Semiose opens an exhibition of works by Xie Lei

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Semiose opens an exhibition of works by Xie Lei
Installation view.

PARIS.- Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950), the sole film directed by the writer, stands as an unconventional landmark of cinematic culture. In the film, Genet portrays the amorous and sexual frustrations of men in prison, in an often suggestive and sometimes poetic manner. As with the author’s written work, the notion of desire is the driving force behind the film, which in fine interweaves fantasies, potential relationships and real sexual acts.

Xie Lei has appropriated both this iconic title and the concept of desire. Un Chant d’Amour does not however serve as an influence or a subject of simple reverence, but rather as a clear starting point for a series of paintings. Genet’s convicts exist in a huis-clos, where the photography, accomplished notably by Jean Cocteau, is resolutely minimalist. Xie Lei’s recent paintings are structured in a disconcerting parallel to the film, through his obsession with detail and the absence of distanced perspective. The spectator’s gaze is captured in an extremely close and immediate, head-on confrontation with the subject. The intimacy conjured by this ratio of scale, is further accentuated by the motifs chosen. The pictorial corpus of Chant d’Amour brings together a series of bodies, sometimes fragmented, whose gender is not immediately obvious. The voyeurism that the paintings arouse is not at all unhealthy in nature; the erotic content, sometimes immediate, is in essence largely naïve, its poetic quality paradoxically becoming more somber. Like the world of incarceration that Genet describes, Xie Lei’s paintings harbor a latent violence. In Awake, a man exhales his final breath, or perhaps experiences a splitting into two, or even an orgasm. The artist deliberately maintains this plurality of interpretation. In French, the expression “la petite mort” (little death) refers to the orgasm, as opposed to the “grande mort” (great death), which is quite final. This metaphor, perfectly appropriate in terms of Xie Lei’s painting, brings together the ambiguity and dichotomy of this moment situated between brutality, serenity and pleasure. This image however, should be read beyond the Western perspective and its standard model—birth, life, death—and be viewed with regard to Chinese tradition. Death is not a finality but simply a stage, as the spirit quits the carnal envelope and heads towards another form of existence. From this point of view, the intrinsic violence in this body of work becomes far less obvious. In Insinuation, a character plays with a two-headed snake. The implicit danger is strangely placid, becoming fantasy as boundaries tumble, establishing yet another link between Genet’s radical film and Xie Lei’s oeuvre.

If the senses become clouded after a moment of ecstasy, Xie Lei’s paintings undergo a similar process. Employing a limited number of colors, the artist plunges the viewer into a world which is often vaporous and murky. On the barren surface of the canvas, luminous contrasts break through, recalling Caravaggio’s universe where each shadow is mastered and worked with finesse. The title of the exhibition Chant d’Amour, leads to the question of how the dimension of sound, another intangible component, is present in these works. Like Genet’s film, this love song is silent but at the same time it leads the spectator to imagine the sonic ambience of each painting. The artist drops a few hints: his studio resounds with the sound of flamenco and other ardent musical genres. In Xie Lei’s work, the subjects, the sounds and his technique are all timeless and carry us off into a world of visions, fantasies and emancipation.

Loïc Le Gall

Loïc Le Galll is an independent curator and art critic. Since September 2019, he has been the director of the Passerelle Center for Contemporary Art in Brest, France.

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