Past Exhibitions

Duan Jianwei: The Departure to Xindian


Artist Duan Jianwei
Curator Yang Zi

From 20 August to 22 October 2023, artist Duan Jianwei’s latest solo exhibition, “The Departure to Xindian” will be held in Long Museum (West Bund), curated by Yang Zi, featuring more than 20 works on the theme of countryside people that created by Duan in the past ten years. Since the beginning of the 1990s until now, rural figures have been the iconic subject matter of Duan Jianwei’s practice. Such a subject was once firmly grounded in the realist paintings of peasant themes. The choice of the subject in Duan’s early career came almost naturally because of the prevalence of this type of mundane imagery during the artist’s formative years. But in his later practice, he discovered the many possibilities this type of pictorial history extends, thus establishing a gateway for the subject to be articulated with art.

The title of the exhibition, The Departure to Xindian, is a reference to Duan Jianwei’s beloved short story, “Abashiri Made,” famous for its meticulous depictions; xindian is commonly used as the name of a street or district in the suburbs or the countryside in China in recent years. Xindian ambiguously explains the exhibition’s motif of the countryside. Also, xin, meaning new, signifies the artist’s attempt to explore an alternative to the established system of knowledge - his paintings have often been described as art-historical, especially with regard to the early Renaissance frescoes. In fact, the immobilised sublime is only a part of his works, without the artist endorsing any precise vocabulary to replace or describe them. In The Departure to Xindian, historical painting techniques are used eclectically. They are borrowed in a manner so implicit in provoking such interpretations and speculations: in Duan’s recent years of paintings, the history of painting transcending the East and the West is only considered as a necessary and practical discourse, while his interest lies in the portrayal of humanity’s intangible spirituality.

What Duan Jianwei creates are non-realistic realism paintings. That is, as he retains the shell of realism, the viewers can easily recognise the images, movements, and relationships of his painted subjects. Yet, these elements do not serve the narrative of which they comprise, instead escaping from the narratives and the edifying incentives behind them. In his 2022 work, Do the Laundry II, two young girls in rainboots by the lake wring out their laundry together; the one with her face turned to the viewer directs her eyes towards the twisted garment without eventually settling on it, and a faint smile emerges - apparently, her mind has wandered to the thrilling (or smile-inducing) land afar. The lake’s mottled green surface, the voluminous shrubs, and the circular water basin in the foreground soaking the clothes all correspond to the figure’s tranced state. As such, the reality and the spiritual world beyond reality are inextricably nested in one place, forming an indivisible whole and rapidly expanding the capacity of the canvas. This nested structure pervades every work in the exhibition and prompts: Is there a place afar (and if we were to designate it by name, would it be xindian?) that is beyond the reach of the senses? How do we arrive at that faraway place with our mortal sight?


About the Artist

Born in 1961 in Xuchang, Henan Province, Duan Jianwei graduated from the Fine Arts Department of Henan University in 1981. In over thirty years of practice, Duan Jianwei has been through a transition from the narrative of the Central Plains with nostalgic sentiments to the realisation of the nature of painting towards conscious painting and metaphysical shaping of the sensibility. The characters’ rich narratives and the distinctive dynamics in his early works are constantly refined and tempered over time, creating both detailed and slightly abstract figures with a sense of ambiguity, which have been transformed into the deposition of history, culture, customs and aesthetics in the present time and place. This ambiguity not only offers a space for contemplation but also addresses the complexity of realism in China. In Duan’s paintings, religious figures in medieval frescoes and statues in temples and grottoes are intermingled with the customs of the Central Plains; folklore and worship, the vernacular and the sublime are in parallel here. Time as the river, and the region as soil, these two constitute the coordinates of Duan Jianwei’s paintings, remaining valid over time in constant change.


About the Curator


Yang Zi received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from Nanjing University and is currently an independent curator. Yang Zi has worked in art criticism and curation for nearly ten years. From 2011 to 2014, Yang Zi was an editor of LEAP, and he has written extensively for a range of publications, including LEAP, Artforum China, The Art Newspaper China, among others. 2015, after joining UCCA, He acted as executive editor on a series of UCCA catalogues for Wang Yin, Liu Wei, Xu Zhen, and Zeng Fanzhi, and curated several exhibitions and public programs for UCCA. In 2018, he was promoted to curator and the head of Public Programs at UCCA. His curatorial projects include “La Chair”; “Secret Chamber”; “The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017”; “Pity Party”; “Land of the Lustrous”; “In Younger Days” and solo exhibitions for Zhao Bandi, Xie Nanxing, Wu Wei, Jiang Cheng, Xie Yi, Gao Yuan, Cai Zeibin, Chang Yunhan, Yang Luzi, Yu Honglei, and Zhu Changquan. In 2017, he was a Hyundai Blue Prize finalist. In 2019, He was one of the primary judges of the Huayu Youth Award. 

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