九十年代以来西方对中国当代艺术的关注点主要是政治化和符号化的艺术潮流，这和西方世界的冷战思维有关。”CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART “在西方是一个政治的概念，很少有人从社会、文化、艺术语言的交叉角度来研究政治之外的艺术语言问题。在政治与资本的双重神话的压力下,导致了中国当代艺术中有意无意之间的自我殖民化倾向，是否有中国文革政治符号和传统文化的元素成为了中国艺术家进入国际展览系统的“自我审查”？尤其近年由于西方旅游观光者的猎奇，艺术市场需要更多的天安门、社会主义的代表建筑、毛肖像等社会主义的经典符号，当符号化的图形设计成为人人都会的PHOTO-SHOP普及软件，不少人把符号和图像互相混淆。符号变成了标志设计，这时语言就变成了空壳。图像泛滥的世界如何超越图像本身？艺术家有赋予图像本身像巫师一样的魔法权利吗？找到了符号不一定就是找到了“真理”，以各种图像名义的展览究竟和符号有什么样的联系？为什么是符号？
图注：1） 张培力 《今晚没有爵士乐》 1987年 布上油画 124×180cm 成都私人藏.
2) 耿建翌 《第二状态》 1987年 油画 145×200cm.
3) 王广义 《大悲爱的复归》 1986年 布上油画 119×175cm 成都私人藏.
4) 舒群 《绝对原则1号》 1989年 布上油画 160×200cm 成都私人藏.
5) 张晓刚 《血缘：母子》 1993年 150×180cm 日本富冈美术馆
6) 曾梵志 《小男孩》 2006年 布上油画 180×280cm.
7) 周春芽 《黑根一家——男主人》 1995年 布上油画 240×150cm 中国私人藏.
8） 王亚彬 《发光的绿蟒》 亚麻油彩 110X60cm 2007.
9) 陈辉 《海军节》 亚麻油彩 210cmx183cm 2007.
10) 王兴伟 《东方之路》 1995年 布上油画 200×155cm 香港汉雅轩藏.
11) 李大方 《牛皮书包》 亚麻油彩190x320cm 2006.
12) 李松松 《放下你的鞭子》 亚麻油彩 230x350cm.
13) 张小涛 《无题》 亚麻油彩 200x150cm 2007.
From Simple Smear to Complex Layering
—On the double-layer encoding of visual design and the image in contemporary art.
Since sprouting with the ‘85 New Wave, Chinese contemporary art has flourished, mutated and gained acceptance as a legitimate artistic movement by both academia and the art market, and along with it, the myths of capitalism and the market have become deeply engrained in everyone’s minds. For the most part, discussion of the evolution of Chinese contemporary art from the ‘85 New Wave to the “new painting” movement has been dominated by heterogeneous interpretations combining common sociology, cultural studies, political economy and literature, with very few critics applying the linguistic models of Western art history to the analysis of the substance and evolution of contemporary art visual language per se, or to the tracking of possible genetic mutations of the visual language of the future. In the absence of a systematic study of the shift in visual language, we are left with literary descriptions based on experience—not rational arguments and logical demonstrations. The strong support of historical fact is essential, for the evolution of visual language goes hand in hand with that of perspective and world view, a change of esthetics being symptomatic of the shift in perspective and indicative of an updating and mutation of in visual language. This is a main focus of art, with the visual language presented in the final artwork being more significant than any overwrought interpretation of the work. In this article, I shall discuss the notions of smear language, semiotics, visual design, image, language, and the historical development of double layering of semiotic encoding of the visual language from the ’85 New Wave to the recent new painting movement.
The History of Smear Language
“Viruses are all part of the normal phenomena of life. In other words, it is just another phenomenon of life. When you observe it calmly, you find that behind it lies a powerful metaphysical force” —Zhang Peili.
Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi of New Space ’85-fame first used the indifferent monochrome language of black and white to “dehumanize” reality and depict their detachment and distance from it. Heavily influenced by American photographic realism and the neo-realist movement in painting, No Jazz Tonight and Second State (Di Er Zhuangtai) employed the dispassionate machine language of printing instead of the more eye-pleasing handmade-feel of painting to explore urban and industrial themes and rebuke the “hard, small and old” symbolism of scar painting. Both artists were to later leave behind the monochromatic smears of pop language to experiment with new media. The language of the smear went on to be employed in the encounter of the classical mind and modern philosophy put forth by Absolute Principles proponents Wang Guangyi, Shu Qun and Ren Jian, all members of the North Art Group. Their rationalist criticism and reinterpretation of classical culture presented in manifestos and pictorial restoration substituted a superficial “sense of form” with a sublime “spirituality.” Wang Guangyi would later use the even more Americanized and commercial pop art language in his Great Criticism series to lay out classic political symbols of the Cultural Revolution alongside famous Western commercial brands, giving form to a bizarre clash and contradiction of spacio-temporal dislocation and producing a shocking visual effect. The terse and implicit surrealistic language of Zhang Xiaogang’s early nineties series Bloodline—The Big Family not only revealed the artist’s unique perspective and dispassionate sense of historical observation and commentary, but also articulated an abstract criticism of historical memory of the Cultural Revolution. His smears were more than mere advertisement smears: he used the cracked charcoal technique of traditional folk drawings to evoke the psychological latitudes of collective and individual memory. The “pointing to multiple significances and perspectives” found in his conjuration of contemporary collective nightmares and wounds of the soul trail blazed a new path for linguistic shift in the Chinese pop language environment.
Together, the results of these linguistic experiments formed one of the dominant discourses of the discipline and their influence can still be felt in painting today. Smear language served as a model for the linguistic foundations of new painting with its use of advertising and the realism of commercial photography as media for urban subject matter. However, the changing nature of contemporary reality and its linguistic environment forced artists to examine the relationship between language and the world, the intimate connection between the individual and his times and the blood relationship between visual experience and history. Past studies and grafts were like a modernist Enlightenment or surgical interventions: now natural synthesis and growth were called for. How the assimilated elements of Western culture could genetically fuse and grow with Chinese culture and how the two visual experiences could be brought together became the focus of a now long-standing debate. Historical visual experience is made out the intertwining of upheavals, layers and space; in the global society that we live in, the use of the language of advertising as a tool to criticize and question consumer society is debatable for its lack of complexity. The language of the smear required a more intricate psychological and multi-layered semiotic visual encoding if it were to experience further growth. The artist not only had to give shape to a concept, but also forge a technical working vocabulary. A new collective movement born in the late nineties undertook the task of forging a manmade language, transforming “methodologically” heteroclite socialist symbols into a series of mass produced ideological weapons. A symbol is only potent for a limited time; once the movement has run its course, the contribution made to the continuity of the language of art perhaps remains the only individualized mark the artist makes on art history.
Why Is It a Sign?
“Political Pop as a contemporary Chinese cultural phenomenon is not limited to the esthetic realm. It is a universal notion. Characterized by neo-colonialism, it depends on latent international superpowers” –Yi Yang, The Truth of Art and the Myths of Politics
In part due to Cold War politics, the West has mainly shown interest in the politically- and symbolically- charged trends in Chinese art. “Chinese contemporary Art” is mainly viewed as a political concept in the West, and its non-political artistic language is rarely examined through the lens of sociology, cultural studies and the language of art. Under the spell of the myths of politics and capitalism, Chinese contemporary art has a semi-self-conscious tendency towards self-colonialism, and one may ask if there is some “self-censorship” in a Chinese artist’s choice of Cultural Revolution political icons or symbols of traditional culture subject matter to enter the international exhibition circuit. Thanks to the nostalgia-hunting of foreign tourists, the art market has shown the need for more Tian’anmens, more socialist–era buildings, more Chairman Mao portraits and other classic symbols of socialism. But when symbolic images meet the user-friendly PhotoShop, many mistake the image for the sign. The moment the symbol becomes a logo, the visual language is emptied of its content. In an image-flooded world, how can one escape images per se? Is the artist like a shaman who endows the image with some kind of magical power? Finding the right marker or sign doesn’t necessarily equate with finding truth. But what is the relationship between the reality shown in an image and the marker used to signify it? Why is it a sign?
