这种倾向在《淹没》里已经有非常明确的表达。这部纪录片中包含了对某些个案——如一个教堂的拆迁过程——的极其详尽的近距离跟踪，但是整部影片描绘出的则是三峡大坝实施过程中百万普通百姓生活变迁的巨大画面。这种微观和宏观的交融在《乡村档案》中被给予了一个更加明确的叙事结构：李一凡把他对四川奉节龙王村村民生活、劳作和宗教活动的观察和记录纳入了一个从春分到冬至的“历谱”(calendar)，这些底层人们的存在因此成为和环境不可分割的“自然时序”的组成部分。他对目前这个展览中作品的思考显示出对“叙事”的更复杂的考虑。在我看来，这些展品所从属的四个部分在本体论的意义上构成三个“艺术再现的平台”(platforms of artistic representation)。第一个平台是“档案”（archives），通过对现成品（包括法律文件，资料照片等材料）的收集、分类和位移进行叙事。第二个平台可以称为“素材”（materials），由未经编辑的片段记录片和零散记录图片组成。与“档案”不同，这些材料有意识地记录了艺术家本人对再现过程的参与。第三个平台可以称为“作品”（works），包括三个纪录片（《淹没》、《乡村档案》和《不眠与失眠》）以及题为《施虐与受虐》的仿纪实风格的摆拍摄影作品。用李一凡的话说，这些不同图像和材料的集合“强调在当下政治道德背景下解读底层社会，强调解读的多视点和深度同样的重要，力图对那种以猎奇为目的的解读方式，以简单的文本解构显摆精英阶层的高明的解读方式进行反拨和批判。
“The “Microscopic Narrative” and “Pathological Research”
The Social Images byZhang Xiaotao and Li Yifan
Zhang Xiaotao and Li Yifan are two very different artists. I’m not just talking about differences in their education and professional background (Zhang Xiaotao graduated from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Oil Painting Department and though Li Yifan went to the Attached Middle School of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, his college years were spent at the Central Academy of Drama), or the expressive methods they emphasize (Zhang Xiaotao has gone from oil painting to installation and animated film while Li Yifan started in film and has set out into photography and “archive art”), this also touches on the question of “language”, which is most important for an artist (Zhang Xiaotao has spent many years constructing a symbolic image repertoire that is strongly expressionist in nature, while Li Yifan’s documentary films abandon subjective participation and stylization in a pursuit of the purity of a “true depiction”). But as I see it, instead of viewing these differences as guides to classification, they lead me to think that the two artists are linked and interact on a deeper level. This level can be understood from two angles. The first angle touches on the source of the artists’ functions and creative drive; the second touches on the relationship between subjective and objective in the artworks, and the ontological significance of image.
On the first angle, both people cast themselves as “narrators”, but in fact they’re actually “storytellers”. Though their stories, in terms of content and form, appear totally different – the former’s are fables and sleep paralysis, while the latter’s are documentaries that resemble life itself – a close reading will reveal that there are shared similarities between their desire and goals for telling them. Overall, this desire comes from their sensitivity to human society and their responsibility to express this sensitivity, which leads to an intense desire to engage in simultaneous and all-encompassing exploration and expression of reality and the inner mind. In 2005, Zhang Xiaotao wrote that his painting “was more related to my psychological perceptions of the real world”. In a discussion with Feng Boyi in 2007, Li Yifan said, “I aspire to the grand narrative, and the job I’d rather do is an all-encompassing investigation of people in the lower rungs of society and to present the results of this investigation.” Thinking of the parallels between these descriptions, their closeness in age (Li Yifan, born in 1966, is four years older than Zhang Xiaotao), and their shared Sichuanese background, the long term exchange of conceptions and artistic interests between these two artists is no coincidence – it is actually the discrepancy between their artistic forms and languages that exposes the depth of this interaction.
