English gardens tend to manicure nature less than their French equivalent, with trees clumped together rather than lined up like sentinels. Cass Sculpture Park is a prime example of lawn and trees that tend to conceal rather than expose all. Last year it sprouted 18 more additions to the outdoor sculptures arranged on its grounds. These commissioned works created specifically for Cass are by contemporary Chinese artists who dreamt up unusual additions to a typically English landscape.
For instance, Wang Wei in Panorama 2, 2016, created a curved mosaic wall complete with a small door-shaped opening which in fact is a rendering of the view directly opposite. The artist says his inspiration came from the environment within Beijing Zoo where the animals are kept in confines meant to mimic their natural habitat. But for whom was this view created? Probably not for its animal inhabitants but made instead to reassure the zoo visitor.
In another glade, Bi Rongrong used grass as if it were paper, folding and levering up astroturf to create unexpected geometric planes in the lawn. It is a deliberately artificial rendering of the human penchant for landscaping, to create grass where there isn’t, to carve the existing into manageable shapes.
Some of the other concepts quite literally need longer to bear fruit. One apple tree planted on the grounds (Fruit, 2016) will have artist Wang Sishun cast a bronze replica of each apple produced in that year to mimic the commercialization and manipulation of the natural. Newly planted, there were no apples to see. Art as process rather than finished object.
Li Jinghu’s Escape (My Family History), 2016, consists of two chain-link fences confronting each other, instantly bringing to mind the current refugee crisis. While this viewer saw this exhibition on an unreasonably sunny day, more characteristic grey clouds and rain would have placed these works in quite a different light. The roving searchlight positioned atop the fence would have taken on a much more sinister air.
The only work in white cube surroundings is Jennifer Wen Ma’s Molar, 2016, which occupies the main gallery. Blown glass protuberances reminiscent of the bulgy pulpiness of our insides emerge from black tyvek foliage, and dangle over a pool of ink. Some of this glass sculptures are colored and meant to represent abnormal cells. This artificial landscape is Ma’s digression on the Garden of Eden and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and has a macabre beauty about it.
While there is a map with a path sketched out, the spacing encourages you to linger and the encounters feel pleasantly random. Behind the next set of trees, lo and behold not another tree but an abandoned car complete with lurid ghost story (Lu Pingyuan, Ghost Trap, 2016) or a crisscrossing of protest routes paved with chalk pebbles courtesy of Xu Zhen (Movement Field, 2016). The surroundings are no simple blank slate to be written on but a green expanse with trees of such height that sculptures of a smaller scale or vision become garden gnomes in comparison. The works are necessarily forced to address their environment, to compete and complement their leafy confines, which prove a welcome change to the usual unchallenging bleached walls.
A Beautiful Disorder, Cass Sculpture Foundation, 3 July—6 November, 2016