Lisbon 2015 – Symposium: “Chineseness” in Contemporary Art Discourse and Practice (Day 3)

The symposium continues with my jet lag taking hold like a man possessed, possessed by what I don’t know apart from time zone and cultural confusion…and a want to find the best pastel de nata (custard tart). I feel foreign wherever I am in the world right now, even in the UK. That’s a wordgirl standard to be honest. Hazy, wrapped in my Japanese house coat, I made my way to Belas Artes, University of Lisbon in Baixa, with tired eyes and a tired mind as I’d woken up at 4.30am that morning…and coffee was no saviour, which is literally on tap here throughout the symposium…long expressos every few hours.

The third day of ‘”Chineseness” in contemporary art discourse and practice’ opened with an extended introduction by one of the symposium organisers Franziska Koch. She spoke of Chineseness based on essentialist notions…as a productive category of on-going cultural negotiations…not just tied to the People’s Republic of China but to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan…the importance of the Portuguese legacies of Macau…the waves of political media attention that has been responsible for framing contemporary Chinese art and creating a Chineseness. She referenced Lisbon as having a huge dominance of UK-based scholars and the influence of the Portuguese institutional setting within faculty of Fine Arts rather than art history on the symposium.

Chineseness Lisbon 18 Franziska Koch

Franziska went on to speak of her personal examination and understanding of Chineseness relating to Portugueseness and Germanness…citing the poetic thoughts of ‘The Book of Disquiet’ by Fernando Pessoa and her personal artistic practice. Foreign names and symbols…heteronyms rather than pseudonyms…globals struggles with marginality…heteronym of split identities, critic-curator, artist-curator, curator-scholar…methodological difficulties and shared standards of research where the papers from day 3 examined specific artistic positions to challenge mainstream views by suggesting interpretations based on historical contexts and the creative role of artistic media play in Chineseness.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Li Shiyan – Analysing works of Cai Guo Qiang in relations to ancient Chinese concepts

Li introduced the background and work of Cai Guo Qiang, his childhood in Quanzhou, the starting point of the Silk Road on the sea. He originally studied sinography, introducing the possibilities of using gun powder as part of his oil paintings. She spoke of the use of fire crackers at wedding, birth or funerals in China, and how at that time, continental China was at war with Taiwan. Fire crackers creating the unexpected…experimenting with gunpowder set him free. His time in Japan in the late 1980s was defined by the “pan-pacific era” – their idea consisted in using sciences and technologies to fill the gap that separated them from Western culture. Cai continued his work with gunpowder creating a ‘Project for Extraterrestrials’…curator Fei Dawei stated that it was more important for Cai Guo Qiang to engage with extraterrestrials than with the West. His work is about dialogues…”those who speak together”…the concept coming from the Western world, and ‘lead to the creation of democracy’. Gunpowder means fire medicine in Chinese (火药 huǒyào). His work developed into a ‘return to centre’…were the dialogues with extraterrestrials really a portrait of the stars throughout history? Li cites the work ‘Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9’ as a case study…

1991_fetus_movement Cai Guo Qiang

1992_Fetus Movement Cai Guo Qiang

15_Fetus Movement Cai Guo Qiang

“The earth will return to a time for deep sleep. The citizens, military men, the artist and the staff, the military base and machines, all coexist with “emptiness”…There exists something integral which existed before the heaven and earth were born.” – Cai Guo Qiang

Francois Jullien reviewed Cai’s work quoting Laozi – ‘The great image has no form’, seeing his works as “vague” and “blurred”…duplicating and emptiness…fount of immanence. Cai wants to bridge the gap between man and the cosmos to break cultural boundaries and borders between countries…trying to overcome an impossible dialogue through expansion and contraction. Li brings us back to Laozi’s concept of sky-man-earth… vital energy (气 Qì)-undifferentiation-primordial Qi (yuánqì)…leading to yin/yang of earth/sky, inhaling/exhaling, east/west, suppleness/hardness.

