Vancouver Art Gallery's Unscrolled finds expression via stools, bubble wrap, and ink

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      Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art

      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until April 6

      This multifaceted group show, recently opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery, poses questions about the philosophical and aesthetic influences of the past upon the complex present in Chinese art practice. Among some 30 wide-ranging works in Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art is a long, beautiful, revelatory lightbox by the internationally renowned Xu Bing. It’s the first work you see when you enter the exhibition from the VAG’s second-floor rotunda. Initially, this piece persuades viewers that it is an able reproduction of the Southern Song–dynasty scroll painting Ten Thousand Li of Mountains and Rivers, executed on the frosted glass of the lightbox. Walk around to the back of Xu Bing’s elegant work, however, and you’ll see that the “two-dimensional” landscape image is composed entirely of three-dimensional debris.

      The back of the lightbox is filled with everything from dried fern fronds and bundled pine branches to torn newspapers, crumpled plastic bags, and pieces of bubble wrap. All these salvaged objects and materials have been arranged and backlit in a way that casts image-making shadows and silhouettes across the frosted glass, re-creating the historic ink painting without a drop of ink. The latest installment of Xu Bing’s ongoing series “Background Story”, it is an ingenious marriage of homage and deconstruction, beauty and banality, acquisition and disposal. It also intriguingly complicates the relationship between past and present, appearance and actuality, form and meaning.

      Curated by the VAG’s Diana Freundl and Beijing-based curator and critic Carol Yinghua Lu, Unscrolled is a nifty companion exhibition to The Forbidden City, on view one floor below. The other artists represented are Ai Weiwei, Ji Yun Fei, Sun Xun, Chen Shaoxiong, Zhang Enli, MadeIn Company (Xu Zhen), Liu Jianhua, Qiu Shihua, and Jennifer Wen Ma. Their works range widely across form, medium, and scale, from fictional museum displays to nearly invisible landscape paintings, and from installations of “blood-filled” porcelain vessels to an enormous “chandelier” composed of live plants covered in black ink.

      Not surprisingly, a number of the artists represented here allude to historic landscape painting, the height of artistic expression in China for hundreds of years. In addition to Xu Bing’s lightbox, look for Sun Xun’s Shan Shui (Cosmos), a remarkable installation composed of large-scale animated film projections interspersed with ink paintings on rice paper and abstract marks applied directly to the gallery walls. Sun dissects, rearranges, and reanimates traditional landscape motifs in a mesmerizing way. At the same time, he interrogates the nature of representation and examines, again, how the past reverberates through the present.

      Although it’s possible to see traces of traditional Chinese ink painting and calligraphy in Zhang Enli’s large oils on canvas, they also speak to contemporary art practice in the West in both their imagery and their execution. While focused on the unremarkable everyday—banal interiors with exposed pipes and dangling wires, tangles of electrical cords around sticks of wood, the curving or severed branches of denuded trees—Zhang invests his art with his own physical presence. A large loop of what might be rope or hose reveals in its scale the reach of his arm and also the intuitive nature of his gesture, one that is more about feeling than the literal depiction of his subject. Paradoxically, his paintings reveal the faint marks of the grid, an art-historical device used for transposing small drawings to large canvases, and also for practising calligraphy.

      Tradition here need not take the form of ink painting or porcelain production. Ai Weiwei’s gallery-filling installation, Bang, first exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale, is composed of 886 antique and reproduction wooden stools assembled into an astounding floor-to-ceiling work. The accompanying label describes it as “an expansive rhizomatic structure that suggests directions in motion with no beginning or end”. Rhizomatic or not, the three-legged, handmade stools function symbolically, their message related to their former ubiquity in Chinese domestic life. Today, they have been rendered obsolete by mass-manufactured plastic furniture.

      The work’s power also relates to each stool’s ability to conjure the presence of an individual within a contemporary context of thronging, overpopulated megacities. Irrespective of its multitude of components, Bang seems to exist in a state of delicate balance or suspension, as if the removal of a single element would cause it all to come crashing down.

      It’s a powerful work in a powerful show, although you have to wonder, yet again, about the gender inequity manifested here. A single woman artist among nine men? What kind of balance does that represent?