In the previous chapter I addressed the importance of the use of parody in
Chinese video art. In particular, Zhang Peili's parodic appropriation of TV news
footage criticizes the scripted nature of TV news broadcasting. His work leads the
audience to question the conventional role of TV news as a truth-telling machine as it
became influenced by consumer culture and the spontaneity of global broadcasting.
Furthermore, Zhang uses parody to demonstrate the differences between video art and
mass media products such as TV news. In this chapter, we will see that parody is also
central to the works of Yang Zhenzong, a young Shanghai-based artist, who had been
very close to Zhang in Hanzhou and thus was familiar with his earlier video works,
including Water. Later, Yang moved to Shanghai and continued his video art work
Parody in Yang's works is not an artist's appropriation of ready-made material,
such as that found in Zhang's works. Rather, parody is found in Yang's use of a group
of performers to act out certain utterances in front of a camcorder. For instance, in We
Are Not Fish, we see three images of mouths on TV monitors speaking the words "We
are not fish." In I Will Die, Yang's performers utter the words "I will die," while he
records their expressions as they speak. Parody here is found in the use of or repetition
of certain utterances among the group of performers. In these works, we see
incongruity between the performers' utterances and their acts: when one performer
says "I will die," he actually smiles. Yang did not direct the performers' acts
themselves, but simply asked his performers to speak the words while he taperecorded
their acts. I suggest that here the artist reveals the subversive function of this
incongruity and asks us to note the impossibility of absolute imitation. The performers
appear to repeat the same utterance, one after another. However, I will argue that the
incongruity shows the differences within a range of similarity because the performers
repeat the same utterance but their actions do not reflect what they say. Thus, I suggest
that parody in Yang's works is identical to the incongruity of parodied context:
namely social and cultural convention and repetition of the difference. The artist
captures the performers' incongruity in order to challenge the viewers' expectations of
how each performer should act as he says "I will die."
Yang's parodic play of incongruity is different from the intentional
misplacement of TV footage that Zhang employs. Unlike Zhang, Yang does not
directly incorporate incongruity (namely the subversive function of the parody) into
his art, but instead uses the performers' improvisatory acts to demonstrate this
incongruity. Nevertheless, Yang's parodic play is similar to Zhang's in a very general
sense; both artists use parody to attack convention or custom. However, they express
different concerns—surveillance and group opinions in Yang's case, and censorship
and propaganda in Zhang's. Yang's video works incorporate performance art and
conceptual art within video art: he uses parody to explore the nature of video art itself.
The parody that results from the participation of Yang's performers is also, to a
certain extent, similar to that found in the works of Xu Bing, who invites the viewer to
play through the learning of a language as Yang directed his performers to act out
according to "his" utterance. Both artists employ the use of language to show the
culturally and socially coded act as the conventional norm for that language. However,
unlike Xu, Yang attempts to reveal the performers' acts under the surveillance and
watchfulness of the monitor and camcorder. Yang shows us incongruity and directs us
to notice that the performers' acts, in fact, are the result of the forceful intrusion by his
camcorder. These acts are not fully conscious and voluntary but rather are scripted and
In this chapter, I will demonstrate that Yang's use of parody is associated with
specific social and political events that took place at the time he created his works.
The incongruity—which confuses and even provokes the audience and creates a
rupture in logic and representation—can be interpreted as a sense of danger in terms of
survival of the self within the new media culture that Yang experienced. Yang's
parodic play thus can be interpreted as a way for the artist to explore the self of the
performer within the proliferation of media culture. In Zhang's works, the influence of
this mass media culture is expressed through the domain of TV news. Yang's works,
however, express the other domain in the reality of mass media proliferation: the
consumer culture in Shanghai during the 1990s in which the artist lived and created.
Incongruity Between Performers' Speeches and Acts
Yang Zhenzhong has worked primarily with video and photographic media.
His several video works examine the dissociation between performers' utterances and
their acts. This incongruity, as I demonstrate, creates for the viewer a rupture in logic
and representation and leads us to examine the psychological effect of his video art. It
also leads us to consider the psychological feeling associated with the incongruous
image in the context of monitor and camera.
Fish Bowl (1996) (illus. C.34) is the first work in which Yang addresses
contradiction between performers' acts and utterances. In this video installation, three
TV monitors are stacked vertically, and the bottom one is placed inside a fish tank
with a couple of small water pumps. On each monitor, a close-up image of a mouth
(the artist's) utters the words "We are not fish" in Chinese. At first glance, the shape
and color of the mouths suggest that of goldfish, so that the act performed resembles
the act of a fish. This visual resemblance reflects and extends the installation context
of water tank and bubbling sounds. Not only does the mouth resemble a fish, the
exhibited environment also suggests water and sea life. On the other hand, the
utterance ("we are not fish") of the "mouths" belies what these mouths appear to
Yang Zhenzhong was born in Hangzhou, a suburb near Shanghai. He moved to
Shanghai in 1997 after he had created Fish Bowl. After living in the city for three
years, he created I Will Die (illus. C.35). For this later piece, Yang asked his
performers to say, "I will die" to a video camera while he taped them.205 First he
selected performers from a group of his friends, and then he randomly selected
strangers in the street. He unexpectedly and suddenly intruded into these strangers'
lives and asked for their cooperation. In his work, we see that numerous figures of
both genders and different ages act within this context. Each figure utters the words in
a different way, with a different expression. But virtually all of them smile as they say
the words. Here the accompanying facial expression is out of sync with the utterance,
suggesting its opposite ("I will not die").
Two years after I Will Die, in a video installation entitled Do Not Move (2002)
(illus. C.36), Yang again explored the notion of contradiction—in this case, in the
dissociation of a performer's speech from his acts. In this work, a male figure's
movements appear in 12 different orientations on 12 monitors. An orientation includes
movement in a direction such as up, down, or diagonal. In some of the images, this
movement is defined by the blurring of light and the play of shadow on the moving
figure. The notion of contradiction occurs here between the figure's speech and
action—each figure moves and, at the same time, utters, "Don't move." The figure's
utterance is in opposition to his movement; "don't move" appears incongruous to what
he acts out, which is "I am moving."
Whereas in English we say "I will die," in Chinese there is no future tense suggested, so the figures
are really saying "I die." This adds a greater sense of immediacy to the performances.
For a recent proposed project, Yang continues to explore the main concept in I
Will Die, but with a different focus. Here he asks another artist to utter "I will die" in
front of a mirror in a bathroom in his apartment every morning when he gets up (illus.
C.37). The performer is looking at his mirrored image and engaging in dialogue with
"this mirrored I"—the performer's self-reflection.
Why has Yang been working with this particular thematic concept and these
concerns? Upon first viewing, we might understand these two video works in the
context of artistic practice and concepts grounded in the Western tradition of art of the
1970s. During that period, artists such as Bruce Newman, Joan Jonas, and others
explored ways to incorporate video into their performances. Their video works show
the artists as performers who act within the video space. Yang's works may be
associated with this tradition. However, I argue that the purpose of his creation is to
capture a contradiction—the performers' acts and utterances are obviously not in sync;
they create a rupture in the represented objects. Thus, this notion of contradiction can
be understood as a kind of rupture in logic and representation.
In Fish Bowl, the mouth appears sticky, masquerading as the skin of a fish.
Yang intentionally creates a visual effect to suggest the similarity between a fish and a
mouth: the mouth itself resembles a fish. Furthermore, the enunciation of the utterance
"We are not fish" is deliberately slow, so that each physical movement of the speaking
mouth resembles that of a fish. This resemblance seems both deliberate and natural.
The artist has selected the mouth as a specific vehicle for mimicry and intentionally
suggests this similarity to the viewer. This object is primordial and plainly serves its
role as an agent of this fish-like image.
Influenced by Rene Magritte's This is Not a Pipe (1928), Yang Zhenzhong
added to the conversation by creating "This is Not a Fish" in a video installation.206
Michel Foucault, in his analysis of Magritte's paintings, suggests that if one takes the
claim of the title ‘This is Not a Pipe' seriously, three things emerge: (1) this particular
painting of a pipe does not stand for or represent any of that class of objects found in
the world, that are called pipes; (2) this sentence itself ("this is not a pipe") could not
represent a pipe; (3) this mixed element of discourse and image, written pipe and
drawn text, is not a pipe.207
In the case of this particular resemblance, the mouth looks like a fish but is the
organ of a human, not a fish. The sense of hearing is also involved: in this work we
hear "we are not fish," but we see that it is the mouth that says this. A mouth is a
mouth, and it cannot possibly become a fish in any sense. Like Magritte, Yang
deliberately and meticulously employs a contradiction in his video installation. For
Foucault, this contradiction means that visual resemblance and linguistic discourse are
in a state of dissociation, creating a rupture in representation. Of Magritte's painting,
Foucault argues that in this rupture we see similitude as a mode of representation
rather than of resemblance. Foucault's notion of dissociation and rupture can be
applied to Yang's works in terms of the performers' acts and utterances. However,
here audio and motion are the agents of dissociation and rupture.
Just as Fish Bowl employs multiple monitors, I Will Die features 12 monitors
displayed in a row. The 12 monitors show the figures simultaneously, and their 12
utterances (at different speeds) echo each other so that, combined, they become almost
a kind of chanting. Here, unlike the phonetic units of the utterance in Fish Bowl, the
206 After I pointed out this connection, the artist realized this influence. He had been interested in Magritte's paintings during his college period four years before he created Fish Bowl.
207 Michael Foucault. This Is Not a Pipe. (Los Angeles: U of California P, 1982). 26–27.
utterances emphasize the phonetic element. The chanting is not in sync with what the
figures are acting out ("we are moving").
Unlike Fish Bowl, presented as a three-channel video installation, I Will Die is
a one-channel video work whose 45 snippets comprise a sequence, played as a loop. In
it we see 45 male and female persons of different ages, covering roughly each
generation: elders, the middle-aged, teens, children, and even an unborn infant in the
frame of a pregnant woman. The video begins with the shot of a man in his 30s, shows
that of the pregnant woman in the middle and ends with that of a man. When the
camera lens zooms in on the first figure, the man faces us and utters, "I will die." It
might be important to note here some details about the production of this work. In
2000, Yang was working with a digital camera and video-editing software on his
computer. Here he employs more video technique (zoom-in and -out) than in earlier
pieces. In addition, he edited the 45 clips on his computer. The high quality of a digital
camera may have enabled him to capture each figure's facial expression in greater
detail in this work.
