OPEN 11 - 2008
FABLE OF CHEN WENLING
THE FIGHTING AND IMAGINATION IN CONSUMPTION SOCIETY
The cluster of immaterial images when China comes to a consumption society is represented in Chen Wenling’s sculptures. His sculptures adopt an allegorized visualize, which reveals the mental infiltration of the materialism in the 90s to a generation and the Chinese self-condition from that time, and also the common consciousness of post-ideology. The two main themes of Chen Wenling’s sculptures are the manifestations of extreme humanity and immaterial images in a consumption society. His self extreme condition begins from the series of "Red Boy". It is neither realism nor vanguard sculpture, but the self expression of Chen Wenling himself to the critical state of life. For example, dread, gladness, game and fancy are the basic main motivations of his sculpture. This series of the "Red Boy" conveys his experience in an autobiographic form. The sculpture trends in the 90s are mainly the absorption in the Concept Art and the Vanguard Art, which makes the contemporary sculpture to two main lines of realism and vanguard sculpture. But in fact, it’s hard to classify Chen Wenling’s sculptures to either of them. This series of "Red Boy" shows a singular self-condition, and transfer the universal humanistic experience to a kind of allegorized self-form. It has no complicated format and narrative theme, but using a styling color and exceedingly exaggerated body action to display the specific topic estate of humanity. Although the singularity in this form of self-representation doesn’t conclude the concept of vanguard sculpture and the reality of realism, it has a stroking visual glamour which arising from the extremity of the critical state. The series of "Red Boy" symbolized the formation of Chen Wenling’s expressing method. One is the allegorical sculpture forms and the other is the manifestations of extreme humanity. His sculptures show earthly values in extremity, and physically generalized various existence of human like extraordinary joy, isolation, hardship and so on. This expression of happy and pain is not a realistic perspective, but an ideal and ultimate manifestation. It emphasized the absolute self condition when he came to some point. Because of the partiality for extreme spirit, Chen Wenling actually has elevated this condition to a self view which had standard religion color, in order to present his self-condition thoroughly and decrease the elements of conception and narration to its minimum, which employ the soul to amore direct confession. The series of "Red Boy" expresses a kind of oneself and the common humanity; the language of his sculpture is mainly his own physique status, which is to show the self-theme, self-condition and self-expression. The series of "Happy Life" is an important transformation of Chen Wenling’s sculpture career. He changed his self-expression to manifestation of the society and the masses. This change delineates a colony of people’s existence in this consumption society, and the sculpture language is no longer the naive and self-imitational form, but absorbing the elements of folk sculpture, narration and irony style. In "Happy Life", Chen Wenling chooses lovely chubby pig and extremely happy person for his two images to make a fictitious daily life. For example, a couple embraced intimately; a flock of pigs doing handstands like acrobats; a gentleman or a housewife holding a plump pig, with a group of little pigs around; a couple riding on the pig, and the husband, holding a chopper and deeply believing that he was on a horse back facing a war; an extraordinary strong fellow grasping a gigantic pig’s head and fighting with it in mind air and a young hunter riding on the pig back viewing with an archaic long tube telescope are all Chen Wenling’s outstanding works. The people and pigs in Chen Wenling’s sculptures are in a terrific self-condition that they feel an excessive happiness or extremely baroque madness of themselves. In his works, the pigs not only in their actions but also in their self-conditions are highly personated. On the contrary, the persons keep human forms and actions, but their self- condition and mental world are in real pigs’ state. The people and pigs in this series have few differences of each other in posture and inner world. Pigs are close to human and men also to pigs. Actually, this method established a parable relation to the pigs and human beings and the allegory that human are like pigs. On this point, Chen Wenling initiated a symbolized way to express visual form. Loveliness and absolute happiness are the main characters of this series, which are also a chief feature and value orientation of contemporary spiritual states in the 90s when China comes to a consumption society. Although"Happy Life"continued the expression