Ceramic Sculpture: Fifth Biennial Ceramic Art Exhibition at the China Art Academy, Hangzhou

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THERE HAS, OF RECENT TIMES, BEEN CONSIDERABLE debate regarding Chinese sculpture, much of it centred around the dichotomy of tradition and postmodernity. Zhu Qi argues that Pop Art, with its vibrant and diverse range of colour, has been responsible for giving new meaning to the traditional ceramics of Jingdezhen. (1) While Yin Shuangxi, in his enlightening paper, 'Concerned with Existence: New Developments in Chinese Contemporary Sculpture' (2) makes note that uppermost in the minds of a number of Chinese sculptors is the viability of traditional form, media and content in Chinese sculpture in the 21st century, and that many seek to "emphasise the importance of preserving the existence of a national culture in their sculpture". (3) In restricting the media of this exhibition to clay the organisers have astutely retained a traditional tone to the work gathered, yet at the same time have been successful in encouraging artists to sound a thoroughly contemporary note in their work.

The 2006 exhibition is significantly larger than the preceding exhibitions, in terms of participating artists and works. However, what is most striking is the quantifiable change in content, that indicates that the human figure is receiving much more interest among artists as an artistic device around which to centre debates on aspects of contemporary Chinese society. Set against a quiet incongruous and popularly desired upheaval that is fuelled by the rampant economic growth, it was a delight to discover works in this exhibition that sought to engage with the state of the human figure in contemporary China, while others that took the environment as their theme and yet others who bravely sought to critique recent history.

The content of this exhibition falls loosely into three categories. They are the figure, organic forms and artifacts, and tools of human production. It is apparent from the portion of works that take these subjects as their focus that they are a central concern in the minds of sculptors across the middle kingdom.


Renditions of the human form are found in many guises, historical, mythical and contemporary. It is abstracted, fragmented, exaggerated and adorned with traditional Chinese art forms. The most eye catching work is Li Chao's Red Series. Finished in a lustrous red glaze that reflects the light at every contour shift, these macabre, doll like renditions of what in two examples are modelled in a meditative pose, like archetypical Buddhist devotees, both attract and repel. The use of such a bold red is not uncommon in China, indeed it is the colour of festival and does not carry with it the underlying sense of drama or evil that is connoted in Western culture. (4) However, in the case of another figure from this series that aims a revolver directly at the viewer, that traditional innocence is, without doubt, replaced with both drama and implied violence.

A similar obese rendering of the figure is also found in Temple Guard, from Lu Pin Chang, Director of the Sculpture Department at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. The obesity of Lu's figures leaves them immobile and, as temple guards, there exists an appealing sense of irony in these works while, alternatively, it might be suggested that both works harbour a tone of bloated leisure.

A more traditional incarnation of the same mythological figures is found in Zhan Xiao Shi's Temple Guards Playing Cards. Zhan is a teacher at the host institution and has contributed four muscular torso figures, with conventional fearsome expressions, in life-like scale. There is, however, a playful nature to these demons, as they compete in the popular leisure activity, each one caught in animated action, pre paring to slam a card down in victory. Anyone who has witnessed the ferocity with which this game is played in the parks and streets across China will instantly recognise the intense expressions and implied action in this work. …