Chen Shaoxiong, From Portable Streets to Private Diplomacy / Hou Hanru

How to look at things?

 

How to look at things around us and make sense of them is the most basic question that we try to figure out everyday. In other words, perception of the world is the central activity of our very existence. But the answers are by no means self-evident. Instead, our perceptions vary, evolve and mutate considerably according to different contexts, from physical to cultural, from social to political. In fact, this process of varying, evolving and mutating constitutes the very core content and driving dynamics of the history of human civilisation and impacts everything in our life. Visual art is no doubt the most direct and efficient territory to explore and experiment with different modes of perception and representation. Interactions between artists and their surroundings, between their individual or collective visions, imaginations and intellectual interrogations, and the constantly changing social realities, are the most decisive conditions for the making of modes of perception and representation, namely, modes of cultural production at large. The Chinese contemporary art scene, as one of the most vibrant centres of global art, against its particular background of combined economic, cultural and social developments, has also generated some of the most significant experiments in issues of perception and representation. Chen Shaoxiong, born in 1962 in Shantou, Guangdong, and living and working mainly in Guangzhou, China’s “southern gate towards the world”, is certainly one of the most inventive and influential figures in the field.

In fact, contemporary Chinese society, culture and their artistic expressions are highly complex and diversified. The complexity and diversity are exact what make today’s China so dynamic, powerful; so full of excitement and, equally meaningfully, contradiction. The immensity of the country’s territory and the geographic, historic and cultural differences therein are so obvious and intense that the notions of nation-state and identity are infinitely challenged and reinvented. It’s further intensified by the drastic debates and implementations of the modernisation project that intends, ultimately, to make China a new powerhouse in today’s globalisation. Almost all regions and main cities have produced their own cultural characteristics, languages (dialects and langage ) and life styles that inevitably, in the process of integrating the national movements of modernisation and globalisation –actively embracing influences from the outside world and radically changing the Chinese way of living – have also generated some highly interesting hybridities…

Chen Shaoxiong lives and works mainly in Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta, an area which encompasses the rapidly modernising regions among Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Macau. This is China’s most “alternative” region, the main laboratory of economic, cultural, social and even political openness. Thanks to the openness of individual and social mindsets and relatively liberated social control, people in the region can enjoy more freedom and have developed particular capacities to imagine, envision and execute inventive forms of everyday life and social communication, hence social structures based on multi-directional and multicultural principles shrewdly escape the dominance of the official ideological, political and social systems of control. This is particularly evident in the making of the new cityscape and visual cultures prompted by the unprecedented speed and scale of urbanisation of the region that has now turned it into an endless city-region, a kind of immense collage of multiple forms of urban typologies and populations from different origins. This renders the region an extremely exciting locality for all kinds of experiments in terms of economic, social and cultural innovations. What is particularly important to notice is that the main energy for such innovations mostly comes from bottom-up social claims that, through Do-It-Yourself initiatives and anticipations, is capable of forcing the top-down power system to adapt to real changes! In contrast to the early Chinese avant-garde art movement from the end of the 1970s, and especially in the 1980s, in political centres like Beijing, which were rooted in the direct confrontation with and revolt against the official ideological and visual paradigms and institutions, experimental art from Guangzhou and the PRD region has been oriented towards non-confrontational proposals aimed at opening up a new horizon of change beyond the established models of struggle. The artistic production generated within the region, largely reflects the more democratic categorisation of things and social hierarchy which prevail in the region. Pleasant co-existence between high and low, intellectual and pop culture, between official propaganda and popular media, between formal and informal economics and so on, are often optimistic, full of a sense of humour and consistently critical without falling into political clichés. Ultimately, they embrace diversity and change without any intellectual presumptions and complexity. All of these factors have allowed artists to become the most liberated and willing to transgress any established boundaries of cultural and political systems. They are by nature utopian, playful, humorous, even ironic, with a strong sense of pragmatics…

