Questioning Rigid Impressions
in Curating Chinese Contemporary Art
Zheng Guogu: Photoworks 1993–2016.
‘Even a Click of the Shutter is Unnecessary’
Eli Klein Gallery, New York
Zheng Guogu: Visionary Transformation
MoMA PS1, New York
31.03.19 – 23.06.19
Translated by Bridget Noetzel
Today, Buddhism is not just a religion; it has become a neoliberal wonder drug. Buddhism is engulfing the globe, and the practice of the religion is no longer regional. Cross-cultural transmission has made its religious doctrine murkier but easier to accept. The teachings of Buddhism stress meditation, which does not interfere with the basic pursuits of capitalism and serves as a spiritual opium for the near fanaticism of late capitalism. For neoliberal individuals unable to remove themselves from rapidly developing technological and economic battles, Buddhism’s emphasis on brevity, impermanence and a sense of separation can, to a certain extent, provide moral solace and psychological distance. Because it does not attack and retains a kind of supernatural authority and flexibility, this form of Eastern belief has rapidly become an ascetic method in the Western system.
Although MoMA PS1 is an authoritative Western art institution, mistakes in the interpretation of Chinese artists’ works are not uncommon. Ignoring the political and economic facets of Chinese contemporary society and using bland Buddhist metaphors to make sweeping generalisations about a Chinese artist’s career are obviously inadequate. The West’s overzealous yearning for Eastern wisdom makes rather predictable this mistake in interpreting a Chinese artist’s work. Zheng Guogu appeared in two exhibitions in New York at the same time: Visionary Transformation at MoMA PS1 and Photoworks 1993–2016: ‘Even a Click of the Shutter is Unnecessary’ at Eli Klein Gallery. This provides us with the opportunity to compare different ways of curating Zheng Guogu’s work.
The art created by forty-nine-year-old Zheng Guogu has immense breadth and diversity. In the early years of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms his talent revealed itself in the seaside city of Yangjiang, and he became an excited witness to the vital development of consumerism and the inflow of global culture. Eli Klein Gallery presented a retrospective of Zheng’s photographic works, taken since the 1990s. My Teacher ( 1993 ) depicts Zheng laughing with a homeless man. The artist went on to spend six months observing this man. This image could be seen as a young person’s declaration of himself. In an interview, Zheng said that he was drawn to this teacher’s careless joy and ‘special immune system’. Here, ‘immune system’ refers to the man’s casual way of eating and drinking, as well as the fact that he was exempt from social rules. Zheng is very interested in ‘exemptions’, or the use of a system’s internal mechanisms to avoid the structures of that system ( whether legal, economic or cultural ). This subtle, strategic disapproval has become a key thread woven through his entire artistic career. For the series Honeymoon, Zheng borrowed a friend’s marriage licence in order to spend a ‘honeymoon’ with a girl named Lola at a hotel in Guangzhou. The series of snapshots he took on this trip is permeated with true romance and intimacy. Computer Controlled by a Pig’s Brain ( 2007 ) sets its sights on an overheating art market. Using randomly generated phrases, Zheng proves that ‘awful’ paintings that were publicly and consciously created could do nothing to shake the market’s customary aesthetic and speculative commodification.
In 2005, inspired by the Age of Empires video game, Zheng decided to create a large complex of buildings and gardens on the outskirts of his native Yangjiang, which he named Liao Garden. Its construction reflects the uniqueness of Zheng’s design, but the project also required him to exploit his relationships with local officials, so as to skirt a few city planning regulations. As we can see from the introduction to the Visionary Transformation exhibition, Zheng’s carefully designed complex evokes ‘the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of the physical realm’. In addition, he tells us, in his introduction to the exhibition, that his ‘pursuit of such transcendence in daily life’ is fully expressed in the twelve works that are displayed. Through ‘the transformative power of digitization’, these paintings enhance the enlightenment of Buddhist thangkas.1 The thangka is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist scroll painting, which helps to focus concentration during meditation.
We learned that, in every work, Zheng digitally layers multiple thangka images, then paints the result, using several oil painting techniques. In the majority of those works, as in Visionary Transformation of the Purification ( 2011–13 ), Zheng arranges a host of gods in concentric structures, then dissects this structure, throwing it into chaos through the use of brilliant, clashing colours. Although the layering creates a holographic effect, the paintings still look very flat. The brushstrokes are either moist and glittering, like an inkjet transfer print, or clear and unexpected. In Ultraviolet Visionary Transformation No. 2 ( 2014–15 ), the unnatural curves of paint lines applied with a syringe and the rough texture of the painted surface that surrounds them certainly do not match. Although religious themes are nominally used as the subject matter and conceptual source of these paintings, this series of works is more like a mockery of religious ideas.
