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In Search of China’s Soul, Subversively

In Search of China’s Soul, Subversively

In Search of China’s Soul, Subversively

A conversation with artist Sun Xun and author Barbara Pollack

By Jeremy Willinger

When artist Sun Xun conceives of a new phantasmagorical piece of animated art, he refuses to think through the end before he begins. In his mind, to have a predetermined conclusion would be too commercial. Instead, the art flows, almost stream-of-consciousness style, from delicately rendered traditional ink painting to dark and violent apocalyptic imagery – each scene more surprising than the one before.

In a thought-provoking talk at China Institute on Tuesday, May 14, Sun spoke with art journalist Barbara Pollack and moderator Dorinda Elliott, SVP of Programs at China Institute, about the intersection of memory, politics, history, and art. The conversation was framed by screenings of two of Xun’s video pieces, the 2014 work “What Happened In the Year of the Dragon” and 2017’s “Tears of Chiwen”.

Sun’s work is infused with a powerful skepticism towards official historic records and the government. In “Dragon,” images of Tiananmen Square are juxtaposed with a spider in its web, and each scene morphs into parallels of suffering, transformation, conflict, and an appearance by a tall man in a stovepipe hat known as The Magician, a recurring character. Sun calls The Magician “a legal liar, the only person who is paid to [trick us].” What explains Sun’s skepticism towards governments? He grew up learning “two versions of history,” Sun says—one told by his grandparents, describing the unimaginable suffering and cruelty of the Cultural Revolution, and one in official history books, which dispense with the Cultural Revolution in little more than a sentence or two.

Pollack helped contextualize Sun’s work in the larger ecosystem of the Chinese art scene. Sun “is a very unique artist and not part of any trend. He has always talked about social issues…and his metaphors circumvent censors so he can say pointed things without pointing a finger at a specific leader,” Pollack says. Many, if not most contemporary artists in China are “beneficiaries” of China’s economic rise and its new freedoms, she adds, and so are not particularly interested in criticizing the government.

Sun, however, sees art as a vehicle for challenging institutional power structures. But his work doesn’t let us, the viewers, off the hook. Instead, he believes in the ability of each of us to make choices that have wide impact. “We are responsible for our own behavior. It is too easy to blame the government. Don’t say ‘I am without fault,’ because we all have a role to play,” says Sun. In “Dragon,” Sun includes fake “quotes” from famous writers like Franz Kafka and Nikolai Tesla. He is teaching us to question what we see and to subvert our own expectations.

Sun’s hand-rendered animations, impressive from a commentary angle, are also technical feats, requiring thousands of drawings by a team of artists. This group is run “like a company, but not in a commercial way,” says Sun. “I teach more than technique. Technique is easy but understanding [the work] may not be…A beautiful painting is easy. An ugly painting is easy. The hard part is the balance.” Art must be expansive, says Sun, “it is too simple to say black or white, right or wrong. Many things exist in parallel…Art has to include all of it.”

For consumers of Chinese art, Sun’s work is a lens through which to rethink assumptions about what is real and what is fake.  “Truth is relative,” Sun says, “and history is in the eye of the beholder.”

The full talk is available via our YouTube Channel:


Jeremy Willinger is China Institute’s Director of Marketing

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