This weekend I travelled to the South Coast (near Chichester) for the opening of CASS Sculpture Foundation’s latest exhibition 无序之美 ‘A Beautiful Disorder‘. The exhibition features the work of eighteen artists from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan including: Bi Rongrong 毕蓉蓉, Cao Dan 曹丹, Cao Fei 曹斐, Cheng Ran 程然, Cui Jie 崔洁, Jennifer Wen Ma 马文, Li Jinghu 李景湖, Lu Pingyuan 陆平原, Rania Ho 何颖宜, Song Ta 宋拓, Tu Wei-Cheng 涂维政, Wang Sishun王思顺, Wang Wei王卫, Wang Yuyang 王郁洋 Xu Zhen (Produced by MadeIn Company) 徐震（没顶公司出品), Zhang Ruyi 张如怡, Zhao Yao 赵要 and Zheng Bo 郑波 and is the largest (and arguably first) showcase of outdoor contemporary sculpture by these artists to be held in the UK.
The exhibition takes its name from a letter penned by the French missionary and Qing court painter Jean-Denis Attiret in 1743. Writing to a friend in Paris, Attiret described details of the garden and architecture of the ‘Garden of Perfection and Light’ 圆明园 in the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. Praising the garden for its unpredictability, diversity and adherence to naturalism, Attiret wrote: “[the Chinese] rather chose a beautiful disorder, and a wandering as far as possible from all the rules of art. They go entirely on this principle, that what they are to represent there, is a natural and wild view of the country; a rural retirement, and not a palace formed according to all the rules of art.”
Attiret’s ideas were to have a profound impact on English landscape aesthetics, particularly the naturalistic, free-flowing forms that have characterised English garden culture from the 18th century onwards. Ushering in what was then considered a stylistic revolution, famous figures such as the architect Sir William Chambers, designer of Somerset House (home of the Courtauld Institute of Art) and the famous Chinese Pagoda at Kew Gardens were similarly keen to adopt the Chinese garden’s ability to provoke ‘violent or opposing sensations’ through a series of theatrical framing devices that allowed the viewer to look out onto a wider panorama. Taking the historical relationship between Chinese and English landscape aesthetics as a point of departure, the exhibition curators Wenny Teo, Ella Liao and Claire Shea therefore conceived of the exhibition as a series of unexpected scenes and sensory experiences situated throughout the grounds of the foundation. As viewers navigate their way around the woodland typography of tree-lined pathways, sheltered groves and pastoral vistas, gradually encountering the works on display, they are invited to reflect on ‘China’s past, present and future relationship with the world at large.’
For me, I have to agree that the unique setting (which sprawls across 26 acres of land) is what really differentiates this exhibition from most major shows of ‘Chinese’ contemporary art staged recently in the UK. All of the participating artists were invited to the foundation last year to survey the grounds and respond to the original brief and the resulting site-specific installations, while employing a vast array of materials, from bronze, stone, steel, cement and wood to ink, glass and natural planting, offer an important cross-section of the diversity and dynamism of the art scene within China, an aspect which is often lost in group shows staged in more institutional settings. Working in video, photography, performance, new media and painting, most of the participating artists are not known for their sculptural practice, in fact for some, the invitation represented the first time in their careers that they have produced site-specific large-scale installations and outdoor sculptures. Many of the works on display therefore stretch the boundaries of traditional sculptural practice, presenting us with an expanded approach not just to the medium but also to our own expectations of what ‘contemporary sculpture from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan’ should be, or look like, or represent.
Take for example Wang Wei’s 王卫 ‘Panorama 2’ 《全景2》. Wang is an artist who is known for his interest in architectural space and the engineered elements that structure our surroundings and ‘Panorama 2’ is no exception. Part of a series of works based on the architecture of animal enclosures and their relationship to social organisation, Wang was struck by the enclosures at Beijing Zoo, specifically their employment of mosaics to create ‘background scenery’ in emulation of the animals’ natural environments. At CASS, Wang created a curved mosaic wall that is structurally and aesthetically similar to the enclosure used to house the turtles at Beijing Zoo ( hence the small ‘door’ or opening on the left hand side), however, rather than recreate the original mosaic, Wang’s wall presents us with a mirror image of the tree-lined vista located behind the work, a panorama which is blocked from view by Wang’s installation itself. Like the faux-natural environments of the Zoo enclosures, Wang thus draws attention to the artificiality of the constructed space of the exhibition, and the lack of freedom of the animals (exhibition viewers) who wander around its enclosures. He thus ’causes the viewer to consider the extent to which our own freedom as individuals in a modern society might be just as illusory’.
