[“All that is solid melts into air” installation, ShanghArt H-Space, 2012]
Text by Lee Ambrozy / First published in ArtAsiaPacific, Issue 80, Sept/Oct 2012.
It is mid-summer in Shanghai. Shi Qing unlocks the door to ShanghArt’s H-Space and small armies of mosquitoes flock to us. Inside the sunless room, the air is humid and heavy with the smell of the overgrown botanical life—all to be expected from a sunless room filled with plants for a month. This is Shi Qing’s latest exhibition, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air,” a garden of potted plants and geometric sculptures made of raw construction materials, resting on wooden shipping pallets. On the exhibition’s last day, it is now a wilting panorama flecked with neon colors from fluorescent tubes placed inside cardboard boxes, and several sporadic spray-painted Styrofoam scholar’s rocks nestled in the foliage.
Shi Qing’s installations tend to intrigue, or repel, audiences. Born in Mongolia in 1969, he began exhibiting in the late 1990s with the group of artists behind the “Post-Sense Sensibility” exhibition in Beijing (among them Qiu Zhijie, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu) and is currently based in Shanghai. Of modest height, Shi Qing wears boxy-framed glasses, has a sincere demeanor and a penchant for serious discussion. Drawing heavily from critical theory and modern art history, his research-based creative process has traversed documentary film, photography, performance and installation. His latest works resist the label of “art objects,” yet their forms borrow heavily from Modernism.
Reflecting on art history’s local and global narratives, Shi takes on invisible structures such as political economies, belief systems, collective behaviors, and institutionalization, challenging the assumptions supporting them. He sees art production as more than the fabrication of final material objects: to many, he is a prolific intellectual worker, blogging and Weibo-ing with zeal.
Addressing the global economic crisis in his 2009 exhibition “Halfway House,” Shi raised questions about how a nation could pause to reflect on alternative models for social and economic development. His own answers came from exploring local histories. Using his family’s standard-issue furniture from work-units of the “New China” era, he built model factory buildings to the same proportions as the family sofa, bed, bookshelf and other furnishings. These models were lit from inside with neon bulbs and then laid out in a typical factory floor plan. In the same exhibition, Farm (2009) was a wooden greenhouse constructed according to the size of a standard apartment balcony, inside of which he arranged vegetables and even a rooster, recalling the urban farms that were common in the 1970s and 1980s. By looking into the past, he proposed potential alternatives to the present “capitalist” model.
Shi’s references to Chinese traditional art, blended with Western modernist styles, read like an attempt to converge two art-historical trajectories that have hitherto been divorced. For instance, in the sculptural installation Not Long Enough (2010), he mimicked post-minimalist quadrilateral forms with plywood, coating them with a yeast mixture pigmented with Chinese ink, and lit them with white fluorescent tubes arranged in specific angles around the bubbling masses.
At the end of 2010, he held a small exhibition in his studio titled “Bird and Flower Painting for the Proletariat.” The vernacular of the bird and flower painting genre, once a realm for sentimental musings of the traditional literati, is combined with modernist abstraction in objects otherwise known as industrial waste. The result was a room haphazardly filled with sculptural “mountains” built of rebar, Styrofoam, and sometimes tree branches, all covered in globs of paint and occasionally an artificial bird. In the accompanying series of short, manifesto-like statements, he rejects capitalism’s influence on the scale of contemporary art production and the “auto-institutionalization” he believes it causes.
Here, the use of surplus materials from other production processes served as Shi’s strategy for artistic autonomy. As he wrote of their drippy and layered aesthetic: “The form copies modernist aesthetics, they are hand-made imitations of machine processing; ideas imitating geometry. Nothing is more suitable for imitating minimalism because smooth abstract surfaces are always plagued by the traces of labor…” Considering his working definition of “proletariat”—“here it refers specifically to the empty-handed people within the political order”—Shi Qing seems to see himself as in the same social class, or aligned with, the proletariat.
Despite its title, Plant Republic (2011), an installation at the Guangzhou Museum of Art, did not feature a single piece of vegetation. Instead, the notion of “wild” plant ecologies existing in opposition to systematic social organizations served as an institutional critique. As Shi Qing describes it: you can plan a garden, but you can’t control how the plants will grow.” He sees artistic creativity in the same way––you can build structures to contain artists, but you can’t dictate how they will develop creatively. In Plant Republic, architectural idioms such as porticos, arches and columns were extracted from their contexts, reduced to a lexicon of forms, and then reinterpreted in cardboard and industrial steel. The rough and irregular geometric forms hinted at the human touch involved in their manufacture. Shi’s appropriation of elements from classical structures, which he then renders in cheap industrial materials, can be seen as a gesture that ridicules the nature of ideologies––capitalism, socialism, and even religions are merely collections of ideas or words, which can, like other material components, be deconstructed and rearranged, then discarded.
On one level, the temporary nature of his chosen materials is addressed by the title of his latest solo project at H-Space, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.” This title is taken from Marxist writer Marshal Berman’s book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Modernist Experience (1982), and is a line that Berman, in turn, borrowed from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848).
The installation was realized over a ten-day construction process and based on vague blueprints, it was constructed by the artist himself with the help of a small team. A natural extension of the tropes and ideas he has nurtured over the past few years, the installation featured plywood architectural facades from totalitarian or supremacist societies––all which are no longer extant; 20th-century art historical terms spelled out in both English and Chinese using cardboard signage, what Shi Qing calls “dead words,” such as Letatlin (Vladimir Tatlin’s human-powered flying machine from 1930); and half-finished works or materials brought in from his studio. Shi’s emphasis on process, not outcome, is fundamental to his works, and it deemphasizes the importance of final object itself.
Shi Qing encourages critical approach to art viewing, and does so with formal hints that expose what he calls the “backend” of an exhibition: the deliberate transparency of the installation process, the use of unrefined and inexpensive materials, the inclusion of studio objects, and architectural models that are merely facades. Ambling through the exhibition, there is no front-end, no back-end, just different angles. A tribute to Malevich’s Black Square (1915) in perforated steel hung above a “proletariat bird and flower” sculpture, two lumber posts levered against the floor rest against it––one of the artist’s visual metaphor for “systems.” Nestled among the wilting leaves are art-historical terms such as Gläserne Kette (“glass or crystal chain,” a chain letter that circulated among important German architects from 1919 to 1920) carved into and out of cardboard, some lit from the inside with fluorescent lamps.
Discussing these references from an era when art, architecture and utopian dreams were moving towards the same goal, Shi is matter-of-fact, not wistful. If the wheels adorning the wooden shipping platforms pallets he has integrated into his installation are any hint, he seems to have made peace with the temporary nature of everything surrounding him, from the political and the economic, to art movements and urban development, and even to life itself.
The previous week, one of my oldest and dearest friends sent me the following piece she wrote for her magazine. It’s true that the future holds surprises, but in this piece (titled “the Future”), I was reminded that even the future can move me.
[“Bird and Flower Painting for the Proletariat,” Paintings and Installation, TOP Studios, 2010]
[“Bird and Flower Painting for the Proletariat,” Paintings and Installation, TOP Studios, 2010]
Accompanying his exhibition in 2012, artist Shi Qing published a few statements regarding his thoughts on his “Bird and Flower Painting for the Proletariat.” The following has been translated from Shi Qing’s blog.
Everything here is surplus, produced in the process of making other things, from other “undertakings”, these are not derivative materials, the conceptual relationship with the original artwork is severed. A fork in the road, where the branches are larger, thicker than the trunk.
Once alienated from relations of production (Produktionsverhältnisse), the production scale of contemporary art is a capitalist conspiracy: the creation chain linking concept to production and finally to interpretation is a type of manufacturing system, and art works are but a final product; we shouldn’t criticize the production of materials that can be traded, but art’s relations of production in institutionalized academia. The strategy of using surplus materials is intended to avoid this trap.
