This article was written prior to the exhibition, in fact, I did not ponder deeply on Yang Zhenzhong’s works, my understanding of which was also biased. From the late 1980s until today, many experiences have been alike in China’s state of turmoil. When I started to work on this text, I had many wavering thoughts: how to portray the current prospect of China’s contemporary art? Where to position Yang Zhenzhong in the Chinese contemporary art system? Yang Zhenzhong, as one of the most important artists in Shanghai, from his artistic work to curatorial processes, all belong to the 1990s. Our common experiences can be seen as an emotional collective phenomenon, the problems society were confronted with in the 1990s could not be converted into a form of criticism or self-reflection, but are still pent up. Disappointed by the political reality and unable to comprehend the China, that has economically rising. Where is the artist headed for? What is art up to?
Since the rise of social media in 2005, a large number of confounded realities were once again brought into daily life. Faced with this powerful information provided by the system, art and artists eventually started to contemplate quietly about the relationship between art and society, as well as the artist and society. Is there still anything an artist must do today? How to maintain one’s own posture not only independent from contemporary art’s political landscape, but also economic structures, trends and homogenization of production? Today, it has become easier for art and artists to be accepted by mainstream society, but also easier to be alienated from it at the same time.
Chinese contemporary art’s backdrop of time and locality
The chronology of Chinese contemporary art’s emergence should be as follows:the Stars Group in the late 1970s, the 85’ New Wave in the 1980s, Cynical Realism,Kitsch and Pop in the 1990s, as well as Video Art (since 1988) and Post-Sense Sensibility (since end of 1990s), the linkage between art and market after 2000,the rise of galleries and private museums and the large scale of art production.In 2001, contemporary art entered the stage as an official business of Chinese foreign affairs, starting with the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart to the Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003. The market matured in 2007,contemporary art became officially the main subject of auctions and gallery sales.The New Media Art exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in 2008 heralded the beginning of a new media era.
This is the backdrop against which Yang and many other artists exist, without even paying attention to international events, disasters, important Chinese affairs, online incidents and other numerous historical factors. Geographically speaking,Yang Zhenzhong is originally from Hangzhou, but lives in Shanghai. He has been working as an artist since the mid - 1990s in Shanghai, living and working there for many years. Shanghai–Hangzhou, that is a high-speed train ride of less than one hour, and a 2 hours 45 minutes flight between Beijing and Shanghai.
If the above mentioned timeline is China’s general temporal context, are there any specific intricacies in Hangzhou’s timeline? In the 1980s Zheng Shengtian started to spread information about Kassel’s documenta and various other international exhibition and fairs. Several artists of the 85 New Wave and China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition came from Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art (CAA, formerly Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts); even though pop, kitsch and cynical realism of the 1990s had nothing to do with Hangzhou, however, video art began with Hangzhou’s Zhang Peili (who created his video work 30×30 in 1988) – this was the starting point for Video Art in China. The resurgence of experimental art in the late 1990s:explorations in areas such as art and space, art and material, art and media, art and action, were happening simultaneously in Hangzhou and Beijing,they specifically took place in Shanghai and Beijing.
“Unlike the context in 1996, numerous catastrophic events occurred in China between 1999 and 2000,which 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.”
——“Incongruity in Yang Zhenzhong’s four video works”, Shin-Yi Yang, 2006
Each narrator uses its intrinsic logic and narrative methods to ingeniously amalgamate time and events, Shin-Yi Yang’s text points towards Yang Zhenzhong’s work I Will Die, another temporal context, which part of China’s overall situation is set in here — does Yang Zhenzhong himself see the world in that way? “I will die” is a declarative sentence, coming from different people’s mouths, it sounds casual,but hidden there lies a mentality to let life come and go calmly.
Another chronology that interrelates media and new media should include thecreation of Zhang Peili’s 30×30 as China’s first piece of video art in 1988, the first group exhibition of video art Phenomena and Image curated by Qiu Zhijie and Wu Meichun in 1996, Demonstration of Video Art which was shown in Beijing and Hangzhou in 1997, the establishment of the New Media Department in Hangzhou’s CAA through Zhang Peili in 2001, Beijing’s first international new media exhibition Media Art Asia Pacific in 2001, annual large-scale exhibitions by Tsinghua University’s Academy of Art & Design and China Millennium Monument Museum of Digital Art (CMODA) organized by Zhang Ga from 2004 to 2006, and the National Art Museum of China’s (NAMOC) Synthetic Times: Media Art China 2008 exhibition in 2008. This timeline is another link between time and events, everything that occurred from 1988 to 2001 took place in Hangzhou, in Beijing the internationalization process was finalized, whereas Hangzhou started its 10 years of new media education.
