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Out of a Magicians Hat


Sun Xun is having a banner year, with showings at art fairs around the world and a recent world premiere of his film 21 Grams at the Venice International Film Festival. Xhingyu Chen investigates the spell that this young artist cast on the art world.

'Art's attempt to address such a large topic as China is like waging a revolution on civilization fought one by one. Success is always uncertain.'

No other young Chinese artist has had quite the streak that Sun Xun has experienced in the last few years since, well, ever. His astronomical rise is unprecedented, even in the fast pace world of Chinese contemporary art. After his first solo show in 2007 at ShanghArt, it has been a non-stop ride for this Beijing-based multi-media artist. Inclusion in international exhibitions quickly followed that show, including a major solo show at the Hammer Museum in L.A. in 2008. But this year has proven to be especially fruitful, with solo shows in Switzerland and Japan, an award for Best Young Artist by the CCAA (Chinese Contemporary Art Awards), a residency at the famed Centraal Museum in Utrecht, Netherlands and inclusion in that city's animation film festival, and two (!) museum shows in Shanghai this month: a group show at the Rockbund Art Museum, debuting his newest video work Beyond-ism, and a solo show at the Minsheng Art Museum. No doubt the show at MAM will draw eager crowds, as his film 21G will be shown, a piece which brought his highest achievement to date: a premier at the Venice International Film Festival Venezia Orizzonti (the festival's section for short films).

A charmed career at such a young age (he's only thirty years old) would surely go to anyone's head but Sun Xun is modest when speaking about his early success, and credits luck and serendipity for his current slate of museum shows. 'I actually started working on these works (for Rockbund and Minsheng/ Venice Film Festival) years ago. I started production on 21G in 2006 so it was not specially prepared for any one exhibition. It is all due to good timing that these works were available for these exhibitions.'

This modesty belies the talent that is apparent and that has captured the art, and film, world by storm. 21G, whose title is partially inspired by the 2003 Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film 21 Grams, explores the notion that the weight of one's soul is 21 grams. The black & white hand drawn animated film is a journey through unnamed cities, populated by surreal creatures, factories belching black soot into the sky, and broken statues. Animation work was done through the artist's own animation company that he established in 2006, pi, and features his signature charcoal and pastel drawings. Central to the work is the mysterious character of a magician, a character that the artist says is 'the only profession in the world which telling lies is not only permissible, but is part of the game.' While he is dedicated to animation and video, he is quick to point out that he is eager to try other mediums. 'I don't think animation needs to be my only medium,' he said recently of his work, 'I will try anything so long as I think it will yield interesting art.'

21G tells the story of a man in search of the weight, or value, of human beings as citizens of the world, and of the lies that people weave and believe for the benefit of their own happiness. It is a potent metaphor for the artist's home country but he does not want to be defined by politics. Speaking back in 2008 about his equally politically tinged work for the Hammer Museum, New China, he said that 'it is obviously hard to crate works about China because the subject is powerful enough of its own. Art's attempt to address such a large topic as China is like waging a revolution on civilization fought one by one. Success is always uncertain.'

While much attention has been given to the political overtones of his work, Sun Xun is equally influenced by Western philosophers, as their readings encouraged him to think deeper on issues. 'Reading the works of people like Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, I found I shared similar views or common understandings with them on certain issues. The more I read, the more I was inspired to think further and more fully on these issues. But I don't read philosophy to study philosophy per say; I read this literature as I would any other story.' In an art scene that is dominated by hyper sexualized, manga-inspired images and superficial concerns of China's growth, it is refreshing to see a young artist whose work is characterized by intellectual curiosity and a sincere concern for humanity. He certainly does not think he can change the world but as he puts it, 'the artist plans an important role but will never play the primary role.' These admirable traits and modest thinking will surely carry him through a long career and a permanent spot in Chinese art history.

21G and accompanying drawings will be on view at the Minsheng Art Museum. Beyond-ism, his newest work, will be shown at the Rockbund Art Museum. See listings for details.

Xhingyu Chen , author of Chinese Artists: New Media 1990 to 2010, Schiffer Publishing ( )

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