In the early 1990s, Chen Shaoxiong and his friends Lin Yilin and Liang Juhui founded the first influential artist group in the region named, curiously, “Big Tail Elephant Working Group”. The group was joined by Xu Tan a short time later. For almost a whole decade, the group, operating as an intelligent and efficient dialectical formation between collective dynamics and respect for individual characteristics, managed to self-organise and realise some of the most original critical interventions into the process of China’s urban expansion process. Like urban guerrillas, they invaded typical sites of urban development such as construction sites, half-finished buildings and expanding streets to realise their often ephemeral performances, installations and exhibitions. More radical than the Situationist dérive. they occupy new urban sectors, interrupt their normal process of construction and turned them into veritable temporary autonomous zones (T.A.Z. à la Hakim Bey). Those T.A.Z.s, open up unusual and uncontrolled spaces for urban experimentation from physical, bodily experiences to public debates on social topics.  Hence, some of the most significant and historic works of art were produced. Today these works are seen as landmarks of the Chinese and international art histories of the period. The group, having inspired a whole generation of artists from the region and beyond in the 1990s, has decisively influenced the evolution of contemporary art’s engagement with urbanisation—an increasingly significant aspect of today’s global contemporary art scene.

Chen Shaoxiong’s artistic achievement and contribution to the group are personally meaningful. Different from Lin Yilin’s persisting interests in the relation between the body and the urban space, Xu Tan’s focus on the power relationship between Chinese urban development and global politics and Liang Juhui’s inquiries into the social impact of urban density, Chen Shaoxiong immerses himself into a more “distant” but somehow more intellectually engaging question – perception, or the particular impacts of drastic urban change on our perceptive faculties. After his first series of performances and installations exploring the relationship between urban energy consumption and bodily resistance, he presents a series of video installations in the form of perceptive devices that demonstrate efforts to negotiate with the improbable balance between fundamentally precarious, contradictory elements of our perceptive faculties and their objects, notably the rapidly changing urban scenes. His installations remind us of some major figures in art history – “Seesaw”(1994), an installation with a gun potentially triggered by an seesaw balanced between two monitors showing seascapes,  and “Change the TV Channel, Change the Bride’s Decision”(1994), a robot dressed in bride with a head made of a TV set with a live broadcast, are obviously inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s “Grand Glass” and Duchamp’s visual and linguistic puns. His series “Sight Adjusters” (1995 – 1999), in the form of binoculars, invite the audience to experience the impossibility of perfect reproduction of reality through perceptive devises and negotiate with the contradictory constraints of the impossibility and the pleasure of desiring for the impossible perfection. This brings further the tradition of extending visual art through scientific and technological research (such as seen in Albert Dürer’s famous woodcut of perspective research and other Renaissance works) to confront with contemporary scenarios of urban mutation that are much more dramatic, radical and exciting. They function as devices to demonstrate the ever changing and uncertain relationships between the beholder and the outside, speedily transforming urban world. The speed of change of this urban world is so fast that any attempt to grasp it in a static way is doomed to fail. The images behind the TV screens and the two lenses of the binoculars are always changing, shifting between totally disconnected and arbitrarily bridged scenes that constantly alter and restructure the meanings of the objects and scenes. The beholders are forced to look in to the lenses in voyeuristic positions. What they get are not only perverse pleasures but also puzzling questions about the reliabilities of their perceptions of the “real world”. This is exactly how urban changes in Chinese cities can impact on our intellects and ways of living. It’s a radically mutating and intriguing new world. One should learn how to deal with it inventively… just like the bride should make her decision of whom to marry at the last moment based on watching the TV channel shifting!

 

 

Portable Streets

 

Chen Shaoxiong is fascinated by the urban change. However, different from many others who are stunned by the booming high rise concrete urban forests – hundreds of skyscrapers that appear on mainstream media and official socialist and capitalist propagandas symbolising the success of the dominant powers—he is more attracted by the “low-life” on the street level. He understands that urbanisation does not only signify hardware construction. More importantly, it involves the social transformation process of generating a truly urban and civil society – the rise of a new urbanised citizen class, immigration from rural areas, and introduction of consumer society. The formation of social, economic and political systems as well as new modes of visual and linguistic communications, and corresponding cultural values, is a key step towards integrating into the network of global cities. And the street is the most immediate and ideal location to encounter and grasp such a process. As an artist attracted by the change of his time, Chen Shaoxiong decides to focus his artistic endeavours to record the street-level life. However, he is not interested in utilizing highly sophisticated cameras and processing techniques offered by modern photography. Instead, He resorts to the most convenient instrument of recording to create his work. He chooses to use simple, cheap, fast-reacting compact cameras to literally shoot whatever he sees on the street: all kinds of people, objects and signs. At the same time, he is not particularly interested in producing carefully organised urban archives. He simply captures and displays whatever runs into the lens. There is a kind of amateurism in his work. It shows the very fragility of photography as a mature, over-established mode of representation and the necessity to abandon and deconstruct this mode in order to catch up with the pace of changes in the contemporary visual environment. The outcome is often funny, uncanny and uncomfortably challenging.

This is a conscious decision. He states that, living and looking at his home city of Guangzhou, he finds himself like a tourist who constantly discovers new faces and new things at every moment. He is deeply attracted by the ephemeral surprises caused by the incessant changes of the cityscape and its people. In order not to miss any of them, he opts to rely on the decision of the camera’s shutter to include everything by pumping it all into the lens.

“Photos are like theatre still shots of the extremely complicated theatre of human life. To recollect those interesting process, I invented a method of photo-collage. Its specialty is that its picture can be infinitely extended, and its time volume is exactly the scope that I need to watch this immense theatre of human life. Due to respect for every individual, everyone in the theatre is considered a protagonist. The concrete method is that I photograph every person, every street sign, every car, every tiny object such as a trash bin, and print them out according to the proportions of their sizes. Then the images are cut out and transformed into three dimensional cardboards to reconstruct street views at my home. This photo-narrative like a miniature kingdom is what tells my understandings of representations of real life situations.”[1]

Clearly, assuming himself as a permanent tourist living in his home city reveals a very important aspect that decisively changes the nature of contemporary cities from mutually separated localities with fixed characteristics to more generic, mutually connected and influenced globalised urban sites with mobility, in both external and internal directions. People not only observe and enjoy cultural differences when they are travelling to other cities. They are also witnessing, participating and consuming new differences in their own localities generated by the process of urban change impacted by globalisation. Sitting at home is no longer an experience of being home. Instead, it’s more and more an adventure to travel to unknown places. As Boris Groys eloquently depicts: “The times in which we live are thus an era of postromantic, that is comfortable and total, tourism; marking a new phase in the history of the relations between the urban ou-topos and the world’s topography…Cities are no longer waiting for the arrival of the tourist – they too are starting to join global circulation, to reproduce themselves on a world scale and to expand in all directions, As they do so, their movement and proliferation are happening at a much faster pace than the individual romantic tourist was ever capable of. This fact prompts the widespread outcry that all cities now increasingly resemble one another and are beginning to homogenize, with the result that when a tourist arrives in a new city he ends up seeing the same things he encountered in all the other cities. The experience of similarity among all contemporary cities often misleads the observer to assume that the globalisation process is erasing local cultural idiosyncrasies, identities, and differences. The truth is not that these distinctions have disappeared, but that they in turn have also embarked on a journey, started to reproduce themselves to expand.”[2]

In 1997, Chen Shaoxiong made his first 3-D photo-collage street view piece titled “The Street Dropped from the Sky”, a portable box containing three levels of images forming a street. Since then, he has produced a large number of similar works. Often, they are combinations of images collected from different cities, and resettled against new backgrounds of specific cities where the artist travels to for work. Boris Groys points out: “But above all, it is today’s artists and intellectuals who are spending most of their time in transit… Today the utopian impulse has shifted direction – acknowledgment is no longer sought in time, but in space: Globalization has replaced the future as the site of utopia. So, rather than practicing avant-garde politics based on the future, we now embrace the politics of travel, migration, and nomadic life, paradoxically rekindling the utopian dimension that had ostensibly died out in the era of romantic tourism.”[3] This is a new condition of artistic and cultural production today. And Chen Shaoxiong’s photo-collage street view series, with tens of variations that connect them to different local contexts around the world, not only reflect such a qualitative change of the nature of artistic production and definition of the profession, they also actively contribute to the mutation itself. Finally, they embody a new type of utopia, one that is conceptualised and unfolding in the dimension of contemporary urban space. They are “dropped from the sky” and now being brought around the world, like the new street itself!

