Chinese artist Wu Jian’an uses traditional paper cutting techniques of Chinese shadow puppet plays to make complex multi-layered sculptures that are rooted in traditional Chinese folktales and Buddhism, providing a glimpse of the contemporary in the process.
All these monkeys, monsters, phoenixes and other icons of traditional Chinese folklore are flattened, coloured and twisted into a comical contemporary expression, but to what end?
The symbols of goddesses and monsters which are ubiquitous in Buddhist and Chinese cultural artifacts, serve to enforce the teachings which is to protect the knowledge from the uninitiated, or undeserving. There is always a surface meaning and a deeper, hidden meaning to everything, the latter of which must be ‘protected’ from those who have not shown ‘a deep, unyielding desire’ to acquire it. For the masses, they are served the ‘surface’ meaning; the icons and the stories behind them.
These icons are taken by Wu Jian’an and turned into the basis of a graphical language which references to other elements from Chinese culture, western art history or modern art concepts. In Xiang Tian Dance (2010) and Ten Thousand Things (2016), the animals, goddesses, monsters and characters from Chinese operas are signified and made into an arrangement reminiscent of abstract expressionism.
His artwork seems to revolve around his interests or heroes, of which Sun Wu Kong, the immortal monkey king character in the famous Chinese folktale Xi You Ji (Journey To The East) features prominently in various works.
In the Ship Of Fools (2011), a story from Plato about a ship of foolish people who tied up the captain, who happens to be the only one who can navigate, and commandeered the ship. But here, Wu’s ship is commanded by a monkey who is more interested in the fruit tree on board.
For Chinese New Year last year, which incidently was the year of the monkey, Wu did a scroll with the Buddhist mantra that set the monkey king free from Buddha’s five-finger mountain in Xi You Ji and recited it at the New York Metropolitan Museum.
To make the long story of Xi You Ji short, the monkey king is a powerful heavenly being who gained even more magical power after a discipleship with a master. He then became conceited and ate all the forbidden immortality fruit prepared for a heavenly banquet, which offended Buddha who then trapped him under a mountain (which happens to be his hand) for 500 years.
Back in the real world of China in the mean time, the humble protagonist, monk Tang, was dissatisfied that the Buddhist texts available in China were haphazardly translated and wanted to go to India to get the real thing and bring it back. Buddha wanted to help him get there as he saw the corruption and moral decay in society as detrimental to humans. So at a certain point in his journey, Buddha sent his motherly goddess agent to instructed monk Tang to recite the mantra which set the monkey king free so that he could protect the monk from danger and help him get to India.
But if the monkey king had already been freed in the story, why would he need to be freed again at the NY Metropolitan Museum? Unless ofcourse there is a piece of Sun Wu Kong within Wu himself, then the mantra is going to set that part of himself ‘free’.
Along the journey, Sun Wu Kong had time and again proved crucial to the monk in getting him out of trouble which came in the form of various monsters looking to eat him alive and gain immortality. As someone that was a bit conceited, rebellious but with a sense of justice and possessed supernatural kung fu abilities, the monkey king has indeed captured the hearts of Chinese people for millenia. That he needed to be reigned in whenever he was too ‘naughty’ by the monk with the head band tightening spell only increased his charm.
In fact, Xi You Ji was based on the true story of a hazard-filled journey taken by a Tang dynasty monk to get a better translation of Buddhist scriptures from India and bring it back to China. Only the immortals and the monsters were fiction, the trip itself, going against the Emperor’s travel ban, through the Gobi desert and up snowy mountains was just as dangerous in reality. Written centuries later partly as an indirect satire on life during the Ming dynasty, many parallels can be drawn with the quest for individual heroism and the problems faced in life.
For the author, Wu Cheng-En, he found solstace in working up these fantastic stories of breath-taking scenery and characters with superhuman abilities but were funny at the same time. For Wu Jian’an, he’s meeting artistic challenges, like the problem of relating to abstract expressionism or the Italian renaissance or dealing with geometric abstraction with some of Sun Wu Kong’s magic, martial arts and wit.