Sui Jianguo: The Sleep of Reason
By Jeff Kelley
Many of today’s artists in mainland China, where there is still relatively little interest in contemporary art, are looking beyond their homeland for exposure. In his desire to comment on historical and contemporary issues through the vehicle of social realism in art, Sui Jianguo has attracted a wide audience abroad.
Sui’s expressive Western-style nudes inspired by classical Greco-Roman and Renaissance sources are draped in repressive Communist attire: the classic Mao suit. This perfectly tailored fit of East and West is ironically at odds with itself. The figures, though constrained in the formal unisex attire ubiquitous in China during the Maoist era, are animated in the throes of death—as with his adaptations of Michelangelo’s slaves—or in athletic preparation to throw a spear or discus.
Sui has also fabricated a series of freestanding Mao jackets. Rigid, and upright, these hollow jackets give the impression that the body of Mao Zedong himself is pressing invisibly against the fiberglass “fabric” from within. The Chairman as apparition is further evoked by the lack of a head above the jackets’ open collar. Do we see these empty suits as ruined temples in a not-so-ancient Maoist cult? Party functionaries who preside hollowly over a China embracing capitalism? Expressions of a Zen-like quietude?
Sui has also fabricated large fiberglass dinosaurs, painted them bright red, and imprinted them in English with large letters reading “Made in China.” These comic-book monsters may be metaphors of the recently unleashed Chinese economic “dragon.” Set inside a steel cage, one of the massive dinosaurs will sit on the front steps of the Asian Art Museum during Sui’s exhibition here.
For this show Sui will also surround a large fiberglass sculpture of a prone and sleeping Chairman Mao with a sea of 20,000 thousand plastic toy dinosaurs in various lurid colors. The churning sea—of toys made in China but purchased from Japan by the artist—refers to the social tidal waves Mao set in motion during his era as leader of the Chinese Communist Party. As much a philosopher-poet as a politician, Mao dreamed of a perfect society. Often he governed China, a land in constant turmoil, from the solitude of his palace bed. This installation is a breathtaking and ominous expression of the tumultuous forces at work beneath the appearance of order, the recumbent figure reminiscent of the tranquil eye of a storm.
Witty and incisive, Sui Jianguo’s sculptures raise many questions about life in China today. These large-scale sculptures are made to be seen not only by a homeland audience in urban public spaces once dominated by propaganda, but also by an international audience eager to better understand the changing social, political, and artistic changes in China. Sui Jianguo is among the most highly respected sculptors in China today. Born in the northeastern province of Shandong in 1956, Sui is currently a professor and chair of the sculpture department at the Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing. Sui has had solo and group exhibitions throughout his homeland as well as in Australia, France, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, Spain, and elsewhere.
Jeff Kelley is guest curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum