Jean Baudrillard: The System of Objects
Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai
29.03.15 – 28.06.15
Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
There are many ways to observe ideology, and aesthetics verges on the most unreliable of them all. Let me cite an example: for the last ten years, the artist, Liu Chuang, has been undertaking the same project – asking ordinary people to empty their pockets and hand over their clothes, selling everything they have on them to the artist. For the artist, as philosopher, this project constitutes a certain approach to Marxist concerns, since those willing to sell their whole ‘self’ to him are usually migrant city workers who might work at companies such as Foxconn or Huaqiangbei and have on them things such as a collection of red train tickets and books bought from street stalls. Liu Chuang has done this for ten years; as a member of the audience, I have actually seen this intervention everywhere around the world during this period. Every time I stop and linger, not because of any Marxist interest, but rather because I have been truly astonished, and I have sighed at the way that Liu Chuang could take someone – especially someone poor and unkempt – and re-organise their utterly chaotic lives, indifferent to aesthetic concerns, into something so utterly clean and orderly. My interest was in the way that all the crumpled receipts were ironed out at a fancy laundry, as if the items of cheap and vulgar clothing were placed as if they were real artworks, and as if the dubious novels bought from street stalls, providing a focus of attention in the top left-hand corner of the image, had been a haunting and poetic collection of historical artefacts belonging to Mayakovsky. The aesthetics on display in the series Buying Everything on You constitutes almost a nightmarish misreading of Marxism, of the Stalinist variety; it purposely aestheticises what ought to be miserable lives, ultimately transforming the minute details of the lives of people from all walks of life into a homogeneous form, much like a coffin, above whose pall they are clearly unable to raise their heads. I wonder whether the result would look the same if someone like the billionaire, Mr. Yun, had sold everything on his body to Liu Chuang. Yet such an equivalence would most likely be an illusion, or an expression of the artist’s purely imaginary idea of his own ability to care about others.
It is pointless to demand a seamless link between the intention of an artist and their resulting work; this is not their strength. Hence I am still spellbound by Liu Chuang’s work, in much the same way as one is spellbound by the razzle-dazzle of a capitalist metropolis. As an ‘object’, the work itself is akin to Geng Jianyi’s clean hospital beds and Zhang Enli’s tidy paintings of wires, or the neat carpets of Sui Jianguo – offering an intense, yet simple, visual stimulation and pleasure that encourages the viewer to linger. This exhibition, entitled ‘The System of Objects’, is actually very tidy – tidy enough to make one intoxicated, so tidy that those dazzling Coke bottles by Zheng Guogu – who obsesses over the crude and the rough – would appear to bear distinct outlines, so beautiful that any apparently ‘critical’ or negative anti-bourgeois sentiments would appear to be unfounded. It is not necessary to mention how we Chinese face too much basic visual ugliness every day, so that even a little petit-bourgeois beauty is clearly a luxury. As for the potential that luxury goods present for social critique, let us not discuss it – at least, this exhibition does not seem to discuss it!
In this frugal, materialistic country of ours, only objects possess true ideological weight – anything, from a thermos flask to an electric kettle, can be seen as not merely a technological advance but a revolution in thought. From washing machines and refrigerators to the washing machines and refrigerators dissected, in an alienated manner, by the artist Liu Wei, in As Long as I See It, there is not merely a visual form of historical materialism, but possibly a variety of visual abstract expressionism. After I saw the exhibition, curated by Wang Min’an, who wrote A Discourse on Household Electronics, due to the fact that an ideology that tolerates beauty and fetishises objects abandons the truly distorted logic inherent to them, I also came to respect the fact that the philistine, as well as the non-vulgar, parts of ‘The System of Objects’ move at the same pace. To borrow from Wang Min’an, following Walter Benjamin, ‘machines have their anti-lyrical essence’. It is debatable, however, whether Liu Wei’s washing machines and refrigerators, dissected in the manner of geometric aesthetics, or Wang Yuyang’s retro objects, incorporated into respirators, are all so clean and beautiful, with their fetishistic lyricism. This is not only a mechanistic, anti-bourgeois lyricism, but an utterly new lyricism in art – what Baudrillard would call ‘semiotic’… Hence, in the face of aesthetics, morality possesses no cardinal principles of right and wrong. To quote from Wang Min’an: ‘Exploring knowledge is, in fact, exploring the knowledge of things’ – these words seem to have no particular logic, yet they are full of energy. The goal of aesthetics is none other than to stifle a vulgar system of object-fetishism and to re-establish an entirely new system of fetishism that clearly demarcates ( or attempts to ) a laudable fetishistic system of art from a kitschy, petit-bourgeois kind of fetishism. Qiu Xiaofei’s A Sample Room – Toilet is the best example of this – an old-style flush toilet spotted with rust, at one side of which there is a running tap with rusty water trickling down the side of a ceramic basin, and a couple of well-worn thermos flasks on the floor below. This is clearly a site that epitomises the ugly, old-fashioned Chinese toilets of the 1980s. Yet an audience that is familiar with this kind of thing will not mistake it for a simple reproduction, of anthropological significance. The installation set out by the artist Qiu Xiaofei has aesthetic significance, meticulously positioned everywhere, down to that toothbrush holder, purposely made filthy and tossed into the basin. A Sample Room seeks to express that pithy lustre of coarseness itself – much like the material of painting. If it were not for this, an artist’s existence would no longer be necessary, in theory. Thus, reading this work becomes somewhat difficult, because I do not understand whether the artist is constrained by his aesthetic training, in the process of expressing ugliness, or is constructing a stage, in order to aestheticise ‘backwardness’.
