The past and the present come together very effectively in the exhibition ’Contemporary Chinese Printmaking’, showing at Aberystswyth University’s School of Art, 13 October – 21 November 2014.
As I make my way round the show, two prints catch my eye. The first, ‘Blending’, is a screenprint by Li Yuan.
From a distance it looks like a photograph of a lakeside scene. Coming closer, I notice that there is a pair of horned animal skulls and various richly coloured rocks in the foreground. These are carved or printed with various scripts, set off by the calm blue waters behind them. Questions form in my mind. Are the scripts Chinese? Does it matter that I can’t read what they say? The exotic and unfamiliar marks absorb me. I have no way of knowing if the different styles indicate different regions of the same country or different epochs of its history. Could this writing be the artist’s comment on time rather than language? Or has he gone further and included the skulls as an indicator of a past culture that is no longer relevant? The drawing of a small dog inscribed onto one of the rocks is an unexpected element. I find myself smiling.
On closer inspection, drawn in by the dog, I discover that there is an image of a woman, only faintly visible against the blue, taking centre stage. The upturned horns of the skull on the beach echo a graceful upturn of an extended arm. But this too raises question. Is she a particular woman? An ancestor? Or even a goddess? The image is distinctly Chinese, a cultural stereotype. Yet although I am aware of my ignorance, the piece holds my attention as it alternates between being a flat 2D space and a 3D depiction of a strangely exotic country scene. The past and the present flick back and forth. The ambiguity is captivating. Time is concertinaed into one frame for me to marvel at.
‘Portrait Series II’ by Li Jialing develops this duality of past and present in a more self-conscious way. Apart from being a portrait of a young man, the work brings together the woodcut, an ancient traditional Chinese art form, and a twenty first century digitally produced component into the composition. It draws attention once again to images of different times in close proximity to each other. The piece is a bold statement with its strong black and white lines, the beautiful lines of the woodcut standing strongly against the more familiar marks of modern technology. Yet there is a disjunction. As the face confronts me with its offset angles, am I looking at an individual with roots in both the past and the present, aware of the demands this makes on a young man? Or am I considering one who feels compelled to hide his modern self behind a cultural mask? Either way, it is another work that highlights the impact of time on culture and forces me to consider what an enigma time is.
Could it be that I have encountered examples of archaeological imagination in the contemporary art-making of another culture? I ponder this as I leave the exhibition.