Taopu, the New Chinese Art Factory
Taopu, a former industrial property on the outskirts of Shanghai, is home to an artists’ colony and the gigantic ShanghART Taopu complex, China’s first art gallery-warehouse. Buzzing with creative exchanges and ideas since 2010, it is also a production site, a veritable factory for artworks. Its occupants include the MadeIn Company, whose methods are sometimes downright industrial.
Shi Qing, Yang Zhenzhong, Zhang Ding, Yang Fudong and Xu Zhen come from different generations and practices, but they are linked by a common interrogation of the nature and role of art in a constantly evolving society. Addressing questions such as the new materialism, the nature and forms of individualism, Western neocolonialism and the foundations of art criticism, they aim to construct their own values in an autonomous fashion while remaining on the political sidelines. Their work tends toward shared characteristics, such as refusing to define or pigeonhole Chinese contemporary art.
INDIVIDUALISM AND COLLECTIVITY
The idea of collectivity is very specific to China, where it retains much power. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) left a durable mark on individual identity and the relationships between family and society, public and private, and individualism and uniformity. Artists are continuing to explore t hese concepts and t heir implications. Shi Qing’s installation Factory (2009) is comprised of reduced scale models of traditional factories. Each model contains furniture dating back to the 1970s that once belonged to the artist’s family. The isomorphism between the workplaces and the family furniture recalls the strict system of collective social organization and the eradication of personal space during the communist era. Visitors walk through these shoeboxes and sense the oppressive narrowness. The piece interrogates the ideal relationship between production space and private space, and modes of production. Born in 1969 in Inner Mongolia, Shi is self-taught. He has been making experimental work since the end of the 1990s, creating his own vocabulary with very simple materials such as wood, living plants and boxes meant to be as neutral as possible.
Individual alienation from the collective is also enacted in Yang Zhenzhong’s video Spring Story (2003). Likewise born in 1969, he filmed 1,500 workers from a Shanghai factory, asking each of them to recite a word or phrase from a famous 1992 speech by Deng Xiaoping.(1) In the video no one understands what’s happening, but when the words and phrases are put together they acquire meaning. Here the artist is questioning the autonomy of the individual. These workers’ daily lives are focused on the repetition of tiny, isolated tasks that don’t make sense except as part of a whole that goes way beyond them. The individuals are simply cogs in a machine, and yet, blindly, each makes their contribution to the col- lective product. The subtext involves the value of human beings and an appeal for the autonomy of the self. Like many artists, Yang Zhenzhong was trained as a painter and learned video art on his own. His I Will Die (2000-8) shows people all over the world repeating this sentence in English. They are all equal in the face of their common fate, and yet each demonstrates their individuality in their own way of saying these few simple words. Once again, this artist situates the individual and their margin of freedom within the uniformity of the group. In Let’s Puff (2002) a girl seen on a monitor blows very hard in the direction of another screen showing the city of Shanghai. Every time she puffs, the urban
landscape changes, as if a single individual could transform an entire city. Nicole Schoeni (2) uses the term “me generation” to describe artists who are products of the one-child policy and the reemergence of capitalism. But at the same time, there are an increasing number of artists’ collectives. In Shanghai, for example, Bird Head was founded in 2004 by the photographers Ji Weiyu and Song Tao, and Ding Li and Jin Feng launched the TOF group in 2011. The MadeIn Company, which occupies a Taopu warehouse, is a case in point. Artists contribute anonymously to the production of artworks as part of what its founder, Xu Zhen, defines as a commercial enterprise. Yet not all its artists are equal; Xu Zhen makes all decisions himself. His intention was to create a parody—a capitalist corporation whose mission is to promote creativity. This was not the first collective experience for this artist, born in 1977, who along with the Italian Davide Quadrilo founded BizArt, China’s first private exhibition space and artists’ residences, opened in 1998 in Shanghai’s M50 district. The MadeIn Company’s premises are immense. They include artists’ living quarters and workshops where textile workers and craftsmen make monumental pieces and sculptures. Of the more than twenty employees, only three or four artists supply ideas; the rest are worker bees. The products may be unique pieces but they are industrially produced. This is an original way to conceptualize the place of the individual/artist in society and the relationship between the particular and the general. Further, the MadeIn Company’s whole purpose is to upend conventional readings. For instance, these artists made Action Consciousness (2011), a series of pieces that can’t really be seen because they are in constant motion. The sculptures rotate around a white cube incessantly, blocking a clear view. True Images (2010) is a suit of photos of sculptures and installations the group made and then destroyed. Only the pictures attest to their erstwhile existence. This denunciation of the media’s influence on our way of thinking foregrounds the image as a new cognitive tool and intermediary filter between the individual and reality. Another good example is the increase in online acquisitions of artworks where the collector, instead of having any real contact with the piece, has nothing to go on but the reproduction of its image.