Image, marker and schema have been the buzz words of Chinese artistic movements since ‘85 New Wave. “Schema” alludes to a specific situation or cognitive organization of objects and events. It enables the processing of information in a similar context. In a cognitive system, the “marker” is a visual signifier of an idea or concept. It can be a combination of image and script, or a simple sound, piece of architecture or even an actual figure of ideological culture. “Image” is the most common disease of the visual world of the changing and unpredictable virtual web. Semiotics is the study of the principles that guide the use of signs in human society, or the study of culture and arts and literature using the devices of semiotics. It provides a general methodology for the humanities based on the premise that culture is an expression of as well as a commentary. As a cross-disciplinary subject, the methodology of semiotics is usually viewed as the foundation of the semantics and logic underlying other disciplines. However there is a great difference between what is semiotic and semiotics; markers and signs are highly motivated and symbolic, yet today they have become a component of graphic design. As a matter of fact, this most fashionable concept is proof of the unconscious changes mainstream discourse operates on human ideology over the ages. Does semiosis imply “accuracy” and “orthodoxy”? There is something profoundly wrong about a symbolically-charged image becoming a household logo. The classic symbols of Christian iconography, Dunhuang murals, Tibetan thangka, and Buddhist bas-relief are imbued with a high-level of sacredness, while the symbols of consumer culture, best exemplified by the language of advertising, are intended to prompt consumer behavior. Shopping centers are the “churches” of today and the language of advertising is the distillation of their underlying myths. Advertising is both the lifeline and the collective illusion of capitalism. It is the gospel of consumerism, what the consumer must refer to before entering the “church”! In the highly commercialized environment of Western society, individuals naturally form semiotic recognition systems and ways of thinking. Chinese contemporary art of the early nineties was dominated by “semiotic” artists that were engaged in a process of assimilation of Western culture and who gave priority to politics and commercialization. Obviously a deeper reading and interpretation of the language of art requires a tremendous amount of ground work, from the study of the mechanisms of the exhibition system to the inner workings of the market, academic research, publishing, and art education and promotion, for without a complete system of interpretation, any decoding remains arbitrary. The West does not have the responsibility or the obligation to pursue such a fundamental line of inquiry!
Chinese contemporary art since the nineties has been extremely concerned with culture. Faced with the social issues of the period of transition, many artists have shown a great sense of realism, depicting in their work the new cultural trends of rampant demolition and urban design brought on by urbanization, the clash between personal and collective experiences and the emergence of a new, materialistic consumer society. But how does an artist highlight the connection between the power and psychological transcendence of language and the pages of history? How does the artist approach a reality that is more shocking than art and where does he stand? How does one distinguish a simple political or sociological statement from a more complex one? By intentionally assembling and re-positioning the various fragments of life, the urbanization of developing nations and their metropolises became fragmented units in themselves, became new logos. A new semiotic trend was born, in which everything “image” in name was believed to be making a contemporary statement. In this trend, “hinting” is the main means of referring the fragments of reality arbitrarily plucked from the meeting of the illogical with historical context, it is also the guardian of power, capital and order, while subverting by means of “perversion” (luangao) allows one to slide into the fast lane of success more smoothly. With more people having mastered the structure and means of subversion of contemporary art, what are we to do in the aftermath of destruction? Countless exhibitions and the flooded media market offer few works that are truly moving. The commonality of everyday existence is upon us, and the sever lack of any sense of history and religion is glaring. Under the pressure of commercialization and the system, contemporary art appears to be as pre-programmed as the commercial advertisements designed for its promotion. It is no longer the expression of a soul on the verge of collapse in an age of political, economic and cultural crisis. So what does contemporary art actually mean?