One should oppose the institutionalization of artists, which is the beginning of self-institutionalization, concepts have already become the most important tool in this kind of self-institutionalization. It acts as the elite political media, while in fact, is no different from the mass media, these two are parallel. Contemporary art production finally devolves into this type of political relationship: you are consumed by your own creation, which has become a kind of new system that controls you.
The form copies modernist aesthetics, and is a hand-made imitation of machine processes, ideas that imitate geometry. Nothing is more suitable for imitating minimalism because a smooth abstract surface will always be plagued by the traces of labor, I call this “breaking with obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
How do we identify the proletariat in China? Temporarily ignoring previous claims on the term, here it refers specifically to empty-handed people within the political system. Everywhere there are people in the service of temporary organizations and temporary aesthetics, they are unsatisfied, but have no other method.
Bird and Flower paintings, perfunctorily speaking, are the “superfluous emotions” of the literati class. Whether they are relishing their moods, or expressing their aspirations, it is clear that these ruminations are mere side dishes to a principal ideology, but as for the proletariat? However, learning art is a cautious undertaking, like a small interest group, or university for the elderly.
（上述说法排序不分前后; The above statements are in no particular order of importance)
Hadrien de Montferrand Gallery, a French-owned gallery devoted to works on paper, is currently exhibiting sketches from more than 20 iconic works, dating from 1950-1980, all master works in the NAMOC collection. Through the display of preparatory studies and sketches by the artists themselves, the show deconstructs the production methods of art in this unique period of Chinese history, and offers a first-hand look at valuable art historical documents. Here, Hadrien talks about his experiences putting the show together, how he developed his unique approach to historical Chinese works, and reactions from the community of artists. “History in the Making: Sketches for Iconic Paintings” “创造历史：经典绘画手稿” is on display in 798 until late June. See gallery website for details.
[Left,Xiao Feng & Song Ren, sketch for “Dr. Bethune,” 1974; Right: Jin Zhilin, study for “Chairman Mao in the Mass Production Movement,” 1959]
My interest in this period was actually sparked over a dinner conversation with Chen Danqing, where he told me a lot of things about the Mao era, like that the wife of Mao didn’t want the painters to sign the paintings, etc., he gave me some “appetizers” that made me wonder what had happened during this period. So I met the first artist, who talked to me about the period, about how artists were perceived, and I really wanted to do a show about it, because I had never seen anything about it, except for the 60 years of drawings exhibition at CAFAM.
So I met with other artists, perhaps 20-30 artists from this period, and it was first a discussion, I also told them about a show that I might be doing. Eventually I found a logical theme that could bring them all together, the first theme was “portraits.” The first show last year featured portraits from 1955-75, and it was a huge success, in the sense that we really had some very high quality people who came, and the artists were really happy; for many it was also the first time they were shown in a commercial gallery. We really tried to do our best to make it happen in a good way, with a nice catalog, a good exhibition layout.
So after the first show I asked, “what next?”, and our team lined up a few other themes, one was, of course, “landscapes” and the other one was “nature morte,” but at on the top of our list was to feature preparatory sketches for paintings in the national collection. And, yes, we worked for maybe a year and a half, to put together forty drawings or sketches for paintings that are in the Chinese national collection.
Like any work in a gallery, I discovered, it’s really a question of human relationships, people earning your trust and earning the trust of other people. Not just the artists, you also have collectors, the press, and they have to believe what you show and believe in your instincts. I could tell thousands of stories from this year and a half of work …. For example Jin Zhilin has been here many times, we have had wonderful talks, he loves France, it was also these human experiences that really taught me a lot about China.
I think that the families and artists were quite interested to see a foreigner doing this exhibition, and they are really, really close to their drawings. I could sometimes feel that after we would sign the contracts, and when I was taking the drawings out of the house, you could see something in their eyes… as if maybe they had made the biggest mistake of their lives. Sometimes you feel quite bad, but on the other hand, you know that you’re going to do something good for the work.
The Dong Xiwen sketches are actually not allowed to leave China, You have ten artists whose production is not allowed to leave China, like Li Keran, Dong Xiwen, etc. And when I was preparing the show, my only fear was that a Chinese museum director, or someone from the Cultural Bureau would come to see it, and there would be some problems because these works are in a foreign gallery. Not in the sense that “he’s cheating” or breaking the law, my concern was that there may be trouble because this is a French gallery. This was my only fear.
[Sun Xizi, sketch for “In Front of Tiananmen,” 1964]
I think that the role of a gallery is to show what you like, perhaps you like it for its aesthetics, or the historical value. I don’t think that it is our role to analyze what we show. In the case of these two shows, I really thought I should get an historian to help me, or to put together a nice catalog, but I want to keep to my role, and I’m here to show what I like. In the portraits show for example, I’m sure that I missed a lot of great artists—important in terms of art history, or historical value—but I could never put together an exhaustive show with a similar train of thought. So, I decided to focus on showing what I liked, and thus put together a show by making the most of the information I have, or can get. We’ve sent 5 students to the CAFA library to see if these images have ever been published, or if the sketches have ever been exhibited before, we do this kind of research, but research based on fact, not based on analysis.
Of course in the show you have artists who are well known, and I know that its very complicated in terms of their ranking or importance––the head of CAFA is important, the head of China Art Academy also, but how do you position them so? Maybe someone else is the son of whoever… so, shall I do it in alphabetic order, starting with the name of the artist? Should I start my catalog with the name of the painting? In both the gallery and the catalog presentation, we had quite a lot of issues in terms of how to present information in the most logical, fact-based way. We decided to go chronologically in the catalog, with the famous image coming before the sketch—first the painting, then the drawing. I was faced with questions that galleries don’t normally encounter.
Through the process, I think I’ve learned more about history than art history, and the most incredible thing has been meeting really great people, and having them share their history with me. It was really amazing. Also, when we opened the show, most of the artists who are still alive came, and some of them haven’t seen each other in 20 years, even though they even shared rooms in St. Petersburg, etc. When they saw each other again, it was really touching. Really touching. I know for a fact that the artists were really happy with the way things were presented, we had a good mix of artists, in the sense that they all belong on the same level. This would have never have succeeded if there had been two or three artists who weren’t famous at all.
What I often say about sketches and preparatory studies is that the painting is like writing your autobiography, you are writing it knowing that people will read it. Doing sketches is like writing for yourself, it’s like a diary. So you are much closer to the artist that any painting or finer work, because you don’t have a filter, it is much freer.
Interview with Lee Ambrozy; A Chinese version of this interview was posted here, on artforum.com’s Chinese edition.
The Archive of Modern Conflict is a photographic archive based in London and curated by Timothy Prus and Ed Jones. As a part of Caochangdi Photospring 2012, highlights from its collection and a selection of the AMC’s publications are featured in a rare exhibition organized by head of the Beijing office Thomas Sauvin 苏文. Here he discusses his work for the archive in Beijing, the exhibition, and their recent publication, Happy Tonite, which features the work of 12 contemporary Chinese photographers.
[Gordon Earl Adams and his Time Machine, UK, Twentieth Century © Archive of Modern Conflict]
“From 2006-2010 we were focusing on Contemporary Chinese photography, it resulted in the Happy Tonite publication that only showcases a tiny facet of the collection, 75 prints from 12 photographers. The collection now counts 55 Chinese photographers and a little more than 4000 prints. The AMC collects photographers from all over the world, although contemporary works are not the core of the collection.
But the AMC is open to any type of work, as long as it surprises them. I guess the game is how to surprise them. It’s not that easy, as they have been looking at images everyday for 35 years. Photography can be an amazingly boring medium. A lot of Chinese works, especially from the early 2000s, convey some sort of strange, twisted, dirty fairytale style of photography. It’s pretty unnatural, so the game was to put them together and see what happened. The photographers in Happy Tonite are all mixed together, its very hard to tell who took what.
