“Maybe my aesthetic is not mature, but I am still attracted to childishly exaggerated designs.”
Born Beijing, 1980
Many contemporary artists explore Chinese tradition, but Wu Jian’an’s case it is a tradition Westerners rarely see: not the refined elegance of literati painting or the calm simplicity of bird-and-flower pictures, but the fantastically florid weirdness of temple and grotto carvings, Tibetan tangka scrolls, myths and ghost stories. His medium is the paper cut, but he takes it far beyond its usual form, slicing into ox hide, brass or stainless steel, or using paper-cut techniques to make giant shadow puppets. Fuxi, Gazing at the Moon, and Fused in Desire (2011) are inspired by the legends of creator-beings Fuxi and Nuwa, the moon goddess Chang E, and her beloved Houyi the Archer. These feral landscapes could hardly be more different from the tranquil, mist-shrouded scenes favoured by classical Chinese artists. Each is made up of more than 2200 writhing, lace-like figures, piled in thick layers “to make the image look heavier”. The effect is of masses of coloured feathers, an allusion perhaps to the deathless phoenix, or to the Daoist immortals, who flew to heaven on feathered wings (Daoists are still referred to as yuren, or “feathered men”). These jungly hills, aswarm with god-humans darting, fighting, flying, also evoke the biology lab: viruses doing battle with antibodies; bacteria swimming in body fluids; cells that contain, in genetic form, the ghosts of all our ancestors.