The Ashmolean’s first artist-in-residence has recorded its redevelopment, from the beginning of expansion in 2006 to its completion and opening last year. While it’s not always clear if the medium suits the content, He’s work is striking for its human sympathy within scenes of mechanical mess.
The first thing you see is a wall mural, which manages to convey the noisy, dusty chaos of a construction site within a carefully balanced composition. Bits of brickwork, wooden planks and workers carrying objects to and fro make the image bustle with activity wherever you look, but each area includes just enough white space for it to remain legible. I wanted to stand up close to the mural, but unfortunately the curators have a placed an odd batch of laminated extra drawings all along the floor in front of it. These obstruct both the mural and one of the best mounted ink drawings, on the wall to the left: its sharp tonal contrasts, unique in the exhibition, create a sense of the new building’s vast depth.
He seems to have made himself a quiet observer of daily life during the redevelopment, and much of the work on show here – not originally planned, one suspects – comprises portraits of construction workers and museum staff. The exhibition information is keen to reconcile He’s ancient Chinese ink and paper techniques with his images of a contemporary and Western world, but this didn’t entirely seem to work. Particularly in the portraits, the use of traditional ink to depict people in crumpled suits in front of laptops drew attention to its own anomaly in a distracting way. However, the ancient world of the Ashmolean’s concern is frequently suggested too: one of the portraits shows a museum conservationist retouching a large vase which sits on her office desk, in charming contradiction.
The most striking works are the woodblock prints, which exploit the hard, opaque lines to emphasize the rigidity of construction scaffolding. The scaffolding itself often acts a compositional grid laid over each picture, contrasting with the fluid expressiveness of the workers’ bodies as they twist, bend, reach and loll about.
Indeed, He manages always to highlight the humanity of his subjects in their industrial surroundings. His images are intricate, and nearly always rendered in stark black on white. Yet there is something in the loose smudginess of the lines, and the slightly cartoon-like workers’ bodies, which conveys the friendly camaraderie between everyone involved. The overwhelming sensation is of human warmth, underlined by the myriad further portrait drawings included in the catalogue: one depicts a pregnant woman sitting quietly, another a man with Star Wars toys all over his office desk. The tone is softly humorous, and He seems to genuinely love the people he draws.
Image: Ashmolean Builders VI, woodcut printed with oil based ink, Weimin He