Chineseness Lisbon 19 Li Shiyan

‘Borrowing your enemy’s arrows’ (1998) as part of Inside Out: New Chinese Art exhibition curated by Gao Minglu. 3000 arrows attached to the frame of a decaying wooden boat…title, position and colour of the arrows are integral. The piece can be seen to criticise the Chinese government…references the Chinese story ‘Borrowing arrows with straw boats’ (草船借箭) taken from ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ by Luo Guanzhong – a historical novel set in the turbulent years towards the end of the Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. The boat is hung in the air as if it was flying thanks to the feathers of the arrows. The arrows were made in China…cheap to produce…how to take advantage of the localisation brought about through globalisation from the enemy…the expression of a new economic order. Highlights the political tensions in our contemporary world…accused of anti-Americanism. His work is said to use borrowing (借 jiè)…exploring antagonistic dynamisms. His work take on the challenge of a contemporaneity of contemporary Chinese art…references Daoist elements…providing different points of view other than a purely Western perspective. He returns to a vital energy.

“At the exact moment of the explosion, the spectator feels in harmony with the fundamental energy of the universe.” – Cai Guo Qiang

Borrowing your enemy's arrows Cai Guo Qiang

Jiang Jiehong: His work has become a paradox…on the one hand great images have no form on the other hand he is trying to use it as  media to create a figurative or representational image? Do you have a view on this method to create something representational? Or would it be better to make it abstract.

Li Shuyan: The explosion represents the great image has no form, also more the thought of Laozi…which Cao always states as an influence. The image is just to give you a vital energy through the form…it is not using your visual to appreciate it, it is using your breath.

Q: Having seen works in Nice, France…I saw it just as a kind of medium. The videos showed him making his works…it was not the first or recent Cai Guo Qiang…there is a little entertainment, the spectacle…there is a great different between the great moments of his practice…from the 1980s and the 1990s.

LS: I’m not very interested in his work now as he has repeated himself.

Nicola Foster: When and where was he educated in Japan? I wonder what extent the Western idea of nothingness was imposed on his work in terms of formalism and Chineseness? His works in the 1980s showed the cross-exchanges…where can we look for emptiness within Chinese culture? How much is actually imposed on it from European eyes?

Mi You: There are neo-confucianists who are looking at these ideas. There was one thing from your presentation that I wanted to reconcile…the impossibility of dialogue and dialoguing…and the imminence of entomology. Is this not conflicting? Thinking about translation, using deconstructivist philosophy as understanding dialogue as a concept is a little misleading coming from the Chinese concept. Dagmar Shaefer‘s research into ‘ganying’ (resonance)..this highlights the imminence much better.

LS: It is a very difficult question. To translate Chinese painting we think about the resonance within…hedonism…inner resonance. China is always in transformation, it is always breathing.

A discussion unfolded into the application of the Japanese theory of Wabi-sabi that originated in China to Cai’s work. In order to understand this, I found two papers online…’wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic system, it is difficult to explain precisely in western terms. According to Leonard Koren, wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty, and it “occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.’ (Read more about the text here or more about the image here).

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
It is the beauty of things modest and humble.
It is the beauty of things unconventional.

wabi sabi

Marie Laureillard – About the “Chineseness” of Taiwanese art: considering works of Lien Te-cheng and Hou Chun-ming

Marie’s paper examined the Chineseness of Taiwanese art is related to a sense of identity, a moving construction. The position of Taiwan to China is ambiguous because of its struggle to exist as a socio-political entity, more and more dependent on China. Citing the work of Lien Te-cheng and Hou Chun-ming, they are both artists who have engaged with Chinese characters. The Chineseness is seen to be obvious on the level of the artistic medium…they raise questions about the definition of Chineseness in comparison to Gu Wenda and Xu Bing, prominent examples of artists using cultural signs and symbols. How do they negotiate desires of cultural belonging through claiming or discarding a specific cultural identity? In Lien Te-cheng’s work examines hybridity or cross-culturality through assemblages of different elements from different origins to create a harmony. What is his sense of Chineseness? They are always figurative and abstract with extra elements with wordplay…a juxtaposition of components from different cultural contexts…cultural hybrid and a reading of different languages set within a post-modern discourse. Inspired by John Berger’s understanding of the work of Magritte…imitate something that exists already. Trying to make a connections with figurative elements…to create a cross-cultural dialogue, understand his identity and ideology between China-Taiwan-West, reflecting the official view of Taiwan.

