Contrast: A Discussion
on Transformation and
Unlived by What is Seen
Transformation; Unlived by What is Seen
Faurschou Foundation Beijing, Galleria Continua and Pace Beijing, Beijing
15.11.14 – 26.04.15
Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
After viewing ‘Unlived by What is Seen’, at Pace Beijing, emptiness and worry spread over me. In a type of pioneering narrative known as ‘the erasure of the image’, curators and artists are moving towards the experience of daily life. 1 However, at the same time they alienate lives in the name of art, and lose both. Life is related to beauty, art to morality. Within the classic consciousness of self-deception, 2 both end up escaping. The curators and artists pursue the freedom of art, but searching for free behaviour in alienated lives is itself a manifestation of not being free. In trying to view all kinds of interesting images, a lingering sense of worry and emptiness links us together. Their self-deception highlights my self-deception, and I can’t wait to leave this exhibition and forget all about it.
Separated from the Pace Gallery by just a wall is the Faurschou Foundation, which was hosting a solo exhibition by Bill Viola, entitled ‘Transformation’. In the darkened exhibition hall I almost couldn’t feel the presence of other people. Everyone stood quietly in place, viewing the images in their own solitude, reluctant to leave.
By looking at the backgrounds of the exhibiting artists, one can see that comparing the two exhibitions is inappropriate. Attempting some kind of comparison between the quality of these two shows would not necessarily be relevant to the contemporary art scene or social reality; rather, each should be viewed separately within its own context. It would be better to leave a mistake uncorrected and make the best of it than to use a comparative method to assess the two exhibitions in relation to each other. An impulse prompted me to move from the right side of the wall to the left, to move from ‘Unlived by What is Seen to Transformation’.
Numerous visitors moved on from ‘Unlived by What is Seen to Transformation’, the incidental separation of the two by a wall creating an opportunity for this kind of comparison and coexistence. This is also a common reality in the modern world, and is reflected in the context of globalisation. In this sense, Viola’s exhibition is fitting for China’s contemporary context, as we coexist in a modern world, the premise for which is that the content and audience both come from modernity. China and Chinese art existed earlier in such a context, just as its separation by the wall from the neighbouring exhibition reveals the plight of modern life and art. As Zygmunt Bauman has noted, in an era full of uncertainty life and ‘fear’ or‘insecurity’ are concomitant. 3 And as ‘Unlived by What is Seen’ is separated by a wall, perhaps this is a direct manifestation of modern life. Fear or insecurity is disguised as anxiety, driving people to distance themselves from a typical modern lifestyle to live an alienated life, with the worry and emptiness of modern society masquerading as freedom.
At first glance, Viola’s works are highly incompatible with modernity, whether these are images of rebirth in a column of water in Inverted Birth ( 2014 ) or the religious narratives of The Raft ( 2004 ) and Martyrs ( Earth, Air, Fire, Water ) ( 2014 ). These performances are full of ancient ritual and religion, as if they are from a former world. Those that are related to the narrative of classical antiquity are completely divorced from the contemporary mainstream narrative, but this does not detract from their expressiveness. Even in an unfamiliar cultural context, a traditional narrative can be transformed into one of mystery and spirituality that can be accepted by all.
Although the traditions of classical narrative and Renaissance painting give his work content and form, Viola presents these skilfully, by using the latest imaging technology. In this, he can be said to be part of contemporary society’s ‘invention of tradition’. 4 Yet Viola chose these images not as appendages to the era, but as grounded in a deep understanding of the medium. Viola has been influenced by the work of Peter Campus, in making full use of the psychological effects of images as a means of self-reflection. 5 He has taken visual art and transformed it into a space for self-reflection, leading the audience into an inner world – not a private realm, but one that is full of significance and is closely related to the essence of human life.