The Double-Layer Encoding of Language and the Image
“On of the great things about the information highway is that virtual equality is far easier to achieve than real equality […] We are all created equal in the virtual world” —Bill Gates
“We are driven by some kind of energy, a vitality and undying hope.”—Shidai Zhoubao on the globalization of China.
In the era of the information superhighway and the Internet, globalization is stretching across the planet, yet none of us can ever globally comprehend the phenomenon. We are all reduced to the role of insignificant bricks in the wall in the image-laden virtual world, struggling to reconstruct and decode the global platform of information. The grand narrative of eighties, articulated in an overly literary and philosophical language, pursued the ideal modernization. Artists remained in the metaphysical world of the ivory tower of art. The nineties were marked by a return to the real world with an especially sociologically-significant narrative in which people and the relationship between them made up the threads of an up-close and intimate narrative of the quotidian. The new generation of contemporary artists looks at the world through a magnifying glass and uses virtual images to weave a microscopic narrative. Asymbolic and apolitical, these artists rebuke the grand narrative and embrace the age of microscopic, fragmented images focusing on the individual.
Since the mid and late nineties, many artists have been pushing the limits of language and methods of image-making, shifting from the one-way language of advertising to the complex double-layer encoding of image and language. Painting today involves an intricate structuring and layering of multisided approaches to the treatment of visual language and historical data. It is characterized on the one hand by psychological nuance and the multiplicity of viewpoints provided by multiple sources on the other. When the main discourse shifted focus to semiosis and pseudo-minimalism, the link between Cultural Revolution icons and current cultural reality was broken. (Some of the artists I discuss below use the pure language of visual art to steer clear from politicized semiotic trends, some employ the image to subvert the legitimacy of the image, while others opt for a double layering of image and language.
Zeng Fanzhi’s recent series Idealism utilizes thick and chaotic brushwork to shatter the classic historical images, icons and landscapes of socialism and lay out a profoundly hypnotic image space in their wake. In the grim and gloomy atmosphere where the line between history and reality is blurred, individual and collective memory are interchangeable. A vertiginous oppressiveness greets the visitor into this labyrinth of visual language. The shards of the meta-epic lie buried among the weeds of history. Is this a depiction of the artist’s state of mind? Is it the bad memories of an entire generation or its happy recollections? Zeng’s world is guarded by many passwords, each one opening a different pathway for the visitor. “ [I]n a more expanded conceptual domain, artists regain freedom in painting, and are no longer troubled by the medium itself, because the validity of the medium could be found in the basis of post-modern approach. Artists reclaim their right to vitality, impact, pleasure, the essence of painting and even literary sophistication – the result being that they rebuild the esteemed position of painting. In this process of reconstruction, the story of Zeng Fanzhi’s “state of mind” acts as a connecting link, and its importance speaks for itself.” (Lü Peng, Story of a State of Mind – The Art of Zeng Fanzhi)
The aura of ancient scholar that surrounds Zhou Chunya sets him apart from the main movements in contemporary painting, the significance of his contributions to the linguistic practices of the new painting movement having been obscured by the success of semiotic movements. However, when taking another glance at the history of the new painting movement, we find that a latent undercurrent of painters concerned with language continues its explorations. Since the 1993 exhibition China’s Experience, Zhou has combined the brushwork of German expressionism and the light-ink strokes of Ming and Qing dynasty landscape painting in an attempt to blend their inherent psychological atmospheres. Stones from Lake Taihu, green dogs and peach blossoms are nothing more than objects chosen by the painter: it is how he chooses to paint them that counts. Independence of linguistic form and the way in which the visual reinterpretation of the psychological elements of traditional painting and modern esthetics is undertaken are the main focus of Zhou, who analyses, reassembles and synthesizes both the language of traditional painting and the visual experience of new painting. Between the classical and the contemporary, from the elegant to tender sexual violence of his work, his exceptional gift for language stands as a typical example of linguistic experimentation within the new painting movement.
