GUAN WEI, Time Tunnel No. 2, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 87 × 46 cm. Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney. 

GUAN WEI, Time Tunnel No.1, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 87 × 46 cm. Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney. 


Guan Wei

Martin Browne Contemporary
China Australia

Chinese-Australian artist Guan Wei’s two most recent series of painting—each containing 12 works of acrylic on canvas—can be seen alongside three of his small bronze sculptures at Sydney’s Martin Browne Contemporary Art Gallery in his latest exhibition “Reflection.” All of his paintings are predominantly monochromatic—“Reflection” (2016) are Wedgewood blue and “Time Tunnel”(2016) are reddish-brown. Both of these series set out to convey a view of Britain’s 1788 invasion of Australia mediated through images and documents contemporaneous with the period. Guan Wei appropriated his primary source material from archives and museums found in London during an Australia Council for the Arts three-month residency in 2015. In a short catalogue introduction the artist writes, “ These works . . . reflect and mix the history and reality, culture and society of the United Kingdom and its colonial empire, together with my personal imagination . . .” It is a convenient premise which allows Guan Wei to ignore the negative impact of Britain’s invasion on the indigenous Australian population over the following decades.

In “Reflection” Guan Wei has replaced his familiar faceless lumpen characters that have inhabited his work for over 20 years with equally faceless silhouettes of British settlers in tricorne hats, women in crinoline skirts and indigenous people who are seen spearfishing, chasing kangaroos and even fraternizing  with the settlers in what is a cynical view of life in the colony. In “Time Tunnel” his characters are more Asian in appearance and perhaps comment on the unproven notion that China discovered Australia in 1421 under a fleet of ships commanded by Ming dynasty admiral, Zheng He (1371–1433).

GUAN WEI, Reflection No.11, 2016, acrylic on canvas, triptych: 130 × 162 cm. Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney. 

Installation view of GUAN WEI’s exhibition “Reflection” at Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary. 

The message that filtered back to Britain post 1788 through contemporary documents was that Australia was a utopia. It was this exercise in propaganda that forms the core of Guan Wei’s 24 paintings in “Reflection.” The reality however was quite different and what ensued as the British began to plunder the land was nothing short of genocide. Often the British were happy to decapitate indigenous people who showed any resistance to their presence and even kept the heads in specimen jars in a curious ethnographic taxonomy. But Guan Wei’s exclusive use of his 17th- and 18th-century sources allows him to skirt such facts. As a result, the paintings have a stilted and self-conscious feel to them as though painted in the shadow of a looming deadline. Guan Wei had arrived back in Australia from Beijing, where he spends a good part of his time since relocating there in 2008, only a few months prior to this exhibition. The works in this exhibition appear to have been rapidly painted in his Sydney studio.

For 20 years, Guan Wei has cast his characters like actors within an imaginative topography where anthropomorphic winds bellow across vast oceans. Since 2000, his view of the world has been colored by the global diaspora of refugees, which has shifted his work to have a more political edge. In Journey to Australia (2013), for example, faceless actors fall from fragile boats into surging oceans.

GUAN WEI, Sky Pig, 2017, bronze, 35 × 80 × 40 cm. Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney. 

In parallel to this political commentary, Guan Wei is more than happy to cast his gaze at the hedonism of Australian beach life. A triptych of this genre, Beach 5 (2014) won the Australian Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize of AUD 50,000 in 2015. Unfortunately the paintings in “Reflection” have little of the satirical joie de vivre of his usual oeuvre and none of the biting irony found in much of his work. This is a shame because Guan Wei is a much better artist than these works suggest as anyone who saw his masterfully executed self-portrait Plastic Surgery (2015) at last year’s Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Archibald Portrait Prize will be aware. Across four self-portraits the artist transforms himself from a Chinese person to a fully-assimilated Australian.

Besides the paintings on display at Martin Browne Contemporary Guan Wei also exhibits three delightful black bronze sculptures, Fish God, Sky Pig and Power Dragon (all 2017), which continue his engagement with fantastical anthropomorphic creatures. Expressing more vitality and energy than his two painting series, these sculptures show how Guan Wei continues to successfully explore new horizons.

“Guan Wei: Reflection” is on view at Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, until March 26, 2017. 

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