Letting Nature Take Its Course: In Conversation with Ah Xian

Ah Xian, Fledging No.9 (detail), 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, v.e. of 30, 140x70cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Vermilion Art Gallery.
Installation view, “The Way We Eat” at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 3 April 2021 – 14 June 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Ah Xian’ in his home in the northern suburbs of Sydney. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ah Xian’s Beijing studio in 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ah Xian, Fledging No.2, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x70 cm, v.e. of  30. Image courtesy of the artist and Vermilion Art Gallery.
Ah Xian, Fledging No.9, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x70 cm, v.e. of  30. Image courtesy of the artist and Vermilion Gallery.
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On the occasion of his first solo show with a gallery, Michael Young speaks to Chinese-Australian sculptor Ah Xian about his craft and why he stayed under the commercial radar until now.

TEXT: Michael Young
IMAGES: Courtesy of Vermilion Art Gallery

 

Chinese-Australian artist Ah Xian’s sculptural practice stretches back over 20 years since he arrived in Australia from Beijing in 1990. His reputation is predicated on a highly refined series of porcelain busts of models, family, and friends—he never discriminates when it comes to his human subjects. The busts are cast from life and today can be found in several Australian state institutions as well as in dozens of private collections in Australia. Work from his personal collection are currently on loan to Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) exhibition “The Way We Eat”, as well as to the Powerhouse Museum’s “Clay Dynasty”exhibition.

However extraordinary as it may seem amid all this ongoing success, Ah Xian has never sought art gallery representation and has eschewed the gallery system altogether. As a direct result of this personal agency, he is more widely known in Australia—his adopted country—than he is overseas.

I ask him how would anybody learn about his new work without having gallery representation. The question is answered with an enigmatic smile and a shrug of the shoulders and I am left with a real sense that fate will be called upon in the coming years to play its usual role in his career trajectory. “I would rather things took a natural course. If people appreciate my work, they will find me eventually,” he says. “I never try to influence life and art direction. I let opportunities find me. This is the way I live.” It might seem like a Buddhist, even Taoist, mantra with its simple adherence to the principle of harmonious living but Ah Xian insists he subscribes to neither philosophy.

 

Installation view, “The Way We Eat” at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 3 April 2021 – 14 June 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

These views may have served him well in the past but now the world is changing because of the pandemic and artists can no longer hide away in their chilly garrets. Having spent the previous decade commuting between Beijing and Sydney—six months here, six months there—Ah Xian has found himself locked down in Sydney for the past two years while his Beijing studio, a 250-square-metre space in the Songzhuang artist community in the capital’s eastern suburbs, has been shuttered gathering dust. “It contains hundreds of examples of my work,” he laments.

Ah Xian is modest, self-deprecating and, by his own admission, a touch shy and rarely attends gallery openings. We talked at his home in Sydney’s northern suburbs where a small ground floor room has been co-opted as a studio. It is a reflective and studious space but not big enough to sculpt his signature bust with their mass and mess. But Ah Xian remains stoical and sees the COVID-19 disruption as an opportunity to refocus his career. He has started painting again, he says, tentative delicate images on scroll-shaped rice paper.

While the Sydney house is spacious, the co-opted room is small and confined but has given him space enough. There is a wall of books, a desk with a block of black calligraphy ink and above that an extensive number of Chinese calligraphy brushes hanging from hooks on the wall. French windows open on to the garden where, among a variety of mature plants, ginger rhizomes sprout in a large planter. Ah Xian was anxious I should see their progress. Ginger is one of the most used spices in the world but has become so expensive one wonders why more people do not actually grow it at home, he says.

Ah Xian’s practice over the years has concentrated on figurative busts each embellished with various Chinese motifs. While the materiality of the medium has evolved and changed over time, their aesthetic language has remained steadfast demonstrating an artist completely at ease in the cross-cultural space that he has chosen to occupy, where he can conflate the decorative motifs and age-old craftsmanship of his Chinese heritage with a western figurative canon inherent in the bust form. “The idea I have been pursuing is to introduce [these] ancient Chinese motifs and artisanship onto the realistic human form which has been popular in western art for centuries. Neither are new, but together they become a new incredibly beautiful contemporary form of art,” he says.

 

Ah Xian’ in his home in the northern suburbs of Sydney. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Ah Xian is softly spoken, reclusive, calm, tranquil and mannered, and inscrutable to a fault. “I believe naturally the calmness flows out of me,” he says. He speaks fluent English in a quiet, and precise way and our conversation runs as smoothly as a mountain stream. The meaning of each spoken word is carefully weighed before being uttered. “I was born in 1960 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution when art schools were closed,” he says. There was little formal training in his background.

A conundrum he has been thinking about for some time is being known and unknown. He has also never exhibited in China. “Only a small contemporary art circle in China knows my work. I have been thinking about this conundrum of being known and not known and wondering if I should change my approach to commercial galleries,” he suggests with a quizzical smile. He is not chasing a wide audience but is happy to accept whatever fate presents.

After arriving permanently in Australia, he made ends meet as a house painter and a part-time artist. He experimented with casting body parts using plaster of Paris before becoming an artist in resident at the Sydney College of the Arts. In 1999, an Arts Council grant allowed him to visit Jingdezhen for nine months, the porcelain centre of China where fine porcelain has been produced for centuries.

