The Reality and Unreality in Xu Xiaoguo’s Works


- Ella Liao

Like everyone born in the late 1970s, Xu Xiaoguo could not help but miss what was arguably the greatest revolution of the century. He was also to miss out on the most sincere of beliefs. If we adopt the method usually applied in literature and art to define the specific period-based heritage a person possesses based on when he was born, then Xu was born at a time when the revolutionary enthusiasm had declined stealthily. The lies gradually nailed, and the culture felt; His world view must be sceptical, critical, and surrealistic. The inheritance of memory is often transcendent, particularly for someone who was born at this junction of history, the ideal spiritual entity certainly exists. It is shaped by intuition and goes beyond cognitive logic. In this context, within the people of this generation there exist past generations, they are influenced by the same confusion and distress and the same passion and enthusiasm, until they believe they have found the way to free themselves more cleverly than older generations. The image of Xu’s works represents a maturity that does not match his age. Icons and symbols include both visual memories that belong to him and virtual illusion that does not, both his own practical experience and hyper-rational recognition.

The Stage _

Within the framework of a traditional theatre, the hypothetical wall between the stage and the audience is called ‘the fourth wall’. It is this ‘wall’ that lets actors ‘ignore’ the audience and concentrate on the scene. This ‘wall’ separates the real world from the unreal one. Xu’s stage series seems to rationally oversee the ever-changing scenarios from an audience’s perspective. Simultaneously, Xu’s stage is also an image of the Western classical stage, which still refers to realistic aesthetic traditions. Bouquets of flowers, stage props, stage lights, and backdrops that are painted in the form of a picture within a picture – all such materialised stage illusionism is a characteristic of the Western classical stage. What the Eastern stage emphasises is lyricism and play-actor centeredness: a table and chair set can be a symbolic presentation of an imaginary room or location, walking around the stage could mean going miles away. It is particularly easy to feel from the former the existence of ‘the fourth wall’. There is no interaction with the audience, and no one is required to forget their own presence or to participate with their imagination. The hallucination of ‘this is reality’ thus arises. Using canvas as the carrier, Xu creates the first reality, which takes the position of the stage view, i.e. the audience, as the subject – though the subject per se is not shown on the canvas, instead the gaze suggests its presence – the reality where it exists. In turn, through the elaborately designed stage image on canvas, he creates the second reality, which is the reality that is being entered by the play-actors. The two realities appear to be logically contradictory to each other: if A is true then B must be false, if B is true then A must be false. Xu cleverly finds the image of the stage, which has a special space and language context, to perfectly match the ‘standardised’ absurdity that he has been interested in for a long time. The stage brings a certain ambiguous signifiant, i.e. all standards of reality and unreality become invalid on stage, neither has any meaning.

The Landscape _

My understanding of Xu’s artificial landscapes is: they are stages without frames, which are shot one step closer. It is the artist who leads us deep into the second reality mentioned above. Here, the artist more boldly builds a reality full of antitheses and contradictions. For example, the contradiction formed by physical juxtaposition – the Great Wall partially submerged in water faced with danger (Artificial Landscape - SOS Great Wall); mountains arising from the sea (Artificial Landscape - Blue Watchtower). The contradiction formed by spatial juxtaposition – the rigid German Zeppelin airship that was famous at the beginning of the last century emerges in Shanghai, where the Oriental Pearl is located. This enormous object becomes dramatically fragile (Artificial Landscape - Led Zeppelin in Shanghai). Apart from this, in Xu’s works there are also ideological antitheses induced by formal contradictions. In the work, Stage: Pantisocracy I, the oriental Buddha firmly stands on a Western classical pedestal, which actually looks in such harmony that it is not easy to spot the gimmick; in Artificial Landscape - Guilin Scenery, a reshuffle with the sizes of butterflies, landscapes and lotuses and the provocative Chinese character ‘jia’ (‘false’) in the statement ‘Guilin shanshui jia tianxia’. Xu realises his attempt to change world arrangements and intervene in social normality by virtue of canvas, and depicts an absurd dreamland of physical antitheses and formal contradictions. Interestingly, this unrealistic scenery is actually very appealing, like that Buddha and its base, which are obviously opposites but look as if they were meant not to be; the floating watchtower is both magnificent and mysterious, as if it were on guard all along and would always be there, which is infinitely charming. Rational experience and logic standards instantly fall to pieces, ‘unreality’ transforms into a type of ‘reality’ and gains rationality for its existence.

