Ah Xian: The History of Material

Written by Hannah Hall

Porcelain has been an important material in China for centuries, rich with history and tradition. How do these traditional materials and methods translate into the contemporary art world? Ah Xian is a contemporary Chinese-Australian artist who, after migrating to Australia in 1990, began investigating traditional Chinese art materials within his practice, to feel more connected to his heritage. Using traditional Chinese materials and imagery, such as porcelain, cloisonné, carved lacquer, ox bone inlay and bronze, Xian creates delicate, tranquil sculptures of the human form, cast from life models, whilst touching on themes of identity, the environment and blending of eastern and western cultures.

It is only natural to begin this discussion, with Ah Xian’s series known as China China (1998-2004), which consists of over 80 porcelain busts, adorned with traditional Chinese patterns, glazes and images. This series is incredibly important to Xian’s career, as it marks the beginning of an investigation of material and the connection to his Chinese heritage after migrating to Australia in 1990. The material of porcelain can be considered ‘a material celebrated as an important part of Chinese identity for centuries’ (Nagesh, Pijpers & Rothnie 2013, p. 3), and is rooted within Chinese art history. Consequently, a connection is made between Xian’s cultural background and the material. Of course, there is also the link between the words, china, and China in the English language which Burchmore (2018) discusses, further emphasise a connection between the material and place. Thus, with porcelain as a material having historical significance to the country of China, it is important as it evokes a strong connection to place and in turn, Xian’s Chinese heritage. 

Not only is the material of porcelain ‘emblematic of China’ (Burchmore 2018, p. IV), but also the decorative elements of pattern and colour are reminiscent of traditional Chinese ceramics. Take the bust in Figure 1 (Xian 2004) for example, the subject is covered in the distinctive blue and white landscape design, which as Xian (2017, 0:29-0:37) has explained ‘is very common [in China], people see that kind of image every day’. In Figure 2, there are clear visual similarities between cobalt blue details and cloudy, mountainous design in the historical 17th century Chinese vase and Xian’s bust in Figure 1. The influence of traditional decorative elements is evident within Xian’s China China series and further demonstrates his investigation into the history of the material.

Xian’s use of decoration in his porcelain busts, also visually renders the sitter anonymous, shrouding their distinguishable features such as eyes, nose and mouth in pattern and colour. As a result, themes of identity can be found in Xian’s work and can be read as a reflection on his experiences migration from China to Australia. As seen in the examples of Figure 1 (Xian 2004) and Figure 3 (Xian 1999) the decoration can be likened to ‘a skin of culture over an inaccessibly private inner world’ (Burchmore 2018, p. 8). This aspect can be interpreted, whether intentional or not, as commentary on the migrant experience, where one can be defined by their difference in culture or appearance. Hongxia has also come to this conclusion, describing Xian’s busts as ‘silent body images with vague faces, oppressed by the hegemony of cultural icons’ (Hongxia  2015, p. 75). Therefore, the anonymity and masking of defining features, emphasises this idea of being marked by difference, and links personally to Xian’s experience, and the experience of others who have migrated from place to place.

The realistic representation of the human body, is relatively uncommon in Chinese art history, rather a western tradition, such as ancient Roman and Greek art. As a result, this combination of Chinese materials and design with human form ‘melds two distinctive art traditions’ (Chiu 2003, p. 31), and blends cultures from the east and west. This can be linked to Xian’s own identity, belonging to both China and Australia. Xian, in his own words describes his feelings on this dual identity; ‘I believe my mood and state is neither Australian nor Chinese but somewhere in a wide and free space’ (Xian 2001, para. 1). It is clear in this statement Xian is caught between two worlds, two cultures, in a similar way to his artworks. As a result, themes of identity are further explored in Xian’s body of work through the blending of Chinese materials and design with the western motif of the portrait bust.

A notable feature consistent throughout Xian’s work is the tranquillity of each sculpture, eyes and mouth closed in an almost mediative state. This can be left to many interpretations, but as Xian explains:

It’s a natural feeling I really enjoy and love. I am originally from China, from Beijing particularly, I must say this quiet, calm serene feeling I only gained once I am in Australia. I’ve been living in Australia for twenty-four years now, its definitely not the feeling from China (2014, 7:35-8:07).

It can be concluded that this tranquillity is a reflection upon the turbulent political landscape Xian left behind in China, when he moved to Australia in 1990 just after the events at Tiananmen square in 1989. However, Xian states (2015) that he does not try to make his works political, but rather views his busts as peaceful and aesthetic pieces, but in turn, welcomes the viewer to come to their own interpretation as well.

