Han Bing's Theater of Modernization:
Possible Futures & Human Predicaments in the New China
An amalgam of social criticism and conceptual meditations underlie many of the multidisciplinary artist Han Bing's visual explorations and performative interventions. His passionate engagement with fundamental questions about the relationship between art and the human condition, is reminiscent of the creative ethos of Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic, and others for whom the necessary relationship between life and art and the role of public intellectual offering pointed provocations for our troubled times, is the non-negotiable sin qua non of being both an artist and a human being. His works interrogate the human costs of China's frantic rush to build a "modern" nation and the transformation of social status, basic values and people's hopes and dreams along the way. Indeed, much of Han Bing's work engages the vicissitudes of life in this "age of big construction." A childhood of rural labor in an impoverished village in Jiangsu, endowed Han Bing with a deep concern for questions of social justice and the plight of those marginalized by modernization. Moved by the harsh contrast between the urbanized "Chinese dream" propelling the nation's struggle to become "modern," and the cruel realities of those left behind, or trodden underfoot in the stampede, Han Bing's oeuvre explores the struggles and desires of ordinary people in China's "theater of modernization," using photography, video, multimedia installation, performance art and public interventions to invert quotidian practice, reinvent everyday objects, explore the paradoxes of desire, and ask us to rethink the order of things.
In Han Bing's New Culture Movement series, laborer, families, and even school children, stand in front of half-constructed homes, construction sites, and schoolyards, bricks hefted in hand like little red books. In one image, the elderly village school gateman, himself illiterate like many of his generation, proudly guards the gates of the primary school where the children in the village who are lucky enough to have the resources are educated. Behind him is the familiar slogan written on the wall: "Education is the foundation of great plans." In another image, the Hanhu village schoolgirl, from Han Bing's hometown stares straight ahead with wrenching intensity. She clutches her red brick tightly and her stance is almost aggressive. She attends primary school but may have to quit soon to help her family make money to build a modest incarnation of their dream home. And the daughter of the father from Zhao Village in Yunnan, who is helping her parents mix cement, will likely never see the inside of a classroom at all. Her family is too poor to afford to school her and her labor is needed in the building of their home. Like all the others in New Culture Movement—fathers and sons, mothers and sisters engaging in backbreaking manual labor in urban and rural construction sites alike, whole families work side by side to build, brick by brick, a private space to call their own—she is already struggling to make her life and fulfill her dreams in a society that has yet to see her worth or potential to be a contributing member of society.
The hopes of these working people with bricks in hand are fragile and small, and they bear a poignant irony of which these people are keenly aware. Although repudiated by the "upwardly mobile" urban society as "backward," the lowly brick is still the best most rural families can expect. With their painfully limited means, rural families must often decide between a marriage home or higher education for their son (daughters rarely get either)—signaling the rise of a new culture of construction at the expense of education, a fixation on private possession, and the perhaps illusory dream of becoming part of the propertied class in a "society of modest prosperity"(xiaokang shehui) that denies their claims of membership—betraying the distance between the hegemonic fantasies of China's modernity and the majority's experience of it. New Culture Movement signals a shift in the value structure of the dominant culture, wherein the book has been replaced by the brick, and education, knowledge and "book-learning," as a source of self-worth has been replaced by property-ownership and an ethos of possession. Cultural Capital: New Culture Movement, illustrates the symbolic progression from the book-learning of the intellectual, to property possession and home ownership dreams of ordinary folks, to sheer, naked wealth of the nouveau riche, and with it, the shift in the dominant value structure of society.
In his latest project, Theater of Modernization, Han Bing uses medium format photography and video to capture the performative scenes he stages atop the sand-filled bucket of a giant bulldozer. Like other massive specimens of heavy machinery used in the demolition of the old and construction of the "New China," the bulldozer is symbolic of the impetus (both violence and desire) behind the visceral transformation of the body politic, the physical places and spaces that house and contain human life, and the peoples' very identities and fates in society. Posed in the bulldozer's outstretched clawed "hands," Workers, Peasants, Intellectuals, Red Guard Militants, Nouveau Riche Boss Men, and sometimes Beggars, act out contemporary "revolutionary model operas" as they pose in various relationships to one another.