Each figure in the sequence is filmed against a different background that
identifies the place and time of filming. Some of the figures wear their work uniforms
such as those of doctor, nurse, police officer, or soldier. The figures' speech and
actions are similar; most of them appear cheerful or playful. Each speaks the same
utterance, "I will die," and acts similar to the others. In this work, each figure utters "I
will die" in Chinese.208 The expressions of the figures in this work are not sad and
even appear cheerful. Here we see the contradiction between each figure's acts and
utterance—a contradiction similar to that found in Fish Bowl and Do Not Move. In
208 The artist later on made eight different language versions: Chinese (China) 2000. French (Brussels)
2001. Dutch (Brussels) 2001. Korean (Korea) 2001. German (Germany) 2002. Japanese (Japan) 2002.
English (San Diego) 2003. Spanish (Tijuana) 2003.
discussing those works, I argued that this contradiction generates a creative dynamism
and is an affirmation of the self. But what does the notion of contradiction mean in I
Yang's figures utter, "I will die" in different tones; some are playful, cheerful,
even theatrical. Even the three elder figures, who might have immediate feelings about
the significance of their words, sound somehow playful. Each figure's act of the
utterance matches his facial and body language. For instance, a male figure acts
theatrical when he is speaking. He also curls up the fingers of each hand tightly, as
though he is aggressively responding to the fear of death. In this sense, each figure's "I
will die" might be understood as an attempt to make death matter-of-fact. Hence,
while they say "I will die," most of the figures look playful and not serious enough.
Their utterances seem to describe the truth of "I will die" as fact, in the sense in which
Austin might call "I will die" a constative utterance. If this is the case, what is
puzzling here is that their cheerful acts are not appropriate to the meaning of the words
spoken, and hence do not satisfy the definition of a constative utterance.
Yang explains his inspiration for this work and the role of the camera:
Every religion talks about the same problem: how to face death calmly.
When I ask people to say the line "I will die" in front of my video
camera, they all know they are being recorded. Most of the people who
perform care about how they look. People always lie to the camera, but
"I will die" is the truth. I was interested in the expressions on people's
faces before and after they said "I will die." None of us are ready to die.
We are afraid of death. But life is ephemeral, and death is inevitable.
Sometimes, we think of our image as eternal. Maybe this is the reason
we invented the camera.209
Here the artist highlights the role of the camera in exploring this universal spiritual
and philosophical problem. Unlike the formal influence of Magritte in Fish Bowl,
209 The artist's statement.
there seems a strong religious or philosophical implication in the utterance of "I will
die."210 On a different level, this phrase may have religious implications. Between
1992 and 1996, Yang became interested in exploring the notion of death. During that
time, having just graduated from college, he stayed alone in a mountain and studied
Buddhism and existentialism, both of which are concerned with this notion. In 1994,
he did performance work related to the concept of death for the exhibition The
Agreement of Regarding November 26, 1994 as a Reason. In this exhibition, each
artist needed to create a work related to the particular day of November 26. For his
part, Yang Zhenzhong prayed in a public cemetery at the tomb of a person who had
died on that date.
Unlike the context in 1996, numerous catastrophic events occurred in China
between 1999 and 2000which caused nationwide feelings of anxiety, paranoia, and
dislocation. In 1999, a national tragedy was caused by the U.S. bombing of the
Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The coming of the millennium also amplified national
feelings of potential catastrophe. In 2000, the murder of a female college student in
Beijing became the focus of mass media attention and generated a great deal of
discussion on safety issues. Followers of Falungong, a quasi-religion rampant in China,
were violently suppressed by the government. In addition to these domestic events, the
Internet boom and China's entry into the WTO in 2000 generated much anxiety about
the influence of capitalist and globalist forces. During that time, the Hollywood movie
Independence Day depicted the end of the world. This idea questioned the sovereignty
of the socialist state and caused a great sense of instability and fearfulness in China.
The momentum generated by these events may have contributed to his preoccupation
with death in I Will Die.
210 In the West, this phrase could be aligned with the philosophical tradition, that is, Montaigne: "to philosophize is to learn how to die."
Furthermore, unlike Yang's earlier performance piece, I Will Die is a video
work. The phrase used reveals the artist's interest in exploring the concept of death.
His discussion seems to acknowledge the seriousness of this issue. However, the
performers' playful, non-serious acts are not what we would expect when we talk
about the serious fact of death. In this sense, their expression might be seen as making
fun of this convention, expressing a kind of mockery or irony. But this is not the case
here. The artist's statement emphasizes the role of the video camera and people's
speech in front of the video camera; this is turn highlights the role of video in telling
the truth in front of the inhibiting camera. This argues against his use of contradiction
as an expression of mockery. It also argues against an assumption that each figure
could not express his/her truthful feelings about the fear of death because speaking
about death is a religious taboo, an unspeakable thing. Instead, Yang wants us to
recognize that each performer is filmed in the context of the ever-present camcorder.
Therefore, it is important to explore this appearance of dissociation in light of
the camcorder and monitor. In I Will Die, the performers in fact are video taped
images; they are conscious that they are speaking in front of the camcorder. It is hence
important to elucidate the role of the camcorder for each figure. The figures are
involved with the language itself (the utterance "I will die") in terms of its significance
in relation to the whole performance. Does this presence of an inhibiting media
explain the notion of the contradiction between speech and facial expression and tone
in I Will Die? We also encounter this issue in Fish Bowl. In this work, as per
Foucault's thought, there is a sense of rupture that reflects upon the performers' outof-
sync acts and utterances. But what is this rupture appearing on the monitors in
Yang's video installations? Since painting is fundamentally different from video, I
cannot use Foucault's notion of similitude without modifying it somewhat. In Yang's
works, dissociation occurs when performers act in a manner not in sync with the
significance of their words. This dissociation creates a sense of incongruity between
their speech and actions.
Incongruity and the Condition of Monitor and Camcorder
The video installation Fish Bowl presents a fish-like image in the visual-sound
context of a fish tank. As a time-based medium, the video shows that the act of the
mouth which occurs on the monitor takes place in the present, as if a mouth is
swimming in the tank. Thus, the fish-like image on the monitor is intended to be
viewed by an audience, and the audience's perception and interaction are part of the
experience. The video monitor metaphorically serves as a frame and is itself
suggestive of a fish tank.
With the focus imposed by the monitor, the rupture of the fish-like image
creates in the viewer a strong and strange feeling about the mouth itself and its
resemblance to a fish. There is a tradition in video art of videotaping mouths up close,
starting with Vito Acconci's Walk-Over (a.k.a. Indirect Approaches) (1973) (illus.
C.38), and continuing with Marina Abramovic's performance/video work Breathing
In/Breathing Out (1977). Both artists are associated with the 1970s Western art
movement that fused video and performance art. In Walk-Over, Acconci speaks while
walking around a room, gradually moving closer and closer to the camera, until finally
he is so close to it that his mouth is attached to the lens surface. He describes his
movements and thoughts as he moves through the room;211 his utterance is in sync
211 Yang says: "A long narrow corridor, leading to the camera—at one side, a window—sun streams in, splotches of light and dark, the corridor shimmers. I'm at the far end—walking back and forth, humming, biding my time. Then I talk to the viewer—rather, to a specific viewer: ‘So you're finally there—I've waited for you—you had to be there first.' I walk around the camera, still humming, talking
now and then, but waiting till I'm close before I come down hard. I'm close up—only my lips on
screen—too close, blurred: ‘You want to hear about her—her hair is blonde, your hair could never be like hers—she has her own life, I'm interested in what she's thinking, we could never have had a relationship like this.' I back off, leave ‘you' hanging, go back to the other end—but I come back, I don't leave ‘you' alone."
with his act. A close-up view of his mouth appears on the monitor. Since the mouth
speaks, this close-up view emphasizes its function as a speaking organ. This work also
reveals the tactility of this image, because the monitor renders the function of the
mouth immediate and palpable to the audience. Therefore, Acconci's use of a mouth
in close-up demonstrates the power of the monitor or screen as an agent of the
"propulsion" of video art, a propulsion aided by both visual and sound elements and
by the action in this work.
Yang was certainly aware of Acconci's explorations around 1996, when Yang
was creating his own version of the mouth in close-up. Although Yang was trained in
interior design and oil painting at the college at Hangzhou, he quickly abandoned
painting after graduating from college and embraced video art. During that period
(1992), video was rarely used in art. It was, however, being explored by Zhang Peili,
who lived near and was close to Yang. In 1996 and 1997, two video exhibitions were
displayed in Hangzhou; Yang's Fish Bowl was included in the latter. Both exhibitions
were curated by Wu Weichung, with the assistance of Qiu Zhijie. Along with curating
the exhibitions, Wu and Qiu translated into Chinese several articles on the Western
tradition of video art. Yang probably became aware of this tradition on the occasion of
the second exhibition. Yet, as he reported in an interview with the author, even before
1996 he had read and learned about video art from Chinese art magazines available to
At the 1997 video exhibition, Yan Yinghong showed He Says, She Says, It
Says, They Say: Forget it, Don't Say More (illus. C.39) (1997), a work that explores
the mouth and speech. He exhibited five close-up images of a mouth in five monitors
stacked in two rows, two on top of three. The mouths speak different words and have
no relation to each other. Because they appear in the centers of their respective
monitors, the mouth images become the focal point for the viewer. Each pair of lips is
painted in an exaggerated fashion, so that as each mouth speaks the action of its
movements is enhanced. Thus, these images appear theatrical and even create a feeling
of dizziness and fright for the viewer. The content of the utterances is less important
than the material reality of the mouths, an effect which seems to negate the speech
function of the mouth, as reflected by the video title.
As in Yang's work, psychological effects—even sexuality—are implied here,
and the purely speaking function of the mouth is minimized. Compared with other
Chinese video artists such as Yan, Yang would find the image of the mouth to be
particularly attractive during this period. At this time, the book Why Can China Say
No first appeared. Its argument was primarily anti-American in terms of exhorting
people to resist China's march into globalization, a process which had already begun,
and the book quickly raised nationalist sentiment. Fish Bowl invites us to see either a
fish or something else. Its fish-like image appears to provide a feeling of confusion,
surprise, and disorientation in the gap between perception and consciousness. The
negative expression in the performer's utterance, "we are not fish," can perhaps be
linked to the 1996 "Say No" movement. Thus, the pervasiveness of nationalism might
be an essential association to Yang's interest in incongruity, an expression of "saying
no." However, the sense of opposition in Yang's works, as I will demonstrate, is not
simply a rejection of Westernization in 1996, but is also a desire to affirm the self.
While producing his video piece during the emergence of Chinese video art,
Yang found his own way to create. He borrowed an analog camcorder from a friend.
Although camcorders were available for sale at certain electronic goods shops, they
were regarded as luxury items. In addition, because professional video editing
equipment was available only at a TV station—under governmental control—the artist
decided that he would not edit the tape. He performed in front of the camera for as
long as the tape lasted—30 minutes. He used a VCR to record a master tape of the
work and to make a three-hour-length tape for exhibition. It is important to note that
Yang himself is the performer in this piece; therefore whatever comes out of his
mouth, with all of its associations, is particularly relevant. He is the speaking self.
