When does a representation of the body reveal deeper human truths? Artists Yu Ji, Xie Nanxing and Jes Fan present boundary-pushing works at Sigg Prize 2023, reshaping the human form into abstract investigations of identity, history and society. Isabella Tam explores what’s uncovered when the familiar becomes unfamiliar.
Thematically, the presentations of Yu Ji, Xie Nanxing, and Jes Fan in the Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition continue the artists’ ongoing inquiries of the body. Whether working with paint, cement, or digital technology, the three artists explore representations of the body in ways that interplay form and formlessness to diverge from existing sociopolitical and historical symbolism. Free in their interpretations, the artists’ practices reflect their thoughts on expanding the possibilities of sculpture and painting.
Having studied the bodies of ancient sculptures in China, Cambodia, and India, Yu is interested in how such archaeological forms are ravaged by the passage of time. Unlike Flesh in Stone – Ghost No. 8 (2021), which has a seemingly pregnant torso, Yu’s two other sculptures presented in the Sigg Prize exhibition, Flesh in Stone – Rema Rema 1901 (2018) and Flesh in Stone – The Moving Feasts No. 2 (2020), provide little clues as to where the bodies come from and what they reference.
Yu’s forms bear some similarities with ancient sculptures, yet her fragmented and ghostly bodies are what she would describe as ‘the flesh’ and are not references to any specific religious statue or person. They also don’t carry any emotions and are not anatomically accurate. For example, Flesh in Stone – Rema Rema 1901 is made from common cement, and its two parts are connected by a cast iron belt. While the form seems to be a reference to human limbs, it also evokes a sense of otherness. This sculpture is placed near the weighty installation Jaded Ribs, creating a sense of tension between the material and the scale. Yu’s intention of creating tension by juxtaposing soft forms and hard, industrial materials gives Flesh in Stone – Rema Rema 1901 a unique charm. This sculpture successfully shifts our attention from any pre-existing knowledge born from art history, religion, gender, politics, or other cultural contexts and encourages us to focus on the materiality and ambiguity around its shapes. In this way, Yu guides the way in which we look at sculptures and the spaces in which they are placed.
Meanwhile, in his presentation, Xie references Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Blind Leading the Blind by replacing the blind men in the sixteenth century work with roasted ducks in his The Ballad of Pieter Picking His Teeth (2022). The work serves as a folk song that points metaphorically to the psychological impact of the pandemic. With more-recognisable visual elements on the right and a movement towards complete abstraction on the left, the inconsistent style of this three-panel work rejects easy categorisation. Moreover, the lack of a cohesive visual narrative to connect the panels defies conventional rules that dictate how a painting should be read.
Xie’s decision to escape from a reliance on images leaves viewers with a difficult task when it comes to interpreting the work. His piece is a radical way of revealing the ambivalence of painting as a medium and broaches the idea that what is painted is nowhere near as important as how it is painted. This idea harkens back to the artist’s long-held interest in light as a medium and his fascination with the role that light plays in the painting process. At different times of the day, light affects and penetrates through a canvas in dissimilar ways. By recreating the effects of light on the original image, the work’s concrete form and narrative are disrupted, and the work is no longer a pure visual description. In Xie’s radical exploration of light, the subject is concealed and re-revealed. By creating this visual game between the work and its viewers, Xie cuts ties with the easy consumption of images.
Lastly, Sites of Wounding: Chapter 2 (2023) demonstrates Fan’s continual efforts to push the boundaries of sculpture and create new meanings through the process. In this work, Fan uses agarwood to trace the history of Hong Kong’s name. Similar to Yu, Fan employs the body as a running motif in his practice to question assumptions relating to identity. In this work, Fan associates a non-human species with a human body, specifically drawing a link between the internal body and the trauma caused by social and institutional systems.
To create this work, Fan used 3D printing to create sculptures from computed tomography scans of his own body parts and organs, which he then abstracted by shifting their scales. He applied aqua-colour resin on the 3D-printed sculptures and then sanded down the surfaces to reveal layers that appear like sites of injury. Fan also uses the gallery wall as part of his installation and created slits in it to mirror bodily wounds. Several sculptures are embedded into the wall, allowing one to peep in and view the interior landscape. Meanwhile, blown-glass components ooze through the cracks in the wall, their brownish hue a reference to the resinous material formed when agarwood suffers a fungal infection. In this work, Fan melds the use of digital software and traditional techniques so that the action of sculpting becomes a process of generating meaning, and the manipulation or removal of the original body becomes an act of discovering abstracted forms that can no longer be easily recognised. Hence, it is useful to think of Fan’s deep exploration of the body and its displacement as being key to his radical practice that encompasses art, biology, technology, and the social implications of sculpture as a medium.
Fission and Isolation: Two Forces that Shaped the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art since 2019
Yang Zi, Beijing-based and one of the Sigg Prize 2023 nominators, shares his insights on how international developments from 2019 to the present have impacted artistic creation and how Chinese artists are moving forward in a society shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic.