Beginning in 2011 with retrospectives by Zhang Peili and Ding Yi at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, China has witnessed several attempts to survey the practices of artists who were educated in the 1980s. Sui Jianguo’s solo show at Pace Gallery could be seen as part of that trend. Sui graduated from the Shandong Institute of Fine Arts in Jinan in 1984, and later completed his MA at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989 (where he is now head of the Sculpture Department), placing him among the first generation of artists to emerge after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. In fact, the careers of Sui and his peers roughly correspond to the emergence of the very term ‘contemporary art’ in China.
Having been active for more than two decades, Sui has a substantial volume of works for a retrospective. However, most art institutions in China don’t have in-house curatorial staff, making it difficult, if not impossible, to initiate projects driven by in-depth intellectual engagement. Quite a few have ended up merely presenting a chronological list of the artist’s works, rather than offering a perspective onto the connections between them. Fortunately, this exhibition made a more explicit attempt to outline Sui’s conceptual development since 1987. Like most sculptors trained in China’s academic system, Sui was initially rigorously schooled in Socialist Realism of the Soviet tradition, yet his sculptural practice is moulded by a questioning of that style, in an effort to extract the formal excellence of such a tradition from its ideological baggage.
This concise survey shed light on a number of important formal and artistic transitions in Sui’s practice, rather than repeating the interpretations of social and ideological intentions usually read into his work. Some of his over-publicized projects from the end of the 1990s – coloured Perspex dinosaurs, oversized Mao suits – were left out; instead, it presented his experiments with the process and formal language of sculpture, as well as the conception of time and space in sculpting, in pieces like Untitled (1987), a block of white plaster that bares the texture of white marble. Others, such as Untitled (1990), a piece of rock imprisoned in an iron cage, and Structure (1990), two pieces of rock connected tightly by one piece of bronze, revealed Sui’s concern with the original appearance of raw and natural materials, complying with their given shapes and texture and revealing their physical energy with little artificial intervention.
The show also presented Drapery Study – Dying Slave (1998), an underestimated work often overshadowed by the popularity of the artist’s ‘Legacy Mantle’ series, produced during the same period, which comprise hollow cast-aluminium sculptures of the jacket designed by Sun Yat-Sen, erroneously known as the ‘Mao jacket’. The works in the ‘Drapery Study’ series, by contrast, are reproductions of classic sculptural icons such as Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (c.1513–15), dressed in the jacket worn by Mao. Sui’s Drapery Study – Dying Slave (1998) was a deliberate appropriation of the realist sculptural technique and a reference to his own educational background, but with a biting critique of the political mechanism behind such engineering of a nationwide aesthetic preference.
Since 2005, Sui has created a series of works in various media that visualize time, space and movement, perhaps represented best by the film installation Acceleration (2006–07), which documents the drastic increase in train speeds in China. Sui’s recent works also bear the traces of the mechanical translation of a mould into a final sculpture, including a collection of objects cast in marble and bronze, based on clay moulds, the surfaces of which were covered with Sui’s own fingerprints (‘The Blind’, 2011). All of these works revealed the artist’s various periods of practice as integral parts of essentially one long process of sculpting.