ArtSlant: Data as Art

Zhan Rui – The Stock Exchange, Weather and Sex

Boers-Li Gallery, 1-706 Hou Jie, 798 Art District, Jiuxianqiao Lu, 100015 Beijing, China

19 May – 19 June, 2011

A few weeks ago I reviewed Breaking Away, Boers-Li Gallery’s abstraction group show here on ArtSlant. I then travelled a few blocks West within 798 Art District to Space Station to cover XYZ, the solo show by one the participants, Xie Molin. And this time I’m returning to Boers-Li, where another participant, Zhan Rui, has his own solo show in their smaller galleries upstairs. Suffice to say, in Beijing at least, abstraction appears to be popular right now.

Zhan Rui’s work represents the type of abstraction that uses the painted image as a means to present data in a pseudo-scientific manner, using interpretations of the raw information as a means of populating the canvas with form. These paintings show the results of a systematic analysis of aspects of the real world, using a set of painterly systems chosen by the artist to reflect them.

There are essentially two forms of painting on show here. In one case, a series of six small canvases painted with thin horizontal striations in red or green represent the up- or downticks of specific stocks over a certain period of time. The other paintings in the show work within a 9×9 grid, each cell filled in various ways to represent either the weather or the sex lives of the subjects over an 81-day period.

Without the extra clue given by each of their titles—pointing out their respective connections to “The Stock Exchange, Weather and Sex”—the pictures tell us little and remain colourful arrangements. Even with those clues however, the connections are not made clear, a key to the forms is not given, and we are left to our own imaginations with only a vague understanding of the connections between forms and the events that apparently informed them.

The way the data is re-presented ultimately seems arbitrary, and as abstract as the data itself that is extracted from the world then formed into these charts. Unlike Xie Molin’s paintings that present the remains of the direct action of his machine on the paint and surface of the canvas, Zhan Rui’s works sit at another remove. They straddle an uncomfortable gap between a scientific representation of data and an artistic interpretation of the same – not so far from reality, but far enough to be alienated from it. They are an abstraction of an abstraction.

My own efforts to make sense of the data, as presented by these paintings, simply led me to understand that this search is a fool’s errand. And if I could accurately interpret the data – what then? The pieces titled “Time for sex and love” perhaps afford some mild titillation, but ultimately without a firm index back to the real world, what can really be learned?

I felt that all the pieces demonstrated this disconnection – an alienation from our activities that leaves space open for fantasy but ultimately prevents meaning from cohering. These paintings are literal stereotypes, in their partial and arbitrary representations of selective data.

Which left me with a sense of the hopelessness behind our attempts to understand phenomena, or people. This is perhaps a point of the work – they demonstrate a hint of insight, a gesture towards completeness, to understanding, but ultimately are simply poised above the mass of data in the world, sampling what amounts to a drop in the ocean.

Do these pictures have the potential to enlighten us? It’s unclear whether this is even an aim of the artist. The artists’ choices are as arbitrary as our own choices; the information as selective as our own attention to the world. We focus on some “high value,” “highly significant” data that we think makes sense of everything, but really all we know are our own tiny samples from which we extrapolate into cliché and stereotype.

Author: Edward Sanderson

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ArtSlant: Data as Art by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International