Event – Desire and Journey of Star
– Yuan Gong’s Systematic Practice and Mass Culture

By Lu Mingjun

Yuan Gong is always an extremely controversial art practitioner. He is used to getting involved in all scenes rashly in a way of “trying to please the public with claptrap” and disturbing the original order. He keeps throwing himself into the harsh public opinions and enjoys all mixed voices of being recognized, praised, queried, criticized etc. He always puts on emphasis on losing control, losing control and losing control again. But all these “losing-controls” are submitted to his specific aims and strategies, so after every losing-control, he can always return to his original position safely. Like most artists, Yuan Gong once also tried to enter the mainstream system by participating in all kind of exhibitions. However, currently, he still struggles inside and outside the system and sometimes, the system itself can even become an object for him to challenge.

Yuan Gong thinks that his artistic practice is close to Andy Warhol and the method, strategy and goal have constituted the primary focus of his work. Therefore, if you want to understand Yuan Gong’s art, you cannot only focus on the “works” themselves, because there is actually a more important system behind each piece of “works”. This system includes the following three basic elements: knowledge – politics – capital. According to Yuan Gong’s method, it means: history and field suvey – event and performance – consumption and production. So when analyzing a specific artwork of Yuan Gong, one must conduct the examination and judgment from the perspective of his overall system.

Yuan Gong is not senior regarding artistic qualifications and so far, he has not completed too many works, but in fact, he has entered the art circles for a long time. I prefer to count from the time when he began to host and operate Yuan Gong Gallery, because during that period, although he didn’t have any works, he got involved in the organization and planning of some exhibitions. It is precisely such experience that lays the foundation for his systematical thinking and practice.

Specifically, the artwork of Sounding off 512 with Dong Feng in 2008 constitutes his first appearance as an artist. The main part of this artwork is a governmental “Dong Feng” truck damaged in the May 12th earthquake, with many audio systems installed, playing all kind of sounds collected from the disaster area. In form, it seems like the embezzling of a ready-made article, but the narration behind the object suggests a social intervention. In fact, Yuan Gong follows the old tradition of symbolization and for example, the “Dong Feng” brand naturally points to the politics, society and ideology. Added to the super-landscape scene feeling, producing this work is more like building up a “monument”. According to Yuan Gong’s explanation, it really has the “memorial” meaning. Of course, if it was just limited to this point, it would seem too simple and pale, but the question on which Yuan Gong focuses in his practice is the production process of artworks rather than the above point, and namely, it lies in the independent social survey on the 512 disaster area. Therefore, artworks such as Sounding off 512 with Dong Feng, Red Curtains 512, Money Tree, Souls Placed on the Altar and so on, are only a part or a “derivative” of this survey, while the survey itself is the focus of his practice and his real work.

The “Transparent Scene Series”, planned and organized by Yuan Gong in Tibet in 2007, should be the earliest attempt of the setting up of this methodology. In most cases, we are apt to put this kind of social intervention and field survey down to the “Social Sculpture” of Beuys. There is nothing to be said against it and a bit of the style of Beuys can really be seen in Yuan Gong’s practice. However, in my opinion, this approach mostly concerns art and knowledge. People who are familiar with Yuan Gong all know that during his artistic practice process, knowledge is a key factor. One could say that it is the visit-study at the Department of Archaeology of Peking University and the systematical study at the Chinese National Academy of Arts that enlightened his method of choosing the field survey and formed his discourse logical and responding to a strategic mechanism. Here, I would rather say that this kind of deep field-type participation and archaeology-type intervention themselves are the cores of his overall practice more than that the investigated objects constitute the narrative background and motive power of the works. He has canceled the boundary between art and knowledge, and converted knowledge to a perceptual practice of political discourse or to an event of knowledge. Here, I need to point out clearly that the event, which is repeatedly stressed by Yuan Gong, is neither time, place and figure nor a simple recombination of them. Instead of that, it is a dynamic intervention and cognitive mechanism, which aims to break the order among intrinsic things, rather than building a new narration. We can even say that his exaggerating dress-up, words and deeds also participate to the event, because in most occasions, it is just his unexpected participation and “invasion” that lead to the break and the disorder of given relations and structures.

