Aperçus on Chinese Contemporary Art
"Modulating Space:" Negotiating the Balance Between Aesthetic and Semantic
by Maya Kóvskaya
2 February, 2006
Galleria Continua Beijing follows its spectacular Chen Zhen solo exhibition, Transexperience, with Daniel Buren's latest in situ installations, in which the "modulation of space" itself replaces the traditional "art object." Buren's strengths are most pronounced in his use of colored plexiglass filters and mirrors, which he "installs in space," shifting both the gaze of the spectator and decentering the body in relation to the space created by his "architectural instruments." The exhibition's most important contribution is its reminder of the aesthetic possibilities in space as an object of artistic mediation itself.
Since Buren began, in the 70s, to use a variety of surfaces ranging from street signs, flags, staircases, doors, and even clothing as the site for his explorations, space—and public space in particular—has been an important element in his work. This concern makes this exhibition in the People's Republic particularly salient, for the "modulation" of public space through conceptual art is currently one of the most exciting aspects of contemporary art in China. In contrast to Chinese artists who engage public space in their work, space for Buren, seems more aesthetic than social, more abstract than concretely grounded in the vicissitudes of everyday life that is animating some of China's finest emerging artists. For this reason, the Buren exhibition offers an important opportunity for dialogue about the relationship between the semantic and the aesthetic.
Indeed, against the backdrop of the Chinese state's official monopoly on legitimate expression within the public sphere, the meaning of "modulating space" is takes on quite a different hue in the Chinese context. Works by performance artists and conceptual photographers such as Di Naizhuang, Zhu Fadong, Zhang Huan and Han Bing address the question of "modulating space" from a different direction and with varying effects.
In his work on resistance and everyday practice, Michel de Certeau makes a useful distinction between strategy and tactic that is directly related to space. Strategy is that which is directed at long-term ends and is predicated on dominating a given territory or space continuum. For those without autonomous spaces, tactics are the moment-to-moment moves that the relatively powerless make to evade the domination of the powerful who occupy the terrain on which the powerless must move. Strategy then, is the means of the hegemonic power, whereas tactic, in de Certeau's view, is the means of guerrilla resistance, in its struggle to create what Hakim Bey called "temporary autonomous zones," or what philosopher Hannah Arendt called "spaces of appearance"—spaces where selves, meanings and alternative visions of a "good life" can be performatively constituted through word and deed, embodying ways of doing and being that are not legislated by double-headed hydra of the hegemonic state and global capital.
The importance of art that creates "alternative public spaces," in which critical and counter-hegemonic visions of being in the world can be manifested and embodied, then, is nothing less than critical. Certain works of Chinese performance art and conceptual photography, in particular, are noteworthy for their attempts to engage members of society in the production of the artwork and use public space to insert the questions raised by contemporary art into the larger social field.
Forerunners include Di Naizhuang and Zhu Fadong, who vary in terms of the balance between the semantic and the aesthetic. From 1992-1997 Di Naizhuang sold tens of thousands of red umbrellas across the country. This piece, entitled "Fame"—"Zou Hong" in Chinese is a clever play on characters that literally mean "walking red" but denotes ascent to fame—drew attention in the art scene for its large-scale presence, but is was unclear whether the practice of purchasing and carrying his red umbrellas meant anything different to these consumers from the purchase and use of any other commodity. If the red umbrellas had no special meaning for the consumers whose participation was an integral part of this "installation/performance art work," its social significance is rendered opaque at best.
Reflecting on the plight of the self in the context of China's dizzying whirlwind of socio-economic change, performance artist Zhu Fadong posted a "Missing Person" ads seeking himself in Kunming, Yunnan, in 1993. Likewise, however, aside from a small group of artists, it is unclear whether other viewers of the piece had any idea this wasn't simply a genuine missing persons ad. 1994, he followed with a more obviously interactive piece. "This Person is for Sale, Price Negotiable," advertising the sale of himself on his clothing, and walking around Beijing. While the former piece falls short in communicating its a pointed semantic intension, latter is rather thin in the aesthetic dimension.
For works that engage the broader society, the inclusiveness (not to be confused with accessibility) of art and dynamics of reception become a constitutive element in the work. Use or consumption becomes what de Certeau calls a secondary form of production. Meaning is bi-directionally constituted, and the authorial voice is not absolutely authoritative, but rather, its function (and by extension, the function of the artwork itself) is heuristic.
Art that directly involves its subjects in its production, then, is an art that contains potent possibilities for such bi-directional meaning production. Works of Zhang Huan and Han Bing stand out among those who engage public space in this way, combining the semantic with a strong aesthetic component that is captured through composed performance photography (which should be differentiated from the varied and sundry snapshots of performances that are often taken on the fly with little consideration for questions of composition, etc.).
