Can you ever really box up the past and take it with you? Sure, you can pack into a suitcase your childhood teddy bear or the photos of you and your friends on your 16th birthday. But what about the past itself: the time elapsed and the spaces in which you grew and slept and dreamed? A remarkable photo captured this week in the central Chinese city of Wuhan shows a historic building that workers are preparing for the herculean trauma of being shifted some 90 metres (300 feet) to the east. It provokes meditation on what is truly moveable in this world and what is not.

The rusted steel scaffolding surrounding the hulking three-storey structure, which once served as the headquarters for a volunteer fire brigade in the early days of the People’s Republic, cocoons the hoisted and stripped-down building like a fragile chrysalis. The scaffold, as an ambiguous symbol of urban ruin and revival, has gained particular potency in an age of unparalleled industrialisation across China. The power of its spare poetry has not been lost on the imagination of one contemporary creator: the Irish-American painter and sculptor Sean Scully, who, in recent months, has become the first major Western abstract artist to tour China’s great museums.

An enormous new sculpture by Scully entitled China Piled Up, when placed side-by-side with this week’s image from Wuhan, teases an unexpected poignancy from the journalistic photo. Scully’s sprawling Corten-steel work, which stretches more than 15 metres (50 feet) across the gallery floor, is comprised of 100 open-frame black boxes stacked irregularly – as if a huge Jenga tower had been knocked on its side.

Like Scully’s abstract canvases of blocks of abutting colour, China Piled Up appears to distill from a dishevelled world a sense of order by pushing the eye to the edges of things. The result is an empty framework that appears to preserve not the material substance of the past – not the physical building inside the delicate casing of the scaffold – but something far more precious: the time in which we remember being alive in the world. To walk around Scully’s sculpture is to gaze into a mystically elusive dimension that appears ceaselessly to widen and narrow, to welcome and repel: a space, in other words, not unlike life itself.

100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age by Kelly Grovier is published by Thames & Hudson.

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