Fish Bowl's fish-like image commands the viewer's psychological response to
both the object (the mouth) and its act. The analogy to a mouth here is not merely a
visual trick, first played by the artist and then recognized by the viewer. It is clear that
the utterance "we are not fish" is simple, and we are not in any linguistic
bewilderment as to its meaning. The resemblance between fish and mouth determines
the artist's action, which in turn builds a relationship between mouth and fish, an
action which Freud would call an "analogous action." This action does not merely
suggest a visual, formal resemblance between a mouth and a fish; it also commands
the viewer's desire to listen to what it is trying to say. The close-up view and the slow
speed of its enunciation bring the viewer's full attention to the mouth; only then does
he become aware of the context of the fish tank. The image of the mouth is
superimposed on the image of the tank, which conveys the idea of a fish.
Here the rupture between the image on the monitor and the surrounding
environment of the fish tank has a strong psychological effect upon the viewer because
of the distinction between that which is obvious and apparent, and that which is
concealed and metaphorical. There are two levels of meaning in this analogy:
Manifest—the mouth Manifest—speaking
Latent—the fish Latent—acting
When this analogy appears again and again in its continuous loop, the viewer
is solicited to discover the meaning of this latent reference to the swimming fish. The
resemblance between mouth and fish becomes less important than the fact of the
mouth (which speaks to us), bringing this analogy into action for the viewer's desire.
At the same time, the viewer's struggle between manifest and latent thought
suppresses his desire to clarify the difference that is confirmed by what he is listening
to: "we are not fish," especially in light of the environment of the fish tank. This
rupture orders the viewer's conscious cognition of this analogy. The ambiguity of the
mouth as an ordinary vehicle of speech and as a kind of magnet drawing one's
attention to it is highlighted in this psychological analogy. The action of the mouth and
act of the utterance make the speech visible in terms of exposing hidden meanings the
viewer is not yet conscious of.
Yang uses the image of the mouth to create a feeling of uncanniness. This
strategy is straightforward, employing both the movement of the mouth (directly
suggesting the appearance of a fish) and the installation environment (the fish tank). In
Li Yongbin's (b. 1963) series of video works, uncanniness finds its source in the use
of the morphing technique. In Face (illus. C.40) (1997), Li videotaped the image of his
own face in the mirror and manipulated it by creating the effect of morphing the face.
Li's mirrored image is more active and ever-changing than Zhang's image.
In Yang's Fish Bowl, the uttering mouth creates the actions of sucking and
blowing—actions strongly suggestive of sexual behavior; the mouth's movements
thus suggest the visual experience of sexual pleasure. The shape of the mouth is
exaggerated unnaturally. The mouth itself appears moist and sticky, and its texture is
tender, thin, and sensitive, creating the visual impression of a sexual organ. The
resemblance of the mouth seems here to be latently tied to that of a sexual organ—a
vulva (illus. C.41).
However, the psychological reaction for the viewer cannot be seen only as a
result of the visual implication of sexuality, but must also be the feeling of fright that
Sigmund Freud characterizes as "the uncanny"—that which "arouses dread and
horror…certain things which lie within the class of what is frightening."212 The act
that plays on the monitors in time and repeats this uncanny image evokes a strong
feeling of fright in the viewer. The close-up mouth on the monitor conveys this feeling
immediately. However, the rupture in Yang's works comes from the feeling of fright
evoked by the monitor—revealed not in the image itself, but in the contradiction
between the mouth's acts and utterances. This tension or fright is so intense that the
mouth (with lips thrust out) looks as if it might propel itself out of the range of the
monitor. In opposition to this "monitoring," it declares that we are not fish; we are not
what we seem to be or what the viewer would have us be.
This notion of the monitor and how we are viewed can, of course, be extended
to the camera eye. Although the camera is a recording vehicle, it is also a constraining
agent, a "watcher." The artist is regulated, in a sense, by two eyes: the camcorder and
the monitor. Here the notion of watcher is not related to surveillance, covert
monitoring, or voyeurism. Rather, the watcher makes the performer self-conscious.
Self-consciousness is a result of Yang's performers being regulated by the watcher.
By 1997, several Chinese video artists were exploring the relationship between
camcorder and monitor—the notion of the "two eyes." Song Dong, in Watching-
Monitor (illus. C.42) (1997), reveals this relationship in a very direct way. He uses a
surveillance camera to monitor a person's daily life. Once the person becomes aware
of the watching camera, it begins to record, and his self-consciousness begins. Song is
concerned with whether the camcorder regulates the actions of its subject by making
him self-conscious or whether it merely records events. In Observation (illus. C.43)
(1997), Zhang Peili explores the concept of camcorder as mirror. Here a performer
212 Sigmund Freud. The Uncanny. The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature. trans. and
ed. James Strachey. (London: Penguin, 1990). 339.
watches his image reflected in the camcorder lens, which serves as both a mirror and a
watcher that records the performer's act of watching himself. The video monitor also
functions as a mirror, displaying what the camcorder reflects. Since the monitor shows
a close-up view of the performer's eyes, we experience a strong sensation of gazing or
watching. In this sense, the monitor itself functions as a watcher, rather than a mere
device to display images from the camcorder. The relationship between camcorder and
monitor becomes more complicated. Both Song and Zhang explored the notion of
visibility in terms of the acts of watching, recording, and reflecting. This notion
focuses on the vehicles themselves, rather than on their influence on the performer, as
in Yang's works. In other words, Song's and Zhang's watchers highlight the
performance rather than the sense of self-consciousness felt by Yang's watched
In addition to visibility, Chen Xiaoxiong (b. 1962) explores action and tactility
in the relationship between camcorder and monitor. His work Who Is the Performer?
(illus. C.44) (1996) consists of two parts. In the first, the monitor reveals a hand
touching the lens of a camcorder for fifty seconds. In the second, the action pauses,
and sounds emerge which, according to the artist, simulate the pulse of the camcorder.
Chen suggests the action first by showing a hand and later turning to the camcorder by
creating "the simulated pulse." When the hand moves, the camcorder is still, and vice
versa. This work asks: does the hand perform in front of the camcorder or does the
camcorder guide the performance? Chen, like Yang, uses this question to explore
performance in terms of the relationship between monitor and camcorder.
In Do Not Move, the incongruity between the performers' movements and
speech has a strong theatrical and spatial effect in relation to where and when the work
was shown—at a public park in the evening. Yang's use of video here seems to be
associated with the tradition of Fluxus and performance art, rather than with video art.
The multiplicity of monitors expands the physical sense of space. What is interesting
about this dissociation is that each figure, with eyes closed, appears to speak to
himself rather than to the viewer; his utterance resembles self-talk. Together, the
figures' acts seem almost schizophrenic. They compulsively repeat themselves and act
in a manner inconsistent with their speech; hence the dissociation between their
speech and their actions can be understood psychologically as behavior unmediated by
consciousness. Thus, each performance viewed on a monitor creates a psychological
feeling in the viewer. When the 12 monitors show the close-up views of the
performer' heads moving in different orientations, each image against its dark
background resembles a ghostly spectacle. The result is a strong, theatrical feeling of
uncanniness engendered in the viewer.
Two video techniques used in Fish Bowl elicit the feeling of fright: play-back
and the use of the monitor, both unique to Yang's works within the group of Chinese
artists discussed here. In this work, the fish-like image rolls on three monitors
simultaneously. We see that this sequenced image is made of a snippet (the fish-like
image) repeated over time. As each snippet appears on each monitor, it evokes the
immediate feeling of play-back. In the snippet, the mouth resembles a fish, yet says, "I
am not a fish." This incongruity becomes immediate as we see it repeated again and
again. We are surprised and bewildered, and we feel compelled to clarify what we see
and hear on the monitors.
However, this incongruity creates a rupture of this fish-image in the present,
because what we see and hear cannot be affirmed—we haven't made sense of it yet.
Our perception and consciousness of the reality of the fish-like image is suspended as
we "look back to" clarify the previous snippet. In this context, when the fish-like
image plays forward through time, rolling on the monitors, we feel a strong urge to
revisit and ascertain exactly what was taking place earlier on the monitor. Three
monitors playing this image simultaneously make this urge very compelling to the
audience. The multiple images create a feeling of vertigo that hurls us into a state of
bewilderment. Therefore, the rupture can be seen as an agent of "resistance"; we are
not yet willing to move forward.
In her seminal essay on video art, Rosalind Krauss argues that "time is
understood as a propulsion towards an end."213 Writing about Joan Jonas' Vertical
Roll (1972), she notes that "in this work access to a sense of time has come from
fouling the stability of the projected image by de-synchronizing the frequencies of the
signals on camera and monitor."214 In contrast to Krauss's reading of time as an agent
of propulsion, I interpret time in Yang's works as resistance. If we understand this
notion of resistance, we can then clarify the notion of monitor here.
The fish-like images in Fish Bowl are visually in sync with their physical
environment (that is, the fish tank), yet they are out of sync with the environment in an
auditory sense. Contradiction exists—in each fish-like image itself (the incongruity)
and in the images within the environment. The fish-like images on the monitors, by
their own pronouncement ("we are not fish"), do not belong in their environment.
Thus, the monitors do not assist us in merging this physical environment of the fish
tank with the fish identity on the monitor. The "talking fish," with their denial of
fishhood, do not match the fish tank environment. This contradiction between the
talking fish and the surrounding environment of the fish tank renders the monitor not a
mirror but rather the projection of an ambiguous, unsettled performance.
If the monitor here does not serve as a mirror of the image and its environment,
then what is its role in Fish Bowl? The monitor serves as the projector of an act
recorded on tape and then displayed. Krauss rightly points out that "unlike the visual
213 Rosalind Krauss. "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism" October. (1976). 60.
arts, video is capable of recording and transmitting at the same time—producing
instant feedback. The body [the human body] is therefore, as it were, centered between
two machines that are the opening and closing of a parenthesis. The first of these is the
camera; the second is the monitor, which re-projects the performer's image with the
immediacy of a mirror."215 This notion of monitor as mirror finds expression in the
work of Chinese artists Zhang, Song, Chen, and Li. However, Yang alters this notion.
In his works, this feeling of the performer (here the performing fish/artist) bracketed,
fixed and absolutely caught between camera and its projected image or the monitor,
adds to the feeling of fright. We are tossed back and forth between the two arms of
these watchers—camera and monitor.
Thus, we see that Yang presents video installation as a way of revealing the
monitor through media (that is, video and monitor) which is reminiscent of his
viewer's experiences of fearfulness associated with the several events mentioned. I
interpret the performers' contradiction appearing on the monitors in light of J. L.
Austin's theory of performative act. This performative utterance suggests that
language can be used like an act or an action. I introduce this notion of performative
utterance into the video image here to show that the performer's act is not merely a
mirror image of the performance. Rather, it is an affirmative act of the performer's act
through language. Yang's exploration of video is different from that of Zhang as
discussed in Chapter Three. Whereas Zhang explores video in connection with the
television image, Yang utilizes video to capture incongruity. His works emphasize the
representation of the performers' subjectivity through the use of video media and
monitors. The rupture in Yang's works produces a feeling of fright in his audience,
215 Ibid., 52.
rather than the comic effect which often results from incongruity as employed by
Yang's video installations explore the contradiction exhibited by a group of
performers whose acts and utterances are out of sync with each other as revealed by
the video monitor. This incongruity leads us to explore further the performers'
repetition of the same utterance and expressions on the monitor.
