Comment: US | THEM
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Comment: US | THEM

On the Art of Guangci and Xiang Jing
Gao Shiming

“Who are We?”

The philosopher Richard Rorty asks us an extremely acute question. For Rorty, the question “Who are we?” is entirely distinct from the question “What is a person?” The latter is a standard metaphysical question, where the former is an entirely political question. The basic question of politics is indeed the difference between “us” and “them.” Of course we, living in poor times, do not need to divide people so sharply as politicians do. And yet we cannot stop uttering the word: “We … ”

For the iconoclastic modernists, “we” hides on all sides of “I.” It is both the soil for the individual, and a way of burying the self in a crowd. For Guangci, “we” actually exists in the space below the leaders waving their hands from the Tian’anmen rostrum. The crowd’s impulse, felt by all those on the square, is precisely what cultural anthropologists refer to as “communitas.” “We” structures a complete body, and as an object of desire it refers to a prescribed return to an imagined collective, and to the self-subordination of the subject (Foucault explained his concept of the subject with reference to the linguistic undertones of subordination or subjection that the word carries), and the fervor amidst the failure in the self’s move toward unity.

Guangci: Collective Image – Monumentality – Immortality

There is a certain pathos of “collectivism” that runs through China’s art history between the 1950s and the late 1980s. Even if the artistic practice of the 1980s was in reaction and reform to the ideology of the previous thirty years, still in the works and texts of this period, the aura of totalitarianism shines throughout as overarching cultural narratives vie for greatness, and atop them floats the “specter of collectivism.” In the epistemological structures of the artistic reforms of the 1980s, there still exists deeply held thought patterns pertaining to totality and collectivity. Political movements, manifestos, and utopias are always the most moving of affairs. In the works of Guangci’s generation, the ideology of collectivism has been thoroughly undone, or rather, transmogrified. As someone who entered the art world as a young artist in the 1980s, Guangci’s works have always been concerned with this central question of collective image. Over many years, his work can be seen as creating imagery for “us.” As carriers of revolution, class symbols, and emblems of the people, images of workers-peasants-soldiers had lost their power by the 1990s. For Guangci, these are but symbols of the collective that can be summarily used and consumed, a sort of historical readymade object.

In recent years, Guangci has repeatedly used images of monuments culled from modern Chinese history in his work. From standard heroic sculptures of Mao to every sort of worker-peasant-soldier sculptures, all offer Guangci a space for appropriation, distortion, and subversion. In the middle of the twentieth century, these images were erected in public squares all across China, becoming an integral part of Chinese revolutionary culture, a testimony to people’s memory and evidence of history. We must understand that Guangci’s own life was not drastically influenced by the events of the Cultural Revolution, and so any connections between him and the vague history of the Cultural Revolution exist only in these suspicious images and vestiges. As he was growing up, society began to develop, and these forms and traces gradually grew more and more ambiguous. They still exist on public squares around the country, but the ideals behind them have long ceased to exist. And yet the period of history which they carry and express is precisely that which people wish to delete from their memory. These are bodies now devoid of life and power, still floating on the scene of contemporary urban life, like actors that have not retreated from a stage even though their performance is long over. The next performance has already begun, and still they have not exited. They awkwardly sit in every corner of the city (if they have not been torn down already) like tourists who have forgotten their destination, or suitcases resting forlorn on a train platform. In the mid-1990s, Guangci turned his eye toward these public icons that have lost their public nature, these now-empty historical trajectories, these remains that have since been obliterated from social life.

