邬建安的作品第一次出现在我策划的展览，是2014年 “多重宇宙” ——上海21世纪民生美术馆的开馆展，2017年上海两个美术馆合并，名字也改为 “上海民生现代美术馆”。2017年我们在 “不息” ——第57届威尼斯双年展中国馆中遇到，展览相对完整的呈现了邬建安的几个创作高峰阶段，《白日梦的森林》、《九重天》、《五百笔》系列、《崖山》系列（与姚惠芬、姚惠琴合作），苏绣、牛皮、铜、水墨笔触，有些是材料在当代理念中的转化，有些是传统照进现实的瞬间。2018年邬建安和我在机场相遇，他赠书一本，并谈起 “越后妻有大地艺术三年展” 的《五百笔之屋》大作，很是兴奋。
邬建安起于民间美术之研究，其民间美术研究之方向，从皮影研究，到最近的 “苗” 文化的探索。皮影、皮影戏的研究有其地区化历史特征，相传汉武帝（公元前157-87年）的故事，之后随蒙元时代（公元13世纪）扩张，其形式（技术）传入现在的伊朗、土耳其、亚洲周边国家、俄罗斯、欧洲诸国。如此，中国民间美术的线索，是从上至下社会运作结构的投射，同时，也是前全球化时期，文化在各个地缘社群间传递的现实。文化在传递的过程中，会自主的改变其故事的叙述方式和将其本土化，如意大利歌剧《图兰朵》中公主的故事，源自12世纪波斯诗人内札米·甘哲维（Nizami Ganjavi）的《七个肖像》的故事中 “红色、火星、星期二”，其故事恰源自波斯国王和蒙古可汗之典故。如今日再观皮影，及其文化地缘化的变迁，也就更容易理解技术层面的光影关系之延续，叙事关系上的演化迭代。正如吕胜中在其文《有二说二》中提及的 “学问” 与 “艺术” 并不冲突之理念，民间传统和当代也非无法调和。
对民间故事和形象的引用，同时出现在卡拉·沃克（Kara Walker）的作品《美国之家》中类似古代壁画或中国画叙事的视觉叙事层叠关系，流泪的非洲移民、游弋的鲨鱼、身体是喷泉的暗喻，是象征的，是悲伤的历史故事。卡塔琳娜·弗里奇（Katharina Fritsch）作品中的《鼠王》（1993）、《公鸡》（2010），章鱼、大象、蛇，都是这一线索上的关于动物、图像和知识积累的释放。黄永砯作品中也有同样的引用方式，《乔治五世的噩梦》（2002）中老虎袭击大象上的探险者乔治五世，据传英国王乔治五世1911年远赴尼泊尔打猎时，曾一天内猎杀了四只老虎。黄永砯据此设想了老虎反扑乔治五世的场景，这件对殖民主义的暴力历史…… 叙事的、象征的、尺度变化的动物和人，都在当代艺术领域成为一个非常特别的探索范畴。进而引入生物多样性话题的如皮埃尔·于热（Pierre Huyghe）在作品中使用的洞穴盲眼鱼，染了粉色前腿生活在美术馆或野外的狗，长在雕塑头部的蜂巢等等。也都在呈现一种更复杂的生态之关切，并为之提供一个悬置在被引用材料和形态之上的讨论，涉及到环境变化、气候变化、人内心和外部世界变化之平衡。
在和邬建安的谈话中，有一种奇妙的活力。也许在其作品多有其图腾、志怪的图像部分，多被联系到民间剪纸、《山海经》，而忽略邬建安创作中的超自然力 —— 非图像的，非志怪的，绵延不懈的追问。其创作有现代性情况下，被放大为民族主义或地缘政治、身份政治的部分，也有神秘感及其叙事的力量。邬建安作品中被忽略的部分，在《征兆》（2016）系列中被改变的动物，暗藏着自然世界的能量，或是基因改造的未来？这是现代性的困境，未来和过去都不可知、不可控。唯一可能的道路是面对这一困境，试着描述这一对应的关系，进而理解现在和人之所在。
生物杂处的形态，人首兽身之状。在传统中特指内心异化外化的表现，有其象征意义。而今人类基因工程、克隆羊、耳鼠等领域的推进，赛博格化义体假肢、心脏等领域的实践。以及数字人性所能包含的现实一切的虚拟化交融，都将重新定义生命的意义和存在。邬建安依旧在讲一个属于传统叙事的象征图像，却又在其表述无限的有限循环中，暗喻时代中 “人” 的不确定性，是无限中的有限。
“From birth to death, and death to birth.”
Once I had discussions on the eternity of life, mainly the understanding of life and time, with Wu Jian’an. We talked a lot, even until very late. Eternity of life covers several aspects, one of which is energy conversion and then the figure transformation such as samsara or magical changes in folk tales with intermittent spirit. Immortality is also believed to be a kind of eternity of life, where humans, trees and stones which have existed hundreds or thousands of years trapped in their real figures all have the ability of knowing everything passed. The eternity of life can also be an immaterial state such as an idea, a kind of thinking or only a wish, which appears in individuals or among the crowd, and remains consistent in the history or at the present. The last one is an extraterrestrial combination of the past and the future, which exists out of the time.
It was at the “Cosmos”, the opening exhibition of Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum (which was later renamed as Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum together with another museum in Shanghai in 2017), that Wu’s works were displayed for the first time at an exhibition curated by me. In 2017, we met each other at the exhibition titled “Continuum: Generation by Generation” held in the China Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale, which presented works made at several of his creation peaks in a relatively intact manner, including Daydream Forests, The Heaven of Nine Levels, 500 Btushstrocks series and Ya Shan series (co-worked by Yao Huifen and Yao Huiqin), involving Suzhou embroidery, cattlehide, copper and ink paint. Some works feature transformation of materials in modern theories while others depict the combination of reality and tradition. When I met Wu at an airport in 2018, he gave me a book and talked about the great masterpiece House of 500 Btushstrockes displayed at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale with excitement.
