He Xiangyu’s current installation dims the lights in White Space’s left-hand gallery. Previously the setting for a dynamic, obfuscatory piece by Yu Bogong, the space is now completely filled with over one hundred thick-set, rough-hewn wooden chairs; bare yellow light bulbs hanging singly from the ceiling drop an earthy, attractive light over this wide pool of furniture. Entering the room is at once an arresting and quasi-religious experience: one comes into contact with enticing darkness, the rich smell of old wood and a wide mass of brown angles, curves and flat planes which at first articulate a picture more abstract than a collection of seats.
These chairs continue the artist’s project of regenerating cultural products through contemporary artistic language and re-articulations of form. In the words of Jeremie Thircuir, He Xiangyu makes things "exist again." The wood from which the chairs are made comes from an ancient aqueduct, the exhibition text says, that was "abandoned by Yunnan mountaineers." To explain more clearly, He Xiangyu has been making work employing elements from the Dongba culture in Yunnan, South-West China. These chairs, which he constructed with the help of local artisans in the region, make new use of very old pieces of wood; they retain cracks, gashes, dryness, darkened patches and heavy textures, and joins that are the relics of something forged and used before.
Thus, He Xiangyu’s work in a sense becomes part of a lineage of this material, taking it up some time after it had been abandoned by the craftsmen who first inserted it into their culture in the form of a functional object or structure. His anthropological approach is unusual, and the strong presence of these works connotes a connection and engagement with the past that goes beyond physical encounter. Presented differently, the chairs might have rested together as basic -- even nostalgic -- re-crafted objects. The lighting and mass arrangement here, however, ensures that their collective aura is much deeper and more sensory. There is a residue of the grid effect: the establishment of an internal system which vitiates the natural and on which hinges a kind of mythical power. The extreme "naturalness" of the wood in this installation, however, is juxtaposed with the determined order of the grid.
It is aspects like this that make Man on the Chairs a really compelling exhibit. Like He Xiangyu’s previous and prominent work, the Coca-Cola Project (2008), Man on the Chairs transposes a part of the "body" of culture into new realms of aesthetic language, appearance and experience. At once retaining the layered contexts of history and locality and proposing an authoritative, exciting encounter in the present moment, these chairs assert the potency and potential of everyday objects in a highly original mode.
-- Iona Whittaker
(All images courtesy of White Space Beijing and the artist.)