A wrinkle in time

Hu Xiaoyuan believes that life is about changes. Although time didn’t leave any wrinkles on the 43-year-old, it left its mark on her soul, turning an impulsive and emotional girl into a rational and calm woman.

Like most young artists, when she entered the field of contemporary art after graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Hu was eager to incorporate 20 years of personal experiences and emotions into her works.

For her 2006 piece This 101.92 Square Meter Structure, Hu collected the hairs she, her family, boyfriend, and dog shed daily for over a year, then scattered them in a heart-shaped frame. The hairs symbolize the traces and processes of interacting with these people in her life.

Her collection, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away, also works with hair as a medium, featuring embroidered pieces stitched using her hair. Hu spent several days sorting her hair by length and color in order to sew Mandarin Ducks Play Amongst the Lotus, Love of Butterfly, A Pair of Fish Play in the Water, Two Flying Swallows and an untitled piece that depicts her private parts.

In creating these works that explored popular themes among female artists – raw, sensitive, and relating to the body – she contemplates life, living and love. “It was more of an impulse-over-sense stage,” said Hu. “Sincere and moving, the works I created during that time conveyed my desire to express myself.”

Hu pointed out that in the past, she might have sat there and cried bitterly about life’s perplexities. But now, she is able to clarify the essence of problems and find clear paths to solve them in the best and most rational way – all because of the death of a butterfly.

Once, her one-year-old son became scared after accidentally killing a pet butterfly. Hu comforted him by telling him that butterflies had a very short lifespan, and later she found that most butterflies do not live beyond 10 days, even in their natural habitat.

“I had an interesting afterthought: the butterfly is a clearly defined concept within our knowledge, in which we understand that butterflies come from pupas, pupas come from larvas, and larvas come from eggs,” said Hu. “Once we understand the essence of existence is an evolving process, the fear and sadness vanishes.” The death of something should never diminish the entirety of its journey, she explained.

Hu was then determined to find a translucent fabric that could represent a sense of time and process. She settled on the traditional raw silk, which is light and natural. Moreover, the material was similar to that of a 2,000-year-old gown discovered in an archeological site of Mawangdui in China, perfectly reflecting the passage of time.

In her ongoing collection The Vortex beneath the Vortex, she attached the raw silk onto a wooden board and traced the wood grains with ink. She then removed the silk and randomly cut off parts of the wood before remounting the silk back onto the board.

Through the translucent layer inked with wood grain patterns, different shades of wood are revealed to create pictures.

“As the title of the work suggests, the nature of existence is like a whirlpool under a vortex, conveying an endless state of change and instability,” Hu explained.

The Spheres of Doubt installation that she submitted for the Sigg Prize 2019’s shortlisted candidates’ exhibition in the M+ Pavilion at West Kowloon Cultural District also addresses the passage of time and the nature of existence.

Built with demolished construction materials from illegal buildings, it features various objects collected from daily life wrapped in raw silk. The objects, which include a passionfruit, bricks, marbles and a piece of used soap, had their spots and textures etched on the silk using ink.

The installation was then left for four months, during which the objects weathered. The most significant transformation was the passionfruit, which went from fresh and plump to small, dry and wrinkled. However, its original texture and form was still evident as recorded by the raw silk wrapped outside.

What the piece reflects, according to Hu, is we often believe that the original state of something is “real” but fail to acknowledge that the transformed state is just as “real.” If we only view life from this stubborn perspective, it will become the greatest obstacle for us to realize that the truth of life is a shifting and changing process.

“Unveiling intrinsic qualities through specific things can better minimize the [mental] consumption brought by the effects of confusion and emotions, allowing questions to be solved more rationally and directly,” Hu said.

As one of the six shortlisted artists for the Sigg Prize this year, Hu said she wants to “crystallize some of the thoughts and hope they will be useful to the world.”

The Sigg Prize, a biennial award that recognizes outstanding practices of artists born or working in the Greater China region, is running an exhibition until April 13 to showcase submissions from shortlisted artists and will announce the winner in March.

(This article was published at The Standard on February 28, 2020: Weekend Glitz: A wrinkle in time )

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