Bronze has a long history in Chinese art-making and artisanship, dating from its Great Bronze Age, 2000 years ago, when forgers of the Shang and Zhou dynasties developed bronze casting techniques independent of parallel advances around the world. Perhaps best known today are China’s ritual bronzes; surviving in impressive numbers, these ornate vessels were produced for use in ceremonies, sacrifices, banquets, and the like, and buried with their owners. Today, as a generation of Chinese artists looks back on millennia of artistic traditions as a lens to examine contemporary issues (led by such luminaries as Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing), a host of sculptors offer distinctive takes on the historic bronze medium, including several on the roster of Singapore’s Ode to Art.
Drawing on China’s rich tradition of figurative sculpture, Cai Zhi Song’s practice is centered on a respect for cultural heritage and its fragility in the face of globalization. He derives the tense poses of his figurative sculptures from ancient sources—many of them ceremonial and religious—and reinvents them in cutting-edge materials and techniques, in particular his trademark bronze, copper, and lead sheets molded over fiberglass bodies. Song has described his work as an attempt to establish a modern form of “indigenous” art. “Many believe traditional composition has lost its vigor and expressivity,” he says, “but, on the contrary, I believe we have not sufficiently studied it.” With similar emphases on mythology and pose, Xie Ai Ge makes more whimsical, abstract-leaning sculptures: her minimalistic, serene figures aim to show viewers that “even the stillest post can touch us deeply.” Xie negates the traditional finish of bronze by coating her works in stark lacquers of white, red, and black—lending a slick, Pop sensibility to her monastic figures, meditating in nature or practicing Tai Chi.
Although he is now better known for his grotesque figures of human-pig hybrids engaged in transgressive acts, Chen Wenling gained initial fame with his “Red Memory” series: bronze sculptures of young boys smiling, laughing, and innocently cavorting. Similar to Xie’s work, Chen’s bronzes are coated in a rich red paint, which he says he uses both to augment their emotional intensity and, of course, to reference Communism. And Chen is not alone in his use of children as subject matter—his younger counterpart Zhang Jian Long also casts expressive bronzes of young Chinese children. Zhang’s paradigms of childhood innocence act out cultural and historical references, fighting, dancing, playing games, and working the fields; though universal in resonance, Zhang asserts that his sculptures are deeply personal in nature, reflecting the joys he felt as a child.
Whether in subject or method, these young Chinese sculptors are a small sampling of the many means their generation is finding to consider the past.