Yang instructed each of his figures to say "I will die" in front of the camcorder
while he taped them. He did not direct their facial expressions or their manner of
speech, but merely offered them the phrase and placed them into the context of being
videotaped. Each performed on the spot, without rehearsal, in a different setting—for
instance, one figure sat in her car, and another was videotaped at his job in a police
office. There is no implication of artifice or manipulation here in the performers'
manners or dress. Each figure appears unstaged and un-theatrical, without formal dress
or makeup; the effect is that of a snapshot or an interview for a documentary about
Other Chinese video artists have explored the documentary format in the
context of the camcorder. In Expression (illus. C.45) (1997), Zhao Liang (b. 1971)
documents ten performers of different occupations; each was selected to act according
to a particular emotion (such as sadness or happiness) suggested by the artist. Zhao
recorded each performer facing the camcorder at a fixed angle and certain distance.
Watching the video, we see a close-up of each performer's face and emotional
expression. Tong Biao's Twelve Sleepers (illus. C.46) (1993) are unaware of the artist
recording them and unconscious of the ongoing situation of interference by Tong. He
used a long lens to document each performer sleeping for fifteen minutes. According
to him, the condition of sleep is visually similar to the state of death. Both artists
selected a particular group of performers and recorded their expressions and behaviors.
Unlike Zhao and Tong, Yang randomly selected his performers from public spaces
and asked for their immediate response to the utterance "I will die" in the context of
the camcorder placed in front of them. Yang's notion of the documentary is related to
the monitor and observation, and his exploration here reveals the camcorder's
availability for personal use, portability, and potential for yielding unscripted
Although the documentary-like format of Yang's piece suggests otherwise,
each figure's utterance and act is not a matter of free expression, but is rather part of
the process of the formation of group opinion. Arranged and taken as a group, the
figures utter the same phrase in sequence. The process seems democratic, in the sense
that each individual brings his or her own shadings of expression to the same utterance.
However, true, radical differences cannot be seen here. Thus, each figure's act
contributes to a consensus on the utterance "I will die." During production, the figures
had no contact with each other, nor were they aware of each others' contributions to
the piece. Each figure spoke alone in front of the camcorder and the artist. But to the
viewer of the monitor showing the work, each figure's act is taken into consideration
and given the weight of a "vote" in this collective "voice." As a consequence, even
though the dominant voice is not socially conventional, and even seems odd, it appears
as shared opinion. The performers speak the same utterance; repetitively using or
quoting each other's utterances. Dentith regards this kind of use of language as a
Imitation is the way in which we learn to speak, taking in, as we do so,
not merely a grammar and a vocabulary, but a whole repertoire of
manners, attitudes, and ways of speaking. Parodic imitation of
another's words is merely one possibility among the whole range of
rejoinders that make up human discourse, and parodic imitation can
itself take many forms...The slang of one generation becomes the target
of parody in the next: "hip" and "ace" are long since as comic as
"ripping" and "jolly good", and to use them would be to make yourself
subject in this way to mocking laughter.216
According to Dentith, speaking is not merely related to the use of language
among a group of people; it also involves the speaker's selection of an appropriate or
conventional attitude in the expression of speaking. In this sense, speaking a language
is a kind of parodic imitation of both what to speak and how to speak it. This concept
of parodic imitation might apply to our understanding of the performers' utterance and
acts in Yang's video works: the performers do not merely utter "We are not fish" or "I
will die," but actually perform a parodic imitation of how to speak within the context
of camcorder and monitor. Their imitation is the parodic target the artist intentionally
Parodic imitation in I Will Die appears in the repetition of the shared utterance
and the similarity of the acts performed. Each figure in front of the video camera
seems to perform differently from the others; each act is individual, even though as a
group the figures appear playful and non-serious. A very few figures in this work seem
passive, but not sad or truly pained. However, the notion of "diversification" among
these figures compels us to ask why, as a group, they act so similarly. They seem to
share a playful act in relation to the notion of collective self; they even appear to
mimic each other.
The performers' use of utterance illuminates the parodic imitation that Dentith
describes as a repetitive process:
It is in discourse, understood in this way as a never-ending to-and-fro
of rejoinders, that our understanding of the practice of parody should
initially be situated. In this context, parody is but one of the ways in
216 Dentith. 2.
which the normal process of linguistic interaction proceeds. For to
speak a language is much more than merely to have a command of its
grammar and vocabulary. It entails using these resources to adopt an
evaluative attitude—both to the person to whom one speaks, and to the
topic of discussion. Thus in addressing those to whom we speak, we
take up, willy-nilly, attitudes which, in many different ways, reinforce
or contradict our addressees.217
In viewing I Will Die, we become aware of this mimicry or parodic imitation among
the group of performers. We may now interpret their incongruity as testimony to the
media portrayal of events that convey the feeling of fearfulness.
In this social context, such incongruity can be understood as the performers'
critical attitude toward the expected and conventional act of fearfulness under the
monitor when they utter the words "I will die." In the work, performers express
themselves cheerfully or, at least, less than fearfully. Since they express themselves in
attitudes incongruous to those one might consider appropriate, they adopt a parodic
imitation. Dentith furthermore articulates the parodic imitation:
So as we speak we necessarily indicate out attitude to that about which
we speak, and towards those to whom we speak: by tone of voice, by
the adoption or otherwise of the appropriate politeness conventions, by
register and diction, by fitting or unfitting adaptation of speech to
occasion. These means permit a remarkable array of attitudes to
become apparent in our speech—of complaint or reluctant consent, of
eager or truculent agreement, of celebration, of irony, of private
reservation, or indeed of any of a hundred such attitudes. Parody, be it
of the interlocutor's speech, or of the speech of some third party, or
even of oneself, is one of the ways in which these inevitable
Dentith's observation is significant for us as we explore Yang's performers'
adaptation of utterance within the specific context of surveillance and watchfulness.
The incongruity between speech and act reveals their disagreement with obeying what
217 Ibid. 2.
218 Ibid. 2–3.
they suppose is expected of them as they speak the words Yang has assigned. He
skillfully creates a situation for the performer's role of watched figure. It is important
to understand both the performers' acts and the artist's purpose in capturing
incongruity; this incongruity is not arbitrary but rather is a result of the artist's
painstaking, conscious representation of his performers under the condition of
surveillance or watchfulness. In this sense, I argue that Yang's works are not
concerned with performance art, but can be regarded as a parodic quotation by his
performers of the socialist reality of the media. Therefore, we see a contradictory act
in a complicated way: each figure's act is not unique, but is strangely ruled by a
standard line associated with parodic imitation. This video reveals that the figures
must act in a certain way as they utter the artist's line before the camcorder. That is,
each figure's act is manipulated by the repetition of the same utterance and the
imitation of the supposed act in front of the camcorder.
The Parodic Context: The Constrained "I" Coming into Being
My analysis of parodic imitation distinguishes incongruity from comic effect.
It also shows the function of incongruity as a way to attack the appropriate attitude of
speaking in front of the camcorder. But why is the artist so concerned with the impact
of the camcorder? And which aspects of its impact are problematic? We know that
Yang's performers are taped by camcorder, a context in which both the performers'
reception of the utterance and the means by which the figures act out this utterance are
Some theoreticians argue that the camcorder itself imposes self-consciousness.
They suggest that the media are not only a distributor of group opinion but also
become, through the vehicle of the camcorder, a vehicle of surveillance. Yang's
figures confront the camcorder as the eye of the artist recording them, a surveillance
vehicle of authority. Joan Copjec expands on Sigmund Freud's view of the camera as
a surveillance vehicle:
For all the mirrors, cameras, telephones, microphones, plans, passenger
lists, and statistics can be seen as so much social paraphernalia of
surveillance by which alone the subject is made visible—even to itself.
If we cannot judge immediately what measure of pain or pleasure
belonged to a historical individual, this is not because we cannot
project ourselves into her subjective position, her private mental sphere,
but rather because we cannot so easily project ourselves into her
objective social sphere in order to discern the categories of thought that
constructed her expectations, narcotized her against disappointment,
made her obtuse to her own suffering.219
According to Copjec, the camera—more specifically, the camcorder as used in Yang's
work—can be seen as social equipment for surveillance, making the performers
visible. In this context, the camcorder functions to support the visibility of the figures'
public opinion in the social sphere. Here the camcorder is understood in its social role,
which empowers the distribution of group opinion, rendering the figures' opinions
visible, publicly and physically. For instance, in 2000, the Chinese government's
regulation of consumerist media was intended to maintain and strengthen socialist
values and the "standard line" and to compete with the growing sense of individuality
and diversified behavior associated with consumerism. The visibility of public opinion
is bestowed by society, not personally determined. Each performer is made visible
through the media. It is important to note that Yang's choice of the camcorder here
added a specific sense of "I" to the acts of his performers.
Furthermore, applying Michael Foucault's observation on the similarity
between Panopticon and the fact of being an "I" (when seen by an "eye"), feminist
219 Joan Copjec. Reading My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The
MIT P, 1995). 40–41.
theoreticians argue that the visibility of femininity, for instance, is bound up with the
reality of being watched by an authority:
The dissociation of the self/being seen dyad (which the panoptic
arrangement of the central tower an annular arrangement ensures) and
the sense of permanent visibility seem perfectly to describe the
condition not only of the inmate in Bentham's prison but of the woman
as well. For defined in terms of her visibility, she carries her own
Panopticon with her wherever she goes….220
In line with this feminist view of women as marginal figures representing themselves
under the eye of authority, in Yang's work, the performer's subjectivity can be made
visible precisely in the context of self-consciousness so that the subject becomes prey
to the camcorder as "eye" or mode of surveillance. She watches herself being watched
by males. The camcorder is an important agent of this performance. Here, the notion
of surveillance is bound up with self-regulation, control, and analysis; hence this act of
being watched negates the individual's actual will and the potential occurrence of
desire. The point for the discussion of surveillance here is that the figure constructs her
own image, an image of "I" in this context. This "I" is associated with authoritysanctioned
performance. What is important to note in the construction of this "I" is
that the performer is prey—the marginal "I" watched by surveillance. In the context of
my discussion of surveillance, we see there is a self (albeit a paired, constrained self)
added to each figure' performance.
The notion of "surveillance" here might be related to Western new media
culture in Guy Debord's sense of a kind of "spectacle society" and in Jean
Baudrillard's sense of simulacra. Yang moved to Shanghai in 1997, a year after he
created Fish Bowl. At the same time, China's traditional power of surveillance entered
220 Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams ed. Re-vision, (Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1984). 14.
into the arena of the visual spectacle of new media. These notions of "surveillance"
co-exist in the daily reality of China's people; they are contradictory and incongruous.
Shanghai is a major location for the promotion and distribution of both political
propaganda and consumerist values of diversification within the context of new media
culture. Billboards are one example of this. The visual impact of billboards
everywhere helps to regulate the citizen to ensure that he "buys" these consumerist
values. Inspired by his experiences living in Shanghai, Yang deals with the concept of
the self as it reflects upon the city—itself a kind of surveillance machine.
