Text by Katie Hill
… ‘as lowly as mere objects’
You might ask the question: ‘what is an artwork?’
Start with an everyday object, something you barely notice – a free newspaper left on the tube, a bench, a packet of cigarettes, nails or pieces of debris: wood, wire and string. Small insignificant things that form the backdrop of life as we pass through it on a daily basis constitute the central component of Sun Yi’s work in the past couple of years, running through the materiality and form of his practice. Drawing is at the heart of his practice as well, as a fundamental aspect of cultural expression connecting low and high art, East Asian and Western cultural traditions. The works are under-played, almost whittled down like a rough piece of wood, worked on and yet left barely discernible as aesthetic objects/art works in their execution and presentation. They are subtly laid out below the surface, striking a bass note beneath the main tune.
Sun Yi has practised calligraphy since the age of five and more lately trained in ink painting in China. As a child, he was requested to learn, initially in order to ‘sit still’. With this background, his discipline is embedded in different aspects of Chinese culture, such as the constant search for a kind of ‘imperfection’ that is philosophically in tune with Daoism or Chan Buddhism. Humility and acceptance are valued above any outward display of ego or spectacle, current values in our age of late global capitalism and neo-liberalism. In London, these values have fused with other philosophical thinking and in conversation, Sun frequently mentions philosophers such as Kant, Wittgenstein and Agamben, amongst others, showing a wide range of intellectual engagement in issues of taste, value and language.
In London, his practice has evolved out of this background, accumulating understandings of liminality, tensions and paradoxes that are the push and pull of forces and structures in society and culture. Formally, his work pursues a dialogue across different artistic vocabularies from China and the West, making connections with drawing, painting and sculpture as integral aspects of cultural production across time and space. Sun Yi’s series of newspaper works manifest in a variety of ways as drawings, sketches, sculpture and objects posing questions about knowledge systems, and society’s propensity for story-telling through visual messages in the contemporary world of throw-away media.
On the surface of it, they are simple: sketches in black ink are formed by drawing through, small visual segments are extracted and traced, pulled out as little tableaux vivants, set against a plain white ground, with gesso brushed in broad strokes whereby all other contextual information is erased in a painterly gesture. The materiality of this background is significant: gesso is used to prepare the canvas but it is also a sculptural material and in this work it seems to be a deliberate play across media and function, a subtle yet traceable mark of artistic legacy lying below the surface as a platform for the images. As sketches they can be perceived as extracts, in that they are redrawn from the ‘real’, becoming reanimated as universal, non-specific figures, with overlapping functions of capturing the subject in the classical European sense and capturing the idea in the Chinese tradition of literati painting. In this case the drawing is perhaps connected to the idea of ‘Xieyi’ (寫意) in Chinese painting, literally ‘write meaning’ but with the sense of ‘inscribing the essence’, connecting the mind or the imaginary with the formation of a visual image as the expression or translation of an idea.
What is left takes us back to drawing itself and visuality, as though the process has been undone – deconstructed, simultaneously produced and de-produced as it were. They connect to the hand (off the printed image and back), and the head: are they in the artist’s mind and how do we ‘read’ them? As contemporary meditations, these works combine a sort of classicism with a take on contemporaneity and media information saturation. At this moment, print media is free precisely because its value has been reduced to nothing with the rise of digital. Perhaps print itself reverts to a classical status in the 21st century as an outmoded form of modernity.
The flip side of the paper is also interesting: showing both sides allows them to become sculptural objects that you need to walk around. Hung suspended, they cut across into our vision physically intervening in space. We are shown pages of everyday, often sensational or horrific stories with headlines and photographs: street protest, murder, suicide, domestic violence, but sometimes simply the banal face of bald consumerist capitalism, showing advertisements of smiling, product-bearing figures. Again the page is pulled out of context, yet there is a sense of currency, of fresh news that is due to become historical at some point in time (when does ‘history’ begin?). It is one part of a whole, usually embedded within a format that is designed for quick consumption by anyone while on the tube or bus, to be discarded or thrown away until another appears the next day, and so on and so on. Sun’s process of extraction might be random, but like the news, there is process of selection and patterns emerge, as images somehow take on epic narrative-forming roles in their production of our shared contemporaneity, answering to Anderson’s reflections on ‘imagined communities’ borne out of mass vernacular literacy.
The pictorial selection signal a bigger political framework through which we form global communities of shared response, such as the episode of a black man being shot down cruelly by a policeman in America as he runs away unarmed. His only crime to have a missing taillight on his car. His fate is shockingly revealed in the appalling capture on camera that seals the fact permanently in our eyes and imaginations. Sun Yi takes this into the work, but it is part of the daily ritual, it is the response and understanding of it is what magnifies its significance. Whilst this episode is echoed with many others (jihadist youth leaving the UK for Syria, children who have been murdered), through the series of images extracted on a daily basis over a period of two years a broader picture emerges and is also simultaneously erased in the drawing. What do we know? How much do we understand? How do we process our world?