Lien Te-cheng

Chineseness Lisbon 20 Marie Laureillard

Hou Chun-ming references ancient Chinese culture through his creations, a hybrid practice of writing and pictures inspired by old Buddhist books. He is never inspired by the high tradition of Chinese painting. For the Chinese, high quality art has to stimulate reflection, though under the surface many things are lost…transcendence of the moment is what they are seeking. This is not within Hou’s work…he approves of works that go in the realm of explosiveness. He created his own social motif…of biographies…read as moral teachings relating to the political situation, each representing on spirit as he is fascinated by religion. His purpose is not to collect mythical or spiritual beings…not to reconstruct legends but to mock the society around him. Rather critical of the ideological debates of what is Chinese. Chinese art is situated between two empires cited in the text ‘Visuality and Identity’ by Shu-mei Shih…Taiwan is the mother country threatened by the father country, between both empires. They reinvent Chinese culture in the local way away from official ideologies…an emancipation of language from nation, Taiwan is a sinophone culture rather than Chinese culture.

FK: Although Lien Te-cheng’s works are an assemblage, they are still demarcating the elements. Maybe in his way to proportionalise and compose the assemblage, he took great care to create structural lines, yet it is still separate in a way. Do you have an interpretation as to why he is trying to assemble things yet have separateness?

ML: I’m not really sure yet about the meaning and association, I just know he tries to create harmony and a link.

FK: The harmony conflicts or resonates with the idea of “harmonious society” within mainland China.

Keith Wallace: You have the abstraction, representation and the language.

ML: I think there are political illusions in his work…more like a code we have to decipher.

Eva Aggeklint – The concept of Frankenstein in translation

Eva’s paper discussed word and image crossovers transgressing cultural borders and deals with how hybrid images can be interpreted when located in the alien territory of the conceptualised “third space” of Homi K. Bhabha…the “third space” needs to be defined to work, representing indefinite spaces of cultural heritage – it is a “third space” of innovation and creation. How far can one go with the possible associations of a “third space”? How do you deal with the cultural signs and symbols of the photographic works? Eva also discussed notions of Chineseness and focuses on how something foreign may engage with Chineseness, and how Chineseness may be emphasised through the use of something foreign. She cited Qiu Zhen’s staged photography of ‘Satan’s Wedding’, a translation of ‘Frankenstein’, as a case study to examine foreign elements as an indexical sign to reveal the hybrid within the Chinese cultural context. Indexical signs are connected either physically…or the index as the something-other pointing in different directions in the image. Trangression of cultures…hybrid highlighting painful issues of something foreign…becoming the other of yourself, double identities. Understanding the source at the beginning, what has been translates and then what has been produced.

Chineseness Lisbon 21 Eva Aggeklint

Chineseness Lisbon 22 Eva Aggeklint

Satans Wedding Qiu Zhen

Me: I saw an immediate relationship of Eva’s research to Cao Fei’s film ‘Haze and Fog’ that I co-commissioned in 2013…certainly in terms of an inner investigation into class and identity in China versus it’s relationship to the world represented through film media that works under a different construct, in part, to contemporary art.

Susan Pui San Lok: I am also interested in the relationship to feminism where there has been a lot of research into the headless woman.

NF: It seems the artist is very familiar with European art…and is interested in the institution of marriage. Are there any references to Duchamp?

KW: You’ve taken a very distinct approach, how does it compare to other interpretations that have been devised around this work.

EA: There have been no other reviews of the work. In ‘World Art’ magazine in China, the artist has written a review.

NF: The author of Frankenstein was of course female. There are limitations of place and it would be interesting to look into this.

EA: When you do deep analysis of work like this, it is not strange for it to be the first time to be deeply analysed. There’s lots of work to be done.

SPSL: Are there references to Dawn of the Dead or zombie culture…zombie-fication of people as they negotiate the world?

