Kan Xuan – Between Thinking and Feeling

Kan Xuan, A happy girl(2002). Video, sound, 1′, single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.
Kan Xuan, Garbage(1999). Video, sound, 60′, single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.
Kan Xuan, Looking , Looking, Looking For… (2002). Single channel sound video, 2’42”. Film still courtesy the artist.
Kan Xuan, Island(2006-2009). 4-channel video installation. Film still courtesy of the artist.
Kan Xuan, Kanxuan!Ai!(1999). Video, sound, 1’22”, single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.
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Video Art Asia by COBOSocial.com

“The changes of rhythm come from deep inside of me, free, resolute and happy[i]

As we screen-junk our way through today’s fast moving hyper-mediated, screen filled environment, how much do we really see or even experience, how much are we present? Questions of the materiality of existence and subjectivity are themes that run through Kan Xuan’s (b. 1972, Anhui, China) work and something that stands out is her ability to communicate and articulate real presence.

TEXT : Katie Hill
IMAGES : Courtesy of the artist and Ikon Gallery Birmingham

Walking into the upper space of Ikon Gallery Birmingham, a series of old-style monitors is presented like a set of sculptural objects spaced at intervals across the room, objects that represent in the post-digitalised world, an old-fashioned kind of televisual viewing, very different from the ubiquitous flat-screen that is part of our everyday regalia of smart phones and ipads.  Over three rooms, these little monitors take us into a deeply considerate set of works that together form a joyful and witty window on the world.

 

Kan Xuan, A happy girl(2002). Video, sound, 1', single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.
Kan Xuan, A happy girl(2002). Video, sound, 1′, single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.

Belonging to the so-called ‘in-between’ generation of Chinese artists, Kan Xuan was born towards the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, in the early 1970s. Her early training bridges the classically grounded practice of Chinese ink painting with experimental video, led by artists at the forefront of conceptualism in China such as Geng Jianyi (b. 1962, China) and Zhang Peili (b. 1957, China). Their early efforts in Hangzhou paved the way for video art and conceptualism that has given rise to many of the most interesting artistic practices over the past twenty years.

This exhibition, curated by Ikon’s director Jonathan Watkins, who has followed and admired the artist’s work for many years, is an intelligent show that is deliberately understated, celebrating Kan’s sustained output of video over more than fifteen years. The experimental form of handheld camera-work, low-tech and small-scale offers an intimate experience of the aesthetics of everyday life and bodily experience. It is also a precious capsule of the now old-fashioned interim technology that is likely to completely fade from existence.

A formative fly-on-the-wall video is a portrayal of the artist running against a crowd in an underground station tunnel, hair flowing behind her in an act of pure freedom, shouting her own name and then answering to herself: ‘Ai!’ (Kan Xuan! Ai! single channel sound video, 1’ 22”, 1999). This small act is witty and liberating, speaking volumes about the moment of choosing to move against the flow, particularly as a young woman finding her way literally and metaphorically as an emergent artist in this mass, regulated society of contemporary China.  Such a work sets the tone for a singular, contemplative affirmation of autonomous being, expressing the immediate sensual experience of life and living, which is central to Kan Xuan’s oeuvre.

Kan Xuan, Garbage(1999). Video, sound, 60', single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.
Kan Xuan, Garbage(1999). Video, sound, 60′, single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.

In Persimmon (2002) the squeezing of a persimmon to pulp in a repetitive, physical movement of the hands on the fruit is palpably sensual, the squelching sound and wet, fleshy interior evoking obvious sexual overtones, as it splits open and overflows.  On the other side of this work, in Garbage (1999), we have to listen carefully as the artist softly whispers the name of objects picked out of her bin in an intimate reverie on the lowly objects cast away after their brief existence in the service of daily consumerism: ‘this is a tissue’, ‘this is a bus ticket’, ‘this is an orange peel’, ‘this is a cigarette packet’. In a more political piece: One by One (2004), is viewed at waist level with the camera moving swiftly in horizontal motion from side to side, the screen filled with a line of belted uniforms forming a faceless officious blockade of guards. Mirroring the bodily subjective position of the viewer, it acts as a powerful visual metaphor for the individual stonewalled by the anonymous grey uniform of state power.