The amateurism and portability implied in Chen Shaoxiong’s street view photo-collages are a relevant choice. They reveal that the artist is paying much more attention to how new modes of visual communication produced by mass media influence today’s artistic imagination and procedure rather than any static mode of High Art. His interest in photography is primarily in its capacity for reproduction, distribution and circulation, the very dimension of mass media which is inscribed in the collective memory of the society. This logically incites him to become aware of the fact that, in the age of Youtube, digital moving images are becoming an increasingly essential form of up-to-the minute representation and communication. This not only allows everyone to develop ones own potential to become an artist, it also encourages the breakdown of the established, modernist ideology and hierarchy in terms of art media. Now, all forms of expressions and media can become a tool of mass communication without having to fall back to the progressionist concept of new and old media. It’s exactly in this context that we can understand the newest developments in Chen Shaoxiong’s work, along with quite a number of Chinese artists, namely, resorting to animation videos of ink paintings. From 2005, Chen Shaoxiong has realised a series of ink paintings animated into videos to be shown in various versions of installations. “Ink City”(2005), “Ink Diary”(2006) and “The Days” (2007) are diary style records of the artist’s everyday trajectories across his home city and his meetings with friends and family members. Combining video, the newly “discovered” medium via TV commercials and internet cultures; and ink painting, a specifically “Chinese art language”, to depict city life shows  a conscious decision to search for relevance in confronting a new form of urban culture that is no longer founded on historic and geographic difference but rather upon the dynamism that continuously generates new differences and hybridities in the competitive process to become more and more generic and global. The new visual culture now intentionally encompasses all kinds of influences and elements, ranging from the most experimental to the most conservative, from the past to the future, while the original hierarchies among them are totally eradicated. Hybridity is the key. It is the hybrid usage of this multi-media that renders Chen Shaoxiong’s seemingly simple and easy-going scenes of everyday memories painted in a realistic style with ink extraordinary. The randomness of the fragmented recollections of memorized, unconnected and illogical moments in everyday life, or as the artist insists, “the withdraw of the (logical or linear) narrative”[4], generates a particularly beautiful rhythm that absorbs the audience into a swift, hallucinating swirl of sentiment that zooms in and out of the amazing urban world. Here, a kind of familiar and intimate communication between the art work and the audience is gradually shaped and installed. The artist states:

“Ink City’ has translated photographs shot during two years into ink paintings and then condensed them into a video of three minutes. The objective recording of the photographs have been transformed by hand painting. This process rationalised all those are missed, differed and forgotten. Both the ephemera of the photography (fragments of reality) and the narrative structure of the video (segmental process of reality) have considerably reduced my pain of struggling with the paradox.”[5]

And this presents a way to solve the fundamental existential paradox in the contemporary, globalised urban world…

 

 

High Rises that can dodge airplanes

 

Chen Shaoxiong’s inquiries and questions of perception regarding the changing urbanscape extends beyond simple fascinations with the physical spectacle of movements and changes. He understands perfectly that the current urban mutation towards a new globalised world implies and expresses all kinds of economic, cultural, social and political shifts that intensively restructure the real world we are all living in. Along with the booms of high rise buildings, free ways and neon signs, etc. which turn our new cities into theatrical spectacles; urban spaces are being turned into testing grounds for new economic, social and political relationships and structures. These in turn, under the process of global restructuring become sites of competition and struggle for domination and veritable battle fields of geopolitical conflicts between different nations, cultures and political organisations. Cities, especially cosmopolitan ones, are more and more exposed to the “fate” of these new forms of geopolitical conflicts, even wars, and include formal and informal acts of violence. What is interesting is that we tend to call those informal acts of violence, often driven by bottom-up claims by the oppressed for equality and power, “terrorism”… No city in the world can escape from such an entanglement. Cities are now, indeed, localities for global conflicts and negotiations. Thus, perceptions of the exciting new urban spectacles signify also confrontations with and considerations of the perplexities of current social and geopolitical conditions.