Me: Funnily enough this is within Cao Fei’s work. In the 2012 publication ‘The future will be…’ by Hans Ulrich Obrist, she answers the question by submitting a poster of the Walking Dead, a point of reference and inspiration for her film ‘Haze and Fog’, the highest rating foreign TV show in China.

Elizabeth Parke – Women from away: The sinosphere in work of Yuk King Tan and Patty Chang

Focussing on the work of Yuk King Tan and Patty Chang within China…much archival work to be done. Linked fields of study…fields of enquiry are migration and diaspora, genders studies and in relations to astronaut migration, contemporary art history, contemporary Chinese art history and Chinese studies. One of the first images to look at was the cinematic representation through the film ‘Floating Life’ (1996), it seems to have a currency that is re-emerging…images of transmigration “Moving East to West has turned their lives upside down”…cinematic mediation…multiple points of departure and layers of destination coined as “trans(national migration)”.

floating life

This is continuous and applies to the art world…adheres to our own practices as artists and curators…Chineseness in reference in the way in which curators move globally…notion of the movement of curators around the art fair scheduling. Reminded of a term from Canadian history ‘women from away’…explored within settler histories and within gender qualities…purchase status through marrying from away. Female Chinese artists circling back to the mainland to make work…how does Canada sit within the Chinese diaspora. ‘Women from away’ suggests movement qualities…also allows Elizabeth to reflect on her own migration. Pivot away from Canadian routes and place within the work of Yuk King Tan and Patty Chang.

Chineseness Lisbon 24

Elizabeth stated two different notions…one of movement from periphery to a centre…dialectic of inside outside…one of the body. Relationship between building and infrastructure projects. Attending to the differences whilst attempting to draw likes between the work of Yuk King Tan and Patty Chang. Not just Canadian English phrases that define this migration…there are Chinese ones too such as ‘Falling leave return to the roots’. The desire to return to one’s roots…working in China is a conscious decision to work through larger issues. Focussing on time-based video pieces showing incessant movement on screen – ‘Scavenger’ (2008) by Yuk King Tan…contaminating space…highlighting the unstable constructions of the city’s finance engine…Hong Kong’s position within the global art market…moments of recognition between women…female bodies interacting within an embodied space…turbulence…relates to South Asian migration of female labour such as nannies who are to be invisible and available…movement of bodies and participation of trade. ‘Shangri-la’ (2005) by Patty Chang..exploring the real idea of making a journey to an unknown place…post-modern reference to the novel’s plot within James Hilton’s ‘The Lost Horizon’ (1933)…refraction of the landscape…heaven on earth, a sense that there is no war, no poverty, it is a place of beauty…what it means to turn a place into a destination predicated by myth. Both works are about a “placeness”…a place becomes a place because it is a practiced space…circuit of movements marking certain Chinese diasporas…circular, restless movement with no clear destination in either works…circular transmigration…financial markets and the materiality of products and physical trade…cross-ethnicing in relationship to Chineseness.

SPSL: Can you talk about the relationship between the physical durational trajectories taken on by the artists in relation to the digital or cultural trajectories and pathways through the mediations of ideas…the mediation through novels and film and what look like examples of popular culture. I’m interested in the ways in which these artists at certain multiple removes return physically to cultural imaginary terrains…the circular motion back to or towards particular sites and the significance of popular culture in signposting this navigation.

EP: In Patty Chang’s work, the idea of the mythical place with Buddhist roots…it became the real fictional place…she is usually in front of the camera, her marked ethic body in front of the camera…here she moves behind the camera, but is still marked in the film. Interesting in terms of her practice…it adds a layer of complexity. In Yuk King Tan’s work  you see her in these public-private spaces, intrusion of a sanitised space. Fiction-reality that plays out in both works in reverse ways.

Paul Gladston: To extend this idea of “placeness”…it resonates within international discourses…do you have a sense of the reception of these works within Hong Kong and the wider PRC? Embodying and problematising place and identity. Within the PRC, they wouldn’t be seen in a dominant form like you are presenting it. Multiple and contested views of what these works might be.

EP: ‘Scavenger’ has been shown in Hong Kong…and Patty Chang’s work has been shown in multiple venues in North America.

