Display and Escape
He Chi: Next Door
Arrow Factory, Beijing
15.03.16 – 05.05.16
Joint Second Prize Winner
Entry in Chinese
Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
This last spring, as an old elm tree in the Arrow Factory backyard began to sprout, He Chi observed the changing colours of the leaves every day and painted the room green. I thought there wasn’t much new in the concept for the project; it could have been completed in the mind. Before I headed there, I went over different shades of green that could work for leaves and ordered them according to the various transformations I could imagine. I expected little difference on site.
On a certain afternoon in April, He Chi and I were sitting in the doorway of the Arrow Factory. The sky was azure blue, and fresh buds had appeared on the old elm tree. From time to time, dogs from the houses on the hutong slipped out for some fun; their owners chased them back in, over and over again. By around 4 p.m., the staff at the bakery next door were kneading the dough and working at full speed. The skies turned overcast and a light drizzle set in; the sky darkened a bit and the leaves darkened to a subdued colour. He Chi snapped away at a few shots on his camera from time to time, but he mostly just sat in the hutong across from the art space, observing the passers-by and the scenery. Last spring, in a mountainous part of Fujian, I saw some old men sitting alone in front of their homes, silent. Dogs moved around in packs, going up and down the mountain, oblivious to the people. The afternoon flew by. The next day, the old men were again sitting there, from dawn to dusk.
It is so easy to neglect how He Chi uses his own body, as a tool to sense time, sunlight, the wind and rain. Bringing his experience of living on China’s Northwest Plateau into the city, he contemplates how the weather and environment affects plants, searching intuitively for the right opportunities, in much the same way as the old men in the mountains were waiting to sow and harvest. Although growth is an eternal state – predictable, once you have the knowledge – sunlight and winds vary by the day, with subtle difference in clarity and intensity; climatic transformations of each specific region render things unpredictable. Once inside the space at the Arrow Factory, the green walls dazzled; once you stared enough, the eyes saw patches of red and green. Look out, and you saw people passing back and forth; no one stopped or peeped in. The green edges formed an intangible barrier. I understood the green filling the entire room as the interior of the leaves or details of the scenery outside. He Chi has given up objectifying physical objects and, instead, uses the human body to establish an order between the old elm tree and the white box, all the while reducing any pressure from the awareness of being watched, and offering viewers an opportunity to reflect independently on the objects they are connected with. The green walls in the Arrow Factory do not make up the entirety of the project – they transform the artist’s bodily experiences into visible outputs. The green walls are merely the technical means, not the completed form of the artwork.
He Chi did not elaborate on the title of the exhibition, Exit Door ( in Chinese, ‘隔馆’ [geguan], meaning ‘Site of Separation’ or ‘Hall of Separation’ ). Here, the word ‘Ge’ originates from Wang Guowei’s Renjian Cihua ( Notes on Ci Poems in the World ), in which the terms ‘Ge’ ( ‘separation’, in the sense of ‘implicit’ or ‘non-explicit’ ) and ‘Bu-Ge’ ( ‘non-separation’, in the sense of ‘explicit’ or ‘expressive’ ) were employed to formulate aesthetic critiques of literary works. Wang Guowei praised ‘non-separation’ and rejected ‘separation’. ‘Separation’ is akin to observing flowers through a fog – through a layer of mediation. In contrast, ‘non-separation’ is like looking at flowers right before one’s eyes – straightforward, and clearly visible. These standards might not seem so easy to tell apart today. Artists’ creations always hover between the two – closer to the objective world or the viewer, or else to the artistic subject or the artist. Next Door embodies the artist’s personal experience, which is a barrier, as far as viewing is concerned, since behind this lurks the rupture between urban living and the logic of daily life as it originally was in the countryside. The resonance between the two probably reminds viewers to exercise their imagination about what may have been ruptured. Segregation, obstruction and blockage have spatial connections in the literary sense; the ‘Hall of Separation’ that He Chi describes, although to some extent an expression of spatial rupture, is more of a temporal rupture. Yet, for the artist, all this is interconnected, without the presence of any barrier to his private space-time. The philosopher Henri Bergson believed that intuition could delve into the inner being of objects, whereas analysis remained a surface phenomenon and did not, therefore, grasp the essence of an object. The essence of the world lay in continuous movement, which could only be grasped through intuition; while analysis began with space-time, impeded continuity, and could thus only stay on the surface.1 Likewise, the analyses of works of art in this article are arbitrary, and one-sided.
