从平涂到叠加……
——关于当代绘画的图形设计和图像、语言的双重编码
 
中国当代艺术从“85运动”开始萌芽、积累和蜕变,取得了今天的学术和市场的初步合法化,市场和资本的神话似乎已经深入人心。但是我们注意到在讨论从“85运动”到新绘画潮流的变迁中,太多的注意是庸俗社会学、文化学、政治经济学及文学性描述的混合产物,较少的从绘画语言的本体角度去分析视觉语言的实质性的转化,比如从西方艺术史中借鉴的语言范式,以及在学习过程中语言的演变和未来语言的基因变异等。如果我们不系统地去考察和研究语言究竟怎么变化的,最后得出的还是文学性的经验描述,而不是理性化的逻辑思考和论证。我们需要的是用历史的线索和数据来考证。其实视觉语言的变化既是视点的变化也是世界观的变化,视点的变化就是时代征候的美学变化,是视觉语言的更新和转换,这是艺术家的核心问题之一,至少在作品最后的呈现上语言的意义要大于我们对作品过度阐释的兴趣。我想就“85运动”到新绘画潮流中,从平涂语言、符号化、图形设计、图像和语言的双重编码历史变化展开讨论。

平涂语言的历史线索
 “它所有的病毒都是生命正常现象的一部分,或者说,它仅仅是生命的另一个现象,当我们平静的观察这一现象时,我们能够发现,他的背后同样充满了形而上学的力量。”——张培力
“85新空间”的张培力、耿建翌等用冷漠的黑白单色平涂语言“去人情味”来表现现实的陌生感和距离感,在《今晚没有爵士乐》、《第二状态》中,他们的语言深受美国照相写实主义和新写实绘画主义的影响,用机械和冷漠的印刷语言代替了手工痕迹的绘画快感,用都市和工业化的题材来反“伤痕绘画”的“苦、小、旧”符号化的倾向。后来这些艺术家大多从单色平涂的波普化语言走向了新媒体的实验中。“北方极地群体”的王广义、舒群、任戬等所坚持的理性主义的绝对原则,用平涂的语言来表现古典的精神和现代哲学的相遇。他们用图式修正的方法对古典主义的文化进行批判和重新阐释,用崇高的“精神性”来代替肤浅的“形式感”,用宣言和纲领来表明他们的艺术主张。后来王广义在《大批判》系列中,用更彻底的美国商业POP式的语言方式把经典的文革政治符号和西方著名商业标志混杂,时空错置的冲突和矛盾产生离奇的视觉力量!90年代初张晓刚的《大家庭》系列以其简练含蓄的超现实语言展现了他独特的视角,有距离地观察、反思历史,他建构了一种对文革历史记忆的抽象批判。他的平涂不再是广告设计的平涂,他用皴擦的民间炭精像画法去融合关于文革的集体记忆和个人记忆之间的精神纬度,“多重含义和多角度的精神指向”展现了一代人的集体梦魇和心灵创伤,为波普语言的中国语境转换开启了新的通道。
这些语言实验的成果至今还在影响今天的绘画潮流,是当代绘画的主流话语方式之一。平涂语言的绘画一开始就是借用广告和商业的照相写实语言作为都市化的题材载体,现代化的语言方式为新绘画奠定了某种语言基础。我们得追问在当代现场和历史语境的剧烈转换中,现实和语言的关系,个人和时代的紧密联系,以及我们的视觉经验如何与历史文脉发生血缘联系。过去的学习和嫁接是现代主义的启蒙运动,是外科手术,我们今天需要的是自然融合和生长,西方文化的元素被我们吸收后,如何更深层次的和中国文化的基因相融合相生长?如何把平涂绘画语言和中国人的视觉经验联系起来?成为了我们长久的课题。我们的历史视觉经验里有起伏、层次、空间的交错,尤其在今天全球商业化的社会里用广告语言作为来批判和质疑商业社会的工具,显然缺乏更强有力的证据和难度系数,所以这种平涂的绘画语言往后面发展是需要更复杂的精神和视觉的多重编码。艺术家不只是需要提供观念的图形,也需要劳动和技术语言,这种去人工化的语言在90年代中后期成为集体主义潮流,不少的追随者以此为“方法论”混杂社会主义符号作为批量化的大生产的思想武器。符号是有时效性的,当潮流远去后,或许绵延的艺术本体语言才是艺术家作为个体在艺术史上真正留下来的东西。
 为什么是符号?
