TIAN JIANMING, My Teachers, 2009, colored resin, 360 × 60 × 120 cm. Courtesy Today Art Museum, Beijing.


Today Art Museum
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Today Art Museum’s large-scale sculpture exhibition, entitled “Starting,” proposed a new beginning. The show’s organizers—Wu Hongliang, president of the Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, and curator Tang Yao—explain in the introductory text how sculpture, since the dawn of the 21st century, has been approached largely as a commodity in China’s highly commercialized contemporary art scene, which has resulted in the marginalization of its potential as an art form. This exhibition was a project by the China Sculpture Institute, based in the 798 Art District, which aims to reinvigorate the three-dimensional medium by providing young artists with an open, creative platform to reflect on sculpture’s artistic value. Since late 2010, and as part of a three-year promotional program for young sculptors, the Institute has sponsored exhibitions in nine cities across China. Each of these shows grouped works by young artists under such inclusive themes as “body” and “play,” as did “Starting,” which displayed nearly 100 works by 55 young sculptors across two wings of the Today Art Museum.

Exhibitions of work by young sculptors are rare in Beijing, where installation and painting invariably claim the limelight. The close grouping of pieces across this exhibition as a whole was not unlike a degree show, and among the works was a sense of greenness that a viewer might expect from such a show. While many of the sculptors opted for wood as their primary medium, and focused on keeping its natural brown hues, a number of others worked with blanched materials such as measuring tape, plaster, fabric and toilet paper. Overall, there was little color to be seen.

Of the white works, Wang Lei’s Hand Knitting with Toilet Paper No. 4 (2011) drew particular attention. From a clothes rail hangs a series of life-sized garments—dresses, scarves, small tunics and jerseys—knitted from paper and each with a single thread running down to a toilet roll resting below. Though the installation focuses on stereotypically feminine subject matter—knitting and hanging clothes—the treatment of Hand Knitting seemingly owes more to the impersonal, supposedly “masculine” nature of minimalist sculpture. Executed solely in silver and white hues, Wang’s sculpture is visually simple and without embellishment. The threads leading down from the clothes to the toilet rolls form a clean row of vertical lines. This orderly formation seems to convey the iterative action of knitting as being
less homespun and more mechanical.

Among the figurative sculptures on display, Tian Jianming’s My Teachers (2009) offered a strong, consistent series. This set of 13 resin figures, tinged with the blue-green color of corroded bronze, depicts in a traditional, realist manner a group of actual professors from Tsinghua University. All male except for one, each figure is portrayed as embodying an attitude—smoking casually or with arms resolutely folded, for example—that one imagines is natural to the person. Adding interest is the figures’ pint-sized height: knee-high to the average visitor, with their personal mien condensed and frozen in solid form, they make for an endearingly personable group. The artist’s sensitive approach to detail in the folds of clothing and facial expressions instills a compelling sense of realism to each figure: one cannot help but speculate on the personality and backstory of the real-life models.

“Starting” presented a broad sweep of work by a large number of young Chinese sculptors. As curator Wu Hongliang stated, “An individual sculptor would not be enough to catch the public’s attention. A lineup of 55 young artists in the show, however, makes it much more appealing for art lovers.” In view of the challenges faced by sculptural art amid China’s commercialized scene, and the increasing direction of investment funds toward fine art, this exhibition amounted to nothing short of a promotional campaign by the China Sculpture Institute. Under these conditions, “Starting” took on a decidedly political identity, be it for creative or commercial reasons, in the current race among different mediums to become the focus of artistic attention in China.