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Galerie Urs Meile Beijing is pleased to announce Absent & Superfluous, a solo exhibition featuring Beijing-based artist Hu Qingyan (*1982) most recent works. The exhibition draws its title from a key concept in Hu’s work, namely the tension between what is essential, supposed to be, but is not, and what is unnecessary, supposed not to be, but is. Along with some new works such as Swaying Wall (2015-2018, seven-pieces, dimensions variable) and Empty Mountain (2018, yellow marble, 170 × 110 × 95 cm), the exhibition will feature exciting developments of previously existing series, of which Go in One Ear and out The Other (on show: Go in One Ear and out The Other No. 2, 2016, carbon steel, air, 166 × 485 × 188 cm) or Guardian Angel (on show: Guardian Angel II, 2018, wood (paulownia), marble in various colors, 219 × 140 × 125 cm). A series of paintings will also be on display, where the artist continues to blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture. A key issue of the exhibition lies indeed in Hu’s boundary-pushing exploration of the medium of sculpture, and, more broadly, of artistic conventions and the action of making art.
Whereas Michelangelo declared “I did not invent sculpture. The sculptures are inherent in the stones, I have only set them free”, Hu Qingyan takes the opposing view of the renowned Italian sculptor with his Empty Mountain. The artist divided a marble stone about the height of an average adult-sized person into three distinct parts to empty them from their content. He then reassembled the pieces in their original shape, creating a hollow husk of stone. Thus, what appears as an ordinary boulder placed in an exhibition space, a ready-made, actually underwent a hidden transformation in its inner core. As the sculptural gesture is concealed from the observer, the essence of sculpture is paradoxically revealed.
In the series Guardian Angel and Gem (on show: Gem I, 2018, marble, metal pedestal, 42 × 85 × 70 cm), Hu Qingyan explores another concept at the heart of his artistic production – the accidental and the random. Guardian Angel consists of a found log serving as the basis of the work. The shape of the log, created by the random action of nature, dictates the rest of the sculpture, the marble stones prolonging its natural lines. While the “accidental” shape of the stones is preserved, Hu polished their surface, conferring the work a sculpture-like quality. The random and accidental factors as well as the artist’s minimalist intervention are ultimately hidden beneath the harmony and simplicity that emanates from the work. The artist adopts the same approach in Swaying Wall a 7-part work consisting of steel cables and chunks of cement scavenged from the demolished studio building of the artist. Hu polished the cement into individual spherical shapes, connected together by the random welding of the cables. The polished surface of the spheres then contrasts with the violence and chaos of the overall composition.
In addition, Absent & Superfluous will showcase two series of Hu’s reflections on paintings, Contemporary Painting (on show: Contemporary Painting I, 2018, dimensions between 180-222 × 160-320 cm) and Flesh Color (2018, 56 × 160 × 110 cm). Both series are stitched three-dimensional collages of scavenged scraps and cutouts from collected oil paintings created by fellow artists and students. This sculptural approach to painting is also a play on the tension between abstract and figurative: although resolutely abstract, the Contemporary Paintings series consists of cutouts taken from unidentifiable parts of figurative paintings. As of the Flesh Color series, what appears at first glance as a crumpled monochromatic pastel lying on the floor is in fact a somewhat appalling collection of painted body parts.
Hu Qingyan was born in 1982 in Weifang, Shandong Province, China and studied sculpture at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in Guangzhou and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He lives and works in Beijing. His recent solo exhibitions include 空壳Hollow Husk, Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne, Switzerland (2016); Eternal Glory, Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing, China (2015). A selection of his most recent group shows include: Encounter Asia – Multi-vision of Youth, Museum of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Tank Loft, Chongqing Contemporary Art Center, Chongqing, China (2018); Forty Years of Sculpture • Part 1 (2008-2017), Museum of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition, Shenzhen, China (2017); The 3rd Today’s Documents – BRIC-á-brac: The Jumble of Growth, Today Art Museum, Beijing, China (2016); Shut up and paint, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (2016); The Exhibition of Annual of Contemporary Art of China, Beijing Minsheng Art Museum, Beijing, China (2016); M + Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art, ArtisTree, Hong Kong, China (2016); Familiar Otherness: Art Across Northeast Asia, Hong Kong Arts Center, Hong Kong, China (2015); 28 Chinese, Rubell Family Collection/ Contemporary Arts Foundation, Miami, USA (2013); Building Bridges – Zeitgenossische Kunst aus China, Wolfsberg, Ermatingen, Switzerland (2013).
