Unscrambling Pan Song's Sculptures by Sun Zhenhua

Sun Zhenhua, Theorist
Director of Shenzhen Sculpture Academy
Vice-Director of China Sculpture Institute

I. Generally, before devoting oneself to the creation, a sculptor tends to spend a long time in studying, which is in effect a knowledge-reserve stage. I fail to get any information about Pan Song's "Pre-creation Period", so I have to adopt an inverse way, namely speculating on his learning process and his knowledge state through his works: What does he concern himself about? Why is he keen on creating that?
Pan Song has spent quite a long time on one sculpture series which is called "Ni Shang" or "Rainbow Fashion". In Pan's art dictionary, "Ni Shang" refers to fashion models on the runway as well as their rainbow-like costumes and accessories.

Why does he prefer "Ni Shang"?
Upon graduation as a postgraduate, Pan Song came to teach in the Sculpture Department, Beijing Institute of Technology. Undoubtedly, "Runway Shows" have naturally become something he acquaints himself with in his life and an important vision source as well. It is acknowledged that artists are apt to choose objects which they are familiar with as their creation themes.
Fashion shows are, after all, fashionable, so Pan Song opts to name his series "Ni Shang", a term suggesting ancient charm and creating a historical distance away form the current fashion. Maybe it is the "Verfremdungseffekt" or "distancing effect" that Pan Song is seeking after: near or far, dreamy or real, clear or blurred, hard to differentiate between fashion and classic, present and past, as well as reality and imagination.
In a strict sense, the said "distancing effect" is in the second layer, with the first layer referring to models, clothes and runway shows as they are life in disguise. Compared with the reality in our daily life experience, they suggest a life which is decorated, promoted, distant form reality, a life which is idealized, artificial and denoting a sharp-cut attitude. It is a special perspective for sculpture creation, which in return produces special effect.
The significance of certain art work comes from not necessarily the work itself; more than often, however, it is from metaphor or allusion brought by history and context. The term "Ni Shang" is not an exception with its profound culture connotation in Chinese literature works. In Qu Yuan's Chuci anthology, Jiuge (Nine Songs) "Qing Yun Yi Xi Bai Ni Shang"(White costumes in the background of blue sky), it refers to immortal god in white clothes; in Xie Tiao's poem "Bi Ri Xia Ni Shang"(mists fleeing with the rising sun), it denotes mists and clouds; in Bai Juyi's poem "Chun Feng Dang Yang Ni Shang Fei" (dancing like flying in rainbow costume with the spring breeze blowing softly), it indicates to the dancer's rainbow costume; besides, the word "Ni Shang" is often taken as synecdoche for dancers, costumes, dances, and even dance tunes as in the musical masterpiece "Ni Shang Yu Yi Qu" (Melody of Rainbow-colored and Feathered Costumes).
Thanks to the profound accumulation of cultural connotations regarding "Ni Shang" in the Chinese culture, we appreciate and comprehend Pan Song's sculpture works "Ni Shang" series with sort of psychological expectations and cultural backgrounds.

What is it exactly?
It is a combination of various images, associating such traditional images regarding "Ni Shang" as "fairy goddess", "mists", "rainbow costumes" and "graceful dancing" with modern fashion images of "models", "fashion costumes", "catwalk" and even "sexy beauty" which appear in the runway show, thus, creating comprehensive images which are exaggerated, intensified, mysterious, decorative and mobile.
You will feel amazed at the first glance of the Pan Song's "Ni Shang" with rich senses and emotions. Intuition tells you it is kind of oriental image; however, in Chinese sculpture system, works like these are rare with such expression of runway models and to merge a sculptor's subjective feelings with his works so boldly and freely.
Under the background of traditional Chinese culture, taking the modern fashion culture as the medium and expressing the oriental feminine and fashion beauty in such an exaggerated way, this is the place where lies the uniqueness of Pan Song's "Ni Shang" series.
Compatible with "Ni Shang" in Pan Song's works are women's figures. Various figures endow his sculptures with characteristics of the time.
As a saying goes in Confucianism "Da Li Ji ·Quan Xue" ("Records of Ritual Matters,Exhortation to Study"), "One has to dress up before meeting with guests; otherwise a slovenly appearance will show less respect to others; consequently, one's lack of courtesy will make him hard to succeed." Apparently, clothing is not merely a matter of physical materials, but the decoration for human bodies which bears a lot of social significance and reflects human sociality directly in all ages. Clothing is deemed as measurement for humanity, sexual bias or discrimination. What matters are the function of clothing and whether the human body is wrapped loose or tight. Clothing, to some extent, monitors human bodies, maintains sex rules and social orders, safeguards certain civilization in respective periods, and is served as a proper bottom line for a civilized society.
The state of human bodies, associated with fitness and degree of nudity of clothes on the body, is a sort of social expression. In Pan Song's sculptures, those figures in "Ni Shang" or fashion costumes are in effect symbolized, where nobody's body is visible but the state of the body or a collection of symbolic bodies which as a whole defines the feminine body concept of our age and witnesses our cognitive social changes.
Pan Song's works show respect and appreciation towards human bodies. The sculpting with courtesy of famine figures that are compatible with "Ni Shang" or fashion costumes is an ideal pattern or mode of life. Appreciation and worship of human beings is a vital part in human life and a fundamental as well as supreme notion about life.
The interaction of bodies and clothes in Pan Song's sculptures is exhibited in various ways: nudity, for example, is an important approach to present feminine beauty and sexual charm. Bare limbs, shoulders, chests, backs, waists or bellies, if exposed in appropriate ways and compatible with fashion clothes and accessories, will trigger boundless association and imagination through the contrast among different textures and between organic or inorganic, natural or artificial objects.
Another example is seen in the expression of gestures, silhouettes, figures and lines of human bodies. Pan Song tends to stretch in his works feminine figures to be much more slender, with silhouettes of figures divided by wrapped clothes, so imagination is aroused about the complete outline. He also inclines to sculpt feminine figures with exaggerated gestures or unusual poses which undoubtedly enrich our visual experience.
Obviously, what Pan Song displays in his works are not figures in reality, but a reproduction of fashion show figures in the form of sculpture, through which, his exaggeration becomes rational, and his works are no longer confined to the narrow runway but promoted to a much more broad field of art.

