Entering Guan Xiao’s solo exhibition, ‘Survivors’ Hunting’, at Magician Space felt like stepping into a crime scene. It would have taken a detective’s eye to establish the intricate and mysterious connections among the mesmerizing mixture of objects the artist had left behind in the small gallery. Every object there could yield a potential clue to the bigger picture, yet the logic of their presence and their combination was not immediately apparent – at least not at first sight.
Upon entering, viewers encountered five thick, monumental slabs of wood, about two-thirds the height of the space, arranged in a circle. Each of these structures was coated with multiple layers of car polish to create a marbled pattern of different shades of grey, green, blue, yellow and red. Those familiar with Guan’s previous works could easily recognize the camouflage-like pattern as a favourite motif in her installations.
On the uneven surfaces of these structures hung brownish shapes vaguely reminiscent of Native American or Pre-Columbian artefacts. Guan described them as ‘totems’ made out of resin, based on images of actual objects. By adding talcum powder to the resin during the production process, she managed to soften the material enough to mould it with her own hands. Guan abstracted the forms to appear more like fragments excavated from an archaeological site, or pieces of dried bread, hardened over time. The installation’s title, Cloud Atlas (all works 2013), referred to David Mitchell’s 2004 novel of the same name, which used a non-linear logic of time in which the future and the past would inevitably overlap.
The puzzle that this collection of objects suggested was resolved as viewers moved further into the show, where Guan had provided a printed index of possible associations and references for the haphazard forms of the resin objects: a dance movement, an opera mask, a Roman pillar. Guan mapped out how her shapes could be traced to different cultures and dated to specific points in time. She also displayed a small object (Museum Approach) that combined all the shapes into a miniature mask cast in brass. While in archaeological research masks and facial features are considered one of the best indicators of origin, Guan also wanted to remind us of the possibility of imagination and subjective projection when we are confronted with historical materials. Any clue, ordinary as it may seem, can lead to a crucial discovery.
This sense of history recognizing the accidental and the uncertainty of historical and scientific facts as well as the equality and validity of any form of knowledge was reiterated in the fascinating three-channel video Cognitive Shape, shown in the gallery’s second space. This work collaged 30 short video clips chosen from a pool of more than 1,000 the artist collected from YouTube, Vimeo, satellite TV and DVDs about subjects and phenomena that interest her, as well as clips she shot has herself. Cognitive Shape presented Guan as the protagonist who alternately narrated and performed her process of learning about the world through a kind of over-exposure to imagery and online information. She explained how their exposure helped shape her own worldview, and eventually how she articulated her understanding of it through her own language. Guan noted that over the last few years, she spent most of her time browsing websites such as Tumblr, vvork and Contemporary Art Daily, consuming and absorbing a large quantity of images and information.
In the summer of 2012, she stopped visiting these websites as frequently and began to contemplate how these materials and resources affected her own perspective. The magic that brought together all these random sources of information, imagery, shapes, fragments of thoughts and myriad forms of expression in Guan’s show was, ultimately, her realization of a belief in the lack of hierarchy in our new visual world. In her eyes, the openness of the Internet provides a kind of flat surface on which to work.