Ahead of the opening of its first outpost in New York, the Los Angeles–based David Kordansky Gallery is eyeing an expansion of its presence in Asia.
Beijing-based multimedia artist Guan Xiao is now represented by the Los Angeles stalwart, joining a roster that includes Derek Fordjour, Huma Bhabha, and Lauren Halsey. Guan, who will have a solo show at Kordansky’s New York outpost in 2023, will continue to be represented by Antenna Space in Asia and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Germany. The gallery has also appointed Junjun Cai as a new director, to be based in mainland China. She joins Mi Jeong Kim, who has been representing the gallery in the region since 2019.
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Guan works in video, sculpture, and installation, sourcing material from online to draw meaning from the experiences of her daily life. She has been called a “post-Internet” artist, but the term has a cynical edge that totally doesn’t fit the curiosity she has for the relation between the individual, the collective, and the object—both natural and industrial-made. Her work seems to ask, What modern notions are really bygone traditions under a fresh coat of paint? Do objects change when seen or touched? Do we?
Her work is narrative-heavy, and the videos she makes, in particular, mirror a hyper-online, hyper-global life as a ceaseless onslaught of information. Guan sometimes asks a lot of the viewer, but only because she dedicates herself entirely to the act of looking. She is a relentless observer, chewing over the implications of massive amounts of data: she teases convincing links between an incredible array of material, like Western art history, capitalism, ancient Chinese sculpture, jazz, and surveillance technology.
She also leaves room for the viewer to project their own stories onto her art. A 2020 solo exhibition at Antenna Space featured some 15 sculptures of fantastical beings who were assigned biographies of varying opacity, freeing them to become monuments to no fixed history.
To learn more about her practice, ARTnews spoke with Guan over email. The artist’s responses were translated from Chinese.
Can you walk me through the creation of one of your artworks? How do you decide a work is interesting?
Every piece of my work leaves me with deep impressions. Because they are all different in structure, ways of association, and material. Art practice is unlike courtship, where one hopes to find the most suitable one, or thinking that your current partner knows you better than your ex, or even, the butterfly you had for your first love was the apex. Art practice is not a kind of life experience but something rigorous and inspiring. Each piece exists for a unique reason and something to communicate with others, and its making is always an unknown challenge.
The most exciting moment for me is probably when all the parts materialize from my sketches, which are then brought together at the studio. Their physical dimension and visual perception often vary from their initial conceptions in my drawings. Such a difference can be quite stimulating because how they turn out exceeds my expectations, and they subdue me. And other times, they don’t work at all. Since all parts are produced, I can no longer alter their shapes.
If the discrepancy between my sketch and the actual objects overwhelms or becomes non-negotiable, I would give up my initial sketch, and try to adjust the structure of the sculpture, or use whatever I have to start anew. This process always fascinates me.
An interesting piece has to be playful, including aspects that I would like to try out. It should provide the excitement of a child who can’t wait to get their hands on those toys, use them, figure them out, and see what they would become in their hands.
How have you seen your practice evolve?
Initially, I was intrigued by the diversity and tension of combining things of various materials. The greater their difference, the more impact they generate; in other words, the “dissonance” among these materials delivers a new coherence. Conceptually, I have always been interested in the notion of dichotomy. Since 2013, I have adopted collage/montage to create sculptures and videos. Working on different art mediums, using diverse materials, and building complex structures that dissolve the questions of “What is it?” and “Why?” hence, freeing aesthetics from the concepts.
In preparation for my museum solo in 2018 [at the Kunsthalle Winterthur in Switzerland], I began to expand the concept of the “ready-made” from material products to digital images, parsing the objects’ formal implications from their material, dimension, and functions in real life; hence, such a relationship becomes an adjustable parameter. The popularization of 3D printing helped me to execute this approach. Once my solo exhibition opened at Bonner Kunstverein in early 2019, I realized that I did not want to dwell on the sculptural structure’s ambivalence and complexity instead of focusing on delivering a powerful expression. Hence, considering the materials I use and my work method, I began to integrate my understanding of sculptural structure with the human body and fashion design, to present multiple possibilities within the same structure, and to invoke the concept of the character. In terms of the materials, I added ceramics and plants to enrich the tension within any specific piece. I am still working in these two directions.
