Them or Us?

In an art district replete with giant galleries and accustomed to large-scale works capaciously arranged, their name tags sought metres away along a white wall, ‘Them or Us?’ feels unusual. Magician Space is an upcoming gallery quietly but surely staging strong exhibitions by emerging artists at its relatively modest 798 location. This scale is refreshing – it cultivates a feeling of intimacy with the work that has become dilute in many of the area’s larger venues. For ‘Them or Us?’, astutely curated by Karen Smith, this atmosphere is particularly potent. The works on show are by Pan Honggang and and Hu Youchen, a young, friendly, softly spoken couple from Sichuan. Together they have created group of anthropomorphic sculptures, their bodily forms and features in some ways human, in others animal; they are are objects with which the first encounter is strange and intriguing, but also unclear.

In the first room a group has been arranged in a rough arc, with sand dusted on the floor around their supports. Furthest forward is a naked, child-like figure, male in gender. His painted resin skin is greyer than that of the others but similarly translucent. His head is half-covered in a cat-eared hood as if from a costume, yet the colour is the same as his skin. His eyes are big, their downward gaze seemingly removed from the gesture shaped by his hands and arms – something like a shrug, bent from the elbow, palms facing up. It is this one alone that enacts a human-like expressive gesture; the rest are unanimated or odd: crouched, mounted (there are two busts) or standing on dried, rough-skinned tree trunks of varying height – natural perches from which they cannot move. The viewer finds themselves amid a cultish community of beings. All are milky in tone, greyish or white as if having germinated in a lightless place. The eyes, when not large and anaemic, are highly disarming for their likeness to those of tired children; the skin around them is puffy and pink-tinged like their other extremities – nipples, fingertips, snouts and knees. These are not robust creatures but restricted, flightless. A common feature is pointed protrusions like tiny horns, ear flaps, antennae or stunted tusks that refine an aura of inertness and restriction. One notices seams in the (second?) skin that detract from the norms of organic growth – joins at the neck and wrists, eye-slits, a line between the chest and back on a particularly weird figure, its face suffocated into a drooping, pointed ‘beak’.

The artists use form as a base line from which to convey their emotional state. Likely is that these sculptures are born of the isolation felt by the one-child generation in China; although they depict physically different creatures, they share enough in common – negative features that are products more of nurture than nature – to suggest a silent cohesion in the group. They seem to occupy a fragile space between cuteness and darkness, vulnerability and horror, their pink tips suggestive of hurt, their eyes shrunken by tears or enlarged by paranoia. But humans are selfish beings inclined to conform, and in the end this exhibition becomes more about the emotional state of the viewer. To enter Magician Space alone is unnerving, primal even, signifying separation from your group amongst beings you recognise in part but cannot penetrate. Curious and without scent or sound, they clash with our innate compulsion to categorise and understand. Their partial likeness to people sparks the undeclared judgements made intuitively upon meeting someone for the first time; quickly, however, an alien aura and the realisation of odd characteristics intercept the path to ‘knowing’. Coupled with a sense of emotional awkwardness from which humans naturally disassociate themselves these sculptures perhaps capture, in physical form, the unease kept inside. Emanating through pallid skin, theirs is a power that might come remarkably close to the bone.

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