Memory of Scented Strikes and Bitterness
Scent is at the heart of this exhibition, in which Yuan Gong’s recent works about the smells and forms of gases, and his latest works reflecting on memories of his personal growth, are both presented. Smell has the capability to activate people’s bodily responses, to evoke emotions, memories, and to give birth to flights of imagination. These comprehensive reactions are related to humans’ natural bodily responses, as well as life experiences and knowledge structures. Smell is fluid, its penetration of the body and spatial ubiquity is irresistible. The incorporation of smell in artworks is usually subversive, breaking taboos and expanding knowledge horizons. Since the 20th century, many artists have used the power of smell to extend their artistic concepts, to generate sensible, experiential spaces, and eventually to intervene in social and cultural issues.
Between 10 February and 17 May 2015, the major exhibition Belle Haleine went on show at Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland. The exhibition focused on the potential of olfactory sensations in aesthetic experiences, exploring the boundaries of conventional artistic experiences normally presented by museums, which assume that audiences’ visual experience is superior. Belle Haleine posed such questions as: What will the smell of art be? What will happen if our noses take the leading role in our artistic experiences?
Belle Haleine showcased various artworks by many internationally famous artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Piero Manzoni, Dieter Roth, Jean Tinguely, Bill Viola, Meg Webster. Chinese artist Yuan Gong’s pieces Air Strikes around the world and Air Strikes around the world – Shanghai, were also included in the exhibition.
These two pieces are extensions and transformations of Yuan Gong’s Transparent Scene Series (2011) and Stroll (2013). Transparent Scene Series was conducted when Yuan Gong participated in the 54th Venice Biennale, while Stroll was a series of performances during which he diffused mists at the 13th Documenta. Air Strikes around the world and Air Strikes around the world – Shanghai were performed in Shanghai’s Rockbund, Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, and the Venice Biennale themed pavilions, in which remote-controlled helicopters were used to send out harmless, yellow- and white-coloured clouds of scent. In Yuan Gong’s ‘scent strikes’, the artistic mediums are gases and scents, through which the artist expresses his feelings towards the current situation in China, and the world, as well as the relationships between artistic creations and the art system, between media and technological developments. Once described as ‘ruined in the post-Marxist age, with a mixed knowledge and academic background’, Yuan Gong uses temporary mediums, such as the air, to create – sometimes provocative – actions, in which his energies and desires are stimulated, upturned, and even vanished, in a process of ‘losing control’.
Yuan Gong’s recent installations, from Sweet Bitterness, Forest of Steles, to Fragrance will endure, are all produced on a grand scale, and rich in detail. The installations offer a flavour of childhood memories, not only Yuan Gong’s, but of many other Chinese people. Via a process of recreating and rethinking these childhood experiences, the artworks attend to the social and cultural system which embedded ‘Chineseness’ in people as they were growing up during a unique historical period, both its natural and operation levels, as well as subtle physical and psychological reactions of individuals.
Sweet Bitterness is composed of nearly 1,000 biscuit tins made in the 1970s and 1980s. In that era of material impoverishment and high spirits, biscuits were considered ‘high-end’ goods. Images printed on biscuits not only straightforwardly conveyed a sense of the ‘sweet life’ defined by the dominating ideological system, but they also catered to the deep, inner needs of the public. Back then, the images comforted many people with a sense of warmth. In Sweet Bitterness, these biscuit tins are compressed by an auto-controlled system and resonate with each other: warm, sweet images are transformed into sounds, imitating the rhythms of Chinese ‘model operas’(Yangbanxi).
In Yuan Gong’s work, Forest of Steles, the domestic space and daily consumable goods typical of the era are re-composed and transformed into a cultural labyrinth. Back then, most Chinese families used palm fibre mattresses, with many people’s youth passed quietly in narrow, cramped living spaces with only austere furniture and appliances, and a one-dimensional culture. Forest of Steles uses hundreds of brown beds to construct a complex labyrinth, filled with cheap smells from that period of history, and curtains intersecting the labyrinth made of used bed sheets. At some end points in the labyrinth, old televisions are installed, displaying popular images of the closed society of the times. Images from various television shows, which countless people used to be intoxicated and subdued by, are re-categorised and re-edited by Yuan Gong, abstract ideologies and straightforward aesthetics becoming amplified and crystal clear.
A feeling of happiness can arise from the act of comparison. For each individual who experienced that era, a myriad thoughts may arise in the currents of history, and new feelings emerge as he or she looks back as time passes and circumstances change. In his work, Fragrance will endure, Yuan Gong delivers experiences brought by complex, intersecting layers of time and space, and mixed dimensions of feelings. Fragrance will endure is composed of hundreds of used stools and used inner containers of thermos bottles. In the containers, various natural fragrances diffuse in silence. The stools are arranged in a peaceful, structural order, echoing how people gathered to watch films or television shows back then. Humans are cultural animals, sensing hypnosis from collectivism, paralysis from highly unified minds, balance from material egalitarianism – these are transformed and accreted into the mindset of several generations, lingering, and rippling through several decades.
These installations — Sweet Bitterness, Forest of Steles, Fragrance will endure, and Good Taste (which is the installation played by televisions in Forest of Steles. The images are kissing scenes edited and montaged from movies in the 1970s and 80s) construct a strong sense of “era theatre” in the exhibition halls. The opening performance, a modern dance presented by zag Group under the co-direction of Yuan Gong and Li Qianpeng, adapts the first scene “Family Portrait” of Hamletmachine by German playwright Heiner Müller. It is Yuan Gong’s new experiment on “museum theatre,” which emphasizes the theatricality and performative nature presented throughout the exhibition. Hamletmachine, written in 1977, is regarded as a classic text from the period of modernism passing to post-modernism. During the East German period, although Heiner Müller believed in communism, he still maintained a doubtable attitude towards the realization of communism in East Germany, eastern Europe, and even the Soviet Union. Communism in Heiner Müller’s mind was the same as the hometown in the story, filled with doubting expectation. Hamletmachine as a script is widely discussed. Though only 3000 words, the text expresses a great number of ideas and each sentence has special depth and concealed meaning. “Family Portrait” epitomizes the collapse of traditional social structures in the modern world. It and this exhibition’s installation Forest of Steles differ in expressive manner but morally echo each other from a distance.
China has endured rapid and drastic changes in the past few decades. As individuals examine and reflect on the past, and review and consciously discover the ‘now’, a clearer understanding of their living situation will emerge. Only down-to-earth actions can open up spaces for new possibilities. Bitterness is the ineffaceable backdrop of Yuan Gong’s life. It is also the starting point for his ‘scented strikes’.