Ah Xian / China/Australia b.1960 / Metaphysica: Crane on tortoise 2007 / Bronze and brass / 64 x 44 x 22cm / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ah Xian

Ah Xian
Metaphysica: Crane on Tortoise 2007

Not Currently on Display

Cast from life in a lengthy process, each figure in Ah Xian’s ‘Metaphysica’ series is subtly different in patina and expression. Distinguishing each are the items resting atop the heads — objects purchased by the artist from Beijing antique and craft markets or from roadside stalls, and ranging from deities and temples to animals and lamps. The artist describes them as ‘auspicious symbolic objects which reflect what people believe, love, appreciate and enjoy’. Some have a Buddhist influence and some draw from historical or traditional tales, while others are from the artist’s imagination.

In Metaphysica: Crane on Tortoise, the crane, a Chinese symbol of longevity believed to live for 600 years and to carry immortals to heaven, stands on a tortoise, another symbol of longevity and one of the four revered ancient animals.1

Each object holds importance for the artist. He believes the top of the head is the site where ‘our wishes, imaginations, and spiritual souls linger. . .The skull is like a skylight to link our emotions and souls with the imaginative possibilities of the spirit’.2 Like the philosophy of metaphysics, these sculptures joyously explore the nature of existence and imply aspects that lie beyond the physical bodies we inhabit.


1. ST Yeo and Jean Martin, Chinese Blue and White Ceramics, Arts Orientalis, Singapore, 1978, p.303.
2. Ah Xian, artist statement, 2009.

A self-taught painter, Ah Xian began working as a professional artist in China during the 1980s. In early 1989 he visited Australia for the first time for an artistic residency at the University of Tasmania’s School of Art, returning to China only weeks before the confrontations at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.1 The following year, Ah Xian and his artist–brother, Liu Xiao Xian, sought political asylum in Australia.

Ah Xian soon began creating sculptural works, initially using plaster and bandages to depict the trauma in China. Gradually, however, his desire to investigate the history and artistic traditions of his heritage grew strong; it gave impetus to what would become an extraordinary body of work in a unique and unbounded sculptural journey. From porcelain, a material celebrated as an important part of Chinese identity for centuries and exhaustively imitated from outside, Ah Xian began looking to other esteemed materials. These include lacquerware, a highly skilled craft that has been traded since the Han dynasty (206BCE – 220CE); green jade, used since Neolithic times; the laborious technique of cloisonné, revered by the court and by scholars after its introduction during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368); and bronze, the material that helped form civilisation, which defined an age and continues to be heralded as one of the most sophisticated materials, produced in China on an unrivalled scale over history.

In all his experimentation, the human form has remained a central subject in Ah Xian’s work, through which he explores identity, history and human interaction.


1. Suhanya Raffel and Lynne Seear, ‘Human human’ in Ah Xian [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2003, p.9.

Discussion Questions

‘Metaphysica’ forms part of the artist’s wider investigation into understanding and expressing nature and the meaning of art and life. How does Crane on Tortoise reflect these ideas?


Create a portrait of of a person you admire and reflect on aspects of them that capture your imagination. Consider what symbols or objects you associate with this person and combine them with the portrait in interesting ways.