In some specific historic contexts, these conditions can become highly radical and even extreme. 9/11 is doubtless the most infamous example. In addition to the fatal violence and destruction that the event brought to urban life, it also suggested an irreversible, globalised change of direction in urban development – every city in the world, as a part of the network of global cities in the age of global wars, is now forced to consider this kind of violent conflict. And we should be ready to live with it, and, especially, learn from it, in terms of how to understand this tendency as an expression of deeper social, political, economic and cultural collisions between diverse groups of populations. Coming from various, and often endlessly complicated historic backgrounds, these groups are struggling for the rights both of living in and dominating the present and the future of the world. Unfortunately, coexistence of these diverse and often mutually opposing groups is a highly difficult and endless game of quarrels and fights. Chen Shaoxiong, like many other artists, is absolutely sensitive of such a tendency. In fact, his everyday life has already been directly and indirectly affected by this new global climate – “terrorism” is a regular topic in the media and urban language. And this has almost naturally become a source of inspiration when he looks into further developing  his research and exploration of new urban life. In an interview, he states: “9/11 is very close to me. It’s only 2 or 3 meters away, the distance between me and the TV set when I watch TV. This is how it is as an image. But as reality (if reality really exists and appears the same as the image on the TV), the distance between me and the event of 9/11 is the same as the one between my home town Guangzhou and New York where the event took place. So 9/11 is for me very close at some time and very far away other times.”[6] Then he came up with the most spectacular, amusing and pungently ironic video installation piece “Anti-Terrorism Variety” for the 2003 Venice Biennial (Z.O.U, Zone of Urgency) that proposed to turn some of the most famous new landmark buildings in China (the City Hall of Guangzhou, the Eastern Pearl TV Tower of Shanghai, etc.) into a new form of “anti-terrorism” architecture that could bend their bodies to defend against the attacking planes hijacked by terrorists in 9/11. Following this, a whole series of installations, paintings and objects including “Anti-Terrorism Chess”, “BBS: if they are coming” and “Zippo”, were created. The “innovative” design of the flexible high-rise buildings were inspired by some uncanny situations and behaviours of people facing violent events such as terrorist attacks, and, according to the artist “could dodge aircraft in all sorts of different ways, without damaging airplanes carrying innocent passengers. This is the most perfect idea I could come up with to prevent and fight terrorism. For the present, no architects are able to construct such a building. I hope however, that someday they will acquire this capacity.”[7]

With this purely unrealistic and utopian scenario, Chen Shaoxiong is by no means proposing any useful or effective solutions to fight against terrorism and other violence in the time of generalised geopolitical and urban conflicts. Instead, he solicits us to watch and re-examine this kind of fictive, surrealistic and humorous scenario from another perspective in order to question, on the one hand, the reliability and realness of the images related to spectacles of violence; and on the other, the very reasons and mechanisms which have provoked these kind of events, namely the “clash of civilisations” that define the unsolvable struggles between the global powers and the dominated. As a “classic” solution to, or ending of tragedies, the artist proposes we to resort to black humour:

“Whether in reconstructing major international political/media events or in dealing with tragedies of personal life, it’s equally important to have a sense of humour. In many cases, a sense of humour shows another possibility implied in reality. Or it can create a dream that is closer to our will. This kind of dreams can render some inevitable situations in reality ambiguous and distant. Every person needs sense of humour. The State also needs it.”[8]

At the end, Chen Shaoxiong says: “My dream is: politicians can make politics ‘art-icised’ instead of politicise art.” And, “art is about providing us one more choice, one more possibility. When unquestionable events become unbelievable, art can prove the believability and reliability of those unbelievable ideas.”[9]

 

 

Public Participation

 

 

Dealing with the “hip topic” of terrorism is inevitably a political engagement. More precisely, Chen Shaoxiong’s recent work focuses increasingly on the question of the political significance and function of urban space and architecture, especially their effects on the construction of social relationships. The city is a public space in permanent evolution. It is an infinite process of mutual influences flowing between its inhabitants and its physical formation. Urban politics is the outcome of such an interaction. Chen Shaoxiong’s inquiry into the representation and effects of events of urban violence is a logical step in bringing him further towards questioning the collective memories of and participation in changes of urban forms and conditions. In particular, he puts forward the necessity of involving public participation in the next stage of his work. After the series of “Anti-Terrorism Variety”, he produced two sets of painting installations that were open to public intervention. Referring to the popular tool of online exchanges among users, he named it “BBS: If They Are Coming…”. The work displays scenes of hypothetical terrorist attacks, military conflicts and occupations of cities where the works were presented (Guangzhou and Tirana, etc.) and asks the public to partake in its finalisation through answering a set of questions about strategies and methods to accomplish the “terrorist attack missions”. The scenarios imagined by the artist are clearly borrowed from recent events of urban terrorist attacks and military actions happening in geopolitical hot spots such as Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, etc. Their displacement and grafting onto the peaceful cities like Guangzhou and Tirana, which the public finds themselves, are so unlikely that it renders them totally fictive and funny. The tension between the actual violence of the events, the playfulness of the images and texts abstracted from their original context, as well as the contrast between the real threats posed to those living in the war zones, and the cool reception of media consumers who watch these events on TV and in newspapers; have made the work appear incongruously funny and uncanny. The public finds themselves in an amusing, but somehow uneasy and anxious, position. Again, through producing this kind of irony and tragicomic-ness, Chen Shaoxiong manages to mobilise the public via their interactions with images and texts to negotiate, in an intimate manner, with the political issues related to their urban environments, the spaces of today’s global conflicts.