In a contrasting world, Viola at the same time expands the inner world. His research was grounded in the natural landscape, and he uses the symbolism of fire and water extensively, which results in the audience being presented with an almost eternal, timeless fable. He is a bard of the visual world, on the one hand offering a tribute to classical painting and on the other employing the synthesis of four cinematic traditions for his own use. 6 Furthermore, his work represents a reappearance of tradition in the contemporary world, enabling to it become a poetic narrative. From morality emerges beauty. This has been a widely discussed topic since ancient times, but has become lost in the modern world. A precise explanation of its essence can be found in Kant’s Third Critique of Judgement, in which he identified the sublime. After the Abstract Expressionist painters Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Viola is one of the very few contemporary artists working with a narrative of the sublime, whose work fully reflects the essence of the sublime 7 – human arrogance. People felt the religious sublime to be a type of mathematical sublime,8 and it is only after understanding God’s infinite magnitude and paying reasonable homage to their own ability – in other words, only after accepting this implicit hierarchy – that they are able to glimpse the sublime. This is the same sublime that we feel when we are absorbed in Newman’s and Rothko’s paintings. Viola offers an element of the religious sublime in his contemporary technological performances, viewing technology as an extension of the human body to expand the scope of cognition, and thus using emerging visual technologies to show an inner world that was previously unseen and unheard. This realm was formerly the territory of religion, but technology enables us to see the ultimate possibilities of art. Unlike traditional painting, the filming and editing of images is done from above. That is, they are produced in a bird’s-eye view format. The quality of the technological context of Viola’s work presents the mechanics of the sublime. Thus his practice is full of connotations of the sublime: people not only rationally understand the hierarchy, they also freely put it into practice. With this kind of practice, technology has successfully expanded the scope of desire, and thus is a type of human arrogance. When this huge shadow moves over the essence of human existence it surrenders individuality, thus creating a sublime experience. Viola’s images are a perfect mirror of existentialism, in which the individual sees her or himself as an image of a human being. 9
Viola’s exhibition has become another mirror, separated by a wall. We can reflect upon the trivial narrative of everyday experience. We have also chosen to distance ourselves from life and search elsewhere for freedom ( where there is also art ), and thus deviate from the essence of human existence; Viola’s work allows us to turn around and face our own introspection, face the essence of existence; in fact, this is the real appeal of ‘Unlived by What is Seen’, and represents its potential appeal to a modern audience. Kierkegaard observed that people ‘have freedom of thought; they demand freedom of speech’. 10 A hundred years later we still live in this paradox, moving on from that which will not directly bring art, but which is a prerequisite for artistic practice.
1. Liang Shuhan, Image≠Art≠Personality, Randian, Spring, 2015 , pp. 98 – 104.
2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness , 1943, London: Routledge, 2003, pp 70 – 90.
3. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Cambridge: Polity, 2012.
4. Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Series on Humanities and Society: The Invention of Tradition’, ( Chinese ) Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2004.
5. Bill Viola, Peter Campus: Image and Self, Art in America Magazine, February, 2010. http://www.artinamericamaga zine.com/news-features/magazine/peter-campusimage-and-self/ Accessed 28 May 2016.
6. ‘Viola’s contribution to cinematic language represents a synthesis of four traditions: the tradition of magic cinema begun by Georges Méliès; the tradition of structural cinema, particularly that of Michael Snow; the tradition of lyric or visionary cinema represented by Stan Brakhage; and the tradition of performance art, especially the early video performances of Peter Campus’. Gene Youngblood. ‘Metaphysical Structuralism: the videotapes of Bill Viola’, Millennium Film Journal, 20 – 21 ( 1989 ), pp. 80 – 114.
7. Kant believed that the essence of the sublime came from the mind of the subject ( sublimity of mind ); this can be evoked externally, but the essence of the sublime is people’s power of free will. Because only people are free, only they can exercise their own free will. Critique of Judgment, Tr. Werner S. Pluhar, Cambridge, MA: Hackett,1987, pp. 1xxi; 97 – 126.
8. Kant separated the sublime into the mathematically sublime and the dynamically sublime. The former faces the natural world and the latter confronts the abstract world. Critique of Judgement, pp. 1xxi; 97 – 126.
9. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, lecture, 1946, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2005.
10. ‘How unreasonable people are! They never use the freedoms they have but demand those they do not have; they have freedom of thought – they demand freedom of speech’. Søren, Kierkegaard, Either / Or: a Fragment of Life ( rev. ed. ), ed. Victor Eremita, London: Penguin Classics, 2012, p. 43.
乍看之下，维奥拉的作品和现代性是那么不乎合，无论是《逆生》（ 2014 ）中在水柱中重生的意象，还是《救生筏》（ 2004 ）和《殉难者》（ 2014 ）的宗教叙事，那些充满仪式性、宗教性的表演仿佛来自传统世界，那些和古代经典有关的叙事完全脱离当下流行的叙事，却无碍于表达，即使在陌生的文化语境中，传统叙事转化为神秘性和精神性被人所接受。虽然古典叙事和文艺复兴绘画传统赋予了他作品内容和形象,他用最新的影像技术娴熟地呈现，他的传统也至多是一项为现代社会‘发明的传统’4。然而维奥拉选择影像并非对时代的附庸，而是建立在对媒介深刻理解的基础上，他受到彼得·坎普斯的影响，充分运用影像作为自我映像的心理效果。5 他把影像艺术转化为自我反观的空间，引领着观众走向内心世界，不是私人领域，而是超越意义上与人的生存本质密切相关。
维奥拉的展览成为另一面镜子，一墙之隔，我们得以反观日常经验的琐碎叙事，他们也选择和生活保持距离，在别处寻找自由（ 那里也有艺术 ），因而背离了人的生存本质；而维奥拉的作品可以让我们转身，面向自身内省，直面生存的本质；这其实也是‘不在图像中行动’真正的诉求，以及每一个现代人潜在的诉求。克尔凯郭尔曾说过‘人们有思想的自由，却要求言论的自由。’10 两百年后，我们仍旧活在这个吊诡中，走出这个吊诡并不直接带来艺术，却是艺术实践的前提。