Porcelain is not the only traditionally Chinese material Xian has worked with to create his sculptures. Xian’s series of full body casts, titled Human Human, Xian uses materials and methods such as red lacquer carving, cloisonné, jade, and ox-bone inlay. In most cases, Xian chooses to work with traditional craftsmen in China to create his pieces, such as cloisonné enamelling by artisans in Hebei province and porcelain works made in what is known as the “porcelain city”, Jingdezhen. It can be considered through this collaboration, that Xian is bringing these historical crafts into the contemporary art world. Xian (2017, 4:45-5:09) has explained in an interview that in China ‘people are still mainly focusing on making traditional vessels, like functional pieces, platters or vases… but nothing really sculptural’. Therefore, Xian’s human figures are incredibly different to the traditional pieces being made within these industries. And so, in working with these traditional crafts people, Xian is bringing these materials and techniques stuck in the traditional world, into a more contemporary context through the sculptural form of the human figure.

Xian (2015) has also noted in conversation with Claudia Chan Shaw for the Art Gallery of NSW, that crafts like porcelain are not valued as highly as they used to be. These products once prized and precious, are now often considered quite cheap and can be found all over the country. Xian explains his experience working with these crafts people: 

In China many of these craftsmanship’s seems to be dying out… the people working in the area, in the field, they complain when I worked with them. They complain it is increasingly difficult to earn their living…In my understanding, those products specialised in China… like porcelain, cloisonne, and carved lacquer, those type of things, they were massed produced too many (2015, 23:42-24:51).

In turn, it can be considered that Xian, by using these highly skilled crafts people for his contemporary sculptures ‘releases new life from traditional artefacts’ (Bullock 2012, p.99) and is reviving these industries, suffering from over production and lack of appreciation.

Moving on to other bodies of work, Xian’s series Metaphysica (2007), is made up of busts cast this time from bronze, with found objects placed on the tops of their heads. The material of bronze, though not as emblematic of china as porcelain, is still significant to Chinese culture. The Exhibition catalogue for Queensland Art Gallery explains that in China between fifteenth to sixteenth century, bronze was traditionally used to make Buddhist statues, believed to have supernatural qualities and was considered a noble material (Nagesh, Pijpers & Rothnie 2013). This meant bronze was also a symbol of both power and wealth, through the iconography these statues portrayed. For this reason, bronze is another culturally significant material Xian incorporates into his sculptures and is important in Xian’s investigation of materials beyond porcelain, and their historical significance to China.  

The found objects ornamenting the bronze busts in Metaphysica (2007), are found at local markets in Beijing and are common cultural or religious objects which are rich with symbolism and importance to the people of China. For example, as seen in Figure 5 (Xian 2007), a crane upon the back of a tortoise rests on the head of the bust and is a significant image found throughout Chinese culture. ‘The crane, a symbol of longevity believed to live for 600 years and to carry immortals to heaven [and the] tortoise, another symbol of longevity…[is] one of the four revered ancient animals’ (Nagesh, Pijpers & Rothnie 2013, p. 4). In addition, balancing these objects upon the subjects’ heads also refers to the metaphysical realm, creating spiritual meaning, as Xian (cited in Nagesh, Pijpers & Rothnie 2013, p. 3-4) explains, ‘The top of our head (brain) is always where our wishes / imaginations / spiritual souls linger around. [The] skull is like a skylight to link up our emotions and soul with something up there’. Therefore, the objects Xian chooses, are important as they hold cultural symbolism within Chinese culture, alongside a spiritual interpretation in their location, when placed the figures head.

Concrete Forest (2009) is a series where Xian’s work takes a turn in terms of materiality, working with the much rougher, heavier less traditional material of concrete. In these works, Xian places leaves inside the mould before pouring in the concrete. As seen in Figure 7 (Xian 2008-09), the result is a contrast between the delicate imprints left from the leaves against the harsh surface of the concrete.Whilst Xian, does not usually intend for his works to be political, one such series can be considered a slight exception, commenting on the destruction of nature through urbanisation. Xian (2017, 7:15-8:02) states ‘concrete is the material we use for building up our cities…a kind of symbolic way to say we ruined nature, the green becomes grey’. Again, in these works the material is important to the reading, as concrete is one of the most common and unsustainable materials found in our urban landscapes. The busts therefore act as a statement on the urban sprawl, through the material, by contrasting the fragility of the leaves against the permanence of the concrete.

Overall, the most important factor of Ah Xian’s work is the material, which is carefully considered and chosen for its significance to Chinese culture and history in its own way. Xian’s peaceful depictions of the human figure utilise traditional Chinese materials, such as porcelain, cloisonné, carved lacquer, ox bone inlay and bronze, combined with patterns, designs, and found objects, in a contemporary way. Working with traditional craftsman in China, Xian brings new life into industries which are still focused on making traditional objects rather than artistic pieces. Blending both the traditions of Chinese culture and with the motifs of the western portrait bust, Xian’s sculptures draw on themes of identity, culture, the environment, and beauty of the human form.