 “政治波普作为中国当代文化的一个重要现象并不局限于美术界,它应该是一个具有普遍意义的概念,其新殖民文化的特征就在于它依附于一个隐性的国际强权政治”——易英《艺术的真实与政治的神话》
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?
图式、符号、图像是85时期到今天的艺术潮流中的时髦单词,他们之间究竟有什么联系?图式Schema表征特定概念、事物或事件的认知结构,它影响对相关信息的加工过程。符号Mark在一种认知体系中,是指代一定意义的意象,可以是图形图像、文字组合,也不妨是声音信号、建筑造型,甚至可以是一种思想文化一个时事人物。图像Image是今日影像世界本身充满了不确定性和变化性的网络虚拟世界的基本表症。符号学是研究人类社会使用符号的各种规律,或从使用符号的方式入手研究社会的文化、文学艺术或其他方面的一门学科,也是建立在将人类文化定义为符号表意及释义活动集合前提之下的人文学科的总体方法论。符号学作为跨学科的方法论一般被视为其它的人文社会科学方法论的语义学和逻辑学基础。但是我们的符号化和符号学是有很大的差距的,符号有极强的目的性和象征性,这里的符号成为了图形设计的程序之一,其实我们通过这几个最时髦的词语就可以看到每个时期的主流话语方式对个人思维不自觉的改变,似乎符号化代表了“正确”和“主流”?当符号化的绘画变成经典和著名商标时就很有问题了,古典符号中的基督教圣像画、敦煌壁画、西藏唐卡、佛教石刻等,它们充满了高度的神性。商业社会里的符号更多的是从某种意义上去引导消费,最典型的符号就是广告化语言方式。今天的SHOP就成为了大众的“教堂”,商业社会的广告符号就是神话的浓缩,广告是资本主义的生命线和集体幻觉,广告是消费前的布道词!是消费者进入“教堂”(商场)的必须的参考!所以在西方社会高度的商业化背景,他们天然有一种符号化的识别系统和思维方式。这样我们就不难发现90年代初期中国当代艺术被西方的接纳过程中符号化的艺术家从政治和商业两方面占尽先机,显然要更深入的解读和阐释艺术本体语言是需要我们自己做大量的基础工作,从展览机制到市场运作、学术研究、出版、教育、传播等,自己没有完整的阐释系统只有被别人任意的解读,西方也没有责任和义务来做这些基础工作!
90年代中期以来的中国当代艺术有很强烈的文化针对性。针对过渡和转型时期的社会问题,不少的艺术家在作品中有强烈的现实感,往往城市化的建设和拆迁、个人经验和集体经验在新的物质化商业社会里的冲突成为新的文化潮流。但是如何在作品中凸显语言的力度和精神穿透力以及更广泛的历史文脉的精神联系?当现实比艺术还有震撼力的时候,作为一个艺术家的立场和视点在哪里?如何区别简单的政治化、社会学立场?把现实生活的各种片段任意的组合和改装,发展中国家都市和城市化进程片段,成为了新的LOGO,新的符号化开始流行,惯以各种“图像”的名义似乎就有一种当代的立场。毫无逻辑与艺术史上下文关系中任意的抽取现实的碎片,“点子“是基本方法,再加上权利、资本和制度化保障,“乱搞”更容易进入成功的快车道。更多的人已经掌握了所谓当代艺术的方法是颠覆和解构,摧毁之后我们该做些什么呢?这是普遍性的灾难问题! N多的展览和铺天盖地的媒体市场营销,少有让人感动的作品和展览,庸俗化的日常经验滥觞,历史感和宗教感的严重缺失。在商业和体制的双重压力下,当代艺术更像程序设计的商业广告促销,而不是在今天政治、经济、文化和现实的剧烈冲突中濒临崩溃的个人心灵的真诚表达,今日艺术的意义在哪里?
