Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Discus Thrower’s New Clothes

Sui Jianguo's Discus thrower. Image: British Museum

The official fever of the London 2012 Olympics may have passed its watershed moment, but its Cultural Olympiad is set to become its most enduring legacy. Since 2008, 18 million have participated in 12000 projects across the country thus far. That’s not including the farm animals in Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony. From The World Shakespeare Festival (performing plays in 37 different languages) to Turner Prize winning-artist Jeremy Deller’s life-size Stonehenge bouncy castle, there’s been something for everyone. 

If it’s an authentic piece of ancient Olympic history you’re after however, the British Museum is a no-brainer.  Envied by museums worldwide for its stunning collection of Greek artefacts, to celebrate the Olympics it has curated Winning at the ancient Games, a free gallery trail of 12 sports -related objects. The tour includes of course, the prized Townley Discobolus, the Roman copy of Myron’s anatomically perfect discus thrower. However, inconspicuously tucked away from the Great Court’s flocks of tourists is Chinese contemporary artist Sui Jianguo’s interpretation of the Discobolus, which comes with an unexpected twist.  He is dressed in a traditional Chinese ‘Mao Suit’.

As one of China’s foremost practitioners of modern sculpture, Sui Jianguo rose to international fame in the late 1990s, for his bold Legacy Mantle cast-aluminium sculptures of ‘Mao suits’ (zhongshan jackets). A survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, later witnessing the June 4th Movement, his experimental practice reflects China’s tumultuous cultural, social and political transition in the last half century. He now presides as head of sculpture at the prestigious China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing.

The Townly Discobolus is undoubtedly one of the most famous images from the ancient world. Despite its popularity, it’s actually an incorrectly (albeit skilfully) restored forgery. The head is supposed to turn back at the discus, instead of facing the ground.  Having starred in Leni Riefenstahl’s acclaimed film Olympia (1938), to the London Transport poster of Britain’s 1948 Olympic Games, it’s been a universal symbol of freedom and democracy. 

One might presume Sui’s version to be carved in marble, like the museum’s resident discus thrower. In fact, it has been cast in bronze then painted white, using the same painstaking technique as Myron did 2500 years ago.

But how did Sui become interested in Western sculpture in the first place? Is it merely a frivolous but timely statement of Chinese-Western cultural exchange? For the artist, the seeds of classical inspiration were planted during the formative years as a sculpture student at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s, when he first came across a plaster cast of a discus thrower. Contemporary sculpture in China was in its infantile development until the early 1990s. Studying the timeless figures by Michelangelo, Rodin alongside the icons of Chinese Buddhism-it was a time when the Western ideas were inevitably shaping China’s cultural map, a metamorphosis that is ongoing in Sui’s opinion.

In 1998, he made his first Mao-suit clad sculptures in painted fibreglass, a series titled Drapery Study. Despite the name, the collection was more suggestive of China’s long history of artistic censorship than analysing folds of fabric. This dates back to infamous burning of books by its First Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 246 BC.

In an earlier Frieze magazine review this year of his show at Pace Gallery (Beijing), a critic described Dying Slave (1998), part of the Drapery Study series, as “a deliberate appropriation of the realist sculptural technique, a reference to his own educational background, but with a biting critique of the political mechanism behind a nationwide aesthetic preference”1. Indeed, if you ever get to see it, it’s one of the most haunting images you’ll never forget.

Of course the talking point, be it the early Drapery Series or the featured Discobolus, is its choice of attire. To the Western imagination, the ‘Mao suit’ is an iconic image synonymous with China’s Communist three-decade reign under Mao Zedong. To the Chinese people however, the connotations are far more ambivalent. The clothing’s restrained design seems to mirror the government’s tight control over its people, emphasising unwavering unity, respect and patriotism. Until as recently as 1990, it was a mandatory business suit worn by officials, as well as most of the male population. Like the unravelling of its traditions, its popularity amongst the younger generation fell as western influences sparked a fashion revolution.

But how does the work fit into today’s context? In terms of accepted styles, concepts and education systems, the liberalisation of art in China has come a long way since Mao’s death, along with rapid modernisation and globalization. Yet there is still progress to be made, international dialogues to be opened and Sui believes adapting Western thinking may be the answer.
Personally, the suit’s symbolism of conformity resonates (unwittingly or not), with the curious fact that the Discobolus formed the basis of the Nazis’ ‘Master Race Ideology’ in 1938. As strange as it sounds, I was subconsciously hesitant to touch the clothed, contemporary version. 
For the sake of enjoyment, I prefer to take a light-hearted view of Sui’s Discobolus. It still bears the thought-provoking ambiguity of Myron’s original. Nevertheless, to some it’s a poignant reminder of the liberties the Western societies so often take for granted.  

Sui Jianguo’s discus thrower (1 June – 9 September 2012)
British Museum

1. Quote by Carol Yinghua Lu, Frieze, 22nd May 2012,

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