Hu Xiaoyuan: Paths in the Sand

“Hu Xiaoyuan: Paths in the Sand”, installation view,
West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2022
Centre Pompidou × West Bund Museum Project
Photo by Alessandro Wang
Courtesy West Bund Museum

The loose, fluid “sand” and the meandering, shifting “paths” seem to conjure two divergent images that eventually converge. As the special formatting of the Chinese title suggests, this parallel relationship between “sand” and “paths” is made evident in Hu Xiaoyuan’s subtly distanced juxtaposition of the two elements. Through their latent tension, she searches for the traces of individual existence. Dividing the exhibition space with dyed and weathered raw silk, she creates layers of hazy yet alluring sensory stimuli through sound, light, and vaguely recognizable shapes, mapping out the routes for discovery.

The gallery space opens with the video Here I begin at the End (2022). Pointedly outlining an entry to the exhibition, the work has a length that marks a breakthrough in the artist’s video-making practice. In Hu’s narrative, three types of fluids – honey (bee), breast milk (human body), and water (nature/urban environments) – form three “forking paths.” All three come from living beings, and with human interventions they take on new rhythms, becoming containers of eternal time and boundless energy. Panning across multiple space-times, the artist’s camera captures moments of their intersections, mutual restraints and disciplines, as well as their symbiosis, weaving these fragmented, disordered segments into a seemingly linear narrative. The various life stages of bees (beekeeping, honey, beehive, dead bees), the transformation of breast milk from liquid to solid, the different types of water in nature and urban spaces (the mountain torrents, the lawn sprinklers, and the plaza fountain dancing along the beat of the music) are metaphors for the cycles of reproduction and life of the three secret protagonists: human, animal, and nature.

Hu Xiaoyuan, Here I Begin at the End, 2022, video,
31 minutes 36 seconds
“Hu Xiaoyuan: Paths in the Sand”, installation view,
West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2022
Courtesy West Bund Museum

In “Paths in the Sand,” sound stands out as an element that cannot be ignored. In addition to the “dialogues” performed by sound performance artist Lao Dan, who responded on-site to Hu’s works through a variety of musical instruments, poems written by the artist are presented across three synchronized screens as a voiceover monologue in Esperanto. Subtitled with the Chinese original and the English translation, the monologue adds another paralleled sensory dimension to the images. An artificial language created in 1887, Esperanto – originally meaning “one who hopes” – has not been officially recognized by any country as a second language, nor does it share the genealogy of any national languages. This paradox between ideal and reality might have remained unknown to many. As if poetic murmurs to the self, the lines written by Hu also underwent multiple displacements before they are uttered, moving increasingly distant from the audience and thus rendered alien. From Chinese to English (known as the universal language) and then to Esperanto, sound and meaning in the video gradually become abstract and fractured, complementing and mirroring those seemingly familiar images sourced from life.

Hu Xiaoyuan, Spheres of Doubt | Farewell, Forever VI, 2022, scrap rebar, space aluminium panel, coprolite, corallite, raw silk, ink, thread, iron wire, concrete, cheesecloth, bamboo pipe, myrrh, licorice products, 138 × 88 × 230 cm

Continuously lifting and moving around the “pauses” staged by the artist, the audience steps into this “labyrinthine cavity” and discovers more installations and paintings. Wandering in sites “chosen” by themselves, one’d realize the medium that freezes time is not limited to fluids. For years, Hu has been studying and working with plain-weaved mulberry raw silk, while other materials – corallite, expired bread, Orthocera fossils, space aluminum panels, and fossilized feces – are wrapped, nested, and connected in her work, constantly growing and evolving. This feeling of growth not only threads the different stages of Hu’s practice, but also runs through her exhibitions. “Paths in the Sand” is a direct continuation of “The Sand from the Urns,” the artist’s solo exhibition at Beijing Commune last year. Contrasting the statically brewing, upward momentum in the previous works from the same series, in Spheres of Doubt | Farewell, Forever VII, a piece of worn-out space aluminum panel is folded into a Möbius strip. (The material, along with the scrap rebars used in this work, were collected from demolished or fire-ravaged areas where migrant workers reside.) Cradled inside are fossilized feces and corals, wrapped in raw silk. Both are relics that come from the excretion and secretion of animals. Together, these materials are held up by three seemingly flimsy construction rebars, as if about to walk and dance.