THE NEW SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE
Success and wealth have become socially accepted ambitions in China, and upward mobility is today’s credo. Thus the market economy is a purveyor of dreams and illusions for many Chinese—for instance, the protagonist of Great Era (2007), the video that brought Zhang Ding to prominence. When the curtains open, a man in a white suit finds, under a sheet, a bicycle with horse head mounted on the handlebars. He thinks it’s a motorcycle and takes off for a spin around town, a place whose skyscrapers make it look like Shanghai. He dreams of becoming a modern man. As he goes along the situation turns increasingly ridiculous. The soundtrack, a kind of fairground music, reinforces the farcical dimension. The man keeps peddling his bike/motorcycle/horse but it doesn’t really move. He isn’t going anywhere. For Zhang Ding, these are the illusions of the capitalist market: bargain-basement prettied-up junk. Compartment (2011), for example, is a reproduction of a Louis XVI cabinet done in the style of Chinese restaurants anxious to impress their customers. The title of the performance, Buddha Jumps Over the Wall (2012), is taken from a highly esteemed Chinese gastronomic dish made of a variety of meat and fish, here represented life-size in plaster. He also designed a bandstand where musicians play waltzes. A few expensively dressed extras dance while the cooks prepare the dish. When they start to carve up the victuals the scene explodes— fireworks go off in the bellies of the livestock and fish, blowing them apart. Blood spurts out all over. At the end of the performance, all that’s left is a few shreds of plaster on the floor, a metaphor for the slaughter of animals, the sacrifice that makes gustatory delight possible. This sensation of overabundance, which, according to the artist, definitely dulls his understanding, stands for the excess of contemporary society. Zhang Ding, born in 1980, holds a diploma in painting but quickly took up the new media instead and in 2003 acquired an MFA from the prestigious China Aca-
demy of Art in Hangzhou. Along with videos he also makes dramatic installations that visitors enter at their own risk. In the new society of the spectacle the public wants to participate in artworks and if possible actually experience them. Thus, in Law (2009), they climb a ladder and then walk across a wobbly plank until they reach a kind of crater strewn with lit lamps. Balanced above this depression is a bottle of water that seems ready to tumble as visitors go by. On each side are other planks that do not inspire confidence, but visitors are free to walk on them nonetheless. The light bulbs recall the rows of lights alongside the vanity in actors’ dressing rooms. Once again this piece is a mirror of the contemporary world’s grand performance.
