The “Being and Nothingness” of Han Feng1
Voon Pow Bartlett
Empty corridors, an eerily deserted underground station, stairs devoid of human existence—these are some of the paintings you are confronted with as you entered Han Feng’s first solo UK exhibition at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester, which took place during September 13 to October, 20, 2012. Han Feng was born and brought up during the Cultural Revolution, living his daily life in the heart of one of China’s major cities—Shanghai— and produced a critique of profound perspicacity.2 The exhibition reflects a solemnity that repudiates some popular critiques of contemporary Chinese art as being merely a search for novelty.3
The Corner of Stairs (2011), measuring two hundred centimeters wide, depicts a flight of some thirty steps ascending from the base of the painting. The steps are painted in a heavily diluted translucent charcoal black and are reminiscent of an ink painting on rice paper. The top of the steps narrows by about a third, halfway up the canvas, to a dead end, a distant landing surrounded by white walls and ceiling. There are no doors or windows. This is a flight of steps that leads to nowhere. (image 1)
This ghostly, diluted colour continues in the rest of the paintings. The Corner of Tube (2012) is an almost white painting, redolent of Robert Ryman. Unlike Ryman, however, it is less about discovering what can be done with white paint and substrates, and more about creating a mood. (image 2) Whereas Ryman’s series of white paintings are virtually white paint on canvas, Han Feng’s paintings appear to be constructing a challenge about how to create a white painting with as little colour as possible.4 Whilst Ryman’s “real purpose of painting is to give pleasure,” Han Feng’s appears to be about instilling a wave of despondency not unlike an initial encounter with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.5 The tiled walls, the ceiling, and the floor in The Corner of Tube are rendered using different shades of white, both warm and cold. The neutrality of white allows a heightened sense of space, an unnerving emptiness. Perhaps his intention is simply to make a painting about what the painting is about—that is, the corner of a tube, (metro), a set of stairs, a corridor, etc. However, the delicacy with which the paint has been applied on the canvas creates an unassuming scene that instills a surprising presence and an aura of discovery, of possibility. The literal title of The Corner of Tube amplifies and provokes further meaning beyond the depth of some chemical compound of acrylic mixed in with various degrees of pigments and placed on a plain woven cotton fabric, much as did René Magritte’s titling of his painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1929)—it depicted a pipe but was not about a pipe but about the illusion of painting, so Han Feng’s painting of a tube was also more than that.
Unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, who were influenced by photography but rejected its technology, Chinese artists have more affinities with the Futurists of the early twentieth century who welcomed new technological innovations. The invention of photography in 1839 profoundly changed the way people in Europe perceived their lives and artists their artworks. Even though “the artists rarely used photography, their paintings nevertheless revealed that they absorbed photography’s precision of focus, flattening of forms, compositional and radical cropping of the visual field.”6 Albeit, more than one hundred years later, Chinese artists wholeheartedly embraced photography, considered the saviour of contemporary Chinese art, releasing artists from the shackles of traditional painting and in some ways catapulting them from being denigrated as an analogue player in a digital world.”7 And they did not echo the feelings of the Pre-Raphaelites, that “in the machine age, beauty and spirituality had been lost, to thwart their use of photography.”8
Nonetheless, contemporary Chinese artists share many similarities with the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites rejected history painting, those narratives of military heroism or idealized Greco-Roman scenes inhabited by languid nudes.9 Instead, they focused on intimate relationships that represented broader currents of human experience. Many contemporary Chinese artists also rejected aspects of their tradition such as ink paintings that depicted idealized landscapes and are now drawn to representing their everyday lives, using quotidian images to transmit philosophical ideals. They also share in their urban environment the rampant materialism of Victorian Britain.
