To celebrate the opening of the 2012 Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, which opened last Saturday, all this week I’ll be posting texts that I wrote for the catalogue of said exhibition. Next up in this fifth of six pieces, the subject is the wound length of rubber seen recently at Pace Beijing’s solo show of the work of Sui Jianguo (note this text refers to an alternative, wall-mounted version, than that finally displayed in the Shenzhen show).
Rubber and nails, 1996–1997
Kill represents a point in Sui Jianguo’s work where his work past from an early “expressionistic” stage through to more conceptual representations, reflecting a more ironic use of symbolic imagery that could be seen as developing in parallel to the emergence of cynical realism in China at the time.
The two, long rubber sheets of Kill hang off lengths of old wood, the whole structure propped up against the wall. The sheets are studded with thousands of small nails forming an intricate, abstract pattern over the rubber surface (these patterns are perhaps more obvious when viewed from the side where the flat heads lie). Overall the strips look somewhat like flayed animal skins, hanging up to dry. Their bristly surface also has a thick, carpet-like appearance, belying the sharpness of the nail’s tips.
At least four similar works using these strips of rubber and nails are recorded as being produced over the period of 1995–1997 (one further installation is recorded in 2001). The forms of each vary: there is the wall-hanging version seen here, and two versions with the wooden structure and rubber strips lying on the floor. The wooden elements are usually more or less revealed in conjunction with the strips, but at least one version dispenses with the wood entirely, being rolled up and presented standing on its end. In this version the loose end of the rubber peels away from the roll to clearly reveal the pattern accentuated by the varying heights of the tips of the nails.
Although usually entitled “Kill” (a literal translation of the Chinese title “殛”), it has been suggested these pieces should rather be named “Execution.”1 This would create a far more politically charged reading of the work – the massed nails perhaps representing hoards of interchangeable people, for example. But—as with much of Sui’s work—this is left unclear from the form of the work itself. Although Sui claims that “Current social contexts are clearly present in my work…” in reality these are left ambiguous at best.2
Later works were to temper the artist’s concerns with brute materiality to add socially and politically symbolic aspects, including the symbol of the “Mao” jacket in his Legacy Mantle series and the ongoing appearances of the red dinosaur (Made in China (Dinosaur) 1999, Dialogue 2004–2007, Windy City’s Dinosaur 2009).
But at this point in the artist’s career, Kill still retains a suggestion of the powerful and emotional outbursts seen in previous works by Sui, such as in his early Unborn Bust Portraits series from 1989 where the plaster shapes, suggestive of heads, are ravaged by deep cracks and fissures, barely held together by wound strips of gauze. With Kill, these outbursts in sculpture are now placed under some kind of control; the masses of nails punched through the resilient rubber surfaces suggesting a far more controlled and enduring action.
This controlling aspect already appears in the slightly earlier Earth Mantle (1992–1994) series by Sui. Here, large rocks from a riverbed are caged in tightly fitting steel nets, forming a surface suggestive of the “cracked ice” fretwork of Chinese window frames. The rocks are constrained but also defined by this additional structural work.
The wood, rubber and nail constructions of Kill have been described as “…an eloquent coda to Sui Jianguo’s early career.”3 They mark a change in his work from more expressionistic pieces through “the emergence of a more restrained, contemplative artistic voice and an emotional detachment….” The heavy materiality of Kill (and the artist’s other early works characterised by rawness and emotional expression) represent a more subjective response, which the later works replace with “a more ambitious and capacious critical analysis of contemporary experience…”4
Author: Edward Sanderson
- Hill, Joe Martin, “Sui Jianguo: Conscientious Observer,” 艺术ISSUE No.8 (2010): p.20.
- Wall text from the exhibition “Sui Jianguo,” Pace Beijing, 2012.
- Hill, op. cit.
- Hill, op. cit.
- Originally published in Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu, Su Wei (eds.) (2012), Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World, Guangzhou: LingNan Art Publishing House. pp.92–97.