 

Kan Xuan, Looking , Looking, Looking For... (2002). Single channel sound video, 2'42". Film still courtesy the artist.
Kan Xuan, Looking , Looking, Looking For… (2002). Single channel sound video, 2’42”. Film still courtesy the artist.

Looking Looking Looking For…(2003) a spider scuttles over two naked bodies, causing a frisson of sensual tension as we watch it explore the landscape of which it is unconscious. The bodies flinch as its tiny being moves across skin, hair and crevices. In Object (2003), a black and white video, objects are dropped into water to create an inky, painterly effect juxtaposed with a voice-over stating the colour they turn within the register between black and white, ‘cheese is grey, sausages are grey, rice is white’, triggering in the viewers’ memory of their real colour.[ii] These two works are magnificent, creating a concise aesthetic narrative shot through with sharp philosophical observation, capturing the disconnect between human consciousness, naming and being, recalling Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream in the ancient text about the nature of illusion.

 

Kan Xuan, Island(2006-2009). 4-channel video installation. Film still courtesy of the artist.
Kan Xuan, Island(2006-2009). 4-channel video installation. Film still courtesy of the artist.

Kan Xuan’s work is wonderfully human, portraying an immediate sense of being as a sensual, visceral experience in which aesthetics in the true sense are construed in a cluster of sight, touch and sound, omitting the more invisible, larger socio-political backdrop. Her position is quietly ethical, recalling the obligation to stay true to the self. Its relational interplay of the body with objects or phenomena has a certain charm as we are drawn into the small pleasures of experience that is quietly humorous and enjoyable.  Her warmth is a welcome affirmation of female creative agency, a perspective that is rooted in the sensual and the perceptual. As she says in the excellent catalogue essay by Lu Leiping accompanying the exhibition: ‘it is about trying to become closer to and trying to follow, in every moment, my wish to exist in that distance between ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’.[iii]

[i] Kan Xuan, in Jonathan Watkins, ‘Foreword’, Kan Xuan exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery (2016), p.3.

[ii] In Lu Leiping, ‘Beyond Objects: Kan Xuan’s Video Art Work’, in Kan Xuan, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery (2016), p.18.

[iii] Lu, ‘Beyond Objects: Kan Xuan’s Video Art Work’, p.18.

 

Kan Xuan
IkonGallery
6 July — 11 September 2016

 

About the Artist

Kan Xuan, Kanxuan!Ai!(1999). Video, sound, 1'22", single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.
Kan Xuan, Kanxuan!Ai!(1999). Video, sound, 1’22”, single channel. Film still courtesy the artist.

 

Kan Xuan 闞萱

b. 1972 in Anhui Province, China; works and lives in Amsterdam and Beijing

Kan Xuan is a Chinese contemporary visual artist who experiments with various types of media including painting, photography, and video installation. Having worked extensively in the Netherlands, her work indicates some exposure to international experience and influence. Although Kan works with various types of media including painting, performance art, and photography, she is best known for her video installations and is considered an important female video artists in China. Her work aims to illuminate the rarely noticed feelings and emotions of the everyday. To Kan, video works like a diary, recording everyday experiences objectively and fully. Her recent work includes body-oriented performances and image transformation. Though the images appear simple, Kan argues simplicity is a form of freedom and directness is a vehicle for understanding life.

 


Katie Hill  (Program Director, MA Modern and Contemporary Asian Art, London, Sotheby’s Institute of Art) is a regularly invited speaker for exhibitions and events in numerous institutions and galleries. Her recent work includes In Conversation’ with Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern, selector panel/author, Art of Change, New Directions from China, Hayward Gallery, London, and specialist advisor/author for The Chinese Art Book (Phaidon 2013). She also co-edited a special issue of the journal Visual Art Practice on Contemporary Chinese Art and Criticality, published in 2012. She is director of OCCA, Office of Contemporary Chinese Art, an art consultancy promoting Chinese artists in the UK.

 
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