In my recent review of Breaking Away, I got a bit carried away addressing some of the institutional structures in place. This show, and some other shows that are forthcoming, also seemed to hint at a resurgence of abstraction in Beijing this year. My over-enthusiasm for the critique meant that I only superficially addressed the artists in the show. One of the artists that I omitted to mention was Xie Molin, whose works in the Boers-Li show had kicked off some thoughts about abstraction itself. Luckily I’ve had a chance to re-acquaint myself with his luscious machine-made paintings in his concurrent solo show at Space Station.
Xie Molin’s works present an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand their luscious, perfectly ridged surfaces of paint appeal on a visceral level. The perfect gradations of colours—the paint seemingly still wet and glistening—have been dragged across the canvas and scored through by a multiplicity of evenly spaced points. The overall effect combines the visual disruptions of Op Art with an almost erotically tactile impression in low relief.
On the other hand, this serried perfection emphasises the absence of the human hand in its creation. These are not like, for example, Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, whose massed hand-drawn lines submerge their manual nature through repetition; from the start Xie Molin’s lines are overwhelmingly rigid in their perfection. This stems from the painting-machine that the artist has spent the last few years designing and building – a machine which sits in the background of all these works, both through its physical results and in its theoretical impact, yet is never revealed to the audience. And I feel it’s this machine that sets off a train of disruption through the whole show.
The accompanying texts by the Gallery and the Exhibition Director Sun Dongdong forefront the fact that the viewer’s direct visual experience only betrays a portion of the meaning of the show. The process of the works' production via the machine is an equally essential conceptual component to comprehending the work.
The machine is described in the Gallery’s text as an “art project” in itself, in its process of construction confronting the “conflicts between idealism and reality that reflect the various sides of social reality and human nature,” and which becomes inextricably attached to the meaning of the works. Sun Dongdong himself recognises that the presence of the machine will become “a fundamental problem he needs to face up to in the future experiments.”
But for me, the hands-off nature of the machine and its imprint on the works also seems to mirror the problematics of abstraction as a style. To read the raised visibility of abstraction in Beijing as an ideological reaction is tempting; I can’t get away from the feeling that abstraction in general and Xie Molin’s works in particular represent a reaction to the conditions artists find themselves in. What this reflects (in my opinion) is that the contemporary situation discourages clear statements. Although the results of transgression can be very real, the boundaries between permissible or otherwise are invisible and heavily context-dependent, so an atmosphere of uncertainty prevails, leading to a policy of self-policing – and abstraction sits as one solution to this problem.
Although Sun Dongdong studiously avoids any reference to this subject in his text, the gallery statement suggests:
“…it doesn't mean that the artist gives the least concern to reality, moral, soul and philosophical problems, it's just that these problems are cautiously laid aside and chosen by the artist. In the artist's eyes, art has a more independent and abstract function…” [sic]
I feel there is an unseen churning going on beneath the frozen rippled perfection of these painted surfaces; there seems to be so much informing this show that is being held at bay. Aside from the works' ostensible remove from wider issues, a tense struggle of emotions and ideologies is perhaps being played out through the statements and presentations on the margins of the works themselves. Maybe I am being melodramatic, but in a way this show represents the daily accommodations we all have to come to terms with in society. As an example of the artist’s, the director’s and the Gallery’s positions within this system, XYZ proves to be revealing.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Space Station and the artist.)