A Gift from Heaven
"REQUIEM FOR MATTER"
THE TRANSFORMATION OF MATERIAL BY JIAO XINGTAO
The most complex question in the creation of art is a question of "material" – what particular material(s) to use and what to make of it? If we look at raw material or subject matter as objective subjects or external objects, then the way by which an artist "re-present" objective subjects would entail a conflict between objective materialism and subjective idealism. Realism and Pop Art schools deem themselves "materialists", while Symbolism and Romanticism are viewed as "subjective idealism". Some may believe that objects of art must have meanings and hence, artworks would be re-interpreted and seen as comparisons, inductions, metaphors, metonymies or symbols. But any discussion or interpretation of art as such would very easily infuse the reader’s own subjective conception or turn it into his own personal cynical imagination. Although such subjective interpretation is permitted in reading art, it risks converting art into a form of superficial sociological re-interpretation. Therefore when I read Jiao Xingtao’s sculptures of shopping bags and other "matters" with various markings, brands and labels on them, I did not want to view them as "materialism’ found in ready-made objects in the "Pop" context. For Jiao does not use any readymade or found objects to create his art, nor would he simply "make" a replica of objects by using a simple method of duplication. Instead, he would always apply traditional sculpting techniques and methods to shape those objects to be created, and it is this sense of creation that sets a distance between Jiao and the objects he creates. It is this distance that reflects the relationship between the artist, the objects he creates and their settings. In fact, when an artist sees, regards, ponders and goes further to interpret an object; the subject matter has already been "branded" by the artist’s own marks to become no longer a natural objective matter. I would not want to interject my personal imagination or sociological interpretation on Jiao Xingtao’s works or his "packaged objects" – such as consumerism, the exuberance in materialism or human alienation in a consumer society. Although Jiao might have actually intended to hint through his works such sociological criticisms, any such personal interpretation would only be a superficial analysis of the meanings of Jiao’s works. Similar message can also be found in works by Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol or others, but such interpretation cannot highlight the unique viewpoints and feelings of Jiao towards his objects. Perhaps the question of materialism or idealism as reflected through works of art is an age-old question in the modern world; and such polar separation serves the purpose of labeling the superiority of artists. Be it abstract or realistic, a work of art is always the end product of an artist’s imagination, sight and touch. Postmodernism attempts to enrich objective matters with humanity, but whether objects of art can in fact be enriched with the essence and spirit of contemporary life (as in the readymade or found objective matters used in Pop Art) or enlivened with life-like individuality and discipline (such as post-modern architecture with a focus in its relation with nature or Japan’s Mono-ha school which adopts found or natural materials in the works), either methodology could still only be seen as a polar separation between human and his objects. Traditional Chinese aesthetics emphasizes the interactive relationship between man and nature, thereby projecting spirituality into natural objects, materials and even landscapes. "Requiem for Matter" is an article dedicated to the appreciation and yearning for the spirituality of nature and all things beautiful. The spirituality as such does not belong only to objective matters, nor is it a blessing from idealism; instead, it is resonated in the context in which man, his objects and their environment mingle and intertwine. Such spirituality is not a quality measurable by physical rules, nor has it a still form comprehensible at one single glance. It is but a relationship formed among man, his objects and their environment, in which all components are in constant interaction. And this is what we usually mean by "context". Jiao Xingtao says: "I have always been interested in matters and materials, and have therefore been querying the conventional way of understanding different material’s mass, texture, hardness and etc."1 In other words, Jiao questions the physical attributes of different materials and fancies the life-likevproperties in them. Therefore Jiao would never use found materials in the creation of his work. He would "never feel complete without transforming the material by sculpting it". Transformation in an artistic sense is founded in a spiritual comprehension and experience with the material. Hence, Jiao’s artwork is not merely a re-presentation of objects, but it is the actual realization of his strong desire and execution which perseveres in his transformation of materials with spirituality. Sometimes, Jiao would even pity and sympathize his artworks which have been "branded" unwillingly by him with his marks (which he terms "coercive tattooing"), and feel guilty for his intrusive behavior. Such perception of respect and fear of material is in fact an ode or rite extolling the harmonious relationship between man, his objects and their environment. In ancient China, rituals were a form of laudation to extol the relationship between man and society and man and nature. In such context, sculptures usually appear to be more ritualistic than paintings. Jiao has created in Chongqing city centre the sculpture "Coming and Going" (which displays a large plastic shopping bag). Through the measure, position and contextualization of this art work in Chongqing city centre, Jiao re-presents the self-fulfillment, self-contentment and self-respect of all plastic shopping bags, which not only reflects the characteristics of consumerism in modern China, it also transforms the billions of mass-produced plastic shopping bags as a whole into a monument. By doing so, Jiao restores the spirituality of plastic shopping bags, and at the same time, users of such plastic shopping bags, unknowingly circle around the sculpture "Coming and Going" day and night to take a closer look and in fact pay tribute to such artwork. This is a requiem, a tribute to matter, an object and materialistic idealism. Yet, for the numerous users of plastic shopping bags in the city, their participation in this requiem for matter and tribulation of material may be unconscious — if not compulsive. But for the artist, it is a consciously created "harmonious resonance".
1 A letter from Jiao Xingtao to Gao Minglu dated October 21, 2007.
Text by Gao Minglu