Jul 19

Fade to Black: Art for Our Fragmented Times

mayongfeng , 13:18 , essay | 品味 , 评论(0) , 引用(0) , 阅读(2821) , Via 本站原创
Maya Kóvskaya, PhD

Theorist David Harvey argues that the condition of post-modernity can be best understood in terms of its expression in the dramatic reorganization of spatio-temporal relations and fragmentation. "Space-time compression," refers to the process by which distances are functionally shorted by the temporal accelerations of social and economic processes made possible by new technologies, particularly those of information and communication. As a result of this condition, increasingly, we live in turbulent, rapidly changing, often bewildering world, where old roles and ways of being no longer function to provide stability and old unifying myths no longer condense our complex realities in convincing ways. In these fragmented times, now more than ever, we need an art that offers not only a mirror in which to see the perplexing and polyvalent status quo, but also transforms our understandings of ourselves, giving us new ways to visualize who we are and can be. Explorations of the lived quotidian connections between the social and the individual, the macro and the micro, and the global and the local, are the sorts of inquiries that characterize the most important contemporary art in today’s China.

Much ado has been made in recent years about trendy auction house darlings such as Big Head oil paintings that range from the "Cynical Realism" and "Political Pop" of the 1990s and the tacky cartoonish images of drooling cutesy girls and exaggerated, stylized icons that facilitate commercial branding strategies for galleries and artists alike. Critics in China have also often made their names by coining catchy labels for so-called art movements or trends, such as Cartoon Generation, Gaudy Art, Hurt Art, as well as those named above. Indeed, the Chinese contemporary art forms most familiar to Westerners are the genres such as that often consciously manipulate foreigners' desire for a "sexy" Chinese art that hints at disaffectation, using the same tired Cultural Revolution imagery, pretty exoticized "Oriental Girls," and slick, stylized figures, stock symbols and "big heads" ad nauseam. Yet this sort of iconography fails to offer critical optics for understanding the human condition, at best reflecting vulgar contemporary realities rather than critiquing and questioning them.

Offering an alternative to the easy labels and empty categories, the most relevant and interesting art in China today scrutinizes the complex, fragmented and multifaceted nature of contemporary China as the nation and its people undergo profound transformation. The art works presented in the exhibition Fade to Black (黑屏) reject simple 1+1 visual slogans and easy formulas. They were selected not only for their visual and aesthetic appeal, but also for their breadth and scope. Long after yesterday's fads have given way to tomorrow's trends, it will be the rich and varied works that speak to the fragmentation and disorientating predicaments of our time will have lasting value and relevance. Works that have the power to illuminate facets of the human condition, giving us visual and conceptual tools for understanding not just China as a nation, but also for interrogating the place of us human beings ourselves in this world of rapid and destabilizing transmutation, are the works that will ultimately last and matter.

Through works by He Yunchang, Ma Yongfeng, Shao Yinong & Mu Chen, Wu Chengdian, and Wang Qingsong, Fade to Black rejecting neat labels, pat answers and gimcrack gimmicks in favor of complexity, richness and diversity in this era of transnational flows of people, culture and capital, localized globalization, and so-called "modernization.”

He Yunchang

One major form of fragmentation from which we are suffering is the rupture of our relationship to nature. He Yunchang's (Ah Chang) performance art work and performance photography, take meditations on self-making through our engagement with the nature or humanly made constructions to extremes. While many have interpreted his works to be exercises in corporeal endurance, the more powerful aspect of his work involves his joyful acts of will in the world. Combining aspects of Quixotic struggle to "fight the unbeatable foe," he grapples with our nature and the limits of our powers, and expresses a joie de vive and life-embracing ethos in the process of attempting the impossible. Noteworthy performances include his attempts to move mountains, by literally hitching himself to the earth and pulling in the direction of its rotation for a specified time, his famous phone call to tomorrow, or attempt to out-drink a hundred people in a row.

