Artist Sun Xun on truth and meaning
On the first floor of the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney is a new country. It is called Jing Bang, the Whale State. The nation’s flags are red, the colour of good fortune and happiness, and white, for peace. There is a star, to guide you on your way. Jing Bang is a one-party state. The president is a magician, elected for life. His job is to trick you.
Propaganda posters in different languages welcome and seduce you. Jing Bang is a perfect utopia. Or maybe it is not. Words and symbols are undercut by images. Written in Russian, freedom of speech is promised, but the image shows people laughing with derision. French speakers are told the Jing Bang train from outer space has arrived, but that no one saw it happen. The government said it happened, so it did. In Tamil, people are told they are not political toys. In Indonesian, “we are united in our thinking”, but the image of a brain has been crossed out. Writing in Dutch proclaims there is no hidden agenda: what you see is what you get. In English, we are assured the Messiah loves us.
No one in the Jing Bang Republic works. People feed on starlight and dew. There is no industry or commerce, no need for cities. The indigenous people of the republic live in the ocean and come up once a year, to be seen as an inconvenience. There is a flying kite, with talons. The ghost of Jing Bang is a child, uncorrupted and innocent. The hero is a tick-bitten horse.
At the end of the exhibit, you will find a secure silver briefcase made in Britain. It holds official documents for citizenship: a passport, visa and certificate. You can buy it all for $US10,000. But, be warned: Jing Bang, the Whale State, is an ephemeral nation. It comes up in its grandeur, then goes down again to disappear. Like other obsolete nation-states, it won’t last long.
Republic of Jing Bang, by Chinese artist Sun Xun, was originally commissioned to be exhibited in Singapore. When he arrived there on residency, Sun Xun wanted to create art in which art wasn’t the end product. He wanted to use art to make something else: a parallel world that made people think. In Singapore, Republic of Jing Bang was supposed to be exhibited for six weeks, with the idea that all utopias are eventually contaminated. Before the exhibition opened, after a street riot in Little India, the work was cancelled by the Singaporean government.
Sun Xun is preoccupied with concepts of space and time, the idea of inevitable change, with everything being “temporary”. His work explores themes of memory, culture, global history and politics. He examines truth and lies. Blurs reality and fantasy. Creates an interplay between dystopian and utopian worlds. He hopes, he says, to provide doorways to alternative realities.
Preferring not to limit himself to one medium, Sun Xun combines traditional Chinese art-making with contemporary materials and processes. He uses cardboard, newspapers, bamboo, different papers, ink, glass, paint, plywood, silks and cotton. Chinese artists his age need to meld traditional and contemporary art, he says. That is the job for his generation. He draws with charcoal and traditional ink, paints and makes installations. Through thousands of paintings, drawings and woodblocks, he creates surreal animations that use metaphor and fantasy to show the destructive force of human impulses. During China’s Cultural Revolution, woodblock printing was a primary means of communication, to quickly convey information to the masses.
Art has a purpose, Sun Xun says. It should contribute to a world view. “My work is sometimes about traditional art and other times about politics and history, or about social culture. To me, art is not the ultimate goal. The artist has an important role, but never the most important one. Regardless of how good art can look, its significance rests in the expansion of a world view.”
At White Rabbit, two floors above Republic of Jing Bang, there is another work by Sun Xun. Made from more than 10,000 woodblock prints, Time Spy (2016) is a 3D animation film. After being hand-carved separately from plywood, the woodblocks were inked, then digitally scanned and animated at 15–18 frames a second. Throughout July last year, every night for three minutes, at 11.57pm, a shorter version of the film was projected onto New York’s Times Square, as part of the Midnight Moment art exhibition. Wearing 3D glasses while viewing the film, the audience is asked to consider the Earth, human existence and the nature of time.
Born in 1980, Sun Xun was raised in Fuxin, a small industrial city towards the North Korean border. Growing up in the period immediately following the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he learnt two versions of history. At school, he was taught official accounts of China’s past. At home, his father, a factory worker, told Sun Xun what he was learning at school was a lie, and gave him a more personal account of the past. The family had been adversely affected by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Sun Xun’s grandmother had been declaimed as a bourgeois collaborator, and forced into the town square, where she was made to wear a dunce’s cap. As a child, Sun Xun struggled to reconcile the conflicting accounts. He began to question if what we are told is the truth.
