Presence: A Window into Chinese Contemporary Art is an exhibition of the University of Salford’s collection of contemporary Chinese art. As part of Liverpool’s China Dream season, it’s the modern foil to the much-lauded Terracotta Warriors exhibition across the road at the World Museum, offering a showcase to some great individual artworks, but also as an example of how art can bring together different cultures.
The label “Chinese contemporary art” might lead to expectations that visitors will discover a kind of unity between the works on display, but in fact, the art showcased is diverse in terms of both style and medium. What this sub-title does, though, is make the audience aware of the very different cultural context from which these artists are drawing their inspiration. Sometimes this is very obvious, as in Chen Hangfeng’s Fu Lu Shou (2014) Chinese character cut-outs: featuring many brand logos, they question the influence of commercialism in a specifically Chinese context. Other work draws inspiration from stylistic traditions: the subtle beauty of Wu Chi-Tsung’s Wrinkled Texture 027 (2015) is based on the values of the Shan shui landscape painting tradition.
In other work it hangs in the background, influential but not necessarily dominant. Sun Xiu’s A War About Chinese Words (2005) imagines a war between letter characters, but you can enjoy its elegant artistry even without knowledge of this. Chen-Ching Yuan’s the Flare(s) (2013), meanwhile, may be about Chinese national politics, but its tale of a crisis could be applied to an unnervingly high number of international situations.
Presence is also a reflection on how cultures can learn from each other’s histories and experiences to shape work: each of the exhibited artists has a personal connection to the North West region, and the area features prominently in many works. The show revisits Luke Ching’s work shown at LOOK/17 exploring the transformation of Liverpool’s image as a city, inspired by parallels with his native Shanghai. The piece being splashed across the promotion and posters is Liu Xinjian’s City DNA/ Salford and Manchester (2015), a re-depiction of a map of Salford. His colourful style has parallels with Chou Yu-Cheng’s use of a readymade painting from Manchester in his from Geoff Molyneux Series (2014) – a work which brings the cultural exchange full circle. Visitors may come to see a Chinese perspective, but the success of Presence is down to how, rather than showing any unified style or message, it explores a conversation of exchange between two divergent cultures.
Julia Johnson is a writer based in Liverpool, interested in how engagement with art can be opened up to the widest possible audiences.
Presence: A Window into Chinese Contemporary Art is open to the public until 3 June 2018, at The Vaults in St. George’s Hall, Liverpool.