To my mind, the fluent exhibition text by the curator, Wang Min’an, contains a predetermined error, arising from the expediency of translation – he utterly mixes up ‘things’ ( wu ) and ‘all kinds of objects’ ( keti ), generally encompassing ‘all kinds of reality’. Thus, Kant’s noumenon and ‘thing-in-itself’ ( referring to the unknowable essence of objects ) are entirely, conveniently, and concretely, objectified. Such philosophical pragmatism is undoubtedly all too common in the field of contemporary art. As an exhibition, ‘The System of Objects’ has very few connections with this, but as an audience, such a pragmatic use of these concepts would take us into a strange category, like Wang Luyan’s W Electric Fan [ or: 1980s Electric Fan ], whose ‘thing-in-itselfness’ is truly incomprehensible – until we read the label, that is. It turns out that the artist has reversed the rotational direction of a 1980s electric fan from clockwise to anti-clockwise, in order to let one ‘return to the 1980s’. Faced with conceptual artists who continue the tradition of Duchamp’s work in this manner, a philosopher as curator will find it hard to have any better ideas.
Out of the whole exhibition, I liked the young artist Leng Guangmin’s Five Directions of a Screen ( a room-dividing screen ), the most. This simple work, in the category of ‘object research’, left me utterly relieved. In terms of the unexpectedness of colour or details, and in terms of its perspective, too, this work is cool, calm, and ordinary; you could see that it has had no ideological content, aside from the observation of an object – and this was certainly why this exhibition moved me, visually. Eight of the ten works do not have an overt ideological approach; they are without the satire that is so aesthetically tiring, to a greater or lesser degree. They are immersed in the oldest and most instinctive mode of artistic creation: the observation and beautification of everyday objects, the reconstitution and beautification of everyday objects, the reproduction, improvement, and beautification of everyday objects, and – perhaps the most brilliant kind – the alienation and beautification of everyday objects. We must frankly accept that the function of artists, as thinkers, is clearly overestimated; one would be laying a trap for oneself if one thought that complex powers of speculation were embedded be found in this work. What we see is the most utterly anti-bourgeois fetishism – the things or objects here, like any bourgeois things or objects, seem to be the ultimate origin of art as decorative objects. In all honesty and seriousness, they serve their masters, the artists.
在我们这个朴素唯物主义的国家，唯有物具备真正的意识形态重量——从热水瓶到电水壶不仅是科技的进步，也是思想的革命。从洗衣机和冰箱到被艺术家刘韡《看见的就是我的》里异化解剖的洗衣机和冰箱不仅是视角的历史唯物主义，还可能是视角的抽象表现主义。看一场写了《论家用电器》一书的汪民安策划的展览，出于对美的宽容而局限于‘恋物’的意识形态是放弃了里面真正扭曲的逻辑趣味，《物体系》之庸俗的部分与它反庸俗的部分步伐一致——这点让我敬仰——借用汪民安借用本雅明的话，‘机器有着反抒情的本质’，然而无论刘韡用几何美学剖解的洗衣机和冰箱，还是王郁洋装了呼吸机的复古物品，不用我说，都干净得、美得充满恋物癖的抒情，这种抒情不再是机器反对的那种小布尔乔亚的抒情，而是全新的，来自艺术的，鲍德里亚所谓‘符号式’的抒情……因此在美学面前，伦理不具备什么大是大非，引用汪民安的话——‘探讨知识，实际上就是探讨物的知识’，这句套话看起来没什么道理，但充满力量——美学的目的无非是扼杀庸俗的恋物系统，又建立全新的恋物系统，可歌颂的艺术的恋物系统，与媚俗的小布尔乔亚恋物（ 试图 ）划清界限的恋物系统。仇晓飞的《样板间（ 厕所 ）》是最好的例子——斑驳生锈的老式抽水马桶、水龙头歪向一边滴淌一排锈水的陶瓷水斗、破旧的热水瓶、红色的澡盆——这当然是一幅象征着1980年代中国厕所之丑陋落后的图景，但熟练的观众面对这样的场景早已不会误认为这是动机简单的人类学意义上的复制，事实上，艺术家仇晓飞布置的场面是具有美学意味的，一直精确到掉在水斗里的那个故意显得脏兮兮的牙刷杯。《样板间》要表达的粗糙本身简洁光滑，如画。倘若不是如此，艺术家的存在理论上就不再有必要了。因此阅读这个作品变得有些困难，因为我不明白艺术家是在表现丑的过程当中受制于自己的美学训练，还是在搭建美化‘落后’的舞台。从我的理解，策展人汪民安洋洋洒洒的策展人大文有个来自翻译的技巧的先决性错误——他把物和大意义上包含各种现实的客体彻底混为了一谈，因此把康德意义上的本体和所谓‘物自体’(Thing-in-itself，指事物之人所不能理解的本质)也统统方便得具象地物化了。这种哲学上的实用主义在当代艺术领域无疑家常便饭。《物体系》作为一场展览与此关系甚少，但作为观众，同样实用主义地运用这些概念会让我们抵达奇怪的范畴，比如王鲁炎的《80年代的电风扇》——它的‘物自体’确实让人无法理解——在没有看标牌之前。原来艺术家把顺时针吹风的80年代电风扇改成了逆时针，为的是让人‘重返80年代’。作为策展人的哲学家面对这样继承杜尚传统的观念艺术家恐怕很难有什么更好的办法。