Transformation Between the Past and the Future

Recreating the cultural traditions in Wu Jian'an's art

By CAFA Art Museum

Xingtian (2006/2007) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

In the 21st century, the question of dealing with the dialectical relationship between local history and globalization, cultural traditions and the current society has become an important topic in the field of cultural studies and artistic creation.

Over the years, Wu Jian'an's creation has been deeply rooted in ancient myths and legends, cosmic philosophy, religious philosophies, social history, violent aesthetics, individual and group relations, and is particularly focused on absorbing and transforming traditional techniques and image generation methods. He created a unique and transcendental art form and creative methodology.

Installation view of The Heaven of Nine Levels from the 57th Venice Biennale China Pavillion (2008) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

According to Professor Wu Hong from University of Chicago, a permanent member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “ Wu Jian'an's imagination has always operated simultaneously in multiple dimensions. Likewise, his works also simultaneously expand the viewer’s artistic imagination in various directions. He freely traverses temporal divides, instantaneously taking viewers from today’s world back to mysterious primeval times. His art spans various media and styles: painting, sculpture, paper cut and installation, all of which provide him with a varied vocabulary yet also arouse his desire to cross boundaries – to integrate, transgress and disarrange.”

Installation view of The Heaven of Nine Levels from Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan (2008) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

This exhibit focuses on the traditional shadow art elements in Wu Jian'an's contemporary art creation, providing an angle to understanding the artist's works and establishing a connection between cultural traditions and contemporary thinking.

The Heaven of Nine Levels (2008) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

The Heaven of Nine Levels is a large-scale artwork completed by artist Wu Jian'an and Shaanxi shadow art master Wang Tianwen. Wu Jian'an created and painted the work, and Wang Tianwen and his team brought it to life. They have overcome many challenges in the production process, including the difficulties of collaging the leather caused by the expansion and contraction, as well as the challenge of carving such a large artwork and so on.

The Heaven of Nine Levelssketch (details) (2008) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

This is indeed inspiring, the transformation of ancient techniques and art forms has become a regrettable aesthetic image, and it has also stimulated the recovery and improvement of traditional techniques.

Seven Layered Shell (2011) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

Seven Layered Shell consists of seven large scale works, similar in format to Chinese Zhongtang paintings, large traditional paintings typically hung as the centerpiece of a room.

Two components of Seven Layered Shell (2011) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

Wu Jian’an created 186 separate components for the Seven Layered Shell, in which contains monsters and prodigies of the Classics of Mountains and Seas, an enigmatic work of geography from early China.

Wu Jian’an and the Seven Layered Shell (2011) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

Each component is subjected to complex processes including line drawing, carving, hand-coloring, waxing, collage and stitching. Wu Jian'an uses shadow art, paper-cut and other hollow modeling methods to combine the ancient art style with the anatomy-based Western contemporary art form.

Two grand snakes fight for a giant butterfly’s wings (2017) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

Based on the 186 separate components of the Seven Layered Shell, Wu Jian'an created a series of works with similar materials and art form, long term creation and intensive manual work has given his artworks complex and beautiful visual characteristics.

In Wu's paper-cut works, as described by Professor Haun Saussy in a catalog essay for the artist, a simple outline “turns out to be immensely complex. The one body is now teeming with smaller bodies that are themselves teeming with smaller bodies. The bodies at their various levels peer at us with countless eyes or go about their business, ignoring us...Thus Wu Jian’an’s decision to bring the nonmetropolitan, the eccentric, the exiled, the monstrous into the constitution of his colossal figures opens their bodies’ interior onto the widest cultural outside and makes it impossible to say that his art represents ‘a throwback to Chinese tradition’; it’s at the very least much more than that.”

Ten Thousand Things (2016) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

The Seven Layered Shell is a metaphor for a certain social value: an individual can only form a perfect whole when finding an absolutely correct fixed position. In the Butterfly series and Ten Thousand Things, Wu Jian'an tries to break the stereotype of this individual-collective relationship: in the chaotic and crowded relationship, the individual becomes a paradoxical whole, and the vivid whole does not seem to be pre-set, but was grown from free individuals.

The Birth of the Galaxy (2012/2015) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

The Birth of the Galaxy consists of 12 paper-cut and collage works, forming into mountain ranges. Some look like scenery from Gui Lin, inspiring a variety of imaginative responses.

The mountain ranges are composed of figures including the headless Xing Tian and other characters from the Classic of Mountains and Seas. The colors and visual expression of this work is influenced by Dunhuang murals. Wu Jian'an hopes to use a relatively "ancient" visual expression together with his contemporary imagination to revitalize an old story.

The Birth of the Galaxy- Courage (details) (2012/2015) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

Xingtian is a very important character in Wu Jian'an's works. In the Classics of Mountains and Seas, Xingtian fights against the Supreme Divinity even after he was beheaded. In the view of the artist, Xingtian represents the courage in the cultural genes, which is particularly precious in the present days.

The Shadows of the Blade (2017/2018) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

The Shadows of the Blade series is a new level of Wu Jian’an’s artistic experiment with leather. In this series of work, the artist used different kinds of sharp tools to stab, slice and puncture the soaked buffalo hide to represent the subconscious desire for violence and destruction.

The Shadows of the Blade (details) (2017/2018) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

In this series of works, the artist tries to make the creations and experiments of visual art meaningful in the psychological and sociological domain.

Masks-Silver Green (2018) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

When designing the cowhide incision on paper for the Masks, Wu Jian'an found that the cowhide looked more and more like the masks of ancient Maya and Mycenaean civilizations, or the face totems that have been refined and patterned in the Stone Age. The artist didn't think to follow the ancient patterns in his creation, these images are more like an encounter or a destiny, without being designed, tracked or sought.

Masks series (2018) by Wu Jian’anOriginal Source: Courtesy the artist Wu Jian'an

The artist thinks that perhaps we have always evolved with the ancient civilizations, rather than being apart from them like we used to think. In his book Ethics, Spinoza wrote that "The human Mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the Body, but something of it remains which is eternal." Through "the eyes of the mind", one could see the past.

Art could be “the eyes of the mind", through which we could always see and meet with ourselves from other dimensions.

Credits: Story

Wu Jian'an- Contemporary artist, Professor at CAFA.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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