While some works in the exhibition are monumental in scale, such as Song Ta’s 宋拓 ‘Why do they never take colour photos?’《他们为什么从不拍彩色照片？》a scaled-down replica of a colossal bust of China’s most recognised political figure, Mao Zedong (albeit a very youthful version), supported on a giant brick plinth and surrounded by a monochrome environment of lime washed vegetation in emulation of the aesthetics of black and white photography. Song’s sardonic take on history inevitably raises ‘questions of cultural tokenism, historical memory and national identity in an age of spectacle and simulacra’. But this is also set off by works of a much more intimate and subdued scale. Zhang Ruyi’s 张如怡 ‘Pause’ 暂停 for example employs a seemingly simple conceit- in which she has cast electric power sockets and international adaptors in industrial cement and then installed them on tree trunks throughout the grounds, presenting us with a meditative examination of the role of technology in contemporary society and our dependence on digital infrastructures and connectivity, as well as the attendant environmental and ecological consequences wrought by these changes (apparently extensive tests were done to ensure that no trees were damaged in the process.)
Other works do not shy away from confronting the relationship between art and ideology in contemporary China and today’s hyper-networked, globalised world in general. Wang Yuyang’s 王郁洋 six-meter tall sculpture ‘Identity’ 《身份》, is probably the most physically imposing work on display in the grounds. The undulating, curvilinear form of its overlapping layers of brass, copper, fibreglass, concrete, metal and marble certainly evoke natural, organic structures yet its appearance is actually a symbiosis of distinctly human and computerised technology. Using 3D rendering and modelling software, Wang converted one of the most iconic and influential texts in modern history: Karl Marx’s ‘Capital: Critique of Political Economy‘ (1867) into a binary code that entirely determined the material, colour and structure of the sculptural outcome. Similarly Zheng Bo’s 郑波 ‘Socialism Good’ 《社会主义好》examines how plants and the natural environment have often been mobilised in the name of politics. Recreating a political slogan from a famous 1950s song that was subsequently displayed prominently in key public spaces throughout China from the 1990s onwards, Zheng’s work will remain on the grounds of CASS over an extended period of time, allowing the planted installation to evolve and mutate over and beyond the course of the exhibition. The plants which form the Chinese characters will no doubt vanish over the winter months but could possibly bloom again into clarity next Spring. The work therefore represents a continuation of Zheng’s interests in political critique and eco-aesthetics as well as an examination of the resilience of nature in the face of human actions and events.
Artists such as Tu Wei-Cheng 涂维政 and Jennifer Wen-Ma 马文 have created works which riff on cultural identity, historical memory and myth-making. In Bu Num Civilisation 《卜湳文明魂遁之轮》Tu’s work appears to have been unearthed from the grounds of CASS itself. Recreating five partially exposed ‘excavation sites’, the artefacts that Tu has placed in these archaeological pits resemble relics from a long-lost civilisation. However, on closer inspection viewers can discern familiar objects such as USB drives, computer parts and other electrical components. The iconographic motifs and symbols embedded into the surface of these apparently ‘ancient’ monuments thus serve as an archaeology of the present; a reference to the ubiquitous presence of online culture and technology and its irrevocable impact on human civilisation. Jennifer Wen Ma’s immersive installation ‘Molar’ 《臼齿》similarly blurs the boundary between fiction and reality by recreating a garden space in the Main Gallery of CASS. The installation is composed of several elements, including an upturned tree made of black Tyvek, which gently shrouds a cluster of clear glass teardrop forms which descend pendulously over an obsidian pool of Chinese ink. Part of the artist’s ongoing investigation into the transcultural history of mythological gardens, from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Garden of Eden, Ma’s innovative use of Chinese ink evokes both the medium of Chinese landscape painting and a reference to environmental and ecological degradation.
The exhibition also includes video works by Cao Fei 曹斐 and Cao Dan 曹丹, socially engaged works such as Li Jinghu’s 李景湖 ‘Escape (My family History) 《逃离（我的家庭历史）》and more playful, humorous exhibits such as Rania Ho’s 何颖宜 ‘Fountain X’ 《喷泉X》and Lu Pingyuan’s 陆平原 ‘Ghost Trap’《幽灵陷阱》.
‘A Beautiful Disorder’ runs until November 6th and is open to the public 7 days a week, which means there’s no excuse not to make a trip to view one of the most comprehensive, diverse and thought-provoking exhibitions of contemporary art you’re likely to see this year.