His works can be found in the collection of many museums and institutions including National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, M+ Sigg Collection, Rubell Family Collection, Today Art Museum, and K11 Art Foundation.
The Galatea Dilemma, or the strange case of Dr. Frankenstein and Mr Pygmalion
by Christopher Moore
Who is the monster, the creator or his creation? Ambiguity drives the story of Frankenstein, Mary shelley’s 1818 novel, alternatively titled or, the Modern Prometheus, the greek god who created man from clay, then in defiance of his fellow gods, gave the secret of fire to humans. The creation myth is reprised as artistic endeavor in the story of pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his ivory carving of a woman and prayed to aphrodite, the goddess of love, to grant him a living wife exactly like his sculpture. Returning home, he kisses her lips and she comes alive, her ivory form metamorphosing into living flesh: Galatea lives. the story is most famously recounted in ovid’s Metamorphosis, but pygmalion has many descendants, variously including pinocchio, snow White, and George Bernard shaw’s play about education and the english class system, Pygmalion (1913). Equally, the promethean stories also metamorphose and metastasize, but these are generally more disturbing: from Frankenstein to ridley scott’s own Prometheus (2012) and recently alex garland’s Ex Machina (2015). these cautionary tales also contain another, related dichtomy: the desire to create vs. the creation’s desire. striving for love (pygmalion) or knowledge (frankenstein) is driven by desire but the very thing desired eventually bares its own autonomy, whether to live and love, or simply to become an artwork independent of its creator, literally open to interpretation. It is the inevitable dilemma of all creators, gods and artists, and mothers and fathers too.
Hu Qingyan is a sculptor, an artist who fashions form by carving and constructing matter. Qingyan makes things in space as opposed to a painter who makes images of space. His work has always focused on the nature of the material, beginning with his early work in which he created chains from wood and other material transmogrifications. In recent years he has experimented more with the potentiality of what constitutes a sculptor’s material, including the painted form.
Throughout art education in China, painting students are trained from the body; how to represent the body: observing, studying, and tracing their forms in their countless variations. Not photographic shadows but formed representations, with skins and flesh conjured out of oil paint. It is no surprise that millions of these painted people end up hidden beneath multiple layers of paint, images scraped and over-painted into oblivion or eventually forgotten within the archeology of abandoned canvasses, stacked and rolled, until recycled again or burned or thrown away completely. In Contemporary Painting I (2018, oil on canvas (a lot of oil paintings collected from other people are spliced and stiched after cutting), 195 × 160 cm, frame: 150 × 130 cm), Hu takes the abandoned canvases of his artist friends and students and sews them together. On first acquaintance, the wall-mounted work, which employs a traditional canvas stretcher, seems to play on similar notions of “expanded painting”, as practiced by artists such as angela de la Cruz, resulting in an abstract wall-mounted relief. As we keep looking though, the details of the crime emerge: prometheus as cannibal. in Flesh Color (2018, oil on canvas (a lot of oil paintings collected from other people are spliced and stiched after cutting), dimensions variable) a sheet of portraits lies in a crumpled heap on the floor, faces gazing out at strange angles, their bodies intertwined and tangled.
When I asked Hu about this, he replied, “paintings are like the status quo of the image world – this is the correspondence to the current situation – [a superfluity of images] full of different visual information.” Images have become our modern matter, like marble or wood were in previous centuries, and paintings represent the overweening quotidian marker, the attempt at definition that becomes prescriptive rule, also among photography and film, too often the faithful servants of conformity. And yet, as Hu himself notes, “When the painter is facing the canvas, there is a pure start, a complete blank white canvas; whereas with sculptures you always face materials, that have different knowledges or experiences before you meet them.” Hu does not offer refuge for the paintings or the aspirations and struggles that created them. Then again, neither does Dr. frankenstein wish to know of the lives of the people out of whose parts he assembled his monster. But Hu is not reckless like prometheus; there is no threat of catastrophe – his intentions are closer to pygmalion. Hu takes the identities and previous experiences of the materials, the painted canvases, and refashions something living out of that which was dead, abandoned and superfluous, lifting the two-dimensional into the real world through kaleidoscopic surgeries, putting flesh behind the skin; out of design: matter.