Living in Shanghai, the most advanced, globalist city in China, the artist
reported that the self there is isolated and disoriented.221 The solidity of the socialist
collective self naturally and necessarily becomes loosened, and the notion of a new,
individual "self" emerges. In this context, in I Will Die, the artist asks each performer
to act individually and utter "I will die;" he emphasizes each "self" within the group of
people. However, the three mouths of Fish Bowl (1996) represent the notion of the
collective as they utter the words "We are not fish."
Yang's awareness of surveillance is unique to Chinese video artists, who have
addressed the notion of surveillance in three major ways. Some have used the
camcorder in the conventional and strict sense of surveillance; they covertly record
their subject matters' private moments and individual behavior. In Bathroom (illus.
C.47) (2000), the artist Cui Xiuwen (b. 1968) shows the behavior of women in front of
a water sink and mirror in a restroom. Cui hid in the restroom of a nightclub in order
to secretly record the women working there. His use of surveillance helped him
capture the women's natural manner. The artist uses a peephole—a voyeur's lens—to
show the females' behavior on the monitor.
221 I interviewed the artist on the Internet and telephone.
Some artists inform the subject that they are being videotaped, although they
conceal the location of the camcorders to make their subject unaware of them. Xu Tan
(b. 1957), for instance, in Making in China (illus. C.48) (2000), recorded the daily life
of a mistress. He captured her exercising and gossiping with her friends about her
feelings on becoming a mistress. Xu also recorded a gay man's sexual behavior in the
man's bedroom. The artist presented these narratives on an interactive CD-ROM.
Viewers were able to browse and discover various pieces of narratives that the artist
recorded through the covert camcorder. Each narrative is presented through the lens of
a peephole, and the viewer experiences a voyeuristic pleasure.
Still other artists make the audience aware of the surveillance camera. In
Comparative Safety (illus. C.49) (1997), for instance, Hu Jieming installed a
surveillance camcorder in the hallway of the exhibition and a monitor inside the
exhibition space. When the audience entered the space, they were invited to view
images currently being captured by the surveillance camera on the monitor.
Unlike the works of these artists, Yang's depiction of performers is not covert.
I suggest that the notion of surveillance in Yang's video can been interpreted as both
open monitor on a monitor and observation, a broad notion of surveillance which does
not involve a sense of covertness. He uses the effects of zoom-in and out on the
performer to direct the viewer's attention to the performer himself and to the
camcorder's presentation. He intentionally reveals conscious and unconscious
reactions to the camcorder. Utterance here is not for communication's sake, but is like
an act, a ritual—ceremonial behavior in the context of the camcorder.
The 1997 video installation Objects (illus. C.50), by Qiu Zhijie (b. 1969),
conveys the notion of observation but departs from Yang's concerns and strategy. Qiu
placed five monitors around an extremely dark gallery space. The monitors were
designed to show images in a sequence. From the first monitor, the sounds of striking
a match are heard, and a figure's partial face, with a close-up view of his right eye,
simultaneously appears in the dark background. Then the four images on the
remaining monitors are followed by four other images: a toy, a boot, a letter, and old
revolutionary artifacts illuminated by the lighted matches. After the flames die out, the
images are overtaken by the dark. The artist related this work to his memories of the
older generation's socialist past.222 Qiu uses eyes in the first monitor as a metaphor for
the rediscovery of socialist artifacts, seen temporarily illuminated on the other four
monitors. The close-up of the eyes and the lit match in the dark background strongly
suggest the examination of these objects' symbolic associations. Qiu's presentation
thus differs from Yang's direct concern with "eyes" as metaphor for the camcorder itself.
In I Will Die, Yang uses video to watch his performers to see whether they
reveal video's traditional role in society. The meaning of surveillance here is similar to
the official line in the name of authority. Each subject reflects upon the exterior object
(the camera) under the condition determined by authority (having to say certain
words). The performer's subjectivity is conditioned to mimic a supposed act that
reflects the institutional function of the camcorder rather than the performer's desire or
free will to accomplish what and how to say and act. The subjectivity of each
performer is formulated by the given context (that is, the regulations and demands of
authority), which suppresses the performer's voluntary intentions (that is, I do what I
want to do and say what I want to say). In this sense, the performer's subjectivity is
lost in the context of surveillance because surveillance represses the figure's free will
and requires him to perform according to the conditions of authority. Thus it becomes
clear how the contradiction between the liberation that it promises and the constraints
222 Johnson Chang Tsong-zung ed. Fast Forward: New Chinese Video Art. (Hong Kong: Hanart TZ Gallery, 1999). 28.
it imposes is responsible for the loss of subjectivity. This loss of subjectivity is the
target of the parodic imitation in Yang's works and symbolically implies the
performer's presence as the constrained, sanctioned "I," which usurps the role of a
more authentic "I" to free being.
Then how does this loss of subjectivity become the artist's focus? To answer
this question, we must explore the social reality of mass media at the time Yang
created his pieces. In 1996, video art was just emerging. This emergence was
conditioned by a complicated cultural reality. Later on, China became even more open
to globalization in terms of its connection with the international system of trade and
the virtual world of the Internet. China joined the WTO and thus was responsible for
carrying out the liberation of international trade. In 2000, the Internet was booming in
China. IBM and Intel, transnational, advanced technology corporations, prompted a
new consumerist world in China. (In Chapter Three, I discussed the international flow
of information as it was reflected on CCTV news broadcasts. There I examined its
impact, as revealed in Zhang Peili's works.) Even though the presence of new media
in China has been regarded as a sign of the nation's democratic and liberal progression
from socialism, the media have also traditionally been used as a vehicle of
surveillance, capable of negating each individual's actual freedom of speech and act.
The new media hence expose each individual to a new model of regulation and
observation by the controlling authority. Therefore, the issue of self or subjectivity
appearing on the monitor in China becomes very compelling.
Within this new media reality, the transformation in the 1990s of the
government from an authoritarian to a more-open system changed how people spoke
and acted. Although speech and act in daily life were unregulated by the government,
a great deal of social regulation existed. Thus the idea that there was in fact absolute
free speech may be false. The Chinese still may have lived in a bracketed reality.
However, there was a rupture in this newly opened world. In 1996, during Yang's
creation of Fish Bowl, radical nationalism revived the pure, powerful notion of the
collective consciousness fighting against consumerist individualism. Why Can China
Say No reveals the national sentiment which pervaded all of China at that time. This
promotion of national identity was reflected in a number of best-selling books—
advertisements for domestic products—which followed the publication of Why Can
China Say No, a book which exhorted people to resist China's marching into
globalization, a newly emerging cultural universe which had already been shaped.223
The intellectual community was also worried about the growing impact of this
national sentiment because of its potential to return China to the autonomous view of
the socialist world.
The increase in radical nationalism and the feelings of impending catastrophe
associated with the year 2000 contributed to a surge in socialist propaganda which, of
course, regulated the diversity of responses. In 1999, the national tragedy of the
embassy bombing created a strong sense of nationalism pitted against global
imperialism, with the goal of forming a unified "voice" against global forces. Between
1999 and 2000, the violent suppression of the Falungong brought about the socialist
regulation and suppression of dissidents. (The secret police used digital equipment to
document their activities.) If we understand China as a police state, we inevitably
think of surveillance throughout the land, through the use of spy cameras or hidden
cameras and monitors. In some cases, surveillance is not obvious but may still cause
people to fear being monitored by the authorities. In other cases, surveillance methods
become visible, with the result that people become cautious in what they do and say.
When China became capitalistic and globalized, surveillance may have increased even
223 See more about the cultural responses to this nationalist sentiment in Dai. 166.
further, with the result that the Chinese had to deal with both government monitoring
and the regulation of thought and values imposed by the Western media.
The rise of nationalist sentiment was in part a reaction to the rapid, widespread
embrace of capitalism and globalization both domestically, in the cultural arena, and
internationally, in the political arena. In an analysis of an advertisement related to
socialist national identity, Dai Jinhua noted: "while the advertisements display a type
of national sentiment, they also conceal a more truthful political-cultural conflict
within the domain of economics, the oppositional (or even life-and-death) struggle
between the transnational corporations and national industries and the welfare of
The forces of nationalism transfigured even consumerist media such as
advertisements in order to promote nationalist sentiment. The political function of
mass media as propaganda was brought to the fore in the public sphere, where
appealing representations of nationalism were made: thus the public habit and attitude
of saying "no" to almost everything—except the government. I suggest that Yang's
parodized target is associated with the reality of nationalism and other specific events,
rather than with art itself.
Incongruity and the Audience's Expectation
The performers' parodic imitation of the scripted act results in incongruity. For
Margaret Rose, this parodic incongruity functions as the artist's strategy for
A history of parody will show [...] that some parody has been used to
bring the concept of imitation itself into question, and that it is the
structural use of comic incongruity which distinguishes the parody
from other forms of quotation and literary imitation, and shows its
function to be more than imitation alone.225
The incongruity in Yang's works conveys not the comic effect Rose suggests, but
rather a heuristic effect. This heuristic effect of the incongruity subverts the audience's
expectation of seeing performers' utterance and act as congruous to the scripted one.
This incongruity emphasizes the problematic nature of the imitation or scripted act.
Furthermore, in her analysis of incongruity in parody, Rose observes that
incongruity involves the awareness of the role played by the audience. She notes:
[…] parody does not just let the parodied text "glimmer" through its
own text or "level" […], but first sets up the text to be parodied (by
imitation or partial quotation, or by way of other such devices) so that
the reader will expect it, and then produces another version of it which
the reader does not expect and which sets up some incongruous contrast
or comparison with the original work.226
Rose's observation is based upon Hans Robert Jauss's analysis of the use of parody in
Don Quixote. In his analysis, Jauss highlights the awareness of the role played by the
raising of audience expectations and the function of parody in making the audience
aware of this role. Furthermore, Rose reminds us that a text may help establish and
then subvert the expectation of its readers.227 In Yang's works, incongruity may have
this subversive function for the viewer of the performers' utterances and acts. I
suggest that he sets up the text of group opinion to be parodied and then to be
questioned by the audience.
In Yang's video works, the performers' repetition of the same utterance
suggests that they form a group opinion. Jacques Ellul, in Propaganda, discusses the
225 Rose. 31.
226 Ibid. 171.
227 Ibid. 171.
notion of the majority and the standard line in group opinion. For him, the formation
of group opinion is a democratic but not a liberal process:
… such primary groups are spontaneously democratic. In fact, opinion
is formed directly, for the individuals are directly in contact with the
events that demand their participation. Once formed, this opinion is
expressed directly and known to everybody. The leaders of the group
know what the group opinion is and take it into consideration; they
have contributed amply to its formation. But these groups are by no
means liberal; minorities within them appear as foreign bodies—for in
a relationship such as this, opposition weakens inter-group
Applying Ellul's argument, we may see the snippets of individual utterance and act as
a kind of democratic formation of group opinion. It is democratic because each
figure's act is slightly "diversified" compared to the others but remains within the
larger context of similarity. It is important to note, however, that this diversification is
not at all liberal. These figures' "diversified" acts are inclined toward the dominant
attitude of the majority. Thus, very few of the acts presented express the more toneddown,
uncheerful attitude of the minority. The notion of the minority/majority is
extremely important here: the act of the minority would be relatively close to that
usually associated with the conventional attitude toward death, but in this context it
appears unconventional and atypical. This twist of the conventional to the atypical
emphasizes the problem of the formation of group opinion and uncovers the power of
the majority in that formation.
