Review: Presence: A Window into Chinese Contemporary Art

Review: Presence: A Window into Chinese Contemporary Art
at St George’s Hall, until 3rd June

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Over the road from Terracotta Warriors at World Museum is an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. It’s a very different view of China, far from the visions of emperors, terracotta armies and vast tombs in the museum. The exhibition, Presence, presents Chinese art as it truly is, today.

The staging of the work, in St George’s Hall, uses every twist and turn of the building to its advantage, bringing new lives to film pieces, and adding emphasis to materials that help them stand out as pathfinders in new ways of seeing modern and historical cultures.

The subtlest piece in the show is one of its most striking, a cyanotype print on a hung paper scroll. Evocative of mountain scenes in illustrated banners, Wu Chi-Tsung creates a less figurative landscape and uses his materials to explore traditional representations of nature. It helps set the feeling of the exhibition, as one that both reflects on art history and looks forward by finding new ways of seeing materials.

Other things that are perhaps more timeless include the artist hand exercises documented by Kong Chun Hei (Hand Practice, 2017), whose usual intricate painting requires not just skill, but dexterity, precision and stamina. Qualities that remind you of some of the more historical Chinese art over the road at World Museum.

Luke Ching’s work, which came to Liverpool in 2017 for LOOK, International Photography Festival greets you as you enter the exhibition. Pinhole views of the city we know, form the lens of a visitor. The delicate images are blown up near ceiling height turning them into gestural compositions, rather than conventional photographs. They start a conversation through the exhibition on how looking is very much changed by how use to it you are.

From maps of Salford and Manchester simplified to pattern (Lu Xinjian, 2015), to using recognised characters to create new stories (Sun Xun, 2005) or literally shifting the world on its head (Suki Chan, Lucida, 2016), the exhibition is a perfect insight into Chinese contemporary art, without limiting it to one medium or another, and it uses a fascinating, usually hidden, piece of St George’s Hall to display it, creating a weaving path between the works.

The exhibition is one of the headlines of Liverpool’s China Dream season for 2018, and it’s unmissable for so many reasons. For me though, having toured the Terracotta Warriors in the morning, headed here in the afternoon, and then followed the lanterns to China Town, it’s this that is the must see. It’s a unified exhibition telling an ongoing story with examples of some of the world’s most exciting contemporary artists.