The Sculptress that Captures and Shapes her Investigation of the ‘Internality’ of Human Nature
Xiang Jing is a sculptress, who graduated from the Department of Sculpture of China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. Her graduating works won first prize in the “Graduation Show of Central Academy of Fine Arts 1995” and she also won the Okamatsu Family Fund. These sculptures were collected by the school because of the beauty and interest that were shown in them. She taught at Shanghai Normal University from 1997 to 2009. She moved back to her hometown Beijing in 2009. Xiang Jing’s work practice is problem-oriented. Within the gradually marginalized realist sculpting language framework, Xiang Jing has made idiosyncratic and influential contemporary experiments. Xiang Jing looks after the existential truth of life through her continued investigation of the “internality” of human nature in her work. Xiang’s artistic language is nourished by the influence of literature structure, and she moves from narratives to abstract figurative that embody metaphors on humanity’s crisis as a result of contemporaneity. As a result, she has made further progress on the path of realist sculpture. Her artwork appears often in the discourse on “contemporaneity vs. traditional medium”, “the female identity and the universal human nature”, “to observe and to be observed”, “internal desire”, “figurative art towards abstraction”, etc. Xiang Jing has held solo exhibitions at numerous institutions and establishments, and her artworks are also exhibited at various museums in countries from all over the world. Now works and lives in Beijing.
This interview originally appeared in Planet China Vol 15, March 2023
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What is the main reason that motivated and inspired you to get into art? What does art represent for you? Who influenced you and what is your artistic philosophy?
It seems like I was born to be a creator, as I have shown a clear love for art from a young age. In the open-minded 1980s, I was admitted to China’s best art high school – the Fine Arts School Affiliated with China Central Academy of Fine Arts. Later, I majored in sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and on the eve of graduation, I created my first batch of works and held my first exhibition, thus embarking on the road of art. Finding art as a medium is like finding an outlet that allows me to better express my inner thoughts. Art has always been an ideal form of expression for me. I often say that creating is to give shape to consciousness. Sometimes, I feel like it creates another world for me, another dimension parallel to the real world, where I can find a way to describe things and some degree of order amidst the chaos of reality. Many times, books and music have influenced me more than art. Although my works are very realistic, I am not particularly interested in replicating the real world. I do not believe in an objective world, as everything originates from subjective perception and the exploration of the essence of existence. Art can create a perspective that tries not to follow worldly cliches, and instead presents the facts of our existence, no matter how cruel or weak life may be, in its proper form. I am somewhat of an existentialist.
How long did it take you to learn? What fascinates you most about the various steps in the process of realizing sculptures? What feelings did you experience when you finished your first creation?
The process of sculpting involves a particularly large number of steps, so the process is tormented. What probably attracts me the most is that sculpture is a three-dimensional entity, and I often hope to create a scale between people and “humans”, because “Through no one’s eyes but my own” (this is the name of one of my exhibitions), we need to personally stand in front of the work to experience and recognize that projected “self”. I don’t remember the scene when I completed my first work, but when creating the first batch of works, I had a feeling of “releasing myself from my body” – so indeed, for a long time, I have had a feeling of the body being a container and not the true self. There was a period of creation that was also based on this “dichotomy of spirit and flesh” perspective, and of course, “the body” ultimately became my theme.
As a sculptress, you have a direct relationship with the matter. Can you tell us about your connection with the materials? How important is the sense of touch?
I am a person who is sensitive to problems, not materials haha. I am not a sculptor in the traditional sense of perceiving and expressing with my hands and touch. I have always been interested in metaphysical problems, but the three-dimensional form of sculpture can more vividly express the relationship between the individual and the external world, so I still need to rely on “matter” to work and structure my issues. Tactility, I think in a more important way, allows us to confront the “solid” and understand the form of our existence and the issues that this entails. We need “body” to exist, “material”, “language”, “medium” to express, but for a long time, these were not my propositions, but “vehicles”.
What were the ideas behind your early artworks? What did you hope the viewers to feel or think about them? Do you still have the same wishes when creating new art?
My early works were all about growth and identity recognition. I hoped that viewers could find their own projections in them. Without art, I probably wouldn’t have been able to grow as well or see my growth so clearly. Now, I probably don’t need to face these issues in this way anymore.
Is there any of your artwork that you are particularly connected to? Can you share with us the story behind it?
No artwork is completely unrelated to its creator, right? However, I’ve never been very interested in making those kinds of autobiographical-like statements, where the self is only revealed or concealed within the work. Nevertheless, all the information probably relates to the artist. For example, I am often asked why I always create female figures. Although I do not intentionally set out to do so, isn’t it because, as a woman, I am more sensitive to female issues? Using female figures to express and structure issues related to humanity seems more accurate, nuanced, and capable of conveying that complexity. Moreover, I sometimes answer stubbornly that since I don’t have models for sculpture, I can’t create vivid male figures, but with women, there are countless possibilities.
