This Summer OCAT Xi’an is honoured to present Wu Xiaochuan’s solo exhibition “Between Here and There, Then and Now”. The exhibition is based on the research carried out by Japanese scholar Kiroku Adachi on various cultural relics in the western part of Shaanxi Province, a century ago. This research, and importantly the photographs Kiroku took, were published in "Chang’an Historical Relic" in 1933. Wu Xiaochuan presents a visual contrast between then and now in a clever and direct way from a contemporary perspective.
A hundred years ago, photographs were believed to be nothing less than “truth”. Thus, when adventurers and men of science set out to explore the world, they carried with them cameras for the purpose of producing accurate scientific research. In the early decades of the twentieth-century, foreign photographers began to travel across China, which was itself perceived to be a land steeped in mystery and a deeply impressive ancient culture. One such figure was the Japanese scholar Kiroku Adachi (1871-1949), who from 1906 to 1910 taught at Shaanxi Higher Education Hall in Xi’an. In his spare time, he conducted field visits to historical sites in the surrounding environs, completing an extraordinarily detailed survey of the western region of Shaanxi. The resulting “report”, containing a large number of photographs, covered relics from the Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties, from temples, stone carvings, and inscriptions, which Kiroku Adachi published Chang’an Historical Relics in 1933.
Alongside the descriptive text, diagrams and maps in the book, the photos themselves are rather underwhelming. The framing of objects, structures, scenes is utilitarian. Kiroku clearly preferred facts over aesthetics. Scientific truth was the order of the day. Kiroku intended his photographs to record truthfully what he saw, which is why from time to time he chose to show a person near a stone stele or statue to highlight their enormous size. This doesn’t stop some images being beautiful because the landscape, the buildings and the majestic sculptures are things of inherent beauty themselves.
Building on this archive, and making a significant contribution to the historic records of the region from a contemporary perspective, is Wu Xiaochuan, the Xi’an-based artists and professor at Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts. In 2013, eighty years after the publication of Chang’an Historical Relics, aided by a team of assistants, Wu Xiaochuan embarked upon a conceptual project, taking as its guide the locations documented by Kiroku Adachi a century before. Painstaking research of the original photographs led the team to the presentday location of each “relic”, as well as the exact position from which Kiroku photographed them. Armed with a set of those original photographs that had been enlarged for the purpose and printed on a transparent film, Wu Xiaochuan rephotographed each site using the transparent film as a filter. The final effect is disconcerting, for it produces a kind of double image, where you can't quite grasp why, nor how it was done? Why do the scenes have strange “shadows” in them? The colour is subdued, which creates an air of nostalgia. We wonder if Wu Xiaochuan’s work is a reprint of an old photograph. But we can see that his photographs contain elements of our own contemporary age. Once the process of overlay at work is explained, everything in the photographs makes perfect sense. The images become a powerful new document of place.
Objects tilt with time. Some have sunk into the ground. There is little to be seen of mass development or change here, save for a pylon here, a billboard there. There are gaps where buildings have crumbled, their ghostly centuryold form hovering above the contemporary landscape upon which there is no mark but their absence. That absence is revealed by the intervention of the artist where otherwise it would pass us by unnoticed. Over all, it is remarkable how little changed the landscape is after a hundred years of time, of history, and of 40 years of opening and reform. In this region, where imperial ancestors have been laid to rest, history feels protected. Only the brave, or the desperately stupid dare to plunder this earth.
Wu Xiaochuan’s project offers a fine, direct visual comparison between then and now full of similarities and surprises. The ghostly aura of the composite images simultaneously points to the fragility of human existence and the temerity of human spirit. In the exhibition, this dualism is highlighted by the artist’s use of metaphor, that of a typical June in Shaanxi which is the time on the agricultural calendar when the wheat fields, recently turned golden under the heat of the sun, are ripe for harvest bringing communities together to work in the fields; today, as is has been for centuries of history before now.
“国”, meaning city or capital city, is the character for settlement, and also country. “野” refers to the land beyond the settlement as in the field versus beyond/outside. These worlds extend as a series of concentric circles that begin from home, family, and more to place society as the ways we understand geographical and social structures, as a metaphor extended to the region and what-liesbeyond, and to the sense everyone has of themselves within and the world that lies without. This describes Shaanxi, the region captured in the photographs, as having an ongoing spatial relationship between the two conditions of within and without, as well as a deep correspondence between history and the present.
The exhibition runs from June 12 to July 25, 2021. Stay tuned!
About the Artist
Wu Xiaochuan was graduated from the first studio of the Oil Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1998 and worked in the Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts in the same year, taught in the Department of Oil Painting, Film and Television Animation, and Experimental Art. He is currently the dean of the Experimental Art Department and the director of the Discipline Construction Office as a master Instructor. Mainly engaged in the practice and research of painting, video, experimental art, social art.
About the Curator
Karen Smith is a curator and art critic specializing in contemporary art in China since 1992. She has written widely on the subject for numerous journals and exhibition catalogues, and is the author of numerous artist monographs. Karen joined the academic advisory board of OCAT Shenzhen in 2005, and was appointed executive director of OCAT Xi’an in 2012.