method of personal extreme state like the "Red Boy", it exceeded the self-condition and general humanity, transferring to the manifestation of personal socialized status and human nature of the time. In this series, the interpretation of "Happy Life" is in reality expressed as an extreme but entirely painless optimism. Each pig and person seems to live in a joyful state which has no past or future tone. They tried to make their daily life cute and non-suffering. In form, the series of "Happy Life" has more meaning and seemed more profound than "Red Boy", and it inclined to a social criticism in the theme, because it emphasized on the study of a group. Man and pig joint together. For example, pigs wear clothes like people, and their actions are also reminiscent of people, but people’s bodies are presented with pigs in physicality and materiality. This skill reveals a profound social living condition, behind which he criticizes the ideology in consumer society, like the parochial thought and fetishism in personality. From the middle of the 90s, contemporary sculptures are mainly focus on the characters in the consumption society. For example, Xu Yihui’s works about McDonald’s, box lunch and other commodities, Liu Liguo and Liu Jianhua’s exhibition of body appetite and flowery appearance; Li Zhanyang’s reflection of recreational ground and arrivistes’ life site and so on. The consumption social culture from its culture idea to its inner experience of downfall was regarded as the critical object of irony theme. But such disclosure is mainly limited to a level of the self’s existence and social ideology. On the point of revealing man’s dissimilation and shrink of personality, Chen Wenling’s "Happy Life" is more deepgoing, and truly posts the essence of a group’s spiritual states in this time. "Happy Life" not only exposed the personal essence of a group in this time, but in the language of sculpture also involved many practice both in concept and form. The various formats conclude allegory, narrative sculpture, visual irony, group images and on-location narration. Because he graduated from the Academy of Art and Design, in terms of artistic language, he insists on reforming the folk sculpture to academism, especially learn from the popular postures. Chen Wenling absorbs the comical features of folk figures: for example, fat women, idiotic facial expressions, and puckered lips, which are shown a state of joyous and optimistic in folk Spring Festival pictures and sculptures formerly. This joyous estate was used to show loveliness and painlessness, and in folk custom art, it was essentially an ideality of the bottom people, but in Chen Wenling’s subject, it displayed to an irony of a group’s emotional states. In terms of artistic language, Chen Wenling’s recent artworks are closer to a type of surrealistic legendary language structure, for instance, people are riding on pigs as if they were riding the pre-historic elephant or pre-historic mammals, they seems to be fighting against pigs just like the heroes struggling against dinosaurs. The recent series blurs the directness of the social metaphor, but is inclined to revealing the preposterous being of the self. Form experience is always a crucial part in Chen Wenling’s sculpture practice, so his recent works are more like an art experiment in artistic language. These series departure the sociality of sculpture and the direct criticism of post-ideology in "Happy Life". It seems that this brings Chen Wenling back to presenting the human realm of self –indulgence in a circuit. Compared to the universal humanity and the extremeness in "Red Boy", this time, what Chen Wenling wants to show is not an ideality or imagination which directs the humanity to perfect, but a pessimism and preposterous sense. That is, he attempts to insert a strong element of the self, causing this visual layout to appear still in the midst of a struggle. Chen Wenling’s sculptures focus on showcasing people in some state of enthusiasm or extreme extraordinary humanness. This became his early form of self-representative language in sculpture, and this self-representative theme was later brought into the context of social issues, where it became a satire directed toward people came to overlade loveliness and animal hedonism in the consumption society. However, irony and criticism seem not Chen Wenling’s single technique, he more wants to have an image of self-struggle and redemption in the level of pessimism.
Text by Zhu Qi
AUSPICIOUS BEAST: PIO PIO
It is neither a beast nor a creature with spiritual power. It is an organism in mutation, a mixture of spiritual desire, beastliness and esoteric breeding. One may call it a species produced under multiple mixing and parasitic environment. One may also say it is a kind of unknown substance, still in the process of evolving.