The notion of self within the context of group opinion is associated with a
plural rather than singular sense in terms of Yang's group of performers. This self
seemingly is associated with "us" as shown as the figures' collective self, which is
revealed in the formation of their group opinion. An example of this is the cloning
228 Jacques Ellul. Propaganda: The Formation of Man's Attitudes. (New York: Vintage, 1973). 100.
technique used as a way to duplicate an individual self in a collective way. In 2000,
Chinese scientists successfully cloned a panda embryo after many years of
experimentation. A great debate ensued in the political and religious arenas about the
potential danger of this technique. The application of cloning techniques could
strengthen the government's power to regulate privacy and individuality. The reality
of cloning challenged preconceived notions of life—and the after-life—and
anticipated the concept of human being as the sum of its biological parts or as machine.
The "I" was technologically duplicable, and the notion of "us" carried different
Since group opinion can serve as a primary vehicle for socialist propaganda, it
is associated with video media and its long-standing political tradition. To understand
Yang's work in the context of group opinion, we must first consider the role of
propaganda in socialist China and its association with publicly accepted opinion in
mass society. In I Will Die, the snippets of the figures with their similar acts seem to
convey the acceptable opinion in the community formed by their joint utterance. Each
figure repeats the same utterance in a different voice and tone, offering a base for the
group opinion. Most figures cheerfully and playfully act out this utterance, identifying
themselves with the dominant attitude, whose formation is based on a total of 45
individuals (the performers). Forty-five people is a number sufficient to convey a
sense of the mass collective. In this group, each individual member's expression is, to
a certain extent, similar to the others, reducing the appearance of actual diversity.
Even though each figure seems to act "diverse" in the sense of being a part of a
democratic grouping, each act can be understood to reveal the opposite of a truly
liberal spirit. However, in I Will Die the performers face authority in two ways: (1) the
artist is the authority for whom the figures perform, and (2) the performers are
watched by the camcorder while they act as they were invited to. Understanding each
figure's act in the context of authority, we see that each is performed partially
according to authority, not absolutely according to individual will. Thus, an
individual's self is minimized to match that of the collective, and thus is negated in
terms of expressing his or her free will within that collective.
Yang establishes a parodic text here related to the mass media tradition of the
street interview. Each subject is captured in the context of his or her everyday
environment, and the direct contact with the camcorder evokes the experience of a TV
interview. Chinese TV programs have been the primary mode for revealing the
relationship between media and the propaganda machine. In the late 1990s, with the
advent of new technologies and policies for television, several programs began to
present street interviews, inviting the audience to talk about the problems of the
interviewees. This problem-solving or sharing resulted in a new type of group opinion
formation. Through the national broadcast of such programs, such formation became
immediate and simultaneous—geographic boundaries ceased to exist.
Technical boundaries were also eliminated as a result of the easy duplication of
the video image, which contributed to the increased role of mass media as a vital tool
for the distribution of so-called group opinion to the masses. The relationship between
mass media and propaganda used to be primarily evident, for instance, in the
broadcasting of free movies in public spaces in the 1970s, and through TV after the
1980s. The evolution and expansion of mass media is significant here because it is an
institutional support for propaganda. (See my discussion of this with regard to CCTV
news in Chapter Two.) In addition, the explosive growth of the Internet in China in
2000 broadened the platform for information outflow, by which the Chinese world
could potentially open up and become dramatically diversified. The influence of the
Internet pervaded many aspect of an individual's life and extended the domestic
notion of time and space to a simultaneous and interactive global reality. As a result,
the government grew cautious: censorship and surveillance became "balancing forces"
for the so-called overwhelming and misleading flow of information. Hence, video in
this work represents the institutional support for group opinion in this community of
collective users and exchangers of information. In this context, the audience would
expect to see the performers' similarity and their scripted acts as parodic imitation.
But the viewer comes to realize that the incongruity in the performers' acts and
utterances reveals the constraints imposed by the occasion of those utterances. Each
figure's act is "diversified," but taken as a whole the acts are actually quite uniform
and scripted. This group consensus, in a way, is determined by the controlling eye of
the artist. On one level, Yang controls the consensus by having selected these fortyfive
snippets from a larger group (some of whose performers might not have appeared
so unbothered by the prospect of their own mortality). On another level, he controls by
arranging the snippets for the final work. As Ellul points out about groups, "there is no
equality; the members accept leadership, and of course small groups also recognize
instituted authorities…"229 In this case, the "instituted authority" is the artist.
Dissociation in the group is related to a collective notion of "the truth," ruled and
dominated by the group leadership (the artist, in this case). The artist's "command"
regarding the figures' utterances and acts determines each figure's individual utterance
and act. The performers must meet with the artist's request, so their acts would be
expected by the context of the work to follow the artist's "command" or "script" and
respond to the audience's expectations. Hence, each figure is forced to play out the
mimicry scripted by the "authority." This uniform mimicry evokes the traditional
context of the video device as a mechanism of surveillance.
Since the opinion expressed here is based on the dominance of the majority
within the group of performers, it automatically imposes itself on this group as its
"voice." This notion of majority is readily apparent to the viewer as the mimicry
expressed by these figures' similar performances. Here Yang's figures—of different
ages, genders, and professions—together represent a comprehensive collection of
people whose opinion is publicly acceptable and applicable as a standard line. The
utterance "I will die" plays a vital role in the formation of this group opinion; the
significance of this utterance is both a convention and an experience common to all.
No figure has any difficulty understanding its meaning or conveying his opinion
through his act. Thus the group opinion contradicts the notion of the media as a purely
democratic device for free expression or a documentary tool for recording people's
honest, unrehearsed expressions.
In this context, I argue that the dissociation between speech and act can be
understood as a heuristic strategy for inquiry into the fact of inequality in the
formation of group opinion. On one level, the contradiction reveals the nature of the
media itself. The camera in China functions not only to register but also to manipulate
in some cases. The contradiction between the figure's acts and utterances transcends
mockery and humor. The figures seem truthful in saying "I will die," even though they
seem non-truthful; in front of the camcorder/authority, they are giving the only
possible response. In reality, they subvert this truthful fallacy.
The Purpose of Parodic Incongruity: The Affirmative "I" within a Bracketed
Parody in Yang's works involves the heuristic function for the audience, as
previously demonstrated. I suggest that, furthermore, parody also involves a
therapeutic function associated with the constrained reality of government control and
watchfulness. Is the self denied or affirmed in this bracketed reality? I argue that in
Yang's works, it is affirmed. The rupture in the performer's acts and utterances creates
a sense that the artist is playing within the constraints. We see that the performers'
incongruity implies saying "no" and thus demonstrates their self-determination against
the constraint for the audience. The artist may have slowly begun to flex his own "no"
muscles at the time when China opened up its media culture. The affirmation of the
self as a result of the incongruity in parody is therapeutic, rather than actual, because
this affirmation occurs in art and invokes the awareness of the audience's will in art,
rather than in real life. But how is the performer's act affirmative?
In Fish Bowl, the figure utters, "We are not fish." This utterance explicitly
expresses his will not to be associated with the fish tank and the visual resemblance to
fish. The figure's acts and utterances are not in sync. Thus the figure declares that he
is human, not fish. His act is speaking, rather than imitating a fish swimming. This
ambiguity creates dynamism within the constraint.
For J. L. Austin, this type of utterance (the incongruity) is not constative
because it does not express the truth. Rather, Austin would consider this both an
"unhappy act" and an "unsuccessful act." In his book on the theory of performative act,
Austin first explains a "happy act" as the following: "besides the uttering of the words
of the so-called performative, a good many other things have as a general rule to be
right and to go right if we are to be said to have happily brought off our action."230
Then he describes an "unhappy act:"
What these are we may hope to discover by looking at and classifying
types of cases in which something goes wrong and the act—marrying,
betting, bequeathing, christening, or what not—is therefore at least to
some extent a failure: the utterance is then, we may say, not indeed
false but in general unhappy. And for this reason we call the doctrine of
230 Austin. 14.
the things that can be and go wrong on the occasion of such utterances,
the doctrine of the Infelicities.231
The speaking mouth exhibits the conventional function of a mouth in both speech and
act. The artist skillfully plays with this ambiguity and incorporates this play into the
physical environment of the fish tank. Thus, when the tape rolls, the "speaking mouth"
on the monitor in the environment of a fish tank creates a rupture of perception and
consciousness in the viewer because the act of speaking is not absolutely associated
with the concept of a fish. The performance of the mouth becomes an inappropriate
action in the environment with which it is visually associated. The rupture thus
becomes an agent of unsettling dynamism added to this work. A creative energy
awakens us, prompts us to take note, in this dynamism of the incongruous.
On another level, affirmation also occurs in stating "we are not fish." Emile
Benveniste argues that language constructs the subjectivity of a person both in the
context of his/her use of language and in the condition and reception of the language
he or she uses:
…. It is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a
subject, because language alone establishes the concept of "ego" in
reality which is that of the being.
The "subjectivity" we are discussing here is the capacity of the speaker
to posit himself as "subject." It is defined not by the feeling which
everyone experiences of being himself….but as the psychic unity that
transcends the totality of the actual experiences it assembles and that
makes the permanence of the consciousness. Now we hold that
"subjectivity," whether it is laced in phenomenology or in psychology,
as one may wish, is only the emergence in the being of a fundamental
property of language. "Ego" is he who says "ego." This is where we see
the foundation of "subjectivity," which is determined by the linguistic
status of "person."
231 Ibid., 14.
Applying Benveniste's thought, we can understand the performer's use of language as
the constitution of the performer's subjectivity. In this context, the artist is asserting
that there is another subjectivity—we—that refuses to be part of the surrounding
The artist is, in a sense, refusing to play the role of "fish," refusing to spout the
party line. In addition, the fish image, with its very slowly moving lips, suggests an
undeveloped, unlively state, which the artist refuses to identify with. In this case,
refusal is affirmation, and in saying "we," the artist includes the audience in this act of
Although Yang's fish imagery suggests an undeveloped state that the artist is
moving away from, it also has more positive associations. One can say that in totality,
the fish imagery and environment also suggest our first stage of life as humans. The
purpose of saying "no" as revealed in the performers' utterances "We Are Not Fish,"
and "Do Not Move," is to exercise the power of "no" and to say "no" also to the
government. It thus becomes a "yes" to the influence of the global culture which the
artist has experienced during China's move toward globalization in the 1990s. The
camcorder has a double identity in China (its use is free for individual enjoyment but it
is a tool for regulating dissidents.) The artist uses this power to say "no" to being
regulated and to say "yes" to his own free, open functioning. This power perhaps
symbolizes the first stages of life of a potentially free being in the wider world opened
up through globalization.
