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18 February 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Sun Xun at the Hayward Gallery: the communist imagination under capitalism

By En Liang Khong

Capitalism is a relatively new process in China. Although the reform-era economy is deeply marked by Chinese characteristics, it is nevertheless premised on production methods developed in Britain two centuries ago. Much ink has been spent in telling the story of the Chinese artistic avant-garde as it emerged, deeply shaken, from the excesses of the Maoist era. But the post-millenial generation are living through a different trauma: that of socialist neoliberalism. China’s third wave artists exist at a critical time, in which Communist vocabulary enacts a capitalist imagination.

The third wave’s turn to animation has been a powerful development in the story of Chinese art, even as the Chinese film industry runs up against the power of Japanese anime and Western disneyfication.

Yang Yongliang, born in Shanghai in 1980, apes the mannerisms of the Chinese landscape painting tradition, and then radically uproots them from their origins in cerebral reflections on the natural world. In Yang’s animations, quiet motifs of the Chinese landscape are subjected to the nightmare of Chinese urbanisation: mist is indistinguishable from polluted smog, trees make way for forests made of cranes. As Yang explains, “if I love the city for its familiarity, I hate it even more for the staggering speed at which it grows and engulfs the environment.”

London’s Hayward Gallery is currently screening a series of films from the animator Sun Xun, who was born in 1980 within the northeast Chinese province of Liaoning. If Yang Yongliang wanders through a ravaged world, the oppressive art of Sun Xun screeches through it in malevolent fashion.

The contradictions of Chinese history have haunted every step of Sun Xun’s life. As a child, Sun would come home from a day of schooling in official history to listen to his father recount how his grandmother was publicly humiliated as a bourgeois collaborator during the Cultural Revolution. And the dislocations did not end there. As Sun Xun’s home province transitioned from mining county into China’s rust belt, its symbolic life still largely played out to the tune of loudspeaker propaganda. When Sun moved to the Huangzhou Academy of Art to take up calligraphy training, he experienced a profound sense of disconnection. While the prevailing ideology of his hometown “thought that people in business were evil capitalists,” he told the New York Times last year, “in Hangzhou, everyone was doing business.”

Sun Xun’s art plays out in a fantastical plain where mythology meets modernity. His films flow out of traditional silk printmaking, calligraphy and the pages of old Communist literature. As word and image are set in animation, frame by frame, Sun Xun revels in history and lies.

In his 2010 animation piece, “21 KE” (21 Grams), top-hatted men assemble in plazas as steampunk flying machines fill the sky overhead, all smeared through with an indefinable sense of threat. Sun Xun renders China as imagined through the lens of 19th century western capitalism, where riotous modernity is made possible only through it’s sinister underside. It is an apt portrait for a country in which the logic of capitalist development has gone hand in hand with bloody exploitation.

In his 2006 Dissent essay, “Marx in China”, Marshall Berman observed that the rhetoric of development since Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist turn offers striking historical parallels: “The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England.” And yet at that time of Industrial Revolutionary celebration, so many of the brightest lights depended on the perpetual poverty of the industrial working class.

Sun’s 2011 film “Some Actions Which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution”, built up from the carving of over 5,000 different woodcuts, converges in a pulsating dreamscape filled with the revulsion of putrefaction; flies and rats exist in a heady state of animation, while a man draws out an insect from his mouth, only to ingest it. The film’s medium invokes the spectre of the 1920s New Woodcut Movement in China, in which the new efficiency afforded by the artistic form was put to the work of political propaganda. But in Sun Xun’s hands, nostalgic dalliance is corrupted in the brutal conflicts of New China.

In Sun’s animations, the figure of the politician often melds with the character of the magician. The magician embodies the dynamics of a revolutionary century which often played out as pseudo-tragedy, in which death was carried out according to brutal farce. The leaders of the Chinese revolution proved highly skilled in manipulating the rhetoric of progress, while at the same time, dangerously inept at mitigating the destruction of false development.

But China is no longer the latecomer to modernity, and there is none better than Sun Xun to expose the violence that rages through a society which has fused the most savage tools of capitalism and communism.

Image credit: Sun Xun, π animation studio

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