Red Dragon created by Mexican sculptor Enrique Carbajal González (WEI YAO)
The Year of the Dragon is named for the fifth animal and the only mythical creature of the Chinese zodiac. A host of creatives have seized the opportunity to ring in the year with their interpretations of the mythical creature through the language of art. At an art exhibition centered on the dragon and the other 11 Chinese zodiac signs opened in Beijing in December 2023, two large pieces, in particular, respectively created by Chinese and Mexican masters, have caught visitors' eyes. One of them is a miniature version of Great Wall Dragon, its original being a 10-ton mecha installation artwork created by Sun Shiqian, a Chinese artist dedicated to robotic art and a lecturer at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. The other piece is Red Dragon, created with cardboard by Enrique Carbajal González, internationally known as Sebastián. He is one of Mexico's most famous sculptors, best known for his monumental works of steel and concrete.
Reporters from Beijing Review and China Hoy, a Spanish monthly published by CICG Center for Americas, interviewed the two artists, who shared their creative thoughts on their dragon works as well as their views on traditional Chinese culture and cross-cultural communication. Edited excerpts from their interviews follow:
Beijing Review and China Hoy: East and West have different takes on the mythical dragon. What's your perspective on the Chinese dragon? How do you incorporate this view in your work?
Sun Shiqian: My creation has been achieved through contemporary robotics or mecha art, so I use this contemporary art form to carry forward Chinese culture and showcase it to the world.
When I was in primary school, our textbooks read that the Great Wall was like a giant dragon stretching for over 13,400 li (6,700 km). Back then, I felt very proud; the Great Wall and the Chinese dragon are symbols of the Chinese nation. So I got to think about how to bring the two into one artwork.
Some people suggested that I should avoid the dragon theme because it is associated with destruction and greed in some Western cultures. But I insisted. East and West hold different concepts of the creature. In China, we call the dragon long, and it's one of the most important symbols of our culture, representing strength, good luck, health and prosperity.
The Chinese dragon is a combination of different animals, such as the head of a camel, the neck of a snake and the horns of a deer. Its appearance conveys the Chinese love and reverence for Mother Nature and all life on Earth.
It is exactly because of the cultural differences and misunderstandings that I felt the urge to create this artwork, so that more people around the world can learn more about the propitious Chinese dragon, as well as China's mecha art.
We must break stereotypes not only of the dragon, but also of the image of Chinese society. We see many stereotypes of Chinese people pop up in Western film and television works, which are generally far removed from China's contemporary realities. More young Chinese artists ought to present traditional Chinese culture, as well as the real China and its people, to the rest of the world.
Sebastián: I am very interested in what the dragon, as a symbol, represents in Chinese philosophy. It is an iconic figure of both ancient and modern China.
It seems to me to be a tremendously beautiful, symbolic, strong and powerful figure, a figure of cosmic light. It no longer seems to me to be the figure of fear, as appearing in Western fairytales. It is a dragon that is kind and cosmic, but that does not mean it stops being powerful.
When I thought of the dragon, I also thought of a very strong figure from the pre-Hispanic world: Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. ("Pre-Hispanic" refers to the time prior to Spanish conquests in the Western hemisphere.) So, in some way, there is a similarity, a bond between the two cultures through that figure and that vision: the feathered serpent and the Chinese dragon.
When the public saw my work (Red Dragon), their reaction was: "It's a full-fledged dragon!" and they immediately associated it with China. And I told them: "Exactly, and he's going to Beijing!" I was excited that they liked it as an image of an accomplished dragon, the product of a Mexican vision toward the Chinese world.
(Above) Miniature of Great Wall Dragon created by Chinese mecha artist Sun Shiqian (WEI YAO); The 20-meter long and 10-ton original mechanical installation (COURTESY PHOTO)
How do you think art and cultural exchange can help promote world peace?
Sun: The Chinese people have always cherished peace and stability. In my work, I used the Great Wall as one of the main elements because it represents the characteristics of the Chinese people since ancient times—peace-loving. The wall itself was used for defense and safeguarding peace.
As an artist, I hope my works will attract more attention, so that more people will understand the message I want to express in them, such as peace and friendship.
Moreover, the mecha works I'm into are more special. Currently, most people know about robots mostly from movies, like the Gundam robots from Japan and the Transformers. Artistic value aside, it (a robot) can also be designed as life-saving equipment, to manage relief efforts in emergencies or following disasters, or for peacekeeping purposes. My studio and I are exploring this area right now.
Sebastián: Art is a fundamental bridge binding two cultures, and is even more so when both parts have ancestral roots. China and Mexico, despite being entirely different, can discover and teach one another in the artistic and aesthetic fields.
China is very strong in terms of cultural exchange. I saw the ability of the Chinese world to support universal culture. I have a deep admiration for the country, because it gives fundamental importance to culture in general, to literature, to the arts, and to opera. Just like Mexico, China is a culturally strong nation.
China is an ancestral society that is thousands of years old. Mexican society, throughout the pre-Hispanic world, also has an ancestral tradition, a deep cultural root. The two countries share that character, that destiny, that origin and, therefore, that fundamental vocation to protect peace across the world.
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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