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12 Mar 2011

'Them or Us?' at Magician Space, Beijing

Courtesy the artists / Magician Space

Them or Us?
Magician Space


2011.03.10 - 2011.04.30
Pan Honggang and Hu Youchen Installation exhibition, until May 8, 2011 Tue-Sun 11 am to 6 pm

Pan Baohui
+86 13701243699

Magician Space
798 East Road, Jiuxianqiao Road

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Them or Us?
A Project by Pan Honggang and Hu Youchen
Curated by Karen Smith
Magician Space, 798 Art District
March-May 2001

In 2009, when Pan Honggang and Hu Youchen were under-graduate students of the sculpture department at Sichuan Academy of Fine Art, they participated in an award scheme for young artists—the Earl of Cromer Scholarship Award for Contemporary Chinese Artists. The award, held annually at the academy, is open to students from across the country. In 2009, through its alignment with a similar award scheme operated by the Luo Zhongli Foundation, it received an impressive number of entries. Pan Honggang and Hu Yuchen won the top award.

Their work stood out not just because it was sculptural, and took the form of a well-thought through installation, but because the works seemed uniquely to express an emotional state close to the artists. It was, thus, deemed expressive of their generation, and that used a highly individual approach to articulately that expression. The judges, of whom I was one, were unanimous in presenting these two promising young artists with the award.

Pan Honggang and Hu Youchen's works comprised a group of eight semi-figurative sculptural forms that were part-human and part-animal, but that were all products of the artists' imagination. Each of the eight figures was placed on a carefully selected chunk of tree trunk that had been preserved with care: dried to relieve it of moisture, such that the tree bark remained intact along with the natural beauty. This group of nature's plinths was placed together just close enough, but just far enough apart to suggest a copse of trees. But in keeping with the unnatural nature of the creatures Pan and Hu had created, the ground beneath them was made of sand, not earth.

Perhaps, in these curious forms, some viewers might find creatures they recognize from comic books, from video games, from films. Yet, whatever the influences that lie behind these works, the final forms produce an aura, an ambience, that speaks directly to human experiences common amongst today's generation of one-child children in China. But in one sense, they have a resonance that extends beyond China alone, for across Europe, too, today many children are also single children and are equally products of a computer age, dominated by electronic social networks that place invisible but ever present immaterial barriers between these individual adolescents and society. In many ways, this young generation has morphed into exactly that alienated collective of frustrated, conflicted, and potentially paranoid or damaged individuals suggested in the character of Pink in The Wall, British rock band Pink Floyd's prophetic 1979 vision of a society that looses grip on the place of the individual and what were once defined as normal social relationships.

From that first group of eight pieces, a second group has evolved: seven new creatures are as a second generation to the first. In some ways, for obvious reasons of their physical form, these new figures are even more constrained then the first. The aura here is more silent, more haunting.

Pan and Hu's magical creatures have their cute side, much as we might expect from artists belonging to a young generation fully aware of Hello Kitty, Japanese manga, and the work of artists like Murakami and Nara. Yet beyond this 'cuteness', it is the haunting air of isolation and vulnerability that strikes the viewer most profoundly. In the exhibition space, the individual characters are placed in close proximity to each other. To the viewer encountering them, they appear to have clustered together as a measure of security or self-protection. One can almost hear them muttering words of reassurance to each other as if they wait with baited breath until the viewer has passed on and they are safely beyond the range of a human's gaze. Quiet to the point of silent, still to the point to stasis, seems to be their natural condition; penumbra their preferred habitat. As viewers, and with these creatures inside, we are made to feel as if the exhibition space has been transformed into some kind of zoo: but the question then becomes which of the occupants, these curious creatures, or us is the animal on display?

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