What happened and what “happened”: Sun Xun and demystifying myth and memory

On 10/04/2015 by CFCCA Administrator

By Joe Williams.

Combining a sombre world outlook with a sense of artistic mischievousness, Sun Xun’s frighteningly absurd- or absurdly frightening- animations and illustrations have offered global audiences an idiosyncratic insight into the unsettling nature of Chinese public memory. Rather than offering clear cut answers, his works ask questions of an establishment that has twisted and contorted a people’s collective history, and blurred the distinction between “truth” and “illusion”. This thin line drawn between what should be binary opposites- but which in modern China have become more like close relations- is what most fascinates Sun Xun, and which most characterises his colourful and distinctive career.

More specifically to CFCCA, and the themes of this analysis, is the underlying motivation of his main exhibition piece- entitled What happened in the year of the dragon? – which is to ask precisely that: “what happened”. To do so, Sun Xun invited us into an imagined dimension that is dissonant, discordant and distorted. Sometimes it is monochromatic, at others it is punctuated by a violent use of colour. It is scored by unsettling, piercing string music. It is a world populated by magicians and conjurors (Magician Party and Dead Crow), grinning politicians and bizarre animals (What Happened in the Year of the Dragon), and grim factories and chimneys (Coal Spell). It takes no prisoners in its unsettling approach, and it is through this absence of harmony, this dearth of easy explanations, that we are forced to ask questions- or are implicated in the asking of questions- about the past.

In Sun Xun’s frightening dystopias, which are both magically distant from and alarmingly close to reality, artist and viewer can ask, together and without impediment, “what happened”. It is this demystification of the “illusions” of the past- as well as a proposal for a future unafraid of confronting history- which has distinguished Sun Xun’s fascinating animations at CFCCA.

Sun Xun’s well documented intellectual influences have provided UK visitors with an accessible point of departure for understanding his work, and for involving themselves in his distinctly Chinese questions. His work draws heavily on the dystopian visions of modernist novelists Franz Kafka, Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Each one created a world in which human freedoms were restricted and curtailed through, respectively, remote and despotic legal authorities, extreme positivism, totalitarian surveillance and frighteningly sterile science and technology. They were imagined futures, but what made them alarming was how much they were grounded in the realities of contemporary Europe.

These varied themes which each novelist explored expressed the versatility of the dystopian idiom and how it could be tailored to a specific social context, but they were bound together by a shared notion: dystopias managed and controlled their populations through a systematic restriction of the truth. From Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984 to Kafka’s unexplained legal proceedings in The Trial, dystopian societies were distinguishable by a kind of despotic deception. Truth was always withheld, and therefore essentially non-existent. It was a frightening possible reality for these artists to confront. It is this latter commonality that bears the greatest influence on Sun Xun’s ideas.[1]

It is easy to see why this literary obsession with the restriction of truth has such an impact on Sun Xun. In many ways, the last thirty years[2] of Chinese history mirrors the conditions experienced by Europeans in the first half of the twentieth century. In that earlier period, major economic fluctuations, massive industrialisation and urban swelling combined with the development of totalitarian and fascistic ideas regarding the political control of populations. Modern China has very much experienced the effects- both positive and negative- of the former three and, while there has been no threat of far right political extremism, it is undeniably under the thumb of a paternalistic, repressive and at times brutal regime.

Sun Xun can testify to this: in the 1970s his grandfather was beaten by police and his grandmother was marched into her village’s main square, forced to wear a dunce’s cap and declaimed as a bourgeois collaborator. More recently, he can recall witnessing the TV footage of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, and has begun his professional life in a China blighted by massive curtailments to media freedoms. [3]


Yet this is not the modern China- more specifically, the history of modern China- that so many Chinese readily consume. Contemporaneously to the tragic events of 1989, Sun Xun would take from “the textbooks in school” a version of history which seemingly erased the brutality of the Cultural Revolution- along with other human disasters, such as the failed Great Leap Forward- from the Chinese past. It was as if none of this had happened; it had vanished.

The two versions of Chinese history were thus incompatible. This incompatibility engendered a society in which the “real history”, which Sun Xun has called “absurd”, was camouflaged and an historical “void” opened up, causing “indescribable angst” to him and to those who experienced China’s turbulent history.[4]

This is the conceptual and contextual background to Sun Xun’s central conceit- the ways in which truths are hidden and populations are deceived, the manner in which fact seems to become more fictitious that fiction itself, and the emotions stirred by these processes- and which has enchanted and challenged visitors to the recent exhibition at CFCCA.

