Slogans and Ritual Sites -Interpreting the installation Red Curtain 512
Yuan Gong has presented a number of his artworks after numerous research trips to the disaster-affected areas since the 512 Wenchuan Earthquake. Moreover, in this series of artworks, Yuan primarily appropriated ready-made objects found in the affected areas to represent his artistic concept and concerns for humanity. From an art historical perspective, it is quite obvious that Yuan’s work has been influenced by Western masters such as, Duchamp, Beuys and Warhol. His uniqueness however, is his inception with Chinese reality and personal experience, appropriating unique elements of unique cultural context into specific artistic symbols, as a result, not only his artworks are sealed with deep Chinese marks, allowing critical political element to echo in the artworks, meanwhile expressing the artist’s interpretation of history and reality. Yuan Gong had clearly stated his point of view in a conversation with Lao Yu1, with this series of artworks, it is apparent that Yuan’s choice of using ready-made objects, rather than other artistic mediums is intended to be trendy or catch other’s attention. On the contrary, it is an approach primarily to break through the setbacks in form and content with traditional artistic forms and expanding into newer dimension for expression. The American critic Danto once believed that there are two necessary conditions for an object to become an artwork, first it should be subjected to a certain object; and secondly, it should express its significance. Yuan Gong’s artworks meet these two precepts2. For instance, the artwork Red Curtain 512 conjures common phenomena from the disaster struck regions with historical phenomena in order to effect meanings for contemplation. The former Soviet artist Kabakov has stated, “It is not the artistic tradition that will give birth to new thoughts, but everyday life.” I believe Yuan Gong agrees with this statement, because his inspirations are taken from everyday reality, rather than traditions3.
Just as what we have seen, the installation, Red Curtain 512 collects various slogans gathered from disaster areas and presented in the traditional Daoist Rituals sites, where the slogans are presented in yellow characters written over red fabrics. On the one hand, the artwork shows its close relationship with reality and history, which evokes the viewers’ memories. On the other hand, it also has the artistic effect of estrangement that allows the audience to reflect on reality and history while maintaining a critical distance with reality. In recent history, slogans have always been the most effective approach exercised by the party and the government to mobilize the masses, from the “Three and five antis” to the North Korean War, from the Great Leap Forward to the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. Particularly, it begins with definite political goal from the top down, in mobilizing tens of thousands of people to post these slogans in order to emerge the entire society under a particular atmosphere. Consequentially, the dominating atmosphere created with ubiquitous slogans engulfs everyone living in the mist of it, and there was no escape for anyone. This condition reached its height during the Cultural Revolution. Artist Wu Shanzhuan’s work, the second chapter in the long novel, Red Character, several natural phases, has transformed into an installation work by using slogans from the Cultural Revolution in order to express a “red humor”, that has been considered as a Dadaist Chinese pop.
Perhaps effects recedes once it’s reached an extreme. Since the economic reforms, although political slogans are still seen in state enterprises in the cities and the countryside, its effects are no longer comparable to what they once were. To a large extent, they have become a display of symbols formalistically speaking. Perhaps it was due to the disinterest in politics in a consumer society. In comparison, the largely distributed slogans for disaster relief changed this situation. Without disregarding its natural decorative and elements of display, it has empowered people’s spirits with communication difficulties experience in the disaster areas at the time. Those who have lived through that experience can certainly sympathize. The reason behind it was, the official stance overlap with those of the people. Of course, there are slight differences between them. From the official perspective, the slogans intend to emphasize on sympathy, concern and relief information in order to highlight the party and the government’s role of the savior. Therefore, Yuan Gong’s approach to adopt the format of Daoist ritual sites to show slogans from the disaster regions as appropriation of traditional religious rituals as analogies of contemporary politics. For the masses, on the instinct of survival, they get a sense of hope and compassion among themselves and towards those who came to help, as well as their gratitude. Therefore, the same slogan can evoke different interpretations.
In the essay Post-Socialism and Mao Zedong Era4, I have pointed out that, the Chinese socialist tradition should be cultural resources that contemporary Chinese artists draw effectively from, because they are references we must consider in our reflection on history and reality, as well as a way of distancing from the west in order to present the characteristics of Chinese contemporary art. I believe, Yuan Gong’s artworks have proven to us with these characteristics, thus we should consider them seriously. I completely agree with some scholar’s point of view, that Chinese reality is closely related to history. In other words, all histories were realities, and all reality will be historical. Thus, how can we further interpret history and reality are still questions that contemporary Chinese artists need to resolve. The former Soviet artist Kabakov has revealed a series of social realities from the former Soviet Union era through his series of installation works, as well as his concern and thoughts on the condition of human existence that caught the attention of the international art world. I wish Yuan Gong would learn from Kabakov’s experience to achieve a higher level in his artistic creations.
Moreover, I also wish other contemporary Chinese artists would make efforts in this regard.
Written on May 22, 2010, on a flight from Yantai to Shenzhen.
1. Chinese Sites Transformed by Artists, published in Unfolding Events – Documenting Yuan Gong’s Field Research, Zhangguo Renwen Yishu Publications, April, 2010
2. After the End of Art, Iss. 1, 2007, p. 2, Jiangsu Renmin Publications
3. On the Condition of Human Existence, published in World Art, No.2, 2009
4. Post-Socialism and Mao Zedong Era was first published in May 2008, at the Sino-German Cultural Summit, later was published in Huakan, No. 8, 2008 with the title Appropriation and Reflection. The text was also published on the Chinese Artists Criticism website.