Archive for April, 2012

So, I did China again. Well, a tiny corner of it is more accurate – it’s a really big place.

I went over to make a new piece for Cumbrian paper manufacturer James Cropper Speciality Papers. I’ve been doing temporary installations in the landscape for them for a couple of years now. It’s all part of their way of using their association with the stunning landscapes of the lake District as part of their identity on the international stage. Although the thought of selling mountains, lakes and paper to the Chinese has always tickled me a bit.

Last year I blogged the whole process of the piece I made for them. This year things weren’t so straight forward. A very recent clamp-dow on non-Chinese artists showing work, or even working in China has complicated things somewhat. All non-Chinese artists and their work have to currently get approval from the Bureau of Culture before their work can be shown in mainland China. A rule they have been enforcing quite rigorously in Shanghai lately with several prominent contemporary art galleries inspected on a weekly basis and some issued hefty fines for sowing un-approved work. The result of this meant that my normal studio space at island 6 was unavailable, and most studios in the city were unwilling to let to a foreign artist at short notice. The ensuing saga couldn’t even be blogged as WordPress, along with almost every other social networking platform is now blocked in China.


Fortunately, through other friends in the UK, I was introduced to the Art School in Suzhou – a city about 70 miles north of Shanghai – and they were all too happy to offer me space in return for a lecture or two. The Institute is a vast campus about 5 miles outside the city centre – no good for nipping to the shops or sight-seeing, but fantastically quiet with views to wooded hills with pagodas on the top. So very unlike Shanghai!

Suzhou Art and Design Technology Institute

The piece I was building – ‘Cortex’ – was a development of last year’s piece, still using the motif of a twisted mountain tree. This time the tree would be cloaked in a skin of thousands of die-cut paper shapes. The inspiration I think started with a fantastic book of the designs of Alexander McQueen, in particular this piece made from oyster shells:

oyster shell dress by McQueen

VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Overdress of panels from a nineteenth-century Japanese silk screen; underdress of oyster shells; neckpiece of silver and Tahiti pearls
Neckpiece by Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen courtesy of Perles de Tahiti
Dress courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

I loved the way the rigid individual shapes draped and softened the form, and the subtle play of light and shadow which accentuated every curve. I liked Alexander McQueen stuff. He was a true genius.

cortex (detail)

So that there were no surprises in China with the piece, I did a series of tests on a variety of forms in my studio before I went. The final test, created on a rootball was photographed on Esthwaite Water for some local context.

Cortex in Cumbria

The piece in China was much bigger and took far longer to do – 5,300 individual pieces were cut out and attached, one-by-one over four days. The tree was sourced by one of the fine-art lecturers from one of the nearby forests.

Here it is with a bit of genuine Chinese landscape (well, art school anyway).

Cortex in China

It was only after photographing the piece, along with hundreds of detail shots for the client to use in brochures etc., that I realised how important light was to my work. I guess I’d just got used to our far more subtle northern light, and what was essentially the same piece in China just didn’t work the same way as the piece back in Cumbria. The light in Jiangsu province was much flatter – shapes lost the subtlety I was used to. A much flatter landscape didn’t really help either. However, the colours were much stronger and became far more important.

cortex detail

The original aim of the piece was to simply to take one of my landscape installations and take it inside. Take a bit of what I do in the Cumbrian landscape and transport that to China.

cortex detail

What happened, in my eyes at least, was show just how very different Cumbria is to China. And how very much part of my work the landscape of Northern England is – not just it’s physical location, but its palette, textures and most importantly, the light.

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