THE FIGURE OF THE ARTIST
For centuries the artist was assigned a very well defined place in Chinese society. Seen as a “scholar,” his attitude was exemplary and his painting sincerely conveyed an inner world fully congruent with his moral principals. Art had rules, rituals and followed strict codes. Mao held that art should “please the eyes and ears of the people” and conform to socialist realism. At the same time the artist remained just another citizen, with a fixed salary and assigned lodging. At the end of the 1970s the figure of the artist went out of focus: ordinary citizen, intellectual, activist? Artists won more freedom but lost their assigned place, and while they have more or less recovered their legitimacy since the turn of this century their role remains to be defined. For Shi Qing, art is above all a critical tool, not a political one. He believes that Ai Weiwei contributes to this confusion regarding the definition of the artist: he may respect and even admire Ai as a citizen but he does not consider this dissident an artist because his work is inscribed in the system without reinventing it. In fact, getting out of the system is an obsession for Shi, who has scoured the works of Luc Boltanski and Jacques Rancière in his search for an alternative to classical criticism, rendered ineffective by its social cooptation. Thus, in his view, artists should be defined as resistors in their artistic production as well as their attitude. They should hope to have an impact on society but remain rather pessimistic because their work seems so feeble in the face of the big capitalist machine. The main thing is to keep aloof from the society of the spectacle, at the risk of art losing its meaning entirely. All that is solid melts into air (2012) is an installation made of wood and living plants, conceived as a reference to Constructivism and the Bauhaus. Planks, boxes and towers fill the room but have no specific form. The title is a canonical citation from Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. For Shi, changing the world has become impossible because there is no longer something solid to anchor anything, even a critical project. He seeks a way out of the postMarxist logic of a critique that “sees every protest as a spectacle and every spectacle as a commodity.” Above all, he wants to restore critical thinking’s power, and for that the public must be emancipated. In contrast to Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, Shi isn’t interest in extending the social fabric or reaching out for context. All he wants is total freedom, for everyone, and to make art where no one has their place and no reading is more valid than any other, in a space that is always new. What he offers is a vocabulary, some speech and words whose meaning it is up to the public to judge. Thus, in All that is solid melts into air, there is a box containing words made up by members of a Constructivist group called Utopian. These are words that are not used, what he calls “dead words,” before which all viewers are equal. This desire to make art a precursor to a broader process of reflection and the restoration of judgment as a critical activity is something that Shi has in common with the artists of the MadeIn Company. These artists all study philosophy with some regularity. Every week a professor comes to Taopu to lecture about Baudrillard, Deleuze, Žižek and Foucault. It’s striking to run into these philosophers again in China, where the new consumer society and capitalist abuses have given them resonance. These artists draw on their thinking for the toolsets that allow them to invent Chinese concepts that make it possible to observe and analyze the way in which new norms are being constructed. This is somewhat understandable, given the centrality of the notions of the individual and subjec-
tivity in the work of these thinkers, but still, it’s quite an intellectual stretch to grasp the core issues involved and transpose them into a Chinese context. This enthusiasm may have something to do with the fact that the overwhelming majority of actors influencing the Chinese art market are Westerners, who bring with them a whole cohort of obligatory references, virtually passwords, whose extraordinary power artists got long ago.
ART AND POLITICS
In short, by these lights, artists must constantly challenge accepted ideas and social progress even while taking advantage of it: most of these artists profit from rising market prices and are represented by major international galleries. Yang Fudong, born in 1971, who considers himself an intellectual, perfectly encapsulated this contradiction in his portrait entitled The First Intellectual ( 2000): a disoriented man, his face covered with blood, stands in the middle of a highway, a brick in his hand. Hesitating, he doesn’t know who to throw it at, society or himself? He wears a suit and tie and is obviously a member of the new society, and even knows how to benefit from it, while also presenting himself as its victim. That kind of ambiguous attitude is strongly criticized by some writers, like the dissident Liu Xiaobo who is irritated by the prudent compromises made by some intellectuals: “Almost everyone in China has the courage to defy morality shamelessly. Very few have the moral courage to shamelessly defy reality.”(3) Today, partially as a result of the Cultural Revolution, artists and critics tend to avoid political discourse and controversial political questions. No one harks back to Lu Xun anymore.(4) If you like politics so much, they say, take it to the streets. Yang Zhenzhong, for example, does not consider himself an artist in the traditional sense of the term, i.e. a representative of values and ethics that should be respected. It’s too hard to maintain that stance. He does not believe that artists have a social role to play or even a responsibility. But his work can be read politically. The massage chairs he hangs from the wall or lines up in rows seem more like torture chairs than places to relax. Who would want to sit on these metal chairs, with their exposed mechanisms? The title Pleasant Sensation Passing Through Flesh ( 2012) gives you goose bumps as you imagine the flesh ripped apart by these naked cogs. Inevitably, this piece brings to mind capital punishment—China holds the world record for executions. But the artist doesn’t men- tion that. His work, in fact, does not seek to be political, and he would rather be guided by intuition than reason. Can artists be engaged despite their intentions? Zhang Ding, for his part, says he’s happy to just observe the world around him. He worked with the artists Sun Xun and Tang Maohong to make gigantic Chinese characters meaning, “Are you ready?” During the Cultural Revolution, that was the question put to young Red Guards who would respond yes without knowing what they were ready for. In those days if you wanted to kill someone you didn’t have to shoot them. It was enough to write their name on a big character poster meant to denounce rightists. What makes these characters so striking is not only their size but their ambiguity. Today the slogan could be understood as advertising copy. This simple question makes us think about personal and collective motivations. It could be addressed to China as a whole: Are you ready for change? But it could also serve to awaken people by challenging them directly. This artist believes that there are two kinds of people who need waking up, those who are sleeping comfortably and those who haven’t had time to think yet because they’ve been busy trying to make ends meet. They work to make some money and blow it as soon as they get it. This is a vicious circle that makes it impossible to see things in perspective or even to reflect. Once again, how should we understand this artist’s protestations that he is apolitical?
