Xue Song is one of the most important artists of the Chinese avant garde. Born in 1965 in Anhui province and now living in Shanghai, he had his first exhibition in 1992 at the British Embassy in Beijing. He decided to dedicate himself full time to his art during the early 1990s when very few people were taking an interest in contemporary Chinese art and times were definitely hard. Now Xue Song has taken part in exhibitions the world over and is in major private and public collections.
Xue Song’s works are collages of torn pieces of paper, some with their edges burnt, others not, some completely burnt to black ash, all very carefully selected and placed in each composition. In the early 1990s Xue Song’s studio burned down, destroying not only all his works but most of his other possessions as well. In a cathartic process he took the ashes of his old works and the half destroyed remains of other objects and used them to create collages. Ironic though it may seem, he has described this moment as exciting and defining since this is when he realised the power and possibilities of expression that collage gave him.
Xue Song has continued using burnt paper and ashes in his work ever since the burning of his studio. Many interpretations have thereafter been linked to this event such as a rebirth not only of Xue Song’s art but of a civilisation. As a young adult in the 1980s he would have been aware of many Chinese artists’ desire to contribute to the regeneration of their culture. His works form a continually evolving body of observation and assessment of his country’s adjustments in the post- Mao era. Some of his works, most obviously his Mao series, fall into the Political Pop school which emerged in China in the early 1990s. Typical of the Pop approach, there is a playfulness with which the artist presents this iconic leader. The graphic approach, the outline of his portrait and the collage composition all remove the feeling of an individual and emphasize the icon, while the elements of the collages recall his personality, his preferences and his deeds. The artist’s images of Mao have been made up of collages of Chinese revolutionary song scores, images of beautiful Chinese women and more serious political events to mention but a few. More recent works have captured new, rich China and the delight the Chinese take in their new wealth, as in the Shanghai businessman series where men carrying briefcases leap in joy above the skyscrapers of the impressive Shanghai skyline. Xue Song has seen the entire social, economic and political transformation and continues to witness this amazing evolution. Other recent works express the distance between the revolutionary China of his childhood, filled with model peasants, workers and soldiers, and the manga imbued childhood of today.
Xue Song carefully chooses the material of his collages from old and new newspapers, magazines and books. He uses both images and text, western and Chinese, selecting the fragments depending on the subject of his work. The structure of his works is always the same. There is a main figure or group of figures made up of one type of collage and this is surrounded by another type of collage. The main figure may be a recognisable figure from the recent past or present: a political figure, an image made famous through the press, a culturally charged icon, a commercial product etc. or it may be calligraphic. In every case, the fragments of paper used for the collage are never a haphazard selection. The artist chooses each one to correspond to the juxtaposition he wishes to present. The collage making up the main figure or figures will be on one theme and the surrounding collage another. The new meaning in his works emerges from the recomposition of the figures using the burnt pieces of paper as well as from the juxtapositions of the two sets of collage. Each fragment of the collage carries in itself a message and the fact that each fragment is restricted to one image or piece of text highlights its message and concentrates the viewer’s attention. The burning of the edges of the fragments adds the aura of history as though segments of information have been found among destruction and pieced together in an attempt to recreate a reality. At the same time each fragment contributes to the interpretation of the work as a whole through its relationship to the main figure. The figure and the collage may be of the same subject and therefore reinforce each other or they may come from different realms and together create a new interpretation. The mood of his works covers a great range. It can be lighthearted, joyous, incredulous, ironic, mocking, matter of fact, severe, even grim, but it is always witty and incisive.
In his series of works using calligraphy, Xue Song has used recognisable characters, fragments of characters and some that he has made up himself that only look like characters. He has also used sections of classical poetry and other well known texts. The calligraphic works are among the artist’s most beautiful and poetic. He manages to make us feel the rhythm and movement of calligraphy through his choice of script and the colours used to portray it. In the works where the calligraphy dashes off the end of the canvas we are left breathless, wanting to see what would come next. Similarly in the works where the artist shows us but a fragment of a character, we are left with a desire to see the whole, to see where the fragment presented to us leads. Xue Song’s is an intense, emotional relationship with calligraphy. One can sense through these works that he feels the life of it, its pictorial origins and its poetic complexities and its force. Instead of discarding it outright, many artists of the Chinese avant garde struggle to reconcile their great cultural tradition with contemporary art and contemporary life. Xue Song’s calligraphic works compassionately embrace the ancient forms and give them new life.
Julia Colman New York, March 2008