In 2011, his work Scented Air 6000 m3 in the Chinese Pavilion of the Venice Biennale extended his consistent idea. Based on the theme of “Pervasion”, Yuan Gong selected the fog – or mist- as the medium. The fog, diffusing both inside and outside the exhibition hall, not only “invaded” the space and other works but also wildly “invaded” other nearby exhibition sites and especially the audiences and everything around in an even more wildly way. The final scene was beyond Yuan Gong’s expectations, but this way of “losing-control” was just what he expected. The “pervasion” and “invasion” of the fog and fragrance challenged not only the exhibition order but also the audiences’ sensoria. Therefore, he seemed to have selected a medium evoking the traditional culture in accordance with the exhibition theme, but in fact, such symbols and metaphors disappeared during the implementation process of works and, in the same way as his use of objects as media, it opened a new narration relevance and discourse dimension.

Later, the fog was shaped by Yuan Gong as his “symbol” and shown in many invited exhibitions. Besides, he disturbed the public order at the Kassel dOCUMENTA 13, the Art Basel Art Fair, in the Berlin Reichstag, in the Milan Railway Station and other sites using active “invasion”, attracting the interference of police and media, arousing the public opinions and raising events. In contrast, the Air Strikes Around the World performed this year was wilder and more like a landscape. During the 55th Venice Biennale, Yuan Gong used model airplanes to release fog on the St Mark’s square and on the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai synchronously. Obviously, observing and challenging the exhibition order is no longer the purpose for him, but his real goal lies in the political intervention. According to him, “Today, humans regard themselves as the creators of the civilization, but they cannot eradicate their barbaric nature, as reflected in the rogue states’ threat to the world, the territory dispute in East Asia, the terrorist attack in the Middle East and so on. All these things are sufficient to indicate that this world is violent and extremely unstable.” This is a footnote for his behavior, but in fact, the effect on public opinion has removed these implications.

As for Yuan Gong at this moment, the medium no longer matters, and devices, paintings, behaviors, videos and other discourse forms are all media for him to try. The exhibition, institution and interference of criticism are no longer problems neither, since we can say they all have been included in his practice system. Therefore, he once invited an art critic who queried him a lot to go on, and in fact, he used of the criticism as a medium to magnify his effect, so it is also a reflection and expansion of his event-style thinking.

“Making force from a borrowed force” (or “Using the opponent force against him”) is a “trick” frequently used by Yuan Gong. This summer, his former residence suffered from a forced demolition, which became a cause for his artistic practice again. His new works including Weapon, Out of Control and Sparks of Fire all results from this event. They are all based on the basic materials of the demolished scene. He has built a political narration and social medium intrinsic to this social event by means of device, image, video and other medium as well as the aesthetics. I would like to borrow a saying of Alain Badiou that there is no basis for these events originally: their happening has no reason and they would not appear in any other situations, because they belong to a category of “non-existence as an existence”. Alain Badiou takes such a way to handle the absolute contingency of events, which means the so-called event is a new interference and cognitive approach, rather than a real happening. Therefore, the forced demolition itself cannot constitute an event, while Yuan Gong’s interference is the real event.

However, in form, almost all events of Yuan Gong are more like performances behind which there is a potential self-awareness and support of the identity as an artist. Therefore, all his “losing-controls” can be controlled, absolved and completed successfully in the name of art or of the identity of the artist. It is also the meaning of his so-called “Mechanism (control implementation)”. Here, “implementation” is not only a purposeful launch but also a strategy of operation. What is more, the strategic feature has run through all his practices and,at this level, the politics, capital and knowledge are isomorphic.

No matter performance or politics, Yuan Gong regards both of them as a kind of capital. The series of artworks such as Duke of Zhou Soil Collection Plan, Contemporary Era and Art History seem more like “products” and “consumer goods” superficially, but Yuan Gong still puts them to the dimension of event for understanding and practice. In 2009, Yuan Gong bought 100m3 of soil excavated at the archaeological site of the Duke of Zhou Temple and transported it back to his studio located in Shanghai (Bejing?). Such a behavior firstly constituted an event. Then, he created artworks by packing the soil with crystal boxes elaborately based on 1g and 5g as the units. From this method, it was obvious that the Duke of Zhou Soil Collection Plan came from his experience gained from the visit-study related to archaeology in Peking University, but he quickly transformed it into a volume-production mode in the artistic system. It looked as if he had used a contemporary narration with the traditional culture, but actually his final operation was away from this traditional implication, and instead, he reached the level of mass culture, so as to build a recessive clue among “knowledge – capital – art”.

