The title of Shi Yong’s exhibition is a very long sentence: Let All Potential Be Internally Resolved Using Beautiful Form. Shi Yong once asked me if the sentence was “grammatically problematic”. I told him it was absolutely correct. The structure could be deconstructed as “Let A be B Resolved using C Form”. It was simple and succinct. The somewhat weird solo exhibition of Shi Yong reminded me of Two Attitudes of Identity, a dual exhibition featuring him and Qian Weikang and presented at the basement of Huashan Art School over twenty years ago. Both exhibitions seemed to center on the appearance and concept of objects. I don’t think this was a coincidence. It was more like a secret kind of “coming back”, referring in an inconspicuous but nostalgic way to the earlier works that had obviously been forgotten by most of the people. Moreover, he now embraced them in a “beautiful form”. By assuming the same “posture” as the previous exhibition, he quietly presented a “fifth wall” in the gallery space – the “cement ground”. Like a carefully choreographed puzzle game that had been foretold, the exhibition, teeming with Shi Yong’s signature affectation, sense of mystique and humor, was unveiled at Madein Gallery.
As a matter of fact, the works Shi Yong presented were not “internally” resolved as indicated in the title. On the contrary, they started from the “external”: the decorated surface was cut open, exposing the internal structure. They were subject to viewing within the same sequence – the functionality of the “redundancies” with ambiguous uses was broken and their relation with the space was assigned to a somewhat forgotten and ritualized position, which gave rise to some new functions concerning presentation and viewing. It seems now if we want to ask the artist “what on earth are you making”, the only clue we could resort to is this bunch of weird objects.
Walking into the brightly lit space of the Madein Gallery is like walking into the opposite of a cinema as cinema is supposed to be dark… To achieve a kind of hypnotic state in broad daylight requires genuine metonymy, meaning to lead audience into a conceptually dark labyrinth through the guiding function of language. It was exactly at this point that Shi Yong used a long sentence as a spell Ali Baba used to “Open Sesame”. Then he carefully concealed and erased the characters on the work, indicating that the brightness of the cinema was of no help at all in terms of facilitating people to understand the plot. He only confronted audience with a bunch of marks which might be groundless, insignificant, critical, or truly contain some of the artist’s personal secrets. Shi Yong kept saying that works presented at this exhibition could be hung on walls. But the fact that they lay at the corners on the floor made some of his artist friends think there was not enough time for him to hang the works. Probably it was not his intention to alter the way of viewing. Only when people were bewitched by the spell of contemporary art, able to get rid of the bias and distrust of artist, and accustomed to the seductions resulted from new lifestyles constituted by the various information within the grand context, they would have to show the attitude to be willing and ready to embrace new art. In that circumstance, did we still need a set of complicated rhetorics to support such alteration? Probably those who liked Shi Yong’s works didn’t need any theoretical explanation because it would decrease their self-perception. They would have to demonstrate that even without learning they would still be able to perceive new art with an open mind whether those brand new and shiny works were hung on walls or scattered on floor.
Let All Potential Be Internally Resolved Using Beautiful Form was more than a confusing title. It illustrated the logic by which the works on display were programmed and produced: Though they were doomed to be “useless” objects, their form must be beautiful. Internally speaking, they were not “real objects” because they were just a “potential”! I’m not sure if Shi Yong has ever read Kant’s Critique of Judgment or if he has ever come across ideas such as “purposiveness”, “purposiveness without purpose”, “how knowledge becomes potential” and how “everything” becomes “potential” in other readings. I have to confess that the last proposition is proposed by me. “Potential” is such a tempting word, a word that Shi Yong often mentions. It is even more creative than “creation”. There is substantial room of “potential” left to Shi Yong. First is “forgetfulness”. Every piece seems to have been stripped down from other objects that were once complete. Due to the absence of narration, the works (in our knowledge they were self-complete works rather than “wastes” or “things that had been stripped down”) were disconnected with their “parent bodies”. In other words, they became groundless and were floating. They were waiting to be reconnected with us: Their identities, stories, functions and unexpected destinies (we are inclined to think so just as we’re inclined to envision the paints on canvas as landscape and nude ladies) were an enigma to us. Different from “wastes” or “redundancies” in common sense, they were costly, precise and perfect in shape, and time-consuming in terms of processing. During the process of design and manufacturing, they were at all times the protagonist, the center of attention and the main body of the work that would eventually be retained and presented. The real wastes and redundancies had already been discarded as garbage. However, to maintain a disguise that seemed to have covered the truth, to pretend to tolerate an extremely radical and precise way of manipulation, and to engrave the traces of compulsion on the cracks and sections of the works so as to make them look like visually intriguing wounds exposed in open air was another story. Since they did not contain the mythological splendor, the artist chose to keep silent.
Now it’s time for us to go back to the origin. After all, no matter what kind of philosophical thinking or review people impose upon Shi Yong’s work, and no matter whether Shi Yong’s work is always inspired by theories, the conceptual nature of contemporary art is still realized through reality; the materiality, transparency, chaos and ambiguity contained within, like everything else in the reality world, are partially exposed and partially concealed. Intentions that have been erased and ambiguities that have been intentionally highlighted constitute the world landscape that none of us could escape, and give rise to a kind of collective experience: to embrace strange things, images and narrations and to include them into our experience range as much as possible. “Speciousness” and “distorting the facts” are no longer necessarily derogatory. To try as hard as you can to embrace the strange, absurd and yet pretty-looking objects! Other than absolute prettiness, they have no other functions at all. Don’t ask anything. Confusion contains a lingering sense of beauty. Just throw the questions to those stunned!
Due to my laziness, lack of time and concentration, I have never managed to make a systematic review of Shi Yong’s artistic practice during the past twenty years. But this long and tricky title “Let All Potential Be Internally Resolved Using Beautiful Form” promoted me to move forward my schedule to make this review. Based on my perception of his years of practice and thinking, I would like to describe Shi Yong as a man with “dual identity”: he is both a “performer” and an “author”. We are familiar with the Shi Yong as a conceptual artist and his performance works; but how about the Shi Yong as an “author”? From Two Attitudes of Identity over twenty years ago to “Be Internally Resolved Using Beautiful Form”, the artist has always refused to put in an appearance. He is the maker and designer of “a bunch of stuff”, and sometimes he is merely an “interpreter”. The seamless exchanges between the two identities could be the theme of another review of him and his art. What I want to emphasize now is that behind the flexibility and variability of the artist, he enjoys exposing himself in front of the audience, or say in front of the world; but in the meantime, the desire to conceal himself and even his works is also deeply embedded within him for long.