The iron-bearing stones that grow from cast, gilded heads in Ah Xian's latest works have been named Xuan Yuan by China’s View Stone Association, for the mountain outside Beijing from where they were carried out in baskets on the backs of local farmers, valued not for their mineral content but as collectibles, given the age-old Chinese love of strange stones. Here they appear as one with human figures, but not quite. Like heavy, angular thought bubbles, these protruberant stones unsettle the viewer with a reminder that the oneness of humankind and nature is so often a state of precarious balance.
The artist speaks of the technical difficulty of handling their weight, and the discordant juxtaposition of materials: "hard on hard". The contrast between different stages of a mineralogical process might suggest the travel of iron ore from Australia to China, in quantities that have brought wealth to both countries. The golden surface of Ah Xian’s figures seems to reflect the prosperity brought by the transformation of ferriferous stone.
The thought also recalls the artist’s own personal and creative journeys between Beijing and Sydney. In his China China series, first exhibited in 1999, Ah Xian adapted traditional Chinese techniques to his own philosophical inquiry into Chinese identity in the modern world. Following a period of research at Jingdezhen, the home of Chinese blue and white porcelain, where he collaborated with experienced artisans, he produced the widely acclaimed — and imitated — porcelain busts, cast from living people and decorated with traditional motifs. In these works Ah Xian pioneered a contemporary re-interpretation of China’s applied arts as a medium for individual artistic expression.
He has since worked with cloisonné, lacquer, bone and bronze. In his most recent works he moves beyond the human form for the first time, with the sculptural addition of valued stone. Viewers are asked to reflect on their own relationship with these fascinating double forms, at once immediate and estranged, like the mineral materials of which they are made, turned to something mysterious in the artist’s hands.
Nicholas Jose is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.
Ah Xian is a featured artist in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, curated by Nick Mitzevich, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1 March – 11 May 2014.