At the India Art Fair (IAF) in Delhi, the food court is an unusual venue to display a work of art. Between the chairs and tables of cafes and the shelves of bookshops is placed, what must be one of the most eyecatching works of the fair — a white platform shimmering with colour and jutting upward in a jumble of toy animal figures. For several minutes, visitors are distracted from their munchies and shopping, and stare amused at the installation. They point out the zillion stickers — including of Hello Kitty — that belong to the world of children but are used here to form a detailed and intricate Mandala design.
The work, of course, is hardly childish in intention. Titled If You Meet Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, it wraps a complex spiritual message (“the road” refers to the path of enlightenment, while “killing the Buddha” urges you to transcend the impermanent illusions and preconceived ideas you have been conditioned with), with comments on the “changing landscape of Asia — financially, technologically, culturally and environmentally”.
The work achieves a critical tension between the medium and the message — one of the reasons Ye Hongxing has become among the top contemporary artists in China as well as one of the most sought-after at IAF.
Brought to the fair for the second year by London-based Scream gallery, Hongxing’s two other works sold quickly, a piece titled East of Eden No. 7 and another called Mandala No. 20. Both these have the same kaleidoscopic splash of stickers, carefully constructed into shapes and forms.
“My work is established based on my thoughts and concerns at different stages of my life, such as the environment and people’s living conditions, fashion and contemporary art. Then, through some meaningful symbols, I construct a canvas relationship that is uncertain, psychedelic, multiple and open, in the hope that it can welcome people in, and they can experience the journey according to their own path. If there are images that catch their attention and make them stop, my mission is achieved. Whether we have the same experience is not important, and it is not what I wished,” says the artist in an e-mail interview.
The Beijing-based artist, who is in her forties, says that her work responds to the “swift change of China’s social system”, adding that China “as a concept, is not my main creative subject”. Hongxing’s art pays more attention to spirituality and her life experience. “The so-called Chineseness is manifested as a certain artistic language. The rapid changes that are happening in China have a very profound impact on me; sometimes exciting, sometimes contradictory and confusing at the same time. China, after all, has a history and 5,000 years of civilisation, which makes the Eastern and the Western cultural collision of ideas often seem more intense. This touches every person living in them, and I am no exception. This state might continue for a long time , throughout the life of every Chinese person,” she says, adding that she isn’t particularly concerned about or involved in politics, so it hasn’t impacted her art.
Hongxing adds: “In the attitude towards new technology, there is not much difference between the East and the West. It is difficult to decline new technology as it brings efficiency and quality. At the same time, we will need to face its negative impact on cultural traditions and the natural environment. This current status constantly appears in my work. My works are, therefore, usually filled with ambivalence and uncertainty, instability, chaos, overcrowding and overlapping. Inserting symbols and figures that are of different time and space is a reflection of the current mentality,” she says.
Hongxing had always liked to paint. “Through the course of studying art, I realised that painting is an expression of my own existence and a way of reflecting the surrounding environment. So it confirmed that art is a lifelong path that I would like to embark on and I became an artist,” she says.
Hongxing gravitated towards stickers, crystals and other small fragments not merely because of her personal preference, but also because it was “a conscious challenge to the traditional and conventional mediums. Lastly, it is out of the need to create different possibilities for the works and a new visual experience. I started to experiment in 2009 and, at the moment, I do buy stickers in bulk because I need a lot of them,” she says.
Arranging the stickers and fragments is labour-intensive but, as the response to her works at IAF shows, Hongxing has crossed the cultural bridge to India. Someday, she says, she will visit this country.