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Representing the 'Monster' City

The (Unbearable) Blandness of Song Tao and B6's Yard Author: Paul Gladston 2007

Representing the 'Monster' City: The (Unbearable) Blandness of Song Tao and B6's Yard

Paul Gladston, the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China

Song Tao and B6  are both artists who live and work in Shanghai. Song Tao was born in 1979 and was educated at the Shanghai Institute of Arts and Crafts. B6 was born in 1981 and is a graphic designer and electronic musician. In 2006 these artists collaborated on a video installation entitled Yard, which was shown during the same year at an exhibition of Chinese photography and new media at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art.  Yard comprises three interrelated elements: an electronic music soundtrack by B6 which was the starting point for the work; a projected video film (9'25" in duration) of digitally overlain and juxtaposed moving colour images made by Song Tao in response to B6's music representing differing aspects of the urban environment in contemporary Shanghai, including nocturnal street scenes, B6 in a Moog t-shirt with headphones around his neck and finally a ballet dancer practicing in a dance studio tracked closely by a cameraman whose image is reflected by the studio's mirrored wall; and a staged environment for the viewing of the work which is described in greater detail below.

Although the catalogue accompanying Restless gives no indication of this, Yard is not simply a series of moving images projected directly onto a screen or screens within a 'white cube' gallery space, as is the case with many contemporary video works. Instead, the projection takes place in relation to a carefully staged arrangement of reflections and reversals. To engage with the work the viewer enters into a narrow, specially constructed corridor some three metres in length, one metre wide and two and a half metres high that is curtained off at both ends - the soundtrack accompanying the piece is therefore encountered by the viewer before any exposure to the visual images. Once in the corridor the viewer is faced by two sets of video images: one, projected from outside the space – and therefore in reverse - onto a screen occupying the whole of one side of the corridor; and another which is the reflection of the first in a mirror running along the opposite length of the corridor (a mirror doubling the one represented in the video sequence of the dancer).

The mirror therefore not only reflects the video projection - which it turns the 'right' way around – but also the corridor and the viewers within it. As a result, the gaze of the viewer is inescapably baffled in that the projected image is much too close to the viewer to seen clearly while the reflected image is obscured by the intervening reflection of the corridor and the viewer or viewers who stand within it. The relationship between the viewer and the projected video does not, then, encourage a clearly-defined, cognitive structural differentiation between subject and object, viewer and the viewed. Rather, the image of the viewer and the site of viewing are thoroughly enmeshed in what is to be seen in manner which also makes the viewer a seeming object of their own gaze.

Crucially, this seeming repetition of the actual self comes into play only after the viewer first enters the corridor, when the reflected self is momentarily, and somewhat disconcertingly, mistaken for another who gazes at the first from close quarters (a situation which comes about because the actual viewer – who does not have a full understanding of the staging into which they have entered - is forced into a self-conscious process of  re-orientation and an accompanying re-cognition of the self as mirror-image). Consequently, while the actual viewer goes on very rapidly to establish a subjective relationship to the scene at hand, the persistence of the memory of that initial affective shock of mis-recognition continues to de-centre the viewing subject as a given, differentiated self.

It is, therefore, possible to read Yard from the locus of contemporary Western theory as an attempt to implicate the viewer within an unsettling performative/deconstructive event wherein s/he is continually forced to shuttle between a loss and retrieval of self in such a way that it is no longer clear where one begins and the other ends; a carefully staged managed version of the Fort-Da! Game which, in explicitly Lacanian terms, endlessly plays out a symbolic repetition of the loss of the Real and alienation of subjectivity in the Symbolic, but which at the same time affords the viewer a certain pleasure in his or her provisional mastery of absence and presence as symbolic representation. As such, this staged regression to the mirror-stage might then also be interpreted as a more or less standard exercise in the invocation of the post-modernist sublime, in which a fractured and vertiginous visual text is deployed as means of performatively engendering the pleasure-pain switchback ride of the inadequacy of representation and the redeeming capacity of the unstable human subject to nevertheless arrive at a provisional, but ultimately un-gratifying, representation of the un-representable.

When viewed from such a theoretical perspective Yard would therefore appear to present itself as highly indebted to the now well-established tropes of performative installation as played out by the seminal work of the artist James Coleman. As Jean Fisher has pointed out, since the early nineteen seventies Coleman's work has been characterized by diverse attempts not only to implicate the spectator in unresolved plays of absence and presence through a "constant vacillation of repetitions-in-transformation" similar to that described above in relation to Yard, but, in doing so, a self-conscious staging of viewers as "perceiving subjects" and of the artwork as something which "functions in that ungraspable space between perception and its conscious representation".

Given its evident subject matter – that of present-day Shanghai - it is then also arguably possible to think of Yard as a doubling of the sublime experience of life within the contemporary Chinese 'monster' city; an illimitable, immersive and disorientating site of constant (imaginary-symbolic) dispersals and relocations of the self – a sensible and intelligible diasporization of the subject, if you will – highly resonant with Fredric Jameson's early description of un-mappable post-modernist hyper-space.  

The actual affective experience of Yard is however, somewhat at odds with such a reading. Largely through the limpid detachment of its floating image-world and the consonant trance-like ambience of its electronic soundtrack (which constantly invokes more ancient forms of Chinese music, such as that played out on the Qin), Yard would also seem to assert itself as a form of un-troubling aesthetic immersion. Here, though initially disoriented, the viewer is drawn inexorably into a repeated aesthetic experience of mildly pleasurable insipidity than of sublimity - that is to say, it is possible for the viewer to encounter a certain sense of untroubled pleasure despite the otherwise incomplete and disjointed sensory experience presented by the artwork.

