ShanghART Gallery ( Bldg 16, 50 Moganshan Rd., Shanghai, China), April 19–Jun 11, 2014
Entering the exhibition space at ShanghART Gallery for the Chen Xiaoyun solo exhibition, I sensed a tumultuous undercurrent to the solemn atmosphere within. A color photograph on the wall showed three metal spheres being smelted on a bed of burning coals, the lick of blue-tipped flames a visual cue stoking the imagined temperature even higher; meanwhile, L’Internationale—the anthem which once swept China—bombards the ear. The title of this exhibition, “Twenty-One Poems of Lenin” is loaded with implications of the term “revolution”, inciting some ideas about idealism without much to do with historical reality.
Born in 1971, Chen Xiaoyun may be one of the few contemporary Chinese artists who can lay legitimate claim to personal memories of “Bolshevism” or “revolution”, which lets us believe that his poeticized imaginings about Lenin, the Communist leader, have something to do with his personal experience. While Lenin harbored ambitions to overthrow an ancien régime and the idealism to establish a new world order in exile throughout Europe, at roughly the same time, art in Europe was flush with a similar spirit of rebellion, with new movements like Dadaism and Futurism appearing. Revolutionaries resist tyranny, while artists topple the status quo. In Zurich, the birthplace of Dada, Duchamp might have used Lenin’s coffee mug as an ashtray for his cigar….From here, Chen Xiaoyun finds no limits to the richly-imagined links between art and idealism.
Chen’s works float by easily under the guise of refinement, imbued with an un-contrived sort of revolutionary romanticism—a passage once covered in thorns has been lampooned into an oesophagus, and Vladimir Tatlin’s Tower has been warped into a super-monument. The presentation of Chen Xiaoyun’s bronze sculptures and other works reveals heavy traces of Modernism, and seemingly transports the viewer to an art historical display in a small European museum. Taking Lenin’s words and the artist’s own age, Chen Xiaoyun transplants his contemporary utopian fable into these 21 works.
One of the pieces on show is Chen’s ink-on-paper depiction of a dark rectangular object floating on a stormy sea—it brings to mind the island fortress in The Count of Monte Cristo, or the Titanic sailing towards its doom. Or still yet: this exhibition centered on ideals and their destruction might summon another kind of apparition—a specter, the specter of Communism lingering in Europe.