Hu Xiaoyuan, A Day in Heaven (detail), 2021, mixed media on wood brick, watercolor, raw silk, ink, Orthoceratites, bread, thread, space aluminium panel, paper pulp, steel rod, 31 × 20 × 123 cm

In the past, Hu had referenced Paul Celan in her exhibition title. This time, Celan’s poetry is incarnated in one single work. In Trodden Beaten Paths in the High Moor (beschrittenen Knüppel pfade im Hochmoor), multiple rebars stretch out like human limbs. Discarded metal frame, fly whisk, white metal dustpan, copper ladle, wooden rake, bristle brush, bamboo spoon, brown sweep, discarded shovel, bamboo sweep, copper pot, loofah, bamboo stick, raw silk, ink, thread, Prophecy Stone, white square crystal, coprolite, Azurite, and snake shed – used everyday objects “exist” on the ends of these metal bars, almost a proof of lives lived across different space-times. According to the exhibition text, Celan’s poem Todtnauberg and the poet’s meeting with Heidegger, after which the poem was written in July 1967, provide an extremely revealing footnote to the piece.

Hu Xiaoyuan, A Winding Path to Nowhere I, 2022,
kuragi, ink, raw silk, iron wire, honeycomb, crystal, bark, pine, paper pulp, stainless steel screen, thread, 300 × 85 × 165 cm

“raw exchanges, later, while driving, clearly” … Just like how the scenario unfolds in Celan’s poem, Hu is adept at transforming common objects into “raw” and unfamiliar exchanges, while their messages are rendered clear by her work. The series A Winding Path to Nowhere makes reference to another source text, A Buddhist Retreat Behind an Old Temple in the Mountain by Tang Dynasty poet Chang Jian, and is inspired by Hu’s own experience of keeping 5,000 bees in a tiny beehive on her balcony. A Winding Path to Nowhere I shows an unusable bench: the artist dismantles and reverses its structure following the steps to make a Möbius loop. Pinewood, barks, and materials featured in the video – honeycomb and honey, now extending into the real world – form an arrangement that responds to the viewer’s gaze. The installation of ready-made objects becomes ascendingly lithe as one’s eyes move upwards, dissipating in the folds of time and space, one after another. As the artist says: “There is no winding footpath, nor does anything lead to a deep treat”– a sentiment that responds to her witnessing of the fleetingly short life of bees. In Here I begin at the End, Hu smears “quark cheese” made from congealed breast milk onto tree holes, mosses, and feces. The remaining bit is held by a piece of raw silk, left to be propelled by water. They will nourish new lives, or embrace their natural demise. In this expanded, ever-circling field that enables a close inspection of the passage of time, Hu has always strived to unlock other possible dimensions for temporality and materiality. Her delicately outlined paintings recall parts of soaring monuments, crashing down like towers in the sand. Amid the intentionally set “signposts,” one hears Hu speak: “the road is everywhere and nowhere. It exists if you walk it, and it doesn’t if you don’t.” She is joining the audience in this continuous search, clearly.

Hu Xiaoyuan, Trodden Beaten Paths in the High Moor (beschrittenen Knüppel pfade im Hochmoor) (detail), 2022,
scrap rebar, discarded metal frame, fly whisk, white metal dustpan, resin screw driver, copper ladle, wooden rake, shave brush, bristle brush, bamboo spoon, brown sweep, glass sea float, brown brush, rattan fan, discarded shovel, bamboo sweep, copper pot, loofah, bamboo stick, raw silk, ink, thread, prophecy, 340 × 300 × 302 cm

Fiona He is an independent curator, art writer and seasoned art translator. He graduated from McGill University with a degree in Art History and Asian Studies. Her onging research interests include the impact of media and technology on human perception, reception and artistic practice, the politics of representations, and the mechanism of viewing.

Translated by Xu Sixing