STORY AND PHOTOS BY MINGYUE ZHOU
Where do the world leaders go when they retire?
Now on show at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation as part of Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture, Old Person’s Home was created in 2007 by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, two artists based in Beijing. The duo is known for using controversial materials such as human fat tissue, live animals, and baby cadavers to deal with issues of perception, death, and the human condition.
“I just wanted to make a toy for me to play [with], and surprisingly people liked it a lot,” Sun Yuan points out.
The exhibition features 13 over-aged “men” in suits and ties or uniforms roaming about aimlessly in wheelchairs, bumping into each other and getting tangled from time to time. Each time they collide they make a creaking noise which sends the gallery staff rushing to the rescue. The men remind you of someone, someone high level enough to be at a UN debate or at Israel Palestinian negotiations, perhaps. But what you can see here is what is left of these “world leaders”: they are old, frail and dying. At a closer look, you realise they are just life-like human sculptures made from silica gel and you begin to understand the piercing irony.
It is interesting to observe how visitors react when they arrive in the gallery. Their expressions move from shock to confusion, from amusement to fascination, and then they take out a camera or mobile phone to take photos or video. A few persistent visitors hang around for a long time, trying to figure out how the exhibit works: what the material is, how the mechanics work and how the sensors stop the dummies bumping into visitors. Visually it is confronting, with a good flavour of playfulness and satire.
When asked how the idea came to him, Sun Yuan smiles and says, “You know, this question is the most common one an artist often gets asked but is also the hardest to answer, because there wasn’t really a moment that the artist conjured up this idea. Instead, it was a story.” The work has been shown in a number of countries since its inception in 2007 and the biggest challenge has been the technical maintenance. “It would have been a lot cheaper and easier if it is in China,” Sun Yuan says.
After the Australian show, Old Person’s Home will travel to its final destination, Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, opening in 2017.
Featuring 55 works from the prominent Uli Sigg Collection, Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture opened at two galleries in September, the Australian National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF). The exhibition was curated by Dr Claire Roberts, senior lecturer in Art History at Adelaide University and one of Australia’s leading sinologists. It features some of the most high-profile artists working at an international level today, including Ai Weiwei , Fang Lijun, Geng Jianyi, Liu Xiaodong, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Shen Shaomin, Wang Guangyi, Wang Jianwei, Yin Xiuzhen, Yu Hong, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Peili and Zhang Xiaogang in diversified media of painting, drawing, mixed media, sculpture, photography, video and installation art.
Swiss businessman and former Swiss ambassador in Beijing Uli Sigg started his collection in 1990s. His collection is deemed the world’s most comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art from 1990s to present, and now boasts a comprehensive collection of more than 2200 artworks from 1979 by 350 Chinese contemporary artists. In June 2012, under a partial gift and partial purchase agreement, Sigg donated 1463 works valued at $US163 million to Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, which will open in 2017.