These paintings form part of Hu Qingyan’s latest exhibition, Absent & Superfluous, at Galerie Urs Meile Beijing. Staged as a type of theatrical workshop, in which the artist’s studio becomes the laboratory of a sorcerer-scientist who seeks the secret to life, Hu poses a series of riddles as to the nature of creation and desire.
Scattered around the operating theater are various ambiguous limbs, questionable and grotesque. Gem (2018, marble, metal pedestal) is a piece of found marble sitting on a recycled steel support whose original use seems now forgotten. The marble shape recalls, says Hu, a foot, but it is too large and heavy, not human. Hu told me he wanted to make it “a little bit weird”. Inverting the bauhaus design principle that form follows function, and as with the recycled paintings, here the artistic function follows form. Hu takes this strategy further in Guardian Angel (2018, wood (plane tree), marble (different colors)), a sort of giant hand, developed from a found tree trunk with added marble fingers, the threat of its latent power frozen. Then again, the fist’s middle finger is raised – so maybe not so latent after all. It’s a matter of perspective.
Now we encounter a rhizome structure of connected tubes and horns, a collection of resurrected pipes of different shapes and diameters and Qingyan made do to reconnect them. Go in One Ear and out The Other No. 2 (2016, carbon steel, air, 166 × 485 × 188 cm) it is called, priming the inherent biological connection between the ear, nose and throat. the gas pipes have been converted to air pipes, things for conveying sound and oxygen. Its purpose is passive: to pick up the sound from one part of the room and transport it to another. Thus, while its material is metal, its medium is air. It does something else as well. this strange system inevitably recalls other processing systems within the body too, primarily the digestive system, taking notions of communication in other unsettling directions.
Hu Qingyan continues to assemble the body of his monster – will he be free or a slave? We reach Swaying Wall (2018, brick, rebar, 7 pcs., dimensions variable), a hanging rebar skeleton, the taut wire threaded through small boulders of red brick, concrete, stone and tiles, the construction drawn from the mundane rubble of metropolitan beijing’s and indeed China’s now constant redevelopment, and which can be seen on any construction site (it reminded me of shi Jinsong’s scholar stones made of similar refuse masonry). This wall though, is also informed by the way in which our vital organs hang from the ribcage and spine. The wall, barely a wall at all, made of the detritus of former homes, offices and factories, is more air than structure. We can see and pass through it. The hanging rocks and bricks are literally people, leftover marionettes of bones and organs, seemingly eviscerated.
Now we await the electrical storm that will bring the corpse to life.
At the heart of the exhibition is Empty Mountain (2018, yellow marble, 170 × 110 × 95 cm). a large rock, roughly the height of a person, has been cut into three pieces and hollowed out. At different times it could be an egg, a home, a sanctuary, or perhaps a jail, or even a sarcophagus. its metaphoric possibilities contain many lifecycles. In a sense, it mimics a walnut-like cranium, the cradle of our ideas but then again, also the womb from which we came. the whole exhibition is concerned with the architecture of our bodies; the desire to know what holds them up, what makes them tick: the desire for knowledge, to create, to be gods. The desire to build a monster, one capable of thinking and feeling like a real person, still seems arrogant, eccentric even, involving superhuman powers currently, still, beyond human capacity. Yet our mythologies speak constantly to our creative desires, and fundamentally to our desire for self-procreation; the desire to recreate ourselves.
Michelangelo spoke of how he did not create his carved sculptures but instead released them from the marble which imprisoned them. In the tale of the Monkey King, sun Wukong is born fully-formed and immortal from a stone. Through Daoist practice he acquires extraordinary supernatural powers, including strength and metamorphosis. Yet after rebelling against heaven, he is imprisoned under a mountain by buddha. Subsequently he is offered a chance of redemption by travelling with the monk, tang sanzang, to retrieve buddhist sutras, as recounted in the classic novel, Journey to the West. The Monkey King is both an agent of chaos and creation. He can clone himself into a multitude. He can destroy and make havoc. Maybe Hu Qingyan’s Empty Mountain is the broken egg but its name suggests it might also be the mountain prison. We cannot see sun Wukong though. He has gone, and we don’t know what tricks he is he up to. Strange though that we should want to control our creations, coming from a peculiar mix of desire, arrogance and ultimately fear. So then, who is the monster?
Galerie Urs Meile Beijing
D10, 798 East Street, 798 Art District
No. 2 Jiuxianqiao Road Chaoyang District
100015 Beijing, China
Galerie Urs Meile Lucerne
6004 Lucerne, Switzerland