Fan Dongwang explores our Pandemic Bodies

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It is fair to say that we are still only at the beginning of a period in which artists respond aesthetically, ideologically and deeply to Covid-19. For better or worse, art that deals with aspects of the pandemic will surely be with us for years to come, perhaps becoming a genre unto itself. So far, numerous artists have dealt with social or economic ideas; others might address emotional themes such as loneliness or loss. Sydney-based artist Fan Dongwang takes a slightly different approach. His new exhibition Pandemic Bodies focuses on how the pandemic is altering the nature of our bodies, and how our bodies relate to our surroundings, culture and technology.

Fan Dongwang’s paintings show separated body parts ‘floating’ against a backdrop of ornate flowery patterns and unidentifiable pieces of machinery. The conceptual thinking behind this imagery is precise, deliberate and subtle. These arms, legs, torsos, and so on, are inspired by Renaissance depictions of human anatomy – an important departure point for the artist.

Fan Dongwang, Pandemic Bodies, exhibition view. Photograph: Effy Alexakis, photowrite.

“The ‘normal’ or ‘perfect’ body is healthy, free-spirited and able to connect with and embrace fellow human beings,” he says. “In my art, that is the Greek or Renaissance human – strong, masculine and idealised. The invisible virus has shattered this body and brought it to its knees. Overwhelmed by its hostile environment, the aching, longing pandemic body is suspended, floating, fragmented, perplexed, isolated, emerging and submerging, shrinking and extending, gasping for air and struggling to regain control and survive. The pandemic has hastened our body’s identity crisis.”

Fan Dongwang cites Picasso, Dali, Bacon and Hockney as influences on his works; all artists who, he points out, address bodily identity and imagery. By using floral elements he also references traditional Chinese art, which he has studied. The Chinese elements, in combination with the nods to the Renaissance – Michelangelo being particularly important for the artist – make for an intentionally multicultural aesthetic.

“The influence of Chinese art on my art has developed the idea that different cultures permeate each other,” he says. ”The background flowery patterns are taken from a Chinese brocade I brought with me to Australia 30 years ago. They represent transcendence, fragility and beauty, and when they come into contact with the human body and become part of that imagery, the boundaries between object and space are eventually transgressed.”

Fan Dongwang, Pandemic Bodies, exhibition view. Photograph: Effy Alexakis, photowrite.

Perhaps the key idea that the visitor might take from Pandemic Bodies, though, is that despite astonishing advances in technology, knowledge and our supposed ‘civilisation,’ nature can still dismantle the human body in an instant.

“Despite all our progress, our bodies can plunge into crisis at once,” says Fan Dongwang. A sobering idea, yet the artist is keen that his work is not seen as overly bleak or fatalistic.

“This work is designed to raise awareness of the shortcomings of humanity in dealing with the pandemic, and to rethink the direction of the development of the human body. This does not mean going back to ‘normal,’ but to be humble and self-critical in order to improve our understanding of the relationship between human society and the environment – and its development in the future.”

Pandemic Bodies
Fan Dongwang
Macquarie University Art Gallery (MUAG)
1 March – 16 April

Barnaby Smith