In Human human - landscape carved lacquer bust 5, the surface design appears to overtake the form of the bust, reminiscent of peeled flesh exposing the tissue beneath. The slumbering face has released a hidden landscape that has risen through the skin, a symbolic motif referencing a Chinese Daoist tradition, 'Human beings are by law of the earth; the earth is by law of the heaven; the heaven is by law of Dao; Dao is by law of nature.'(1)
Many of the landscapes chosen by Ah Xian to form the decorative motif for his busts are drawn from traditional Chinese scroll painting, where mountains, trees, rocks and water were intended to diminish the presence of the human figure, as nature was worshipped as the highest spirit.(2) Contrary to this historical genre, the human figure is formidable in Ah Xian's lacquer bust, incised with these traditional motifs. In this work Ah Xian reverses the traditional relationship by placing the human body as the central identifiable form on which the landscapes are inscribed.
The complex history of lacquer making in China goes back to Neolithic times. The earliest unearthed example dating from this period was a wooden bowl, coated with vermilion lacquer, found at a site at Henudu in Zhejiang Province. Historically, lacquer was painted on vessels and structural timbers as a protective and decorative coating. Over time and successive dynasties, it has evolved into a sophisticated art form and, in combination with precious and semi-precious materials, has been used to enrich weaponry, musical instruments and all manner of domestic items. Later, during the Yuan period (1279-1368) a complex process of relief carving through multiple layers of lacquer became highly refined.
Chinese lacquer comes from the sap of Rhus verniciflua (a small Asiatic tree), which is gathered in June and July each year. Lacquerware is durable, moisture-proof and heat resistant, adding beauty to function. Carvers skilfully engrave and cut into the hardened lacquer (often comprising hundreds of layers), creating relief images of landscapes, human and mythical figures, flora, and fauna. The work is finished by drying and polishing. This traditional relief carving process was used by artisans working with Ah Xian at a lacquerware factory in Beijing to create Human human - landscape carved lacquer bust 5, the multi-layers of lacquer in this case applied over a life-cast fibreglass form.
Ah Xian's sculpture deals with a series of paradoxical oppositions - between tranquillity and disruption, beauty and aversion, tradition and innovation, life and death. The final impression is of a delicate balance between all these possibilities. Poised between cultures and countries, between old and new, the art of Ah Xian is an attempt to reconcile his past with the present.
1. Ah Xian, interview with Britta Schmitz, in Face Up: Contemporary Art from Australia [exhibition catalogue], Nationalegalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum for the Present, Berlin, Germany, 2003 p.203.
2. Face Up: Contemporary Art from Australia, p.203. Also, see Wu Hung, The Double Screen: Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting, Reaktion Books, London, 1996, pp.137-140.