Buddhist Altar No. 2
Modernization is the first issue for China society, and in a way or two, artists are hard to escape from it too. Li Hui’s recent regards go to the multilateral conflicts between modern civilization and surrounding environment, under the circumstance of high-speed industrialization and urbanization. Although this is a repetition of old problem, attentions still need to be paid on this issue which is even going to change in China complex. Li Hui focuses his discussion on the relationship between human behaviours and exterior world. Bound and break loose, harmony and conflicts… are all the contrary elements contained in his works, which help contribute their innate power. The applied medias and materials range from bicephalous jeep, 3D sculpture model of the animal car, to stainless steel animal sculpture to laser cage, but all of them are either an extension to the sculpture conception, or the generalized representation of it. Trying to reach the limit of aesthetics, he has created contradictory, abnormal and beyond-experience visual styles, which is a determined reminding on the realistic problems of duality happened in the actual course of social development. The progress of a city may be determined by the environment; however, the environment can be changed by man to some extent. In the point of view of Li Hui, although at a high cost, we still have to progress further and further. Should it be the green nature accommodates itself to the modern civilization, or fast growing China society transforming to the big nature represented by the green world? Or regressing back to agricultural spirit homeland? Is there any possibility of balancing all of these?
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
STANDING LIFE: INTERPRETATION OF LIU YONGGANG'S ART
The return of Liu Yonggang was one of the most exciting events of contemporary Chinese art in 2006. He brought the new message that a number of artists who have studied abroad have acquired a cultural horizon different from that of those who stayed in the country, and that they have found their own ways of expression. Those ways differ from both the imitation of western biannual exhibitions that has been widespread since the 1980s and the success-oriented styles conditioned by the commercial operation of galleries. Specifically speaking, they have created a truly valuable contemporary Chinese art that blends Chinese and western cultures. Though it is not yet mature, it is based on a rich culture, and its way is sustainable. When critic Deng Pingxiang said that Liu is capable of finding the common ground between Chinese and western cultures, he was actually voicing his judgment that in the age of globalization, to develop a contemporary art with real value for artistic history, one must made an in-depth study of eastern and western cultures, instead of catering to sponsors of international exhibitions or art merchants by cobbling together some ‘Chinese pattern’ composed of an array of superficial signs of politics, commerce and pop culture. Liu’s abstract paintings are undoubtedly excellent, with the passion of de Kooning, the freedom of German expressionism, and acute formal awareness in colors and composition. Those were what he acquired from over ten years’ careful study abroad. However, I prefer the compositional paintings similar to the structures of characters and drafts of sculptures, with composite materials, to those expressionistic ones with heavy use of colors. In the former kind, the importance of color is replaced by the painter’s study of space and structure. That contains grand monumental wills, and reflects a passion that extends in space, a passion that is related to soil and growth, like a plant, or life. As observed by German art historian Dr. Frank, it is full of the drive of life. That is in full agreement with Liu’s personality and spiritual pursuit; it reflects some classical quality of his art, or the humanistic tradition embodied in classical buildings and paintings. The understanding of the dignity of human life and the desire for communications and feelings are by nature part of the humanistic tradition since the Renaissance, represented by Michelangelo. It was from the grand perspective of human history that Liu discovered the dignity of classical humanism represented by Chinese culture. His special way of expression, based on the Chinese and Mongolian written languages, demonstrates a great multi-ethnic nation’s past glory and aspiration for the future. Therefore, when I saw his grand work composed of 102 stone sculptures at the National Art Museum of China, the first thing I thought of, to my surprise, was the terracotta soldiers. His standing characters have a silent dignity. ‘Monumentality’, which may be defined as ‘the state or meaning of commemoration’, requires not only artistically unusual, enduring size, but also prominent, important and lasting values in history. What Liu intends to convey is his veneration for the eternal love and care of mankind. In this sense, Liu used characters, widespread and familiar to ordinary people, to break through ethnic and national boundaries, expressing fiery passion with cold rocks, and fusing material and spirit in special spatial compositions. In traditional Chinese art, the monument and the calligraphy were inextricably