Beyond the Text – A Short Essay on the Work of the Artist Song Kun
— Paul Gladston
Since its inception during the late 1970s, contemporary Chinese art has been marked by an often conspicuous bringing together of Western and Chinese cultural influences. This has not only involved the persistent assimilation of existing forms of Western modernist and post-modernist art in response to the localized concerns of an autochthonous Chinese art world (most notably, a desire to go beyond the stultifying academicism and ideological conformity of “official” Chinese art), but also, in effect, a re-visiting of vernacular non-rationalist Chinese cultural thought and practice as previously mediated by the Western avant-gardes as part of their attempts to engage critically with the means-end rationality of modern life. Consider here, for example, with regard to the latter Western Dada and Surrealism’s use of chance based techniques similar to those associated with the divinatory practices of the I Ching. As a consequence, contemporary Chinese art can be understood to resist any settled form of interpretation by simultaneously inviting readings from multi-cultural more than one cultural point of view.
In the face of this resistance, there has been a tendency among Western art historians and critics to view contemporary Chinese art as a suitably indeterminate focus for contemporary postmodernist/poststructuralist theory. [i] Indeed, this position has been given further weight by Chinese artists and intellectuals such as Huang Yongping and Hou Hanru who have actively sought to bring Western postmodernist/poststructuralist theory together with aspects of traditional, non-rationalist Chinese thoughts and practice as a combined means of interpreting contemporary Chinese art. [ii] Read in relation to this particular interpretative point of view, contemporary Chinese art can be understood to act as a pervasively deconstructive form of “third-space” whose unsettling uncertainty extends beyond questions of its own identity to encompass the conditions under which art is shown as part of a contemporary globalized art market; conditions which invariably sustain – as a necessary consequence of institutional discourse – unduly narrow, culturally inflected views of the significance of contemporary Chinese art.
Despite this accompanying sense of uncertainty, contemporary Chinese art has nevertheless established a strongly defined profile on the international stage. Principally, this is due to the development of a signature approach towards the making of visual artworks – particularly by the generation of Chinese artists who first came to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s – in which techniques characteristic of the Western avant-gardes and post avant-gardes such as, large-scale painting, video installation, collage-montage and performance habitually serve as a vehicle for the re-presentation of iconic images and objects that have become strongly associated in the collective global imagination with the history of Chinese culture, society and politics – not least, the political imagery of mainland China’s revolutionary past. Notable examples of this approach include the “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realist” paintings of Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiao Gang as well as re-motivations of classical vernacular Chinese imagery by artists such as Xu Bing and Huang Yongping. The established standing of contemporary Chinese art is, therefore, somewhat paradoxical insofar as it can be seen to combine cultural hybridity with an instantly recognizable veneer of “Chineseness”.
This unresolved, and, it has to be said, increasingly formulaic (market-friendly) bringing together of cultural hybridity and iconic Chinese imagery is strongly tied to the particular concerns of the artists who first produced it, all of whom had direct experience of the Cultural Revolution as well as China’s increasing openness to outside influences following the confirmation of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms at the XI Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in December 1988. For this generation two contradictory imperatives can be understood to have driven their work as artists. The first, carried over from the Cultural Revolution, was an abiding sense that all human activity (work), whether cultural or social, should be turned actively towards the collective political interests of the Chinese people. The second was the emergence in the wake of Deng’s reforms of a pressing, officially sanctioned drive to open up cultural, social and economic spaces beyond the pervasively restrictive ideology of China’s revolutionary pastThe work of Chinese artists of the eighties and nineties generation is in many ways an embodiment of this contradictory affairs, combining inconclusively as it so often does a desire both for absolute freedom of artistic self-expression (as exemplified by the work of the Western avant-gardes) and the continuing subordination of cultural production to the material concerns of socio-economic and political life (as inherited from direct experience of life in China under Mao Zedong).
For a younger generation of Chinese artists who have come to prominence during the last decade or so and whose lived experience does not encompass the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath things are, however, somewhat different. Within the historical purview of this new generation the immanence of the political to the everyday has waned significantly in the face of China’s increasingly widespread involvement in market driven economic and social reform. With regard to which, it has become both possible and desirable for artists to engage in forms of cultural production that no longer have any strong or direct relationship to older forms of collective political/social action. Consequently, the distinctively politicised combination of Western avant-garde technique and iconic Chinese imagery that once dominated contemporary Chinese art, has now given way, in part at least, to work which makes little or no use of the iconic imagery of China’s revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary past. In some cases this is because artists have begun to shift their focus away from the significance of that which is represented towards the consequences of representation itself, and in particular the effects of new digital reproductive technologies, many of which can be seen as culturally Asian in origin. In others, it is because the imagery that their work presents relates so closely to the minutiae of everyday day life in China that it no longer carries with it – for an international/non-local audience, at least – immediately recognisable connotations of Chineseness. Furthermore, this same generation is one that would also appear, both through its artistic practice and published statements, to have only scant interest in the Western(ised) forms of postmodernist/poststructuralist theory which once so strongly informed the interpretation of contemporary Chinese art. In place of which is an emphatic sense – often encountered by the present author in interviews with younger Chinese artists – that the production and reception of art cannot and should not be de-limited by pre-established theoretical concepts whether Western or Chinese in origin.