Speaking more accurately, what Guangci aims to create is a series of “anti-monuments.” In his work “2002 AD,” the image of Mao appears not as a great, heroic monument, but rather, returned to an ordinary life-sized object. Covered in plaster, it becomes vague and uncertain. This handling makes Mao appear even more ambiguous, almost mass-produced, becoming a quantifiably random product. The concept of the “anti-monument” resonates with doubt and subversions of the “immortal.” In works such as “Democracy Box” and “Monument Column” and in the large-scale installation, “Chinese Century Train,” Guangci uses translucent resin to produce a series of “Mao-style” crystal coffins, in which he inserts human figures of different colors. This symbol of “immortality” becomes a cheap sitcom-style prop. Around 2004, Guangci produced a series of massive revolutionary monuments, replacing the customary granite with shiny stainless steel. This work successfully plays on the Chinese homophone “buxiu” which means both “immortality” and “stainless” as a way of ridiculing the unattainable ideal of immortality. Stainless steel, as a commercial commodity that had not yet come into use during the Maoist era, has now become a staple of lowbrow public art. Since the 1980s, public sculptures in stainless steel have been produced at surprising proportions, and have gradually swallowed up the spaces formerly allotted to monuments. These new sculptures are replacements for the revolutionary monuments of the past, but like their predecessors, they are also monuments to a sort of “pseudo-public.” When the forms of revolutionary monuments meet the materiality of stainless steel, the resulting strange combination is ahistorical, and from a certain standpoint, this is the major strand of thinking behind China’s “political pop” art. Importantly, the special characteristics of stainless steel transmutes abstract ideas of class into a hollow monument, bright and beautiful, as if forming a complex mirror which absorbs the everyday living environment whole cloth, mutating it to fit the form of the revolutionary.

Guangci has taken readymade images from history and incorporated them into the fabric of contemporary everyday life. This is a kind of dislocation, or to use Guangci’s own words, a “positioning.” Guangci has said: “Positioning can make the meaningful meaningless, and the meaningless meaningful … the joys and tragedies encountered by monumental sculpture have largely to do with mistakes in positioning.” In this process of “positioning,” historical ready-mades are “displaced,” and a new set of meanings and emotions is produced. This is a sort of dry, multivalent humor.

In Guangci’s work, a strategy that runs parallel to “displacement” is replication. Wu Shanzhuan has said that “Replication is Power,” and Guangci has experienced this firsthand. Many of his works together form a replicated group, an array of commercial goods. For him, “replication” speaks to the impossibility of the modernist “individual” in Chinese history, and yet in the current Chinese cultural climate, it has become a consumer strategy. This consumerism is a strategy of shattered sublimation and absolutism, a perfect fusion of utopianism with commodity fetishism.

THEM

For Xiang Jing, “we” is simply the vague existence of a group of undefined individuals. As a woman, Xiang Jing has never consciously styled herself a feminist. She does not belong to the belligerent collective “we” of sexual politics. For her, those who constantly refer to “we” are in fact a “they” comprised of infinite individual “shes.” This can all be seen as a resistance to the ill-intentioned ideological “we” amidst which we live. “We” is a carrier of ideology, and any ideology places the creation of a like-minded “we” among its goals. The artist Xiang Jing is like a militiawoman harboring dark designs against ideology. For her, the “we” does not exist, and her works manifest a vivid, living individual, wherein each individual is itself an absolute miracle. Miracles are by their nature singular, and the so-called “we” is in fact merely a Rubik’s cube waiting to be disassembled, an expired check, a sublime specter in an ideological dreamscape.

Expressing the notion of “they” is a refusal of identity. Identity and difference are two sides of the same coin. Semantic meaning derives from differentiation with other words in a linguistic system, just as numerical sequence implies a purely external structure of meanings. One is one simply because it is not two or three, and its meaning is constructed entirely within such a system of differences. When we look at the other side of the coin, we see a process at work in which such external differences are internalized, forming what we call “identity.” Identity includes seemingly contradictory notions such as distinction and collectivity, and is actually directed at the indefinite collective protections faced by the individual. Moreover, what appears on the surface as public, collective identity is actually the result of an unending project of drawing boundaries. In our rapidly privatizing, individualizing, mediatizing, and globalizing world, as Jock Young says, “Precisely because the public has dissolved, identity politics was created.”

In a moment of rampant “identity politics,” this notion of identity as “recognition” (rentong) carries a critical power that has long ago been extinguished, transformed into a discursive tool of ideology. Sexual politics were long ago assimilated into a collective power struggle encapsulated by words like “difference” and “otherness.” In this sense, to express “them” implies a resonance with and insistence on “otherness.” But how to preserve the otherness of the other? How to maintain the other as other? This is a question being hotly debated right now by intellectuals around the world.

Compared to “we,” “they” are a distant, estranged people. “They” are not a collective that Xiang Jing is eager to identify. As Zygmunt Bauman says, the notion of the public implies not only dependence, but also power. The sensibility conveyed in her work is neither cold nor critical, but rather sort of warmly distant. She conveys a sentiment of partial knowing, sculpting a “they” comprised of familiar strangers, constantly present all around us.