When it comes to the relationship between subjective and objective in the artworks and their ontological significance, the two artists’ interest in broad social phenomena and their ambition to tell “big stories” is realized through a “microscope” method. This appears to be a paradox, but as I see it, it is the most inspired and challenging theoretical aspect of their artworks. Everybody knows that one of the main currents in contemporary art and academia is to deconstruct the modernist grand narrative. Everywhere this trend has reached, many artists and art historians see such narratives as bad apples, and this either results in the function of art becoming defined as a means for deconstruction and subversion (which has led to “fragments” becoming the theme for most artists), or intimacy and individual identity becoming the main subjects of artistic expression. I have both praise for and reservations about this trend. On one hand I agree with these artists’ and historians’ critiques of cultural evolution theory, because that model hypothesizes that art forms have their own vitality and universal significance that is independent from the thoughts and activities of man. To create one after another history of style evolution devoid of cultural attributes and social function based on this premise actually denies artist’s initiative in participating in reality. On the other hand I don’t condone the outright repudiation of the grand narrative. As I see it, “macroscopic” and “microscopic” imply different perspectives and levels of observing and explaining the world of phenomena; the two have separate functions and goals. Not only do artists and art historians have no need to place the two in total opposition, through complementation and coordination of the two, they can more effectively uncover the depth and breadth of history.
This is why I feel that this exhibition is theoretically inspired and challenging, because it proposes the use of a perspective and method that uses the microscopic view to look back on the macroscopic vision. In other words, if the microscopic and macroscopic often appear in the postmodern theoretical structure as oppositional conceptual foundations, then the works in this exhibition propose to create a more complex combination of the two in artistic expression, and experiment with the possibilities of the two coexisting in the historical narrative. Zhang Xiaotao has done repeated explorations and narrations on the concept of the microscopic narrative. In his early descriptions, he still leaned towards the oppositional nature of the microscopic and macroscopic, and summed up the former as “far removed from the grand narrative, anti sign and anti politicization…individualized, miniaturized, fragmented.” But at that time – about four or five years ago – he, through his sensitivity as an artist, already began to propose that the microscopic could be a method and route for expressing the macroscopic. Looking at it from this perspective, the microscopic images he produced – including ants, cockroaches, dead rats, molding strawberries and industrial ruins – are anything but a construct of a closed system; instead, they have been conceptualized as an “image encoding of the external world”, and a special method of observing and understanding the world by “seeing the big through the small”. (All Zhang Xiaotao’s words)
In this current exhibition, the dualist oppositional nature of the microscopic and macroscopic has been further dispelled in Zhang Xiaotao’s works. He has categorized the inspiration for these works as some kind of connection in his life and memories that he is constantly perceiving: from the massive, heavy shadows of Chongqing Steel factory complex to the “cultural zoo” that is 798 and on to the absurd and extravagant Windows to the World theme park, a theme of “dream factory and rubbish heap” begins to float to the surface. Though there is no direct link in these scenes, Zhang Xiaotao says that “there is an obscure thread in my mind that absurdly links them together”. Following along the logic of the microscopic narrative he has been exploring, he wants to use a “sampling” method to rethink the “nature of collective modern ideals in pre-socialist China and the painful price paid and hard lessons learned”. Under this overarching theme he has proposed a series of questions, including “what still survives from our socialist heritage? What has already died? What structural change have we gotten from the transition period? How do we attain affirmation and translation of our identity amidst the progression of globalization? How do we enter into the complex, multiple viewpoint structure of economics, politics and culture of a truly “harmonious society” from the disordered state of the transitional period?” What we see in these grand and heavy questions is an extremely macroscopic theoretical field of view, but the response Zhang Xiaotao gives us as an artist is to, through the identity of a director, create a dream theatre of the microscopic animal world – he “will attempt to use the eyes of animals to observe and visually analyze the spatiotemporal spiritual connections and continuity between Chongqing Iron & Steel and Windows to the World, and the drastic and rapid social change we have encountered in an instantaneous spatiotemporal shift.”
