Dueling red dragons, at the center of artist Sun Xun’s new show in Hong Kong, tell the story of Chinese politics and power struggles – without naming names.
“If you are a businessman, you cannot talk about [Chinese politics] in public,” he said from his sprawling studio on the outskirts of Beijing. “But I’m an artist. I can. Two dragons are nothing.”
The creatures appear in a nine-minute animated film called “What happened in the year of the dragon,” on show as part of the exhibition “Brave New World,” which opened this week at Edouard Malingue Gallery. Created for Art Basel, the piece collates ink sketches on rice paper shown rapidly in thousands of frames, all hand-drawn by Mr. Sun and then copied by his team of assistants. The result is a flickering sequence of graceful, flowing movements as the two dragons face each other in battle.
Do the dragons require any explanation? “It’s not necessary. Everybody knows,” Mr. Sun said. As for whether they represent any episodes in particular – for instance, the 2012 power struggle between President Xi Jinping and his rival Bo Xilai – he requested to leave names out of the conversation.
It’s the dilemma of the artist in China: working to tell the truth, but sidestepping direct confrontation.
Mr. Sun’s immersive Hong Kong show includes drawings as well as an installation featuring the back half of a taxidermied horse from Inner Mongolia, whose flat rear end is attached to a video screen. The screen is where the artist’s dragon animation plays on a loop; above it, two stuffed roosters stand poised as if for a fight.
Born in 1980, Mr. Sun is “one of the key emerging artists of his generation,” said Lorraine Malingue, co-director of the gallery. “He’s super-active…in arts festivals and film festivals world-wide,” she added, creating works across media that serve as an “allegory of the contemporary world and especially of China itself.”
Mr. Sun came to the attention of the art world soon after he graduated from Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art in 2005. He has held a number of solo exhibitions internationally, including a 2009 show at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., in which he drew images on top of old Chinese newspapers to create two films, one of which illustrated the rise of military technology. A 2008 residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum produced an animation and installations, while a show early this year at London’s Hayward Gallery, “Yesterday is Tomorrow,” included wall drawings in ink and charcoal and another animated film.
The artist says his work is influenced by three dystopian novels: Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” – from which his current exhibition takes its name – George Orwell’s “1984” and Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.” In all of these, governments control lives, technology numbs humans, and individualism is crushed.
During the Cultural Revolution, these books were forbidden in China, but now people can access these works along with hundreds of others, Mr. Sun said. Yet for him, the result is the same: Instead of choosing books that were once off limits, it’s more likely that “you’ll pick some funny book, maybe, or some interesting book.” He made reference to Hitler, who knew that to rule younger people, you needed to let them have prosperity. “Then you can control them,” Mr. Sun said, noting that people today have “too many choices.”
The motifs in Mr. Sun’s work – magicians in top hats, a horse’s backside, largescale drawings of donkey heads – are all deliberate deflections of reality. “If you want to enjoy the magician, you go to the theater and you pay and you say, ah, that’s magic,” he said. “You buy a lie.”
Meanwhile, he chews betel nut, a mild stimulant, throughout his work day to enhance his “special way of thinking” – an outlook that helped him find his vocation.
“For the artist, destroying the rules is your job,” Mr. Sun said. “I don’t like to follow.”
“Brave New World” is on show at Edouard Malingue Gallery from May 13 to July 6.
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