In the language of Wang Yabin and Chen Hui, ambiguity and obscurity are the linguistic devices of choice for treating the flipside of reality. Wang engages in a rereading of the ruins of time and writes them out again in his own, personal visual language. Hovering somewhere at the crossroads between dreams and reality, his intense and finely variegated images are deeply imbued with an aura of mysticism and are embossed with the feel of Han and Tang mural painting. Chen’s language is marked by the austerity and stillness of literati painting of the Ming and Qing dynasties. In Welcome to Fuchun and Navy Day (Haijun Jie), he empties reality of its authenticity in an attempt to discover and transform the thin, latent thread back that links him to the past. The language of his brushwork is layered over and over, blurring his figures to the point of oblivion and ultimately letting abstraction transpire out of the image. Both languages strive to establish a non-modern concept narrative which both artists coincidentally tap from the depths of time. By placing the fragments of reality in the logic of ancient settings, the viewer can enjoy the temporal freedom afforded by taking a look back and there find a meeting space for reality and the individual soul. Is this escapism or reconciliation? Wang and Chen have incorporated layers of complex information into their language: the overlapping fantastic mythological narratives and real landscapes are the DNA markers that allow the viewer to enjoy one more time the enduring power of tradition in a time and space-spanning leap.
Since the late nineties, Wang Xingwei has borrowed the juxtaposed image tropes and theatricality of Mark Tansey to subvert the semiotic trend of Chinese contemporary painting. He plays with changing identities and uses “bad painting” to shatter our expectations towards and obsession with language. He uses the single line and scribbles of the amateur artist to imitate the scrawling of an elementary school student’s homework, paints the villas of the European countryside in the vulgar oil painting techniques of “commercial” painting, and juxtaposes text and images to provoke diverging interpretations. He is always “tricking” our past visual experiences and taunting the rigidity of our mind set. He invites us into an absurd space at the intersection of make believe and reality, and by forcing us to stand in the perplexing space he has set up for us, he defuses our past visual experience and condemns it to failure. Wisdom and humor runs throughout his work and he is had much influence on the younger generation of artists.
Li Dafang found in a labyrinth of movie stills a vision of ruins after destruction. In an interview, he invites us to challenge and hypothesize about the relationship between make believe and reality: “I want to show a fragment of an individual state of mind. In the work, the relationship between “I” and the world becomes irrelevant. The state of my thoughts and actions is something rational that I feel. Some of the scenes in the pictures were added. I believe these to be autobiographic: some of them are personal, some depict loneliness and sorrow. Placed in a long, horizontal line, these dramatic elements look out of place. This is the effect I’m looking for. I strive to depict a blending feeling, but in the end it only seems like a collage. At first it was intended to look like performance art, or photography, but the result is branded with depictive habit. The work utilizes the effects of visual ambiguity to show everyone the meaning of “I” versus “the world” in terms of method. ”
Brothers and Sisters Opening Up the Wasteland demonstrates the talent of Li Songsong’s destructive scribbling hand. He plays a game of pictorial juxtaposition through the visual rereading, rewriting and displacement of historical photographs and poor-quality, pixilated images within the strict formalism of the language of oil painting. In the broken down and reassembled elements of the image, the space between every block of color is filled with the texture of abstract painting. The artist has destroyed reality with shades of monochrome, subtle use of coloration and heavy brushwork to call forth visions of wastelands. The decoding of the work pulls past visual experiences in the opposite directions of the paradox of the image and visual language. “ We cannot obscure the truth and substance of history, but perhaps we can doubt the way we look at things. When I paint something concrete, it appears abstract. We need something to rely on, a definite source. Not having a source makes me feel uneasy.” (Li Songsong).