The Idol _

Originally the word ‘idol’ was a religious concept. Although most religions object to idolisation, people often need a humanised god to embody faith and truth within a tangible object. ‘Idols’ are the ‘characters’ that appear most in Xu’s works: the religious idol ‘saint’, the mythical idol ‘genie’, and the historical idol ‘Wu Song’. This time Xu points to the question of ‘standardisation’ towards simple individuals, raising doubts about the idol’s identity through clever arrangements and deliberate tricks. For example, in the work, Stage - Wu Song Fights a Tiger, Wu Song should have a handsome look and a pair of bright piercing eyes, but all this is undermined by a modern paper bag. The head is covered by a paper bag with eyes exposed only – this is a standard image of a criminal when being arrested in modern times. The tiger is still there, the weapon is also there, but is Wu Song still Wu Song? Is he a hero or a criminal? Which standard on earth shall we refer to? For a period of time we are lost. With the spatial change, the power of ‘standard’ is again invalid. The same internal contradiction is also available in the series Stage - Hercules, where the figures of the genies are either senile, skinny or too ferocious, making it difficult to distinguish whether they are gods or demons. What traditional Chinese opera stresses is a high level of formalisation and stereotyped face painting styles, with all characters of personality indicated on the painted faces. It emphasises a strategy of cultural identification. As an imitation of reality initially, to our surprise theatre is ultimately transformed into a director of  reality, advocating that what is pleasant-looking must also be kind, whereas what is ugly must be bad and evil. This standard has for thousands of years directly influenced the Chinese aesthetic traditions and value estimation, equating beauty with morality and advocating that what is moral must be kind. Xu sets the trap on stage purposefully to damage the so called unification and order, challenging the traditional judgement of kindness versus evilness and redefining a new social reality.

Moreover, while producing miraculous visual effects, the embellished elements and details of Xu’s works make us sink into layer beneath layer of ‘reality’ and allows us to imagine freely. As the title of the work Stage: Nothing’s Impossible indicates, it is true that everything can be possible. The sea, the glass show window, the damaged city wall, the luxurious home furnishing – the four different locations, the four physical spaces that seem to be irrelevant are inter-linked to create a mysterious space that looks like a cold fairyland at the end of the world. In work, Stage - Breaking Through, the bottom-left corner of the backdrop that is folded purposefully and the two stones on the right gazing at each other imply an absurd relevance or antithesis: the false versus the falser, the unreal versus the un-unreal. Again the spilt sea-water in Stage - Sunset brings us into chaos: it is obviously some sea-water, but how can it be there? Xu seems to be a master of tricks, disrupting our logic, overturning our standards, and making everything look reasonable and splendid. He  leaves us surrounded in the ‘reality’ that exists in his mind.

Nevertheless, by virtue of surrealistic images, Xu also responds to the immense and pragmatic reality in which we are living. The lonely gallows in "Grand Stage - Conspiracy" make us associate them with Michel Foucault’s discussions about cruel torture. At a time when the human body was seen as the target of punishment, cruel torture as a ceremony that promoted justice used to be a dramatic performance and public scene. Uncivilised people celebrated in savagery and blood. They were required to watch and participate in the punishment, and they were organised to exercise their delusive civil rights. The absence of the dead person and the angel that comes out openly in the picture is not only a metaphor for the relevance of body and soul, but also sets suspense – has the cruel period really gone? The gallows full of flowers are a beautified state machine running as usual; like this stage surrounded by flowers, it is all a plot. As discussed above, Xu’s world view determines he must take a critical and sceptical attitude towards reality and an oppositional stand against politics,  This is indeed the most valuable element of his works, the firm and honest stand of an artist.

Miss Ella Liao
       Associate curator of Shanghai Rockbund Art Museum, China