The issue is not that this is a rather weak body of work by an immensely significant and creative artist; the issue is that MoMA took these works at face value, seeing them as a natural part of Zheng’s oeuvre. They were too quick to extol them as spiritual works, and they used Buddhist metaphors uncritically. This blindly spiritual interpretation of a Chinese artist’s work is far from rare. In fact, other Chinese artists, such as Xu Zhen, have consciously used their work narrowly and awkwardly to define the work of Chinese artists as stiff manifestations of Eastern cultural values.
Thus, if we want to critically evaluate Zheng’s diverse body of work, we must seek to identify its specific goal, concretising and ‘secularising’ that key concept. The exhibition at the Eli Klein Gallery provides possibilities for this interpretation. The key theme running through the works in this exhibition is the freedom that individuals have enjoyed since the Cultural Revolution. The signs of these times were the rise of new infrastructure, systems and orders. Thus, this freedom is constantly locked in a struggle with the power structures deep in society and, in practice, it becomes impermanent and difficult to judge. From the homeless man living outside social conventions in My Teacher ( 1993 ), to the man and woman pretending to be a husband and wife on their honeymoon in Honeymoon ( 1995 ), to an artist who played with local laws to build Liao Garden ( originally called Age of Empires ), freedom is realised as the individual circumventing institutions and systems to find deeper romance or values.
Using the negative space, Zheng measures the power structures in society. In places without rules, games can become reality, even if this is only for the sake of the game itself. Consumption is the basic condition for, and the final limit of, his work. The factions wrangling in The Vagarious Life of Yangjiang Youth No. 16 ( 1996 ) display violence and rebellion. However, with the widespread influence of global mass media, there is no difference between them and young people around the world in the 1990s. Zheng’s painstakingly ‘messy’ works are embedded in the commercialisation of art, as a way of mocking that same commercialism. In Tokyo Sky Story ( 1998 ) the dolls hovering in the sky above the city are ‘precise, child-like presences’ symbolising the suspension between the economic foundations that decide everything and the free realm of personal imagination. From this perspective, the paintings exhibited at MoMA are extensions of the logic in his early work, expressing a desire to break through restrictions and existing frameworks, in order to see how far a person can go on the margins of a system.
This is just one possible way of interpreting Zheng Guogu’s work. His work and his own complex and varied life are intimately intertwined, often taking unforeseen turns, based on the current environment and the possibilities available to him. In contrast to the mystical, introspective spirituality of the preface to the MoMA exhibition, his way of working combines inspiration and practicality. The phenomenon of ‘visionary transformation’ tells us that unknowability is still an immensely influential idea. As a result, these two exhibitions, held simultaneously, sounded an alarm for us. In trying to understand Chinese contemporary art, we should replace existing, inflexible impressions with rigorous, careful commentary.
1. These quotations are from MoMA PS1’s website:‘Zheng Guogu: Visionary Transformation’. <https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5055>
如今, 佛教已不仅是一门宗教信仰，而是成为了新自由主义的灵丹妙药。佛教热潮遍布全球，导致它的宗教实践不再有地域性。跨文化的传播使得佛教的教义渐不清晰，但愈发易于接受。它注重于冥想的教诲不仅不干预资本主义的基本追求，更是充当了几近疯狂的晚期资本主义的精神鸦片。对于无法从飞速发展的科技和经济奋斗中抽离出来的信奉新自由主义的个人，佛教中的暂时和无常性以及脱离感可以在一定程度上提供道德上的安慰和心理距离。得益于它的无攻击性，超自然的权威性和灵活性，东方信仰在西方体制内迅速成为备受欢迎的修辞手法。即使MoMA PS1这样具有权威的西方艺术机构，在对中国艺术家的解读中出现这样的错误也并不少见。忽略中国当代社会的政治与经济背景，用寡淡的佛教比喻来笼统地概括一位中国艺术家的艺术轨迹是明显不完整的。而西方对东方灵性的过度向往却使得这种对中国艺术家的解读错误是完全足以预见。郑国谷现在在纽约同时有两个展览在进行，分别是在MoMA PS1的“幻化”（Transformation）和在奕来画廊的“相片作品1993-2016.‘连按快门都是多余的’”（Photoworks1993-2016 “Even a click of the shutter is unnecessary”）。这为我们提供了针对郑国谷作品不同策展方式的比较机会。
我们了解到，对每一件作品，郑国谷用数码技术把多个唐卡进行叠加，然后用几种不同油画技术作画。其中大多数的作品，如《纯净幻化》（Visionary Transformation of the Purification，2011-2013）,将众神以同心结构排列，然后通过鲜艳不和谐的颜色扰乱和分裂这一结构。尽管叠加会产生全息效果，画作却看上去非常扁平。笔触或潮湿晃动（类似于喷墨图像转印），或清脆突兀。在《紫外线幻化2号》（Ultraviolet Visionary Transformation No.2，2014-2015）中，用针筒涂抹出的颜料线所形成的不自然的曲线和它们所包围的纹理粗糙的画作表面格格不入。尽管宗教主题被引用为这些画作名义上的主题和意象来源，这一系列作品更可能是对宗教思考的嘲弄。