Nein, Onkel: Snapshots From Another Front 1938–1945 is definitely their most important publication, it is actually why the AMC is called so, because in the beginning they were collecting material related to WW2. From 1993-2005 they were gathering private photo albums from German soldiers all around the world, the idea was to challenge the notion popular in that period, the “German killing machine,” and to challenge the collective memory with authentic images from the same period.
The Beijing office of the AMC has a physical space, and I’m pretty proud of it because it finally smells like Panjiayuan in there. I have bought enough dusty books, period publications, photo albums and all kinds of stuff. The archive is not public, but if I had to divide the archive into three branches, there would be the contemporary, which is still growing, period publications (mostly books), and personal photographs and albums. Two albums showing in the exhibition are the PLA clothes factory sample album, and the special effects make up artist.
If we want to build up a visual chain from 1949 to now, the only way to cover 1949-79 is through official propaganda period publications, and one must admit that pretty amazing books were made. A lot of time, money, energy and talent were spent on these huge publications, especially publications in 1959. Martin Parr is focusing on Chinese publications now, he is working with the Dutch photographer Ruben Lundgren in Beijing.
I try to go to Panjiayuan every week, but the main problem with Panjiayuan is that the sellers always think they know what has value. They have great things, but they never show them to me, because, being a foreigner, they think that I’m only obsessed with Mao or the Cultural Revolution, etc. AMC doesn’t try to dig out sensitive material, or to press where it hurts. A lot of people like to do that, especially in photography.
[Beauty and the Fridge (left); Lucha-Libre © Archive of Modern Conflict]
There are no themes that we collect by. We like to have something amorphous. You never know if something is the right thing to collect, but anything that generates an emotion, surprise, nostalgia, melancholy, amusement, is probably worth keeping. Things emerge organically. We don’t have a purpose that we try to illustrate. We try to take interest in all kinds of people and different visual universes. The best photo album I could imagine is by a real estate agent, he’s not an artist, but for years he’s been taking simple snapshots in a hardcore way—what is the price, what is the size (of real estate). I like when images are not taken for an artistic purpose, but when you decontextualize them and put them in such a space, they have another meaning.
We tend to like funny people and funny work, and a little bit of humor is very nice to find in photography. Photographers often try to convey very sad feelings and melancholia, and somehow it’s very hard to find funny work, but people really like it. So if there were one rule, it would be not to take photography too seriously, and not to pay too much attention to technique.
Most important is the history behind the image, and perhaps the great masterpiece of this exhibition is Gordon Earl Adams’ time machine. The images are not spellbinding, but the story behind them is: in the 1920s Adams’ started to build a time machine in his basement, and now both the time machine and the guy are impossible to find. So maybe it worked. We don’t know. I didn’t actually do the research myself, but AMC ended up with this huge manuscript he worked on, a huge photo album and handwritten diagrams based on Indian mythology on which the design of the machine is based. Adams was an engineer, a seeker of spiritual truth, and an unusual character. And that is all that’s left of the story. The machine––and you’ve seen it’s no small machine—and the man disappeared. Nobody seems to know, there are no records in cemeteries, and no one kept the machine. In this case, if you take the images individually they don’t say much, so we also wanted to feature his diagrams prominently in the exhibition. They were maps on how to build the machine, and showing the connection between infinity and eternity, the material universe and spiritual universe, hell and heaven.
Its always very hard to define the archive, the best way is to define what it is not. It is not a photo agency, it’s not a gallery, and it’s not a museum. It doesn’t look like anything we know.
“Photographic Oddities from The Archive of Modern Conflict” is on display from April 14 to May 6, 2012 at Chamber’s Fine Art in Caochangdi. A Chinese version of this interview was posted on artforum.com’s Chinese edition.
I no longer mind 12 hour Air China journeys with no personal mini screen; I can now laugh at the CA flight where I watched “Mamma Mia” three times in a row; and then there’s the horrible in-flight meals…. But I’ll never forgive Air China for not making use of that fabulous new *Norman* Foster airport. Every single time I’ve landed at Beijing’s new T3 with Air China, I’ve never been granted permission to deplane at a proper gate. Even if we stop a few meters from one.
Little Movements [from January 2012 Artforum]
OCT CONTEMPORARY ART TERMINAL OF THE HE XIANGNING ART MUSEUM
“Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art” is an ongoing project initiated by curator and critic Carol Yinghua Lu and her husband, curator and artist Liu Ding. Because the endeavor encompasses so many ideas simultaneously and has appeared in many incarnations, ranging from artworks to publications to exhibitions, its concept is perhaps best approached in terms of what it is not. The “Little Movements” of the title are not political movements, nor are they mini art movements. The practices referred to are not linked by a common ideology, and the curators don’t attempt to draw parallels between them. “Little Movements” is a collection of art practices whose autonomy is itself grounds for inclusion.
Some of the participants are engaged in work that speaks to the general public, such as the e-flux project unitednationsplaza, but others address very specific contexts. The “Zhuhai Meeting” organized by Wang Guangyi and Shu Qun in 1986 exemplifies this: Laying the groundwork for the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition, this gathering brought together avant-garde groups across China to discuss their nascent practices for the first time. Represented here by a detailed chart of the participants and a 1986 newspaper report displayed like a relic in a glass case, it provides a necessary counterpoint to the fetishization and mythologizing of the birth of the Chinese avant-garde.
As an extension of Liu’s series of “Conversations,” 2010–, in which private discussions with artists, curators, and critics were recorded and then exhibited in the form of written, photographic, and sound documentation, the contemporary participants in “Little Movements” are featured in video-recorded roundtable discussions, one for each group, with the two curators, assistant curator Su Wei, and several others. In this exhibition, these recorded conversations were presented along with photographs and other documents. These discussions, recording the curators’ attempt to capture what they call a “spirit of self-practice” in art today, explore how each group in “Little Movements” maintains a sustained sense of self-questioning and reflexivity that allows it to exist in a self-sufficient enclave.
The curators seem concerned primarily with how new value systems can be established independently of existing power structures and, ultimately, how self-reflexive practice can engender new creative directions. Yet working within existing power structures wouldn’t disqualify these varied art practitioners from being seen as autonomous or critical. And though it includes artists’ groups ranging from Beijing’s HomeShop to Copenhagen Free University, the exhibition does not purport to be an all-encompassing examination of collectives today. In fact, Lu and Liu reject the notion of linear history altogether, as well as any pretense of objective methodological investigation; as the curators informally stated, the artists involved here are simply some of those they have come in contact with through their travels. But such a naked subjectivity, as it gains momentum and inevitably snowballs toward self-institutionalization, seems to come with its own trappings of power. How will “Little Movements” maintain the continuous critical self-inquiry and reflexivity that it esteems?
Although a museum show on the Chinese mainland (as opposed to Hong Kong) necessarily eschews overt politics, the curators seem to have subversive goals, searching for alternatives to existing art-world power structures or historical narratives, yet they are awkwardly aware of the pitfalls of establishing anything in its place. “The Anxiety of Self-Definition,” one of the four broad categories of “Little Movements,” encapsulates the ambiguity surrounding the exhibition itself, a work in progress, one that resists classification. (The other categories are “Individual Systems,” “Away from the Crowds: Unexpected Encounters,” and “What Is Knowledge.”) The exhibition at OCT was more like a tool kit than organized research, charting a loose theoretical framework that informs art practice, but is defined only through outside references. This collection of movements seems poised to legitimize certain practices, or to give way to something else entirely.
…spotted in 798. Some good things can get better.
中国美术馆｜NATIONAL ART MUSEUM OF CHINA (2011.08.21–2011.09.07)
(Chinese version is posted on artforum.com.cn, 中文版 here）
[马秋莎 Ma Qiusha，Ashes to Ashes，2011，single channel video，3′15″]
The Taikang Collection’s vision for a corporate art collection in China occupied the entire third floor at China’s national art gallery (NAMOC) for two weeks late this summer. Collection shows don’t always provide much to speak of in a critical sense, but the much talked about and rigorous programming at Taikang Space in Caochangdi has been generous in facilitating discussion on emerging artists and experimental practices, so the show was widely anticipated by art professionals.No small number of touchstone works in modern/contemporary art history are currently entrusted to the Taikang collection, and the selection of works displayed here dropped all the most recognizable names of the contemporary market, while nodding to the art historical key points that have come to embody the general narrative on China’s evolving avantgarde. But the show pushes the beginning of its story into the mid-1960s, or earlier, predating the conventional citing of 1978 as the “birth” of Chinese contemporary art.
