Exhibition Review: Unscrolled, Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art

by Micaela Kwiatkowski

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The element of surprise in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art caught me off guard. Through mediums ranging from large-scale installation to painting and digital media, Unscrolled juxtaposes the traditional Chinese Art on display in The Forbidden City against a breadth of contemporary art practices.

Unscrolled begins with Jennifer Wen Ma’s Inked Chandelier (2014), a collection of over 700 live plants covered in Chinese ink. Their natural green is just beginning to sprout, and will keep changing as the installation continues to grow. After wandering around Inked Chandelier, I reached what appeared to be a watercolour landscape reminiscent of ancient Chinese scrolls, connected to a large lightbox. At first this didn’t appear to be a break from traditional Chinese painting, until a second examination made me realize that behind the lightbox was a collection of debris and garbage, which formed Xu Bing’s image of a mountain range. This left me both shocked and enamoured, curious as to how the array of materials functioned through the glass.

A second surprise came when I thought I had sneaked away from the exhibition, into an empty room that looked like it was filled with the remains of a wild party from the night before. What turned out to be Sun Xun’s Shan-Shui Cosmos (2012) actually presented another intriguing juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary materials. Unlike the conservative white walls throughout the rest of the exhibition, the walls in this room were disrupted by colourful gestural paint strokes, reminiscent of ink landscapes. Meanwhile, projected images of sea creatures danced across the walls, suggesting a dynamic narrative between the static paint and shifting film.

Unscrolled continued to highlight the materials of the art on display with a series of primed blanks canvases done by Qui Shihua in 1940, and a collection of transparent paintings by Zhang Enli. In both of these, the artists refrained from hiding the process of their work, allowing the materials to speak as part of the art.

All of this lead up to Ai Weiwei’s Boom, which I came to with a shock as I walked around a corner and into the midst of 886 stacked antique chairs. The chairs appeared to be floating on top of one another, and I was able to walk both underneath and around the installation. Boom came unexpectedly, revealing a grand transition from two-dimensional works to three, inviting viewers into a piece which, ironically, appeared unachievable.

Walking through the various installations and paintings in Unscrolled, I was mesmerized by the compendium of approaches to art-making. Working in dialogue with the traditions of Chinese art, Unscrolled functions as a gesture towards a contemporary consideration of material, process, and the viewer as subject: in the case of Boom, this viewer was me, emerging overwhelmed from an impossible stack of 800 chairs.

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