Tuesday to Sunday 10:00-17:00 (Last admission: 16:30)
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Since the 1990s, China has been undergoing a dramatic change in its urban landscape – old urban constructions have been blasted into ashes while the modern skylines rising up. As an artist born in the mid-1980s, Zhang Ruyi has been an individual growing up under the “China speed” of modernisation. Her art practice attempts to reproduce and discuss the process of urban construction and demolition in the complex relationship between individuals and environment, as well as the society. By mediating different relationships between structures and three-dimensional creations, ready-made objects and construction waste, the artist creates sculptural installations with vocabularies full of contradictions, to present the circumstances of an individual living in the context of modern urban city.
In “Modern Fossils”, Zhang deliberately adjusts the entrance and divides the entire space into two viewing parts. Entering the space, a withered cactus is placed in the small niche on the wall which is set slightly above average eye level. This cactus sits neatly and solemnly in a cupcake holder moulded out of cement. The work Dessert (2021) could be seen as the featuring work of the exhibition – a reminder that the whole exhibition will revolve around the growth of individuals and the construction of artificial space.
Upon entering the exhibition space, the orange grid of computational paper printed on the wall stands out among the monochromatic sculptures. These grids were extracted from Zhang’s printmaking practice at university and have been used extensively in her numerous graphic works. Later, the grids has evolved into a part of her sculpture and the way she deals with space. For example, in the collage series Desolation of Memories (2021-2022) which are placed on the floor, the artist folds the tin foil into tiny squares and unfolds them. Its cheap metallic reflections and handmade mesh marks set the tone of two pieces, which became a space for still life residency.
The printed cactus pattern and the various collage materials are flattened randomly under the glass, revealing an artificial, cheap and fettered sense of urgency. In terms of physical experience, the situation of living beings inhabiting in a homogeneous framework is a direct alluding to a generation of Chinese urban citizens – In the early days of New China’s construction, buildings were built in batches to improve the living conditions of the vast number of industrial workers in the cities, using cheap construction materials and simple structures that could be replicated. Its design language is deeply influenced by the Bauhaus philosophy, which emphasises functionality and replicability, while undermining aesthetics and the living experience. It can be said that the grid, as a visual and living experience, was literally present in the perceptions of those who lived through modern socialism and thus became an ideological signifier. For instance, Günther Förg, who grew up in East Germany, expressed the strong social order with his photography and grid paintings about architecture. Today in China, this homogeneous order no longer appears as the same lifestyle for all, but reappears in the strict grid management under the emergency state. The grid, as the omnipresent background of Zhang’s work, suggests the presence of this oppressive order.
In the field of contradictions created by Zhang Ruyi, what is equally powerful with the force of extrusion is the vitality that confronts it. In Modern Fossil (Pipe) – 1 (2021), cement cactus embedded in the gap of the cement-moulded PVC pipe, as the endorsement of life, spurts out in the extrusion of the pipe, showing strong vitality and unrestricted beauty. Furthermore, the artist extends the growth and fluidity of the organic body to almost everything. The pipes, which carry the flow of daily excreta, appear as a gurgling undercurrent in the quiet exhibition site, becoming a manifestation of the invisible. Daily Accessory (2021) continues this extruded and bundled relationship – the cement-moulded cupcake holders are stacked up like Roman columns standing on top of the rubble founded from the construction site. A steel bar is inserted in the middle of the column, its twisted posture assuming a wild force compared to the ready-made wooden slats on the side. It is worth noting that there is a clear dependency between the works and the space: for example, the works Desolation of Memories (2021-2022) is placed on the platforms of the building, making the surface of the work into a new skin growing out of the ground; Daily Accessory (2021) is a step-formed installation work placed on the original steps of the building, breaking down the solid structure of the building. These site-specific installations reconstruct the original order and function of the space through their own powerful vitality.
Such a practice can be traced back to her work Potted Plant (2016), in which she tied the facade of two concrete apartment buildings together with wire. A fresh cactus is in the middle, growing upward under the pressure of the hard concrete. Its relationship between objects is a discussion against Arte Povera – it does not rely on the tension of fresh vegetables to maintain the form of the sculpture, as Giovanni Anselmo did in Untitled (Sculpture That Eats), 1968, but rather provides the cactus with a plot of soil to keep life growing. The form of the sculpture is not established as a reminder of the vanish of vitality, but rather as a demonstration of the symbiosis between individual life and artificial objects.
In the vein of sculpture history, female artists have often been confined to their individual experience (either physical or spiritual), but has long been excluded (or deliberately ignored) from the discussion of public issues. In fact, they have sought to enter the public sphere and broaden the scope and depth of their discussion: for example, sculptures created by Isa Genzken around architecture shows new perspectives on city, nature and materials; Phyllida Barlow’s giant sculptures made from discarded materials entered the discussions and introspection on the mechanisms of social production-destruction-reconstruction. Zhang choses the signifiers (such as grids, cactus and concrete) that have the potential to shift between hard and soft. In terms of production method, she uses handcraft skills such as twisting and binding, presenting an interactive relationship of beauty and tension, revealing a uniquely feminine sensuality. But at the same time, she intervenes in the development of the modern city around her, with a direct perspective that is associated with the society, continuously following and recording the emotions and perceptions of living. It can be said that Zhang’s work attempts to transcend the limits of female participation in the discussion of social issues, and to provide a more equal perspective on the imagination of public space in a time of constant urban renewal. This non-anthropocentric imagine of social forms provides an entry point to the discussion of the city and architecture from a general feminism perspective. The city, as a spatial representation of social order, can be seen as a companion to the construction of a social order. Government, urban planners and architects build our existing urban environment from the top down, while nail householders and vendor stalls become objects to be removed like weeds in a carefully planned landscape garden. Within the patriarchal framework of the city, the plants that rising out of the wall in Zhang’s work represent the power of individuals to reshape the space from the bottom up. The artist proposes an openness of infinite possibilities in her works – plants struggling to grow in the ubiquitous grid, are calling out to each viewer with a strong sense of emotion in life experience in order to explore and create a more organic form of social organization together.
Images courtesy of the artist
Photographer: Su Hang