In his use of the everyday over time, Sun also deals with the aspect of time as a central part of his practice. Units of time are measured – a day finishes, another begins. Executed over a period of two years, the work is framed through real time experience as an everyday habit, discipline even, of how we live our lives, via this reading of the news. News itself becomes a framework, the framework even. A ritual marking time and our connection to the world, as we switch on the radio, or TV, pick up the paper, to browse through and share the daily horror. Part of the modern world, these little rituals are ubiquitous, transcending cultural difference. In Eagleton’s words, ‘aesthetic intersubjectivity adumbrates a utopian community of subjects, united in the very deep structure of their being’. Calligraphy is echoed here in a daily, meditational, inward practice. As a practitioner, Sun is utilising these patterns of habit in his own process as an artist, engaging the casual acts of reading, viewing, sitting, which lies between the visible, the invisible, the taking in and the leaving behind, in a subtle interplay of our relational world and the very structures that bind us together. The cyclical nature of time in Chinese culture is key to this process and in Sun’s view of the world.
In his sculptural and other object-based works, drawing is still present. Lines, composition, material are pulled around, extending the act of drawing into three-dimensional space. Nails and wire filaments are placed, again casual/not-casual, whether by chance or deliberate placement, we are not quite sure. The benches are disarmingly simple. Public furniture normally placed for convenience, to be sat on while you eat your lunch, wait for your friend, and so on, are upturned illogically and strewn minimally with ribbons, as though ‘wrapped’ but ineffectively, as a signal of difference, or in Derridean terms ‘différance’, in which a small alteration causes a shift of focus or meaning. How are we meant to understand them? Function is denied in favour of a philosophical and aesthetically positioning as sculptural form. Space is called in, transformed through this misplacement, calling the ‘natural’ placement as an unnoticeable landscape to attention. In other works, there is a playful back and forth of form and function: a library is completely stripped of its book spines, as all the books are turned sideways, or wrapped in plastic, rendering their contents unreadable. A chair is photographed suspended halfway up a wall attached to a bookshelf in a simple visual trick of perception. Large rectangular blocks of ice are laid to rest inside a hole in the ground, the solid freezing object due to melt and fuse back into the land as water.
The One Cent project is a group of objects or paintings presented in a group as a proposition for exchange. The objects and the coin (also an object) become interchangeable in a value system that levels the field of values to a nominally flat plane. Here the art market is subtly invoked in a wry lowering of the stakes, as the question of materiality and culture is called in, in which artworks are shown up as exchanged in a distorted value system of cumulative capital and market forces.
Ultimately Sun’s works are an exploration of value (as much as) aesthetic/cultural, social, economic, in the Bourdieuan sense of ‘habitus’, our very existence in a society is threaded together through value systems(“is” should be omitted?); a news story cheaply narrating a life lost sometimes in appalling circumstances, but the story itself and the image is also dispensable, disposable, to be cast away until the next comes along. Equally ‘high art’ is set aside in Sun’s work, for small seemingly insignificant sketches that give back value through a small retrieval. The sketches, as meditational crossing and unravelling of connections, the daily act of calligraphy touches the surface lightly, allowing them to hover into view – to linger, reflect and reconnect.
Sun’s is the opposite of spectacle or the often heightened language of contemporary art vocabulary in the mainstream art world. Perhaps in response to an earlier generation of forceful gestural work or giant-scale installations, he looks towards Twombly, On Kawara or Anastasi whose works made different kinds of connections through drawing or marking time, as modes of touch, sensibility, sensory experience or acts of memory.
He works back into the underbelly, retrieving and considering what runs through society, manifesting itself in barely visible form, yet revealing disturbing ideologies and questionable modes of consumption. In a stratified economic value system, lowest common denominators are brought in such as pieces of wood, nails, string (dyed with ink), penny coins, scratching the base of our environment, showing a deep understanding of the ‘ordinary’ as essential and sustainable aspects of life.
Sun calls drawing ‘an inexplicit and attractive object’ and perhaps this neat phrase describes his mode of practice. There is a kind of existentialist formalism to his works, as they seem to stand as understated ‘facts’, poised between an abstract geometry and a more specific everyday reality. The lines he draws, both literally and metaphorically, intervene in space in dialogue with languages of art and our spatial existence (difficult to understand). To finish, we might consider one of Sun’s simple, disingenuous works: an asymmetrical white frame – a found object – upended, placed in the middle of a narrow, empty side street in London, interrupting the space between the tall, Victorian buildings producing vertical and horizontal lines of connection. In the words of Ackbar Abbas, it presents: ‘not the new but the old as unfamiliar: this is one of the paradoxes of any-space-whatever’. This work is deceptively simple; it draws together many of Sun’s interests: performativity, material, geometry and formalism, positioned in a random ready-made place, redolent of time, culture and history.