Published in the Zooming into Focus exhibition catalog, 2005
When Eloisa Haudenschild decided to collect Chinese contemporary art mainly in the forms of photography and video, her American colleagues did not show particular interest about her 'adventurous' plan. From a traditional point of view, art works from these young Chinese artists are obviously not 'classical' enough; furthermore, the nature of photography and video is hard to preserve and easy to be duplicated. Therefore, these media forms are generally avoided by collectors. However, when Zooming into Focus: Chinese Contemporary Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection came into existence in San Diego, California at the SDSU Art Gallery, with vivid personalities and full of vitality, Eloisa had made her point clear: "never be afraid, always trust your eyes."
In fact, Zooming into Focus is not new to the Chinese contemporary art community. On one hand, as a touring exhibition, it was shown at the Shanghai Art Museum last year; on the other hand, these works have traveled to the Venice Biennial, Italy; Shanghai Biennial; Kassel, Germany; Yokohana Triennial, Japan; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, they have been represented in China and also sent to international cultural exchange events. However, the Zooming into Focus re-exhibition at the National Art Museum of China has its legendary and historic significance.
It is common knowledge that the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) made a clear distinction with experimental arts since the gun shooting incident of 1989 at the Beijing Contemporary Art Exhibition. Only after the Shanghai Biennial (2000) and the Guangzhou Triennial (2002) the Chinese government started lifting the ban of conceptual arts such as installations and images. However, NAMOC, due to the fact that it is located in the capital, maintained its insistence on "framed" art work. Although the exhibition Era of Opening up in celebration of the opening of the new permanent hall had included a few new media art works as well as 'framed' art works, but they were still main stream compared with 'unframed' ones.
The National Art Exhibition and the Beijing Biennial Art Exhibition held by the Art Association also excluded 'unframed' works, although the quality and quantity of new media artists, conceptual artists, and non-government art organizations in Beijing were far out-numbered anywhere else in the country. In fact, 'framed' or 'unframed' have no direct relationship with the quality of the works. Many avant-garde experimental arts had also adopted traditional media such as 'framed' paintings or sculptures; at the same time, art forms like behavioral, installation, photography and video, with decades of history, produced many classical works.
Officials at the Ministry of Culture understood the connections, and under the condition 'to seek common ground while reserving differences', they held many contemporary art exhibitions mainly in the form of new media art as international cultural exchange projects. For example, Living in Time, Hamburger Bahnhof, Hamburg, Germany, 2002; Centre National d'Art et de Culture, Georges Pompidou; and Venice Biennial China Art Hall, with the free and diversified art ecology from both in and outside the country.
NOMAC as the symbol of Art Center has lost the need to be a vacuum fortress, the ice has started melting between the so called 'framed' and 'unframed' art. At this moment, foreign collectors have held out olive branch, Zooming into Focus therefore has become the first to hold a Chinese contemporary photography and video exhibition at the National Museum of Art.
'Experiments' and 'classics' are not totally opposite concepts. From the tense perspective, 'experiment' is inclined to the continuous tense, while 'classic' belongs to the past tense. However, 'experiments' do not necessarily generate 'classics'; the factors of 'classics' are rather complicated. The word 'classics' has been paraphrased as: works that are authoritative. However, who defines 'authoritativeness' Not individuals or organizations. In fact, politics, religions, economics or pure art forms can all influence whether a work is 'classic' or not. Therefore, time is the real judge. 'Classics' are those artworks proven by time.
Although the Zooming into Focus collection will be exhibited at the National Arts Museum of China (NAMOC), which symbolizes 'authoritativeness', one cannot simply classify these works as 'classics'. The exhibition cannot be considered an experimental art exhibition either. As the history of photography and video works as experimental art has already become the past, one could say their 'experiments' are the past and present tense.
So, what motivated Eloisa to collect such works, taking meticulous care of them, and introducing them to people with joy? She is so confident: "the reason I only collect video and photography is because in my opinion it is the media that produces the most interesting works."
Similar opinion is held by Per Bjarne Boym, former director of National Art Museum of Norway, when he was the curator of A Facile Task – Shanghai Puzzle (2000-2004) he too selected only videos. When the writer asked him about the reason, he said "most of the best works I have seen in Shanghai are videos". In addition, works shown at Kassel, Germany and Venice Biennial, Italy in recent years, were mainly video or video installations: such as Yang Fudong's An Estranged Paradise and Seven Intellectuals; Chen Shaoxiong's Anti-Terrorism Variety; Xu Zhen's Rainbow; Yang Zhenzhong's Let's Puff; Feng Mengbo's Q4U, etc.
Is the Western judgment of 'good or bad' prejudiced toward China? There is no doubt that both opinions have a personal aesthetic, however, objectivity still exists. Looking back at the evolvement of Chinese contemporary art since the middle of the 1990s, we have to recognize that photography and video are the most experimental and pioneering media today, it is also the media that more strongly maintains the Chinese characteristics.
