China Refigured: The Art of Ah Xian


China Refigured brings together sculptures by contemporary Chinese artist Ah Xian and a selection of traditional art works drawn principally from the Rockefeller Collection. The majority of these works are porcelain, one of the most significant Chinese exports to Europe in the late sixteenth century. By featuring fine examples of traditional porcelain from the Northern Song (960-1127), Ming (BCE 1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1912 CE) periods, this exhibition explores the artistic traditions and cultural context underpinning the work of this contemporary artist.


Ah Xian's China China series of porcelain busts was begun in 1998. His works in this exhibition were produced in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, in collaboration with artisans from various studio-kilns around the city. Jingdezhen was the center of China's porcelain production in the early Ming, continuing into the Qing period when export wares to Europe became important for trade. In Ming times, Jingdezhen was reported to have three hundred kiln complexes, each with certain firing specializations. The techniques, styles, designs and glazes one sees in Ah Xian's busts are also evident in the selection of traditional works that are mainly from Jingdezhen. For example, the ubiquitous dragon design and underglaze cobalt blue glaze are just some of the commonalities between the traditional and contemporary works in this exhibition.

Ah Xian's sculptures in porcelain and more recently in lacquer and cloisonné represent Chinese artistic traditions, but technical and stylistic mastery are only one aspect of this exhibition. China Refigured also explores ideas of Chineseness or Chinese identity. In Ah Xian's work, casts of the human body are a background upon which he projects traditional Chinese decorative designs such as dragons, birds and flowers, and landscapes. By making these designs resemble tattoos, Ah Xian makes a statement about the indelibility of one's cultural background, all the more prominent in his work since his residence in Australia for the last twelve years.

These sculptures by Ah Xian establish a series of multilayered oppositions. The most overt is the tension between the sculptural form of the bust and the painted surface designs, which the artist likens to the oppositions of West and East. The bust is part of a Western portraiture tradition dating back to the busts of ancient Roman times and the designs are derived from Chinese decorative traditions, unique to China and in some cases to the studio-kilns at Jingdezhen. Such an opposition can also be seen as the relationship between the personal (since many of the busts are of Ah Xian's family, including his wife, brother, and father) and the political (a statement about the artist's own Chinese heritage articulated outside China).

Ah Xian was born in 1960 in Beijing and migrated to Sydney twelve years ago. He has held solo exhibitions in Asia, Australia, and Europe. This was his first exhibition in the United States.

This exhibition was made possible with generous support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, The Boeing Company, New Corporation, and Sherman Galleries. This project is also assisted by the Australia Council, the Commonwealth Government's arts funding and advisory body, through its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board, Audience and Market Development Division and Visual Arts/Crafts Board.

Shop AsiaStore for the exhibition catalogue.

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