In this series of work, Chen Shaoxiong purportedly reintroduces painting — a traditional and popular art for — as if it can more directly and effectively communicate with the general public. However, like in his resorting to ink painting in for his animation videos, his usage of painting – the “traditional medium”— is never simply a return to the past. Instead, it is “back to the future” by blending it with all kinds of “new media” and experimental languages comprised of video shooting, computer animation and video projection, etc. He brings the experiment further to an even more open and innovative field – public participation. In his recent painting series “Collective Memory – Cityscapes”, Chen invites tens of students and members of the general public to reproduce famous urban-scapes in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other major Chinese cities using their thumbs and some paint. The selections of the sites are systematically related to the political and economic landmarks which have been utilised by the State as propaganda symbols of China’s glorious history and revolutionary success. Typically, they include Tian’an Men Square, the Great Wall in Beijing, Oriental Pearl Tower, People’s Square in Shanghai, Haizhu Square, Sun Yat-Sen Memorial in Guangzhou and the Potala Palace in Lhasa and so on. These landmarks are the most frequently employed by the mass media to formulate the official image of China, and hence, its official identity. Obviously, being the most viewed photographic images in China, these landmarks have strong impact upon Chinese people’s memories and imaginations of their country. Calling on untrained individuals to reproduce them on canvas with their thumbs is an attempt to test how their faculties of memory function. It’s also an examination of how propaganda systems have affected the private worlds of these individuals. Every single work is to be formed by thousands of thumb prints of tens of people. This collective participation, on the one hand re-appropriates the strategy of social mobilisation of the propaganda machine that imposes a collective identity over individuals. On the other, it ends up distorting the images. The impossibility of perfectly reconstructing the memorised images both individually and collectively reveals the real nature of political mobilisation itself – it is a permanent struggle between the official ideology and individual resistance, between political correctness and personal deviation.

Chen Shaoxiong also states that the idea to use thousands of thumb prints of the public to reproduce the images is aimed to match physically, or in analogic terms, the surface of digital photography popular today. It represents democratisation of image culture and intellectual production:

“This is to return digital photos to pixels of various sizes. They are results of collaborations of the people who have lived in the areas depicted in the landscape paintings. Human finger prints replace the chemicals for photo processing. It’s a technique situated between a photography darkroom and painting production. It’s a collective’s remembering of its living space. Today, the change of environment happens faster than human memory’s regression.”[10]

If Andy Warhol’s paint-by-numbers proposal in his “Do It Yourself (Landscape)” (1962), etc., has revealed a fundamental shift in the nature of artistic production during the peak of consumerist society, Chen Shaoxiong’s call for collective participation to reproduce the cityscapes by memory and by thumbs follow a similar logic. What is really significant here is that the original meaning of digital print is actually finger print – the oldest system of identity check and control! Somehow, one can start questioning the artist’s real intention: perhaps his ultimate aim is, through the use of a simple method, to subvert the established — and politically and technologically sophisticated — system of contemporary image production in the age of digital technology which is so crucial for identity and social control…

 

 

Private Diplomacy

 

 

At the same time, mobilisations of collective collaboration, such as Chen Shaoxiong’s, imply a process of community building and enhancement of bottom-up social initiatives that critical re-examine cultural and political realities. In the time of globalisation, it’s unavoidable that these efforts become extended beyond the national boundary to a new geographic and cultural dimension. Trans-national collaboration is a “natural form” of artistic production today. Chen Shaoxiong understands this perfectly and increasingly makes it a new focus of his work. Interestingly, like his approach to the city that always stems from his immediate experiences, his trans-national collaboration also begins with his closest neighbours. Since 2005, he has developed various projects in collaborations with the Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Ozawa and the Korean artist Gimhongsok.

As a Chinese artist actively engaged with both Asian and global art scenes, Chen Shaoxiong has found friends abroad with whom he can share common interests and pleasures.

