Facing East @ Manchester Art Gallery

John Harrison | 16 Feb 2010

Even though it’s Chinese New Year and Chinese lanterns adorn Albert Square, Manchester City Gallery’s newest exhibition of work from East Asia is anything but ‘Oriental.’  The closest thing to an exotic vision of ‘The East’ is an enormous gold head, like that of a deity, surprised after poking her head through the floor, slightly astonished by what is going on around her.  And she would have good reason to be; it’s not every day you see a child kissing a polar bear that seems to reach down from the heavens of imagination.

If you are fortunate enough to have seen any of Frank Cohen’s collection you would see how much he likes sculpture, though not the classical marble or bronze, more along the lines of colossal toys. Made of fibreglass and smiling at us mischievously is Takashi Murakami’s Kitagawa-Kun. He is shiny, happy and so sweet it's sickly. Murakami has created several of these 3 dimensional cartoon characters, not all as family friendly as Kitagawa-Kun. This playful and colourful style of art recurs throughout the exhibition making it accessible to all while exploring themes that are wider reaching than childhood fantasy.

The skin speaks a language not its own – the body of a life size baby elephant lies on the floor, its skin covered in thousands of tiny sperm-like bindis that enhance the contours of the creature's anatomy and create a carpet-like illusion. The sculpture is sad, beautiful and has a touch of the sacred. The bindis swirl around the body like hairs, identifying it as something to be respected and asking its forgiveness for an untimely death.  This piece surmises the different angles from which this exhibition can be approached; no background information is needed to enjoy the work, but it does pose questions, and with more information come more questions leaving the viewer free to interpret and extract what they will from what is there.

The curator, David Thorp, is a pleasant, humble man, who genuinely loves art; his joy shines through in the artwork he has chosen.  He is excited by these artists’ proximity to the brink of the kitsch, but also by their integrity, and the freedom they give the viewer to interpret their work. He tells me that the majority of Chinese artists he has come into contact with are apolitical, that they immerse themselves in the contemporary culture of creating fantasies and making these fantasies real.

However, this does not mean the exhibition is completely apolitical: Fang Lijun’s work comes from a movement known as Cynical Realism born from the aftermath of the Tiananmen square demonstrations.  His work 2007.6.72007 is subtle, calm and lyrical – it is not a painting that can be easily interpreted.  Thousands of faces stare at us from below a blanket of clouds.  There is such an atmosphere to this painting you could see it again and again, drawing a different feel from it. The fact that this painting is so unassuming, ironically, makes it stand out; there are many layers to it, something very human and of the real world.

Throughout the exhibition the contrast is explored between almost manufactured work and work that is certainly made by human hands.  Such a difference can be seen between the work of He An, and Yoshitomo Nara.  He An’s sculptures are perfect, white, lithe forms taken from the Hollywood film The Matrix.  The figures are exaggerated, full of movement and grace, superhuman like the characters in the film who recognise that what we perceive as the real world is in fact a constructed fantasy made by machines. This use of fictional characters blends into the work of Yoshimoto Nara, whose distinctive drawings have the quality of childlike sketches and doodles, but with the emotions and language of an adult. These drawings are displayed not on the walls of the gallery but in a construction made from reclaimed wood. They are in their own habitat, as drawings pinned to the wall, and although they use the visual vocabulary of Japanese animation, they remain in a very real world, expressing the curious eruptions of the artist.  Far away from a perfect, machine made fantasy, but looking at it and talking back in the same language.

This is an enjoyable and stimulating exhibition, bringing forth childhood memories and feelings, like an adventure into a toy box, yet asking questions about how we are building our brave new world.  

For more information on the exhibition and events such as the curator’s talk on the 20th March, please visit www.manchestergalleries.org