图像、语言的双重编码
 “与信息公路相关的美妙的事情之一是实现虚拟的公平比现实世界的公平要容易得多……在虚拟的世界中生而平等。”
—比尔-盖茨
“今天推动我们的是一种活力、一种生命的力量和压抑不住的希望。”——<<时代周报>>:关于中国的全球化进程
 今天的时代是信息化和网络化的时代,全球化的瞬间来临,谁也把握不了这个时代的整体。我们都成为了这个全球化时代中渺小的一个一个的链条,我们在图像化的世界里虚拟、重构和解码这个混乱的全球化舞台信息。在中国当代艺术的潮流中,80年代的宏大叙事是一个建立现代化理想的诉求,在他们的视觉语言中充满了过度的哲学化和文学化倾向,他们好比在一个山颠上往下俯视世界,是形而上的世界。90年代是回到了人的现实,人与人之间是一种近距离的日常叙事,尤其是充满了大量的社会学符号化的日常叙事。今天的中国当代艺术中新一代艺术家是用放大镜看世界,用虚拟的图像世界来建立一种微观叙事,他们远离宏大叙事、反符号化、反政治化,进入了个人化、微观化、碎片化的解构性的图像时代。
九十年代中后期以来不少的艺术家在语言诉求和图像方法观念中都在进行突破,我们看到了从单向度的广告语言到复杂的图像和语言的双重编码,今天的绘画已经变成了关于视觉语言、历史信息的多重立场的复杂建构和叠加,这既是艺术语言和精神纬度的叠加,也是今天的信息和历史文脉的多重视点的叠加。当符号化和伪极少主义成为主流话语时,我们看不到文革政治化符号和今天的文化现实有何精神联系。我想以一些典型的个案来讨论在新绘画的实践中不同的工作方法:有的用纯粹的艺术语言本体去背离政治化的符号潮流,有的用图像来颠覆图像的合法性,有的用图像、语言的双重编码等等。
曾梵志近作《理想主义》系列用繁复的乱笔破坏社会主义的经典历史图象、个人肖像、自然风景,营造了一个深度迷幻的图像空间。在那些厚重幽暗的色彩氛围中,历史和现实的混杂,个人和集体记忆错置,这些由语言建立的视觉迷宫,巨大的眩晕感和压迫感扑面而来。宏大史诗的碎片掩埋在历史的乱草堆里,这是他的真实心绪吗?是一代人的梦魇记忆?还是美好的缅怀?在曾的图像语言世界中他设置了多重的密码,对那些能进入他图像世界的人提供了不同的通道。“在一个更为宽广的观念领域,画家重新获得了绘画的自由,画家不再为材料本身感到焦虑,因为材料本身的合法性在后现代立场中能够找到依据,画家重新收回了生动、感染、趣味、绘画性甚至文学性的权力,这样的结果是,他们重新建立了绘画的尊严。在这样一个重建的过程中,曾梵志“心绪”的故事构成了承上启下的环节,其重要性是不言自明的。”(吕澎)
周春芽超然的古典文人气质独立于当代绘画的潮流之外,九十年代以来他在新绘画语言实践中的重要意义被符号化的绘画潮流所屏蔽。但是当我们重新审视新绘画的历史时,发现语言性的艺术家其实是暗河汹涌从未有停止探索。从1993年《中国经验》展开始,他尝试用德国表现主义的笔法和明清山水画的皴法的混杂,寻求它们内在精神气质的联系。太湖石、绿狗、桃花无非成为了画家的偶然选择的物象而已,画什么都不是问题,关键是怎么画。重要的是语言形态本身的独立性,如何把传统绘画精神和当代美学的进行视觉转译?他把传统绘画语言和新绘画的视觉经验进行分解、重组、融合。从典雅到温和的色情暴力,在古典与当代之间出走,他用自己卓越的语言天才,为新绘画的语言实验树立了典型的个案。
王亚彬和陈辉的语言世界中,他们用暧昧、晦涩的语言方式走向了现实世界的反面。王用自己的绘画语言再次阅读和书写时间的痕迹,这些神话与现实的交织图像充满了浓厚的神秘主义超验气质,繁复斑驳的画面有汉唐壁画的高古气息。陈的语言有明清文人画的简约、空寂的特征,《欢迎来到富春山》、《海军节》等抽空了现实的真实感,试图转换和发现他们和历史的某种内在的暗线联系。他们在笔墨语言中反复叠加,把具像化的形象从模糊到虚空,最后画面出现了抽象化的感觉。不难看出他们在语言中试图建立一种非现代性叙事的观念,他们在不约而同地往时间的深度中挖掘。把现实的碎片置换在古典的情境逻辑中,让观者往后看,并且在时间的纬度中找到某种和现实世界与自我心灵相对应的空间,这是从现实中逃匿?还是和解呢?他们在自己的语言中叠加复杂的信息,这些充满想象的神话叙事和现实风景的混杂,让我们再次感受到传统文脉绵延的力量,DNA超越了瞬间的时空观念。