“I look back at the memories and know something has changed, and I really want to get answers. I have a lot of questions and I never stop asking. The history is very important to me.” In the world, he says, we only touch 20 per cent of the truth. Politics and history are made up of lies. We create language with which we control the world. We never know the world, though; we never know where we live. Australian people don’t know Australia. “We think we know the truth, but we don’t,” he says. “Everyone gets a few parts of the truth, but not all of it.
“We live in a lie, in a big lie system. People should jump out from the lie circle and touch the world. It is the modern world’s problem,” he explains. “Where is the truth? I don’t know. In my art, I want to make people think: ‘Don’t believe our world – it is a big lie.’ I am trying to open the door for people.”
At the age of 14, Sun Xun travelled to the modern city of Hangzhou, to attend a preparatory school for the China Academy of Art. In Hangzhou, he witnessed the profound changes that were spreading throughout China, and, as he navigated a newly modernised city, experienced significant culture shock. At art school he was attracted to filmmaking, but the medium was too expensive, so he pursued stop-motion animation, as an accessible way to work with moving images.
Sun Xun says he is not a studio artist. Although established in Beijing with a studio and a team of 20 people, he wants to be seen as a global citizen, and spends more than half of every year outside China. “When you stay in one area all the time, you can only imagine the outside.” Wanting to produce work related to the social reality of where he has been, he is sensitive to the places he travels to, and finds inspiration in local history and culture. He talks with local people, and learns about the background of a place. At airports, he collects free newspapers and turns them into paintings. He says he doesn’t believe in the news, or history books, which is why he travels. He only believes what he sees with his own eyes.
Last month, Sun Xun’s first Australian solo exhibition opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. It reflects the world and “the world of Australia”. The work, “like a parallel universe”, considers the past and the present, time and space, the unknown. “I’m bringing a lot of eastern Asian cultural background to Australia. For Australian people, that is new and fresh. A lot of Chinese people live in Sydney, but not so many from the eastern Asian culture. I am bringing something about China’s history and traditional Chinese art. I want to show a new world to Australia. I want to show my story. In 100 years, I want people to see my work and get not only art, but history and politics – what happened in this moment. My work together is a system.”
He explains further: “Time and space includes everything. The most important thing is time and space. Politics is about time and space. Time makes space and space makes time – they are like twins. The last destination of every great work – religion and art and society – is time and space.”
When you look not only at Chinese history, he says, but at world history, you see that there’s a culture behind art, and civilisation behind culture.
Anna Davis, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, describes Sun Xun’s work as depicting a dark parallel universe where things are simultaneously familiar and strange. The past, the present, illusions and reality coalesce. Sun Xun is, she explains, “continually questioning our ways of viewing the present and remembering the past. He reflects the political landscape of contemporary China in his works, yet, by imagining parallel worlds and allowing history to take different directions, he persistently raises doubts about what we believe is true.”
Sun Xun says his art comes from his childhood. It is about a “deeper spirit”. It is not from him. He is just a tool. “Every high-level thing is about asking, because we are not free. We need God and religion, we need societies and music and art,” he says. “Through the very high-level things, we learn about the world. I am always asking questions. My task is to ask questions; I ask them of myself, too.”
To make good art, he says, you need to have a “careful feeling” of the world: sometimes we see something, but because we are not thinking, we see nothing. Artists need to take notice, be aware and listen.
“Good art is like a door,” he says. “I want to open that door for people. Art is not just to make people enjoy a beautiful image. Good art is about the spirit. The whole world and people’s bodies are really like a prison. Art is the door. You open the door and free people, so they can go through the door into another world.”
Most people experience the world only with the eye, he says, which is not enough. Other people know the world through different knowledge systems. Knowledge systems, such as art, are like tools: they help us to touch the real world.
I ask Sun Xun: What is the role of the artist? “The artist is like a magician,” he says. “You make something impossible become possible. You jump out from the prison, the older thinking system. Most people in the world stay in the prison. Artists go outside that, and come back to tell people the truth.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Art is a door". Subscribe here.