Views from Onlooker’s Horizons: Labyrinth of Shanghai
Dramatically different from the regular city framework in Beijing, the avenues and the lanes in Shanghai are not orderly planned according to the geographical directions. When you open the city map of Shanghai, you will find it is full of intricate, easily confusing network of interconnecting pathways, almost without an actual straight line. This is a city people usually get lost in, lost in the confusion of the complicated terrain, lost in the mixture of both western and eastern culture, lost in the whirlpool of its commercial seductiveness. This is Shanghai, a puzzling labyrinth.
As the largest city in China, most social activities in Shanghai are directly connected with commerce. In such a rhythm, the activities and the works done by contemporary artists are often treated as tunes without harmony. Living on the edge of society cannot stop them to bring what they have seen, heard and touched into the images of videos and photographs. And with the revolution of media and its concepts, the images of contemporary art also infiltrate into daily life. There is a Chinese idiom: “the spectators see the chess game better than the players, an outsider sees things more clearly than one involved”. Contemporary artists live in the same society with us, but through art, they can escape from the mundane. During the process of creating, they can breathe freely in the air of a different world, keeping their mind clear and logical as an “onlooker”. But the artists, the onlookers of daily life, are not gods or prophets; they are still confused by life. If there is anything important for them, they will be kept pondering in the maze. Because of various dreams, anxieties and confusion reflected in their artworks, Shanghai not only looks like a labyrinth of geography, but also a labyrinth of the heart, a labyrinth of culture.
Pondering in the Maze
In the early stage of the last century, this labyrinth has initially been shaped by westernized concessions and traditional Shanghai, such as the City God Temple(Yu Yuan Garden)，Fuzhou Road, and Sima Road, described by the School of Mandarin Duck & Butterfly①, and the School of Saturday②. Over half a century later, Shanghai has risen from the ashes of wars and revolution through economic reform and opening up to the rest of the world. Dynamic urban planning has continuously expanded the domain of the maze city. Indiscriminate construction not only has improved the quality of life, but also intensifies the maze confusion. With the disappearance of old buildings and the springing of new ones, suddenly we come to realize that the city of the past has been changed beyond recognition. In 1986, Cui Jian, a Chinese pioneer in rock and roll music, composed the lyrics: ”my confusion is not due to my insufficient understanding, but because the world is changing so fast. I look around, but there is still too much for me to see. I become more and more puzzled.“ The song is now considered a classic, yet the confusion in it still continues. “When the sights in a city no longer bear the historical significance, its images in my memory will become more and more misty (light). Such cities, like Shanghai, make people feel excited and depressed.”③ The digital photography and video work Light as Fuck by Yang Zhenzhong obviously implies this point. In these works, the Oriental Pearl Tower and Lu Jia Zui are easily lifted up. But it is difficult to put down the doubt and puzzle from the crisis of the bubble economy and short-term planning hidden behind prosperity.
Professor Li Ofan points out: “the memory of a city is on the basis of its cultural intellectuals, various architecture and spatial images.” It will be fractions if we just observe a city in the view of present architecture and spatial images. People always consider the style of Shanghai to be both nostalgic and modern. Like both sides of the Bund, the architectural creations of international styles and Lu Jia Zui in Pudong New Area, they symbolize century-old historical changes and prosperous present sights. It is not known yet to be on purpose or by accident that the city architectural space is fixed between such two extremes over one century. More and more historical traces are quickly out of sight with the development of the city’s rapid tempo. Such loses can be found in the nostalgic memory of writers and artists.
Confusion I: About Nostalgia
As a matter of fact, nostalgia is not always the purpose during artists’ practice. Just like the function of Historical Events Retold as a Mirror for Government④, the historical distance in time usually reflects today more clearly. The Long March – A Walking Visual Display, curated by Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie, is a typical art event that connects contemporary art with the memory of revolutionary history and socialist life. Lu Jie humorously remarked that the metropolis for contemporary art centers, such as Beijing and Shanghai, were immersed in “white horror (professional horror)”. Hence he took the strategy of “retreating in order to advance” and “a spark starting a prairie fire” proposed by Mao Zedong, walking along the Long March route selected by the Red Army from 1934 to 1936. By these means, more contemporary art bases were established. Also through active interactions with international artists, their art achieves popularization and globalization. Qu Guangci, an artist in Shanghai, made a life size sculpture of himself. He hired an immigrant worker to carry it on his back, taking his place in the Long March but carrying his name the entire length of the journey. Shi Yong proposed the plan of the Long March in Shanghai: find the lanes or streets in Shanghai which share the exactly same names with those on the route of the Long March, then carry out a “platonic” Long March in Shanghai. Hu Jieming directed the video work The best tactic is to be on the move, which is the last stratagem of The Thirty-six Tactics, believed to be compiled by Tan Dao Ji living in the South and North Dynasties (circa A.D.?--436). This achieves the same goal through different means with “retreating to advance”. The video is centered on images in the life of Shanghai with clips of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De⑤ publicizing their military strategies. In this way, the work indicates the various difficulties and the last rescue in real society.