Xiao Lu’s twin phonebooth installation, Dialogue 《对话》, scene of the notoriously over-cited gunshot performance from the 1989 China Avantgarde exhibition significantly makes a return to the scene of the crime. The work is now unequivocally attributed to Xiao Lu alone, her co-conspirator Tang Song left off the roster, makes for an interesting bit of historical revisionism twenty years after the fact. It might have caused most discomfort for museum director Fan Di’an, who was rumored to have nervously sidestepped the piece at the opening, on display in the NAMOC again Dialogue was an underwhelming and static reincarnation. This art world “incident,” although important, has received so much exposure via media and critics that it has tragically overshadowed other works that from the same historical exhibiton. Nearby, that surrealistic canvas that has become the visual manifestation of the enlightenment of the mid-eighties, The Enlightenment of Adam and Eve 《在新时代——亚当夏娃的启示》(1985), by Meng Luding and Zhang Qun, hangs behind a glass frame. It is in good company, with works by Chen Yifei and Wu Guanzhong.
[吴印咸 Wu Yinxian, Building Enterprises Under Hard Conditions《艰苦创业》, 1942, B&W photo]
Rarely included amongst “contemporary” narratives are two icons from the xinzhongguo meishu, or Maoist, era: the first is Jin Shangyi’s Full Length Portrait of Chairman Mao 《毛主席全身像》 (1966), its celebrity status matched only by the 1942 print from Yan’an documentarian and photography master Wu Yinxian. Wu’s Building Enterprises Under Hard Conditions《艰苦创业》 is arguably the most recognizable image of Mao from the Yan’an years, and was significantly captured during the Talks on Literature and the Arts. Despite what feels like a vast psychological barrier between works from the 1960s and today, it subliminally suggests that the talks are still important to art production today. The reiterative display of Mao’s portrait in this broader context made for a curious, if not explicitly self-reflexive exercise in historical reflection. There is a feeling that the exhibition has created a peculiar historical space by making a fold in history from the cultural revolution to the contemporary, many issues were lost in the fold, forgotten, but we seem to be standing where the two ends meet.
While it was disappointing not to see more of the collection’s early works on display, or artworks outside familiar market-driven narratives, the show does provide an important opportunity for such a collection to interact with the general public. Not only does it introducing to the general public a sense of corporate cultural responsibility, its unique success is in providing non-art saavy, average citizens with the possibility of seeing contemporary art as the equivalent to Wu Yinxian’s portrait, or Jiang Zhaohe’s From Now, The Chinese People Have Stood Up 《中国人民从此站起来了》 (1949).Conservatives are likely to dismiss “contemporary art” because it exists in uncharted territories and outside the “approved canon,” but here, they are quietly introduced to some of the most avantgarde trends in the art world, direct from distant Heiqiao artist studios on Beijing’s peripheries well outside the 5th ring road. Doubtless, few casual visitors will critically examine whether or not the juxtaposition of red classics with contemporary art implies the latter are “good” or meaningful works within the “new” tradition of Chinese art (after 1949), but what other occasion might we have reason for Chen Yifei’s Eulogy of the Yellow River《黄河颂》 (1972) displayed alongside Zhao Zhao’s 5113 rat droppings?
On the last Sunday of its opening, most visitors did not linger in the first room, “Revolution and Enlightenment,” where the benchmarks of history are proudly displayed (although they are perhaps familiar only to “specialist” visitors); nor did visitors linger in the second room, “Pluralistic Patterns,” where calling cards from almost all the “super star” artists are dropped such as Wang Guangyi, Cai Guo-qiang or Huang Yongping. Although, in this room the “most photogenic artwork award” goes to Hong Hao and Yan Lei’s conceptual work Taikang Project 《泰康计划》 (2006). Here children were posed, and adults postured themselves before the enormous recreation of Van Gogh’s Ward in the Hospital in Arles (1889), (into which Hong Hao and Yan Lei inserted their own visages a la Van Gogh self-portraits), visitors carefully framed their snapshots to exclude the life insurance documents that occupy the right half of the enormous baroque frame. It looked like a “masterpiece,” and here it was in the museum, so it proved itself worthy of photographing one’s self infront of it––is this a shanzhai version of the Western art historical canon? Perhaps the irony of this display, the naïve appropriation of Western works by casual audiences, was anticipated by they artists when they first exhibited the work in the small Taikang Gallery in 2006.
[ 肖鲁 Xiao Lu,《对话》Dialogue, 1989, 2011 installation at NAMOC ]
This last room “Extended Vision” is filled with a selection of artists from Taikang’s 2010 to 2011 “51m2” young artist series, and represents the close of the Taikang story. Perhaps it was the mundane nature of digital video, or the habitualized captivation by flickering screens, but in this last room viewers were enthralled by two works. First was Liu Chuang’s Untitled (Dancing Partner)《无题（舞伴）》 (2011), a video of two cars traveling in perfect company, side-by-side on Beijing’s ring roads, never speeding, never slowing, but dictating the flow of traffic around them through this simple gesture of solidarity. The next was Ma Qiusha’s large screen projection of Ashes to Ashes《黎明是黄昏的灰烬》 (2011), although hers is a provocative treatment of this celebrated state iconology, viewers lingered comfortably before the floor to ceiling screen. Adults were rapt, and children danced, projecting themselves as shadows onto the familiar streets and the bullhorn-laden lampposts surrounding the square. Rendered in this “contemporary mode,” and with a distinct criticality, the political heart of contemporary China still has the power to mesmerize, even if the context has completely changed.
There is distance from A to B.
From turning on the switch to the light going on is a distance. Electricity arrives in its own speed. This notion of speed captivates me and there is a beautiful sensation in it.
I arrive in my own speed from scratch line to end point.
What is the connection between these speeds?
I attempt through my own speed to feel and catch the speed of electricity. I don’t compete with electricity but I try to find an intersection between my speed and the speed of electricity.
The following are images from Hu Qiangxian’s performance at Shanghai’s Rockbund Museum of Art on August 6th, a part of the “Taking the Stage Over” series, curated by Biljana Ciric. All photos are courtesy of the curator, to read more about the year-long series, check here.
It’s clear, the light illuminates even before he has taken his first step. The action of so ferociously attempting this futile race against electricity exhibits a strength that seems increasingly admirable in our age of apocalyptic fear-mongering.
It seems to be the epitome of what I find fascinating about Guangzhou artists in comparison to Beijing artists. Painter and intellectual Chen Tong, founder of Libreria Borges, calls it the “acte gratuite” (无动机）after Duchamp, and in her article “Accidental Conceptualism,” (e-flux) independent curator Carol Yinghua Lu uses a similar tone to discuss Hu Xiangqian’s controversial work, The Sun (2008), in which the artist tans himself over a consecutive two months, stopping at “the point at which he became a black-skinned man.”