There is another chronology of self -organized show system from Shanghai, in 1999 Yang Zhenzhong participated in the exhibition Art for Sale, in 2000 Yang Zhenzhong, Yang Fudong and Xu Zhen themselves organized the exhibition Useful Life, which created another interrelation between the Garage Show (1991)and Phenomena and Image (1996), the red thread running through both of them was the media element which was closer to the artist’s main line of work: in this context things became clearer.
“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 networks of interconnecting pathways,almost without an actual straight line.”
—— “Views from Onlooker’s Horizons: Labyrinth of Shanghai”, Lu Leiping, 2004
Like a new medium emerging from any era would spark artists interest and be
picked up from the beginning, it will eventually become a classic art medium and form its unique language and contextual relation. Video art was just evolving like that in the course of time; artists started to use this medium spontaneously, but ultimately it turned into an instrument and aesthetic language in the landscape of contemporary art that could not be ignored. Thus, it is not hard to understand why so many artists’ shifts from painting to video happened so naturally.
In a geographical context, Yang Zhenzhong benefited from the extensive informations from abroad at the CAA, at the same time, he was influenced by Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi and their exploration and practice of the medium, he often times re-mapped and inherited Zhang Peili’s demands towards the“exploration of media language” from the late 1980s. This happened in between Hangzhou and Shanghai, it did not ricochet in Beijing, Guangzhou or any other places; in contrast to Beijing and Guangzhou, artistic exploration in Hangzhou and Shanghai were perhaps less intruded on by political and commercial factors. Even today,Hangzhou is still a relatively secluded paradise, Shanghai’s once expected rise of Expo economy was again shifted due to Hong Kong, which also confirmed Shanghai’s “light heartedness” mentioned by Yang Zhenzhong to Chen Xiaoyun in an interview of 2001, this is maybe what sets it apart from many other cities in China, Shanghai has a wealth of international experiences and information, but at the same time also its side of flânerie.
Categorizing Yang Zhenzhong
If we analyse Chinese artists and contemporary art’s situation today, we will see that after the 85 New Wave movement, art was no longer an aesthetic process and final expression practised in a studio, it started to get in contact with society,to approximate international standards; it initiated a native language dialogue,communication with the public, a commercialization process and its development towards media events. Is this leading to a unique concept of contemporary art? Chinese artists have a special kind of motivation, it exists in almost everyone’s thoughts and actions, driving innovation and progress.
I will use some of my ideas that I have had about phenomena and artists from the
1990s till today in order to draw up a rather subjective categorization:
Blending local culture with international artBlending local culture with international art
This type of artists usually source from local culture for art images and content,like Huang Yongping or Cai Guoqiang, who went abroad early, they are representative for this type; on the one hand, their work expanded the awareness for Chinese culture and visual images abroad, and they started to reflect on their concepts using their unique creation methods, those contextual relations and visuals,that appeared to have sprung from local culture, were an effective strategy for artists, for one, it related to the others’ imagined China – an indistinct country full of ceremonials or old colonial legacies; on the other hand, it established the artist’s status and identity abroad, which is reflected in the interconnected realities of growing immigration and internationalization.
Employing Chinese traditional techniques and Western knowledge systems
This type eagerly uncovers contemporary traits from traditions and applies or borrows from “Western” knowledge systems or methodology, so that traditional Chinese contemporary art appears in a “Western” context and art system. This kind of artist requires a lot of knowledge and study in areas between cultures. Lu Shengzhong and Qiu Zhijie are representatives for this group.