Key to Sun Xun’s ideas regarding the illusory nature of “truth” is his longstanding interest in magic, particularly the relationship between magic and time. Prior to the What happened in the Year of the Dragon exhibition at CFCCA, exhibitions entitled The Time Vivarium and Yesterday is Today demonstrate an artist interested in how conventional chronologies can be subverted and reversed. But in his more recent work, Sun Xun has gone even further.

He has articulated a model of Chinese history in which public memory is processed in ways that are much closer to the realms of magic tricks, artifice, performance and illusion than it is to the rational and informed processes usually required to uncover the truth. “Most people look at history like a performance on a stage,”[5] he believes; “They buy a lie.”[6] Shock of Time immediately springs to mind: the line “History is a lie of time” is followed by a headless magician, bowing and tempting us with his cape.  This negative relationship between truth and illusion is central to Sun Xun’s recent work and the world he imagines.

It is this metaphorical world, in which history and public memory are expressed in terms of illusion, deception and mutual suspension of disbelief, which ran through the works on show in What happened in the Year of the Dragon at CFCCA. The title work, projected onto an entire gallery wall and thus dominating visitors’ immediate space and line of sight, hinges around a magician whom Xun has nicknamed “the only legal liar”[7]. His distorted vision- he stares into an unknown distance through binoculars- becomes our vision as we embark on a journey through a Chinese cultural history in which the past is disturbed by the present, and in which representations are deceptive.

Two ancient, mythical dragons (supposedly a depiction of two contemporary politicians[8]) fight each other in the sky. A Mao era music concert is disturbed by wild animals- here symbols of the years they represent- thrown by an angry audience. A prisoner, reading in his cell as the Cultural Revolution “happens” outside his window, tosses his book to the ground, only to watch it torn up by a horrific beast. This is immediately followed by an interruption of a Ming dynasty erotic scene from another place (or another time). Spatial and temporal planes are thrown into confusion.


The metaphorical allusions are obvious here, but they are never explicit. What is clear is that this is a vision of how the past can be spun around, disturbed, twisted and destroyed. Any semblance of linear chronology and rational understanding is eradicated and all of time and awareness exists from the vantage point of a China orchestrated by the “legal liar”. Even the piece, much like the version of society it depicts, is riddled with illusion. In the opening credits, quotes from Kafka and Huxley are made up; in the final credits, a figure in a wolf mask is unveiled as no other than Sun Xun himself; the “legal liar” looks through his binoculars with an expression of disappointment, but even this could be another form of his artifice. Consequently, this is a multi-layered, complex and sophisticated piece in which illusion is piled upon illusion. The only way to extricate oneself from this trickery is to stop suspending disbelief. In a world where realities are frequently “absurd”, as they are grotesquely presented here, one should believe nothing at face value and instead continue to ask “what happened”.

These ideas received further consideration and development in Sun Xun’s brilliant Magician Party and Dead Crow. The animation, produced in 3D, was deemed deserving of its own space to allow its surreal and, at times, terrifying visual imagery to completely inhabit and invade visitors’ vision. Therefore, it was placed in a walled mini-auditorium, which allowed viewers to witness its extrusions in isolation. While What happened in the Year of the Dragon was a cleverly veiled discussion of the ways in which time can be subverted and reconstructed, Magician Party and Dead Crow is a more potent, direct work imagining how that reconstruction actually works.

It is riddled with visual motifs pertaining to conjuring, sorcery and entertainment. Puppets, masks, tricksters, applauding audiences, sword swallowers, circus ringleaders, and lions, all drawn with a playful hand, are placed into the kaleidoscopic world of Sun Xun’s special effects. These special effects, brilliantly enhanced by the 3D technology, engender a perverse subversion of enchantment- a magical nightmare- and range from giant marauding fish to stop motion footage of a real life Sun Xun and his team pulling ropes to make an animated puppet fly. It is a majestic vision of all manner of tricks.

Sun Xun - Magician Party and Dead Crow - 2013 (Alistair Small)

These bursts of imagination assimilate into Sun Xun’s intellectual agenda only through overt juxtaposition with tangible historical objects. Animated Chinese monuments- contrastingly realised with striking sombreness- are both real (Soviet star, hammer and sickle) and imagined (“the lie machine” is a film camera placed on a pedestal) and represent the canonisation of political tropes, as well as the Chinese obsession with that canonisation. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, this mingles with footage of twentieth century dictators “in action”, most explicitly Nicolae Ceausescu.

