Sun Xun

September 7, 2018
Sun Xun, detail from 'Maniac Universe'

It may be a legacy of those heroic efforts Chairman Mao demanded at the time of the Great Leap Forward, or perhaps it’s mainly down to pressure of competition, but the Chinese art scene has the most stupendous work ethic. Go to any exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery and there will always be one or two pieces which defy belief because of the sheer commitment of time involved.

One of those artists who has floored audiences in this way is Sun Xun (b.1980), who dominated the gallery’s recent show, The Sleeper Awakes, with an installation called The Republic of Jing Bang, which incorporated a 31-metre-long scroll painting as its centrepiece.

In his survey show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sun has gone one better, with a 40-metre-long painting on bark paper called Maniac Universe, largely completed while the artist was in residence in Sydney. The work features a series of animals, some associated with the Chinese zodiac – namely the rooster and the horse, but others of a more offbeat persuasion, such as an owl, a bat, a lobster, and even a cockroach.

One looks instinctively for symbolism but if any exists it’s of an entirely personal nature. Sun is playing with our expectations, creating his own constellations by displaying these images under ultraviolet light. Each creature floats in space surrounded by tiny globes we read as planets.

Sun is a specialist in creating alternative worlds, extrapolating from reality to a range of utopian and dystopian scenarios. Or, in the words of curator, Anna Davis: “a dark, parallel universe where things are simultaneously familiar and strange.”

For an artist in China today it’s probably better to remain in the realm of science fiction than to delve too deeply into social and political issues, but this doesn’t mean Sun is devoid of ideas. He just makes us dig deeper and exercise a little more imagination.

In a catalogue interview, Hou Hanru suggests that Sun’s imagery relates to “a society under control, under constant surveillance.”

Sun Xun, from ’21 Grams’

The artist replies, more than once, that he’s not interested in criticising the government. He’s mastered that quality of deniability which has become a standard component of the Chinese artist’s repertoire at a time of increasing political constriction. In this case it’s not merely a defense mechanism because the complexity of Sun’s work makes it clear he aims to address the widest possible audience, making points of universal relevance.

Sun is best known for his animated films, created in a dizzying array of styles. There are more than a dozen of these in the exhibition, the longest being 21 Grams (2010), which clocks in at 27 minutes. Even the smallest animation requires a multitude of individual frames prepared by teams of assistants working from the artist’s original designs. When these designs are woodblock prints, as in 21 Grams, it’s much harder than simply drawing and erasing the same sheet of paper, as William Kentridge does with his “stone-age animations”.

Sun Xun, from ‘Time Spy’

Despite his embrace of the audio-visual, Sun’s work is essentially handmade. There are walls covered in fluent paintings on newspaper made during plane trips, and screens filled with delicate ink drawings. No matter how many assistants Sun employs, his graphic virtuosity sets the tone. He has said that he refuses to be defined by a style, and this is borne out by the works at the MCA, which can be as raw as German Expressionist woodcuts, or as detailed as the illustrations in an old-time story book. Time Spy (2016) is his first venture into 3D.

It would be futile trying to describe or analyse Sun’s films in any depth. There are so many surreal moments, so many fragmented narratives and cryptic symbols that the viewer soaks up images like a sponge absorbs water.

Some motifs recur again and again. A figure in a tall top hat is a magician, viewed by the artist as a rare occupation in which one is celebrated for being able to lie and deceive. It’s another question as to why these magicians are often portrayed as figures of power, or rulers. Could Sun be suggesting that politicians are also socially-licenced liars?

Sun Xun, from ‘Mythological Time’

A drawing of a disembodied arm from the film, Mythological Time (2016), is recognisable as the outstretched arm of Mao Zedong found on countless statues all over China. A mere fragment of the whole, it implies that the Great Helmsman’s legacy now lies in pieces. A row of small, mythological creatures sit perched on the arm, like tiny organisms regrouping after the ideological cleansing of the communist era. The old beliefs and superstitions are ready to spring to life again, or maybe Mao is being transformed into a mythical being.

The insects that appear everywhere in Sun’s works are the “bugs” that work to undermine the most elaborate systems. His mosquitos are viral carriers of information. We can feel the way ideas and images swarm in these works, even if they never seem to coallesce into clear narratives.

Sun Xun, from ‘Mythological Time’

Sun believes an artist should not be too eager to create something that can be easily understood. He has no time for banal but familiar exercises in style, such as a Damien Hirst spot painting; or for those angry political statements with which all liberal-minded people hasten to agree. Art is a game in which the artist is free to make up his or her own rules, but in many instances too many possibilities leads only to creative narrowness.

In China there are plenty of rules, both written and unwritten, that impose restrictions on freedom of expression. One outcome is that Chinese artists have been forced to become more inventive in order to get around these barriers. In doing so, they access a creative freedom that is hard to match in the west. Instead of looking outward, to the expectations of an audience, there is a strong incentive to look inward and ask questions about what’s truly important.

I know the logical corollary of these observations is that art in Australia would benefit from more rigorous censorship and repression. It’s a conclusion that may even be congenial to some readers, but not to me. Let the Chinese have the more interesting art and more interesting times. We may not make the most of our creative freedoms but political freedom is non-negotiable.

Sun Xun
Museum of Contemporary Art, 9 July – 14 October, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September, 2018