When ‘Social Art’ Meets Culture
—a reflection on the notion of the ‘future’ in Yuan Gong’s recent works
The concept of ‘social art’ originates in Joseph Beuys’ Social Sculpture. Beuys believed that no one is truly free in a society in which people are interdependent, whilst only art is capable of opening up possibilities for life. The state of freedom of mind is the origin of art, the mind itself is the sculpture. The Social Sculpture that Beuys was referring to concerned how to form and sculpt the world we live in, a question that art must address. In the past few years, artist Yuan Gong has proven that contemporary art should not be limited in its cultural critique and that, even more significantly, that art has the capacity to transform and sculpt the world we live in. In this way, we have reason to consider Yuan Gong’s art as ‘social art’.
In November 2013, Yuan Gong’s exhibition Losing Control opened at the Guangdong Art Museum, in which his recent video works and installations were displayed. If we follow the thread of his artistic route over the past 3 or 4 years, we move from the exhibited works, Mechanism Series – Spider, Mechanism Studio, Auspicious Clouds Series, Mist Cube, to pieces exhibited around the time of the 2011 Venice Biennale, Contemporary and the History of Art series, Air Strikes around The world, and 2014 pieces, such as Memory-Grateful to Prostitutes, Passing by…, Losing Control – Armory, and Between Mindsets, then onto his piece Turmoil which has a touch of performance, we can notice a transformation worth contemplating in what the artist is mostly excited about, and pays most attention to. He is more interested in reflecting on the notion of the ‘future’ as opposed to looking back to the ‘past’. The focus of his attention, meanwhile, transitions from ‘society’ to ‘culture’, and so his standpoint turns from ‘individual’ to ‘public’. What is worth noticing is the ever stronger presence of the ‘industrial’ that has emerged in his works, reflecting the artist’s contemplation of current contradictions and conflicts between social realities and culture, aiming to offer a new space constructed by the ‘mind’.
Yuan Gong’s recent works have pointed to a most significant question: when ‘social art’ meets ‘culture’, what should art do? This question is based on two thoughts about the situation of contemporary art: the first is the aspect of ‘criticality’ in art, which has been reinforced many times; the second is the aspect of ‘sociality’ in art.
Ever since the ‘85 Art Thoughts Trend’, the ‘critical’ nature of contemporary art in China has been emphasised, from attack to denial, from deconstruction to reconstruction, eventually leading to a soaring spirit of criticism. In a way, the cultural radicalism formed here sometimes leads to ‘criticism for the sake of critiquing’, while detached from the base of deep thinking. However, the purpose of criticism is to seek for a method to form and create the world we live in.
When looking at Yuan Gong’s recent work from this viewpoint, these lines from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (c.1851) come to mind:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The poet confides his deep concern and fear of the rapid changes in people’s thinking, living customs and interpersonal relationships, brought about by the developments in science and revolutions in industries, as well as the gradually decomposing social order, and thousands of years of religious belief that seemed on the verge of falling apart.
From my point of view, Yuan Gong’s artworks are more about ‘statement’ than ‘critique’. ‘Object’ is only the catalyst of his artistic transformation, while ‘statement’ is at his core. His statements, in a way, echo Matthew Arnold. As an example, in the Mechanism exhibition at the Guangdong Art Museum in 2013, by conducting artistic experiments and applying a diversity of mediums, Yuan Gong set out to narrate the status of ‘losing control’ and ‘controlling’ existing at the intersection of ‘science’ and ‘art’, ‘self’ and ‘field’, ‘media’ and ‘language’. The industrial temperament embodied in his works, in terms of both the usage and orientation of materials, is a vivid representation of how the global landscape has been ever since the beginning of the 20th century. The industrial development labelled ‘high technology’ will somehow lead to a status of ‘losing control’, not only in society, but also art and culture.
This is Yuan Gong’s deep concern, as well as his reflection and caution regarding the current development of our society. His ‘Losing Control’ series, as a set of event-oriented pieces, sufficiently conveys Yuan Gong’s spirited call for artistic intervention within society, as well as his concerns and thoughts about our state of living.
Some of the materials Yuan Gong has used in recent works include cardboard boxes, architectural scaffolds, medicinal and pharmaceutical substances, synthetic videos, ultrasonic audio control systems, as well as electronic materials. Ranging from everyday objects to technological or digital materials, they are all post-industrial revolution products that have become ubiquitous throughout society in the 20th century. They will also evolve into even more common phenomena of our daily lives in the future. Thus, the depiction of ‘sociality’ in Yuan Gong’s works is very straightforward. Objects are microcosms of something broader; his thoughts on the flows of industrial, social and cultural contexts are manifested within them. In his works, objects are catalysts of artistic transformation, linking ideas with expressive languages. Thoughts on sociality and the future of society are fundamental to Yuan Gong’s recent works.
If we locate Yuan Gong’s stance in the coordinates of social art developments in the 20th and 21st centuries, in the post-industrial and post-technological era, we discover that as the x-axis of time and y-axis of transforming phenomena intersect, Yuan Gong’s thoughts on the z-axis ask: ‘As the notion of “high art” is facing difficulties, what should art do?’
In his book, Fractured Times, historian Eric Hobsbawm stated that various art forms in our century are related to, and even transformed by, unprecedented technological revolutions, especially revolutions in communication and replicating technologies.
“For the second force that has revolutionised culture, that of the mass consumer society, is unthinkable without the technological revolution, for example without film, without radio, without television, without portable sound in your shirt pocket.”
Eric Hobsbawm, from Fractured Times
In a time when ‘social art’ encounters cultural reforms, not only conventional art languages and art values are put into crisis, but also our recognition of art, and belief system of it, are on the verge of full-blown overturning. Nowadays, the globalisation of the economic system and technologies have provided a type of ‘globalised’ language in substitute for local languages, not only serving a minor elite class, but also comprehensible by the majority of the population. Now the question becomes: What should art do when the tall walls standing between culture and life, appreciation and consumption, work and leisure, body and soul, are being torn down?
Yuan Gong’s reaction to this issue is smart and direct – in the mist he used at the Venice Biennale, the cardboard boxes and red LEDs he used in a piece exhibited in Brazil, the industrial scaffold he applied in an exhibition in Xinjiang and Manchester, as well as the bamboos and dragon dance elements (dragon head) he used in an exhibition in Hamburg, Germany. In all these examples, existing objects which already carry social attributes and cultural images are used. There is a blend of social languages based on individual historical and cultural experiences, pointing to interventions with social events and cultural phenomena in an artistic way. The artist’s vision concerns the future developments of our culture and history, as opposed to the current moment, or the individual self.
Undoubtedly, contemporary art’s emphasis on sociality echoes an irresistible trend in contemporary society in the face of a globalising economic system. What is unique about Yuan Gong’s approach is that he is more focused on the future than the present. Just like the thinking that runs through his Losing Control exhibition, in a future scenario where social art is strictly dominated by hyper-developed technologies and industries, art will not only encounter cultural changes, but will also ‘lose control’ as a result of technological revolutions. What will this status of ‘losing control’ lead to? We are clueless, and I believe Yuan Gong is too.
This, however, is not a question that must be answered by Yuan Gong, but should be addressed by a participating public. Art no longer only works for the elite class, so the answer must be sought by the wider public. Yuan Gong has given the question back to the people through the canon of his artistic language, through participatory works which the public can experience. This is why Yuan Gong’s work delivers a sense of the ‘future’ – after all, art after the 20th century serves the public.