Animation through Woodcuts Is a Visual Feast at the Saint Louis Art Museum

Chinese Artist Sun Xun Connects Old-New, East-West

Chinese artist Sun Xun (born 1980) has harnessed a thousand-year-old printmaking process to create 3D animations that utilize images from both Eastern and Western traditions, a feat eloquently demonstrated in the exhibit Sun Xun: Time Spy, on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum through Aug. 12, 2018.

In one of the most labor-intensive animation techniques imaginable, Sun Xun and his team of animators carve images into wooden panels that would otherwise be used to produce woodblock prints on paper, but instead of pulling prints, Sun inks the panels, lets them dry and digitally scans the images. Since it takes eighteen images to produce one second of animated film, the nine-minute film on view, “Time Spy,” required some 10,000 carved panels, many of which are included in the installation.

Sun Xun, "Time Spy," woodcut painting in 35 parts, approx. 72 7/16 x 90 15/16 inches. Photo by Jason Wyche, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly, ©Sun Xun

“Time Spy,” although deliberately lacking a coherent plot, contains a fantastically entertaining cavalcade of images from both Eastern and Western artistic traditions—Hokusai, steam punk, French cinema—and ramps up the visual excitement with a 3D component (realized by red-and-blue glasses provided in the gallery) that takes the animation to another level. The artist has chosen to include four prints from the museum’s collection by one of his artistic heroes, Albrecht Durer. Fittingly, the Sun Xun gallery is situated between and accessible by both the European and Asian galleries on the museum’s main floor. So wide-ranging were the exhibit’s techniques and inspirations, it required four curators: Elizabeth Wyckoff, curator of prints, drawings and photographs; Gretchen Wagner, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in prints, drawings and photographs; Hannah Klemm, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art; and Philip Hu, curator of Asian Art.

Sun Xun. Photograph by Peng Peng, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly

“Time Spy,” originally commissioned by the Swiss watchmaking company Audemars Piguet, premiered in 2016 on Miami Beach in a bamboo pavilion and later was shown in New York’s Times Square.

The Saint Louis Art Museum is one of the nation’s leading comprehensive art museums with collections that include works from virtually every culture and time period. Admission to the museum is free to all.