Han Feng uses photography for its creative potential as a starting point for his paintings, evoking a “subdued atmosphere and mood" that suggests Edward Hopper.10 Both Han Feng and Hopper can be regarded as painters of loneliness.11 They are also acute observers of vernacular urban architecture through the perspectival viewpoint of the camera lens. Many of Hopper’s paintings depict public and semi-public places, minus any human presence, leading some critics to stress the theme of solitude.12 Han Feng has a similar way of working—he takes numerous snapshots of the cityscape and then renders them into a painting that erases all traces of life. These cityscapes allude to urban entrapment and human vulnerability, suggesting that:
Everyday life is a crust of earth over the tunnels and caves of the unconscious and against a skyline of uncertainty and illusion that we call modernity. . . . [T]he unconscious is only consciousness ignoring its own laws . . . and in this respect everyday life is indeed modernity’s unconscious.13
In particular, Han Feng’s depiction of archetypal cityscapes recalls the mood of Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929), which captures a restaurant scene in which two young women are having tea. (image 3) “Chop Suey appears to depict a view of modern life that is desolate but also matter-of-fact. The influence of consumerism on the city is depicted here by a sign outside the window.”14 The contrast of darkness inside and the light steaming in from outside emphasizes the emotional detachment of the women. Hopper’s message is made even more poignant as it was painted in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash. One could almost imagine the two women in Hopper’s work inhabiting any of Han Feng’s paintings, painfully alone, even though they are together in a public space.
The visual spectacle of socialist China and the embodiment of the Maoist utopian longing for a full and complete life, shape much of the critique about daily life by Chinese artists. The deep utopian impulse of Maoist revolutionary culture is in contrast to the culture of modernity—Mao valourized an egalitarian commitment to social harmony and promoted revolutionary artwork that was perspectival and panoramic, or stylized images of happiness, while the other, the modern, actively valourizes a full and complete life, or at least one that privileges the ordinary everyday life.
Han Feng’s work depicts a tension, one in which there is a constant negotiation between the archaic and the modern, the personal and the communal. The “empty” spaces in the paintings of Han Feng are like an invasion from a spaceship insinuating itself into our front door. The lack of human figures in his paintings, as in much of Hopper’s work, combines apparent incompatibilities—the modern in its bleakness and simplicity, and a nostalgia for the communal past of China. The facades of modernity contain miles of concrete and steel highrises with their Hollywood style entrance halls, capacious stairwells, and interminable corridors. These were not familiar surroundings for Han Feng in the years he was growing up, which might have been more akin to that captured by Marc Riboud’s photograph Suburbs of Peking (1957), that evoke a rare moment of freedom yet reveal both vulnerability and privacy. To the ordinary Chinese, the streets have been for centuries an extension of their home, their daily life. You can skulk and loiter, play and eat, toil and relax, barter and sell.15 Some fifty years on, this communal life has been reduced in large part to incarceration in highrise apartments akin to matchboxes. Street life is disappearing behind closed doors, and the open communal life of hutong and courtyard houses has turned into a ritual of watching television and the comings and goings of one’s neighbours through the peepholes of closed doors.
Indeed, Mao Zedong had a perfect understanding of the power of the spectacle within communality. Through his consummate skill, he employed mass images of solidarity, reinforced with uniforms, in which everyone wore the same the Mao suit. Propaganda art adapted itself to folk art, slogans, and portraiture, all approved by Mao.16 He capitalized upon the hysterical carnivalesque excitement of mass assemblies, such as National Day Celebrations, and he ensured that propaganda art was everywhere—sold in shops, placed in magazines, newspapers, on walls, and even on floors. The posters depicting protective deities that traditionally hung on the outside of doorways were no longer permitted and were replaced by propaganda art as decoration for people’s homes.
Perhaps Han Feng unconsciously absorbed Mao’s talent for the use of spectacle, but, instead, turned it on its head by creating an anti-spectacle. While spectacle tends to become more real and seductive than reality itself, Han Feng’s bland and empty paintings fool us into believing another reality—a reality where everyday life provides the overarching dialectic with its qualities of the banal, tediousness, the boring, and insignificant. He explores the everyday life of borrowed Western modernity in the daily reality of urban China. Whereas in the West, the process of modernity affirms a full human life “in terms of labour and production on the one hand, and marriage and family life on the other,”17 it also involves a process of desacralization and an acknowledgement of ordinary secular life as indispensable to modern human identity. In China, Mao’s version of modernity lacked political freedom and the affirmation of everyday life that has the capacity to lead to a rewarding lifestyle.18 Therefore, an integral part of the socialist movement in modern China has been and still is, a collective desire to resist the inertia of everyday life.
