Sui Jianguo, Blind Portrait, 2008, cast bronze, 16' 4 7/8“ x 6' 9” x 7' 6 1/2".

Sui Jianguo, Blind Portrait, 2008, cast bronze, 16' 4 7/8“ x 6' 9” x 7' 6 1/2".

Sui Jianguo

Pace Gallery, Beijing

Sui Jianguo, Blind Portrait, 2008, cast bronze, 16' 4 7/8“ x 6' 9” x 7' 6 1/2".

Sui Jianguo’s oeuvre illustrates a common dilemma for artists of his generation, a kind of dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder) in both theory and practice. Although not billed as a retrospective, this was a significant exhibition for Sui, who was born in 1956, succinctly presenting twenty-five years of artistic production and thereby opening a new vista on the contradictions and tensions in his work.

The exhibition was filled with hints at a classical heroism, for instance in copies of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and Bound Slave next to Sui’s reinterpretations, which show the figures clothed in “Mao suits.” Yet the allusion to the tradition of the sculpted hero is undone with Blind Portrait, 2008, a sixteen-foot-high tower of bronze, vaguely resembling a bust. Sui made the indistinct shape by sculpting in clay while wearing a blindfold; he enlarged the result about twenty times and then cast it, rendering every fingerprint faithfully to match its tiny original. The scientific exactitude and precision are near pathological but the creative impetus is absurd; any impulse to reflect social reality has been erased, replaced by a slavish obsession with reproducing formal attributes. The work comes off as an unfeeling simulation of an ideological commitment to realism.

Sui hovers between sculptor and Conceptual artist, and it must be noted that inordinate numbers of his works have become icons in the “Chinese contemporary” canon. Indeed, Sui’s ability to straddle the “commercial” and “state” art worlds is unique. He enjoys recognition from both apparatchiks and discriminating art patrons and is a celebrated professor in the sculpture department of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts; his oeuvre has been widely influential among younger artists. Sui is as much a part of the state’s cultural bureaucracy as he is a poster boy for the Chinese avant-garde abroad. Antagonism toward authority seems a prerequisite for Chinese artists in the international eye, à la Ai Weiwei, but Sui’s flaccid political statements make him the quintessential modernist antihero. The political tension in his work is strongest in Hygiene Portraits, 1989, twelve plaster heads in bandages, one dated for each month of the fateful year of the “Tiananmen Incident.”

Sui’s work progresses from a rhetorical formalism, captured in the steel-bound stones of Earthly Force, 1992–94, to a serialized Conceptualism, exemplified in the Shape of Time, 2006–, a steel bar dipped once daily in blue paint. In the latter, he seems to question the academy’s touted Leninist cultural values by surrendering form to process. But in his latest work, form returns to trump all: Limit Movement, 2011, is a roughly hewn rectangular steel box in which a sphere rolls on a track suspended inside the enormous enclosed space, but can be seen only through a concave peephole at either end.

The return to primary shapes in monumental sizes seems to locate Sui’s practice in late modernism, his commitment to form perhaps distancing him from a truly contemporary practice. Xu Bing’s analogous work in the late 1980s made him a contemporary-art hero thanks to his unequivocal directness, whereas Sui’s bifurcated practice––forever veiled in his fabricated objects––is equal parts homage to and critique of his formalist training and all its ideological implications. His work demands something more than the currently fashionable sociological interpretations, perhaps a return to formalist analysis. If this is so, we are unable to determine if Sui is edging out of modernism into the contemporary, or if his coded practice and passive resistance belong to a different historical trajectory altogether.

Lee Ambrozy