Presenting five solo shows at once in their Beijing spaces seems an odd approach by Galerie Urs Meile. They state that it provides a way to present a selection of new works by some of their less established artists, and I expect it avoids the difficulty of finding an overarching theme for a group show. But in this case it seems each artist gets short shrift, without the opportunity to present a sufficient body of work to allow for more than a very basic understanding of their practice. Christian Schoeler perhaps gets the best out of this arrangement, with a large room for his technically competent paintings. On the other hand, Cheng Ran is insufficiently represented with only a single video work. I understand this fascinating artist will be having a major solo show at this same gallery later in the year, which begs the question: why include him now in a way that does him this little justice?
Putting these questions aside, it’s fortunate that 5 Solo Shows gives the opportunity to see the work of another very strong artist, Yan Xing. Yan Xing is an interesting character. As an openly gay man he lives in a country (if not a world) that tends to frown upon (if not actively suppress) displays of sexuality that are deemed outside of the norm. He maintains a personal blog of articulate and up-front missives about his life and thoughts and has become something of a minor celebrity within the online universe in China. His outspoken comments have positioned him as something of an informal representative for gay life in this country.
Where his flamboyance could have led to an art that was mawkish or provocative for its own sake, Yan Xing displays an intelligence and sensitivity to the issues and a depth of thinking that belies his sometimes-aggressive persona. Much in evidence is a serious and forthright approach to his life’s relationship with artwork (and vice versa). And Yan Xing’s life has been full of drama that he treats as a resource to draw upon, his approach always to look beyond his own experiences to a fuller understanding of their causes and consequences. His development as a gay man has been hard for him and for the people around him – his own understanding of himself is forever present in his work.
The two works on display at Galerie Urs Meile present Yan Xing at his most thoughtful. They are not here from 2010, is a video and photographic series documenting a performance that took place in a rented hotel room as part of a group show which encouraged the artists to investigate alternative spaces to the gallery. In this small room he locked seven identically dressed men in white shirts and black trousers. These men were not allowed to communicate with each other while they were in the room, however the artist provided scripts for each to work through over the hours they were together. Inside the room Yan filmed the result, while on the door to the room he attached a sign saying, “They are not here.” This sign was the only visible evidence at the time that a performance was taking place. The actions of the men seem pretty innocuous as they perform their solitary actions amongst each other, but managing to convey a palpable sense of expectation throughout their collection as a group and disconnection from themselves and the audience.
In Realism, the major new piece created for 5 Solo Shows, similar identically dressed men reappear, gathered in small groups around a large plaster figure, taking its overall form from Renaissance sculptures of the idealised human body, paralleled with Soviet Socialist Realist idealised forms of the worker. A large monochrome photograph of its reverse accompanies the figure, as if it was a mirror on the wall. The actors once again use a script provided by the artist—in this case a translation of André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, with annotations by the artist—but this time they are able to read and discuss it together, as well as draw the audience into their discussions. Yan Xing appears as the figure of the artist in their midst, also drawing out members of the audience to stand with him discussing the figure towering above them.
At regular intervals Yan broke into an old-style love song, stilling the discussions for a moment. The semi-hermetic groups of actors around the room, the opportunities for discussion that opened up, and the song that cut through everything as an (almost) emotional outburst, created a tightly controlled affective environment for the artist and audience.
Open displays of emotion and revelations of traumatic personal histories in artworks tend to make me uncomfortable, but Yan Xing’s work demands respect for its sensitive and subtle presentations of the difficulty of communication for someone in his position. Realism left questions about the exact nature of the message being put across, and the actors’ scripted conversations perhaps lost the sincerity the artist himself brought to the role, but the acts of communication themselves became hopeful (and possibly fruitful) in the artists attempts to connect his thoughts and feelings with the audience through this charged environment.
-- Edward Sanderson, a writer and curator living in Beijing.
(All images courtesy of Galerie Urs Meile and the artists.)
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