Despite a poster at the entrance of the exhibit that warns, “This content is not suitable for children,” the first artwork on view in Xiang Jing’s electrifying career retrospective at the Long Museum is a statue of a young girl who’s sneaking a peek at the rest of the exhibit.
She’s wearing a white dress, her hands cupped against her eyes as she peers into a wall erected especially for the show. Likely to maximize the overwhelming effect of Xiang’s statues, the curators sliced up the Long Museum’s airy rooms into thin, maze-like sections, so that only a few works are visible at a time.
Rounding the first corner reveals the reason for the warning – a two-story tall female nude figure rendered in photographic detail from Xiang’s most famous series, Naked Beyond Skin. Like most of the Beijing-born sculptor’s work, the figure is formed from painted fiberglass, looking eerily waxen while also realistic in a detached, clinical way. She’s titled ‘And You?’ and has her head cocked inquisitively to the side, staring down at the viewer with an innocent gaze made all the more disturbing by her exaggerated size.
The retrospective spans the entire 21-year-long career of Xiang, who began working as a sculptor after graduating from Central Academy of Fine Arts in the mid ‘90s. In its full title, Xiang Jing: Through No One’s Eyes But My Own, the curators emphasize her uncompromising perspective, which is by turns tender, harsh and satirical. Over the course of six sculpture series, she explores the interiority of women through visceral depictions of their exterior faces and bodies.
As referenced in their title, the works in Naked Beyond Skin aren’t meant to be erotic or obscene but simply truthful, serving as portals for whatever interior life the viewer perceives in them. The initial shock caused by the huge nude figures gives way to fascination with the expressions on their faces, which vary from listlessness and reflection to despair, discomfort and rage.
They are her most famous works and the most overwhelming at a first glance, but some of her more life-sized pieces also pack an emotional punch. Her Mirror Image series features busts of women staring straight ahead, with the viewer as an uncomfortable stand-in for the mirror.
The highlight sculpture from this series, ‘Night Life,’ depicts a freeze-frame of a woman’s face, smeared and distorted as if someone snapped a photo of her mid-motion, emphasizing the falseness that all reflections provide.
An upstairs gallery filled with standing life-sized sculptures is also by turns beautiful and horrifying, as it appears at first glance that the room is filled with real people frozen in place. A tiny, bald toddler in a ballet costume stares defiantly upward at the front of the crowd, with a diverse array of nude and clothed women in different states of contemplation behind her. The extreme detail in their vulnerable faces as they stare directly at the viewer is hard to stand for too long.
Depending on the route you take through the gallery, Xiang’s exhibit builds toward surreal endings in two different places, either on the ground floor in a room filled with acrobats, or upstairs with Xiang’s newest, most abstract work. Both finales are bookended by the same statue of the girl in the white dress, this time looking away from the other artwork.
Part of the Mirror Image series, the name of this statue is actually ‘The End.’ As a stand-in for the viewer, she might be calling us out for being voyeuristic in our viewing of this extremely personal art, but she could also be encouraging us to continue looking at things that we’ve been conditioned to believe are shameful or taboo.