LS: These themes are very visible to us, living in Hong Kong…yet they are invisible as they are so used to seeing these things. I am wondering when we talk about “placeness”, I am thinking whether this performance is happening elsewhere as it could arose people to go back to this understanding of invisibility…they should always be visible…and an understanding of how we see the place we are in…it is rather “unplaceness”.

PG: It raises very important questions about the social impact of these works…in mainland China, Singapore…where we wish to see a social interventionists but the public might think otherwise…the extent of public work like this has a single or political aberrant impact? For which audience and in which context? Who’s view?

SPSL: Has Jiang got anything to say…the connections of visibility/invisibility in relation to performance and the works you cited yesterday…works that can only be caught and therefore missed or seen in the imagination…not recognised as interventions.

JJ: Performance is allowing audiences to miss it…sometimes when you miss it and you talk about it afterwards, it moves from an art piece to a legend. There is no better way to document than through video or photograph…these are the only ways to maintain this kind of story, do we need to maintain that kind of story?

Nicola Foster – Women’s “secret” script, Nushu, as a construction of an alternative “in/visible” “Chineseness” in the work of the contemporary artist Yuenyi Lo

Scholars no longer look at Chinese art as an example of Chineseness…both attached to concepts with at least a history of 100 years. As such both categories and their contexts are part of both traditions and our languages….cultural…history. Chinese art is a recent category in art historical narratives…applied more to artefacts. The narrative that maps cultural events haunts us to this day. Chineseness essentialises a trade or a group of trades fixing them into an identity…often conceptual…process of essentialisation ends up with a purpose of fixed identities. It is a practice even in its guise of philosophy is not free of power politics. Chineseness can only be a strategy used by artist to rethink their practice…operating in the field of art at the same time it is a practice in the world.

Chineseness Lisbon 25

Chineseness Lisbon 23 Nicola Foster

Nicola Foster Yuenyi Lo

Citing ‘Boundaries of Sight and Touch – Memoirs of the Blind and the Caressed’, a paper she wrote looking into how to rethink drawing, in relation to Yuenyi Lo‘s drawings work (as shown above)…drawing in graphite on canvas. The two paradoxes of drawing…the invisible moment of possibility and the sacrificial event of meeting the eyes and narrative. Forced to create a narrative in front of me. Developing (mis)translations…all interpretations constructed in language requiring interpretation and translation. The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes, it welcomes itself…the hand carries, the hand designs, the hand is a sign, a gesture, to carry man…the hand of a form of communication which is not just conceptual but it is embodied. She cited Heidegger stating language is required for thinking and thinking required for language…the limitations of language are the limitations of thinking. The relationship of language to the body. The stationary hands hold a moment of silence…the abyss in the centre of the image and the triptych presentation…the tradition of drawing and painting calligraphy in China…a wide range of social obligations. Nicola goes onto cite Julia Kristeva ‘Confucius – an eater of women’…Chineseness is Confucian…more a teaching and a historical engendering…should not be reduced to a set of hierarchical kinships…recognise the dynamic aspects. The concept of humanism is central to the theory of Confucian…calligraphy as a practice of the learned…connected intimately to personality and the visual expression of personality. Performance of Nushu performed by Lan-shu Ou-yang, by Yuenyi Lo…relationship of respect, an attempt to practice a moral approach in Confucianism…which can be read as Chineseness yet circumvent it. If Confucianism is a kind of Chineseness it cannot be discovered, it has to be rethought as part of many practices. We are not outside of politics when we are dispossessed…thinking and thanking are related…relationship between gift and relation…gift, obligation and effort….where Confucianism can seen to be related as regards social relationships.

“Chinese writing as an accent of culture.” – Jiang Jiehong

Paul Gladston – Somewhere (and nowhere) between modernity and tradition: towards a critique of international and indigenous perspectives on the significance of contemporary Chinese art

Modernity and tradition and its bearing on identity…at which point my laptop died…sorry Paul! I’m going to try and get hold of his paper to read and reference so I’ll share it with you another time. I don’t like it when my laptop gives up on me before the event I’m blogging about has finished…mainly as I’m not very good at doing nothing. It’s the final day tomorrow…it’s somehow already with us. Until then…

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