Large scale sculpture grew popular in China after the Communist party established the New China, and its rapid development owed much to the requirements of politics and the preservation of Socialism. Until the end of the Cultural Revolution, the primary standard of sculptural production, as with other artistic media, was serving politics: in terms of theme it looked first to political personages depicted through realist
methods in order to extol the achievements of heroic figures and construct correct imagery along with the totemic value of the nation. With regard to this background, Sui Jianguo, who matured during the '85 New Wave movement with sculptural works that borrowed from
Western Modernism and Conceptual Art, like the Structure Series,
Shadow of the Century, and Legacy Mantle, thus fundamentally transforming the development of Chinese sculpture, is a pioneer of Chinese contemporary sculpture.
Sui Jianguo entered the Shandong University of Arts in 1980, and later
continued to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing as a graduate
student in 1986, completing his studies in 1989. A student during that
period, Sui was baptized into the '85 New Wave: "In China at that time,
with Reform and Opening we hoped to find motivation or inspiration at
the origin of our national culture—my time at university allowed me to
keep in step with those events." Like many other cultured youth of his
generation, he received information about Western art from art world
magazines. During that period Western philosophy and academic research flooded into China, boldly advocating individual liberation and
formal exploration in art. Influenced by such intellectual trends, Sui
Jianguo eagerly used different materials to experiment with sculptural
The artist only truly started developing, however, after 1989. As is commonly known, the student movement of 1989 turned the boiling art world to sudden silence. Was it to be a loss of ideals, or the continuation of the pure exploration of artistic language? In the first years of the 1990's Sui Jianguo buried himself in formalist experimentation, using stone as his material for the Structure Series. This has become a significant moment of the artist's early practice, in which he entered into production by altering the form of the material and thereby expanded the expressive possibilities of sculpture. In Structure Series - Bronze and Stone (Lot 131), Sui casts the central portion of the stone component in bronze, replacing the original stone and reorganizing the raw materials. Between destruction and construction, he produces a new artistic language in this early instance of pure artistic practice.
Sui Jianguo begins with pure material, frequently using stone, steel, and other hard substances as his creative media, drawing out their textures and properties and then, in the process of expressing their imagery, reveals his own experiences and observations of life. Rock in an Iron Cage and Closed Memory are exemplary works in this right. The former consists of the titular situation—a rock trapped in an iron cage—and, although the symbolic significance of the rock remains unclear, closure, imprisonment, and other imagery often employed by the artist are selfevident. In the later work Closed Memory, Sui encloses a rock in a cabinet welded together out of steel plates. Here we finally learn that stone represents, for the artist, a form of national memory; political meaning in this work is rich, constituting one of his few explicit critical statements. Later, in the piece Stale Memory produced in 1995, in which a rock is enclosed in a birdcage, the symbolic import of both cage and stone makes it simple to imagine the political events implicated by the work.
Within the entirety of the body of work formed by the Structure Seriesand the series derived from Rock in a Cage, Structure Series - Marble (Lot 130) is an outstanding exemplar, as the birdcage has developed into a steel net tightly binding the stone. During the process of production Sui Jianguo first carved channels out of the surface of the stone, then steadily wrapped it by welding it into the steel mesh. In the conflict—or even opposition—between stone and steel, there is produced an unpredictable visual impact.
Leaving behind the purely abstract explorations of sculptural language in the Structure Series, in 1997 Sui Jianguo began working with the representational subject matter of the Mao suit (known in Chinese as a
Zhongshan or Sun Yat-sen suit). Producing the Legacy Mantle series, he grasped this collective totemic symbol of several generations of Chinese and was repeatedly invited to international touring exhibitions, making this one of the most important projects in his practice. Shadow of the Century (Lot 132) is an early form of Legacy Mantle, marking Sui's first use of the Mao suit in his work. Consisting of ten pieces in a single set, the artist produced only two sets, each one with different modeling such that each group is completely unique.
Although the jacket in question was designed for and, in Chinese,
named after Sun Yat-sen, it became popular both in mainland China and abroad only after Mao Zedong took to wearing it on a regular basis, ultimately becoming a symbol of the Communist regime. Shadow of the
Century, produced in 1997, constitutes one of Sui Jianguo's first experiments with the Mao suit. Having visited Zhongshan, the hometown of Sun Yat-sen, in 1996, the artist gained a deeper experience of the suit: "[Though it has] a modern exterior, the things inside remain unchanged." Sui believes that, although the front of the Mao suit is based on a British style hunting suit, the rear remains the clothing of the Guangdong peasantry; as such, the idea of this outfit as a totemic symbol of the Chinese nation gradually began to take form in the artist's mind. It was soon after, in 1997, that he produced the first set of Shadow of the Century, while traveling to Australia for purposes of exchange: "I said to them (Australian students), look at the Chinese exchange students...Although they are also wearing Western suits, they are completely different from you. They have a historical background of almost a century of humiliation, an extremely difficult century... I said, look at the Chinese—they're all really wearing Zhongshan suits." It was at that time that Sui Jianguo thought to use the Mao suit as his subject matter, first making one out of foam board and working at its surface with his bare hands in order to obtain a festering feeling, then casting it in aluminum. Later the artist made another version out of clay, casting ten pieces and building a shrine for each jacket before adding a series of Chinese characters and images to the outside of each one. Shadow of the Century, introduced at this sale, is another version of this work. Compared to that produced in Australia the ten pieces of this version are larger and their surfaces smoother, while the shrines include collages of images and newspaper that tell the story of China's transformations over the past hundred years in decade-long increments spread across the shrines of the ten sculptures. Figures appearing in the collaged images include heroic figures of the Chinese Communist party like Mao Zedong, while other imagery includes news and pictures of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong—a macroscopic narration of the past century of Chinese history. As the Mao suit project developed, the artist eventually removed the frame around it and began producing it in larger dimensions, adopting the title Legacy Mantle so as to further manifest its importance to the Chinese nation and the historical significance of its burden.
Originally known as the Zhongshan suit, the uniform became known in
the West as the Mao suit because it was the latter leader who chose to
wear it with such regularity. Mao Zedong and the Chinese people share
an inseparable bond of sentimentality, as demonstrated in Legacy
Mantle (Lot 133), a large scale work of this series produced in 1997.
With massive dimensions and immensely heavy, it stands tall like a monument for the Chinese people, representing not only the Communist
regime but rather the deep memories of the period before Reform and
Opening that have quietly disappeared. In 2011 China stands as an
international power, but perhaps now more than ever it requires a monument like Legacy Mantle to document and reflect upon the past century, allowing us to move toward a new era.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.