthetic which is engaging and accessible.
At the studio several large scroll-like paintings – their subjects matter trawled from Xun’s personal lexicon of phantasmagorical creatures – hung across the studio dominating the space and the walls were packed with small framed ink drawings on pages torn from books.
The large hanging works are vigorously painted with the fluidity of traditional ink painting but on an inflated scale. As yet un-named they are destined for exhibition in the middle of next year in Korea. One could be forgiven for thinking they are works on paper when in fact they are drawn on tree bark which is hammered to a paper thin consistency.
Xun tells an amusing story of how in 2006 he began painting on walls. ‘A curator in Shanghai decided to do a huge group show, so many artists. He told me we have many taste of art to include, but one thing they didn’t have was a huge wall painting. Somebody should do one in the space on the walls, he said. There was nothing in the space; no water, no power, nothing, but he said, you are young, you can do this. I did a drawing for the space and from this drawing I developed an animation film. I then showed them together. This was my first time and the result turned out to be amazing. I thought I should develop this way in my art, from then I continued to do this.’
‘My work is system, not individual pieces but several works together. My work comes from everywhere. I want to put the truth of the real history into my work. Through this kind of work you will know the whole world, and the whole world is my library,’ Xun stated.
Xun sells the individual drawings from the animations to finance further projects. Assistants develop the animation, photographing the original drawings, scanning them into a computer and then using software programs to develop the videos. There can be up to 50 assistants working on a long animation but on the day of my studio visit numbers had dropped back to five.
Scattered around the back room where we were talking were several dictionaries that piqued my curiosity. ‘I collect a lot of old dictionaries, I tear out the pages and draw on them and they are now an intrinsic part of my work. A dictionary is the rule of culture but they are knowledge. My life is dedicated to acquiring knowledge. I want to put the truth and the real history into my work,’ Xun commented.
While Xun wrestles with the complexities of history’s elusive nature there are other conceptual preoccupations gnawing at him. For example he has strident views on exactly what is art and what is an artist. For Xun, ‘The artist is the kind of person who tries to talk to God even if only for one or two seconds. Maybe just once in your life, for one second, you are the master talking to God. Not all artists are this lucky. I think Leonardo da Vinci talked to God for one minute. So he is the master. Most artists never achieve even that one second. In my art, I never try to open people’s minds, that is God’s job, not mine, my work is talking without language,’ he stated.
‘Artists are dangerous people because they are always asking, why. Dangerous for everyone. Artists always fight. You may believe something but I will ask you, why, why, why? People get crazy. Because you can never get the ending question. But the government problem here (in China) refuses to answer the question, why,’ he continued.
There is a character in several of Xun’s videos dressed like a ring master wearing a top hat. He rules the world in the animation, What Happened in the Year of the Dragon. I ask who it is. ‘It is nobody. It is just a magician. A liar. Humans are like a group of sheep. They like to believe something to make themselves safe. Everything is not true. If you go to watch a magician show you know that everything is a lie. But you still pay and go and watch. It is like a fantasy? People want fantasy because they don’t like the truth? Reality is never what you want it to be and often can be very harsh. So you go somewhere to get lied to make you feel safe,’ he said.
The magician is the ‘Only legal liar,’ said Xun. Our conversation had returned to where it started, grasping at a truth that remains beyond reach. As I leave Pi Animation I sense that Xun will return to his afternoon nap on the sofa and dreams of wrestling dragons, lies and dystopic landscapes.
BY MICHAEL YOUNG