In fact, after the 85's new tide, pioneer Chinese contemporary artists have gradually become used to Western art forms such as installations, conceptual, behavioral, and political pop, and they have started utilizing this new language in their work. Photography originally was not the prevailing art form, in the beginning, it was used as a tool to record conceptual or behavioral art, the same phenomenon later appeared in video art. Avant-garde artists' experiments have gradually changed from indigenous artist’s groups to artists working independently.
Many artists tired of political pop symbols, resisted western culture colonialism and the fast consuming market abroad and started looking for more suitable art languages in which they could express themselves better and more freely. Their progress mirrors the country's progress of modernization, commercialization and urbanization. The prevalence of electronic images, digital techniques, and the rapid proliferation of the consuming culture extend the new life of photography and video as the revolution of art language; more importantly, it has changed the vision, imagination, and the way of narrations and criticisms of the artists.
Photography and video have become the media art format growing at the highest speed and the largest in numbers of works produced overnight. Conceptual photography and video have become more independent and mature symbols including, 'sensibility' which has emerged again in works, differing completely from the artists of earlier days, who used photography and video as pure tools of recording. Some artists have begun to consciously use photography or video as the main language of their experimental creations. artists began to connect the relationship between concepts and images, and to challenge photography and video's indigenous characteristics of narrative and authenticity. When 'sensitivity' returned to the language of images, concepts did not disappear, they had been quietly hidden, together with tremendous narratives and prolonged dry preach.
Surreal humor and utopia's poetry acquired the new password to open the real world. This is not a new invention; it comes from the tradition of Eastern Lao Zhuang's philosophy and Dynasty We, Jin's spirits of unconcern of fame and wealth, in contrast to the western's rhetoric origin of Greek comedy and tragedy. This might be the everlasting talisman for the bright artists, once the humor and poetry are lost, art will become tasteless and suffocating. This is how classics were inherited and led to the new experiment: photography and video's new battlefield 'fictitious reality' or 'combined reality'.
In conceptual photography, various poses combined with the power of digital composition are no doubt becoming the major weapon. Representative works of this kind can be found in this exhibition: Weng Fen's On The Wall is a typical work which depicts China's urban culture, a young girl riding on a wall representing the boundary between new and old, looking up to mirage-like skyscrapers, with aesthetic fantasy.
Zhao Bandi's Zhao Bandi & Panda openly conspires with public media, he and his toy panda played the fashion public welfare advertisement series' ghostly appearing everywhere ---- subways, airports and streets, mocking the over – urbanization caused by morbidity, pollution, violence, unemployment, drug addiction, and smoking. In fact, such arrangement has a close relationship with digital combination.
The above two works have both borrowed from digital combination. Only with software such as photoshop, artists could freely modify realities, as magical as wizardry. Yang Zhenzhong attempted to use digital combination to make his Lucky Family photography series as early as 1995. Charmingly naïve chicks were simulated to become different family members, the piece was achieved by using a digital combination technique. Xiang Liqing's Rock Never cloned many stereotyped Chinese city residences and pieced them together to create many surreal pictures. Shi Yong directly cloned himself in his work You cannot clone it, but you can buy it photographs.
Is this a game? Or is it a nightmare? Maybe it just like what artist Zheng Guogu said: " I'm using photos to play a game…it has a special charm to me—game is a kind of practice, thinking does not waste any film. I know thinking in this way is only a matter of time to me."
With respect to conceptual video art, distinctions are also becoming clear: early stage conceptual video was interested in stony and tedious video techniques, originated by artists' rebellion against the commercialized TV media. While the new generation's conceptual videos are more infatuated with exaggerated, humorous and dramatic expressions, absurdities directly became the structure of narration in order to choke people up.
For instance, Chen Shaoxiong's Anti-terrorism Variety installation uses computer animation to suggest the many ways how skyscrapers could avoid being struck by aircraft, using fantasy to mock the chaotic world.
Xu Zhen's Shouting and Rainbow videos on the other hand, are endowed with a power that is instantly explosive, Shouting played the devilment of shouting in a crowd, using the violence of the human voice. Rainbow showed a body whipped and gradually turned red by a disturbing sound, the artist has applied free and relaxed appearances to the implication of violence. Yang Zhenzhong's 922 Rice Corns looks at the chicken's instinct (eating the rice corns) and the human's futile efforts (counting the rice corns) sneering at those monomaniacs in real life.
The other type of experimental short film came from the film aesthetics experience of non- narrative, utopia's poetic scenes.
Yang Fudong's well controlled abstract vocabulary and chaotic space-time turned out ambiguous images in City Light where he is daydreaming and sleepwalking in the city; while Seven Intellectuals was his searching for the password to communicate with ancient scholars their ideal way of living.
Lu Chunsheng's The History of Chemistry was built upon images of fathomless, paradoxical esteem and introspection; its irrational and mysterious statements construct an illusory world created by massive truths.
