Pan Honggang and Hu Youchen
Magician Space, 798 Art District, Beijing, China
In an art district replete with giant galleries and accustomed to large-scale works capaciously arranged, ‘Them or Us?’ feels unusually intimate. Magician Space is an up-and-coming gallery quietly but assuredly staging strong exhibitions by emerging artists at its modest 798 location. This scale is refreshing – it cultivates a feeling of closeness to the work that has become diluted in many of the area’s larger venues. In ‘Them or Us?’, a collection of works by Pan Honggang and Hu Youchen, a young couple from Sichuan, this atmosphere is particularly potent. Together they have created a group of anthropomorphic sculptures, their bodily forms and features in some ways human, in others animal; they are objects with which the first encounter is intriguing and uncanny.
In the first room, a group of figures is arranged in a rough arc, with sand dusted on the floor around their supports. At the apex is a naked, child-like male figure entitled If There is if No.1 (2009). His painted resin skin is greyer than that of the others but similarly translucent. His head is half-covered in a cat-eared hood as if from a costume, yet its colour is the same as his skin. His eyes are big, their downward gaze seemingly removed from the gesture shaped by his hands and arms – something like a shrug, bent from the elbow, palms facing up. It is this figure alone that enacts a human-like expressive gesture; the rest are unanimated or odd: crouched, mounted (there are two busts) or standing on dried, rough-skinned tree trunks of varying heights – natural perches from which they cannot move.
Here we find ourselves amidst a cultish community of beings – milky in tone, greyish or white as if having germinated in a lightless place. Their eyes, when not large and anaemic, are disarming for their likeness to those of tired children; the skin around them is puffy and pink-tinged like their other extremities – nipples, fingertips, snouts and knees. These are not robust creatures but restricted and flightless ones. A common feature is pointed protrusions like tiny horns, ear flaps, antennae or stunted tusks that create an aura of inertness and restriction. One notices seams in their skin that detract from the norms of organic growth – joins at the neck and wrists, or a line between the chest and back on a particularly weird figure, If There Is If No. 3 (2009), its lips fused together beneath its drooping, pointed ‘beak’.
The artists use form as a baseline from which to convey their emotional state. It is likely that these sculptures are borne of the isolation felt by the one-child generation in China; although they depict physically different creatures, they share enough in common – negative features that are products more of nurture than nature – to suggest a silent cohesion among them. They seem to occupy a fragile space between cuteness and darkness, vulnerability and horror, their pink tips suggestive of hurt, their eyes shrunken by tears or enlarged by paranoia.
If humans are selfish beings inclined to conform, then this exhibition becomes more about the emotional state of the viewer. To enter the exhibition at Magician Space alone is unnerving, as it thrusts you into a group of beings you recognize in part but cannot penetrate. Their partial likeness to people clashes with our innate compulsion to categorize and understand, sparking the kind of silent judgments we intuitively make upon meeting someone for the first time. Quickly, however, their alien features intercept our path to ‘knowing’ them. Coupled with a sense of emotional awkwardness from which humans naturally disassociate themselves, these sculptures perhaps capture, in physical form, the unease we keep inside. Emanating through pallid skin, theirs is a power that strikes remarkably close to the bone.