Emphasizing social involvement and reality dynamics
Artists of this category emerged in large numbers after the rise of social media,they take on topics as big as national politics, and as small as their own fate; from social news, hot topics, to incidents, they react with timely responses. They have exemplified in many social realities the advantages of an artist’s identity, and obtained the function to integrate the artist’s identity into the course of social events. Through social events’ explosiveness, this type renders a special quality that spans across hot topics of general interest and art specific ones. This type is represented by Ai Weiwei or Zuoxiao Zuzhou. In the eyes of Westerners, most “political dissidents” hold the status of this artist category in an international context,whereas another category who contradicts and criticizes from within Chinese tradition can only achieve a disequilibrium in a domestic context and gain recognition by the local media, like Jin Feng, Sun Ping, Shu Yong, etc.; they get involved and connect it to China’s reality, so it can be reflected therein.
Self -expression and new media
Artists of this type are often very far away from the above mentioned ones, they will not look for inspiration within contextual relations, political positions or East-West strategies, they are more concerned with the relationship between themselves and media. Generally, they are better in breaking away from social contexts, only keeping in touch with self-creation and time. Like Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Wang Jianwei, their transformations are never bound to be related to any specific social or aesthetic trend. Some of their media and techniques are often only required for themselves as a language of artistic expression.
Complete integration with the West
This category mainly consists of young artists either with a background of studying abroad or of entirely domestic nature, they do not have any specific needs to connect with culture, their knowledge is not geographically bound, nor are they suffering from any identity crisis, from begin on, they have already entered a context completely detached from China’s reality, this is not only happening in the realms of Chinese contemporary art, it is also a common phenomenon within the new generation of artists in America or Europe. Their work may relate to a greater art history, or are more inclined towards some global art trends. Artists like Wu Shanzhuan or Liu Ding are closer to an existence that goes beyond a “Chinese artist identity”.
Focusing on localization and elements of Chinese culture
This type of artists are still widespread throughout the art system, they have a special preference for the Chinese education and gallery system, as well as social ethics; they can find a correspondence between themselves and tradition and the system derived from that. Such artists experiment with Chinese ink painting restore their local culture’s sentiments through experimental techniques. This type often appears to be in agreement with China’s greater political environment, but through themselves they give an account of a developing, harmonious but different China.
What category does Yang Zhenzhong belong to? Yang Zhenzhong often talks about death, his work I Will Die in 2000 even intensified that, he dealt with it calmly. Knowledge grows, one has to wait serenely. His works also tell of greater human relations in a very placid tone. The type analysis above may help to understand Yang Zhenzhong’s position and working method, can he also be summarized by one of the categories? If we consider geography, events, time as clues for a work, is it possible to comprehend the context and means of an artist’s work?
Bruce Nauman’s created for his work Live Taped Video Corridor (1970) a long
corridor that became narrower towards the rear, with monitors only at the end,the viewer could see himself entering it, and the process of coming closer to the television screen and reflection, eventually, when he comes to an halt, the image in front of him is the one of his own back.A long and narrow corridor
If we extract the artist’s emotions or circumstantial elements from this work, what remains is an interesting visual paradox and an exploration of the medium’s own potential, the viewer enters this paradox video loop and becomes in fact part of the work, looking at one’s own image turns into a crucial aspect of it. A long and
narrow channel, a medium at its end, is this a metaphor for today’s art? Whereas the impossibility of reaching the other side, forcing the spectator to retreat, might that be a mockery of that same metaphor? In fact, these are only speculations, not different than those social and emotional factors lightly connected to the work;art is obviously most of the time misread.
Yang Zhenzhong also wanted to create a similar corridor for the exhibition, a corridor that could not be traversed, dim and without an exit, a signboard at its end reminds the viewer, that this is a perceivable visual object, whose meaning can be distinguished. The paradox and ambiguity in Yang Zhenzhong’s work often starts here: a movement made necessary through a narrow corridor, a consensus provided by a medium, a complex individual thought concealed in the background and an idea that seems to correspond to social reality.
“‘Don’t Move’ is an order, but it is not clear who is giving the order and to whom it is addressed to.‘Don’t Move’ could also be a declaration, addressing our relationship with movement and its relationship with the moving image.”
—— “Yang Zhenzhong’s Don’t Move”, Colin Chinnery, 2011
Don’t Move was created in 2001, it is a reproduction of a media work’s paradoxical relation. The installation points towards “moving” and “not moving”, it does not depend on the filmed subject, here, the shooting camera takes over the role of main body. When the viewer visits the exhibition, this main body is displaced again by him, Don’t Move reveals the viewer’s mind.