Particularly salient are his signature pieces Beyond Tianshan (Beyond Mountains and Sky), "Dialogue with Water" and "Golden Sunshine." In the “Beyond Tianshan,” he quixotically tries to push a huge concrete structure that is in the process of exploding. In “Dialogue” he is hung upside down from a crane over the river in Yunnan. His shoulders have been sliced open and he is bleeding. He holds a knife made of ice and for twenty-some minutes he communicates with the water, seemingly imposing his will on nature by "cutting the river in half." Of course the irony and beauty is that, as the river reclaims the melting knife, we see the futility of this attempt and the resilient power of the natural world in the face of our attempts to subjugate it to our will. There is a kind of reverence for that power in this work that calls upon our humility.

In Golden Sunshine, once again hung from a crane, this time painted yellow, Ah Chang brought light to a place where it was needed—a prison wall. After painting the wall the color of sunshine, he used a mirror to deflect rays of light, as he followed the path of the sun, onto the places on the prison wall where the sun did not shine. The love in this gesture reminds us that there are ways in which our presence in the world can fundamentally alter the environment around us and make use of nature's resources without violence or exploitation.

In a recent major performance piece, A Stone’s Journey, He Yunchang engaged in a remarkable journey around the coastline of English with a stone in hand. The endurance he performed in this piece was more subtle than some of his exercises in enduring pain or confinement, and this return to a dialogue with nature, marks an important continuity in his language and expressive forms.

Ma Yongfeng

Ma Yongfeng’s work engages the condition of postmodernity by interrogating the signs we use to represent who we are to ourselves as well as our simulacra of nature. Exploring how the artifacts representing the "natural" world can tell us more about ourselves than about that putative “nature,” Ma Yongfeng's works examine our relationship to and discourses about nature. He deftly shows how the artifacts representing the "natural" world can teach us about ourselves—perhaps more so even than about nature. With his meticulous photographic and video reconstructions of a variety of scientific models—such as cells, fossils, habitats, storms and the like—he shows how our relationships to "nature" and the "natural" world play a role in constituting how we understand ourselves and our society. His video Beijing Zoological Garden uses the round-frame of traditional Chinese Song Dynasty "bird and flower" palace paintings, to both aestheticize and criticize the suffering of animals kept in captivity for human entertainment. The zoo is a site of dislocation for its inhabitants and extreme power inequality between the keepers and their animal charges. These disturbing and hypnotic pieces expose routinized, aestheticized violence and suffering, the casual objectification and wanton abuse of other lives, and reveal a sense of estranged agency, as well as hinting at the futility of resistance in our contemporary society.

By highlighting the difficulty, or even futility of resistance to processes that seem to control our lives, Ma Yongfeng’s video work, The Swirl, critiques society by indirection. Examining the apparent power of exogenous "forces" or seemingly "autonomous processes" to move us and our lives to rhythms beyond our will, he presents a disturbing scene in order to provoke us to think about the order of things, and the limits of our powers within it. The Swirl has generated controversy over its use of six live goldfish, Chinese symbols of fertility and prosperity, which are subjected to a brutal 15-minute wash cycle in an upright washing machine. The work has prompted much discussion (mainly outside of China) about the ethical implications of the callous abuse of animals in the name of art. And perhaps, inciting such controversy was part of the artist's agenda, asking us to rethink our relationships to the natural world.

In Ma Yongfeng's photography series, Origin of the Species, he photographed the fake "natural habitats" created for birds, monkeys and other animals at the zoo. These with sad spaces are either empty or house only the skeletons of their former inhabitants. The painted waterfalls on concrete (painted for whom, we might ask, but the visitors at the zoo themselves) and dry sticks that serve as branches so the birds can perch, the artist has removed all traces of the animals themselves. This artistic fiat that has emptied the cages, foregrounds the invisible hands that have built these miserable spaces, these shabby simulacra of habitats—they are our hands. These spaces were built for us, as part of the collective narratives we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the world. By removing the animals, our true motives are presented without euphemism. Without the animals to animate these spaces with their gay colors and lively movements, the meagerness of our own representations and simulacra of nature is laid bare, and the skeletons of monkeys swinging on a tree, leave us with a chilling feeling. They could just as easily be us.

Shao Minong & Mu Chen

A way of life is irretrievably passing, as the conditions of postmodernity bring with bewildering changes. Long before people have a chance to react to these changes, to catch up, to make sense of the nature of the new world being formed around them, that world has changed once again. And so, collective memories, old ways of life, sets of roles and socially constructed identities begin to fade. Professions, identities and social roles are shaken from the solid foundations. Social and geographic mobility, along with changing economic fortunes, break down the traditional structure of family life and erode old forms of association and collective membership.