At the same time, strong wishes of anti-narrative induced the artists to explore the possibilities of photography and video to interfere with space and human activities. Photo installation, video installation, and interactive installation were coming to existence. For example, Chen Shaoxiong's Street pieces together two dimensional street scenes into three dimensional models introducing them into the even bigger urban space; then re-recording it onto photography, wandering freely between two dimensional and three dimensional reality and illusiveness.
Another example is Song Tao's The Floor, which also presents ordinary black and white life images on floorboards, clearing up the boredom and reconstructing life's interests.
Video installations are easier to be combined with interactions: Yang Zhenzhong's Let's Puff is a multi-screen video interaction. In the city scenes being blown away by the girl, audiences may further experience the 'unbearable lightness' of life.
Hu Jieming's Up Up on the other hand, extends the interaction to communicate with audiences. In the 25 televisions vertically installed videos on a steel structure, 25 meters in total height, A little girl is doomed to climbing up her way like Sisyphus, however, no one will be able to see the moment she arrives at the top, since any surrounding sound could make her pause or drop back.
Additionally, photography and video art's fast evolvement is directly related to China's economic environment. Before 2000, the entire art market and exhibition market were at a preliminary stage, most artists’ 'unframed' works were fairly poor, and artists needed other jobs as teachers or designers to make a living. Chances of getting sponsorship on making art works or exhibitions were minimal. Therefore, plans of large scale and expensive installation works had to be suspended. Early behavioral art was treated by the Chinese government as evil since it involved pornography and violence.
Photography and video gradually became a more convenient and workable new media. Although the equipment was not cheap, it was relatively easy to borrow; the prevailing personal computer and digital technology allowed for a more "Do It Yourself" (DIY) editing and production. In comparison, photography and video the media lowest in cost, became naturally more widespread.
Due to the restriction of economic conditions, Chinese artists are used to adjust to low costs and small productions. Film proportion is normally kept very high, such as Ju Anqi's There is a strong wind in Beijing, Yang Zhenzhong's 922 Rice Corns and others, they all kept film proportion at 1:1. It is not rare to see artists become actors for each other.
Another feature worth noticing is that all the works in this exhibition come from indigenous Chinese artists' art practice. In fact, considerable differences exist between indigenous and overseas Chinese artists, in terms of ideology and substance of art practice. Overseas Chinese artists under the Western contemporary art environment are more concerned with the origin and success of Chinese culture and the process of globalization. On the other hand local Chinese artists prefer to proceed from China's modern realities and through experimenting with art languages, they want to present a more personal opinion on society's explosive change. Therefore, although indigenous art practices utilized common art language --- photography and video, no doubt persists in a realism with Chinese characteristics, particularly bringing up questions and introspections on China's urbanization and fast commercial development.
The Zooming into Focus exhibition has recalled some photography and video experiments of China indigenous artists' since the 1990s and at the same time has emphasized on the past continuous tense of these experiments, which is a past tense.
I would like to bring us back the topic of this article—when experiments come across classics. There are two arguable statements: the first is whether the assumption of 'experiments come across classics' is correct? Second, if the assumption is correct, how does experimentation continue?
In fact, the meaning of 'experiments' and 'classics' are pointing at different subjects. Relatively speaking, experimentation is granted by the artists, however, the meaning of 'classics' is originated by the audiences.
Italo Calvino mentioned in his book Why Read the Classics "The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say, 'I am re-reading . . . ' and never 'I am reading . . . '" It pointed here that 'classics' is defined by the readers. Pual Connerton made his point in his book How Societies Remember .
Therefore, the creator of the work does not have control whether the work will be classified as 'classic'; it also does not have any direct relationship with experimentation.
Social memory inevitably influences the creator, as Pual Connerton indicated. The realist is that government permission greatly transformed the original art system. However, experimental art is facing the possibility of systematization and commercialization; this change could be so fast that there will be no time for preparation. Generally speaking, a "classical" work is treated as the standard of aestheticism by art authorities and has become the art market's favorite.
However, if getting lost in all of the above and confused by the glory of outside commercial and authority of the "classical", the essence of "classical" will be neglected. This neglect may be the biggest threat to art to rapidly become commercial and systemized – once overly consumed, art experiments and creativity will not be able to differentiate itself from fashion consumption. Let’s keep in mind that in a commercial society, the scope of new and old is not substantive, but only superficial. This is the major difference between art and fashion.
We have to recognize the formidable "consumption power" of the art system and the art market. History has already shown us the outcome of this self –contradiction. Realist Futurists and Dadaists who intended to destroy art as a system turned out to make their works 'classics'. It is art experimentation and evolution that formidably pushes art history, the art system and the art market's "self discipline".
Under this new environmental language, how will artists confront the temptation of systematization and commercial authorities? How will they overcome the inertia problem of creation? How will they continue with new experiments?
Looking forward ...