The coolest sculpture park you’ve never heard of

The coolest sculpture park you’ve never heard of

Never mind the mediocre website, China's Changchun World Sculpture Park offers a surprisingly cool glimpse of world art
Changchun World Sculpture Park
Surreal, but you can't not look.

Before I visited the Changchun World Sculpture Park, its website nearly persuaded me not to.

“Grade AAAA tourist attraction,” a header proclaimed. The online gallery displayed bland stone sculptures with murkily translated titles like “Harmony Continue” and “Picture of Touring in Spring.”

But I was traveling through Changchun anyway, so on a frosty winter afternoon, photographer George Henton and I hailed a taxi in the city’s nondescript downtown. Some 20 minutes later we cleared the turnstiles at the nine-year-old sculpture park’s stadium-like entrance gates.

And I'm glad we bothered.

Although Changchun, a city of more than seven million in northeastern China’s Jilin Province, doesn’t feel particularly international, its 92-hectare sculpture park contains around 450 works by artists from more than 210 countries.

Dozens of the sculptures are excellent, and the surrounding landscape -- trees, power lines, construction cranes and high-rise apartments -- offer striking geometric contrasts.

Dina Merhav, a Israel-based artist who has visited Changchun three times, says she’s impressed by the variety and quality of the park’s sculptures.

Merhav has 15 sculptures on display across China, and she says Changchun officials are more “enthusiastic” than officials in other Chinese cities about establishing “cultural dialog” with international artists.

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Bringing the art world to China

In how many provincial Chinese cities can you stroll a path lined by sculptures from Iraq, Vietnam, Guyana and Uruguay?

Some of them, including the signature “Friendship Peace Spring” spire, are a little sappy, but many are on a par with pieces in American and European museums and art galleries.

Changchun World Sculpture Park is not the largest on earth, but it’s “one of the largest sculpture parks in China,” according to Dr. Cameron Cartiere, a sculpture and public art specialist at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver.

In three hours circumventing the park’s 11-plus-hectare lake, I saw more than 100 sculptures by artists from five continents. I might have stayed longer if my fingers weren’t freezing.

Changchun isn’t exactly the “City of Sculpture,” as the park’s brochure claims, but if you like contemporary art and you find yourself heading northeast from Beijing, this largely unknown cultural landmark deserves a spot on your itinerary.

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1. 'Peace' by Joseph DeAngelis, Canada

2. Peace

From a distance, this human-sized sculpture of a hand flashing the peace sign doesn’t look all that remarkable.

But a closer look shows the bronze casting is wrapped in metal wires and studded with tiny mechanical gears -- a suggestion, perhaps, that peace is a not just a state of being, but a process.

Another evocative but ambiguous detail is the metal piping protruding from the hand’s base. Has the hand been severed, or is it simply under construction?

2. 'Window of Spring' by Feng Wei and Feng Qiang, China

3. Window of Spring

Spring is a ubiquitous topic at the park, and this sculpture by a team of Changchun artists is one of the more provocative interpretations.

The roughly two-meter-high red rectangle recalls the bright-orange “gates” that the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude famously installed in New York’s Central Park in 2005.

But what’s with the mirror? Is it directing our gaze back to spring, ahead to fall, or upon ourselves?

3. 'The Girl Who Lost Her Kite' by Scott Wampler, United States

4. The Girl Who Lost Her Kite

With its cubist “kite” that rotates in the wind, this sculpture recalls the late Alexander Calder’s “mobiles,” those whimsical and freewheeling metal contraptions that spin on even the slightest air currents.

The difference? Whereas a dozen Calder mobiles can fit into a room of a museum, Scott Wampler’s candy red “girl” is eight metes high and dwarfs everything in her vicinity.

4. 'Security Point' by Jorge Luis Santana, Cuba

5. Security Point

This neon-green sculpture is among the loudest and most colorful pieces in the park. Its title, coupled with its author’s home country, suggests a wry reference to a communist police state.

But the sculpture is also playful -- indeed, if it were palm-sized and plastic, it might be a nice children’s toy.

What is Santana’s sculpture getting at? And what did China’s communist authorities say when he finished it?

5. 'Spirits fountain' by Jesús Moroles, United States

6. Spirits fountain

Moroles, or a Changchun official, has selected a good spot for this sculpture. Its assembly of wiggly concrete “spirits” -- which look a bit like lanky humans -- appears to be engaged in a visual dialog with the trees and apartment blocks filling the backdrop.

Set against the trees branches’ diagonals and the buildings’ verticals, the undulating forms look more animated then they might if set against a bare hillside.

6. 'Friendship Peace Spring' by Ye Yushan, Pan He, Cheng Yunxian, Wang Keqing, Cao Chunsheng

7. Friendship Peace Spring

From a distance, the park’s signature thematic sculpture, “Friendship Peace Spring,” looks vaguely like an Egyptian obelisk, but the concrete pillar is adorned with climbing flowers and scantily clad maidens.

“Highly hold the banner of Peace, Powerfully play the note of Friendship, Gaily greet the beautiful Spring!” a placard declares.

Well, OK. Considering its size -- 29.5 meters -- and all the hype about it in the park brochure, this sculpture was a disappointment.

7. 'The Observer' by Javier Abdala Estable, Uruguay

8. The Observer

“The Observer” begs the question: What has this guy seen? It’s seems from his gnarled ear, lopsided chin and busted eyeglasses that he may have been roughed up for witnessing something he wasn’t supposed to.

Or perhaps that’s just the Uruguayan artist Javier Abdala Estable calling attention to his facial features. Either way, that face draws us in: it’s tough, and weathered, but oddly inviting.

8. 'The Unseen Helper' by Winslow M. Craig, Guyana

9. The Unseen Helper

Winslow M. Craig’s “The Unseen Helper” is a perfect sculpture for winter. Passing by it close to dusk, I nearly overlooked the helper -- a metal figure who is helping a stone figure carry what looks like a heavy sack -- because his or her frame was almost indistinguishable against snow and bare tree branches.

The sculpture, which seems to dignify manual labor, recalls works by José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and other 20th-century Mexican muralists.

9. 'First Sphere' by Guo Huaixing, Changchun

10.First Sphere

“First sphere” is a sculpture by a local artist of a bare-chested man swinging an axe, or perhaps a medieval weapon.

It has been placed in a copse of evergreens, suggesting the guy may be a lumberjack who feels constrained by flannel. It’s unclear where or what the sphere is.

10. 'Extending inspiration of peace' by Mark C. Weisbeck, United States

1. Extending inspiration of peace

Installed on a parking lot-sized stone patio, these somber-looking arches overlook a highway and a valley of bleak, half-finished buildings.

In a sense, the frenetic and un-charming background appears to undermine the tranquility the arches are trying to establish.

It’s interesting to consider how the sculpture would look if set against a more pastoral background -- a mountain range, say, or a field of daisies.

Getting there: Changchun is in Jilin Province 900 kilometers northeast of Beijing. The sculpture park can be found at the south end of Renmin Street, Changchun, China; +86 431 85379001; 20-minute taxi ride from downtown Changchun costs about RMB 25 (US$4).