Figure 1:
China China - Bust 81
by Ah Xian, 2004, glazed porcelain. Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of the artist, 2008. Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia  © the artist

Figure 2: 
Vase with poems in a panoramic landscape
, Unknown maker, 17th century, glazed porcelain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Julia and John Curtis, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary, 2020. www.metmuseum.org.

Figure 3: 
China China - Bust 16
by Ah Xian, 1999, glazed porcelain. National Gallery of Australia. Purchased 2000. © Ah Xian.  

Figure 4: 
Human human - lotus, cloisonné figure 1
by Ah Xian, 2000-01, Hand-beaten copper, finely enamelled in the cloisonné technique. Purchased 2002. The Queensland Government's Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. © Ah Xian.  Photograph: QAGOMA 

Figure 5: 
Metaphysica: Crane on tortoise
by Ah Xian, 2007, Bronze and brass. Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. © Ah Xian.  Photograph: QAGOMA 

Figure 6: 
Metaphysica: Red Fish
by Ah Xian, 2007, Bronze, brass and oil painting. Purchased 2009 with funds from Tim Fairfax AM through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. © Ah Xian.  Photograph: QAGOMA 

Figure 7: 
Concrete Forest 2: Sagittaria trifolia (Threeleaf Arrowhead)
by Ah Xian, 2008-2009, Concrete. National Gallery of Victoria. Clemenger Contemporary Art Award. https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/media_release/ngv-announces-ah-xian-as-recipient-of-2009-clemenger-contemporary-art-award/. © Ah Xian. 

Art Gallery of NSW 2015, Artist Ah Xian with Claudia Chan Shaw, YouTube, 14 April, Art Gallery of NSW, viewed 5 April 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdIhixPYC9Q&t=2s>.

Bullock, M 2012, ‘“China China”: Autoethnography as literal translation in Ah Xian’s Porcelain forms’, Memory and Fragments: Visualising difference in Australian History, Intellect books LTD, Bristol, UK.

Burchmore, A 2018, ‘New Export China: Translations across time and place in contemporary Chinese Porcelain art (1996-2016)’, Thesis, Australian National University, ProQuest Database.

Chiu, M 2003, ‘Ah Xian’, Art and Asia Pacific, no. 37, pp. 31.

DasPlatforms 2014, Ah Xian / at Dark Heart: 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, YouTube, DasPlatforms, viewed 3rd June 2021, <www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HaFLIJPEsE>.

Hongxia, Z 2015, ‘Body of desires beneath porcelain skin’, Ceramics, Art and Perception, no. 99, pp. 74-77.

Nagesh, T, Pijpers, C & Rothnie, s 2013, Ah Xian: Metaphysica, Queensland Art Gallery, Australia.

National Gallery of Australia 2017, Ah Xian, YouTube, 8 June, National Gallery of Australia, viewed 3 April 2021, <www.youtube.com/watch?v=TP2Jm5Afi0Y>.

Unknown, 17th Century, Vase with poems in a panoramic landscape, Metropolitan Museum of Art, viewed 18 May 2021, <www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/706316?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&deptids=6&where=China&what=Porcelain&ft=blue+and+white&offset=40&rpp=80&pos=87>.

Xian, A 1999, China China – Bust 16, glazed porcelain, National Gallery of Australia, Viewed 18 May 2021, <artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=22695>.

Xian, A 2000-01, Human Human: louts, cloisonne figure 1, Hand-Beaten Copper finely enamelled in the Cloisonné Technique, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Viewed 26 May 2021, <collection-online-beta.qagoma.qld.gov.au/objects/13313/>.

Xian, A 2004, China China – Bust 81, glazed porcelain, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Viewed 18 May 2021, <www.mca.com.au/artists-works/works/200821/>.

Xian, A 2007, Metaphysica: Crane on Tortoise, Bronze and Brass, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, viewed 3 June 2021, <www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/whats-on/touring/ah-xian>.

Xian, A 2007, Metaphysica: Red Fish, Bronze and Brass, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, viewed 3 June 2021, <www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/whats-on/touring/ah-xian>.

Xian, A 2008-09, Concrete forest 2: Sagittaria trifolia (Threeleaf Arrowhead), Concrete, National Gallery of Victoria, viewed 4 June 2021, <www.ngv.vic.gov.au/media_release/ngv-announces-ah-xian-as-recipient-of-2009-clemenger-contemporary-art-award/>.