Just as we know each and every human being is unique, so too is every artist unique. But although I think we all know that old adage – ‘some artists are more unique than others’….such tautologies do have a certain truth to them. Guan Wei is proof – Guan Wei more unique than most.
What do we see in our minds when we think of Guan’s colourful, literal, symbolic and witty visual language? Probably the first image that appears on the horizons of our imaginations is of those little sperm-like tadpoles – playful, humorous, whimsical little spasms of humanity prancing through his fanciful universes that are sprinkled with hints and glimpses of his two worlds – China and Australia. And yet there is also something just a little disquieting about those playful cherubs of his – endearing as they are. We wonder if they were really the creation of human conjugal activity – or is there some mysterious clandestine factory out there in never-never land churning out these figures of jolly, but slightly subversive, mischief?
I suppose we have to ask ourselves what Guan’s work is all about – although I am not much given to inviting such analysis. I take the subjective view of things – rather like Montaigne and his marvellously enriched view of life that it was not his job to tell people how theyought to live – but simply to observe how they lived.
So it is with Guan. Rather than analyse, let’s respond to those instincts and moments and experiences that drive his soul and furnish his spirit to thus reveal such fantasies? I do not have the feeling that there is too much overbearing ‘message’ about Guan’s work – it’s about his own life, his own feelings, journeys, sensibilities and emotions – and in revealing those in his own wonderfully honest and witty way there is an underlying message of goodness, humanity and optimism. Those little figures, symbols, icons of his own personal plights and journeys, are his visual vocabulary and they tell the stories – stories that are like illustrated fairy tales; and like all such tales they are not without their little hints of disquiet and contradiction. One can see a profound and inevitable affiliation to China in Guan’s work – a sense of loyalty to inherited culture and traditions and all their attendant deep-seated values; and then there is that lightness of touch and whimsy in the glimpses of his half-adopted homeland – here. There are contrasting sensibilities at work here – and interferences which one can’t help suspect are inflicting criticism on his native China and its current values and attitudes which conflict with Guan’s own emotive, mindful, instinctive and profoundly humanistic values…after all the notion of political criticism and subterfuge is not new in Chinese literati traditions as we know from the 17th Century figures Hung Ren and Zhu Da Kun Can.
And yet for all the hovering little clouds of mystery and lurking uncertainty that may be alluded to in his work, it remains a life enhancing joy to behold. His images of all types and kinds – paintings, ceramics, sculpture – are constructed with wit, knowledge and human sensibility. They are forever refreshing and thankfully free of censure and diatribe, but never free of spirit and humanity. Whilst far from pedantry there is a recurring theme in Guan’s work. It is about freedom and tolerance – and perhaps reminding us that you cannot have freedom without tolerance. The willingness to embrace differing cultures and values in this day and age, as the world becomes smaller and it’s people more mobile, is paramount and Guan feels that need – that need for own-mindedness and tolerance is not on the mere wish-list, but an immediate necessity. How better to convey those sentiments than in his story-telling way with images that delight, entertain, echo very different heritages and yet speak with a colourful, contemporary, witty, urbane and universal voice.
Guan has said that this series of works is very different from his previous work – well he is the artist so I suppose he should know. But I have to say that these new works seem to me to be very much in the mould of his personal thoughts, feelings, emotions…his own private journey made public…different in mood perhaps. He has spoken of their metaphysical aspect…of matters perhaps beyond our earthly existence. There is an occasional hint of the ominous (the Extension series for example)…black birds are seldom harbingers of good tidings…but the optimism of whimsy is still there – even in that cranky looking colourful bird sitting on top of a dead lotus pod….
There is a lightness of touch in all Guan Wei’s work that belies a deeply felt seriousness of purpose. He can make us feel good in an imperfect world.