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Wu Jian’an and his Ten Thousand Things

A deceptively subtle take on mass production with artist Wu's latest exhibition in Beijing


Walking into the Chambers Fine Arts Beijing gallery, visitors are caught off guard by 1,500 clay bricks aligned in a matrix. The sheer number of items in the artwork that have been united to form “Shallow Mountain”, together with the emptiness and the hovering silence above the crowds of bricks, add up to an overwhelming weight that almost freezes you on the spot. It is the first strike in artist Wu Jian’an’s (邬建安) latest exhibition Ten Thousand Things (on exhibition through July 3), and it strikes hard.


Shallow Mountain, Wu Jian’an

The tension is slowly lifted off the visitors as they pay more attention to the individual bricks, which are carved, slashed and coloured with such distinct patterns that the horrifying unity fades away. Each brick, standing erect or falling on the side, is almost a small mountain in the wild, its unique pattern the result of being eroded and battered in nature. As you step to the side, however, the white chalk mark hiding behind each brick like a shadow (or a haunting ghost?) exposes itself, pulls you back from the reverie and reminds you again of their collective identity as bricks in lines.


Shallow Mountain, Wu Jian’an

There’s an ambiguous political context in Shallow Mountain, one of the works included in Ten Thousand Things. The title Ten Thousand Things is borrowed from Lothar Ledderose’s book of the same name. This German professor of Art History in East Asia proved in this book how Chinese art had been mass produced with modules throughout the history (eg. terracotta soldiers, porcelain, wooden pieces, even the World’s printing system) and this reflects the Chinese ideology of “parts fitting into a larger structure”. But for artist Wu Jian’an, the borrowed title is more like a footnote, instead of a thematic arch over his artworks. “the relationship between the one and the many, the individual and the society is a long-term substantial puzzle for me. Ledderose’s theory provides a possible explanation, but does not solve the puzzle.”

Thus, for the artist, the artwork is a small universe where he simulates this paradoxical relationship, to push the frontier of his own experience and bring in enlightenment. And in this process, paper cuts dipped in wax are representative modules he has been using for years.

With the same name as the exhibition, the artwork Ten Thousand Things, comprises three pieces of a collage that are a dazzling cloud of colors from a distance, but when inspected up close, the blurry confusion zooms into thousands of small figures of lush colors and whimsical images. These modules are constantly in flux, joining neighboring elements into human and animal forms, yet quickly dissolve upon further inspection.


Ten thousand things, Wu Jian’an


Ten Thousand Things, Wu Jian’an

While Ten Thousand Things remains the philosophical core behind Shallow Mountain, it carries on with a humorous and joyful punch. The paper cut figures are monsters and spirits, transformed animals distorted body parts. Audience familiar with ancient Chinese legends and classics like Journey to the West or Shan Hai Jing may give a knowingly smile. These nonsensical tales that deeply impressed Wu when he was a little boy have become his source of inspiration.

The following two artworks are a perfect embodiment of Wu’s witty temperament. Dinosaurs are two sculptures that bear great resemblance to their names. The label on the side, however, reveals that the skeleton of “dinosaur” is made of deer horn and the spine sprawling on top is snake bone. You could almost hear a roll of laughter from their open mouths: Am I a snake? A deer? Or a dinosaur? Which should represent my identity? My parts or me as a whole?


Dinosaurs, Wu Jian’an

Also made of deer horn, the other sculpture, Immortal, hangs with the exquisite paper cuts of…beautifully weird stuff. This “stuff” is borrowed from Wu’s exhibition five years ago, called Seven Layered Shell, nicknamed by the artist as “the monster dictionary”. Not only does each little monster have a name, but each can trace its origin to a tale, an event in daily life, or just an artist’s fantasy.


Immortal, Wu Jian’an


Immortal, Daoist tale of ascending to immortality, Wu Jian’an

This year’s Chinese Spring Festival, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City invited Wu Jian’an for an installation art exhibition “Release the Buddhist Mantra”. Inspired by the fact that lots of Buddhist statues in museums are missing of arms and hands, Wu invited visitors to draw the imaginary hands of the Buddhas. When the number of hand drawings hit 1,000, Wu lifted the cloth that covered a collage of Monkey King. In Journey to the West, the Monkey King was prisoned under the Five Fingers Mountain. Where are all the missing hands of Buddhas? They are all gone to release the Monkey King under the Five Fingers Mountain, Wu explained,“It’s a childhood fantasy”, he chuckled.


Buddha with missing hands [cafa]


Monkey King fears nothing, Wu Jian’an [cafa]

An interesting coincidence is that hundreds of legs and arms can be found in collages of Ten Thousand Things. In 2006, he made a sculpture where countless hands are grown on a golden tree. But when asked, Wu appeared surprised. “this might be a subconscious choice”, he mused.

Wu characterises his art-making process as fumbling in the darkness. “Concepts or ideas are grounds that you can feel and touch, but most of the time I cannot see a ground. I just trust my effects and march forward, and the ground is behind me.” This might explain why Wu is such a versatile and experimental artist. In this recent exhibition, he also experimented with conch shells and marbles. In 500 stokes, he cut down ink strokes on the rice paper and collaged the stokes into a painting. “These materials are speaking to me, calling to me to do experiments on them, and I followed.”


Big Skeleton, Wu Jian’an, made with conch shells

Wu recognises the turmoil and chaos in this universe. For him, artists are more sensitive and perceptive, and thus trying to bring in order to chaos using their sensations. The thousand hands in the Thousands Hands Guanyin represent the ubiquitous consciousness of Buddhas. As one of the great artists in China, Wu constantly reflects on current events, and pushes the boundaries of his consciousness. Maybe Wu’s subconscious use of hands in his collages is a metaphor of his layered consciousness, his efforts in approaching this world with his revolutionizing artworks.

So where are all the Buddhas’ hands? Maybe they are all trapped in Wu’s artworks.

Ten Thousand Things: New Works by Wu Jian’an

Cover image from Chambers Fine Arts Beijing

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