In speaking about your work, you once said “time is not linear.” Can you expand on that idea and what it means for your art?
I have always been skeptical of everything around me. It seems that time is only “one” of the many logics we use to explain the phenomenal world. It is one explanation. Because we are convinced of the causality of actions and effects, everything becomes sequential and linear. But in reality, everything is transient. A sound may sound uninterrupted, but sonic waves show it constantly disappearing and reappearing. A light may appear bright consistently, but a high-speed camera capturing it shows its undulating luminosity. In order to preserve all that’s ephemeral, we tend to use “time” to string all the fragments as proof of their existence. Moreover, we stubbornly conceive that all people live in the same kind of time! Yet, the contrary is true, as every species lives in a different rhythm/speed and world. Each thing consists of infinite factors and associated with one another.
In my artistic practice, I prefer fragmented expressions that challenge what we take for granted. By using conceptually contradictory objects simultaneously, I can achieve a certain balance. I think that all things considered contradictory to each other share common characteristics in one way or another. For example, traditional/ancient and pioneering/technological are incomprehensible and extraordinary from a particular perspective. The mutual transformation between contradictions is realized in this specific perspective. Another example would be handcrafted and machine-made, which are both considered synonymous with crude form from either standpoint; at the same time, one transforms the other. For example, when I named my work, I made up the “name”: KIKACHICK. It embodies various contradictory points that are also self-explanatory. As a word, it does not have any meaning. However, in its first half, KIKA is both a Spanish name and a chocolate brand, and it is also the main character’s name in an assassin movie. The second half, CHICK, is an infant bird and slang for girls and women. Putting them together looks like a person’s name that probably no one uses. It reads like the pronunciation of a Japanese name, but it’s obviously not Japanese either.
So many of your works juxtapose disparate images, videos, images, people—sometimes to the effect of a sensory overload. What’s the logic that connects these seemingly unrelated media?
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I like to stop suddenly in the middle of doing something and interrupt what I do. I like the pause in the process. I can sense the leaves moving in my eyes as I look at them, while my hands feel the hard edge or even the temperature of the rock’s surface I’m sitting on, as the fragrance of summer flowers sweeps by with the wind. Suddenly a flock of birds flies over the bushes I am staring at, a ball rolled to my feet from a distance, and a noisy motorcycle is driving by farther away. I could keep writing like this, all of which could take place simultaneously but are entirely isolated incidents! Even to the extent that my visual perceptions and sense of touch are divided, feeding back disparate signals.
That’s the reality we are in, where all things are interconnected, through your perception.
Tell me about the concept of identity in your sculptures and installations. Are these works reflections of you, or totally new, fantastic beings?
Since the first time I participated in a group exhibition in a European art museum [“Don’t You Know Who I Am? Art After Identity Politics” at M HKA Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2014], I have been frequently asked about my identity. Honestly, I don’t think it’s necessary to make such a classification as human beings. I am not interested in the political aspect of identity. Although, I do look at my practice from an art historical perspective to understand the specificity of Chinese contemporary art in a broader framework. At the root of art making, the ancient East and West come from different origins. Moreover, the art historical continuity from ancient to modern and contemporary in the West is different from that in the Chinese context. I think such differences come from the latter’s ruptures and variations of an untraceable and discontinuous past, which embody my position. I have never pursued what’s reasonable in art-making.
My practice has never been about identity but deals explicitly with sculpture, structures, materials, and abstraction related to the development and challenges of collage. One would undoubtedly discover my understanding of identity from my work. What interests me is the multiplicity, the contradiction, the dichotomy, the ambiguity, and the neither/nor of human identity. So I prefer the notion of “characters” rather than “identity.” At the same time, the idea of “roles” is only one of many concepts in my sculptural work.