Can you tell us how do you see the current situation for women in the art fields in China? How much has changed since your beginning? What about difficulties and opportunities? Does gender still matter? Do the changes in the art represent also the changes for women’s rights in society?
This is the question that I am asked the most when participating in women’s forums, but for me, it is also very difficult to explain. In a sense, compared to many other Asian countries, Chinese women have many opportunities. However, Chinese culture is deeply rooted in a patriarchal society, and stereotypes and biases against women can be seen everywhere. When I was in school and just starting out in the industry, women were a rarity, and the feeling that “women are chosen” constantly appeared outside of creative work. Of course, this also created many opportunities, such as the surprise created by the strong contrast between my work and myself, which did gain me respect from my peers, but it was a difficult process. I belong to a generation that has benefited from the dividends of the times, and during a relatively open period of Chinese culture, I have been favored by fate. Today’s China has undergone tremendous changes compared to the past, and my life feels like a ride on a roller coaster. Art has also undergone great changes with the dramatic shifts of the times. In China, gender issues have never been the most urgent problem to solve, and it is often entangled in many complex issues. Gender issues have never been an isolated issue. In art schools, female students have gone from being a rarity to now making up the majority, and in the art industry, the proportion of women is clearly increasing. The survival forms and creativity of young artists are becoming more diverse, which is definitely progress. Gender issues are still important because those prejudices and discriminations still exist, and the problem has become even more complex. However, the majority of those in power are still male, and people can still openly discuss and belittle a woman’s appearance. From a social perspective, the view of women’s social status is not progressing, and there is even a growing call to encourage women to return to their homes. The underlying causes of these issues are indeed very complex, and it is difficult to explain simply. I can only say that my upbringing in China was a bit unique, and I needed to step out of the knowledge in books and see more of the extremely complex social reality, as well as the very cruel problems that are evident within it.
Most of your sculptures feature women. You used your “female gaze” to highlight female bodies. What were the audience reactions when you first started making nude sculptures? How has the relationship between body and nudity changed during the years?
The female narrative is, in my opinion, an important way to achieve a more diverse world. I am willing to offer a so-called “female” perspective – if such a thing really exists. When a woman looks at the body of another woman, it is more about care and projection and I hope my work can achieve this kind of “gaze”, without the value judgments of a patriarchal world, and let “them” appear “different”. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, but when female viewers tell me they are deeply moved by my work, I feel very happy. There have also been occasions when a male viewer saw one of my giant female body works and blurted out, “Xiang Jing, why are you so vulgar now!” He did use that word, and I was surprised, not sure where the vulgarity was.I think at least the work reveals a certain honesty and something that male viewers may have never experienced before, shocking the “gaze” of men.
Over the years there has been a focus on body shaming and the effect it has on people. Women, but also some men, have been judged and criticized since ancient times due to their physical appearance. Your women’s sculptures show that beauty comes in different shapes. What can you tell us about it, and the social pressure placed on women to fit into a stereotype? From your perspective, does the situation have slowly changed or there is still much to do?
As I said previously the social pressure is constant, but I maintain the belief that women are not fully trusted with regard to their sense of social responsibility. This creates opportunities for women to be ignored and overlooked, which may be necessary for survival. However, it is a complex decision to challenge societal values and norms from a female perspective, even when one is aware of what they are doing. This is particularly true in Chinese culture where the matter is not straightforward.
Art contributes to overcoming cultural differences. In the age of social media, what advantages or limitations? Do you think world cultural differences have leveled off? Do the new generations overcome prejudices? Do social rules still clash with ideals?
I can only see that for a long time, especially since the beginning of the epidemic, I’ve only seen the world sinking into chaos. Consensus is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve and differences are becoming more acute. The beautiful slogan “One World, One Dream” seems very unrealistic. Of course, the changes leading up to this began with the Internet era. Rather than breaking down barriers, technology has allowed algorithms to trap individuals in an “echo chamber” of information, creating a “shell world”. We may have to pause for a while in this differentiated world, and perhaps this is also a good opportunity to solve part of the problem. I’m not a techno-optimist, nor do I think that being younger automatically represents newness and progress. All I can say is that we must face a world that is constantly changing and conflicting. Certain rules are just a beautiful fantasy, very fragile in reality. I don’t believe that art today can necessarily overcome cultural differences, but it might produce more cultural orphans and wanderers. If art can still express the pain, difficulties, injustice, and innocence of ordinary humanity in this world of differences and consumerism, and speak the language of its own culture, its own stories, then it is already a very “ideal” thing.
Photo courtesy of Xiang Jing, Xiang Jing Studio
A special thanks to Dong