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The Prescribed Image of Difference

Author: Martina Koppel-Yang 2006

The question of cultural identity became a topic central to Chinese art in the early twentieth century, with the emergence of a Chinese nation-state and its quest to enter into concert with the Western nations. Since the political opening of China in the late '70s, and especially since the country's growing participation in a global context in the '90s, this question has again been raised with urgency. The increasing heterogeneity and hybridity of the cultural environment is particularly evident in the country's urban centers, such as Beijing, Guangzhou or Shanghai. Shanghai, former colonial city and now booming megalopolis trying to revive its former splendor, confronts its inhabitants with the rapid shifting of old and the fast emergence of new structures and value systems. The explosive process of urbanization as well as the entering of the Chinese society into a multicultural context further radically changed not only the urban environment but also the everyday habits of city-dwellers.

In his photos and videos, as well as in his interactive online projects, Shanghai based artist Shi Yong directly relates to those newly emerging everyday realities and their far-reaching influence on the individual's life. He focuses on the aspects of identity and image and accordingly realizes his projects in private and public spaces, such as his private apartment or the most public space, the Internet.

Form the beginning of the '90s, the artist's appearance and its transformation have played a major role in Shi Yong's work. The New Image of Shanghai Today (1997), an interactive online project, was conceived to choose the most adequate image for an individual living in Shanghai, a place that the artist defines as "China's front to the outside world." Shi Yong himself was the experimenter for this project. The participants were asked to select between twelve portraits that showed the artist with various hairstyles and dressed differently and to submit their choice by email. The most popular choice was the combination of a Mao suit, blond hair, and sunglasses. Shi then adopted this image, which characterizes him as a hybrid between Western and Eastern culture, as his professional look. You cannot clone it, but you can buy it (2000) shows the artist's professional image as a serially coined multiple. Ironically and with the humor typical of many Shanghai based artists, Shi here questions identity and self-image as a reflection of multicultural concepts, which in spite of decentralizing efforts and globalization are still dominated by Western standards. In Adding one Concept on Top of Another (1997). He appropriates Kosuth's famous conceptual piece One and Three Chairs. He projects his image sitting on chair onto the chair in kosuth's piece next to a photograph of a chair and the dictionary definition of chair. His image, this time a pars pro toto for concepts of contemporary Chinese art, is thus superimposed onto the epitome of Western conceptual art. Shi Yong relates his quest for cultural identity to the discourse of Western art history, which he cites as a legitimizing structure and reference system as such. Shi's parody of the Chinese artist' quest for a distinct cultural identity that at the same time is acknowledged by Western standards questions the perspective and the practice of multicultural strategies.

Welcome is the title of the multimedia installation Shi Yong presents in Unpacking Europe. This piece again is about the "cultural reality in the dialogue and interchange between the Western and the non-Western." Within a black circle projected on the floor the sentence “Welcome" is written with red neon lights in Chinese and repeated two times, forming a cross. The image of the artist walking around the inner circle is projected on the floor on the outside of the inner circle. As soon as the spectators want to get close to or want to enter the center, an alarm will start and prevent them form doing so. Shi Yong here creates an eloquent metaphor for the relation of the dominant and the marginal culture. Even though "the so-called multiculturalism defined by the Western culture seemingly tells you that the line between the ethnocentric culture and the marginal culture is being eliminated," the one coming form the margins still is prevented from sharing in the central position. Ironically, as the artist states, it is just the specific cultural identity of the marginal culture that creates the insurmountable gap, as "a new taxonomy of cultures is laying you cleverly in a special symbolic display window for the purpose of distinguishing." The integration of the non-Western into the cultural reality of the post-colonial area still is dominated by Western standards, and to obtain a position of acceptance one has to act within the confines of the prescribed decorum—or the alarm will start.

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