Using a wide selection of family photos, old and new, such as snapshots from home, typical studio portraits, Shao Yinong and Mu Chen create a richly nuanced, intertextual visual narrative about the vicissitudes of the family in contemporary China as it undergoes great social change. In the Red Childhood works, they offer poignant portraits of school children, their faces and attire rendered in overly bright colors. In Childhood Impressions (2001), naked, innocent children are photoshopped onto backgrounds of iconic edifices that symbolize various moments in China’s history.

In their Family Register (2000), we see the diversity and fragmentation of postmodernity, as well as the impact of space-time compression on the everyday lives and identities of lives of ordinary family members. Using the form of a traditional scroll to present the genealogy of the Shao family, the work documents over 100 members of the Shao family, set against the backdrop of the larger historical changes in Chinese society, from the Cultural Revolution to Reform and Opening, and onward to the dawn of the new millennium. These images, also powerfully explore how memory is constituted through practices that endow certain artifacts of a family’s past with condensed, sedimented meaning. Images become compact visual points of entry into complex lives and relationships, and these images both draw us in to certain narratives as well as lead us away from others, that is, the serve the function of both revealing and concealing simultaneously. In these and many of their other images, the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, functions to show how the passage of time leaves its marks on the lives of ordinary people. Unlike the static images, that freeze a single moment in time and elevate that image to the status of representation of some aspect of that a human life, real, actual lives are always in flux, under way and in transit.

In a different way, their Assembly Hall series documents a similar set of changes at a time when these once central spaces have lost their original power and significance, victims of the changing times. By photographing these iconic meeting places where so much history has taken place—from the grandiose, stirring spaces resounding with the propaganda of various eras and campaigns, to sites of brutal and humiliating struggle sessions—long after the fact, we see in stark relief how out of sync with the tenor of our times these spaces and their activities now seem, making them icons of the historical dislocations and ruptures that characterize this postmodern era.

Wang Qingsong

Wang Qingsong examines the condition of postmodernity in his dramatic and restaging of significant cultural phenomena, and his time-lapse video of urbanization in progress. The conceptual genealogy in Wang Qingsong’s work is evident from his first modest explorations that used simple Photoshop techniques to surround various personae he play with icons of capitalist consumer culture. In his early works, Coke cans formed the bars of a prison, the McDonald's logo a brand on his chest while he mediated. This consistent grounding in the visual vernacular of local Chinese realities as they undergo sometimes bizarre permutations permeates his work through the present. He mediates on a Chinese cabbage, Western products—Marlboro cigarettes, CDs, cell phones, Kodak film—are grasped in his multiple arms like a consumerist Bodhisattva on a globalized shopping spree, with dollars alongside RMB and the Chinese flag fluttering above.

More than simply bemoaning Western cultural imperialism, Wang Qingsong’s optic deconstructs China's complicity in the fraught construction of its superficial new "face." In Follow Me (2003), which broke records at Sotheby's last year, Wang Qingsong poses as a typical English teacher inculcating his students with nationalist Chinglish embodied in the phrase on his blackboard: "Let China walks towards the world! Let the world learns about China!" Disguising himself in the trappings of a variety of prevalent social roles—consumer, beggar, press attaché, pedicab driver hauling a fat white man, wounded soldier crawling through barbed wire to storm a hill crowned with a huge McDonald's sign—he signifies the active agency of Chinese in assimilating outside culture, instead of treating China as a passive victim.

His latest works—elegant, elaborate, staged productions, are a darker take on contemporary cultural realities with greater complexity and ambiguity. In Dream of Migrant (2005), Wang Qingsong's face is hidden behind the camera, but the rich array of local actors present his vision of the ramshackle life of China's millions of migrants. In The Glory of Hope (2007), his meditation on China's national "face," embodied in its hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, does not require us to see the artist's face at all: we see him from the back, hobbled on crutches alongside his family, mired together in mud trying to catch a glimpse of the sun (rising or setting it's hard to tell) on the horizon. In the foreground, the Olympic Rings are etched in the mud, oozing with dank water.