Upon the symbolic stage of the bulldozer, history is collapsed and condensed onto one spatio-temporal line; the past is found lurking in the present and the future is proposed as a series of possible outcomes that stem from the alignments between social classes and the ascendance of the larger processes, ideologies, and values they represent. In Theater of Modernization, it is precisely these dramas of possible futures that are already nascent in our present realities, which are acted out atop the bulldozer.
In some shots, it is the Peasant or the Worker (social classes traditionally oppressed in the Old Society before being and valorized after Liberation as leaders) who hold their hands high in the air, in a gesture of tenacious endurance, or perhaps hopeful victory, with a brick for the Worker or a cabbage for the Peasant, clutched in their hands, or sometimes a hammer and sickle—old symbols of Socialism by and for the laboring masses who rely on these simple tools for life. Sometimes the Rich Boss Man (who looks an awful lot like the Landlord from the Old Society reincarnated as the Nouveau Riche in the New China) who stands for Capital is pressed onto his knees in the sand, as during the struggle sessions in the Cultural Revolution, while in other shots, he and the Red Guard (that symbol of political power that was once the Rich Man's enemy) hold hands—Political Power and Global Capital aligned in a mutually beneficial union—or lean against each other warmly.
In the triptych entitled, The Nouveau Riche Leads the People, the Rich Man meditates serenely under the arch of the Worker and Peasants crossed hammer and sickle, imagining his glorious Brave New World, gold ingots in his upturned palms. In the second image, the Worker and Peasant raise their tools in salute, while the Rich Man holds his gold ingots aloft, leading society onwards and upwards. In the third image—an altogether different possible future—the Worker and Peasant, righteous fury burning in their eyes, have gotten fed up with the growing gap between rich and poor and have struck down the Rich Man, who lies sprawled on his back in the sand.
Similar meditations on possible futures based on the alignments of different social classes appear in other works as well. In a piece that gets its title from a popular slogan in contemporary China that rationalizes the canonization of the bourgeoisie as a vanguard force in society, Let a Few Get Rich First, shows the Nouveau Rich Boss Man smugly singing karaoke, while the Worker and the Peasant are subordinated, the Beggar crouches, cup in hand, and the Intellectual lies vanquished at his feet, while the Red Guard looks slyly out of the corner of her eye, flashing a conspiratorial smile. In Economics as the Center, the Rich Man smugly smokes a cigar, flanked by a saluting Worker and Red Guard, with the collapsed Intellectual at his feet. The lower order of social groups—the peasants and the impoverished—has disappeared entirely from the stage. Likewise, Socialist Market Economics, restages this scene with a crucial substitution. Now the Rich Boss Man is missing from the picture as well and clutched in the Red Guard's hand is not the Little Red Book symbolizing politics as the center, instead, she holds the gleaming gold bullion brick of the Nouveau Riche Boss Man—State Power and Capital are fused into one.
In the sextuptych, The Demise of the Intellectual, we see the progressive disengagement of the Intellectual with the affairs of society, which ultimately causes his downfall. Sometimes he looks engaged in the task of building a future and new order, but at the moment when he is most needed, when Capital and State power are aligning in collusion and Workers and Peasants are subordinated, the Intellectual is found navel-gazing, looking off into the distance, unsure of where to go, or lost in his own world, smelling flowers, and ultimately, he is finally knocked down.
Perhaps the most cynical piece in this series, Youth Offered Up to Capital, features a triptych that progresses from a scene in which a Rich Boss Man with gold brick in hand stands flanked by migrant construction workers holding red bricks. The workers' arms are raised in tribute to the great task of building the new world that lies before them. In the second image, the workers kneel beside the Boss Man, scanning the horizon as if searching for something or perhaps have lost their direction. In the final image, the tableau climaxes with the Boss Man triumphant, a red conductor's baton in hand as he beats out the measure of time to the tune of China's modernization, and the workers lie vanquished at his feet.
In This Shore, we find the solid, persistent present of manual labor and the basic needs of the body juxtaposed between a past that once valued spirituality, ascetic simplicity and harmony with nature, with futures that include high-tech or material pursuits at a cost—the modern Intellectual with his laptop and the fat, smug Rich Man with his gold bricks and ingots, sits in a pile of non-biodegradable plastic waste, in stark contrast to the bed of wild flowers in which the traditional common man from antiquity in his homespun tree-bark suoyi work clothes and conical rice paddy hat. Between the dueling values of past and future, the subsistence bottom line of the present for the vast majority never changes.
