Xiang Silou: A Chinese block buster

Prepare your eyes for a treat, says JIM GILCHRIST, as the woodblock artist Xiang Silou brings his ‘incredible images’ to the Burrell Collection

DEEP lines etched on a face by age and hardship; an organic huddle of village rooftops studded with treetops; the contoured glimmer of rice terraces at night… all are wrought by the meticulous wood-engraver’s knife of Xiang Silou, one of the foremost exponents of an art form which is though to have originated in China more than 1,000 years ago.

Next Monday, Xiang Silou, professor at the Fine Arts Institute of Sichuan Normal University and an outstanding woodblock art-ist, will take up a month-long residency at Glasgow’s Burrell Collection, where several of his large-format woodblock prints will go on display. While there, he will create a new print inspired by the collection, which includes one of the most important assemblies of Chinese art and artefacts in Britain.

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His visit, during which he will give work-shops and lectures, is organised in conjunction with the Ricefield Arts Centre in Glasgow, where he exhibited two years ago, and which is involved in promoting exchanges between Scottish and Chinese artists.

Amid a vigorous contemporary woodblock art scene in China, Xiang Silou stands out with his combination of large-scale blocks and beautifully detailed cutting, producing monochrome prints often compared to Chinese silk paintings for their delicacy of line. His work has been exhibited in the United States and Europe.

“They’re incredible images, when you see them in the flesh,” says Emma May, the Burrell’s curator of Chinese and Oriental civil-isations. “I saw them for the first time at the Ricefield exhibition in 2006, and I hadn’t seen anything like them before. They’re really large scale and quite incredibly intricate, and inspired by the people and landscapes of south-west China, where he lives.”

Viewing Xiang’s work, May agrees, one is tempted to suggest that he treats his portraits rather like landscapes in themselves, as the graver gouges out not only fine nuances of expression but the lines and wrinkles eroded into his subjects’ faces, like fissures in a rock field.

One of his most arresting portraits is Mother – not his own, but an elderly woman from the mountainous Daba Shan area of Sichuan, whom he represents as an archetypal mother, gazing directly out at the viewer with a rugged self-possession which he has imbued with great warmth and majesty.

His landscapes can be riveting as well: the clustered roofs of his home village in Sechuan, viewed from above, under skimming birds, look as organic as the trees which shoulder their way between them, engaging Xiang’s appetite for intricate pattern, as well as whetting curiosity as to what might be going under that inscrutable roofscape. And in a rice paddy nocturne, the sharply delineated contours of the terraces trap the moonlight and wind our gaze up into the dark hills.

His pre-print woodblocks could stand as works of art in themselves. Although the final prints are in black and white, when working on the blocks he marks out areas with red ink to help pick out contours in the wood, giving them a rich, almost coralline quality. Large-scale portraits of elderly members of China’s numerous ethnic minority groups are a particular concern of the artist, says Lin Chau of the Ricefield centre:

“He carves each line with feeling; they represent people’s stories and emotions. He is inviting [viewers] to try to read the story on their faces, and to care and love them.”

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Many of Xiang’s large-scale portraits are of Tibetans. He has made frequent forays into the mountains over the years, winning the trust of communities so he can take photographs and make sketches from which he later works on the woodcuts.

When The Scotsman, via the Ricefield centre, asks about the current serious unrest in Tibet and protests against its Chinese administration, Xiang declines to comment, preferring to focus on his impending visit. His intention, he says, is to give the Scottish public an insight into China’s age-old woodblock printing culture, while compiling a report contrasting wooden and metal print-making traditions there and in Britain.

The 52-year-old artist is enthusiastic about returning here. On his visit two years ago, he produced two striking woodcuts – of Glasgow Cathedral and Edinburgh’s Waverley station. He will be joined at his Burrell workshops by Scottish artists such as Avril Paton and Colin Park – who hopes to follow up the exchange ethos by visiting China in the future.

Xiang sees himself as a traditional Chinese woodblock artist responding to a contemporary environment, using traditional tools and materials such as woodblock knives and rice paper. His large-scale prints can take up to 40 days to complete, and he refuses to use a mechanical press to print them, preferring to hand-press them.

Many hundreds of years before its rejuvenation there during the 1930s, the art of woodblock printing had its origins in China, during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220AD). Initially it was used to illustrate religious texts and other books, and later to produce popular prints. For centuries, however, the process tended to be divided among different craftsmen – designers, block-cutters and printers, and it wasn’t until the 1930s renaissance, prompted by the writer and activist Lu Xun and the “Fourth of May” movement, that the artist-printmaker emerged in China, as part of a wider cultural modernisation.

The medium was widely adopted for prints and posters, both for social criticism and as a propaganda vehicle during the Sino-Japanese conflict and the communist revolution. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, printmaking departments were established in most art schools. Since the disastrous period of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese artists have been engaged increasingly with the wider world, as reflected by the current burgeoning woodblock print scene.

Xiang Silou cites as influences Lu Xun (“for feeling and a new concept of woodblock art”) and, for technique, he looks to the great Northumbrian engraver and naturalist Thomas Bewick, who virtually reinvented wood engraving in the west in the 1780s.

Meanwhile, the Ricefield Centre functions is a cultural bridge between Scotland and China, particularly during the current China Now in Scotland season. Last September it arranged an exhibition of contemporary Scottish art at the Qi Baishi International Arts Festival in Xiangtan, Hunan – a resonant site, being the birthplace of Baishi, regarded as China’s greatest 20th-century artist.

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Ricefield is currently exhibiting Wandering, an exhibition of silk paintings and woodcuts by He Weimin. Next September, Suzanne Chong, the Ricefield curator involved in bringing Xiang to Scotland, will have an exhibition of her own at the venue. An oil painter from Hong Kong, she is particularly interested in exploring the embracing of western culture in China, with ensuing concerns about dilution of indigenous culture – something which doesn’t seem to have created any problems for Xiang Silou.

• Xiang Silou is at the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, from 31 March to 25 April. For further information, see www.glasgowmuseums.com and www.xiangsilou.com