Three young ladies stopped to read the introduction to the project posted on the window of the Arrow Factory. He Chi went up to chat with them for a bit. Apart from the neighbours, who were accustomed to it, they were the only passers-by who paid attention to the green room that day. Disregarding the consumerist perspective, contemporary art spaces for the most part run in parallel to social life, even if they are situated in a residential neighbourhood, on the roadside, or inside a factory shopping mall. Art harbours an ambition to take part in the life of society, and yet it is often obstructed by these parallel spaces; social life keeps offering source material for artistic creation, while what artists ultimately weave together and display tends to be metaphors for society within contemporary art spaces. The mechanism of display has been born out of the logic that museums employ for their collections, in documenting, historicising and sacralising ordinary objects. Therefore, entering the parallel space of art – the exhibition space – it is very difficult to bring out the element of non-objectification. Even in its most intangible form of dialogue, there’s always room for covert conversion. Guy Debord’s prescription was to provoke more actions that impinged on reality, gradually repaired social relations, and replaced the manufacture of products for consumption by passive onlookers. The Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk writes: ‘One reason why artists are no longer interested in a passive process of presenter–spectator is the fact that such communication has been entirely appropriated by the commercial world… After all, nowadays one could receive an aesthetic experience on every corner.’ The artist and activist Gregory Sholette and the art historian Blake Stimson note that ‘in a world all but totally subjugated by the commodity form and the spectacle it generates, the only remaining theater of action is direct engagement with the forces of production’.2 Proponents of this logic have been quick to escape from the traditional mechanism of display, by bringing about real short-term, or periodic, incidents in the social space, or incorporating practical functionalities into their projects, in order to differentiate them from works born under the logic of pure display – and in this way return art to social life. The key is to have the work break free from the shackles of display – that constant impulse towards the object and the merchandise.
Unlived by What is Seen, the high-profile exhibition held in 2015 in three of Beijing’s most important art galleries, had at its core the notion of refuting the consumption of images. Afterwards, the exhibition was heavily criticised for its attempt to occupy the moral high ground – not with image consumption as its focus, but through rearranging everyday incidents or happenings initiated by artists, and placing them in the exhibition space. Yet returning to the conventional mechanisms of display is fundamentally contradictory, and reactionary. Although these incidents do not depend on exhibition spaces to come about, they do need exhibition spaces as the sites of effective execution. Moreover, so far, such artworks are not subject to any agreed assessment criteria, and they are validated by their existence alone. This is because, once effectiveness is seen to be a necessity, the moral legitimacy attaching to artistic creation through actions ( but not images ) will once again be called into question. Coming closer to concrete issues, but remaining far removed from artists as subjects, can make a show of power, by extension – but then again, that diverges completely from the artists’ original undertakings.
Two plays I saw recently feature two different forms of disconnection or separation. The Balcony, adapted from Jean Genet’s work, used ‘environmental theatre’ as its selling point – with the seats removed, it allowed the audience to move around the space. Non-professional actors had weak control over their bodies, but nevertheless wanted to grasp a sense of performing on stage; the beam of the intangible spotlight over their heads led to their performance being pigeon-holed, and disconnected the story of the play from the audience, even without the additional barrier of seats. Another play, The Survived Summertime, created by young theatre workers Yu Kai, Chen Chencheng and Wu Jiamin, attempted to take the audience members back to the summertimes of their respective childhoods. The theatre venue utilised smells, lighting and voices to establish various kinds of situation, to variable practical effect. Nevertheless, the interior monologues that ran through the entire play were excessively self-centred – and this, coupled with the highly skilled use of body language, resulted in a sense of detachment and accentuated an awareness of the creators’ emotional appeal.
An art project that relies heavily on the artist as subject gets in the way of the audience’s perceptions of objective reality and undermines the necessity of the artist’s pursuit and turns it into a mere reportage of incidents – a dilemma which is confronted by every action. Apart from the above-mentioned tension, the difficulty in initiating actions also lies in the need to avoid double misreadings – that is, the need to avoid using old models of cognition; and yet it is difficult to discern diverse perspectives and organisational models at the outset. Perhaps the only option for connecting with the future, while remaining ‘separate’ ( ‘Ge’ ) from/about the present, is to rely on the endless imagination of artists. When language cannot permeate things, then the purpose of providing an appropriate course is to achieve ‘non-separation’ ( ‘Bu-Ge’ ) in the process of delivery.