These are, in opposition to the motifs of magic, very real markers of twentieth century conflict, suffering and repression, including the brutalities of a Maoist and post-Mao China, and the general repression of Soviet influenced regimes. They are “real” while the charming supporting cast of sorcerers is very much “illusion”. But what Sun Xun has done, by his heady and dizzying process of juxtaposition- in which nothing is made clear or coherent- is redraw the lines, muddy the distinctions between the two, and thus articulate, yet again, the ways in which the real life tragedies and absurdities of modern Chinese history can be imagined away, and an illusory, enchanting, distracting alternative is put in its place. This is best exemplified in the way in which the footage of Ceaucescu is rewound and sped up. Reality becomes illusion and vice versa; this is the alarming and arresting theme that most pertinently captures Sun Xun’s exhibition at CFCCA.

It should be pointed out, however, that it is not all doom and gloom in Sun Xun’s work. Just like the dystopian works of modernist authors were imbued with a subtle sense of humour and an eye for the absurd, Sun Xun is eager not to be typecasted as a political artist. His work is riddled with made up quotes, jokes and silliness (the artist and his assistants wearing masks and squabbling in Magician Party and Dead Crow springs to mind). “As an artist, to narrow your focus only on the political is dangerous”[9].

 Indeed, while this humour is crucial to the sense of illusion and trickery running through Sun Xun’s work, it is a light heartedness that also serves another purpose, one in which he postulates on the role of the artist in making something of this historical mess. While it might be easy to make direct, angry or challenging political statements through art, as many of Sun Xun’s contemporaries have chosen to do, Sun Xun himself meticulously avoids the perils of being didactic. His work, and especially the work exhibited at CFCCA, is not moralising or propagandistic- to do so would be to fall into the same traps as the “legal liar” or key political figures and institutions in Chinese history- but uses humour and mischief to prevent itself becoming overly serious or grave, and instead retain a sense of open-endedness.[10]

Who is Sun Xun to fully explain the magician’s actions in What happened in the Year of the Dragon?, to define what people are looking at in Requiem, or to elucidate the symbolism of the animals and objects in “Magician Party and Dead Crow”? Sun Xun believes he has no right to tell us. It is not his place to present us with alternative political “truths”, because they too may be twisted into lies. He has no entitlement to provide us with any form of easy definition: “It’s my job as an artist to ask…questions, but not to answer them.”[11]

His art, especially those works recently exhibited at CFCCA, is facilitative rather than instructive. It is up to us, as the observer, to enter and consume the tones, textures and disharmonies of Sun Xun’s idiosyncratic dimension, to understand the questions he is asking and their implications, and to form our own conclusions through self-reflection and contemplation. This uncovering of the lies and illusions riddling official history, of exposing the consequent void left in public memory, and of presenting people with a platform to illuminate the “truth”- the real truth as opposed to the authorised truth- is what most interestingly characterised “What happened in the year of the dragon?” and which most excited all those involved in the exhibition at CFCCA. The aesthetics presented inside the gallery were beautiful, twisted and grotesque, but it is the effect outside the gallery which are of greatest interest and value.

[1] http://artradarjournal.com/2014/11/07/chinese-artist-sun-xun-explores-facets-history/ – Sun Xun claimed “These three books [Brave New World, 1984, We] piqued my interest because they correspond to the development of human societies. Indeed, the meaning behind the books is relevant to the context of today’s China.”

[2] Sun Xun was born in 1980

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/arts/design/a-chinese-artist-exploring-new-york.html?_r=1

[4] http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/collections/asian/sun-xun-ink-art

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/arts/design/a-chinese-artist-exploring-new-york.html

[6] http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2014/05/14/in-sun-xuns-art-dragons-greet-a-brave-new-world/

[7] http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/WebExclusives/SunXunBraveNewWorld

[8] http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/WebExclusives/SunXunBraveNewWorld

[9] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/arts/design/a-chinese-artist-exploring-new-york.html?_r=1

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/arts/design/a-chinese-artist-exploring-new-york.html – . “As an artist, to narrow your focus only on the political is dangerous”

[11] CFCCA Q & A Session: Sun Xun and Ying Tan – he also claimed “I’m making fun of history”, yet again demonstrating the childish humour that is so central to his world view.

Images courtesy of CFCCA and Edouard Malingue Gallery

Leave a Reply