One of the most notable exponents of these shifting attitudes towards artistic production and reception in mainland China is the artist Song Kun. Song Kun was born in Inner Mongolia in 1977,moved to Beijing when she was 14 years old, She has no direct experience of the politically volatile events of the Cultural Revolution and the early years of China’s post Maoist reforms, By contrast, the artist’s life has been dominated by an increasingly precipitous program of industrialization and modernization predicated not on increased rural productivity, as had been the case in relation to China’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, but instead on an ever-widening openness to inward investment and, therefore, outside economic, social and cultural influences. In addition to which, Song Kun was educated in the prestigious oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine arts in Beijing where she was able to develop a prodigious facility for naturalistic drawing and painting within an environment that still values this particular mode of artistic production Song ‘s response to these prevailing circumstances has seen the production of a body of work that is distinguished by the way in which it focuses closely on the artist’s everyday experience – including memories of the past, projections of the future and in some cases dream-like fantasies – rather than on the wider sweep of socio-economic and political life in contemporary China. Moreover, it is one whose evidently complex and overlapping set of stylistic influences, which range from traditional Chinese Shan-Shui (ink and brush) landscape painting through to European realism and East-Asian animé, effectively blur any sharply contrasting sense of cultural hybridity.
One of the most ambitious examples of Song Kun’s work as an artist is the painting series It’s My Life (2005-06), which consists of 366 paintings – each produced during a single day over the period of a year – hung more or less chronologically in the form of a single installation. In this particular work the artist brings together highly naturalistic representations of a diverse range of subjects including domestic interiors, music concerts and activities such as eating, lying in bed and playing the piano. Added to which are rather more subjective and even quasi-surrealistic images suggestive of the recollection of past events, dreams or reveries. The combined effect of all of this is not simply that of a record of quotidian experience, but instead of a temporally and spatially indeterminate narrative in which the boundary between the ordinary and the imagined world is rendered highly uncertain. Indeed, this blurring takes place to such a degree that the viewer soon relinquishes any attempt to construct an objective, sequentially ordered reading of events – of a sort suggested by the chosen format of It’s My Life – in favour of a far less directed response in which precision of meaning continually gives way to subjective feeling. To offer a definitive reading of It’s My Life is therefore impossible. The work actively points not only towards the fugitive nature of its maker’s interpretative engagement with the world, but also to our own. What is more, the aesthetic response which the work elicits from the viewer is not one that can be simply described according to conventional notions of beauty (or, for that matter, sublimity). Rather, as a number of commentators have indicated, it involves a subtly nuanced range of feelings in which any sense of pleasure (or pain) is always subject to qualification.[iv]
In conversation Song Kun seeks to reinforce the indeterminacy of her work in a number of ways. Tellingly, the artist refuses any notion that her work can be interpreted definitively from a single theoretical perspective. In particular, she is at pains to detach her work from any definitive involvement with current postmodernist/poststructuralist concerns relating to issues such as cultural identity, sexuality or gender, arguing instead that the rigid application of contemporary theory to her work tends to limit rather than open up its possible significance(s). In doing so she also points towards writings such as Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce’s Ulysses as responses to the complexity of modern life that, through their stream of consciousness technique, go beyond the merely conceptual. Moreover, she draws attention to her respect for the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti and in particular their espousing of the traditional Asian philosophical conception of enlightenment as freedom from the known. For the artist, the function of her work is not that of a quasi-theoretical/critical text. Instead it is, she argues, something of an al, exemplar of how life might be lived to the fullest in all its experienti cognitive and emotional richness.