linked, but characters were subordinate to meanings, and calligraphy and carving were no more than mediums of artistic expression. What was special about Liu was that he broke the line between the monument and the calligraphy, so that the two are united into one. When we see his sculptures, we simply forget that line, because the two are blended into a symbol of human life and spirit. Here is involved the discussion on characters, language, calligraphy and contemporary art. Since the 1980s, Chinese characters, as well as calligraphy, have become an important public artistic resource in contemporary Chinese art. However, focus on characters differs greatly from focus on calligraphy. For instance, the artists who first used Chinese characters in their creations, such as Gu Wenda, Wu Shanzhuan and Xu Bing, tend to analysis characters and use them in the manner of conceptual art. That reflects the difference in attitude towards the written language. Focus on form and focus on meaning are different approaches to using traditional culture in contemporary art. That may be a frame of reference to put Liu’s study and use of Chinese characters and calligraphy into perspective. In terms of culture, Liu’s study of characters tends to be historical and humanistic; in terms of visual art, it tends to be spatial and compositional. As observed by critic Jia Fangzhou, instead of being legible like written language, his works are visual like plastic art. That indicates the intrinsic connection of his art to the humanistic tradition and classical art of China. The return of Liu and his exhibition drew my attention to the group of overseas Chinese artists, especially those who returned from their study in Germany. Many of them have adopted the way of abstract art. Liu is one of the artists who studied in Germany, such as Xu Jiang, Ma Lu and Tan Ping who returned earlier, Su Xiaobai, Zhu Jinshi, Zhang Guolong, Liu Ye and Ma Shuqing who are recently active in both China and Germany, and Miu Xiaochun who specializes in video and image medium. We may examine his art with respect to German culture’s influence on Chinese art. Liu’s works reflect the blending of different cultures under different cultural environments (though material life is becoming increasingly similar because of the growing exchanges, cultural traditions do not change fundamentally). In my opinion, as far as Chinese art in the 21st century is concerned, the new generation of artists who returned from abroad is promising new blood. During their long stay in overseas cultures, they have acquired the capability of creative cultural exchange and blending. They have deeper and more complete understanding of culture than those who go abroad occasionally. As for material life, since they have long been free of financial troubles and are aware of both the positive and negative effect of market on artists, they are capable of more intense concentration on creation. Meanwhile, Liu’s works proved my opinion on the differences between French culture and German culture that I mentioned when I was criticizing Xu Jiang in the early 1990s. That will be helpful to further understanding of different western cultural backgrounds, solving the general, binary opposite ways of thinking between the east and the west, and creation of contemporary art which is closer to personality based on individual cultural background. The special thing about Liu’s art is that his works are not expressions of general emotions (what is commonly known as ‘follow the feelings’), or graceful skills, or utilitarian interpretations of practical questions (the latter is originated from France in the 18th century and its revolutionary tradition, namely political and utilitarian behaviorism tradition. French didacticism philosophers in the 18th century, just like the early renaissant civic humanists, advocated active and vibrant way of life and fought against ruminative way. They were not interested in metaphysics, and cared about practical issues—moral, mental and social--in their lives. They were confident of human future and held undoubted faith in history progress.) As a thinking artist, Liu has an oriental broad horizon. His oriental way of thinking has one thing in common with the Hegelian tradition—greater value attached to unity and wholeness than to accomplishment. Its defining feature is wholeness and speculation. What Liu is concerned with are not particular social issues of a particular period, but the holistic thinking of human history. In his works I feel critical examination of human civilization and history, and the angst at the bottom of his heart. In our time, traditional beliefs are deeply troubled by the experience of contemporary life, and everywhere there are conflicts between capricious fate and people who stand up to it. Deep inside, Liu stands by his belief in humanistic values. Liu’s works produce a powerful, sweeping effect similar to that of terracotta warriors. We may imagine the scenario where his sculptures stand like a formation of warriors on a prairie or a desert. It is certain that instead of confining himself to such traditional mediums as painting, calligraphy and sculpture, he has blazed a broad new trail in comprehensive materials and comprehensive art. For such an excellent artist, all has just begun.
Text by Yin Shuangxi