In “I Am Your Night,” Zhao Yao’s latest exhibition, a series of childishly bright and geometric paintings ironically titled “A Painting of Thought” (all works 2011) mock the profundity of a rising undercurrent of young canvas-favoring Conceptual artists who work in Beijing today. Indeed, many of these artists have shown at the same gallery that Zhao now fills with dripping wire and spiked wood constructions, televisions that come alive at the sound of a tongue clicking, and his so-called “thoughtful” paintings, copied directly from optical teasers and perception puzzles onto tartan cloth. His ugly aesthetic and holistic approach to the gallery represent an almost magical attempt to puncture the sanctity of the exhibition space and demystify the painting process.He focuses his subversive energies on challenging the validity of painting and confounding viewer expectations. The exhibition envelops visitors like a constructed “situation” in the vein of Guy Debord: Here, amid the tangle of screaming sculptures, critical self-awareness is encapsulated by text spelling out the exclamation AAAH, a single repeated Chinese character that crisscrosses the floor in long diagonals.Zhao believes in the importance of the artist’s hand, having executed all the works himself, although his coarse technical choices demonstrate a rejection of fine handiwork or painterly processes and their correspondingly complex ideologies. But despite the artist’s attempts to disembowel pretenses, as well as the arbitrary impression made by his assemblage, each work is detailed and precise. As can be seen here, Zhao has slunk into a recognizable style, which has caused more established artists to see his art, as his career ascends, as prestidigitation rather than as a true break with the idea of a personal aesthetic.Originally posted at Artforum.com, 中文请按右边的“中文”。
While the art world mourns the detention of one major artist, there seems to be only time enough for distraction. Following their opening at Long March last week, here are some photos of Madein’s corporate headquarters in Shanghai, I hope to follow soon with more on the Physique of Consciousness show, this is just a small primer to say, you have been warned.
[Right inside the main entrance, the ‘VIP waiting lounge’ sports a comfy leather chair; staff work behind the wall with the cloth collage.]
[Looks as if the MadeIn staffers are putting in some long days.]
[Where MadeIn’s felt objects are realized… a crafter’s dream.]
[Piecing together large, tactile collages from a print-out image.]
[“What is the most common site in this nation? Temporary difficulties. What is advantageous about this nation’s institutions? Successfully overcoming difficulties that wouldn’t exist in other social institutions.” Oil on canvas.]
[Small editions of felt creations on sale; this little guy was not priced at $1.]
[Another US dollar makes a cameo, a ‘Dead President’s Coupon,’ MadeIn style.]
8th Shanghai Biennale [from February 2011 Artforum]
The Shanghai Biennale is charged with a significant task: to harmonize the expectations of professional and international audiences with the tastes of a broader local public, all while conforming to Ministry of Culture’s requirements. By the time its eighth incarnation opened last year, the biennial had a reputation as China’s most significant international art show, the most important benchmark for China’s role in the global art-cultural sphere. This prominence was reflected last year in a new opening date, in October, that intentionally distanced the biennial from the commercial influence of the city’s art fair. This incarnation of the event bypassed “foreign” curators; it was curated instead by a team led by Gao Shiming, a young theoretician at the China Academy of Art and a cocurator of “Say Farewell to Post-Colonialism,” the final Guangzhou Triennial (the event is now defunct), in 2008. Gao’s thesis for the show was based on Brechtian notions of theatricality and the idea of the exhibition as a site of cultural production, facilitating multiple possibilities, with the ultimate aim of confronting the discursive dominance of global capitalism. The presiding metaphor of “rehearsal” lent the biennial its title.
[while these sculptures received no critical acclaim, they were prized photo ops]
The strongest feature of “Rehearsal” was, in fact, its theoretical basis—Gao’s earnest attempt to establish new ideas uniquely situated in an ascendant Asia. Also of interest were the preliminary events that took place across geographic-temporal boundaries, including installments in Vietnam and New York (via Performa) and projects with Indian artists and social thinkers as well as the Croatian curatorial collective WHW. The schizophrenic main exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum was arguably the Achilles’ heel of the biennial; here, the clarity of Gao’s curatorial strategy was diluted by incongruent inclusions that can only be explained as results of coexisting agendas less noble than his attempt to advance Chinese art theory in the international sphere.
The exhibition was divided into four “acts.” Act 1, the Ho Chi Minh Trail project, was treated like a star-studded miniseries within the biennial: It involved several artists—among them MadeIn Company (represented by their “CEO,” Xu Zhen), Wu Shanzhuan, Chen Chieh-jen, and Wang Jianwei—walking the historic trail with Gao, discussing theory and collectively examining their own artistic practice in daily struggle sessions. The group of artists presented their artistic-intellectual output in Beijing’s Long March Space last September, and they were allotted the entire first floor in Shanghai, where they showed new works, made for this show, spread across the floor; the surrounding walls were hung with blown-up slogans such as we have yet to thoroughly examine the essence of action and taking on the burden of history is not an act of retracing historical memory, but a restless attempt to position the present in history. Prominent among these works, MadeIn’s forest of found images transferred onto canvas and displayed on wooden pickets made the most sense for me when I spied a visitor smiling for a head shot in front of a canvas painted with a pile of US dollars. Elsewhere, the sprawling polyhedronic wooden armatures of Liu Wei’s Merely a Mistake II, 2010, continued the artist’s formalist aesthetic, although a more striking prequel had previously been installed at the Long March Space.
Raqs Media Collective’s Fragments from a Communist Latento, 2010, neatly encapsulated this biennial’s impotent thrust: In this work, light boxes showing fragmented statements, as an antonym to the manifesto, were displayed in tandem with texts and diagrams contributed by Chinese intellectuals and artists (along with an introduction by Gao), the most fascinating of which was a contribution from Chan Koonchung, the author of the 2009 dystopian science-fiction novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (The Prosperous Time: China 2013). It begins: “Irony with Chinese characteristics—not only could contemporary art play safe by playing ‘revolutionary,’ it could also conveniently become a public relations ally to the official ideology.” His remains the keenest critical observation on “Rehearsal” in any language so far, and it hung in plain view amid the curatorial imbroglio, in English only.
[And this student seemed eager to take notes as well.]
On March 20, the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai threw open its doors on Liu Wei’s solo show, “Trilogy” 《三部曲：刘韡个展》. Who said there were no local art museums? Although I couldn’t make it for the show, and I can’t offer any critical analysis or interesting commentary, I decided, considering the popularity of previous posts on his works, to post the press images that arrived in my inbox. Here’s a link to a (very poorly translated) English press release. Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!
The above installation, “Merely a Mistake” 《仅仅是个错误》gets the gold star prize from me, find the rest of the images after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »
Late March. Public heat has ceased for eight days now. With concrete walls for insulation, my hands are freezing!It just might be warmer outside….I’ve been doing some research lately, and when I came across this cartoon from the May 1955 issue of Meishu 美术, I thought it should be shared, if only to show how much has remained the same.The title is “Four Seasons in one Building.” When this was drawn, urban dormitory dwellings were under construction en masse, according to the caption, the four season phenomenon was caused by irregular water pipes.I ran into a friend yesterday who hasn’t had hot water in their 15th floor apartment for three days, their building was built in the 90s. I’d rather be cold!At Beijing University, I lived in a dorm room which looked like the 3rd in the cartoon below (ah, Shaoyuan!). Now, as I write to you dear readers, I look like that huddled mass on the first floor, with just my hands sticking out from the folds….
“Hope” in the Beijing springtime…
Ding Ling （1904－1986) was a writer whose career took off in 1927, during the Republican era. She was eventually imprisoned by the Guomindang, who tried to convince her to use her popularity to fight for their cause, which she did not. She eventually escaped and made it to the Communist base at Yenan, where intellecutals were gathering, and she became an important writer advocating, in some cases criticizing the communist organization that had formed there. In this particular instance, she was criticizing the hypocrisy and double standards for women that she saw in Yenan. As to be expected, she was criticized heavily for this, the criticism was her putting women’s rights before the “more important goal” of political rights for the proletariat. She was sent away for re-education from the peasants. So much still rings true today. (To switch between Chinese and English versions, click language preferenceat right)
When will it no longer be necessary to attach special importance to the word ‘woman,’ and to give it special attention?
Each year this day comes round. Every year on this day, meetings are held all over the world and womens’ forces are inspected. Even though Yenan has not been as lively these last two years as in previous years, there is at least always a few people busy at work. And there will certainly be a congress, speeches, telegrams and essays.