During his Beijing East Village days in the mid-nineties, employing his distinctive aesthetic sensibility, Zhang Huan engaged public space with performances, many of which were documented by gifted photographers such as Rongrong. In Twelve Square Meters he smeared squid ink and honey on his body and sat in a filth-encrusted public toilet until his body was crawling with flies, thus indexically and critically instantiating the nature the conditions in which so many Chinese live. This dramatic, aestheticized performance, did more than merely "re-present" local conditions, it embodied them in a manner that emphasized certain ontological basics. The flies covering his body were not a mere simulacra of actual sanitary conditions—hordes of them were already on site at the time of the performance—they were the hyperbolic instantiation of the reality itself, on which Zhang Huan used the congregation of flies on his body to comment.
Zhang Huan's classic Raising the Level of a Fishpond, is a seminal example of the "modulation of space" through performance. Inviting local migrant peasant laborers to join him in displacing water in a fishpond, the artist not only allowed migrant laborers to symbolically represented their own social status in contemporary China—as much displaced by the changes remaking China that drove them from their farm land to the cities, as displacers, competing with one another for low-paying, and often hazardous employment—but also offered a symbolic ablution for these migrants who are decried by the dominant urban society as dirty, low-quality, and without culture. As they entered the water, raising its level infinitesimally and yet definitely, with each step, their limited yet genuine power to alter the conditions of their existence expressed itself in the rising water margins.
Han Bing's ongoing performance photography series Everyday Precious (2001-present) both reconstitutes public space through participatory performance art and creates permanent moments of alternative public space through photography. Bringing ordinary Chinese who have been left behind in China's charge toward modernization (such as peasants, laborers, peddlers, beggars, and other marginalized subjects) into his performances, Han Bing creates a visual and discursive space in which the conditions of their existence and their positionality in relation to modernization are visually and spatially positioned. In Facing the Future with My Family: Everyday Precious No. 1, Han Bing, who hails from a tiny village in Jiangsu province, stands with his family members in front of a modest peasant home made of red bricks. Each family member, from the smallest child, to the oldest grandparent, hefts a brick in hand as they look ahead apprehensively towards an uncertain a future, offering their hands in the building of it.
In Superfluous Remnants of an Already Backward Modernity: Everyday Precious, No. 2, a row of migrant peasant construction workers, inadequately clothed against the harsh Beijing winter, stand in the snow holding their bricks before a half-way demolished brick building, behind which towers a gleaming steel, glass and concrete construction. During the 80s, when brick was the coveted construction material that promised rural families (i.e. most of China) a chance to move from their homes of stones, mud and straw bricks and into "modern" dwellings, bricks were a symbol of prosperity, hope and "modernity" in all its inflated glory. But before most of rural China has had the chance to finish moving into modernity, the lowly red brick has been outmoded as "backward," inferior construction material. Now "modern" people live in steel, glass, and concrete high-rises, and bricks are discarded as refuse, only to be recycled by people on the margins, who haul them away with mule-carts, still hoping for a chance at a modernity that hardly had a chance to be.
In his latest conceptual photography series, Urban Amber, Han Bing fuses the aesthetic with the semantic, using the ubiquitous "stinky" rivers that criss-cross China's urban centers, as a mirror of modernizing China. In these rivers are choked with garbage and foul with industrial waste, he captures the reflections of glamorous, upscale high-rises, in juxtaposition to the crude falling-down shanty-town "ping fang" dwellings of the local poor, that still exist (often literally) in the shadows of these new "dream homes." Just as amber captures, in perpetuity, the objects of a given era, these "stinky rivers" are urban amber for this era of reckless construction, desperate hopes for a better life, and often futile fantasies of escape from unfortunate lives assigned by birth and social status. The photographs of these inverted dreamscapes are at once ethereal and heavy with the sediment of time, and they encapsulate a new dimension of public space—a space of contrast and juxtaposition, in which it is only through the distorting ripples of polluted water that we can see clearly who we really are. Like Buren's use of colored filters to "modulate space," Han Bing uses these rivers of refuse, which abundantly accompany China's drive for modernization, as the filters that show us the true colors of the waste-products our dreams.
Light and shadow, open space and barriers, movement and constraint, the full flush of color and emptiness of absence—Daniel Buren's in situ installations on exhibit at Galleria Continua raise a series of questions apposite to a Chinese contemporary art that also "modulates space" in order to interrogate and perhaps alter conditions of human existence. What is the proper balance between the aesthetic and the semantic? How much of art should be about life, or even more so, for life, and how much should be for sensual and aesthetic stimulation? The boundaries are blurred as ever, and the answer to these questions as contentious. And so, as long as the dialogue continues, this contentiousness is certainly something to celebrate.
© 2006 Maya Kóvskaya, All Rights Reserved.