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Sun Xun: The ‘apolitical’ activist?

The West has misconstrued one of China's most famous artists

Image credit to the MCA

Entering Sun Xun’s exhibition is akin to entering a foreign world. Much like Alice entering the mania of Wonderland, Sun’s dystopia of underworld creatures and masked Chinese figures seizes the audience with an apprehensive mix of wonder and uneasiness. But Sun’s work has been reduced by a Western lens, its message twisted into a conclusion that does a disservice to the artist and his audience. Australian media has largely described Xun’s work as anti-China—anti-censorship, anti-propaganda and anti-authoritarianism. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article characterised Sun’s work as a manifestation of political repression in China, stating, “let the Chinese have the more interesting art and more interesting times…political freedom is non-negotiable”. 21 Grams may be influenced by China’s censorship but it is an interrogation into China’s politics from his personally lived experience, rather than a politically charged message itself.

Born four years after the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Sun Xun’s upbringing informs much of his art today. He grew up in the coal-mining town of Fuxin, in northwest China and moved to Hangzhou, a coastal metropolis, as a teenager. It was like relocating from ‘North Korea to New York City’, he has said in interviews. A stout Chinese man with square glasses and a penchant for Asics runners, Sun seems unfazed by little things like current affairs. Rather, he chooses to occupy himself with meditations upon investigating the slippery truth between the authorised accounts and the lived experiences of ordinary people. In the art world he is known for his versatility—he’s said to be a ‘shapeshifter extraordinaire’.

His first solo exhibition in Australia is an eclectic collection of artworks that showcases his fluid style. 21 Grams, a monochrome animation about the decay of an industrialised European city, is probably his most notable piece. The piece refers to the notion that the human body weighs 21 grams lighter after death, once the soul has abandoned the earthly body. The video features a magician, the only ‘legal liar’ in the city, alluding to the notion that that the populace permits and even encourages the magician to propagate illusions and orchestrate propaganda.

Sun Xun has often been quoted saying that his work is apolitical. He maintains he does not have an activist agenda, and he does not believe that an artist has a duty to change the present. Rather, he holds that an artist should reflect on current systems and, in doing so, provide future audiences with enduring insights into our present existence. Hardly a chanting activist, he is more interested in gaining perdurable insights into our existence than making a statement on the limitations of present-day government.

The exhibition gives you the sense that Sun has made up his mind about the fate of humanity. In a curated documentary, he meditates on the helplessness of humans, unable to ‘avoid seeing today with eyes of yesterday’. This is also a theme in 21 Grams. The piece is shaped by Sun’s experiences in Fuxin, where the official account of history clashes with his grandmother’s recollection of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The magician releases mosquitoes from his hand, representing ‘turning forces’ that transmit lies and disease to unsuspecting populations.

Sun was profoundly influenced by the intergenerational trauma of Mao’s Zedong’s mass ideological purge. His contextual influences, however, are not new. Chinese artists like Sun frequently draw understanding about human behaviour from the political and social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. This is not to say Sun’s influences are clichéd; but often times the politically tumultuous backgrounds of artists can be over-emphasised.

It is important for art scholarship that the media does not impose exaggerated or erroneous intentions onto an artist’s work, no matter how straightforward the link may seem. To me, it seems Western critics are tempted to jump on a self-righteous bandwagon of painting China as oppressive and corrupt, a narrative that must be properly scrutinised. This is especially the case, given the US’ attempts to censor war crimes in the Iraq War, a topic that artworks such as these condemn.

As ethnic art is often relegated to niche art galleries such as White Rabbit Gallery, the MCA’s decision to display Sun’s work is a progressive leap. However, I, amongst many others. eagerly await the day they can be represented faithfully.

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