Bryson Hsiang Darnel’s Dystopia

The story behind Western art alumnus’ latest sculpture show

Roberta Marquette-Strain / Senior Staff Writer

Darnel's sculpture 8/20/1966. Photo by Roberta Marquette-Strain
Darnel’s sculpture 8/20/1966. Photo by Roberta Marquette-Strain

Bryson Hsiang Darnel’s sculpture “8/20/1966 depicts a metal skeleton breaking through a propaganda-styled poster, its limp hand reaching toward the viewer.There is a story behind that piece and the various other sculptures that the Western art alumnus created for his show Dystopia which was featured in the Quigley Gallery from Sept. 8 – 23. Darnel’s intricate sculptures were inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution that officially began in August of 1966. The show was an extension of Darnel’s senior show of the same name.

The revolution was a result of China’s communist leader Mao Zedong’s movement to dispose of the capitalistic and traditional elements of the culture at the time, known as the “Four Olds” – old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. People were persecuted, temples were destroyed, traditions were lost. The country crumbled under Zedong’s decade-long power.

“I felt there was a dystopic disconnect from it,” Darnel said.

In Darnel’s representation of Foo Dogs, or Chinese guardian lions, there are pieces of wood material weaved throughout the wire sculpture. For Darnel, the wooden details are supposed to represent the broken symbols that will never be complete again following the revolution.  

“[Zedong’s followers] destroyed temples and smashed antiques,” Darnel explained. “And after [the revolution] they were trying to get that back, but they can’t.”

In his own words, Darnel described China’s state of dystopia as a “disillusionment of a culture or a society of current affairs and events that are done on the basis that it is for the betterment of the people.”

Darnel never meant to find himself exploring his artistic connection to the Cultural Revolution or the Asian culture, but he has found himself dedicated to this inspired art for the past seven years.

Darnel's depiction of the Foo Dogs, or Chinese Guard Lions. Photo by Roberta Marquette-Strain
Darnel’s depiction of the Foo Dogs, or Chinese Guard Lions. Photo by Roberta Marquette-Strain

The sculptor said he has never felt connected to the Asian culture, even though he was born to an Asian mother who moved to America when she was 12. “At that time, once you became an American, you didn’t speak Chinese, you didn’t talk about China. You were an American,” he said. But Darnel always found Asian themes being created though his art, he saw it as a longing to somehow connect to that culture.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Darnel began preparing for his senior art show at Western that he decided to dig deeper into the culture, after being encouraged by his professor, Dr. Al Caniff.

Darnel always tried to avoid creating work just focused on Asian themes to avoid appropriation, so Dr. Caniff told him to research the culture to have a firm understanding,

“So I started to research it, and I researched it to death,” Darnel said. “I expected to find dragons and happy things, but I ran into a lot of things that were disappointing.”

Darnel began to explore the topic deeper and reached out to his mother’s side of the family for more information. However, Darnel had no success because they were not willing to talk about the past mistakes of their culture.

So Darnel’s research fell on his shoulders. He learned of the pain the nation felt and the trauma its people had to go through, and through his research, various Dystopia pieces were born.

After his senior art show, Darnel continued to learn more about the revolution and create more sculptures inspired by it, but he also was able to discover a little bit about himself in the seven years.

Bryson Hsiang Darnel outside of the new Quigley Gallery where his show Dystopia was featured.
Bryson Hsiang Darnel outside of the new Quigley Gallery where his show Dystopia was featured.


“[Dystopia] is a body of work that was an expression of self, but didn’t start out that way,” Darnel explained. By thoroughly researching the Asian culture and its low points, Darnel learned more about his history and discovered why he was always so intrigued by the Asian aesthetic.

Dystopia closed Sept. 23 and Darnel thinks that he most likely is done with pursuing the style of work inspired by the Cultural Revolution as well.

“I feel like I’ve taken it to where I need it to be,” Darnel said. “It was something I did to explore myself to start with and I feel like I’ve answered a lot now.”

So like any true artist, Darnel is walking away from his dystopic world with a better understanding of his art and himself.