He An and Colin Chinnery

Time Out Shanghai

For over a decade, Wuhan born artist He An has created deeply­felt, often autobiographical work that ranges from the affecting (even sentimental) and sexually explicit to total architectural formalism. He is currently showing a walk­ing abstract called ‘Who is Alone Now Will Stay Alone Forever’, which you can see at TOP Contemporary Art Centre.

The bleak title comes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, ‘An Autumn Day’, but the work feels more hostile than desperate. The elements arranged in the dark room are a series of latent accidents: concrete blocks with exposed steel rods, a neat square of smashed neon light bulbs, and spills of a thick black lubricant, and a thin, almost transparent one. Blue neon lights sticking out of the grease insinuate an electrocution.

This piece seems distant from some of He An’s earlier creations, although you can trace elements of ‘Who is Alone’ back to 2000, when He conceived ‘I Miss You, Please Contact Me’, a large red LED light box displaying the titular message and his cell phone number, which he mounted on a street in Shenzhen. He made the work after arguing with his wife, hoping another woman would contact him. She did, but so did hundreds of others. In one of China’s migrant worker capitals, the message appealed to so many lost and lonely people that He An’s phone bill soon exceeded 6,000RMB, and he abandoned the phone.

Sentiment and city lighting were themes again in 2008, when He received a text message (on a new number), which resulted in ‘Do You Think You Can Help Her, Brother?’ Made from found and stolen neon lights, the work repeated the text message’s advertisement for sex services, probably fake, which said that ‘for a mere 3,000RMB, a girl was willing to sell her virginity to help her family.’ He An said it was a message that ‘draws you into the sadness of the city’.

JAV star Miho Yoshioka became a motif in his work from 2007, when he paid for a fortune teller to divine her future based on a picture downloaded from the internet (‘Cheap Way of Loving Souls’). In 2009, he spent a year continually thieving neon characters in order to write out her name, as well as the name of his father, who died in 2006 (‘What Makes Me Understand What I Know?’ ­ pictured above).

In 2011’s ‘I am Curious Yellow, I am Curious Blue’ (below), He An created light boxes for the characters of Miho Yoshioka's name and pushed them off the top of a building. He also set up an oil drip in the gallery, Tang Contemporary Art, where he exhibited the wreckage. Explaining the piece, he said, ‘I have the feeling that experiences in the city are transient and very Zen­like.’

The curator of the current show, Colin Chinnery, says, ‘He An's show at Tang Contemporary last year took his practice away from his iconic stolen light box works, and into a more rigorously formal direction. He felt that the project at Tang didn't go far enough and wanted do a project where he could concentrate on his new direction from the start, rather than by feeling his way towards it during the process. We worked together on this show because we have been in constant conversation about his work since last year, and this show was to be a natural extension of those conversations. TOP Contemporary Art Centre is particularly suitable because it's a non-­commercial space that can allow him to do a more radical project without any external restrictions.’

Why the move in a more formal direction? Chinnery says, ‘He wanted to exclude the more sentimental side effects of his light boxes, and concentrate on artistic language itself. His language still aims to be poetic and even operatic, but in order to produce a grand gesture one has to give up more petty emotions and look for the more fundamental and brutal nature of urban materials.’ What does it mean to give up petty emotions? He An says of the exhibition, ‘Originally, form was determined by content in my work. Now, language is [just?] a vector of emotion, and the artworks are perhaps more related to life.’

While past works have been emotional response to cities, this piece is different. ‘It is a reflection on this building in TOP,’ He says, ‘it actually doesn’t extend to the city. I really don’t know my attitude towards urban space.’ In the work on show at TOP Contemporary Art Centre, He An has moved closer to one of his heroes, abstract master Mark Rothko, who, he said in 2010, ‘taught me the profundity of thought­space, which can be marked and guided by seemingly simple colours. I also believe space has metaphysical meanings.’