According to its English definition, pollution that is emphasized by the artist is not only from to the environmental, when environment is interpreted on a spiritual level, environmental pollution naturally also means “spiritual pollution”. So, the dissemination function of books and paper can be seen as media that causes this pollution. When Yang Zhenzhong piles up the sources of this “spiritual pollution” once again in a public space, the double meaning starts to emerge, the work begins to shift towards its own visual language (might there be a link to surrealism? )and the actual reality of “environmental pollution”.
Na Xiong Na Er, a perplexing video work, challenges the viewer and censorship restrictions, on the one hand there is no special meaning to the image shaking up and down, and if there is one, it could also be ascribed to the visual language subject experiments of Don’t Move. Its sound configurations provoke the images and the conflict between spectator and censorship, the buildings within the imagination and visuals transmitted by these sounds compose a different site of sex. Another aspect is the discomfort caused by this work, as well as its immediacy, as it can easily be read, every viewer will clearly associate it with “sex”, without any pornographic images. If those up and down moving buildings can create this imaginary male, then where is the metaphor of the absent female? Obviously, this work shows again a hole in habitual thinking, that leaves it unable to complete the cycle, just like the case of Bruce Nauman’s work: the viewer’s awkwardness lies in the possibility of approaching a familiar reality, but impotence to go beyond.
Let’s Puff is a projection of social reality, or a movement, or a scene in an interactive state where the subject does not move, but the object does. A girl causes a physical reaction in Let’s Puff, accompanied by the rhythm of the blows, the audience stagnates in between a gesture of blowing and the constantly retreating images. The installation takes the viewer to a moment in time or an intercepted fragment of it, but it does not effect his relation with time, what he experiences is an acceleration in time flow, this moment is not connected at all to the scene’s time or physicality, this fractured relationship appears rather often in Yang Zhenzhong’s works. The viewer can experience a moment where his body is fully present, but unable to control neither motion nor time, however, it is up to him to enter or leave this moment and motion.
Some of the above described works’ discourse is mainly about the relationship between time, media and space in Yang Zhengzhong’s oeuvre, interaction and complexity are essential qualities of these creations, here the artist does not emphasize his own characteristic as a talking subject, instead he brings ambiguity or rather simultaneous reality into the exhibition’s scene. These works are fundamentally different than his previous works with relatively obvious predispositions.Like 922 Rice Corns (2000), that addressed the relation between knowledge and action, or his declaration style videos I Will Die (2000) where the camera points straight at the subject, or his works that directly reflect interaction: Balance ( 1998),Shower ( 1995 ), Grand Grandpa (1995), Christmas Gift ( 1994); the artist’s work tendencies and logic are obvious in all of these creations.
In more recent works, Yang seems to have turned to a more complex system and logic, on one hand, there is the “wisdom” he sneers at,on the other, there is also the great way of “dying calmly” he often talks about, which follows naturally “big” or “small” occurrences in art production.
The present that must be avoided
Spring Story (2003) is a reappearance of the past and memory, present – past.Maybe it is a fight at close quarters with the present, Yang Zhenzhong’s method is to to turn back time for 30 years. In the process of reciting Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Campaign Speech” (1992), time and meaning are both intercepted stolen goods.
A form of awareness of the past and a sense of distance from the present, lingering thoughts about how to die insipidly, all of that is different to the incorporation of contemporary into society and situations of sharing and participation. When it comes to considerations about China’s reality and change of individual positions,intellectuals have always been living in either past or future, whether traditional intellectuals in their writings of history, or novelists of the Ming and Qing dynasties in their use of the past to satirize the present, we encounter everywhere a lack of the contemporary and current. This shows for one the intellectuals many dissatisfactions with the circumstances they were living in, as well as their excessive illusive love for the past. As for the focus towards the future, its origins lead back to some intellectuals’ educators, along with a wide range of restructuring and reforms that were all directed towards a better future. This becomes evident in art and culture after 1949: all kinds of cultural expression that depict the future as a perfect paradise and countless touching stories about sacrifice. They are all sources of our obscure and timeless society today, intellectuals’ or contemporary individuals’ inability to grasp their own destiny and the unpredictability of social changes, was the past really better than the present? Can the glorious future replace today’s life? In various initiatives like “Happy Life” or “Living in the Moment”, the present is a reality that no one dares to touch.