In Contemporary Era and Art History, he took as a draft the classic images and shapes from ancient Chinese art history, and copied them to a stainless steel plate by printmaking and polishing with machines. During this process, he highlighted the overlaying and dislocation of images and in most works, the second (or third…) layer of image escaped the draft, revealing a kind of contingency, uncertainty or sense of losing-control which might exist in the block printing technique. It is worth mentioning that he painted the stainless steel plate as the “canvas” or “frame” with red color in a way of lacquer painting, and in the presentation of images, he adopted viridis in Chinese ancient paintings. These two colors formed an extremely great tension, and it was precisely this kind of “vulgar” and “superficial” red and green colors that stripped the knowledge (art history) itself, as well as the historical sense and elite taste possibly included in the works, in order to get close to the Pop Art style. Certainly, when he selected the stainless steel as the material, he also took this point into consideration. As far as I can see, such a strategy is not just determined by the knowledge reflection, and there is a more important factor, namely the decisive effect of capital.

So far, Yuan Gong’s practice has not entered the gallery system. In recent years, except for several art museums and non-profit organizations, Yuan Gong liked to cooperate with the local private capital (i.e. “8G” system of Shen Qibin). After all, he once worked for many years in the business field, so he was familiar with the funding of space and the gap to be entered. For example, today, the local private capital is always closely related to the traditional culture. To be frank, those bosses with private capitals are more interested in the traditional culture. Just because of this, Yuan Gong chooses the images in the ancient paintings and the colors of red and green as the basic elements of his works. In the final analysis, they are all determined by the strategy.

However, Yuan Gong does not deny his desire and wild ambition, and he admits that he is a “rascal” – more exactly, “rascal of culture”. He once said he would hold 5 solo exhibitions every year to make his works accepted by thousands of families, with a total number surpassing Warhol and then he would enter the art history… Undoubtedly, whether it can be realized is not important, because this statement itself is also a strategy, and even the failure may work the best. In his view, all this is a part of his whole system and can be regarded as an event, because his ultimate aim is to disturb and confuse the current rigid capital system and academic order. Perhaps, we may think Yuan Gong’s practice is too simple and rude or too void and superficial but in this era, which has been besieged by the knowledge and rationality for a long time, we have to admit that it has released another kind of force and heterogeneous experience indeed.

If seen from this point of view, on one hand, Yuan Gong complies to an elite-style approach, and for example, the “event” itself restated by him again and again is also an extremely elite-style logic; on the other hand, he keeps trying all kinds of popular approaches, and his ultimate goal is to shape himself as a “popular star”. Just on this level, he is much closer to the nature of Warhol beyond doubt. For example, both of his event-type thinking and practicing methods contain the component of performance. Besides, the aim of performance is also to expand his social effect, so the event has naturally become a method in his journey of popular star. What’s more, his so-called industrialization pattern and popular logic have also embodied his vision of becoming a star.

It also indicates that Yuan Gong’s practice is still in a stage of struggling or probing between the elite type and popular type at present at least, or we can say he is still on the way. Obviously, Yuan Gong is still not willing to abandon his elite identity or miss the opportunity of becoming academic and participating in all kind of biennales and documentas. In fact, it reminds us that even the willingness to become a “popular star” is for the purpose of winning more academic recognitions, but time has changed and the context is also different. Today, any elite-type route of trying to win the academic recognition by the method of participating in Kassel dOCUMENTA or Venice Biennale is no longer effective. On the contrary, the pure popular route is still a blind spot in China. In fact, the overturning significance of Warhol and Lichtenstein also lies here. Different from the west, it can be said that so far, the contemporary art has not produced any effect on Chinese mass level and is still limited to the closed elite circles.

But in the future, the change and diversion may happen gradually in a few yeas. As for Yuan Gong, I think it is an opportunity. Both of his strategic awareness and existing experience have contributed to a possibility in fact. Therefore, I think it may be more effective if abandoning such an elite identity and such an academic route temporarily and choosing a creative industry or entrepreneurial role to get involved in the public, which is actually the most academic academy. So it is better to remove the ideological words behind these performances and admit – or directly regard – them as an individual hype rather than to win the academic recognition in the name of event, so as to shape yourself as a “popular star” in a mass way throughly. I believe that, in the future, when Yuan Gong’s art really enters thousands of families, it definitely constitutes an “event” in a pure sense without any color of performance. At that time, it would mean not only a breakage of art history but also a new cultural possibility, which will further affect the daily lifestyle of more ordinary people. If possible, I think its significance is greater than the empty event-making and its simple political attitude.