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Ah Xian

Ah Xian (1960-) Throughout April 1989, large numbers of students gathered in Tian’anmen Square, in front of the Forbidden Palace in the centre of Beijing in China. They were demonstrating against political corruption and economic instability. As the crowds continued to grow, so did the displeasure of the government of the People’s Republic of China.

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By the beginning of June, armed soldiers were sent in to suppress the protest. This they did, violently, leaving between 400 and 7000 people dead (because of the lack of freedom of the press in China at the time figures are very unreliable).

Ah Xian (pronounced `ar see-arn’) had friends who were jailed because of their involvement in the protests. The following year he sought political asylum in Australia. He has lived in Sydney since then, working in both Australia and China. His work can be seen as an attempt to reconcile his past and present lives; it is a visual bridge between the east (his homeland of China) and the west (Australia, where he lives). His sculptures present a contrast between the three-dimensional busts that belong to the western portrait tradition and the two-dimensional surface which is painted with traditional, symbolic and decorative Chinese patterns.

In 1997, in his backyard studio, Ah Xian began to make porcelain busts on plaster casts he made over the figures of friends and family. He then glazed these busts with traditional hand-painted Chinese designs. Since 1999 he has collaborated with Chinese artisans in Jingdezhen (the historical centre of China’s fine porcelain production), who paint the traditional designs that he selects after research in pattern books. He used their expertise to decorate the three-dimensional works of the human figure in his series called China China.

Ah Xian China China Bust 1999 The eyes of Ah Xian’s figures are always closed. The faces are still and silent and wear no expression. In many ways figures such as Dr John Yu AC (right) remind us of the western tradition of portrait busts begun by the Romans. We see the same head and shoulder view in the two portrait busts in the first century CE Roman sculpture in Figure 1. 48. Dr John Yu is a Sydney paediatrician (doctor who treats children). He was born in China but has lived in Australia since he was 3 years old.

The inclusion of colourful children climbing on the sculpture follows the Chinese tradition of placing small children’s figures around images of the Laughing Buddha and Guanyin (the god of compassion and mercy) and creates a contrast to the simple undecorated figure. They also symbolise John Yu’s work with sick children. Ah Xian creating the mould on Dr Yu’s face In the works of Ah Xian’s China China-Bust series, such as China China-Bust (Right), the bust is covered in oriental decorative motifs such as those used for centuries on traditional Chinese vases, plates and bowls.

Each bust uses a different pattern, most of which are symbolic. They are all intricate and include real and mythical creatures, such as the dragon and the phoenix, flowers such as the peony and the lotus, and traditional landscapes. These patterns cover the whole background of the face and figure and, like a tattoo, can be seen as a permanent mark left by culture and tradition. Sometimes the designs follow the contours of the head, sometimes they contradict them. Since 2000 Ah Xian has also worked in other traditional Chinese craft techniques such as cloisonne (pronounced `klwa zo nay’), lacquer work and jade carving.

Human human-lotus, cloisonne figure 1 (Fig. 4. 72) is a life-size figure of a woman made from sections of copper sheet that have been panelbeaten by hand and covered in intricate cloisonne patterns of lotus flowers and lily pads. In 2001, in a workshop in Hebei province outside Beijing, Ah Man worked in the 700-year-old technique of cloisonne, which was applied to a full body cast. The lotus pattern covering the form symbolises peace, happiness and spiritual unfolding.