At Para Site now is the exhibition That Has Been, And Maybe Again, showing the works by Chinese artists made since the 1990s. Curated by Leo Li Chen and Wu Mo it includes the works of 15 artists – Chen Qiulin, Hu Jieming, Jiang Zhi, Leung Chi Wo, Li Jin, Li Jinhu, Liu Chuang, Liu Ding, Ma Liuming, Qian Weikang, Wang Youshen, Yan Lei, Yin Xiuzhen, Zheng Bo and Zhu Jia. The exhibition is said to be an attempt to focus on ‘the collective anxiety and unease in China of the 1990s, following the failure of the student movement in 1989’. Unlike the M+ Sigg Collection Exhibition shown at ArtisTree two months ago, this exhibition does not make its point by hitch-hiking on Chinese art stardom or cashing in on the familiar pomposity surrounding contemporary Chinese art. Considering the variety of works and the historical narrative these works are trusted to support, this exhibition is ambitious. It is no easy task.
The works are curated as to cover such vast topics including desire, individual will, life of the working class, and the impact of Western thoughts and lifestyles and so on. In contrast to the historical narrative of contemporary Chinese art of the 90s that builds around such ideas as ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’, this show does not find recourse to these much repeated ideas. It attempts to illustrate the conflict between the collectivism that has dominated China as political and social imperatives, and the individualism emerged in the 1980s that has strived for imaginations autonomous from the grip of collectivism.
At the centre of the space, set on a round red carpet is Hu Jieming’s installation ‘Related to Happiness’ (1999). The work composes of a grand piano and a television posited on a stool facing the piano keyboard, the screen plays the video of a man masturbating. The heartbeat of the masturbating man is translated into musical notation shown on another screen while the piano is programmed to play them automatically. As a work that speaks of the repression of individual desire, it is blunt. It rests on the protestation that systematisation fails to translate and shuts out the emotion of the individuals. As the piano keys sink down ghostly by themselves between the two sides of the middle-C, it makes music that sounds pointless but it does give an impression of unfulfilled happiness. After all, it conceives no musical harmony and climax is ever deferred in the video. It is a piece that presents itself as a straight-faced metaphor of individual desire trapped behind and distorted by systematised representation. Is the work a social or political comment of its time? The metaphor, though opens itself, is not specific to such rendition.
Another piece that gives expression to the plight of individualism is Jiang Zhi’s ‘Fly, Fly’ (1997). In this black and white video, a hand mimicking the flapping wing of a bird is filmed ‘flying’ inside a small and cramped flat, with what sounds to be 50s Hollywood romantic film music played in the background. As the camera follows the ‘flapping wing’, it takes the viewers through this space that confines its inhibitor. At one point the hand appears in front of a traditional Chinese landscape painting, and as the music plays on, it looks as if ‘the bird’ is about to fly into the landscape and set itself free. It is funny and clever. As the ‘flapping wing’ looks ever more to enjoy its graceful cruise, the room looks only suffocating, the things and personal belongings in it insignificant. It is mockingly bitter. By pitting enjoyment against contempt, by confusing the two, it makes a clever and ironic statement about the desire for freedom.
If the above two pieces look more abstract because they do not clearly signify the oppressive forces, Liu Chuang’s Love Story No.8 (2006-2014) and Zhu Jia’s Binding (1996) do so clearly. Occupying a room of its own, Love Story No.8 is an installation that composes of piles and piles of cheap romance and erotic novels published in Hong Kong and Taiwan, popular among workers in Dongguan, an important industrial city. Notes by the readers are jotted down on the pages, and these books are neatly arranged at the centre of the room with these handwritten pages juxtapose next to the kitschy book covers starring idealistic portraits of young men and women in an excess of candy pink and pastoral green. On the wall surrounding them are enlarged replicas of these handwriting. These fragmented texts overlap with each other, revealing the romantic fantasy about, either the story characters or the real people encountered by the readers themselves or just any imaginary lovers in their heads, of which we cannot judge, yet the repressed desire let out by these novels is real. It is as though the artist, in collecting, unmasking and displaying these notes, has taken specimen out of a field he encountered. Using the words of others and, most of all have, them reduced to the same level of significance, he has attempted not to mock them, but speak for them.
Zhu Jia’s Binding is a short film of barely 7 seconds long set on loop, showing two workers in front of a magazine binding machines, all they do in this short frame of time is to pick up an unbinded magazine, put it on the exact place of the machine, bind it. The action is shown repeated, not by the workers themselves, but by the repetition of the film itself. It is clever as the specificity of the medium is infused and ironically replacing the actual action of the workers, expressing the condition of mechanical works that condemns the individual to such redundant boredom.
It would be easy to speak about other works by associating them with topics of social issues – Ma Liuming’s pictures of himself in 1993 with the visiting Gilbert and George can be associated with the politics of transgender identity, Wang Youshen’s picture of himself dressed in a suit made with newspaper, reading a newspaper, on a bed covered with newspaper, can be associated with the penetrating forces of the media that work on the private life of an individual, Liu Ding’s videos in ten television screens showing the broken texts about different artistic ‘-isms’ can represent the impact and confusion felt by contemporary Chinese artists under the influx of and demands created by western philosophy, etcetera, etcetera, each work specific to different socio-political issues. But this would risk overshadowing the logic lies within each individual artistic creation, i.e., the awkwardness, internal contradictions, difficulty, complications and failure within and visibly within the works that are the gold expressions of individualism. Such categorisation by issues can threaten and dilute the richness of the works.
The show feels fragmented by the many directions it points at. The works are curated as to stand for responses to different issues but this viewpoint sacrifices the internal structures of the individual works and their relationship with each other. And perhaps in standing for, they also risk standing behind. Some of the works here such as those by Hu Jieming, Jiang Zhi, Zhu Jia and Ma Liuming as mentioned above, have the quality to transcend the categorisation condescended on them. They reveal thoughts ambiguous enough not to be exhausted by the collective pressure of responding to particular socio-political issues. Seeing art as collective challenges against collectivism, Chinese art can look like it is made in pressure pots, a bit too rapid to its cause. Perhaps the difficult task of art striving for individualism is to be autonomous from this self-contradictory pressure made easy for collective imagination. But all in all, this is an exhibition that strives to succeed by showing the variety of works in an era, in that it is successfully done and it has presented an ambitious attempt to steer away from the clamour of Chinese art today.
討論作品：世變 - That Has Been, And Maybe Again