Ajuan Song at the Manhattan Graphics Center

Ajuan Song, Tear of Nature #17. Courtesy the artist

Ajuan Song: Tear of Nature

Manhattan Graphics Center

August 1 - August 19, 2019 


Ajuan Song was born in China but has been living and working in New York, specifically Bushwick, for several years. Known here for her collaborations with artist Kuzma Vostrikov, Song at the same time is a cohesive and dedicated artist in her own right. This show of seven archival print images, of the naked artist’s body filled with images of trees, is called “Tear of Nature.” The images recall superimposed negatives--but in fact are the result of work Song has done on computer. In truth, as the artist has publicly commented, her traditional upbringing in China has led her to seek a merger between nature and female presence--a link long considered accurate and genuine in Chinese culture. By using her own body as the basis of the show, Song personalizes what are considered universal truths in Chinese belief systems. At the same time, her high level of sophistication in the technical production of the image brings her very up to date in art, especially here (and, increasingly, everywhere) in New York, where young artists are committing themselves to technologies that are recent and immaterial. Nor can we dismiss the eroticism of her art. 

In Tear of Nature #17 (2018), the artist presents herself in full-frontal manner, with her head leaning back, away from her body, whose sharp, dark outline cuts into the gray background behind her. Thin trunks and branches, closely arrayed in groups, fill the space of her physique. One senses, without being able to fully prove, that the figure is adult; there is also an implied erotic proposition in her nakedness, which is assuaged by trees filling more or less crammed into her shape. The print, like all of those we see in this small but excellent show, looks like a photo but has been determined by computer. As I have suggested, the image fuses woman and nature: a long determined trope both in Chinese and Western cultures. It is excellent that Song has not given up on trees as a concomitant to her body. The Chinese, poets and painters both, have often called for a merger between human feeling and natural design. This is a great strength of Song’s show, whose title assigns sadness to the undertaking. 

Ajuan Song, Tear of Nature #7. Courtesy the artist

In Tear of Nature #7 (2018), we see the artist, again nude, bent over from the side. Her chest is visible, but we do not see a complete head, which extends itself beyond the plane of the image to the left. Trees, vertically standing, fill her hunched-over body. Song clearly is aware of the erotic implications of what she portrays, but the sexual tone of her nakedness is softened by the presence of the leafless trees, which adds the objectivity of nature to the desire she regularly incorporates into her art. Desire is human, while nature is, by contrast, quite inhuman--if not for the wishes we project onto it! Nature has always served as the base of our metaphorical thinking, and the situation is no different in Song’s case. In the Tear of Nature #3 (2018) work in the series, the artist faces us, her features and shortish hair directed toward her audience. She seems to be sitting, although there is no visible support--her knees are bent at a right angle. The outline of Song’s body is clear, but inside the outline the space is filled with thin white tree trunks that lack leaves.

Ajuan Song, Tear of Nature #3. Courtesy the artist

Nature is barren in this group of works, but Song’s body is youthful, desirable, and presumably fecund. The contrast is enlightening but also realistic, in the sense that Song’s natural presence, however human it may be, defines and physically contains the leafless trees. This is not so much about symbolism--Song’s art is too good to be merely that--but how difference here plays off human presence with exquisite gracefulness, not the least of which is erotic in implication. In Tear of Nature #9, the artist bends over with her back facing us, so that we do not see her head. At the same time, the cleft between her legs is sharply visible in outline, while trees fill the dark space of her body. The trees create what amounts to an organic maze, but their non-erotic beauty cannot be separated from the sexuality of the artist’s pose. Thus Song is celebrating herself even as she incorporates an encompassing nature that cools down the eros of the image. This is not openly erotic art, Usually, an open sexuality accompanies the experience od seeing the Western nude, but it is deeply sensual nonetheless. By merging the female nude, a Western tradition, with a view of nature, a Chinese tradition, Song effectively brings together ways of seeing that likely an immigrant artist from Asia would have closer access to than to someone working within the confines of a single culture. I am no proponent of excessive eclecticism--usually, good art comes from within the innate strengths of a single culture. At the same time, borrowing has been part of artists’ strategies for hundreds of years. Song’s work is an inspired wrinkle in what must be called a tradition of image collage, practiced regularly since modernism. We can be slightly amazed at how well the results have turned out in the hands of a Chinese artist. WM

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


view all articles from this author