Zhang Xiaotao uses “microscopic narratives” to reveal secret real and mental landscapes and probe paradox between language and the image. In Decaying Mountains and Water , The Storm is Coming (Baoyu Jiang Zhi) and animation Night—Animated, he uses scenes from the life, death and reproduction cycles of animals to evoke the parallel between the spirit and the material, the soul and material reality. Against the dreamscape backdrop of a dark night, skulls, poppy flowers, strawberries, ants and encounters among insects emerge… He uses these flowing images to transform and manifest the absurdity of meaningless time. In a society where material desire prevails, he searches for the six-fold path of transformation, from soul, to flesh, substance, spirit, life and finally death. “[H]e purposely and in a clear consciousness keeps a certain distance in a margin from the social noises. He is still keeping his retrospective attitude toward society and he is showing his worries on the way of his pursuing through his involvement sense upon the reality issues and his image treatment. And he is showing a sorrowing force by his own situation and his demanding tension out of that state of situation. (Feng Boyi, Deep Anxiety in Inner Heart—On the Issues Consciousness of Zhang Xiaotao’s Art).
The flow of information in the age of globalization has heightened our awareness but has left us confused as we never have been before. Western standards may have single-handedly held sway in the past, but now we are beginning to question what globalization has brought to China’s modernization. Shouldn’t we be concern by what’s happening in China? Blumer once wrote in Die Zeit : “Between a spirit of flat-out approval and self-confidence, China has embarked on the road to globalization, and has forced the world to become a little bit more Chinese.” If that is so, in the global new order of the open market economy, we must reevaluate what is worth saving from our socialist legacy and what is already dead and gone. While art is enjoying unprecedented freedom and unforeseen opportunities, it has also been encountering new challenges. The myths of money have spurred a new collectivist movement since the late nineties, with many artists breaking with tradition and hanging up their brushes to turn towards new media and the promise of a blooming auction market. Are we in the presence of a collusion of money and power or is painting going through a period of renaissance? Has the market run amok? What happens when an artists becomes rich? Painting is defined by its ability to earn respectability while sparking new debates, if not its ability to provide heartfelt guidance and an outlet for expression. Pleasure is short lived; pain and tragedy are engraved in history. Faced with the discourses of power and the commercial system in an era of accelerated and dramatic change, we must form our own answers and uphold our right to independent thought and freedom of the body and its dignity, and use our individually-embodied experiences to make the long and difficult journey to evaluate the validity of “truth.” Art is a window and a path into the contradiction between history and society, a means to finding out where we stand—and where the world stands— in the clash between individual freedom and the social powers that be.
July 8th, 2007, Wangjing.
1) No Jazz Tonight , Zhang Peili, oil on canvas, 124×180cm, 1987, private collection (Chengdu).
2) Second State (Di Er Zhuangtai), Geng Jiayi, oil painting, 145×200cm, 1987.
3) The Return of Tragic Love (Da Bei’ai de Fugui), Wang Guangyi, oil on canvas, 119×175cm, 1986, private collection (Chengdu).
4) Absolute Principle No. 1 (Juedui Yuanzi 1 Hao), Shu Qun, oil on canvas, 160×200cm, 1989, private collection (Chengdu).
5) Bloodline: Mother, Zhang Xiaogang, 150×180cm, 1993, Fukuoka Art Museum.
6) Little Boy, Zeng Fanzhi, oil on canvas, 180×280cm, 2006.
7) Hei Gen’s Family—The Master, Zhou Chunya, oil on canvas, 240×150cm, 1995, private collection (China).
8) Glowing Serpent (Faguang de Lümang), Wang Yabin, oil color on flax, 110X60cm, 2007.
9) Navy Day (Haijun Jie), Chen Hui, oil color on flax, 210cmx183cm, 2007.
10) The Way to the East, Wang Xinwei, oil on canvas, 200×155cm, HanArt TZ Gallery (Hong Kong).
11) School Bag Made of Buffalo Hide, Li Dafang, oil color on flax, 190x320cm, 2006.
12) Drop the Whip (Fang Xia Ni de Bianzi), Li Songsong, oil color on flax, 230x350cm.
13) Untitled, Zhang Xiaotao, oil color on flax, 200x150cm, 2007.