 

Ah Xian’s Beijing studio in 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

During that time spent in Jingdezhen he made 43 porcelain busts with the help of artisans.  In early 2000 he made the one-off Human human – lotus, cloisonné figure 1 (2000–01)—a life-size female figure overpainted with lotus leaves and flowers—in Hebei, a province close to Beijing. There were three attempts to make the cloisonné figure, but two crumbled before his eyes. The third attempt become Human human and won the National Gallery of Australia’s inaugural National Sculpture Prize in 2001.

Ah Xian’s decision to end the porcelain busts that had established his reputation with their serene Zen-like calm and highly glazed surface decoration of flowers, landscapes, and clouds in beautiful cobalt blue glazes—came in 2015. “I did not want to repeat myself and end up working without passion,” he explains.

He searched for a more robust medium. “I tried several new materials in search of one that had less craftsmanship. Concrete was much rougher, heavy, and raw,” he says. And the heavy dense mass of concrete—a material with a long history reaching back to Roman times—worked as a vehicle for Ah Xian’s figurative trope. The immediate result was Concrete Forest (2008–09), a suite of 36 busts which won the 2009 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, with their surfaces imprinted with the leaves of plant species such as maple, lotus, and Chinese weeping willow, reflecting the artist’s concern for the environment. The 36 Concrete Forest busts today sit incarcerated in his shuttered Beijing studio.

Ah Xian first explored bronze, a medium that increasingly begun to occupy him, in 2004. “It is a material which is historical, durable, and heavy. It can last for thousands of years,” he says. The result of his experiments was the ongoing series Metaphysica (2007– ) that abandoned chinoiserie surface decoration in favour of the raw bronze patina of green, and ocean blue.

However, on top of each bronze head sit small everyday objects in brass and bronze—birds, fish, miniature monkeys, toads, crabs, lamps, and figurines of Buddha bought from Beijing’s Panjiayuan flea market, and now painted in contrasting colours. For Ah Xian the head is the place where souls and imagination linger. “I choose the objects carefully. They signify the Chinese appreciation of objects, the sorts of things that people have in their daily lives, mass-produced at affordable prices. Sometimes brass, sometimes bronze. People keep these objects at home. So, I use them to symbolise people’s beliefs.” Later gold leaf was added to the latest iteration along with chunks of Lake Tai rock creating an airy magisterial presence that perfectly juxtaposes with the heavy rock—known more widely as “scholar’s rocks”, because of their association with the Chinese literati and their allusion to longevity, faithfulness, and modesty. The rocks are usually found at the bottom of Lake Tai in Jiangsu Province of eastern China.

The dilemma of not ever having had gallery representation was brought into sharp focus recently when Yequin Zuo, the owner of the Vermilion Art Gallery in Sydney that specialises in Chinese contemporary artists, approached Ah Xian, and suggested he might like to mount an exhibition of some of the work he has been thinking about and working on over his months of isolation in Australia. She suggested he could make a group of work that utilised some of his sculptural images.

 

Ah Xian, Fledging No.2, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x70 cm, v.e. of  30. Image courtesy of the artist and Vermilion Art Gallery.

 

Ah Xian was intrigued by the proposition. His idea was to make prints of several of his sculptures in editions of 30. “Straight away I provided my thoughts to Zuo and started to choose images and write poetry to accompany them. Each edition of a print would carry a specific poem related to the image that would reflect something in the image,” he explains. Later he set about carving seals for each edition. “I randomly use the seals on each image,” he says.

Each Giclée print would be digitally made from original photographs, in a unified size of 140 x 70 centimetres and would be printed in Beijing, financed by the gallery. There would be a variety of papers used from handmade Xuan and rice paper with some surfaces flecked with gold leaf. It was to prove a new vehicle of expression for Ah Xian but he insisted though that this would be a one-off foray into the gallery system.

“Poetry, calligraphy, and seal carving, these are all things I did when I was in middle school in Beijing,” he says with enthusiasm. The poems are handwritten by Ah Xian on each print—300 in all—a process that proved “to be a form of meditation” in his quiet studio space and which allowed him to label each print “variable” and unique.

 

Ah Xian, Fledging No.9, 2022, giclee and ink on Xuan paper, 140 x70 cm, v.e. of  30. Image courtesy of the artist and Vermilion Gallery.

 

While international border restrictions have been lifted in Australia, entering China with its current three-week quarantine requirement has meant that Ah Xian will be in Sydney for some time yet. In the meantime, the Songzhuang studio remains locked and there is a dark insurmountable cloud beginning to form on the horizon. Recently Ah Xian discovered that the studio was slated for demolition along with a large swathe of adjacent buildings. While he has been able to rent another space about one kilometre away, the problem he now has, he says, is finding someone who is able to move the “hundreds” of sculptures from the old studio to the new, before the wrecking ball arrives. “They wanted to clear the land but I’m not sure what they will do with it.  I have rented the space until the end of April but then who knows what will happen. It is difficult for me to cope with,” he says.

“I am worrying about the move because my studio is filled with work, they are very heavy pieces, and I cannot be there to organise things. There are heavy bronze and concrete sculptures each one weighing 40 or 50 kilos. By myself I cannot move them. The work I won the Clemenger Prize with is there,” he says.

Ah Xian’s prints in “Fledging”—the title of the exhibition at Vermilion—are a rather beautiful addition to the genre and certainly to Ah Xian’s practice. “This is [my] first ever solo exhibition with a commercial gallery,” he repeats sotto voce while his face creases with a bemused smile which seems to say, how did this happen?

 

Fledging
26 February – TBC
Vermilion Art Gallery, Sydney

 

 

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