Starting 2005, he has collaborated with Ozawa, an artist who has a history of focusing his artistic projects on creating dialogue and exchange with others through an art form he calls sodan (‘dialogue’ in Japanese). Together they developed a series of projects titled “Canton-Tokyo”. Referring to the ancient Chinese literati game Qushui Liushang (floating the wine glass to be shared by all friends along a twisted brook), both artists produced ink paintings to record their everyday experiences and visions. The paintings were then delivered between Canton and Tokyo by international express mail and gathered to be shown in various venues. This collaboration was further developed into other forms such as performance, installation and so on. What is even more radical is that Chen and Ozawa have managed to involve their respective families in the artistic process, and have coordinated their meeting regularly as art events. In the summer of 2006, the two families gathered in Beijing for 20 days for a work entitled “Summer Holiday”. Together, the parents and two daughters lived between the city and the gallery space of Universal Studios. Each day, they came up with new ideas and made objects to reflect and record their daily process. All forms of everyday life from eating, playing, working to sleeping were materialised in various objects and performative events. The public was also invited to join in and share the process…

Trans-regional/national dialogues and collaborations are an increasingly important field that more and more artists are devoted to exploring. These explorations can allow them more openness and freedom to venture into new forms of creation. More significantly, these practices are an ideal way to respond to and participate in the making of new individual and collective identities in the age of globalisation. These identities are founded upon a novel perspective and a process prompted by confrontation, dialogue, exchange and interaction between individuals from diverse backgrounds. New forms of living and thinking, hence creating, are based on the dynamics of a global multitude that surpasses established, static and highly conservative concepts of nation-state, national and ethnic identity and “historicity” that have been largely integrated into and manipulated by the dominant power systems. Developing trans-national collaborations, whilst breaking down the boundaries between nations and deconstructing the notion of nationality based identity, implies a subversive challenge to all kinds of modern power systems that desire to systematically turn all trans-national cultural and artistic exchanges into inter-state diplomacy. What is even more interesting is that we see more and more efficient trans-national collaborations being carried out at a personal, private and societal level, and in a do-it-yourself manner, rather than being organised through any nation-state officialdom. This creates a more effective structure or channel for global exchanges, and a model of globalisation itself that respects individual freedom, cultural diversity and difference. This generates a new global structure of cultural and even political dialogue, coexistence and exchange which is based on proximities between individuals who form up the multitude rather than traditional groupings that are conditioned by the People or the Mass, namely, those who have been exploited, exhausted and utilised by dominant power systems.[11] Ultimately, this new world of proximity, nurtured and formatted by innovative explorations of everyday life experiences or the quotidian, as Michel de Certeau emphasized, produces a completely fresh geopolitical situation that is fluid, complex, cellular and ever-mutating, and therefore constantly creative. According to Arjun Appadurai, this cellular organisation is a major strategy and world vision developed by all kinds of resistance forces (including rebellions by those generally called “terrorists”) against Imperial dominance and a modern world order ruled by liberal capitalism. It can also be explored and utilised by populations who are calling for real freedom and struggling to construct a grassroots globalisation project and initiate bottom-up, “cellular democracy”.[12]

It is obvious that Chen Shaoxiong and Tsuyoshi Ozawa have captured such political implications in the making of their realm of proximate collaboration. They understand that, by “dissolving” political discourses into everyday parole, they can create a freer and much more flexible space to re-examine and redefine crucial notions, interpretations and significances of historic and contemporary events. In their collaborative projects, much like Chen Shaoxiong’s “Anti-Terrorism Variety”, they have reintroduced discussions on some historical entanglements between China and Japan and have attempted to propose their own, individual and down-to-earth perspectives. Each explored the complicated history of Sino-Japan relationship through the different terminologies and definitions about the same events and dates and exposed contradictions to the public gaze by simply exhibiting some everyday objects in a neutral way. For example, in the Summer Holidays project, a pile of cardboard boxes have the dates of some real events related to the war, conflicts, reconciliation, etc. between both countries written in black, white and red colours to represent the impact upon people from the two countries in order to reveal how they have been educated, or brainwashed, by their own authorities or led to believe in opposing views. The artists’ “objective” exposure of the events and dates, and their independent interpretations, differed according to their own experiences, educations and perspectives, and could be considered mistaken or even illegal by the official ideological machines or “public opinion”. But nevertheless, the artists have come up with totally free and alternative versions of history. Indeed, what is really manifested here is that the artists have intelligently proven that alternative views on history and political discourses, or alternative histories, are not only possible, but also necessary. In this specific case, it’s also an alternative form of diplomacy – a private diplomacy. It is a guarantee of the possibility of a grassroots and “cellular” democracy.