Han Feng’s paintings represent a shift from the grand themes of history and the political nature of early Chinese avant-garde art to the smaller narratives of the everyday lives of ordinary people. He interrogates how the idea of life has changed from the industrialization of an agrarian society, from an egalitarian commitment to social harmony, to one of freedom and choice in the heterogeneous life of today.19 The idea of freedom may be embraced by some modern societies as a right, but for Han Feng and his generation it is a matter of being born at the right time. They have grasped this opportunity with eagerness and allowed themselves a moment of men xin zi wen—self-examination. In doing so, they have rejected a long tradition that they perhaps are not even so well acquainted with.
The paintings in the exhibition are interpolated with an ongoing series of paper sculptures made of tracing paper delicately printed with photographs of city highrises and then folded to form tall, slim, three-dimensional towers leaning limply against the wall of the exhibition space; an evocation of the city as empty and hollow. (image 4,5) The dense network of highrises where thousands now live is reduced here to an architectural model just above human height. Buildings made of concrete, steel, and glass are rendered as something light and flimsy. This suggests a visualization of Marx’s famous dictum from the Communist Manifesto, “all that’s solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”20
Han Feng’s sanitized cityscape, a modern realism focused on everyday life in the city, again forms a powerful critique of the results of Mao’s utopian vision of urban China and the impact on its inhabitants.21 The work recounts an almost perennial building site, especially following Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, that represents an amazing metamorphosis of mass culture from its socialist past, a city cannibalized by an increasingly voracious consumerism.22 The situation is made more complex by a temporal desynchronization; that is, the many layers of life coexisting in the same time frame.23 Han Feng’s seemingly playful toy town poses a poignant question regarding the origin of China’s transformation. It is a reminder of Mao’s unique endorsement of Marx’s vision of utopia—one where enemy number one of the State is the bourgeoisie, the merchant class. In Marx’s view, the bourgeoisie are the most spectacular commercial force, their livelihood sustained by a zeal for accumulation that treats the world as one big market for exchange thereby creating a capitalist mode of production. Mao adopted this Marxist dogma, which fundamentally altered almost all aspects of a Confucian Chinese society, even down to the family, destroying traditional ways of life and rural civilization and leading to the creation of an enormous concrete giant of a city.
The way that Han Feng has abbreviated cityscapes into tracing paper is analogous to how many Chinese cities that were perhaps once custom-built for the emperor have been reduced to tourist destinations. The sculpture tells a story of the process of urbanization that has commodified private spaces that once represented a family’s own particular world. This socialist utopia has been referred to as a “spreading pancake,” transformed into a category of dystopia without coherence.24 Any remaining slum areas have now become a jarring blend of structures trapped within narrow backstreets of drab, low-rise, utilitarian work communes. These previously low-cost forms of housing for workers have undergone a momentous change resulting in a shift of demographics that many believe has affected the fabric of society. Although they were homes for many centuries to ordinary city populations, these forms of housing now have been deemed by the government to have passed their expiry date. Subject to constant commercial pressures for their demolishment, the government’s excuse is that they are a major embarrassment as they project an impression of latent social violence and repression and do not represent a perfect image to the world, especially during the run up to the Olympics 2008.
Han Feng lives and works in Shanghai and is among many Chinese artists who portray this disconnection from society. Filmmaker Director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s film The Blue Kite (1991) soulfully narrates stories about these communal spaces that are now sought-after for redevelopment by powerful social and political groups, and projects the memory of a previously carefree life or at least the lively social junctions and functions of some old towns.25 For Han Feng’s generation, communality often means lack of privacy, rustic simplicity means living on the bread line, and ideology is an excuse for persecution and power. Xing Danwen’s series Urban Fictions (2004–05), also depict a model-like metropolis that echoes the shimmering steel and glass structures that have become a monument to the age of global capitalism.26 Xing Danwen’s digitally manipulated photographs of architectural maquettes for real estate developments expose the underbelly of manufacturing industries with a Hollywood aura, and reduce to a minimum the final vestiges of local community life, with a heightened sense of the discreet, often violent, human dramas, Liu Xiaodong’s The Man With Nothing To Do And The Dying Rabbit (2001) is also a dramatic allusion of modern alienation and solitude. With COSPlayers (2005), Cao Fei makes work showing people dressing up as characters from fantasy worlds as an expression of their alienation from traditional values.27
Born in 1972, Han Feng was part the first generation to be born and brought up in the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. This generation was surrounded by hardship, hopelessness, jealousy, treachery, anguish, and injustice, all forms of the worst of human nature that intensifies when one is placed in a survival mode. As a child and then adolescent, he would have witnessed the cities in China develop beyond recognition. Old architecture and streets were sacrificed in pursuit of new styles. Familiar and existing spaces were carved up and rearranged to suit the government’s requirements. The feeling of a city as a living, organic, and social place became but a distant and poignant memory. The private and the public reflect “a dissociation that reveals specific social relations, those of a bourgeois society and the capitalist mode of production.”28 Traditional homes such as the hutong in Beijing have been transformed into theme parks, a kind of Disneyfication, benefitting only the construction industry, the tourists, the nouveau riche and foreign investors. The real city, the traditional city, and the homes of many, have been sacrificed to suit global rather than local requirements.29
The rest of the work at the Chinese Arts Centre appears, with humour and wit, to point to Han Feng’s philosophical entreaty, which redeems any foregone conclusion about the emptiness in his paintings and corresponds more than superficially to Sartre’s optimism about the human ability to choose what one can become. According to Sartre, it is our “self” that makes us human, that we should be able to take control of our own lives and think beyond the limitations imposed on us by our social situation and upbringing. Many critics of Sartre are skeptical of his certitude on the degree of human freedom, and they would say that feeling free is not the same as being free, and that social, political, and economic pressures are far more constraining than Sartre seems to acknowledge.30 Han Feng’s “empty paintings” seem to allude to this idea of a Sartrean freedom, which is “our ability to see things as unrealized, or as to be done, that reveals to us a world brimming with possibilities”31—in other words, to share in a belief that “existence precedes essence,” and to believe that there is no pre-existing blueprint of humanity, that we choose what we become.32
Certainly, the rest of the sculptural pieces in the exhibition also have an air of optimistic humour. Birds made from wood and zipped up in leather casings are suspended on rods of stainless steel, hanging from the ceiling. (image 6) Birds’ claws encased in laced-up leather shoes are paraded on platforms as in a fashion show. (image 7) Bats made out of leather are suspended near the wall. (image 8) One can imagine that the inspiration for the laced-up leather shoes may have come from the ice skating rinks of Harbin, where Han Feng was born. Tongue in cheek, or, indeed, seriously, Han Feng seems to ask: Are we as lucky as bats or as unlucky as these birds incarcerated with leather?33 Both Sartre and Han Feng, it would seem, are motivated by life as it is lived and felt.34
To be a painter of everyday life invariably involves a degree of solitude in order to observe, reflect, and to endure the often painstaking time required to make paintings that can convey one’s thoughts.35 Although there is a sadness and melancholy in Han Feng’s work, the nothingness alluded to in the paintings does not denote a void but, rather, a search for a deeper meaning, a meaning of life that prompts a Sartrean existential quality.36 Perhaps the resonance of this Sartrean concept offers solace and hope; as consciousness is always about a consciousness of something and therefore nothingness is the experience of recognizing that something is absent, not that nothing is there—that would be hopelessness. So, these “empty” paintings are Han Feng’s narration of his life, not about how to live, but about what it is like to live, about hope and the human predicament.37
1. This title refers to Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).
2. Jiehong Jiang, ed., Burden or Legacy, discusses whether the consequence of the Cultural Revolution was a burden or a legacy. From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007). 1–32.
3. Chinese critic Pi Li commented that the relationship between art and society in China today has now become simply a search for novelty. Art Asia Pacific, Fall 06: 66. ‘Cao fei : global player- one on one’ by Carolee Thea.
4. Abstractions. Deidre Adams.com.29.9.12.
5. Abstractions. Deidre Adams.com. 29.9.12.
6. Brochure text for Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (London: Tate Modern, 2012), 8.
7. The term used by a character who played a consultant in the movie Oceans 13 to Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
8. Brochure text for Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (London: Tate Modern, 2012), 3.
9. Brochure text for Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (London: Tate Modern, 2012), 5-6.
10. Carter Foster, curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/exhibit-reveals-intrigue-behind-painter-hoppers-us-realism-2017627.html.
11. A characterization Hopper disputed. David Riesman http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/edward-hopper.htm, 21.5.12.
12. “With Hopper the whole fabric of his art seems to be interwoven with his personal character and manner of living.” Charles Burchfield, http://www.artchive.com/artchive/H/hopper.html, 21.5.12.
13. Tani E. Barlow, “Pornographic City” in Chaohua Wang, One China, Many Paths. Verso. 2005 (2003): 185-190. London and New York.
14. http://chopsueyhopper.blogspot.co.uk, 21.5.12.
15. Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment (London: Abacus, 2006), 123.
16. “Staying at the Top: Mao and the Art of Management,” The Economist, December 22, 2007, 123-4.
17. Charles Taylor in Xiaobing Tang, Chinese Modern, The Heroic and the Quotidian. (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2000), 280.
18. Goldstein’s view is to see the political situation through the bamboo food basket. His definition of “common people,” ie. the workforce, the shangban zu (“go to work clan”), which are made up of the majority of the masses in China, is that they do not have a full social life as they have to work to make a living, ie their daily working hours occupy most of their daily energy and productive hours. Joshua L. Goldstein and Madeleine Yue Dong eds., Everyday Modernity in China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 191.
19. Op cit, Tang, 280.
20. Note 3 on page 354. Trans. Samuel Moore London 1888, Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (London and New York: Verso, 1997), 331-62.
21. Ibid, Berman, 89.
22. Xiaobing Tang,. Chinese Modern, The Heroic and the Quotidian. (Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2000), 3.
23. A. Dirlik and Zhang Xudong eds. Postmodernism and China. (Duke University Press, Durham and London., 2000), 126.
24. Hou Hanru’s paper, “The Expanding future,” from my notes taken at the conference on Soldiers at the Gate open forum on “Hutong and the city of Beijing, The historic centre- protection and development,” Beijing, May 19, 2006.
25. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s film, The Blue Kite (1991), evoked, in almost real-time, the everyday life of a Beijing hutong. The painfully meticulous narration brought to life the reality during the political and social upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s.
26. Gao Minglu, ed., The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art (Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2005), 323.
27. Cao Fei uses fantasy work to represent a relationship with political agitation and to address issues of socially disenfranchised groups. See Carolee Thea, “Cao Fei: global player—One on One,” Art Asia Pacific (Fall 2006), 66.
28. Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas, and Eleonore Kofman, Henri Lefebvre, Key Writings (Harper and Row: New York and London, 2003), 156.
29. Zhang Zhijun, editor of Sanlin bookstore, summed up in “Civil, Civility and Civilisation,” Beijing’s priority as being about building a real modern city and society. From my notes on Zhang Zhijun’s talk at the “Soldiers at the Gate Open Forum” on “Hutong and the City of Beijing, the Historic Centre—Protection and Development,” Beijing, May 19 2006.
30. Nigel Warburton, Philosophy: The Classics, 2nd Edition (London: Routledge, 2001), 226. Social political and economic pressures are far more constraining than Sartre seems to acknowledge.
31. Not to admit to free will is what Sartre calls self-deception. Op cit, Sarte, 220–221.
32. Op cit, Warburton, 218.
33. In the Chinese script, the second of the two words to denote bat is fu (bianfu), and it also shares the same pronunciation (although not the same tone) as “good fortune.” Bats also hang upside down, and the Chinese word for being upside down, dao, also has the same pronunciation (not the same tone) as the word meaning “arrived.” Many Chinese people hang the word fu (good fortune) on red paper upside down on the wall, to hasten the arrival of good fortune.
34. Op cit, Warburton, 219.
35. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/edward-hopper.htm, 21.5.12.
36. Sartre characterises human consciousness as a gap at the heart of our being, a nothing. Concrete nothingness is experienced when we recognise that something is absent. Op cit, Warburton, 219.
37. Op cit, Berman, 222.