Women in Yenan are happier than women elsewhere in China. So much so that many people ask enviously: ‘How can the female comrades become so rosy and fat on millet?’ It doesn’t seem to surprise anyone that women make up a big proportion of the staff in the hospitals, sanatoria and clinics, but they are inevitably the subject of conversation, as a fascinating problem, on every conceivable occasion. Moreover, various female comrades often become the target of deserved criticism. These accusations are serious and justifiable.
People are forever interested when women comrades get married, but that is never enough. Female comrades are not allowed to get to friendly with their male comrades, even more so, they cannot become close with more than one. Cartoonists ridicule them: ‘A department head can get married too?’ The poets say: ‘All the leaders in Yenan are horsemen, and none of them are artists. In Yenan it’s impossible for an artist to find a pretty girlfriend.’ But in other situations they are lectured: ‘Damn it, you look down on us old cadres and say we’re country bumpkins. But if it wasn’t for us country bumpkins, you’d never be in Yenan eating millet!’ But women invariably want to get married. (It’s even more of a sin not to be married, single women are even more of a target for rumours and slanderous gossip.)
Whether he rides horses or wears straw sandles, whether he’s an artist or a supervisor, anyone will do. Women inevitably have children. Such children have their own fates: some are wrapped in soft baby wool and decorated felt to be looked after by governesses. Others are wrapped in soiled cloth and left crying in their parents’ beds, while their parents consume their child bearing allowance. But for this allowance (25 yuan a month, or just over three pounds of pork), many of them would probably never get a taste of meat. Whoever they marry, the fact is, those women who feel compelled to bear children will most likely be publicly derided as ‘Noras who have returned home’. [*] Those women comrades in the position to employ governesses can go out once a week for the most sanitized dance party. Behind their backs will be the most incredible gossip and whispering, as soon as they go somewhere they cause a great stir, and no matter if it is horse riders, those in straw sandals, artists or supervisors, all eyes are glued to them. This has nothing to do with our theories, our doctrines or the speeches given at meetings. We all know this to be a fact, a fact right before our eyes, but it is never mentioned.
It’s the same with divorce. In general there are three conditions to pay attention to when getting married. (1) Political purity; (2) both parties should be more or less the same age and comparable in looks; (3) mutual help. Even though everyone is said to fulfill these conditions—as for (1), there are no open traitors in Yenan; as for (3), you can call anything ‘mutual help’, including darning socks, patching shoes and even feminine comfort—everyone nevertheless makes a grand show of attention to these. And yet, the pretext for divorce is invariably the wife’s political backwardness. I am the first to admit that it is a shame when a man’s wife is not progressive and retards his progress. But let us consider in what sense they are backward. Before marrying, they were inspired by the desire to soar to heavenly heights and lead a life of bitter struggle. They were married partly due to physiological necessity and partly as a response to the sweet talk about ‘mutual help’. Thereupon they are forced to toil away and even becoming ‘Noras returned home’. Afraid of being seen as ‘backward’, those who are a bit more daring rush around begging nurseries to take their children. They ask for abortions, and risk punishment and even death by secretly swallowing potions to induce abortions. But the answer comes back to them: ‘Isn’t giving birth to children also labor? You’re just after an easy life, you want to be in the limelight. After all, what indispensable political work have you performed? Since you are so frightened of having children, and are not willing to take responsibility once you have had them, why did you get married in the first place? No-one forced you to.’ Under these conditions it is impossible for women to escape this destiny of ‘backwardness’. When women capable of working sacrifice their careers for the joys of motherhood, people always sing their praises. But after ten years or so, they have no way of escaping the tragedy of ‘backwardness’ (and divorce). Even from my point of view, as a woman, there is nothing cute about such ‘backward’ elements. Their skin is beginning to wrinkle, their hair is growing thin, and fatigue is robbing them of their last vestiges of attractiveness. Their tragic fate seems self-evident. But whereas in old society, they would probably have been pitied and considered unfortunate, nowadays their tragedy is seen as something self-inflicted and deserved. Aren’t there discussions as to whether divorce should be granted on simply the petition of one party, or on the basis of mutual agreement? In the great majority of cases the husband petitions for divorce. For the wife to do so, she must be leading an immoral life, of course she deserves to be cursed!
I myself am a woman, and I therefore understand the failings of women better than most, but I also have a deeper understanding of their suffering. Women are incapable of transcending the age they live in, of being perfect, or being like iron. They are incapable of resisting all social temptations, or silent oppressions, each has a history of blood and tears, they have experienced great emotions—in elation as in depression, whether engaged in the lone battle of life or drawn into the humdrum stream of life. This is even truer of the female comrades who come to Yenan, and I therefore have much sympathy for those fallen women classified as criminals. What is more, I hope that men, especially those in positions of leadership, and women themselves will consider the mistakes women commit in their social context. It would be better if there were less empty theorizing and more talk about real problems, so that theory and practice are not divorced, and if each Communist Party member were more responsible for his own moral conduct.
But we must also hope for a more from our women comrades, especially those in Yenan. We must encourage ourselves, we must develop a feeling of comraderie.
The world has never seen incompetent people in a position to seize what they need. Therefore, if women want equality, they must first strengthen themselves. I don’t need to say it, and we all understand it. Today there are certain to be people making fine speeches bragging about the need to first acquire political power. I would simply mention a few things that any frontliner, whether a proletarian, a fighter in the war of resistance or a woman, should pay attention to in his or her everyday life:
1. Don’t allow yourself to fall ill. A wild life can at times appear romantic, poetic and attractive, but in today’s conditions it is inappropriate. You are the best keeper of your life. There is nothing more unfortunate than the loss of health. It is closest to your heart. The only thing to do is keep a close watch on it, pay careful attention to it, cherish it.
2. Make yourself happy. Only when you are happy can you be youthful, active, fulfilled, and steadfast in the face of all difficulties; only then will you see your future and know how to enjoy yourself. This sort of happiness is not a life of contentment, but a life of struggle and of advancement. Therefore we should all do some meaningful work each day and some reading, so that each of us is in a position to give something to others. Laziness simply encourages the feeling that life is hollow, feeble and in decay.
3. Use your brain, and make a habit of doing so. Correct any tendency to not think or ponder, or the problem of going with the tides. Before you say or do anything, think whether what you are saying is right, and whether yours is the most suitable way of dealing with the problem, whether it goes against your own principles, and whether you feel you can take responsibility for it. Only then will you be free of any regrets about your actions. This is called acting rationally. It is the best way of avoiding the pitfalls of sweet words and honeyed phrases, of being sidetracked by petty gains, of wasting our emotions and wasting our lives.
4. Be resolved to ‘eat bitterness’ and persevere to the end. Be aware, modern women should identify and cast off all their rosy, compliant illusions. Happiness is taking up struggle in the midst of the raging storm, and not strumming a lute in the moonlight or recite poetry among the blossoms. In the absence of the greatest resolution, it is easy to falter in mid-path. Not suffer is becoming degenerate. The strength to carry on should be nurtured through the quality of one’s ‘perseverance.’ People without great aims and ambitions rarely have the firmness of purpose that does not covet petty advantages or seek a comfortable existence. But only those whose aims and ambitions benefit not the individual, but all of humankind can persevere to the end.
Postscript: On re-reading this article, it seems to me that there is much room for improvement in the passage on what we should expect from women, but because I have to meet a deadline with this manuscript, I have no time to revise it. But I also feel that there are some things which, if said by a leader before a big audience, would probably evoke satisfaction. But when such views are written by a woman, they will probably be discredited. But since I have written them, I offer them as I always intended, for the perusal of those people with similar views.
Printed in Yenan’s Liberation News, March 9, 1942
[*] A reference to the heroine of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a proto-feminist heroine who left home to achieve her freedom.
