Art imitates life at Chinese exhibition in Sydney

An unusual art exhibition showing in Sydney and Canberra lets you can walk among former political giants, now reduced to weak old age.


And if you don’t confront them… they’ll confront you, reports Michelle Hannah.

You might think you’ve wandered into some kind of hallucination, a collision of dodgem cars, an impossible UN convention of past world leaders and – Madam Tussauds on wheels.

Called ‘Old People’s Home’ realistic figures made from fibreglass and silica gel are a brave and powerful statement by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and his wife Peng Yu.

“In the eyes of a young person, the elderly people hold the power,” Sun Yuan told SBS. “And so really I wanted to reverse this situation and strip them of their power.”

Dr Gene Sherman of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, says the works are reflect the disparity between how dictators see themselves and the reality of their rule.”

“It’s about the transitory nature of power. And I think that in most dictator’s lives and in their concept of the future, they see an unending future of power for themselves and their families,” says Dr Sherman.

“And this is a very telling visual lesson that we all know but need to be reminded of, that we all go from dust to dust – that power doesn’t last.”

While the figures look suspiciously like people you recognise, the artists won’t confirm that they are based on anyone other than old people they’ve met.

In their vision of a retirement home, the electric wheelchairs move around randomly and by chance – meaning you never know who you might run into.

Perhaps a Cuban dictator, a Palestinian President, a Greek matriarch or even the author of a communist manifesto.

The works are the centrepiece of an exhibition called ‘Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture’ showing concurrently in Sydney and Canberra.

They are from a recently gifted $163 million art collection donated to a Hong Kong gallery by Swiss art collector Uli Sigg.

Sigg believes that now, Chinese art is more vital than ever at the start of the Asian century.

“It’s fairly new, it’s fresh, still fresh”, says Sigg. “And China (becoming) a world power, so more and more interest for what is China, what is the China reality, how to access China. And contemporary art may provide a very good inroad how to access China.”

The exhibition by these Chinese artists delivers some home truths, about how one person can yield so much power, prestige and control – and then, none at all.

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