50 of Australia's Most Collectable Artists: Ah Xian - Art Collector

Issue 51, January - March 2010

This profile appeared in the "50 Most Collectable Artists 2010" feature, part of the annual special issue "50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2010"

In 2006 Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum staged an exhibition of sculptures by Chinese-born artist Ah Xian. The 40 pieces were exquisite examples of Xian’s body casts in porcelain with delicate hand-painted floral and decorative motifs. Xian’s work is a contemporary take on a traditional form of Chinese ceramic sculpture that stretches back to the Ming (1364 – 1643 CE) and Qing (1644-1911 CE) dynasties. The artist believes his use of the tradition is a way of claiming a vital cultural heritage. “Twenty years after the cultural revolution, and after China has opened its door to the world,” Xian has said, “we artists with a Chinese background should have learned – and been sufficiently influenced by Western philosophy, art and culture as a whole – to attain a level of confidence and capability to tell a story about ourselves using our own language.”

Xian’s use of this sculptural language has been widely celebrated. In September 2009 Xian won the $50,000 Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize for Concrete Forest, a work comprising 36 busts decorated with impressions of leaves and flowers. In August, the Queensland Art Gallery purchased Human Human [Bust 5] for $180,000, an acquisition that adds to its already significant holdings of Xian’s work, such as Human Human Lotus, Cloisonné figure 1 and Metaphysica: Red Fish. His work techniques are exacting. Even when working with trained artisans and technicians at the Jingdong Cloisonné Factory in Hebei Province, east of Beijing, on a series that included Human Human Lotus, only one of three attempts at making the sculpture were successful. For his Clemenger winning body of work, the artist has continued to experiment with alternative materials which, despite their association with construction, achieve a remarkably delicate effect.

Xian’s work combines the aesthetic of traditional sculpture – using porcelain, bronze, brass and concrete to create busts and figures – mixed with a playful and provocative layering of pattern, painting and objects. The Metaphysica series for example is a series of bronze busts, with items found in a market in China such as a teapot, a model pagoda and a red fish placed on their heads. His porcelain works wrap painted plants such as the lotus around heads and bodies. These sorts of combinations suggest any number of readings. Some have suggested the closed eyes and shut mouths of Xian’s porcelain busts are a statement about freedom in China, while others note the juxtaposition of modern techniques with traditional form suggests a reading about contemporary Chinese life. For Xian’s part the meaning remains elusive.

Born in Beijing in 1960, Xian immigrated to Australia following the 1989 Tian’anmen Square massacre. Although Xian has lived in Australia permanently since 1990, and had his residency granted in 1995, and his family live in Sydney, he now spends much of his time back in China working on new projects. His work has been widely collected by major museums including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia and the Powerhouse Museum. A touring show of his work has been seen in the Netherlands and Germany since 2007.

Andrew Frost

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