In Wang Qingsong’s recent foray into video art, he captures the pith of China’s overnight transformation in Skyscraper (2008). Morning dawns on a sub-urban, sub-rural area in China, and we watch blue sky grow marred by billowing smoke, coiling in puffs from the smokestacks of low, ramshackle pingfang dwellings. The massive cloud that converges in the firmament above is a hulking harbinger of China’s impending change. Over the course of the next five minutes or so, we watch the landscape transformed as the scaffolding for a gargantuan skyscraper erupts from the earth and thrusts its way towards the heavens—instantiating the logic of postmodern space-time compression in the process. A building of massive proportions appears before our eyes as if overnight, followed by jubilant fireworks, illuminating the darkness to the tune of Silent Night, sung in a syrupy Mandarin. In this work, Wang Qingsong offers this singular edifice as an icon of the larger process of urban construction and the fireworks frame the piece as a celebrated feat of nation-building, in which the dominant paradigm of modernity qua urbanism is unquestioned and feted with much fanfare as a meaningful sign that China’s time has arrived.

Wu Chengdian

Since the onset of Reform and Opening, China’s struggle to construct a viable modernity has been intimately bound up with the dual processes of industrialization and urbanization. The city is a site of desire, and a space in which the vastness of its scope offers an anonymous stage upon which people can remake their identities. At the same time, the postmodern city is also a site of dislocation and alienation. The same conditions that make it possible to disappear into the enormous grid and engage in flexible strategies of self-making, also make it difficult to find one’s bearings, and to know one’s place in the ever-shifting world that is constantly undergoing profound shocks and transformation. Old routines, roles and rules are all thrown into question, and while this is liberating for some, it is also terrifying and fraught with the possibility of failure as well. Even as the city, as an idea is invested with the semantic weight of the desires that its sojourners and inhabitants bring to it, it is also an unyielding, unforgiving behemoth that sprawls beyond the control of any individual. Thus the city and its signifiers are fraught with multiple meanings. Among the most prevalent signifiers of urban modernity, massive “modern” buildings play an extraordinary role in the signification of the city and all that, for which the city has come to stand.

Wu Chengdian’s recent photography works address these conditions of postmodernity in a number of ways. The most salient way his work engages this discourse and this discourse, likewise, informs his creative language is in his use of urban structures in works that span a variety of media.

In one recent series, Wu Chengdian selected a number of iconic structures in Beijing, which represent the idea of the New Beijing. The concept of the New Beijing came into currency after China was awarded the privilege of hosting the 2008 Olympics. In honor of that privilege, China invested untold sums of capital and expended vast human resources in the service of constructing a hypermodern cityscape to give the nation the ultimate “face” when Beijing became the focal point of the international attention during the Olympic Games in 2008. Buildings such as the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, the Aquatic Cube, came to symbolize the officially championed aspirations of the nation—to be affluent, powerful, impressive and seen as cutting edge by the rest of the world. Wu Chengdian’s photography cleverly deconstructs these symbolic structures by refusing to grant them a totalizing presence that transcends discrete perspective. Instead of the sort of portraits that are used to accentuate and affirm the importance of an iconic structure or edifice, he composes a whole image out of hundreds upon hundreds of fragments. Each photograph that joins the larger tableau represents a finite perspective on the structure. This technique serves to cut these gargantuan structures down to size, by deconstructing their status in contemporary Chinese society. Wu Chengdian does the same with images taken from IKEA, which has come to signify the dream of bourgeois domesticity in China.

In his site-specific installation work for Fade to Black, Wu Chengdian explores the theme of alienation within the city, the commodification of sex and desire, as well as the superficial values of the current era. Using life-sized plastic blow-up dolly sex toys, he stages scenes of estrangement and alienation. The image of a blow-up sex doll curled in a ragged hole in the wall, back facing the world outside, leaves a poignant reminder of the human damage that the city and urban modernity can inflict.


Chinese contemporary art has reached a turning point, bringing this diverse generation of Chinese contemporary art to the international stage and acclaim. As rapid urbanization and globalization propel China into a state of postmodern flux, the experiences of the new era are more fragmented and diverse than ever before and the most relevant and progressive art coming out of China reflects and comments upon the diverse and fragmented conditions of postmodernity in ways that illuminate the human condition for us all.




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