As a result, where one would expect from a Western theoretical perspective to find the unsettling violence of deconstructive performativity, one encounters another spectral play of absence-presence; a certain, pleasurable sense of reciprocity enmeshed in the loss of a stable sense of self brought into play by the artwork. Theorized simply according to a Western aesthetic vocabulary Yard is, therefore, a problematic prospect; a work that would seem to have been modeled closely on Western, post-modernist enactments of deconstructive sublimity, but which in terms of its experiential invocation of aesthetic feeling would also appear to depart unexpectedly from that orthodoxy by playing across the boundaries of the self in a manner which appears to seeks some sort of immersive reconciliation of subject and object while nevertheless retaining, somewhat paradoxically, through its constant interplay of mis-construals, reflections and reversals a continuing sense of a disjuncture between the two. Moreover, in doing so Yard would arguably also appear to abdicate any readily discernible critical positioning in relation to its subject. Indeed, the shuttling sense of subject-object reciprocity invoked by Yard would seem to depart markedly from the problematic slippages of Western post-modernist art and its surrogate sense of the troubling spatio-temporal uncertainties of contemporary life, by upholding instead the possibility of a paradoxically calming engagement with perceptual discontinuity.

How then might we begin to frame this apparently problematic status in theoretical terms? One of the first things that might be proffered is that while Yard presents itself ostensibly as a contribution to the now institutionally established Western category of avant-garde visual art and its characteristic use of subjective dislocation and destabilization, the aesthetic response which it actually provokes is arguably more akin to that associated with the reception of traditional forms of Chinese literati art. Within traditional Chinese literati visual culture standard Western artistic devices such as perspective geometry, modeling in depth (actual or illusionary) and defined formal boundaries are notably absent from visual schemes which conventionally seek to make no absolute distinction between the viewer and the viewed (not only that which the artwork represents, but also the artwork itself) and thereby to draw the former into an experience closer to immersion within the object of the gaze rather than its observation. From the locus of the Chinese philosophical-aesthetic tradition the relationship between subject and object is therefore markedly different from that inscribed within its Western counterpart. Where the latter can be understood historically to have upheld the objectifying power of the (male) gaze, the former – as part of a complex interweaving of Daoist, Confucian and Buddhist traditions of thought – seeks what, from a conventional Western philosophical viewpoint, can only be thought of as a somewhat paradoxical reconciliation of opposites which nevertheless retain their conceptual difference (a condition traditionally represented by the notion of Yin-Yang).

As Fran?ois Jullien has indicated, this sense of an immersive reconciliation between otherwise notionally distinct subjects and objects within traditional Chinese visual culture is not simply a matter of formal differences. Rather, it is one which also traces an arguably distinct realm of aesthetic experience.  Conventionally, the Western philosophical tradition has legitimated two interrelated forms of significant aesthetic experience with regard to the reception of the visual arts: firstly, the historically dominant notion of beauty which in Kantian terms is to be viewed as a strong feeling of unalloyed pleasure arising through the disinterested apprehension of an artwork whose form is contained within clear perceptual boundaries; and secondly, the historically subordinate notion of sublimity (much touted in relation to contemporary post-modernism) where, again as Kant would have it, strong feelings of pain at the realization that the artwork is inadequate to the representation of the illimitability of its signified is understood to give way in a circular fashion to pleasure felt at the capacity of that same artwork to nevertheless invoke an intuitive sense of the un-representable. In the Chinese aesthetic and ethical traditions, which grow out of preceding Daoist and Confucian thought, there is, as Jullien indicates another category of aesthetic feeling somewhat inimical to Western notions of strong aesthetic affect which he refers to as 'blandness'. Here, according to Jullien, the conventional effacing of any absolute boundary between viewer and the viewed in Chinese visual culture and the consonant sense of immersion which it invokes is one which brings with it a complex, though subtle relational experience of aesthetic flavours. Where conventional forms of Western art can be seen to provoke strong aesthetic feelings – pleasure; pleasure-pain – in Chinese visual culture, and particularly within its literati tradition, a less immediately distinct, blandness of taste is often sought.

This is not however, as it might seem to a Western observer simply an absence of aesthetic affect; instead, it is, as Jullien describes it, a positive quality at the margins of the phenomenal world which through its very insipidity can be understood to infuse - without the inflexibility of rationalist classification – the viewer gradually with the "full potential of meaning" and in doing so to put her/him "at the disposal of its secret urgings" as s/he "embarks on an endlessly renewed journey". Nor, contends Jullien, is the Chinese artistic invocation of the bland a slide into mysticism, as a habitual Western distinction between the empirical and the revelatory would tend to frame it, but rather a concrete, though discreet feeling which "does not lend itself to abstract constructs" while remaining "in the realm of perceived experience, even as it situates us at the very limit of perception, where it becomes most tenuous".

To return to our reading of Yard – and by extension a wider body of contemporary Chinese visual art - it is therefore possible to view its undecideable sense of subject-object relationships and accompanying feelings of immersive insipidity as something that arguably resonates more precisely with a Chinese philosophical aesthetic tradition than with its Western counterpart. Indeed, seen from the locus of such thinking the blandness of Yard – which may seem unbearable from a Western cultural position powerfully wedded to notions of perceptual and critical distance as well as strong aesthetic affects  – starts to look less like an inescapably formalistic variation on an existing Western model than an assimilation of established Western forms of artistic production which have been used simultaneously as a signifier of modernity and as a starting point for the renewed invocation of a culturally Chinese and, it has to be said, consciously reciprocal form of aesthetic reception. This is also arguably a move that is, however, not without its own critical potential, both as a foil to Orientalizing notions of cultural belatedness and as a surrogate for the far-reaching intensity of China's contemporary urban experience which continually unsettles through its potential openness to the widest possible field of meaning all attempts at fixed categorization philosophical or political.

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