Saturday, November 15, 2008

Xie Caomin's "Afterlife" (来生)

Though not a huge fan of art that strays toward the abstract side, I was pleasantly surprised by Xie Caomin’s exhibition entitled “Afterlife” at Gallery55 in Moganshan 50. The relatively small exhibition (approximately ten large paintings) represents Xie’s response to the contemporary art world today, from a creative perspective. In his statement, Xie expresses concern that much of today’s art attempts to tackle specific socio-economic issues by responding to them artistically. He deems this a “list of complaints”. More effective, in Xie’s mind, is to respond to larger issues of life’s cyclic nature and the fleeting nature of everything. This concept stems from the Buddhist idea of the afterlife, where every “thing” is in a circulating process that eventually returns it to its fundamental state. Ironically, this to me seems a much greater idea to encompass or even attempt to respond to in a painting, but that is precisely what Xie’s work is about. He thus shifts to his focus to a self-proclaimed macro view of the world.

This is entirely clear in his paintings, whose surrealistic imagery is an ambiguous mix of the natural and the artificial. With several of his paintings, it wasn’t clear whether I was looking at a jumble of intertwined plants and wildlife, or a technological dumping ground. To me, they tended to be on the futuristic, scientific side, appearing to depict technological material such as tubing, wires, metal and plastic. This led to my own interpretation of the title “Afterlife”, which I read as “After Life”, as many of the images evoked a post-apocalyptic sense of chaos. I sensed, in this world, the overpowering of nature by science and technology. In this sense, the Buddhist idea of life as a natural, neverending cycle has been interrupted, destroyed, or at least steered dramatically off course. However, the images are so ambiguous they could easily represent something more macro than I took them for, something more fundamental than the aesthetics of matter as humans see them. I believe what Xie is actually addressing is the fundamentality of life on a level that we are completely unable to see, despite developments in technology leading us to believe otherwise. He implies that there is a level so deep, so magnified that matter is no longer even a way to describe life, and at this level everything leans more toward the metaphysical. This extreme examination of life is on one level completely awe-inspiring, as we are seldom encouraged to examine life in an inexplicable way. However, on the other hand this perspective is entirely liberating, as it is almost impossible to confirm or deny the “correctness” of such a way of thinking. Thus, in all its complexity, the conceptual framework of Xie’s work forces the viewer to contemplate but for a short time, finally succumbing to the complexities of existence in order to enjoy all of its simplicities- which might not be a bad way to look at art, either.

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