ArtSlant: Monuments to What?

Constructing Form: Ma Qiusha, Tang Hui, Li Yousong

Beijing Commune, 798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China

27 February – 20 March, 2011

[It may appear that I have something of an unhealthy obsession with Leng Lin (Director of Pace Beijing and Founder of Beijing Commune) and his activities, having now written two pieces about shows in which he has directly or indirectly been involved. Maybe this means he is doing something right, to have attracted my attention so often. That said, the reason those particular shows have attracted my attention has been for negative reasons, due to a lack I’ve seen in the quality of the work or the quality of the presentation. So, although I’m reviewing a show at Beijing Commune this week, for once I will concentrate on the artists’ own work.]

Constructing Form is a small group show presenting three Chinese artists—Tang Hui, Li Yousong and Ma Qiusha—including drawings, paintings and collages produced over the last two years. The artists all deal with a human relationship to architecture, but between the three of them, show two distinct approaches to this subject matter.

It’s possible to see Tang Hui and Li Yousong as having some common ground, in that they both relate the human figure to the kind of monumental, heroic architecture commonly connected to a particularly Soviet aesthetic.

The pencil drawings by Tang Hui are proficiently executed, updating heroic figures from public monuments with heroicised figures drawn from the today’s population – casually dressed, but effortlessly adapting their stylish looks to the purposes of the new state, staunchly posed atop pedestals and against the backdrop of monumental architecture.

The oil paintings of Li Yousong, again slickly produced, present architectural fantasies and set pieces drawing inspiration from the imagery of Socialist Realism. What the gallery appropriately calls “Baroque Socialism,” again presents monumental architecture (specific parts possibly reflecting the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge), adapted into complex follies. Although tiny figures occur within the structures, performing their own miniature heroic gestures, these are insignificant in the extreme against the overblown architecture. Overall there is little sense of practical purpose beyond monumentality for its own sake and a rejection of the human through scale and impenetrability.

This dipping into Socialist historical styles and forms give both artists a common feel. However, with their works verging on cliché there is little sense of these artists taking the material beyond an ironic nod in the direction of history.

Represented by just two mixed media works, Ma Qiusha on the other hand takes a different route to the other two artists. Avoiding ironic quotations she presents somewhat unsettling architectural scenes of non-specific provenance. The building’s windows are highlighted by small pieces of reflective plastic sheet, catching the light. Faceless figures and half-formed vehicles are drawn in front of the blank facades seeming to subvert the buildings’ latent monumentality, not by humanising them, but by providing a nether blankness all their own.

Although they are part of an ongoing series that have been present in her work for a few years now, this was the first time I had seen these watercolours in the flesh and my first impressions were that they lacked the power I had come to expect from the videos. They seemed far more opaque to meaning – which of course is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe Ma is a very strong artist who manages to navigate tricky territory with some intense and subtle video works. These particular pieces are obviously important to the artist, so this aspect of her work may simply take longer to resolve than the videos, which while in themselves are not immediately accessible, hold an immediacy that the paintings deliberately avoid.

Author: Edward Sanderson

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