Also related to China’s red revolution, Zhang Peili’s video work Actor’s Script and Zhou Hongxiang”s film The Red Flag Flies recall the memory of socialist revolution and construction after new China’s establishment. The former work is based on a revolutionary movie called Sentries in Neon light, which took the stationing of a PLA’s (People’s Liberation Amy) company on Nanjing Road in Shanghai in the 1950’s as a background. Zhang re-edited the movie and gave emphasis to the script by means of repetition. Since time is ephemeral and everything has changed, this movie has already lost its revolutionary significance in this period of economic growth. The latter work combines revolutionary symbols, such as the color red, red flags, quotations from Mao Zedong, gong and drum signals, etc. In the film, a group of young people stands with the poses from Yang Ban Xi, Beijing operas with a modern, revolutionary theme during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In exaggerated and symbolic manner and tones, they rigidly and indifferently posed the endless slogans that are familiar to us in our daily life, going with the whispering questions:" what is...? "Zhou criticizes the false truths of those political slogans in a humorous way.
The nostalgia expressed by Yang Fudong is not serious or practical but emotional and dreamy. He tends to illustrate the abstract language and chaotic time and space in his work with dreams. However, both dreams and nostalgia are great excuses to use black and white film to escape the real world, just like the literati in ancient China, who always pursued spiritual freedom by living in reclusion. Facing the suppression of political in the past and of economy in the present, the intellectuals in China have been suffering from the choice of positive participation in worldly affairs or negatively standing aloof from it. The work of Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest is such a modern metaphor, which consists of five ongoing films. The artist tried to search for the ideal lifestyle, namely, “blooming hopes” by the words of Yang Fudong himself. The first part of the film takes place on Mount Huangshan, Anhui province, near Shanghai: in the misty and tranquil mountain, seven young intellectuals dressed in the style of the 1950’s and 60’s enjoy themselves in the endless cloud sea, verdant pine woods and grotesque rocks. Sometimes off-screen monologs are murmured. Sometimes the wind in the forest whistles. Sometimes distant music echoes. The most two impressive scenes are the nude images in the beginning and a girl shedding tears emotionally in the end of the film. On seeing these, viewers cannot help remembering the legend of the seven intellectuals in the bamboo forest in the Wei & Jin Dynasty, who were unconventional and unrestrained.
Confusion II: about Absurdity
The real life goes like this: get up, take the bus, go to work, have meals, go to sleep, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday…and so on and so forth. What a cruel reality! Isn’t it ridiculous? Actually artists do not create absurdity. Since it is always hidden in daily life, we become blind or get used to it. When we realize the existence of absurdity, we will also find we have been surrounded by powerless desperation. Hence, facing such a situation, the artists often take the measure of “absurdity surmounting absurdity” to solve it.
Since September 11th, Chen Shaoxiong has created several works about anti-terrorism: besides the video installation which there are the smart skyscrapers that miraculously avoid crashing planes, he also made an installation which fixed a security door on the gate of a gallery. Video installation Windows2002 (Anti-Terrorism Variety) actually originally from the idea “the world is just like a PC, the invasion of viruses is only possible with the existence of bugs in the systems itself.”⑥ However, are the tactics of anti-terrorism really effective? Although we keep upgrading systems, installing firewalls, viruses still gain rampancy. What on earth has made the world so tense? Is it due to crazy terrorism or paranoid anti-terrorist activities?
Yang Zhenzhong’s video 922 Grains of Rice ironically satirizes this kind of paranoid existence in human life. In the video, a cock and a hen pecked grains of rice on the ground. Every time they pecked a grain, the screen shows the total number of grains pecked and the numbers by themselves, accompanied by male and female voiceovers counting along. Finally the cock and the hen leave full and happy while the stupid human beings have become deadly exhausted from their hysterical calculation.
In the two above pieces of work, Chen and Yang try to explore human absurdity in a suspicious attitude. However some artists themselves are “ridiculous”, especially those born in the late 1970’s, such as Xu Zhen, Song Tao and Liang Yue. “Absurdity” is an inseparable part in everyone’s living conditions, and expressing “Absurdity” in the works requires an objective attitude. But “absurd people” are incompatible with the world; they are obstinate and unruly, egotistical and unconventional, with no feeling for the values and concepts followed by others. Art created by absurd people always represent strong personal individualism. For example, Sisyphean repetition and monotony is always a frame in the works of Zhou Hongxiang and Yang Zhenzhong, such as the endless questions of “ what is…?” in Zhou’s Red Flag Flies, and Yang Zhenzhong’s multi-cultural montage of people saying “I Will Die” before the camera. The repetitive structure gains strength in quantity and the shift from quantitative change to qualitative change. But in the works of Liang Yue and Song Tao, the form of repetition and monotony that they used is looks like the true-life copy.