In each of these eighteen medium format images and accompanying video, the possibilities for the future are starkly and yet playfully arranged for us to consider, and the contingent relationships between social roles and the forces, values and fates they represent, are stripped bare before Han Bing's camera. The future is undecided, but alliances and ideological orientations have trajectories that point in sobering directions.
Han Bing's ongoing multimedia performance installation, Love in the Age of Big Construction asks us to consider how ever-burgeoning, insatiable desire has created the motive force behind the juggernaut of market economics "with Chinese characteristics" that is literally tearing down the "old China" in order to build a glorious new nation. While many positive changes result from this triumvirate campaign of urbanization, industrialization and "modernization," an entire way of life is lost, and millions upon millions—mostly rural people without the educational opportunities or start-up resources to have a fair chance in the race—who cannot keep up, are left behind or trampled underfoot in the stampede. And the constructors of this new "modern" nation, those beleaguered rural migrant laborers who work long hours in unsafe conditions, for unreliable pay, who use their bodies as the altar upon which to offer the nation its fantasy of urbanized modernity, are building a gleaming, brave new world that has nothing but contempt for them and their sacrifices. In the name of these so-called "dirty, low-class, uncivilized" masses of laboring people who make the cities that have no place for them, Han Bing's Love in the Age of Big Construction offers up a sort of secular prayer.
While Love in the Age of Big Construction I was a spontaneous performance of consolation and mourning amidst urban ruins in Shanghai, in Love in the Age of Big Construction II, Han Bing's erotic affections are directed at an industrial machine of demolition and construction. His hands glide down the muscular metal arm of the enormous earthmover and as he caresses the sweat-slick surface like a lover. Lush lips brush across the paint and rust flecked surface of the metal, lingering, then pulling back before moving on to anoint the metal with more languid kisses that accompany the seduction of this hulking steel claw of a machine. His skin is slick with sweat, and his nude-silk stockings are ripped and smeared with machine oil from his exertions. Under a canopy of gauzy white, on a "wedding bed" of fluffy cotton like billowing clouds, for three hours, during this performance, Han Bing seduces the claw of the earthmover. In his two-hour performance of Love it the Age of Big Construction III, the wedding canopy from the performance of II was replaced by iron girders, the sort used in the construction of simple brick dwellings. They formed the four posters around the cement platform that is both bed and the frame of a home. Again cotton, ripped from bedding, was strewn across the platform, creating a nest for the enormous steel claw of the earthmover. While Han Bing used his erotic wiles to tame this machine that smashes homes and tears up fields, expressing the duality of desire as a motive force, a crew of migrant laborers in their hardhats and work clothes lay dreaming near the site. Each was curled around a mound of bricks. Iridescent bubbles, full of beautiful promises, wafted through the air before bursting as they come down to earth. The never-ending labor of building a new world plays on the screen behind the site.
In each rendition of Love in the Age of Big Construction, Han Bing employs a "dialectic of antinomies" to create space for overcoming. Using his vulnerable flesh and blood body, he warms the metal claw; using the lightness of cottony clouds, he holds up a ton of cold steel. Using passion, he tries to animate the unresponsive machine, perhaps hoping that the will of the sensual body can overcome the numbed philistine quality of the contemporary age, if only briefly; seeking succor for the wounds of the world and the mortal body that sustains a love of the world in spite of everything, Han Bing uses Eros to tame the Death drive, seduction to overcome violation, and feminine generativity to overcome masculine destructivity, in a perhaps futile attempt to ameliorate the violence of China's modernization.
While Han Bing's New Culture Movement reflects the major shift from a culture that counted knowledge and book-learning as an index of status and value, to a culture that now places the possession and ownership of private property at the forefront, and Theater of Modernization, explores the possible futures that arise from various contingent alliances among social classes, and the rise of certain values over others, Love in the Age of Big Construction is a viscerally embodied exploration of the power and paradoxes of desire. In these and in his other works as well, the consistent thread of Han Bing's conceptual explorations reveals a commitment to an art that not only offers visual provocations and linguistic explorations, but also substantively engages everyday life, and critically contemplates the human condition all its cruel and beautiful complexity.