By nature, trans-national collaboration, or artistic forms of collaboration, always contains a utopian dimension – working beyond individual self-expression always demands an idealist common ground. And this is often the most political dimension of the work itself. Chen Shaoxiong and Tsuyoshi Ozawa have hence pushed their collaborations further to develop their alternative readings of history and reality towards a truly imaginative and utopian perspective. To make things even more open, they have invited their Korean friend Gimhongsok, a wonderful artist from the same generation, to join their adventure. Extending their humorous and ironic exploration of the historically problematic relationship between China and Japan via the project “Canton-Tokyo”, on the one hand they further complicate this relationship by implicating a third persona, “the Korean” – Korea has been for centuries been a bargaining chip between these two Asian superpowers. On the other hand, they bring the adventure “retrospectively” towards an unknown, fictive and utopian direction. The three artists have decided to work on a long term project to “excavate” and “reconstruct” a fictive capital city for the three countries: Xijing, the Western Capital, is both the ancestor and future heritage of the current capitals called Tokyo (the Eastern Capital), Beijing (the Northern Capital) etc. For the last few years, each artist has created their own version of Xijing through falsified research, investigations, interviews, and have brought them together as a unified installation to prove the existence of the “lost paradise” – the very root of the common virtues and vices shared by the three nations. They call themselves “Xijing Men”. Their efforts not only suggest an alternative reading of historic pasts, they also bring this to confront with current reality, especially, urgent social, political and cultural issues. In 2008, when China held the Olympic Games in Beijing and boasted its great success as a new superpower, the Xijing Men decided to mount their own Olympic Games. Of course, they took place in Xijing! The “games” were held in unlikely sites such as family homes, hotels, galleries, etc. with the artists as the only “sportsmen” and their family members as the only “audience”. Mimicking the serious official games in a most comic and funny way, the outcome of their ‘games’ were totally ironic and ridiculous…If the official Olympic Games represent a national and political utopia of becoming a global superpower and an international diplomacy heavyweight in the most impeccable, rigid and solemn manner, then, the Xijing Men’s own private games represent exactly the opposite: free, playful, uncontrolled and full of failure and laughter. If the utopian project of the Official Games is ultimately aiming for gaining superior and oppressive powers over the world, the Xijing Men’s version is exactly its parody and derision. It’s a private diplomacy that voices the very claims from the lower rungs of society which is striving for its own way of being. They are definitely much more open, free, energetic and vivid, and much closer to people’s hearts.

 

Appendix

 

When I was finishing writing this text, a last minute shocking event happened: in the late evening of February 8, 2009, the night of the traditional Chinese Lantern Festival, TVCC (as a mirroring image of the new CCTV headquarters – both designed by Rem Koolhaas/OMA), one of the most spectacular edifices in Beijing and freshly constructed to celebrate the Olympics and the new success of the city as a new global centre, was almost entirely burnt – by a simple firework for the lantern festival celebration! The images on the TV are so terribly overwhelming, almost comparable to the twin-towers on fire on 9/11, 2001. What’s even more stunning is that the fireworks used on the occasion, according to the official media, are exactly the same type as those used for the opening spectacle of the Beijing Olympics a few months ago!

Is there a kind of destiny out there?

After “Variety of Anti-Terrorism, should Chen Shaoxiong now design a new type of anti-fire high rise building?

 

 

San Francisco, 10 February 2009


[1] Chen Shaoxiong : Why do I photograph street views in Guangzhou ? (www.chenshaoxiong.com)

[2] Boris Groys : The Age of Touristic Reproduction, in Art Power, the MIT press, 2008, p. 105

[3] Ibid, pp. 106, 107.

[4] Chen Shaoxiong : Among Three Media – words on Ink City by Chen Shaoxiong, www.chenshaoxiong.com

[5] Ibid.

[6] Chen Shaoxiong interviewed by Hu Fang on Variety of Anti-Terrorism, on www.chenshaoxiong.com

 

[7] Chen Shaoxiong, Anti-Terrorism Variety, on www.chenshaoxiong.com

 

[8] Chen Shaoxiong interviewed by Hu Fang on Variety of Anti-Terrorism, on www.chenshaoxiong.com

[9] Ibid.

[10] Chen Shaoxiong : Collective Memory – Cityscapes, 2006, on www.chenshaoxiong.com

[11] Ref. Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri : Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, 2004, Penguin

[12] Ref. Arjun Appadurai : Fear of Small Numbers, an essay on the geography of anger. 2006, Duke University Press

 
 
 

-