Five monumental structures are distributed around the gallery space, coated in slicks of pigment. These multi-coloured, yet muted, painted surfaces have taken on the turbulent patterns of weather systems, or of ink in water. Despite their geometric shapes, the surfaces have a plastic quality, giving an organic effect to the objects. On the floor on one side of each of these monuments stands a tripod, supporting a vertical, tubular arrangement of hard-edged gold or silver tubes, but with additions of hand-formed plastic or clay elements in day-glo colours formed inside or around them. The polished metal, and neon colours, of these tubular structures stand out in contrast to the generally darker palette of the monuments against which they stand.
These tubes seem to be related to core samples that are referenced in other elements of this installation at Magician Space by the artist, Guan Xiao. The core sample, for the artist, seems to symbolise the drawing-out of history into a linear, material section. Along these sections information and history could be interpreted, like specimens situated at appropriate strata of the sampled material. Delineated in a poster on one side of the room photographs of real (?) core samples are juxtaposed in a tabular arrangement with various objects, implying relations between them. Sitting above each column, the artist has abstracted archetypes from this series of objects. These archetypes seem to represent strange residues of the objects depicted, being more or less reflected in them: one example includes Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, artefacts produced by ancient societies in America, a Zeiss lens, etc. which all relate to a shape like a nose and mouth heading the column. These archetypes have also been hand-made by the artist into forms that are attached to the reverse of the monuments in the gallery. In a subsequent adaptation, they are combined to form a small mask-like bronze sculpture that hangs in the corner of the room.
In the next room, a three-channel video presents a semi-didactic exposition of the artist’s mode of thought. While it never clearly explains the objects in this installation, or the reasoning behind their presentation, the video seems to try to make certain connections between them, as well as with other imagery and video that the artist has chanced upon. The meanings are always just out of reach: the artist intones statements that are mysterious or quizzical, flirting with meaning but never quite cohering as such. This is quite attractive – the viewer is carried along by the calm and even voice of the artist, the attractive imagery and strange juxtapositions. The feeling is slightly mesmerising, as if one is watching a promotional video for a scientific cult, in which ancient myths and symbols are combined with space-age pseudo-science.
Guan Xiao’s approach to her objects, while styled like anthropology, divorces those objects from their specific social contexts – an issue which anthropology has grappled with throughout its history. The objects suggest their origins – whether ancient or modern – but this installation seems to be about the correspondences between the objects as we see them in this context, rather than an interpretation solely based on an understanding of their age or use. This places all the objects into the present time of the installation, flattening history so every object stands in direct equivalence. Looking at this installation, evidently for the artist the equivalence is related to form, but departs from it at times. So Guan Xiao seems to wish to group her objects based on some formal similarities; in the poster, the columns of objects are grouped under the set of archetypal forms, these abstracted and doughy shapes. These shapes then become elements in their own recombination in the mask form.
Reversing the process, what does this mask form mean for the original objects? Is it a suggestion that within each object there is the memory or potential of this other form? What does the mask mean in itself? A suggestion comes from the title of this piece, Museum Approach. The keyword of “Museum” elicits a knee-jerk reaction that this is related to the practice of Institutional Critique. So is this whole installation commenting on the process by which the objects of anthropological research become “museumified”? Is “Survivors’ Hunting” another demonstration of the cliché that what we see in museums has gone through a similarly arbitrary and subjective process of abstraction from their original settings, forcing new information and relations out of them, which may or may not have anything to do with the original, and from which we learn more about the process than the object themselves? Is it just about the slippage of meaning to meaning, as information progresses through history, and between contexts?
Whether true or a cliché is perhaps not important: the obscurity of Guan Xiao’s installation makes this process fascinating. It retains a strong and consistent world-view: the complete set of artworks evidently follows a logic, promising a complete and satisfying presentation of that logic at some point.
Guan Xiao, Atlas, 2013, b/w digital print, 130 x 90cm; Courtesy of Magician Space.
This is the most intelligent show I’ve seen in a long time, even though the meaning is obscure. With “Survivors’ Hunting,” Guan Xiao has created a fascinating and engaging set of works, building to form an installation presenting a strong world-view, an encouraging development on the artist’s previous works. Her previous works have suffered from seeming to be overly caught up in themselves, in that they have lacked a strong “back-story” to make sense of them. “Survivors’ Hunting” remedies this by presenting a focused set of works, all fitting into a broad conceptual framework and narrative which makes this a strong and encouraging presentation by this artist.
(Image on top: Guan Xiao, exhibition view; Courtesy of Magician Space.)