Can we really speak about Chinese contemporary art without talking about politics? Our Western gaze tends to see things from that point of view, and many Chinese artworks have been classified as “political” that are nothing of the kind.(5) Yet politics is at the heart of Chinese culture and always has been. Can the disparity between these artists’ discourse and their work be explained by a fear of the omnipresent censorship? Most artists don’t seem to worry about it too much. It’s just part of the lay of the land, and they seem to have learned to live with it, internalize it or even play with it. Is censorship just a Western obsession? According to Pi Li, in the 1990s “some protests were held purely for the benefit of foreign journalists, and to this end deliberately provoked censorship.”(6) This commercial avant-garde petered out at the turn of the century with the opening of galleries and art spaces where artists could show their work to foreign buyers with increasingly little interference. To this day the art scene is primarily dominated by the West, which imposes its theories, analytical tools and rules of the game. Cultural exchange and national identity are still recurring themes, but with globalization the MadeIn Company artists have noted the persistence of a demand for exoticism and preconceived ideas. For their bondage series, referencing Araki, a Black model, symbolizing exoticism, rides astride another person whose head is wrapped up in a plastic bag. The series is called Play. The idea is to show a game and not a torture session. But with our suppositions, we immediately read this piece in a political fashion, even though that is not how it should be seen. For them, as for many artists, contemporary Chinese art has not yet been understood by Occidentals who project their own stereotypes onto it and instrumentalize it to reinforce their own vision. This starts with the idea of “Chinese” art itself. Just as there is no “Chinese” way of thinking, so the complex reality of artistic practices in today’s China can’t be reduced to a set of national characteristics. Today’s artists increasingly tend to be more universal than Chinese-specific. They are a heterogeneous bunch, just as you would expect from a country as big as a continent. Understanding mutual expectations and interactions in the face of galloping Westernization is still a big issue for these artists who want to both take their place on the international stage and affirm their autonomy.
Translation, L-S Torgoff
(1) This was the speech in which Deng Xiaoping declared his intention to open China to the West and launched the notorious slogan “To get rich is glorious!” heralding the great economic reforms. (2) Nicole Schoeni is the director of the Schoeni gallery in Hong Kong. Founded in 1992, it pioneered in the breakthrough of contemporary Chinese art. (3) Liu Xiaobo, La Philosophie du porc, Gallimard 2011. (4) Lu Xun (1881-1936) was a Chinese politically engaged writer who defended the idea of Western democracy during the 1911 Revolution. He called for realism in the arts in opposition to traditional painting, which he considered incapable of reflecting reality. (5) During the 1990s, a neo-colonialist tendency (highly criticized today) seized on certain Chinese artworks and turned them into political symbols. The exhibition curator Gao Minglu explained, “The market is interested in marquee names and a cynical genre that’s easy to recognize. When the interests and lives of these artists are closely examined, it turns out that their work has nothing to do with politics. It’s purely commercial.” (Jingdaily, 2011)
Caroline Ha Thuc is a writer. She is the author of Nouvel art contemporain japonais in collaboration with Momo Matsuzaki (Nouvelles Éditions Scala).
Ci-dessus / above: Yang Zhenzhong. « Spring Story ». Vidéo mono canal. (Court. de l’artiste et ShanghART Gallery). Single-channel video Page de droite/ page right: Zhang Ding (avec Sun Xun et Tang Maohong). « Are you Ready? ». (Court. ShanghART, Pékin)