Cai Zhisong: A Universal Empathy
Source:Artintern Author:Jade Franklin Date: 2006-10-26 Size:
 Cai Zhisong, Refinement to Motherland No.3, sheet lead   brass wires, 2003, 230x58x0.05cm In a time of great social flux, where decades of social upheaval have contributed to a frequently contradictory cultural identity, Cai Zhisong’s sculpture looks back to the stability of

 Cai Zhisong, Refinement to Motherland No.3, sheet lead   brass wires, 2003, 230x58x0.05cm

In a time of great social flux, where decades of social upheaval have contributed to a frequently contradictory cultural identity, Cai Zhisong’s sculpture looks back to the stability of the past. His is not a banal reiteration of Chinese history however, but a reaffirmation of the past and its relevance to contemporary times. Cai entitles his series ‘Motherland’, a word which is synonymous with pride and nationalism. As we shall see however, the themes in his work cannot be limited to one nation and are universal in nature.

Figurative works make up the majority of the artist’s oeuvre, with his major series’ being the ‘Ode to Motherland’ and ‘Custom to Motherland’ works. In these we see life sized warriors which show references to the arts of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), the era in which the infamous Xian terracotta warriors were created. In Cai Zhisong’s representation of these ancient soldiers he implies no symbolic significance concerning this time period however. What we see is not a literal representation of a historical figure or one moment in time, but a figure who is representative of the vastness of history. In the warrior we see civilizations that have risen and fallen and all those people who have played a part in creating the world that we inhabit today.

Cai’s interest in the past is understandable considering his thorough study of the ancient arts of Greece, Rome, Egypt and South America during his training at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. It was here that he also began to explore his native artistic heritage and first produced his warriors in 2001. The artist uses two different techniques to create his figures in the ‘Custom to Motherland’ series, which shows clothed figures, and the ‘Ode to Motherland’ series, which shows them as nude. The ‘Custom’ figures are constructed using more traditional techniques; they are either worked in lead or cast in bronze, as these materials better enable Cai to develop the soft draping effect of the warrior’s tunics. Although details and materials differ, the ‘Custom’ and later ‘Ode’ series show the figures in similar positions of submission; they kneel, kowtow, or simply stand with their heads bowed. We should not see these subdued postures as signs of weakness or oppression however; rather they should be considered as symbolic gestures displaying a reverence for the past as well as an empathy towards the suffering of past generations.

Cai’s ‘Ode’ warriors have been created using a technique original to the artist: first a clay model is created before being cast in fiberglass, this shell is then covered in small copper squares, with thin layers being built up to create a richly textured and apparently aged surface. During this process Cai also adds elaborate hair styles by braiding together thin copper wires and adds the warrior’s dramatic head dress. The resulting figure is light in weight but possesses a deceptive visual density and an intricate, tactile surface that is a product of Cai’s delicate articulation. The warriors are nearly always symmetrical in form and the body smooth with little definition of the muscles or veins. In this almost architectural harmony of the figures and the serenity and idealisation of the human form we can see evidence of Cai’s classical artistic training. Here however, ancient Western aesthetics have been applied to an Eastern language and traditionally influenced forms created using modern practices.

The first warrior that was created using Cai’s technique ( No. 2, ‘Ode to Motherland’) is a skinny, stooped figure, with his head hung low and arms drooping as he appears to shuffle painfully through time, weighted and exhausted by life. This figure is particularly distinctive in Cai’s oeuvre as in later works we see the bodies becoming increasingly muscular and better equipped to deal with life’s adversities; they still continue to bear their weight of silent sorrow however. It is a burden of emotional suffering that we see in all of Cai’s warriors, this torment being particularly expressed in the exposed vulnerability of his nude figures. In being asked about his decision to create the ‘Ode’ warriors unclothed, Cai explains that the nude fits more appropriately with his theme of time: “You are born and you die naked; you take nothing with you.” In presenting these figures to us in their natural and unaltered state, Cai attempts to capture mankind’s immutability. He reminds us that although time passes and environments change, humanity retains its inherent qualities. In looking at these works therefore, we see that we are no different, no more influential and no more powerful than the generations which came before us and that we are divided by mere circumstance and time.

Cai works on similar themes in his production of a series of objects. In ‘Refinement to Motherland’, we see rolled or unfurled scrolls and screens which in their delicacy may appear fragile and temporary but which are in fact deceptively durable in their lead construction. It appears as if Cai has immortalised these objects, reaffirming Chinese culture and its strength to retain a decisive presence in the future. Through this execution of non-figurative works the artist demonstrates his diversity, exploring further in his latest pieces where he creates a series of digitally printed doors on canvas, these replicating the size, colour and form of those in the Forbidden City. Upon each of the eighty one shining golden orbs that each door possesses, Cai has imprinted an image of a historically significant site, the reflection of which appears distorted to the viewer. In these vast digital prints we see the artist recording the nation’s history in pictorial form.

Whether figurative or not, an ongoing concern with time pervades all of Cai’s works and is coupled with an awareness of the change that accompanies it. What is of particular interest to the artist, however, is that which does not change; the unerring presence of human emotion, and in particular the existence of suffering. In looking at Cai Zhisong’s warriors one is given an immediate impression of the hardship that they appear to endure, this being particularly evident when gazing at the nude figures in the ‘Ode’ series. We see their strong, physical bodies being slowly crushed by an intangible, indecipherable weight. This inner torment is something that relates to all of us, as Cai states: “Pain is universal, no matter who you are, everyone feels pain at some point.” This has, of course, held true throughout history, with external phenomena constantly changing, but the same emotions continuing to exist. Cai is acutely interested in the individual’s response to emotional pain and the way in which the intensity of the emotion varies depending upon the manner that one chooses to deal with it. Certain situations, without doubt will cause negative emotions, but Cai argues that it is necessary for one to realise that no one event can be held responsible. As he sees it, the cause of significant pain is a collection of small events that combine to become forceful enough to have an adverse effect upon the subject. It is possible, therefore, to dismantle the causes that precipitate pain and observe them not as a severe whole, but as a gradation of lesser events. When this has been achieved, and the causes have been fractioned and worked into their smallest possible components, the events, now seen in isolation, appear insignificant enough to seem nonexistent. When it is also remembered that situations in the world are never constant, it is possible to perceive these negative feelings as being irrelevant. This process, although possessing the potential to relieve suffering, is not, as Cai states, one which comes naturally to people, and as such, many allow their suffering to consume them. This occurs when pain is left unchecked. It perpetuates itself, continuing in an unrelenting cycle that becomes increasingly difficult to break free from and as this happens, we become further removed from the foundations of our distress and are left only with the negativity that it has engendered. We can see this state, this continual cycle of torment, represented in Cai’s warriors who, like many others, are trapped in an interminable state of suffering.

Cai has given these theories on pain and its nonexistence much time and consideration, incorporating his ideas into his work and continuing to explore the theme in his various forms. They are ideas which were briefly touched upon by Confucius, but Cai is careful not to portray himself as a philosopher. Rather, he puts his care and attention into his painstaking processes, creating compassionate works that capture the innate suffering of the world. Our observations of his insightful and visually striking sculptures leave one feeling emotionally affected and contemplative. These reactions are brought about in such a subtle and gentle manner however, that one is never quite sure what it is that has touched them. In his finely articulated works we see Cai proudly but sensitively continuing the legacy of an ancient Chinese culture, whilst also reminding us of the universal qualities that tie everyone and everything, including the past and the present, together.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo