Amusement and Taboo Breaking
Review on Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's Art
Taking the year 1979 as a starting point, we should admit that since the birth of Chinese contemporary art, it has always been intricately connected with social reality. In other words, one prominent feature of Chinese contemporary art of the past three decades lies in its concern about cultural reality. Why is that? The large-scale social transformation following the opening-up policy has imbued Chinese society with unprecedented complexity and diversity, which in turn provided Chinese artists with abundant new inspiration and resources. In a sense, such attachment to reality has given rise to a unique sense of charm of Chinese contemporary art. Criticism, revelation, question, sarcasm and teasing of reality constitute a large part of the subject matters of Chinese contemporary art. In this regard, there're two phenomena worth noticing in terms of the relationship between art and reality in the history of Chinese contemporary art: 1. Many artists are obsessed with direct projection and reflection of "reality" in the form of art. They believe that insights into the truth of life and reality can be gained through modernity, so they choose to resort to art to reflect and express history and reality. 2. They are particularly attached to the representation of the process of grand history. They try to probe into social crisis incurred by ethnic and class struggle by means of art. The two phenomena are both closely connected with the national humiliation and social conflicts that the modern history of China has to be faced with, and are an inevitable option of the development of Chinese history and a prominent feature of Chinese modernity. Conflicts, confusion and anxiety emerging during the process have led many Chinese artists to be inspired by and to represent the history and reality. Some even chose extreme methods to challenge the traditional or existing order as well as mainstream ideology.
In such a context, Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's art can be deemed as a somewhat sarcastic and humorous way of expression, posing question to the presence and reality of human beings in a seemingly light-hearted way and casting light on the essence of life under the cover of absurdity. In the form of traditional cloth puppets, their work actually contains two different extreme contrasts. The nature of textile gives their art a sense of flexibility and variability. Ludicrous and chaotic as it may seem to be, their work touches the core of reality and contains certain cautiousness and order within itself. On the one hand, the looking at their work would bring viewers pleasure and relaxation. On the other hand, when immersing in those "absurd" scenes, people could vividly feel the distinctiveness of individuality, the paradox of living and the artists' question into reality. The sense of absurdity is the result of their use of dramatized structure to highlight the dramatic changes and virtual living situation of China's reality. In the meantime, it also implies the idea that "living per se is a kind of absurdity". Works such as "Top" and "Enjoy Flowers" didn't pose any direct criticism, but they did inspire us to take a second thought on the values we held. In terms of methodology, it seems Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing want to lay an emphasis on the beauty of formalism in the visual effect of installation, imbuing trivial and somewhat kitsch images with a sense of everydayness, vividness and funniness. Works created in 2004 such as "Mad Group" and "Make Beautiful" revealed a certain aspect of today's Chinese consumption culture. They showcased the hidden desires and ambivalence lying in human beings, and the dreams that everyone possessed but was under constant changes with the passage of time. Traces of the irony of excessive confidence and vanity could also be perceived in those works. The use of irony not only added some funny wisdom to the narrative, but also accented the disdain to existing orders and values. Hence, it can be seen that Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's intention is to imbue the key figures and actions in their work with maximum content and visual effect. Such effect is highly metaphorical, visualizing the increasing desires for consumption in today's society through some funny images and symbols of traditional bonsai and gardening. Examples of this kind include Garden, Landing and "As If the Silver River were Falling from Heaven". The artists' deep concern about social reality is embodied in the somewhat surrealistic expression.
But they don't stop there. Instead, they dig even deeper and endeavor to further reveal the severity and urgency of the problems. The severity and urgency lie in the fact that we all live in the society that is faced with moral bankruptcy. No one can remain as an outsider. We are all part of this sick society. Our life is supposed to be meaningful. But we often feel ourselves unable to find the meaning of life. Or say, the meaning of life seems to be controlled or even drained by some invisible power. In works such as "Climbing up the Mountain, Climbing down the Mountain" and "Grab, help" it can be further confirmed that such severity and urgency are the realistic foundation of the absurdity they create, imbuing the absurdity with a strong sense of realism. The absurdity revealed in Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's work exactly shows how they search for universal values in this absurd real world.
Absurd as they seem, their works embody contemporary consciousness, respect for life and reflection upon humanity. Works such as "Image", "Walls", "Edge of The Pool", "The Environment is Good Here" and "Watching TV" overcame the problem commonly seen in traditional realistic representation: simplified plot due to the excessive emphasis on highlighting so-called typical significance. Instead, they based their work on daily life and experience, and intentionally chose some trivial fragments to display the helplessness of people in a reserved and tender way. The contrast between the sharp criticism on reality and the seemingly calm and emotionless way of expression created a kind of amusing visual effect, bringing viewers a sense of pleasure one would normally feel when breaking a taboo. Compared to traditional realistic art where there's usually a specific corresponding relationship to be found between the artwork and what it embodies in reality, Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's art doesn't try to build "typical figures in typical situation". Instead, they keep an eye on the most trivial and everyday life fragments, introducing the most commonly seen and yet also the most vivid people and incidents into their art. By depicting "everydayness" to the extreme the essence of life is thus unfolded, casting light on the influence of the society we live in on our personality, thinking pattern, outlooks and the constraints it imposes on the development of civilization. By confronting viewers with the contrast between the power of environment and that of human beings, they push viewers to reflect upon the everyday life they are already accustomed to. It is the power of such hidden and yet more profound truth that arouses viewers' sympathy. As their way of expression no longer places an emphasis on the searching for so-called symbolic cultural significance in the objects they depict and highlights the subtlety of individual experience, the visual effect they create is teeming with strong emotional implication, making a record of the daily fragments of reality as well as their genuine feelings toward the outside world.
For a long time, young artists who are after grand narrative tend to not only despise everyday experience but also question the value and the possibilities of it. Nevertheless, artistic representation of everyday life experience still possesses a position in the realm of art. As a matter of fact, the fact that grand historical narrative is usually criticized as hollow lays the foundation for the necessity and value of daily life experience in art expression. Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's careful observation of daily life enable them to accurately capture the anxiety, boredom and depression brought about the modern urban life and to turn them into a subject matter for further reflection and discussion. Artists are used to depicting the inner experience of "mine". Though it also falls into the category of everyday life experience, it only relates to very personal self-awareness. It is the fact that there is no extreme expression of personal experience that makes Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing stand out. In other words, they are both intruders and observers of life. They keep an eye upon and in the meantime also experience the vision of a new life brought about by cities and the indifference and sense of toughness given out by the steel jungle. From a grander perspective, each one of us is faced with undetermined destiny. We change our identities from time to time according to the social roles we play.
In my view, culture is more than just common reality, or symbol systems that have been used for long, or existing concepts and explanations under the current ideological atmosphere. Culture reflects the vivid and primitive state of men's everyday life. To be more specific, it reflects not only a fixed result but also the dynamic process. In this regard, Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's work reconstructs some scenes in daily life to show their concern about the living situation and future possibilities of human beings. In the face of their works, people would feel as if they are in the world the artists have created. Their way of expression promotes us to take a close look at the seemingly mediocre daily life that we've long got accustomed to. As a matter of fact, this is exactly what makes an artist stand out: he will need to search for and inspire others to search for the ultimate meaning of the somewhat meaningless life. This is where Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's appeal lies and what they endeavor to reveal. As endless as reality is, it is always within our vision. Hence, only through constant experience, thinking and expression can we carry on and realize the possibility of art. It seems as if the two of them intentionally keep a distance from the core of the realm of art, concentrating fully on their own art vision which is different from the mainstream. As far as I'm concerned, they manage to keep a distance from the aesthetic taste dominated by the current consumption culture. And they're satisfied with such a somewhat marginalized position, confident and comfortable. They volunteer to estrange themselves from the mainstream and take an onlooker's perspective, which establishes the uniqueness of their art and reflection upon culture.