王兴伟从九十年代后期以来,用马克—坦西式的戏拟,并置的图像修辞语言来颠覆90年代中国当代绘画的符号化主流趣味。他试图用不停的变换身份的游戏方法,用“坏画”来破坏我们对语言的迷恋和期待,用业余画家的单线平涂技术去戏仿小学课本的插图、用恶俗“行货”的油画技术去再现欧洲乡村别墅、通过文字和图像的并置产生阐释的歧异,他一直在绘画语言中“欺骗”我们以往的视觉经验和思维定式,让观众进入一个虚构和真实交错的荒诞空间,让我们以往的视觉经验失效,处于一个让人突兀,而不知所措的空间。他持续的充满智性而幽默的工作,对更年轻的画家有广泛影响。
李大方在迷宫一样的电影剧照中展现了废墟之后的废墟景象,让我们在他的访谈中,去猜测和疑问关于虚构和真实的关系:“我想展示个人味道的思想状态的片段,在作品状态中我和世界的关系已不重要,我想或我做的状态是我能感觉的一种合理性的东西。画面上的一些场景是我先后加上的,我觉得我制造的情节还是有自传色彩的。有个性上的一些东西,有点孤独或悲惨,我的这个情节加到横长的大背景里,经常产生不协调感。这是我想要的,我尽力描绘成融入的感觉,但还是像拼贴,本来像行为表演,或摄影的效果但还是烙上了描绘的习惯,作品本身还是用了一般视觉上混杂的效果,给大家看到的是“我”面对“世界”在方法上的意义。”
李松松从油画《兄妹开荒》就显示了涂鸦和破坏的天才手感,他把历史老照片和劣质低象素图片用浓稠的油画语言再次进行视觉阅读、书写和错位的拼图游戏。在分解和重组的图像中,每个色块之间有抽象绘画的质地,在单色、微妙的彩色和厚重的笔法之间摧毁了真实的景象后还原了他心中的荒原景象。图像与视觉语言悖论,当观者解读他的图像和语言时,以往经验处于进退两难的情景中。“不管怎样我们都无法模糊历史的真实和具体,但是也许能对我们看事物的方法提出质疑。我觉得我在作具体的每一块的时候,它们都是抽象的,但是我们需要一个依托,一个确切的来源,我觉得没有来源的事情让我不塌实。”(李松松)
张小涛用“微观叙事”去发现隐秘的现实世界和心中的风景、寻找语言和图像的悖论关系。从《溃烂的山水》、《暴雨将至》、动画《夜》,他用动物剧场的生死繁衍来讨论精神与物质,心灵和现实的对应。黑夜里梦境再现;骷髅、罂粟花、草莓、蚂蚁、虫子的相遇…… 他用流变图像来转换和显现无意义时间中的荒谬。在物质化的欲望社会里,去追问灵魂、肉身、物质、精神、生命、死亡的“六道轮回”。“他自觉地与时代喧嚣保持一定的边缘、疏离位置,以及对社会现实反思的态度,通过他创作中对现实问题意识的介入和图像的处理,表现出了一种追求的焦虑,一种来自自身的处境和状态的切近和逼人的视觉张力,而体现的是一种悲情的力量。(冯博一)
全球化的信息交流让我们空前的清晰而迷茫。过去西方的标准判断似乎唯一的,现在我们开始怀疑全球化对中国的现代化进程究竟带来了什么?我们得清楚今天的中国在发生什么?德国<<时代周报>>布鲁默说“在自信与毫无批判精神之间,中国走上了全球化之路,并一点一点的使世界越来越中国化”。这是真的吗?在全球化与自由经济的新秩序中,我们要清楚社会主义遗产中什么依然存活?什么已经死亡?今天的当代艺术市场和绘画到底发生了什么样的变化?是资本和权利的共谋?还是绘画的重生?绘画从来没有像今天这样获得空前的自由、机遇和挑战。从九十年代后期不少画家折笔决裂传统,立志新媒介,到今天的拍卖市场遍地开花,资本的神话引发了新一轮绘画的集体主义潮流。绘画究竟怎么啦?市场疯了吗?艺术家有钱了以后怎么办?绘画既获得了尊严又出现空前的危机,或许不死的是那些来自灵魂深处的倾听和表达?欢娱是短暂的,痛楚和梦魇经验将会被历史铭记。时代在剧烈而迅速的变化,我们必须得做出自己独立的回答。当面对权利话语和商业体制的双重压力时,我们应有独立思考的权利,有肉身的自由与尊严,用个人的肉身经验万水千山的去演算关于“真理”的合法性。艺术一直是在历史和社会的剧烈冲突中去开启窗口和通道,并且是在个人自由和社会政治的冲突中,去确立和发现当代艺术的身份问题,去追问我在哪里?世界在哪里?
张小涛 2007年7月3日于望京
 
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.
Zhang Xiaotao
July 8th, 2007, Wangjing.
Captions
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.