Once in an interview, Zhang Xiaotao said, “My friend Li Yifan has been working since 2002 on a documentary, entitled Before the Flood, documenting the allocation of Three Gorges Dam migrants. Recently he’s been documenting village religion and elections, and when he was in a village in Chongqing he sent me an SMS that said, ‘I hope to do the best pathological research that I can, so that I can provide information to those in the future who can treat this madness’. I was thinking, what if this is exactly what I want to do?” The “pathological research” of which Li Yifan speaks and Zhang Xiaotao’s concept of a “microscopic narrative”, which run parallel to each other, provide us with a critical link for understanding the connections between the two artists.
In contrast to clinical diagnosis and treatment, pathology uses information about human disease information, animal tests and other similar microscopic experiment material – such as cultivation of cell colonies – to research the cause, mechanisms, pathological and functional changes in organism and tissue to explain the essence of the illness and the patterns of the illness. So one could say that it is a science that uses microscopic phenomena to understand and intervene in the macroscopic world. In the same manner, beginning with Before the Flood, Li Yifan has focused his work on research and analysis of the “cell colonies” at the fundamental level of Chinese society. In his own words, Before the Flood is “an investigation into the price paid by the middle and lower levels of society in the process of realizing modernization” while Village Archive “probes into the root of bottom rungs of society”. It is worth noting, that as with Zhang Xiaotao, Li’s microscopic research is not about simply deconstructing the grand narrative. He says, “I don’t want to startle and surprise, and I don’t want to simply deconstruct society; I hope to construct a new method of recognition of the lower rungs of society and exploration of current society.”
This penchant was already clearly expressed in Before the Flood. This documentary film included extremely close and detailed coverage of certain individual cases – such as the demolition and relocation process of a church – but what the entire film depicts is the big picture of change among the lives of millions of common people in the process of executing the Three Gorges Dam. This confluence of the microscopic and macroscopic gained a much more defined narrative structure in Village Archive Li Yifan has taken his observations and documentation of the lives, labors and religious activities of the residents of Longwang Village, in Fengjie, Sichuan, and compiled them into a “calendar” that spans the entire year, which turns the existence of these lowly people into an inseparable component of the “natural change of the seasons”. His current works for this exhibition reveal much more complex conceptions of “narrative”. As I see it, the four components that these works make up ontologically comprise three “platforms of artistic representation”. The first platform is “archives”, a narrative that is enacted through the compilation, classification and displacement of existing objects (including materials such as legal documents, files and photos). The second platform is “materials”, which is comprised of documentary film segments and scattered photographs. Unlike “archives”, these materials intentionally document the artist’s participation in the representation process. The third platform can be called “works”, which includes three documentary films (Before the Flood, Village Archive and Sleeplessness and Insomnia) as well as a series of photos staged in a documentary style, entitled Tyrants and the Tyrannized. According to Li Yifan, the compilation of these different images and materials “emphasizes a decoding of the lower rungs of society against the backdrop of contemporary political morality, emphasizes that the use of multiple perspectives and depth are equally important to decoding, and strives to pick apart and criticize the brilliant and dazzling elitist decoding methods through deconstruction via a simple textual method.
From the above it can be seen that the concept of the “microscopic narrative” can cover various meanings. It can be the subject of artistic representation, as with Zhang Xiaotao’s microscopic animal world and Li Yifan’s mundane lower rungs of society. It can be the observational perspective, looking back on life and history through the eyes of a beetle or an unemployed migrant in the city. It can be the storytelling method and the once ignored and obscured secrets it reveals. It can also be the path the artist uses to affirm his identity, using this kind of narrative to consult and interact with the art world and the critical world. Zhang Xiaotao once said that he has been searching for the origin of life through psychology, individual experiences and individual perspectives since 2002. His painting method will never again begin by establishing a grand narrative framework, then follow by finding grounds for an argument and finish by adding bricks and tiles. Instead, it unfolds from individual value. The result is that “language multiplies like so many cells, and once it reaches a certain size, it grows into an individual method and linguistic system.” Li Yifan hopes to “shatter my original identity as a documentary filmmaker, and turn the documentary films I once made under that identity into fragmented materials for a new text.” With these descriptions as reference for the exhibition, I believe that the viewer will be able to understand their artistic pursuits and experiments.