As in I Will Die, in Fish Bowl the speaking mouth can be seen as a metaphor
for rebirth. The action of the mouth creates sounds that resemble phonetically
structured utterances, which are similar to glossolalia: the water in the fish tank also
creates some babbling sounds that are superimposed on the utterances. The earlier
discussion of the association between the image of the mouth and the vulva perhaps
imply a primordial association; this "fish like" image swimming in water naturally
evokes the image of the foetus swimming in amniotic fluid. We are at the very first
stage of something—pre-birth. The mouth suggests both the baby itself and the
gateway (vulva) through which the baby will enter the outside world. We have not
only the image of the gateway and the infant itself—this image also suggests a "baby
mouth" first learning to talk. Through its connection with the sexual organ, the mouth
actually symbolizes an infant.
Julia Kristeva argues that an infant is not entirely devoid of the uses of
language.232 The language that an infant deploys is associated with raw units or
elements of which a language will be made—for example, an infant might make the
sounds of sucking and blowing to express himself. For Kristeva, this language needs
to be understood as socially acceptable speech. These sounds, then, cannot be
understood as mere noises, but as a "language" she calls the semiotic chora or the
process of semiosis. What is important in these sounds is that the movement of this
infant's mouth in the use of this language is associated with that which creates
pleasure for this infant sucking at the mother's breast. The theory of language as it
pertains to an infant helps explain Yang's selection of fish and fish tank. These are not
arbitrary elements in this work but significant symbols for understanding the phonetic
role of language in this work. This work illuminates the phonetic units as a kind of
infant language. Here, the mouth is not merely revealing sexual pleasure for the
viewer, but is symbolic of an infant and his tongue utterances, his "baby talk."
Focusing on the phonetic element of the utterance, one infers that the mouth,
which looks like a vulva, symbolizes the infant. The bubbling sounds from the fish
tank recalls, in this context, the infant's manifest sounds of babbling. The dissociation
232 Julia Kristeva. The Revolution in Poetic Language. (New York: Columbia U P, 1984).
between the mouth's utterance and the action producing that utterance suggests an
infant's first utterance (which might be similar in some ways to the schizophrenic's).
This utterance is repeated again and again, suggesting the figure as schizophrenic in a
In I Will Die, the dissociation between the mouth's speech and acting in fact
becomes a kind of "language" of sounds and tones. This "language" is not associated
with mimicry (the saying and acting are not in sync), but calls for the viewer to be
conscious of the speaking body (the performer's mouth) and the drive that directs him
to say and act (the phonetic units of the utterance), as well as of a listener who hears
(babbling sounds). The act in this dissociation reveals the performer's capacity to
speak for himself—(his "baby talk" perhaps reveals basic needs.) Therefore, Yang
here, the "speaking mouth," is not only himself, but also the collective masses. The
utterances suggest "we" as a group, rather than single members of that group. In the
post-Tiananmen world of 1996, when his work was created, the artist had to learn
perhaps to speak his own truth from scratch. Just as a baby's talk—unmanipulated by
civilization and authority—is the most basic, truthful talk, so does the artist meet the
challenge of truthfully expressing his needs and thoughts.
Yang's video works imply the representation of the self within China's
political and cultural reality. Concern regarding the self also prompted other Chinese
artists to work with the video medium through various perspectives. For instance, to
make Touch (1995) (illus. C.51) Tong Biao (b. 1970) wore a camera on the back of his
waist, creating an "eye." He walked around Hanzhou, a suburban city near Shanghai,
and recorded people's contacts with him. In his work, we see that this contact is
sometimes isolated, and sometimes intimate. His work depicts the relationships among
people living in this city, which had recently become busy and crowded. More
important, his video work addresses the notion of a self within this reality—an
alienated self or regulated self. Yang and Zhong did not use the camera, in a strict
sense, as a monitor that scrutinizes the performance. Their works, however, do express
an unsettled and constrained feeling.
Yang was alarmed about the resurgence of radical nationalism in 1996 because
it revived the socialist tradition and advocated for its reinstatement regardless of
whether it was compatible with the new world. Radical nationalism placed the artist
and his generation in a bind between socialism and consumerism. He could not live
without either one. Born in 1968, he had not deeply experienced the feverishness of
nationalism during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). "Red China" was the socalled
the center of the world. However, he was a teenager during the period of
China's open door to Western modernization in the 1980s, and the time of rapidly
growing capitalist consumerism and globalist telecommunications in the 1990s. The
"Say No" movement of 1996 prompted him to examine his cultural roots and to
respond to them. He adopted the public habit of saying "no" and used it for selfaffirmation
in his own work.
I suggest that the incongruity in I Will Die can be interpreted as an affirmation
of the self, a therapeutic awareness played by the audience. Yang's performers face
the camcorder directly as they say "I." Speaking can construct an awareness of
subjectivity ("I will die"). It is clear that there are two senses of "I" in this work: the
figures' use of language, and the self-regulation imposed by and watched by the eye of
authority. But in his earlier statement about the individual facing the camera and
uttering the phrase "I will die," the artist fails to highlight one major point—each
figure's use of language per se. Thus we must return to the incongruity of the figure's
acts and utterances to examine another notion of contradiction in this work.
The acts and utterances here are out of sync with each other. When the figures
speak the phrase "I will die," they do not act sad. Their acts do not reflect the content
of their speech. More important, the use of language can construct the speaker's self.
Thus, the "I" directly refers to each performer himself. The discussion of this "I" in I
Will Die must emphasize the figure's use of language, including verbal and body
language, which is an agent of his or her self-conduct. Benveniste notes:
There is no concept "I" that incorporates all the I's that are uttered at
every moment in the mouths of all speakers, in the sense that there is a
concept "tree" to which all the individual uses of tree refer. The "I,"
then, does not denominate any lexical entity…. We are in the presence
of a class of words, the "personal pronouns," that escape the status of
all the other signs of language. Then, what does I refer to? To
something very peculiar which is exclusively linguistic: I refers to the
act of individual discourse in which it is pronounced, and by this it
designates the speaker. It is a term that cannot be identified except in
what we have called elsewhere an instance of discourse and that has
only a momentary reference. The reality to which it refers is the reality
of the discourse… And so it is literally true that the basis of
subjectivity is in the exercise of language.233
The utterance of "I will die" claims the capacity of the figure to posit himself as a
subject. The performer becomes aware that he accrues some power as the "I" in "I will
die." In other words, when the performer utters "I will die," it is not intended to
describe the rightness or wrongness of the utterance as a fact. Nor does it serve as a
joke played by the performer. It can be understood as an act of self-conduct by the
performer, who says "I will die." Contrary to the "I" in surveillance, each figure's "I"
in this context of language discovers the outlet of subjectivity through choosing how
to perform within the context of authority. Each figure finds himself/herself through
the context of using language.
Through their speech, the performers become aware of "I" and "die" in terms
of the subjectivity of a speaking individual in the context of the use of language. By
using language, the performers construct "I"—the powerful "I." Yet, to "die" means to
233 Benveniste. 226.
lose this self. Thus, there is a rupture in this construction of the self in the context of
language. In the work, the figures respond immediately to the camcorder. This brings
an immediate, present feeling to the act. Here it is important to distinguish the
expression from the act. While the expression reflects the figures' appearances—
looking cheerful or at least undisturbed, the word "die" does not function to carry the
cheerful expressions alone. The "I" is not being built up but is instead dissolving here
because the statement ends with the word "die."
In I Will Die, we see Yang moving toward a greater focus on this loss of self.
Here, subjectivity is lost in the context of video medium and the use of language; in
Fish Bowl the artist was also concerned with the self. In I Will Die, he is more directly
inclined toward the construction of self because each figure says "I will die"; the self
is singular and personal. In Fish Bowl, the phrase is "We are not Fish"; the self there is
plural and collective. Unlike the phrase "We are not fish," the phrase "I will die" does
not include a negative, even though both phrases convey a constrained reality. The
statement in Fish Bowl is neutral, whereas the statement in I Will Die has religious,
philosophical, and linguistic implications. Why at this point (2000) did this status of
the self become a more pressing issue for Yang?
Between 1997 and 2000, Yang created several video installations based on the
theme of the changing face of Shanghai. Each of these works conveys a strong sense
of isolation—even schizophrenia—which reflects the artist's disassociation with the
city's rapid transformation into a media-saturated metropolis. For instance, Do Not
Move was exhibited in a public space in Shanghai. The performers' "Do not move"
might refer to Shanghai's rapid, everlasting transformation over the short period of
time between 1997 and 2000. The figures' performance, which creates a strong sense
of disorientation and schizophrenia, reflects the vertigo of this transformation. The
artist himself reported that he could not adapt to Shanghai. Even in 2000, after living
in this city for three years, he still felt the same.
Now it becomes clear that the artist uses the phonetic nature of language to
imply an infant's use of language. This appears in the works I analyze in this chapter.
The feeling of the schizophrenic in Do Not Move suggests the Yang's resistance to the
city's rapid change. Unlike in Do Not Move, in other works, the schizophrenic is
related to the babyhood, rather than city.
Yang's disassociation with Shanghai parallels the city's wide-ranging adoption
of a capitalist landscape. Much post-modern architecture had sprung up there, and at
the same time the city was saturated with new media signs (digital billboards, and so
forth.). The new Shanghai was characterized by these capitalist and globalist signs,
which constructed new realities of real-time culture. The latest TV programs,
commodities, and architectural ideas were displayed and consumed in this city. But
this new reality was dislocated within the larger socialist life style and cultural values
of China; it distanced people from the old life and connected them to the global
community. People living in this reality constrained, both consciously and
unconsciously, by global hegemony were forced to move fast enough to live in this
global community; otherwise they would be "expelled" from it. They had and continue
to have no power to determine alternative ways of living. They are "watched" by the
global apparatus which regulates their life style and cultural values. In this world, so
full of manipulation and restraints, is it possible for the self to be affirmed rather than
overwhelmed and subdued? Another look at I Will Die may provide some answers.
In the sequential arrangement of the clips in I Will Die, each figure seems to
pass on the utterance "I will die" to the next figure. The first figure receives the
utterance/command from the artist and passes it on to the next figure, who passes it on
to the next, and so on. In this sense, the utterance is a "quotation" that each figure uses
in the activity: each figure cites it and addresses it in his way (acts). Referring to
constative utterances, Austin excludes certain situations in which performatives do not
operate normally, on the grounds that they are parasitic: fiction, play-acting, and
quotation are all deemed extraneous to his analysis.234 For Austin, this type of
utterance is not constative because it does not express the truth. As was the case in
Fish Bowl, he would consider this an "unhappy act." In this work, each performer's
act and speech are out of sync: most of the figures smile when they say, "I will die."
