Xiang Yang’s UK debut show is an interesting, though draughty, meeting place for East and West
Chinese artist Xiang Yang, in association with the Today Art Museum Beijing and Chelsea College of Arts, University of Arts London
ULTRA ARCHITECTURE, EAST meets WEST, Yang’s first solo show, is an architectural installation floating on a pontoon. It is made up of antique Chinese furniture and chairs found on the streets of New York. ‘It’s a place to talk’, says Xiang Yang, ‘and drink coffee and you can sleep here if you like too’; a poet in Germany stayed on the installation for three days and nights, and didn’t lament the lack of roof. Two of Yang’s trademark silk thread sculptures flank the structure. One is a painting in the Song dynasty tradition, with multi-coloured threads etching the outline and stretching back from the canvas, and the other is a floor plan of a Western cathedral.
St Katherine Dock, London
19 -28 October
‘I am so scared,’ Xiang Yang admits as we settle down in a corner of his installation which is relatively sheltered from the wind, ‘to speak English, I can only speak Chinese’.
Through his translator, Xiang tells me the structure is a recreation of a public and personal memory. It is in the style of a typical Chinese wooden hut that, says Xiang, has largely disappeared from the landscape through deconstruction and development. With the wooden huts, Chinese culture has gone; it has become an abstract idea that he takes with him to the US where he works.
It is also a memory of a house from Xiang’s own childhood; an ‘independent’ house. I wonder if independent simply means ‘detached’, or has a more subtle, more abstract inference, as everything else in the structure does - aside from the very obvious Chinese influence.
The purpose of this installation, says Xiang, is to dissolve boundaries. Boundaries between East and West, he says, are blended through ancient Chinese furniture and New York detritus. ‘From the outside,it is very Chinese. You open the door and come in, and it’s not really a Chinese thing.’ From the inside it is neutral, almost non-descript, and apart from the picture of the floor plan of a Western Cathedral, any Western influence is minimal.
‘You don’t know if you are inside or outside,’ says Xiang, now not through the translator, and in impassioned broken English, he quotes 4th Century BC philosopher Zhuang Zhou: ‘I did not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man’.
We are not Chinese people, English people, and American people, says Xiang, ‘we are just people,’ These divisions or walls built up by different cultures and religions can be knocked down by art, he believes. He talks about good and evil; how no one analyses the distinctions, and rather than lead to any conclusion on this score, muses, ‘I want to go deep, I want to talk to culture.’
As the Chinese president comes to the UK this week, the question of the relationship between East and West is particularly pertinent.
Author of Beijing Coma and Red Dust, Ma Jian wrote in the Guardian this week that according to a secret document recently circulated in China, ‘The Chinese communist party considers western constitutional democracy the number one ‘peril in the ideological sphere.’
Yet Xiang is adamant that China has changed a lot, and that he has freedom of artistic expression. ‘People are afraid of China,’ he says, ‘they think it’s a very sad place where people cannot do what they want, but now it’s very different. Freedom is respect.’ Xiang’s installation was first exhibited in a Chinese museum, and the museum’s representative, Alex, tells me that he knew the exhibition would be a success because it depicts a very Chinese emotion; the will to internalise and at the same time drive forward.
Xiang exercised this balance in making his silk thread sculptures. Each one took him two months, during which he worked ten hour days. ‘You can’t be angry,’ he said, ‘you have to be very quiet. It’s like music. You can’t design it, you just do it as you go along.’