II.Another series of Pan Song's sculpture works named "Pu" form a sharp contrast to his "Ni Shang", surprisingly, but reasonably.
"Ni Shang" are typical sculptor's works despite their novelty and characteristics, because such traditional sculpture elements are involved as much emphasis are placed on concrete figures, figures shaping, trials on materials as well as creating the same objects by adopting various textures so as to explore differences in their weights, colors and emotions. That is what we expect of a sculptor.
"Pu", however, steps from the traditional state into an abstract one, namely, to unfold before our eyes something different with geometrized shapes in a more realistic world.
If "Ni Shang" draws its inspiration from the metropolitan runway shows, "Pu" is originated from ancient cultural heritage such as ancient constructions, artifacts and calligraphy; if cultural images brought by "Ni Shang" are sort of romantic, decorative, mysterious and literary, what could be associated with "Pu" are historical, spatial, rough and weather-beaten.
"Pu" series may possibly be classified into two sections with one transforming directly into sculptures from the "bucket arches" and "tenon-and-mortise work" which frequently appear in ancient constructions.
With his unique workmanship, Pan Song has successfully transformed ancient construction languages into his sculptures which have withstood the open air trials. His success is inevitable. Imagine that during the past thousands of years, those ancient buildings have faced the world and braved the storm and become internalized into Chinese people's cultural spirits, so just with some transformation and reproduction, they will undoubtedly become spatial constructions that are spectacular, solid, dignified and well-accepted.
However, the application of traditional elements may bring about some trouble as well. As people are ready to accept what they have been accustomed to, they may merely focus their attention on the part they are familiar with. Should an artist fail to create something unique, it would be quite difficult for the audience to be carried away by his works. In this respect, "Ni Shang" has brought us a great thrill while "Pu" still needs some improvement.
Maybe it is because of the sculptor's much more in-depth perception into traditional arts or passion for national culture, but which should in no way become an excuse for abandoning his uniqueness and creativity.
American psychologist David N. Perkins once cites an example of creative thinking: People tend to cut an apple in half by starting at the stem and slicing through to the dimple on the bottom. However, his son cut it the wrong way that he turned the apple on its side, sliced the apple in half perpendicular to the stem, only to find a marvelous result ---- in cross-section, the core of the apple made a distinctive five-pointed star. As for an artist, his creativity lies in that he is able to discover what is hidden under the simple and familiar covers, and to endow it with proper forms.
To sum up, this section of "Pu" series regarding direct transformation is still in the process of exploration. The other section, including his latest works "Deer", "Drum" and "Home", compared with the former section, seems to be better representative of "Pu" 's achievements with regard to transforming traditions creatively.
Besides the "bucket arches" and "tenon-and-mortise work", this section adopts calligraphy elements more skillfully and maturely with a much more personified transformation of traditional graphs and elements.
"Deer" is originated from "Jin Wen" or Bronze Inscriptions whose pictographic characters or pictographs make it possible for sculptors to give full play to its spatial structure in the sculpture creation. However, the sculpture work has already surpassed "Jin Wen" in itself. Generally, this work will make you feel a simple yet spectacular sense which seems to be traced back to ancient China, feel the power and constitution of ancient Chinese constructions, as well as feel the vigorous vitality of tenon-and-mortise work. It is however a brand-new combination which is complete and united, such effects calling for the artists' breakthrough consciousness of adopting, steering and surpassing traditions.
The works "Home" and "Drum" are originated respectively from "Jin Wen" and "Jia Gu Wen" (the Inscriptions on Tortoise Shells and Bones), equally adopting features of such ancient constructions as tenon-and-mortise work with fairly good effects. So maybe this is for Pan Song a more constructive and sustainable way of creation. As far as the sculptors, who are keen on traditional arts like Pan Song, are concerned, this is in effect a way back home and a creative way ahead as well.
I believe he will enjoy more wonderful scenery along this road; as a result, we will enjoy more of his wonderful works.

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