Wu Jian’an embarked on his artistic career by exploring folk arts, from shadow play to the Miao ethnic culture, which is a recent research interest of him. Research has shown that the shadow play and shadow puppetries have regional and historic features. It is said that the shadow play dates back to the Han Dynasty reigned by Emperor Wu (157 B.C. to 87 B.C.), and later in Yuan Dynasty (13th Century A.D.) it was introduced into Iran, Turkey, neighboring Asian countries, Russia and European countries. In this way, the clue of Chinese folk fine art reflects the whole social structure and the epitome of culture transmission among geographical groups in the pre-globalized era. In the process of culture transmission, the narration method is changed and localized automatically. For example, Turandot, an Italian opera, is based on the story “Red, Mars, Tuesday” from the Haft-Peykar written by Nizami Ganjavi, a poet of the 12th Century, which originated from the history between the monarchs of Persia and Mongolian Khan. If you know something about the transfer of geo-culture while watching the shadow play, it will be easier for you to understand the cohesive relations between lights and shadows in terms of technique as well as the change and heritage of narration. As is mentioned by Lv Shengzhong in Say as It Is, art and knowledge never contradict each other, and the folk traditions and modernization share the same logic.
The folk stories and figures are also cited in Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, which adopts a stuck-up visual method of narration that is similar to the one used in ancient murals or Chinese paintings. African migrants with tears, swimming sharks and body-shaped fountains are symbolic items, telling visitors sad historical stories. The same citation appeared in Rat-King (1993) and Hahn/Cock (2010) by Katharina Fritsch where octopuses, elephants and snakes are demonstrations of animals, images and knowledge associated with the clue. Huang Yongping also applied the same citation to his work The Nightmare of George V (2002), which depicts the scene that George V is attacked by a tiger while riding on an elephant during his exploration. It was said that the British King George V killed four tigers on his hunting in Nepal in 1911. Huang pictured the scene of a tiger pouncing on the King, to reflect the violent history of colonialism…… Narritive, metaphor and size-changing animals and people have constituted an unique category for exploration in modern art. Later, Pierre Huyghe cited biodiversity in his works, such as the blind cave fish, a pink-legged dog living in museum or at large and a honeycomb on the head of a sculpture. These figures are used to demonstrate his care for a more complex ecology and raise a discussion on materials and shapes used, involving environmental change and climate change and the balance between the inner world of human and the outside world.
The tradition and folk elements in Wu’s works have their extension in a complex manner, together with colonization, modernization shock and biodiversity mentioned above, further exploring the non-human-centered gestures. If we compare the explorations in modern art, we can easily find out their features, including history combined with reality and lasting evolution of relationship between culture and human. Images owe their symbolic meanings to the accumulation of cultural gene, for example, the relation between the snake and the Bible, the eagle and the Buddha, the monkey and the man, etc. As a scholar devoted to folk arts and tradition, Wu excels at using various elements and strange figures to extend tradition and create new stories according to their symbolic meanings.
Conversation with Wu takes on a marvelous vitality, which may come from the totems and weird images in his works that are always related to folk papercut and Shan Hai Jing (Book of Guideways to the Mountains and Seas) with no mention of supernaturalism – nongraphical, unweird, and persistent questions. In his works with modern features, the parts that are exaggerated into nationalism, geo-politics or identity politics also take on a sense of mystery and power of narration. Probably the ignored parts of his works, for example, the changed animals in Omens series (2016), imply the secret power of nature or the future of gene modification. The dilemma of modern times lies in that the future and the past can neither be known nor controlled. The only possible solution is facing it, trying to describe the relations and further understanding the people and the present.
Voyager 1 (a space probe launched by NASA) started its journey on September 5th, 1977, and left the solar system on September 12th, 2013. The past and the future are the focuses of the exhibition, which presents a chaotic world in remote antiquity, or a world in the fiction Dune, or somewhere in heaven captured by NASA. It could be a losing artificial satellite, a strange place with no human trace, or the most isolated planet in fictions.
Human beings need a secluded place to stay with themselves, to meditate, and to be alone sometime.
The figures in shape of many species with a human’s head and a beast’s body, traditionally, indicate the innermost externalization, and have their respective symbolic meanings. Nowadays, the progresses made in the field of genetic engineering, such as cloned sheep, ear rats, etc., the achievements regrading Cyborg prosthesis and heart diseases and digital humanity that contains virtualized integration will jointly redefine the existence and the meaning of life. Wu is still committed to creating symbolic images with traditional technique of narration, but implying that the uncertainty of human is finite in the infinite through the finite circulation with infinite presentation methods.
The Heaven of Nine Levels (2009) is a crucial start in his creation which marks the transformation of materials, media and narration methods used by him. The processes from papercutting, cattle hide engraving to the final installation, further correspond to the images, narration and skills of The Heaven of Nine Levels, thus echoing the integration of the remote antiquity and the future. It is just like the stone tablet in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, which is a physical item, a symbol of knowledge and a real existence.
Seems right but not, looks like but unlike.
The title of the exhibition “The huge sand dunes are the bed of the Sea”, originates from the idea that the sea is the source of everything while the sand dunes constitute the sea bed, which implies a natural circulation. Perhaps between the existence and absence, several large pieces and the space form an ever-energetic space.
Li Zhenhua, August 2, 2021