 

XIANG JING: “EVERYONE,” “EACH ONE,” “ANYONE”

Xiang Jing’s sculptures are not based on certain individuals, and her practice is not based on specific objects, but rather it manifests the vague existence of a group of uncertain individuals. Her works are about “them,” but this “them” is composed of infinite individuals hidden all around us. It is at once “everyone,” “each one,” and “anyone.”

“Everyone” depends on the weakness of the individual. It is backed by the grand notion of a shared humanity which ensures the identity of every individual as a person.

“Each one” refers to all possible people, the “certain person” that everyone believes him or herself to be.

“Anyone” is any individual at all, the negative reflection of the individualist’s affirmation of the self. However, anyone has the power to become another, and the power to refuse to become himself.

“Everyone” is a totalitarian concept, while “each one” is the subject of democracy. A society in which “everyone” is happy is a society in which “each one” is unhappy. “Anyone” intervenes between the two. “Anyone” refers to “everyone,” but also conveys a sense of “each one.” The shared attributes of the three symbolize a kind of degradation, the survival of the concept of “das Man.”

“Das Man” or “ordinary man” is not a certain individual, but a site into which each person can disappear. Everyone is a collective entity, where “das Man” is an ordinary person, or a mass of people. The concept of “das Man” refers to the ways in which each person is like each other person, and in that way it is similar to “everyone” and “anyone.” This is called “uneigenlichkeit,” a kind of unreal existence. “Ordinary man” involves the ordinary state of man, an existence one constantly tries to escape but can never shed off. In daily life, we and they often exist as ordinary man, particularly in a world where “everyone,” “each one” and “anyone” coexists.

Xiang Jing’s sculptures all depict individuals from everyday life. She devotes herself to creating situations, to sculpting vivid scenes and psychological spaces. It is an archetypal group culled from the urban collective, like a group of shots taken from Xiang Jing’s photography in which mountains of photo albums serve to give physical form to scenes. Facing these silent, silenced sculptures, we suddenly find ourselves outside during a hot noontime, a somber dusk, an anxious and sleepless midnight, the moment at which the ash drops, a lost moment before a mirror … each sculpture carries the traces of its specific moment, and these moments give a specific shape to the black box of time. This however does not imply some promise of eternal time - that is the desire of the monument - as Xiang Jing’s sculptures are but certain “moments,” and the moving flavors and circumstances that these moments imply.

Xiang Jing’s sculptures work best in groups. Walking among a group of these sculptures is like entering into a world petrified in a single moment. In that split second, no one is able to escape the glance or curse of Medusa. Rather, Xiang Jing sculpts something that looks not like the deathly solemn gray and white sculptures of one’s impressions, but rather something bright and colorful, happy and light, in a world that is itself already tough and heavy.

Xiang Jing’s sculptures are light, and this aspect is owed to the scene-settings behind them, as well as their intentional and controlled exaggeration. However, this graceful quality exists in a state of undeclared passion, an almost theatrical happiness. Milan Kundera first raised this notion of “lightness.” For Kundera, the heaviness of life lies in coercion, the sorts of ideologies that bind us and symptomatic sorts of resistance to these ideologies. The Unbearable Lightness of Being tells us that happiness can be shattered in a single moment, showing suddenly its unbearably heavy state. For Xiang Jing, heaviness comes first from the hardness and irrefutability of the living world. The world functions like a wall that forces its way in front of us, creating not only a logistical obstacle but spiritual damage. Therefore Xiang Jing uses sculpture, the heaviest method by which to capture the happiness of daily life, the moments that appear a bit absurd but then become a relaxed sociological portrait. Those laughing, bored, unoccupied, careless images, those crying women and smoking men all appear as still photos taken from a boring soap opera.

No matter when or where, she, he, and they are the uncertain “everyone,” “anyone,” or “each one.” Among the crowds of people, these nameless, healthy puppets appear as forgotten materials, living anonymously together. People come and go, bustling with activity. In the anxious vessel that is time, shadows of memory and illusion accumulate, but each is nothing more than a mistaken brushstroke in a painting, a scar on a pink hand, a blind spot on a sheet of broken glass.

 

She&I
CHINASQUARE