Set against this background it is therefore possible to interpret Song Kun’s work and in particular it’s conceptually elusive character very much from a vernacular Chinese cultural point of view. Conventionally within the Chinese intellectual tradition there is no clearly defined category of thought relating to what is referred to in the West as aesthetics Instead, the production and reception of art are seen first and foremost as concrete actions that engender an uncertain relationship between subjects and objects. In traditional Chinese shan-shui painting, for example, this is something that can be understood to be achieved in formal terms by the use of visual cues that effectively blur the perceived boundary between the viewer and the viewed (most notably, non-geometric perspectives and the compositional flattening of forms). As a result of which, viewers are drawn into what might be described as an immersive bodily relationship with the work of art and that which it represents. From the point of view of the Western philosophical tradition entry into such a relationship – with its seemingly disorientating loss of any cognitive distance – might of course be viewed as a cue for the stabilising intervention of freely chosen human reason and, therefore, of feelings of pain-pleasure associated with the aesthetic category of the sublime. Within the Chinese intellectual tradition this is not at all the case. Instead, the work of art is considered to be an acting out of the fundamental (ineluctable) uncertainty of our interpretative relationship to the world as articulated through the ancient and historically influential Chinese conception of “tracklessness”; that is to say, the notion put forward in the Dao Dejing that our understanding of the world is always(/already) a subjective abstraction rather than a reflection of reality and that knowledge is something that emerges inconclusively over time as the result of unfolding, subjectively interpreted experience.[v] To engage with the world, as well as its surrogate the work of art, in these terms is thus to shuttle persistently and indeterminately between cognition and feeling without the intervention of reason.
To view Song Kun’s work in these highly aestheticized terms may of course be seen by some as a wholly solipsistic or narcissistic retreat from the pressing contradictions of material life in contemporary China. However, such judgements overlook the possibility of a more positive relationship between Song Kun’s work and the radical shifts in sensibility now taking place as a result of mainland China’s current social, economic and cultural transformation. In opening up space beyond the pervasive ideology of its revolutionary past, mainland China has arguably unleashed a range of socio-economic forces – such as entrepreneurialism and individualistic desire – that have not only enabled precipitous economic growth, but that have also raised the continuing spectre of social disharmony and alienation under capitalist modes of production. For the generation of Chinese artists who first came to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s this was seen, as previously indicated, very much as a target for critically deconstructive strategies which attempted – in some sense – to go beyond the historical impasse brought about by the opposition of capitalism and Marxism. In the case of China’s younger generation of artists, the material dialectics of social division and alienation remain a distinct threat. However, the ideological stand-off to which they were formerly tied is now – simply as matter of lived experience – much less in evidence. Consequently, when artists such as Song Kun actively eschew the terminology of postmodernist/poststructuralist theory they do so almost certainly because they have unconsciously assimilated its outcomes as a something of a norm. The world in which Song Kun and other members of the young generation of Chinese artists now live is arguably a profoundly deconstructed one in which – despite continuing attempts on the part of managerialist politicians of all political stripes to assert the possibility of progressive order – there is no longer any widespread belief in the sustainability of either categorical difference or the synthetic combination of opposites. What remains, however, is the need for strategies which allow individuals and groups to negotiate this profound state of uncertainty at a practical everyday level. The work of Song Kun is arguably indicative of such a strategy as seen from the point of view of a Chinese cultural habitus already predisposed to view conceptual uncertainty as something of a sine qua non and to look towards the productive (provisionally harmonizing) as well as the destabilising outcomes of that uncertainty as an abiding condition of human experience.
Paul Gladston is a senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Nottingham. He is currently seconded to the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China as the head of the Division of International Communications Studies and the director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies. His recent publications include Art History after Deconstruction (Magnolia 2005) and ‘Overcoming the Anxiety of Displacement: Song Tao and B6’s Yard’ in Hewitt and Geary (eds.) Diaspora(s) (CCCP Press, 2007). He is a regular contributor to Yishu, the journal of contemporary Chinese art.
[i] See, for example Martina Köppel-Yang, Semiotic Warfare: The Chinese Avant-Garde 1979-1989, a Semiotic Analysis (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2003).
[ii] See Hou Hanru, Yu Hsiao (ed.) On the Mid Ground (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2002). Also see Huang Yongping, ‘Xiamen Dada – A Kind of Postmodernity?’ (‘Xiamen Dada – yizhong hou xiandai?’) in Zhonggou meishubao, no.46, 1986, 1.
[iii] See, for example, Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi (eds.), Fuck Off – Uncooperative Stance (Shanghai: Eastlink Gallery, 2000).
[iv] See, for example, David Spalding, ‘Song Kun: Universal Studios’, Artforum January 1st 2007.
[v] See Herbert Mainusch, ‘The Importance of Chinese Philosophy for Western Aesthetics’ in Mazhar Hussain and Robert Wilkinson (eds.), The Pursuit of Comparative Aesthetics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 141-142.