Soft Landing

Yuan Shun

Beijing Tokyo Art Projects

Entering Beijing Tokyo Art Projects for Yuan Shun’s “Soft Landing”—the artist’s first solo show in China in 20 years—must have been a disorienting experience for visitors. With steam rising periodically out of metal grates in the concrete floor, the artist walking through the gallery in an astronaut suit, gallery employees in space shuttle support staff uniforms and a large-scale model of untamed extraterrestrial scenery in the background, the setting could have easily been mistaken for a science fiction movie set or Disney World’s Tomorrow Land.

The installation, Soft Landing, held one corner of the main gallery. It Is a six-meter square low-elevation rendering —almost sandcastle-like—of an outer space topography complete with mountains, valleys, craters and an ample sprinkling of “planetary” dust. Yuan achieves great detail despite using simple materials such as sand and wood. At first glance the setting looks rugged and untouched, the artist giving the mountains rough, sharp edges and peaks, and sprinkling little rocks around their bases. Upon closer inspection, however, signs of human intervention appear in the form of small plastic cube- and dome-shaped structures erected on the surface, and paths and roads carved through the sand. The two types of structures form their own distinct settlements, but they cluster in a valley between the two primary “mountain ranges.” Offering no explanation, Yuan leaves viewers to determine the status of this landscape and who or what could have left these marks.

The installation is accompanied by a five-minute color video piece projected onto the wall of a small second floor loft in the gallery. Prompting further questions about who could have been the first power to reach this unnamed planet, Yuan splices voyeuristic camerawork zooming in on the structures and paths in the installation with close-up footage of the artist writing a diary in which he references a space race between China, Russia and the US.

These works serve as a primer for a series of large-scale acrylic and pencil paintings on paper entitled “Landing in China” (2006), that continues the space theme. Here, futuristic “ball-and stick” molecular models chaotically drafted in saturated, bright colors dominate the paintings’ foregrounds, floating above mountain landscapes done in muted grays and greens in the background. Within the nodes of the atoms the artist depicts icons of China’s urban development, such as the Hong Kong skyline viewed from Victoria Harbour or Shanghai’s Pudong district skyline, as well as scenic vignettes of temples and lakeside-mountains. The disembodiment of the atoms from the landscapes in the backgrounds underscores the palpable incongruity of a rapidly transforming country in which old and new coexist, but often without any meaningful or productive connection. While Yuan shies away from conclusive statements about the complexities of this situation, his emphasis on space imagery suggests that answers will not come from a narrow inward-looking focus but instead require a broadening of perspective—perhaps even a view from beyond Earth’s atmosphere.