The great Australian-born critic Robert Hughes noted in the documentary Mona Lisa Curse that the role of art is to “make us feel more clearly and intelligently” about the world we live in; to provide “a place outside ourselves that tells us that there’s more to life than our everyday concerns and needs.” Many artists in China believe that is what they do; at least, they believe it is what they strive to do. Not all of them succeed, however. Beijing-born artist Guan Wei, returned émigré and naturalized Australian, does. He is a good painter, with clarity of vision and an unwavering commitment to his interests. Importantly, too, he owns an old-fashioned love of the unknown; of unexplained mysteries of the natural world that have inspired so much human curiosity through the ages, both as a foil for what mankind has named “the supernatural,” and in mankind’s quest for knowledge. In Guan’s world, science and superstition collide; myth and faith overlap and melt, one into the other.
Guan Wei’s painting style is long established and easily recognized. Its now familiar forms have evolved continuously through the thirtysome years of his widely respected career. He has matured year by year, but his work retains an air of the eternal both in terms of its content, as well as the painterly— and distinctly non-avant-garde— aesthetic traditions to which it adheres. Be they small or large, single or multiple, on canvas or as murals, Guan’s paintings exude a boyish wonderment, an aura of the magic and mystery of man and nature, and the effects of one upon the other. This wonderment dominates Guan’s recent project, aptly titled Spellbound, created as a special commission for the OCAT in Shenzhen.
Spellbound is comprised of three parts. In Guan Wei’s words, they were “three rings [that] correspond to the heavens, the earth, and man.” The rings are concentric, like the roadways that encircle the Chinese capital. To Guan, Spellbound maps out “a progression of movement, flow, and return to the point of origin.” The idea of returning to a point of origin is perhaps significant for an artist who departed China in 1989, and lived away for many years in an adopted culture— in Australia, where he is celebrated as an important Australian artist— before returning to China in 2008. Returning to a point of origin is, of course, metaphorical rather than a mere fact of motion.
In its entirety Spellbound is a huge work, dominated by a hall-sized mural covering the length and height of three main walls of OCAT’s 1,300-square-meter exhibition space. The walls had been washed with black paint over which Guan Wei and a team of enthusiastic assistants used metallic silver to outline galaxies, constellations, and “gods,” linked as a cosmos by millions of silver “stars.” It was an undertaking of nearly biblical proportions, requiring just under forty days to complete. In the center of this dark outer ocean of flowing lines and floating celestial bodies sat two inner islets where viewers could seek refuge from the dark— albeit by swapping one dark shore for another. The final ring was comprised of a series of banners that were hung from the ceiling. The islets were formed of semi-circular freestanding panels that, in contrast to the dark outer ring, were brightly colored— cerulean and oceanic Mediterranean blues, soft ruddy vermilions and Chinese mineral greens—in keeping with Guan’s familiar style. Here, too, were familiar motifs; stylized clouds as well as natural forms, in particular the full-bodied, rotund and at times sausage-like figures that people Guan’s worlds. To these this time he brought new symbols; emblems of the computer age, and our so-called modern world. With Spellbound, Guan makes us aware that modernity is relative.
Refreshing and thought-provoking, Spellbound is a world of wonder and fantasy with a dark underbelly. Guan Wei’s fantasy is anchored in the “reality” we call mythology, be that Eastern or Western, in cosmologies and sciences that are often confused with astrology and ancient superstitions. Guan draws his inspiration from an impressive range of cultural sources: as he put it, “Chinese folk runes, the constellations of Islamic and Western culture, navigational markers, Australian aboriginal cave paintings, and symbols of modern technology,” to name just a few. In Spellbound, he weaves these elements together masterfully, softly, gliding across cultural boundaries and frameworks with ease. There are myriad stories here in Spellbound but, as Guan intends, our reading of them returns us to a point of origin: the fixed perspective with which we each see the world. Thanks to Spellbound, and courtesy of our individual upbringing, we are forced into an awareness of the power of those who decide the nature of the interpretations of the cosmos.
In deploying elements from various global cultures, often filtered through the prism of personal experience, Guan Wei reminds us that as peoples we have closer common ancestry than many of us are willing to accept. We are, it seems, in possession of set of similar primal experiences, which possibly accounts for the commonalities in mythological stories, superstitions, and beliefs held by different peoples in different regions, and belonging to seemingly oppositional religions. Guan continues to imply that human nature does not stray far from a limited sphere of urges, emotions, thought processes and responses. We merely dress them in different raiments, a fact that drives a deliberate divide between communities and nations, cultures and religions.
Spellbound also references another of Guan Wei’s recurring themes: a perilous journey towards an ill-defined utopia that is never attained. Thus, it features “beautiful birds, strange flora and fauna” and “mysterious sea creatures” in “a world of sensation, full of allure and hope” aware that as “we” struggle with the perils of the journey, we are all but blind to the very things that might signal our arrival in utopia. Is mankind’s original sin, therefore, the selfishness that impels the journey?
With Spellbound Guan Wei captured and conveyed a magical world outside of ourselves. He offered a reminder, too, of human limitations and follies in the face of encounters with powers that are deemed as being beyond our control. But if, for the time it took to view the exhibition, it was possible to experience the work as “a place outside ourselves that tells us that there’s more to life than our everyday concerns and needs,” then the exhibition succeeded as art in the best Hughesian fashion, making the audience “feel more clearly and intelligently” about the world they live in. Karen Smith