Reconstructing Memory: Ouyang Chun’s ‘The Mortals’
In a long conversation at his Beijing home and studio last month, Chinese artist Ouyang Chun spoke about his life and how he developed his most recent body of work for an extraordinarily ambitious solo show that featured installations and sculptures made from junk salvaged from the staff living quarters of Xi’an University of Technology, where the artist had once lived with his parents. The compound was about to be demolished, so Ouyang made three trips from Beijing to Xi’an and collected almost 12 tons of rubbish and household goods. From toilet seats to timber doors and windows, from thermos flasks and crockery to rusty bedsteads, battered suitcases and broken furniture, for Ouyang every object was imbued with traces of time and untold histories. This collection of unloved and forlorn things unsealed his memories of a time when he too felt forlorn and forsaken.
Born in Beijing in 1974, Chinese artist Ouyang Chun’s life trajectory was forever altered when his father’s entire university was sent from the capital city to Xi’an in the early 1970s, some time after the establishment of the ‘Third Front’, Mao Zedong’s 1964-71 program developing a self-sufficient industrial base in south-west China in case of war. A sense of being locked outside the inner circle has haunted the artist, who is one of very few successful post-1980s Chinese artists to have been essentially self-taught. In a Chinese artworld where the academy with its traditions and networks of guanxiremain very powerful, Ouyang developed his own idiosyncratic painting style and a sculptural practice grounded in the collection and reinvention of discarded objects and rubbish. As a rebellious university dropout Ouyang wandered the back streets and semi-rural outskirts of Xi’an, collecting the detritus of society, transforming the things he rescued into quirky sculptural pieces.
On a recent sunny afternoon in the Beijing artists’ enclave of Songzhuang, while the artist’s daughter quietly refilled our teacups I asked Ouyang to tell me about his boyhood, as a displaced Beijing boy growing up in Xi’an. He said:
“Well, I will tell you the story about my family. My father was a professor at the university, originally located in Beijing, and later the university was moved to Xi’an because of some political issues at the time – a lot of research institutions and educational institutions were moved to somewhere else other than Beijing. And, actually, we were preparing for a war against the former Soviet Union. And my father met my mother in Xi’an … And in Xi’an we felt really isolated, we could hardly connect with the local community because Beijing was a totally different world from Xi’an – we felt like we were living on an isolated island.”
Ouyang Chun was a solitary child, and memories of feeling adrift in a crowd recur in his work: “Of course, my childhood was lonely; although I had some friends, spiritually I often felt isolated and the impact lasted until today and it also influenced my artistic practice and my personal development.”
He missed out on his preferred university course and instead enrolled in a two-year College Diploma in art education, but Ouyang preferred to spend his days painting by himself in the countryside. ‘I would say the art education in China is poisonous,’ he said, emphatically: ‘Really, really!’ After some years of aimless drifting he returned to Beijing and finally established himself as a professional artist in his late twenties. This complicated and unusual (in a Chinese context) life experience has predisposed him to appreciate broken, abandoned things and to understand and value marginalised or ‘left-behind’ people in a world of constant social upheaval. Speaking of the materials he used for his assemblages and installations in ‘The Mortals’, with their strange mix of humour, nostalgia and sadness he said: “The reason I returned to that place and picked up things is because, well, I think everything there is very precious … They contain my memory of childhood. They contain, I would say, the hearts of the intellectuals and the beauty of the time, and the stories at that time. And there is a lot of strength and spirit we can find in those things.”
You can read more about Ouyang's body of work and the Shanghai exhibition in 'The Art Life' here
About the artist: Born in 1974 in Beijing, Ouyang Chun was raised in Xi’an, where his father had been sent along with other professors to the Xi’an University of Technology. He studied briefly for an art education credential at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, but he considers himself essentially a self-taught artist. Working across many media and styles, from idiosyncratic expressionist painting to assemblage and bronze sculpture, his work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions within and beyond China, including in Indonesia, Germany, Austria and the UK.
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