Art This year perennial Biennial venue the Blue Coat (Chambers) has been doubly utilised to include the main information centre for the Biennial, a big red reception counter installed in the entrance hall opposite the building’s own. It’s a clever choice since like the Rapid Hardware spot in 2010 it puts the Biennial at the heart of the city and also in one of our most popular existing galleries. Plus it already has excellent amenities and while there was something remarkable about the garden shed and tables last time, it’s nonetheless useful to have a locker to leave your shopping in and somewhere decent to go to the toilet. As ever for the Biennial, the Blue Coat shifts its focus from a group shows with loads of participating artists to just a few with generally large scale installations.
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The Song Dynasty in China stretched chronologically between 960 and 1279 and is generally regarded as one humanity's development spurts towards what we regard as modern civilisation. It was the first government to issue paper money, the first to establish a permanent navy, the first to use gunpower and first to find true north via a compass. The Wikipedia entry is massive, a cornucopia of “That too? What and that too?” as it becomes apparent thatwe’ve also them to thank for key developments in forensic science and the smelting of iron utilising coal instead of the less potent charcoal. In artistic terms, the Song Dynasty also further developed the art of landscape painting and it’s the elaborate woodcut on papyrus work of artists like Guo Xi and Cui Bai which influence the work of Biennial exhibitor Sun Xun or at least it seems so judging from the photographs.
Xun’s installation, Ancient Film inhabits much of the main corridor of the Bluecoat’s exhibition space, with banners from floor to ceiling. On the window wall, these are covered in dozens and dozens of large, round beautifully intricate paintings of nightingales in various positions. The banners opposite offer over a hundred watery landscapes in the style of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai’s woodcut from the 1930s. In front of these are the giant Song period landscapes, their yellowy parchment contrasting with the pastel blues of the waters clashing. The effect is rather like standing on the set of a Zhang Yimou film, House of Flying Daggers or Hero, assassins hiding behind corners ready to jump out and utilise the banners in some acrobatic fight scene.
It surprisingly took me many minutes to realise, in conjunction with the work’s title what Xun’s achieved here. He’s using ancient Chinese art techniques to produce film strips, each of the pictures, of birds or waves, a frame in a much longer movie. Those aren’t dozens and dozens of nightingales, but the same nightingale in dozens and dozens of positions, their disparate motion indicating the speed of flight, the drops in frames between wing changes. Stand before the sea and run your eyes from ceiling to floor and see those waves crashing into one another. It’s animation and a return to the very early days of the moving image as acrobats tumbled through the slats of a zoetrope or Mybridge experimented with capturing the movements of animals, strips of images which were subsequently filmised too. Hence, Ancient Film.
Glancing at Xun’s biography indicates that much of his work is usually found in short film. He’s attended most of the major festivals and some of the minor ones so this is a relatively rare shift into static imagery, at least it seems that way until we visit gallery four upstairs where we find the animations our minds have previously imagined. Projected on a wall amid similar line drawings on the white box surfaces are the waves we’ve just witnessed downstairs. Except before long we realise there are interlopers, sea monsters, giant turtles and dragons emerging from the water, attacking one another then returning to the two dimensional depths of the ocean. There’s no story to speak of; like those zoetropes of old, these animals entertain us on a loop, a titanic struggles without end.
How does all of this fit within the themes of Biennial? The accompanying notes suggest Xun is using “traditional and new media forms of expression to negotiate the complex position of ‘host’ in contemporary China” though truth be told I can’t quite see the connection. Simplistically it might be indicating that in the homes we frequently welcome visitors, static images have given way to televisual entertainment but otherwise I’m genuinely baffled. Perhaps it’s extemporised further in the Biennial catalogue. I just have my pamphlet to hand. But it’s still the piece at the Bluecoat which I’m most impressed with because it marries together ancient artistic techniques with the original tentative steps in creating filmic entertainments and on that basis it works brilliantly, bridging paradigm shifts that are hundreds of years apart.