Artist Spotlight: China [Cai Zhisong]

Artphaire (Online), May 13, 2014.

“History Re-presented: Cai Zhisong”

by Jason Edward Kaufman

When Chinese contemporary art started gaining international attention about a decade ago, one criticism was that much of the work seemed derivative of Western postwar styles. There was something formulaic and calculated about combining Maoist Socialist Realist motifs that screamed “China!” with Pop, Conceptualist and Postmodern aesthetic approaches that screamed “Contemporary Art!”

The most prominent figures – Zhang Huan, Ai Weiwei, Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Cai Guo Qiang, and Xu Bing, among others – developed original bodies of work that merge aspects of both Chinese and Western culture. They work with Chinese motifs and media such as ink landscape painting and calligraphy, but transposed into oil paint, photography, performance, installation and appropriated imagery and objects. But while the international language of contemporary art developed in the West remains their lingua franca, some seem closer in sensibility to medieval and ancient art.

One is Cai Zhisong. The Beijing-based artist (b. 1972) studied and taught sculpture at that city’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. He is best known for life-size statues of Qin dynasty warriors and court ladies, figures suffused with a reverence for the past. A retrospective recently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei provided a comprehensive overview of his meticulously crafted works created since 2001.

Distributed on plinths throughout the galleries, the full-length warriors, ladies, and a number of disembodied heads are rendered with realist precision. Clothed figures are made of cast bronze with lead drapery, and nudes are modeled in clay then cast in fiberglass sheathed in squares of sheet copper with a golden patina. Hair is braided copper wire. Their well-proportioned physiques and bilateral symmetry recall the idealization of Greek and Roman sculpture, but the effect is less of grandeur than of a silence reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture.

Unlike the third-century-BC Xian terracotta warriors that inspired them, Cai’s figures are less working individuals than symbolic types. They exude an attitude of introspection, obeisance and suffering that reflects humility before the inexorability of fate. Although his figures are archetypal Chinese characters, their bowed heads, lowered eyes and stooped postures are clearly intended to represent this universal condition.

Cai’s homage to Chinese cultural tradition — he titles one of his series “Ode to the Motherland” – has a tinge of sentimentality and nostalgia. His stereotypical characters could be intended to appeal to collectors’ desire for recognizable Chinese iconography. But despite their clichéd features and the New Age serenity of their representation, what emerges is a tone of sincerity, reverence and pathos.

Not all of Cai’s works are figures. He makes reliefs and freestanding sculptures of roses cast in lead, expressing an elegiac take on beauty. He creates hanging and hand scrolls out of lead – a Chinese variation on Anselm Kiefer’s lead tomes — which suggest both durability and metaphorical weight, earthbound despite striving for transcendence through knowledge. That seems to be also the theme of his painted-steel clouds, one of which – shown at the 2011 Venice Biennale  — rests on the plaza in front of the museum, whose brick façade is adorned with a mural of white clouds. More clouds are suspended in a double-height gallery, and a small one hovers mysteriously above a pedestal, held in place by magnets.

Cai sometimes comments obliquely on Chinese political life. A colossal photograph of a red door to the Forbidden City is digitally printed on canvas, its golden bosses replaced with 81 roundels containing photographs of key sites in Chinese modern history. In another piece, he memorializes in lead one of the manila envelopes in which the Communist government maintains dossiers on each worker. These mild critiques of the Chinese state have not interfered with his commercial success.

Though less well known in the West, his works are well collected in China and abroad and sell for substantial sums, including one work  – “Venice Cloud” — that topped $1 million at Beijing’s Poly auction house in Spring 2012. His main outlets are Linda Gallery (Singapore), Tina Keng Gallery (Taipei), Opera Gallery  (Hong Kong) and Triumph Art Space (Beijing).  A philanthropist as well, in March, he donated ten works that were auctioned at $300,000 to support medical care and the restoration of a historic shrine in Tibet. As yet, museum interest has come mainly from Asia, but considering the cross-cultural appeal of his work, it seems likely that will will soon find Cai’s finely crafted sculptures in European and American institutions, as well.

“History Re-presented: Cai Zhisong” continues through April 6, 2014

Jason Edward Kaufman //

This article appeared on Artphaire (Online), May 13, 2014.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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