Kaili Blues, a hugely popular recent film, has been panned for its use of long takes of up to 40 minutes, with the complaints focusing on the rigidity of such a device – a heavy vestige of the old masters. Looking again at the film itself, the employment of long takes does indeed form a temporal parallel with the audience, which, coupled with the male protagonist’s clumsy poetry and a meaningless camera shot of a forklift truck, composes the everyday image of a third- or fourth-rate small town. Kaili’s Internet broadcasts, too, parallel the present and can dispel the barriers of space. Unlike the total consumerisation of Web celebrities, the endless daily routines recorded around the clock by global surveillance can be returned to reality only because they are never watched without a break.
The hutong at night was dimly lit. Without light, the colour of the leaves on the old elm tree was totally invisible. Having drawn a black curtain inside the room, He Chi was repainting the green for the day. As opposed to what I had guessed, he merely added a couple of layers over the previous green.
1. Li Duo, ‘Analyses on [sic] Wang Guowei’s “Ge” and “Bu-Ge”’.
2. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso, London and New York 2012, Chapter One: ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’.
何迟没有过多阐释展览题目“隔馆”，其中的“隔”来自王国维的《人间词话》，以“隔”与“不隔”对文学作品提出审美评判，王国维推崇“不隔”，排斥“隔”。“隔”如同雾里看花，隔着一层，相反，“不隔”好像事物都在眼前，鲜明易见。在今天拿这个作标准有些不好分辨，艺术家的创作始终在两者中间徘徊，更接近客观世界和观众，还是更接近艺术主体及艺术家。拿“隔馆”来说，它预埋了艺术家的个人经验，从观看角度这是一层阻隔，这层阻隔背后是城市化相较原初乡土生活逻辑的割裂，二者呼应似乎能提示观者加深对断裂内容的想象。隔离，隔绝，隔断从字面上有空间关系，何迟描绘的“隔馆”多少也切断空间的使用方式，更是时间的断裂。不过这一切在艺术家个人的时空里毫无屏障，环环相扣。亨利柏格森（ Henri Bergson ）是直觉主义者，他认为直觉可以深入到事物内部，而分析只限于表面现象，因此见不到事物的本质，世界的本质在于“绵延”，只有通过直觉才可以把握，但分析则从时空入手，隔绝了“绵延”，所以只能停留在表面上1，本文对于作品的分析也是这样，武断且片面。
三位姑娘停下，阅读玻璃窗上张贴的作品简介，何迟迎上去聊了两句。在习以为常的街坊外，她们是那天唯一注意绿屋子的行人。除了消费性视角，当代艺术空间大多数状态下平行于社会生活，即使它在居民区里，路边，工厂里，商场里。艺术深怀进入社会生活的野心，总是被平行的空间阻隔，社会生活不断给创作提供材料，艺术家最终编织和展示的，往往是安置于当代艺术空间的社会隐喻。展示机制诞生自博物馆收集逻辑，它将一般物品文献化、历史化、神圣化。因此进入艺术的平行空间金展厅，很难强调非物化，即使是再无形的形式金对话，也有办法变相转化。居伊德波（ Guy-Ernest Debord ）给的药方是激发更多进入现实的行动，一步步地修复社会联系，代替制造被动旁观者消费的物品。荷兰艺术家杰妮范黑思维克( Jeanne van Heeswijk )写道：“艺术家对展示者和观看者的被动过程不再感兴趣的原因之一是，如此的交流实际上已经彻底被商业世界窃取说到底，如今你在随便什么地方都能获得审美体验。”艺术家／行动主义者Gregory Sholette和艺术史学家布莱克斯廷森（ Blake Stimson ）提出“在一个完全臣服于商品形式和景观的世界里，仅存的行动剧场是直接介入生产力。”2 对这一逻辑的推崇者，纷纷逃离传统的展示机制，在社会空间里组织短暂或阶段性的真实事件，亦或让项目兼具实际效用，区别纯展示逻辑下诞生的作品，以此让艺术回归社会生活，重要的是它剔除了展示的枷锁金作品化及商品化。
项目紧靠艺术家主体，阻隔了通往客观事物（ 观众 ）的感知，而栖身客观问题容易让艺术家的工作失去必要性，成为事件的报道者，每一次行动都面临这样的两难。除了上述的紧张关系，触发行动的艰难之处还在于避免二次误读，即不能使用旧有的认知方式，而多样的视角和组织方式，在起初必定是不容易分辨的，也许连接未来，但与当下相“隔”，唯一的可能是依靠艺术家的无尽想象力。在语言无法渗透时，给予便捷路径，目的就是为了做到传达上“不隔”。