Liang Yue’s video work is like a private diary exposed. Subtle changes in her characters’ calm demeanors indicate a profound interior. The images in video The Happiest Winter which showed in her solo exhibition in 2002 and the new works No Where and Deaf Land are closely related to her own moods or living situation: dazing, gazing, attentively listening, being speechless… Different from the calm visual images, the music is full of emotions and sorrow, pointing to the artist’s private feelings.
Liang Yue’s indifference is connected with an inborn sense of fatalism. She cannot and is unwilling to speak much. Instead, in a self-secluded state, she tranquilly waits for the harmony of communication with others. Song Tao is addicted to boredom and monotony in daily life. His early works cruelly showed the petty trifles in life without consideration for viewers’ patience. Just like playing video games, he himself was fully engaged though without any dramatic and romantic quality. His video Bai Ta Ling is like a dynamic game, set in a hill in Hangzhou. The leading female role has the task of exploring mysteries there. With pop music in the background, the captions rapidly jump like Internet chatting. In fact, it is another game: literal domino. The first character of each sentence must be the same with the last character in the last sentence. When the caption appears Bai Ta Ling again, the exploration game is over.
Confusion III: to See and to be Seen
If artists are the onlookers of real life, then viewers are the onlookers of art. In recent years, with the organization of Shanghai Biennale, Guangzhou Triennial, and other art events both on the Mainland and abroad, the size of the Chinese contemporary art audience has increased greatly. However, many problems still exist. The general public usually cannot understand the implication of the artwork, leaving only a small professional circle and artists’ friends to support the art. Under such circumstances, openings of exhibitions usually become salons for artists and their friends. However, international curators, foreign galleries and collectors have kept great interest in Chinese contemporary art since 1990’s, their interest contrasted greatly by the general public’s indifference. On the one hand, Chinese contemporary art tends to be elite and overseas-oriented, or even directly marketized. On the other hand, Chinese viewers usually lack a clear understanding of contemporary art. Perhaps it is this distance that was the catalyst for “The Long March”. Before and after “The Long March”, many curators and artists have made efforts to realize the possibility of contemporary art’s potential by creatively using non-exhibition spaces or drastically changing the exhibition spaces themselves, such as the exhibition of Post-Sense Sensibility (1999-2000) in Beijing, Art for Sale (1999) and Fan Mingzhen & Fan Mingzhu(2002) in Shanghai. These were excellent examples of contemporary art moving at an innovative beat.
The exhibition Art for Sale in Shanghai was set in a mall in a bustling commercial street, combining a supermarket and exhibition space. Its aims were to expose an uninformed public to an experimental art show that broke dramatically from tradition. The setting and theme of this exhibition allowed the artists to express the complex relationship between art and commerce.
The theme of the exhibition Fan Mingzhen & Fan Mingzhu was the concept of twins, the title of which was named after twin sisters. There were two nearly identical spaces for the show. Artists were required to create pieces for both spaces. The works had to look similar, but be independent of each other. In this way, the theme was expressed. Among the most provoking works was March 6th by Xu Zhen, one of the curators. At the entrances to the two exhibition halls were 50 performers in mental patient uniforms. Their task was to follow each viewer until they left. The prankish arrangement turned the art viewer to the art being viewed---the object to be seen. The combined feelings of amusement and tension that viewers experienced went beyond the typical act of viewing art. Xu Zhen’s work pondered the relationship of art and its audience, seeing and being seen. He changed from the motif of body exploration in the early stages of his career to experimenting with the experience of art itself. Similar works includes: placing a large industrial fan at the exhibition entrance to create a physical resistance upon entering; “savages” chasing and calling the audience “mama” and “papa” throughout an exhibition. Most recently was a piece of “furtive” work in the 5th Shenzhen International Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition---“Island”, which went down into the lake during the daytime and came up at night. It seemed to be a practical joke, but effectively broadened the audience’s outlook of exhibition.
What is Shanghai? What is Chinese Contemporary Art?
It is very interesting that most of the works in the exhibition Light as Fuck! Shanghai Assemblage 2000-2004 is videos. Maybe the curator of the exhibition thinks the most developed and innovative contemporary works in Shanghai are videos? But I can assure you that contemporary art in Shanghai not only consists of video work, but also paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations and multi-media work.
I cannot imagine what kind of feelings Norwegian viewers will get when they face this foreign art. Though Lucia, one of my Norwegian friends has always expressed extreme pleasure at the artwork viewed in Shanghai. I sincerely hope Norwegian viewers will also appreciate these works. However, if you really want to find Shanghai from these works, I have to say, “ Please be careful! Don’t get lost!”
Translate from Chinese to English: Li Yansa
①School of literature from late stage of Qing dynasty to 1911 Revolution, which usually described the romance of talented scholars and beautiful ladies.
②School of literature in Shanghai in 1920-1930, the articles of which were usually published in newspaper’s supplements on Saturdays.
③Yang Zhenzhong’s words.
④Chinese historical literature in Song Dynasty, by Sima Guang.
⑤Three leaders of the Red Army.
⑥Chen Shaoxiong’s words.