Making the Metropolis
Xu Zhongmin works in woodcuts, video installations and performances. Born in Sichuan province in China but now living and working in London, many of his works examine the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. The modern city and its inhabitants, the chaos and the lull, identity and anonymity, lust and greed are rendered tangible in his body of works.
Although Xu Zhongmin’s varied practice incorporates video installations and performances, he is most often hailed as an important representative of the highly respected art of woodcuts. The artist, born in Sichuan province in China, but now living and working in London, has indeed been instrumental in taking the traditional art form which dates back as far as the Tang dynasty (618-907) into a new realm inspired by the modern metropolises of the twenty and twenty-first centuries.
Growing up during the 1960s and 1970s in China, Zhongmin’s education and artistic development were interrupted by the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution. Many of Zhongmin’s works now examine the legacy of this period. These include ‘The Happiest Day’ (1996), in which he uses two film projections, one on his face and one in the background and a historical film depicting Chairman Mao receiving the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square at the start of the Cultural Revolution.
The triptych of video projections, ‘Separate Unity’ also evokes Zhongmin’s life in China. Juxtaposed are an old lady – the artist’s grandmother – telling her story, Zhongmin jumping up and down in a narrow box-like corridor and unsettling images relating of his experiences in China. If Zhongmin’s feelings are displayed here as constraint, this extended to the restrictions placed upon his chosen artistic medium. For years, woodblock prints were used to illustrate, record and disseminate political propaganda. It was only after the Cultural Revolution ended that artists like Zhongmin were no longer bound by strict ideological guidelines and were able to start experimenting with new forms and modes of expression.
Training at the Sichuan Academy from 1983 to 1987, Zhongmin’s artistic talents developed in an atmosphere suffused with the excitement of experimentation and discovery that enlivened the art world in China at the time. Zhongmin participated enthusiastically, organising and mounting shows and chairing the the Ba Di Cao Arts Society for several years before its closure in 1989.
Within his own practice, Xu Zhongmin began using large-scale etched printing blocks as pieces in their own right to produce abstract works that captured the claustrophobia of the modern world. By the 1990s, his works depicted atmospheric, towering cityscapes that bustled chaotically one moment but fell into a deathly calm the next. In his dramatic five-panel work, ‘City of Dreams’ (1998), he employed a narrow colour range of black, brown and white to create a terrifying vision of the world in which people are trapped in a hell of crowded buildings rising cheek by jowl. These woodcuts also reveal the artist’s longstanding preoccupation with the line form, a flowing thread, snaking its way in and out of the fragments of interconnected space.
Identity, anonymity, face and facelessness in the contemporary urban world are also constant points of reference in Zhongmin’s repertoire. In ‘Face’ (1997), a performance using film and video projections, the artist projected on to his own image the faces of a hundred people from different ethnic backgrounds. The idea of the modern metropolis built upon the traces of its inhabitants infuses the work ‘Teeth’ (1996) in which Zhongmin used casts of teeth taken from people of different age groups to construct towers, three-dimensional equivalents of his carved skyscrapers. A video film of the towers collapsing is projected within a triangular box onto a rich textured wooden surface. A peephole allows the viewer to peer at the decayed, crumbling cityscape.
If here a city and its people are falling apart, in Zhongmin’s ‘Tidal Wave’ (2001), figures are swept across a cityscape, in what might be seen equally as a metaphor for tidal waves of the Cultural Revolution or of the radical transformations sweeping across China today.
The sense of a privileged, or in this case, illicit view conjured with the use of spy-holes is also at play in Xu Zhongmin’s ‘House of Mah-jong’ (2002). The boldly patterned cubed installation is built from thousands of colourful mah-jong pieces which form a ‘house’ with peepholes in all four walls. A magic lantern inside the house features an animation film of images of traditional Chinese erotic paintings (‘chun gonghua’). With mah-jong, an immensely popular game in China, now a symbol of rampant gambling, the work entices the viewer to reflect upon issues of temptation and secrecy, lust, wealth and fate.
Sources include: ´Dream 02´ catalogue, Red Mansion Foundation, London, 2002
Xu Zhongmin was born in 1961 in Mianyang, Sichuan Province in China. With his education interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, he grew up working for a traditional Chinese theatre. He then learned acting and stage design with the Mianyang Sichuan Opera Troupe from 1975 to 1981, before being accepted into the prestigious Sichuan Fine Arts Academy where he studied printmaking, painting and sculpture until 1987. Xu also spent some time in Beijing before moving to England to live and work in 1992. His work has been widely exhibited in China, Japan, UK and France and many of his pieces are held in the collections of major museums and galleries, including the British Museum. Xu has also won many significant awards for his work.
Exhibition / Installation,
The British Museum, London
October Gallery London
Centre of Contemporary Arts and Culture Osaka, Japan
Clifford Chance Art Collection
Guiriness Art Collection, Guinness PLC, London
Hokkaido Museum of Modem Art, Sapporo, Japan
Boehringer Ingelheim, Berkshire, UK
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
Exhibition / Installation,
2002 ‘Dream 02’, The Red Mansion Foundation, the.gallery@oxo and the Bargehouse, London, UK
2001 ‘Youth In Transition’, exhibition of Chinese, German and British young artists’, He Xiangning Art Gallery, Shenzhen, China
2001 ‘Dream 01’, contemporary Chinese art exhibition, Atlantis Gallery, London
2000 ‘The Figure in Contemporary Chinese Art’, The Air Gallery, Hanart, London
2001 ‘Face and Gestures’, touring exhibition of two artists in China, Upriver Gallery, Kunming, Yunnan, Sichuan Fine Art Academy, Chongqing, Sichuan University, Chengdu, Sichuan, Chengdu Upriver Gallery, Sichuan
1999 Two artist exhibition, Well Hung Gallery, London
1998 Newport Museum and Art Gallery, Newport, South Wales
1998 ‘The Hunting Art Prize Exhibition’, The Royal College of Art Gallery, London
1998 ‘The International Triennial, Sculpture’, Osaka, Japan.
1998 ‘The 4th Sapporo International Print Biennale’, Hokkaido Museum of Modem Art, Sapporo, Japan
1997 ‘Another Province’, Watermans Arts Centre, London
1997 ‘Xu Zhongmin and Ye Yongqing In Dialogue’, The October Gallery, London
1997 ‘229th Summer Exhibition’, Royal Academy of Arts, London
1996 ‘The International Triennial, Printmaking’, Osaka, Japan
1996 ‘The 3rd Sapporo International Print Biennale’, I-Iokkaido Museum of Modem Art, Sapporo, Japan
1994 ‘The Hunting Art Prizes Exhibition’, The Royal College of Art Gallery, London
1994 ‘Works of Xu Zhongmin’, Cite Internationale, Paris, France
Exhibition / Installation,
2002 ‘City of Dreams’, the Gallery Art U, Osaka, Japan; Osaka Contemporary Art Centre
2001 ‘Tidal Wave’, The October Gallery, London
2000 The Redfern Gallery, London
1995 BCI Fine Art Gallery, South Africa
1995 The October Gallery, London
2000 Award from The British Council
1997 The Guinness Prize for the Best First-Time Exhibitor, the Royal Academy´s 229th Summer Exhibition, London, UK
1996 First Prize at the 3rd Sapporo International Print Biennale, Hokkaido, Japan
1995 The Pollock-Krasner Award, New York, USA
1994 The Sakai City Prize, International Triennale Competition of Painting, Osaka Japan