Although Chinese contemporary art’s tendency was once directed towards “daily life”, in the late 1990s and early 2000, “daily life” as a general trend was discussed and spread. This form of daily life did not spring up from China’s own time and aesthetic logic, it was still rooted with European and American intellectuals’ and artists’ reflections about art’s excessive radicalisation, this was indicated in the Sensation exhibition from the late 1990s in Britain. It is especially close to the works of many artists that practised relational aesthetics, however, these European and American artists did not intend to turn their creations and working methods towards “daily life”. Was there even such a “daily life” in China?
“Two art styles have emerged in China since the early 1990s. One is supported by a new generation of artists who, opposed to idealism, instead paint the trivialities of ordinary life or their actual living condition on canvas.”
—— “Humorous Art - Yang Zhenzhong’s Artistic Work”, Zhang Qing, 2003
Like many other trends, examples of“daily life” in Shanghai can also be found in the Art for Sale ( 1999) exhibition, when artistic creation encounters a consumer environment, the works brought into it by the artist will also be consumed and bought in this consumer site. If the Yang Zhenzhong of back then were still a representative of the “daily life” art category, his focus would be on matters in real life, then it would be very hard to understand the realities of “uncertain” or “perpetual” time, that many of his works point to.
Sometimes, there also exists a form of harmonious reason between uncertain time and perpetual time, like Spring Story, it was not fully directed at a specific time, the reminiscences of the past are only made through the means of simple and violent images, through the technique of intercepting and detaching informations and pictures, a directional relationship of collective reminiscence was achieved. Here the collective reading can also be seen as a reference to perpetual time, the faces in the video and the assembly line borrowed from reality engender a state that is severely detached from the content of their recital in terms of time and spirit. This premeditated return in time also shows clear signs of classical art, if we imagine this situation to appear in a picture (painting or photography),perhaps the reference to a form of contemporary discomfort would be even more definite. However, the aspect of time that comes with this kind of discomfort still has its uncertainty and ambiguity from today’s point of view, but in the future this might exactly become a classic portrayal of China’s transition period, thus creating characteristics that go beyond reality and eternity.
But why is it not possible to describe today directly? Why do artists avoid the present, the now? Constantly looking back and pulling away from the present,this may be Yang Zhenzhong’s working method, or his way of thinking about life.Of course, this still points to his working media’s characteristic: video. If video is not a document of reality and the world, then it starts to function as a form of subjective expression or perspective and generates its own time axis, through which it denotes different spaces or spatial confusion and displacement.
The “present” is transient, when it is impossible to determine whether the present is this precise moment or today, then it turns into a time context that the artist can sidestep; uncovering the past or even more distant history, finding proof for today’s misguidance by means of archaeology, all that are symptoms of fear and distrust towards the present and result in a presumed change in time that conforms with contextual logic. As I have described in the first chapter, does a narrative of time and locality exist that complies with logic? If all that does not lead to a better understanding of the relation between the present, the past and the future – of course, this relation often seems very subjective and one-dimensional and at times a bit unreliable. Does I Will Die provide all answers concerning the future, the present and the past in this precise moment? Then, the present does only point to this goal’s course of action, a form of trail that leads to the ultimate direction, and also the air of Yang’s works that go beyond the “now”. No matter how strong the speaker’s sense of time is, how healthy his spirit is, or how close his background is to the “now” at scene – eventually at some point in the future,the curtain will fall, is this also a transcendence of human nature? Is this an attempt to bring Zen into the video’s uncertain time?
Why is it not possible to talk about the present? Except for the early intellectuals who were under pressure of reality, the predicament of knowledge dissemination transformed at the artist’s body to a posture and a way of looking at things embodied in the areists themselves, who are inside, as well as outside where they are.
I hope what I have written can enhance the understanding of some aspects of Yang Zhenzhong’s work, but also help to become aware of the world that surrounds us, after all, an artist’s work is limited, experience can not be misappropriated,everyone should and must have his own view of life and the world. Yang Zhenzhong has, very often, aspirations that lean towards politics or show traces of some form of political concern, his way of expression frequently reminds people of the period of disappointment towards China’s given situation, or the era that seemed to be full of imprisonment and information leakage, however, it is still uncertain if he is addressing the present or the remaining issues of that era — and it is still unclear.
I would like to thank Yang Zhenzhong and Zhang Peili for their trust in me.