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Ah Xian is a Chinese-Australian contemporary artist interested in the human body and how contemporary craft can make it meaningful. Ah Xian uses many different techniques and materials, based on ancient Chinese crafts skills, including porcelain, cloisonne, lacquer, jade, ox-bone inlay and bronze as well as concrete. His most recent work is a new body of bronze casts.
Ah Xian’s place as a foremost contemporary artist in Australia and overseas was ‘cemented’ with his recognition as Winner of the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award in 2009 for his thirty-six piece work ‘Concrete Forest’, a forest of serene, unearthly human busts covered in figments of skeletal plant fragments. The same year, GOMA purchased ten of his ‘Metaphysica’ works, a series of thirty six busts with attached ‘found’ objects (from markets and road-side stalls) on each head. This followed Ah Xian’s 2008 solo tour exhibitions: Ah Xian ‘Skulpturen’ at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague Holland, Stadtische Museum in Heilbronn, Kunsthalle Recklinghausen and the Georg Kolbe Museum, Berlin.
Ah Xian’s engagement with Australia began in 1989 as a visiting scholar at the University of Tasmania’s School of Art, returning home to China just weeks before the violent confrontations with students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989. After seeking and being granted political asylum in Australia with his brother, Liu Xiao Xian; Ah Xian shifted his art practice from painting to sculpture.
In 1996, as part of an investigation of his heritage and determined to bring traditional craftsmanship into a contemporary art context, Ah Xian began his study of porcelain at the ancient kilns of Jingdezhen (inland and south-west of Shanghai). Soon after, he began a year-long residency at Sydney College of the Arts, where he began to work on a series of porcelain cast busts by himself. The outcome was the first ten pieces of the China China series, naturalistic porcelain busts but with over-images and patterns drawn from brush paintings which create mismatches and surreal conjunctions. Between 1999 and 2004, Ah Xian has produced over forty busts, working in partnership with Chinese porcelain specialists and master crafts people in Jingdezhen.
Ah Xian’s initial experiments with life-size figures, as a prelude to his Human-human figure, were at first conceived in porcelain but this proved technically impossible. Consequently, he began an investigation into the exacting cloisonné technique, a relatively recent technique, first introduced in China from the Middle East over 700 years ago. This involved coal–fired pits specially dug for the construction, positive and negative moulds, and welding hand-beaten copper, cloisonné enamelling and firing for a few times, polishing and gold gilding. Ah Xian’s Human-human – lotus cloisonné figure I 2000-01 won the Inaugural National Sculpture prize at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001 and, in late 2002 was exhibited in New York’s Asia Society Galleries as part of a solo show.
Ah Xian’s stated position is that he recognizes himself as a contemporary artist but not a ceramist, despite the over-whelming number of porcelain busts he made and his deep engagement with the material. Porcelain is one of the many materials or media that he uses to express some of his artistic concepts and ideas but not his single carrier. For example, the Human human series included both lacquer and jade carved reliefs on resin fibre-glass with dragon designs and dragon scales respectively.
Ah Xian’s study of traditional crafts has led to a commitment to continuously broadening out and working with various ideas and materials and techniques based on ancient Chinese crafts skills including porcelain, cloisonné, lacquer, jade, ox-bone inlay and bronze as well as concrete. His most recent work is a new body of bronze casts.