Since this act and this utterance are not congruous, the act appears to be unsuccessful
in describing the truth—"unsuccessful" because smiling is not a conventional response
to the significance of these words.
In I Will Die, the sequence of the forty-five snippets creates a kind of graph of
the "I." Through the repetition of the utterance, we see that each figure's act is out of
sync with what "he" (the I) says. Each act helps us identify where the utterance
ultimately leads and what its aim is. The sequence of the snippets functions as a
journey—the act. When each figure says, "I will die," he becomes aware of "I" as the
subjectivity of the speaking figure within a scripted and ritual context; thus his act is
performed by the agent of this subjectivity. Understood in this context, the act
embodies each performer's attitude toward the utterance and refers to the first-person
singular "I" in the utterance "I will die." In this sense, the act unpacks the construction
of the "I"; the "I" is made visible through the performer's use of language. The
utterance has the power to determine the figure's self—to say "I will die" and to act
In this context, what can be repeated is not performed through obedience to
social convention. The dissociation shows that the figures do not repeat the convention
234 Christina Howells. Derrida: Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics. (New York: Blackwell,
of the socially acceptable act associated with "I will die." Instead, this act breaks with
the convention to which the significance of the utterance belongs; thus the performing
"I" gains a certain power. The figures say "no" to the sad face conventionally
associated with their utterances. The act in the sequence can be understood as an
implicit form of self-conduct through the use of language; the performers'
consciousness of "I." This is a rhetorical form of independence from the context of
surveillance and authority. The Internet and global consumerism ushered in the
notions of individuality and diversification. They opened up a wider view of the world
and equipped the Chinese people to determine their own views. In this sense, the act is
in fact "successful" because it causes the viewer to question the context of surveillance
and language in relation to the figures' act. Thus, I argue that this act actually would
be seen as a "successful" act. The incongruity between convention and the individual
expression of these figures becomes a dynamism that makes us aware of the
In addition to the dynamism created by this incongruity, there is also a
dynamism created by the juxtaposition of "I" and "die" in the same statement. Does
the significance of the word "die" indicate the death of the subject and the repression
of ego by the authority? No, it cannot be understood solely in that way. The death of
the subject here is positive in a sense because it is exhilarating for the subject. "Die"
can be understood as the release from surveillance. The performer can "die" to
surveillance and be "reborn" to the reality of being self-regulated, self-governed, and
even self-disciplined. The subjectivity of each performer is reborn after the loss of
subjectivity through being controlled. I suggest that the artist's reaction to nationalism
and feelings of catastrophe in 2000 motivate him to balance these forces with a
contrary urge to discover the self.
As Sigmund Freud argues in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we do not
necessarily have to understand the concept of death as a biological death, but as a
symbolic one. According to Freud, symbolic death may represent a simple attempt to
overcome an unpleasant experience.235 In I Will Die, this symbolic death is the
performer's act of mourning. Paradoxically, this is liberating: because "I will die," I
will not always be under the surveillance of the camcorder or the authorities.
Understood in an even more active sense, each performer seeks to die because this
offers the possibility of rebirth. Here Yang again shows his concerns with the self in
the constrained reality that reflects upon his urban identity in Shanghai. He is
concerned with the notion of death, which Freud refers to as being "beyond the
pleasure principle." This death is the linguistic confirmation of self. This concern with
the notion of "self" as the result of the death might also be associated with the socially
pervasive fear of catastrophe at that time.
J. Laplanche and J.-B Pontalis point out in The Language of Psycho-Analysis
that "the death instincts are to begin with directed inwards and tend towards selfdestruction,
but they are subsequently turned towards the outside world in the form of
the aggressive or destructive instinct."236 Self-destruction here might be seen as an
attempt to overcome the unpleasant experience of surveillance. Each figure's cheerful
act is associated with an aggressive rebirth in the reality of surveillance, aggressive
because it is antagonistic to the conventional response to death in terms of the loss of
subjectivity under surveillance. In this work, death—"die"—in the utterance of "I will
die" hence can be understood as the drive of the "I" in language. Here the sense of
235 J. Laplanche and J.-B Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith.
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1973). 98.
236 J. Laplanche and J.-B Pontalis. 97.
death conveyed by the loop of forty-five utterances is repeated compulsively to reveal
the figures' desire for the "I" to be reborn after death.
The composition of the scenes for most of the figures in I Will Die emphasizes
their utterance and facial expression; each mouth is roughly in the center of its snippet.
This technique calls the viewer's attention to the movements of the figures' mouths. It
is interesting that the only exception is the middle snippet, the center image that of a
pregnant woman. Yang seems to intentionally remind us that she is pregnant—the
focus of this snippet is not merely on her mouth, but also on her physical gesture and
her belly. We are informed that she carries an unborn infant. This particular snippet
naturally suggests hope for a future ("I will not die.")
In one sense, the inclusion of the baby invites the questions of how he will use
language (or not) and how he will survive. Judith Butler notes the infant's relation to
language and political life:
Moreover, as Lacan and Lacanians have argued, that entrance into
language comes at a price: the norms that govern the inception of the
speaking subject differentiate the subject from the unspeakable, that is,
produce an unspeakability as the condition of subject formation.
Although psychoanalysis refers to this inception of the subject as taking
place in infancy, this primary relation to speech, the subject's entry into
language by way of the originary "bar" is reinvoked in political life
when the question of being able to speak is once again a condition of
the subject's survival. The question of the "cost" of this survival is not
simply that an unconscious is produced that cannot be fully assimilated
to the ego, or that a "real" is produced that can never be presented
within language. The condition for the subject's survival is precisely
the foreclosure of what threatens the subject most fundamentally; thus,
the "bar" produces the threat and defends against it at the same time.
Such a primary foreclosure is approximated by those traumatic political
occasions in which the subject who would speak is constrained
precisely by the power that seeks to protect the subject from its own
The middle shot of the unborn infant compels us think about this infant in relation to
the language world. He will enter into language and then bear the condition of
unspeakability in terms of his subjectivity. The dissociation between speech and act
illuminates the fact that language cannot present the real condition of the subjectivity's
needs because of fears about survival. The performance of this unborn infant's mother
reveals the condition of this unspeakability; in the context of surveillance and
authority, she must deliver the scripted lines. Her act indicates the survival condition
that this infant will confront, a survival condition shared by the other performers.
On another important level, however, this baby is the only free being in the
entire sequence. The presence of the pregnant woman here suggests the fact that her
baby is not yet controlled by social authority. Her baby is also not yet able to use
language. We do not know what the future holds for this baby. In one sense, it does
not have language and so cannot assert itself linguistically. On the other hand, because
of its "baby" status, it cannot be forced to mimic the official line. In this way, its
stance is life-affirming—it is a free being. This frame offers us the chance to question
the language and authority that create the "I" in each figure. In this work, three
"official figures," who wear army or police uniforms, also appear. Their acts are
proper, and their expressions are the most emotionally neutral. With their official
stance and thus inability to "speak" anything but the official line, they stand in contrast
to the unborn baby.
In the four video works by Yang Zhenzhong discussed in this chapter, the artist
shows performers in relation to authority and the disconnection between their "saying"
and "doing" in this context. In these works, the artist is concerned with the performers
237 Ibid., 135–6.
themselves—their acts and body language. Yang's performers become more liberal
and diversified than what would usually be shown in an act of mimicry. These works
reveal that this dissociation can be understood as the revelation of the performer's self,
rather than as the incongruity between utterance and act.
Group opinion is the new dominant model. In this sense, group opinion is
similar to an utterance that describes a fact, or constative utterance, as discussed in
Chapter Three. This group opinion is a reflection of an individual's association with
an institutional regulation or government through exposure to the new media. Under
the influence of group opinion, an individual appears yet to be ruled by the official
line that controls institutions. The way the figures speak and act in front of authority
could be completely different from the model of mimicry in the past and therefore
needs to be examined. Hence, I suggest that the works uncover the limits of the
"truthfulness" of constative utterance; they reveal the difficulty inherent in
determining whether this expression expresses a speaker's real intention and desire or
reflects his association with an institutional authority that governs the definition of the act.
Victory of the Self within the Reality of New Media
In this chapter, I indicate that each of Yang's figures seems to act free and
independent—as an individual. This act could be related to free speech in the sense
that the cheerful act shows a figure's independence and negation of the common
experience associated with the utterance "I will die." In the new media environment,
China becomes open, so that an individual may feel free to talk about his opinion. The
merit of this openness leads to a reconsideration of the old model of public or group
opinion that is associated with the formation of socialist propaganda in China's mass
society and supported by mass media. I argue, however, that what each individual
does may still be prescribed by societal manipulation through mass media, particularly
through TV. In this case, each figure's act in fact could be understood as the standard
opinion shared among group members. Since most of the figures seem to express a
playful attitude, each of these playful acts becomes the majority attitude, a kind of
group opinion. Finally, I focus on the discussion of the utterance itself, and examine
the role of "I" and "die" in this utterance. I argue that a figure's speaking of "I" and
"die" reveals the reality both of each individual's use of language in direct contact
with media and of his use of language determined in part by his desire. Despite the
constraints upon these figures, their acts can be seen as affirmations of the self.
Yang's artistic strategy to explore the self in relation to language is perhaps
reminiscent of that of some American artists who confronted the dramatic social and
cultural turmoil of the 1970s. For instance, Robert Morris's I-Box (1962) and other
performance works are concerned with the affirmation of self. I-Box is an installation
or an "object," a box with a door in the shape of the letter "I." The door conceals a
photograph of the artist naked. This letter "I" implies the general "I," an individual "I"
(the artist himself as revealed in the photo), and the "eye" (the phonetic association
with eye, perhaps suggesting the viewer's eyes). Maurice Berger points out:
The work recalls Beckett's drained vision of the world, where "I" is
often little more than a vacant word, a coffin that enshrouds its subject
in claustrophobic isolation…From the dance pieces on, this selfreferential,
performatory word—the "I"—would continually resurface
in Morris's work: the political activist who campaigned against the
Vietnam War and the institutional hierarchies of the museum in his
Conceptual projects of the early 1970s…238
As with Morris, the "I" is the focus of Yang's works, whose dynamism is created by
the individual's struggle within the bracketed space of the monitor and the camcorder,
238 Maurice Berger. "Wayward Landscapes". Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem. Catalogue,
(New York: Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, 1994). 30.
twin mechanisms of watchfulness and surveillance. The formation of self is affirmed
by acting against constraints and ends with a victory of the self, celebrated in this
affirmation. The performer's act reflects his decision-making and desire rather than his
absolute obedience to the official line. Yang is interested in the issue of the "I" and
"subject" and explores strategies for revealing this to the viewer through language.
Language becomes an antagonistic act in the face of authority.
SOCIALISM, GLOBALISM, AND PLAYFUL SABOTAGE:
THEIR REPRESENTATION AND PURPOSES
IN THE WORKS OF FOUR CONTEMPORARY CHINESE ARTISTS:
XU BING, ZHANG PEILI, YANG ZHENZHONG, AND XU ZHEN
Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School
of Cornell University
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
by Shin-Yi Yang