Last week, at a “regular news conference at the Foreign Ministry, Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman, suggested that some reporters were trying to stir up unrest, not report on it. ‘Law-abiding people will be protected by the law,’ she said. ‘But people who are trying to create trouble in China, I can tell them that they have made the wrong plans.’” (via NYT, read full text here)
Veiled threats from the “ministry” hint that harmony threatens the free world. This means that you too, white journalist, will have to abide by the rules. Or at least appear to abide by them. Covering the career-boosting “China in unrest” story has become even more valuable.
Evan Osnos asked recently on the New Yorker blog, “Is China giving up on Western Rule of Law?” (link here) And physical attacks on foreign journalists in China also hint that this ain’t, and never will be, the proverbial “Kansas.” But while “strolling protests” and other news are afforded major coverage outside the Great Firewall, various ministries quietly assert their point of view through other subtle messages. Here, that point of view is literally with the prominent Pacific-centered political map as a background.
The white lines on a blue field contrast starkly with the red and yellow of the Chinese flag, and the stylized rendering of this map, as well as the unfamiliar projection (most common is the Mercator projection) seems to state the Ministry’s position perfectly. The image above seems the quintessential inclusion of the three primary colors, and against the blue, the flag’s prominent color seems distinctly non-conservative. The red logo on the very center of the podium also looks striking, it seems to be in the cusp of the “bending” African and South American continents. China has rendered itself as a supporter of the developing nations since the 1950s, the theme can be found in both “fine” art and poster arts since 1949. The image the Foreign Ministry projects here is not too different from what we might see at a US, or UN press conference, it seems to suggest we are looking at a power equal, but alternative, to the current world order.
I’ve written briefly on the mathematical symmetry and stern aesthetic in news images from the DPRK (link here), and the stark image above bears a certain resemblance. But to be fair, its symmetric composition should be credited to David Gray for Reuters. Thus, this image is not the product of any “propaganda machine,” although its staged element are surely homegrown. This fact also adds a new, more interesting layer to its analysis––how much of this representation is based on the photographer’s preconceptions of authority as stiff and dictated from the center? But, never having consciously seen other images of this “regular new conference,” I can only make limited comments.
If we take these types of background images seriously (and we have every reason to believe that ALL nations do), it is clear who’s projecting a unique world view.
Read more on journalist restrictions in the IHT here.
The above artwork, taken from Zhou Yi’s blog (that is “Yi” pronounced like hard “e”) seems to encapsulate many central and interlocking themes in my life right now.
In Zhou Yi’s “Brush Diary November” above (first page only, complete version here), “Lao Ai” maintains his likely pose, tweeting from his computer terminal, holding watch at the very spot where he sits for hours every day. Zhou Yi worked as his assistant until he left last year to work on his solo show.
These days, also working on analysis of a recent show that Zhou Yi also participated in, called “Will You Miss Me When I Burn“. This originally brought me to his blog. I have previously mentioned his work on artforum.com, as one of my favorite shows in 2010. A brief discussion of his solo show, “We are all wooden people” can be found in their archive here.
An interview with Zhou Yi on his recent book on Josef Albers’ color theory was also just posted on artforum.com.cn, (Chinese). The book is the first of its kind in Chinese, and he is actually the result of his teaching a unique color-theory class at CAFA.
In June last year, Long March mounted a solo exhibition for MadeIn Co., integral to which was a bit of media trickery. Its been a long time, but I thought it worth to write about here. The show was an interesting ruse best appreciated from within the local art machine.
The press release went out to press folk and mailing lists around the world, its photograph included what looked like a mud statue of Neanderthals mimicking the soviet realist frieze statues that sit outside the Mao mausoleum. It was photographed in a generic art space, with white, lofty ceilings. The image leads you to believe that there will be similarly shocking works, making similarly straightforward statements, on display. (Press release below)
When you walk into the hall, however, instead of epic sculptures, large photographic print images line the wall. The sculpture that expected, is missing, save of its “reproduced” image on the wall.
There are roughly three groups of images, the first look like digital paintings, in a frenetic aesthetic style similar to MadeIn’s fabric collages. A second type creates a double illusion in which classical Western sculptures appear to be sinking into an unstable ground, their “marble” appearance appear almost fleshy by the way their genitals contour to the floor. The third type shows improbable freestanding sculptures, “photographed” in generic, white spaces, and whose believability and existence seems to exist in a grey zone somewhere between the other two. The classical sculptures hint at the cultural mutability of fine arts traditions, the digital paintings invoke the “cheapness” and easily reproducibility of digitized images in a globalized anonymity. The trick with the images is, they are photographs of what purports to be an acrylic painting. (Effects not visible via digital photos.)
《团结化是一个减损的过程多于增益的过程，“忠诚信徒”永远不会觉得完整，永远不会觉得安全。》系列作品4, Solidarity is more a process of loss than a process of gain, “faithful believers” will never feel complete, never feel safe. Series #4, 绘画，布面丙烯，painting, acrylic on canvas, 150*212cm
《一只花花绿绿的巨兽——平民。它不知道自己的力量，只知道绝对服从。》作品 2, A colorful beast––civilian. He doesn’t know his own power, he only knows absolute obedience. #2, 装置，大理石, installation, marble, 140*70*50cm。
These sculptures, according to the oral explanation delivered to me by the gallery, and who we assume complicit to the “work,” were all physically realized, photographed, but then destroyed. Not only do we become suspicious of the photographic “evidence”, somewhere between visual and cultural perceptions, one might further question reality, a theme of Xu Zhen’s work prominent since he cut off the top of Mt. Everest (sorry, Mt. Qomolangma) in 2005.
These images raise interesting questions on the simulacra, authenticity, national stereotypes, and more. I’m sorry that the images here cannot fully capture the meaning of the works, or their environment. Hopefully this short synopsis offers something.
Please note, all image captions, images, press release, are taken from press materials from the exhibition. A few of the image English translations are my own.
《诗是生活的表现，或则说得更好一点，诗就是生活本身。还不仅此，在诗里生活比在现实本身里还显得更是生活。》Poetry is the expression of life, or better put, life is poetry itself. Not only this, living in poetry seems better than reality. 装置，黑色大理石、旋转灯、早餐, installation, black marble, barber shop poles, sunny-side up eggs, 300*500*300cm。
《民主是我们的目标，但国家必须保持稳定》Democracy is our goal, but the country must remain stable， 装置，钢制弹簧、花岗岩，installation, spring steel & granite, 1000*500*500cm
《理论与实际越是矛盾的群众运动，就越是热衷把自己的信仰加诸别人。》In mass exercise, the greater the conflict between theory and reality, the stronger its eagerness to impose beliefs on others, 装置， 蜡、军帽，installation, wax & military caps, 300＊800＊300cm
Master Yoda speaks …
Recently, CCTV aired “footage” of the new Chinese-built J-10 fighter plane. The clip in question, which featured air-to-air missiles destroying a enemy fighter plane, was recognized by some shrewd-eyed movie buffs in China as footage from Top Gun, the 1986 Hollywood blockbuster featuring Tom Cruise. In these final scenes, pictured here in CCTV=Top Gun equivalencies (via the Chosunilbo) Cruise’s F-14 fighter jet destroys a Russian F-5. The footage was quickly pulled from circulation and requests for commentary denied.
This fascinating example of Chinese copyright infringement and corrupted journalistic integrity has been compared in numerous news clips and blogs to the 2007 incident of an illustration of cartoon character Homer Simpson’s x-rayed brain used as an illustration for a scientific article on multiple sclerosis. Both incidents prove that CCTV “borrows” images on a regular basis, both further suspicions about government-backed media’s lack of credibility, and both are quite humorous. The fact that both Homer Simpson and Top Gun are images originating from US popular entertainment brings an end to their similarities.
