Horses

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I find that Chinese images of horses are subtly disorienting. Perhaps I’m too used to the use of images of horses to depict freedom, grace and wild spirits: this is ubiquitous in advertising. Indian art also sees the horse as a symbol of grace. Chinese art, on the other hand, seems to see the horse as a symbol of power. The muscles of the chest and haunches are exaggerated. The photo above is a typical contemporary depiction of a horse; this is a piece in the art museum in Wuhan. Of course, contemporary art exaggerates. But the exaggeration says something about the artist’s notion of the subject.

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How far back did this iconography emerge? I flicked through the photos that I’d taken during my recent trips to China and stopped at the image of the oldest horses I’d seen. The photo above is a famous piece, one of the two chariots dug up from near the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shih Huang. It can be seen in a special exhibit in the enclosure with the famous terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an. One can see a fairly realistic depiction of a horse. If there is an exaggeration of the chest and haunches then it is mild. So the current Chinese concept of a horse is not two thousand years old.

That’s a long enough time for an academic to research and build a thesis upon! I’m happy enough just looking at these strange Chinese horses.

Modern Chinese Sculpture

The Chinese art scene is red hot. In the last decade there have been influential shows of Chinese contemporary art around the world. This art is being bought locally and supported by the government, most visibly in the form of public art commissioned by municipal governments.

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I found that contemporary Chinese painting has to negotiate a tightrope. On the one hand it may fail by giving up an unique Chinese visual sensibility and merge into a western contemporary movement. On the other, the Chinese visual history may overwhelm any attempt to modernize. In walking through Shanghai’s M50 or Beijing’s 798 art districts we did not see a single ink drawing showing cars, buses, or cities. There was, however, a very clever calligraphic take on Mondrian.

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I find that the cleverest and the most innovative work is being done by sculptors. Three random works which caught my eye are pictured above. These are not, by any means, the most influential works of Chinese sculpture. The first is an edgy representation of a (pink!) spider, the second a clever take on bonsai, the third a quirky quote of classical Greek sculpture. Perhaps the freedom to explore is related to the fact that Chinese sculpture carries less of a cultural load than painting or ceramics.