Without a thorough examination of why the phenomenon of poaching images (and text) occurs, these two extreme examples should be enough to assure us that similar forms of copyright infringement is happening with regularity, but is just not as entertaining for western readers. (The Onion news debacle of 2002 was another hilarious instance.) There must be literally millions of images that been inserted, completely out of context, in countless news reports over hours, months, years of CCTV news. Low operating budgets (unlike those for abalone banquet for officials) preclude the updating of archival footage; on CCTV News last week, the “file” footage aired for a spot on computers was so outdated, I’m impressed they avoided showing floppy discs. This reality of television news is probably another reason why Chinese netizens were so quick to suspect the visually stunning images of this military maneuvering last month––only Hollywood would have a budgets capable of producing such footage. And anyone familiar with Chinese media and toting basic critical thinking skills could deduce that.
Unlike the Top Gun incident, the photo of Homer Simpson could only be earnest humor. There was an image slot in somewhere that needed to be filled, and instead of the trite stock image of a double helix, someone inserted Homer Simpson’s head. You don’t have to be a fan of the Simpson’s to recognize that the x-rayed cartoon of Homer’s brain is not authentic, nor is it scientific. No one “mistook” the image for real, it seems like a good-natured joke from the over-worked, underpaid offices of the Xinhua newsroom. But Top Gun footage is another story.
Compared to web-based media, where one or two individuals can be held responsible (the Homer image also appeared on the English version of Xinhua, much less traffic, different departments than its Chinese-language counterpart), more editors are accountable in the Top Gun footage incident, this was television news, and broadcast to a mainstream Chinese audience.
Whether or not you take stock in the images the news media, Chinese or otherwise, they reflect more than one lazy editor’s decision making, they reflect to some degree the expectations of the audience. And despite the many suspicious viewers who tune into CCTV daily, the simple choice in what news sources chose to pirate belies a shift in viewers’ attitude. Homer Simpson might be that lovable underdog, but Top Gun is awesome military might! They are stealing the master’s guard dog. The message here is rising confidence.
Western commentators on this incident are likely sub-consciously aware of the threat, but do the millions of viewers who saw it really care where the footage came from? For a population accustomed to hidden agendas in the news, all that counts is that Central Television aired it. It could be considered irrelevant whether viewers believe it or not.
The Top Gun incident is brilliant in the sense that it illustrates perfectly how modern China has crafted its image of military might in emulation of the United States. Not the US as its citizens might know it, but the “imagined West,” the one most Chinese know, and that we call Hollywood. Instead of boo-hooing over copyright infringement, or laughing at the silliness of “Chinese ‘journalists’” we should step back, and begin to appreciate ourselves reflected through this crazy lens we helped create.
Belated New Year to all, and apologies for the protracted absence. Lots of travel in the late months of last year, and busy updating artforum.com.cn leaves little time to blog. But hopefully, this spring will afford more time to post, more love from the archives. For now, despite the danger of blocking Sinopop behind the firewall, I’d like to wish sinopop readers a happy new year, 拜年拜年 with this, a most inspiring piece of contemporary folk art, door gods designed by Ai Weiwei’s FAKE office in Caochangdi.
Read about the door gods here, on the Epoch Times site. Truly auspicious protectors for 2011, (protection from censorship and littered with Grass Mudhorses and River Crabs) I’m glad that I hung mine on the inside of my door!
The following are curatorial texts included with the 8th Shanghai Biennale press packet, written by the Curatorial Team. They are unedited, but blue highlights thoughts that raised my eyebrow and made me think, enjoy! For Chinese language original, click on 中文 to the right.
What Is Rehearsal?
A Curatorial Thinking of the 8th Shanghai Biennale
The last two years have witnessed the latest global crisis. As if on cue, almost concurrently, an unprecedented crisis also befell contemporary art on a global scale. This one is no spiritual crisis experienced by modernists in the depths of their individual creativity, but a malarial torpor endemic to today’s world, or alternatively, a malaise of the system – the fact that the creativity of individual artists fails to match that of the system of artistic production, and by a wide margin. Artists cannot rid themselves of the sinking feeling that they are in the system’s employment, made to order by society at large. Everywhere we look, artists are cosplaying their roles. The 8th Shanghai Biennale raises the following question: What is suppressing and constraining the power of the heart in the economic and political context of contemporary art? Is it because of the ‘invisible hand’ of the art world? Or is it because of ‘trends’ in the international art market? Should we blame all the identikit mega-exhibitions worldwide? Or the omni-present mass culture? Artists are becoming more and more constrained and boring and we are dragged into a ‘post-history’ malaise. So how should we describe this state clearly? How can we get out of the dilemma of creation in the context of an art system constituted by seamless and endless international dialogue, mega exhibitions, art fairs and transnational capital? How do we identify the internal frontiers of the ‘art world’ hijacked by global capitalism while we are ourselves part of it? Is contemporary artistic practice capable of generating a new Produktionsverhältnisse – system of production – beyond the throttles of institutional critique and social participation?
The 8th Shanghai Biennale defines itself as a ‘rehearsal’ and as a reflective space of performance. ‘Rehearsal’ is not only a strategy or a special form of exhibition. It’s traveling art and opening to all the audience. ‘Rehearsal’ focuses on the full process of exhibition and on creativity itself. The exhibition hall is not only the medium for the artworks, but also a changing space that can trigger creativity. As Brecht has noted, “Actors in rehearsal do not wish to ‘realize’ an idea. Their task is to awaken and organize the creativity of the other. Rehearsals are experiments, aiming to explore the many possibilities of here and now. The rehearser’s task is to expose all stereotyped, clichéd and habitual solutions.” The ‘rehearsal’ of the 8th Shanghai Biennale is a self-performative act by the art world, a wake up call to itself and an attempt at self-liberation. Rehearsal is wielded against ‘performance’, ‘production’ and ‘discursive practice’. The responsibility of the curators is to differentiate, organize and then mobilize. Today many exhibitions are restricted in the theatre, but for this biennale, the theatre and rehearsal are not only spaces for exhibition, but methods of creation, exhibition and communication. We hope that the biennale will be able to promote interaction between artists. The elements of venue, narration and social participation have become key concepts in contemporary visual art, so we also hope that we can explore these areas in the mode of ‘rehearsal’.
As the space of communication between art and the public, the exhibition is like an enclave transcending everyday reality. It’s located within the quotidian, yet goes beyond it. Its mode of existence is not unlike that of the theatre. The exhibition is the theatre of contemporary art. The exhibition not only reformulates/represents everyday life, but also provides a vehicle for its own representative polity. It is the autonomous region of art, within which artists are also legislators. This is surely the most precious legacy of modernism. But why do artists still harbor doubts about exhibitions, even while they crave the opportunity to exhibit? Why are we still somewhat perplexed by artists’ reliance on them? For artists, the exhibition is fast becoming the primary venue of creativity, hijacking their work and transforming it into something systematized and automated. In the last decade, even institutional critique has become a standard trope in this industrialized art production. Even more worryingly, the exhibition – once art’s autonomous enclave in the public domain – has turned into a hub for production, exposition and consumption of global capital…
On the other hand, if art is indeed ‘an everyday practice’, then where is the need for the exhibition? Art as a social activity is a nexus that connects and shares inter-subjective encounters. It therefore aims to pit the group against the public, neighborhood against propaganda, and the mutating quotidian against ‘pop culture’ – that nebulous construction tailor-made and co-opted by media and the establishment, consisting of almost pure ideology. So, can the exhibition be considered the battleground for this antagonism? Or on the contrary, is exhibition, as art’s autonomous dominion, merely a theme park of little import trapped in the much larger and more real everyday space of social communication?
But the exhibition is not solely intended for communication between disparate subjects. It is not just a space for networking, release or realization. It is primarily a creative space. Read the rest of this entry »
Closing Ai Weiwei’s “seeds” to the public, for which it was intended, was the depressing sterilization of a great art work. (See report from the Independent here.) I’m torn between being a crabby Beijing resident who breathes similarly noxious air every day and says, “they ruined it,” and being a responsible, compassionate person. But looking through my photos of last week’s opening of “Sunflower Seeds,” I realized there was indeed quite a bit of particulate matter kicked up as guests happily crunched on the porcelain seeds. The dust was captured reflected in the flash of my Canon G11.