Urban Flux magazine: Context & Content – A transposition of boundary

Fan Ling: Fat, Flat, Float

CU Space, 706 Beisanjie, 798 Art Zone, Beijing

11 – 24 June, 2011

Urban Flux magazine cover

Rather than at its appearance as part of this show at CU Space, the first encounter I had with Fan Ling’s work was as part of the Focus on Talents Finalists Exhibition at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, where the works FAT and FLAT were transposed to the new venue. Thus the art museum provided the original context for my understanding of his work and that provides a launching off point for my appreciation of it.

Although the work was plainly informed by architecture, it was not until later that I found out that Fan Ling was a professional architect, rather than my immediate assumption of his being a “professional” artist. But many artists work with or as architects, and many architects work with or as artists – we surely are beyond the stage where such divisions are necessary (aside from as an indicator of practical qualifications). Up to a certain point it is impossible to distinguish between the two disciplines. The architect may have their particular focus—they may be more practical and work at a larger scale—but essentially they seem to be doing the same thing as the artist: transferring creative ideas into some form of reality. Vito Acconci is perhaps the most established practitioner straddling the divide between artist and architect, who sees all his works—from his early performances through to the creations of his architecture office—as being about the use of space. But every artist who dreams of space partakes of a certain relation with architecture, so crossing these disciplines is not really an issue.

That said, we still live with the institutions based on those divisions, the art gallery or museum, the architects’ office, and my urge to read the work one way or the other demonstrates the power such names and their associations hold. In the case of Fan Ling’s work, the art museum became the context for the work and affects its perception in some ways.

Art has always played with context to inform the work. Context provides many clues and signals for the reading of a work. In the latter 20th Century the practice of Institutional Critique directly played with the assumptions implicit in our understandings of works of art in institutional settings, but there is also a far wider and older set of literature on the role galleries and museums play in the reception and understanding of cultural objects. For me many of the most interesting works of art are precisely playing with these contextual clues to interrogate our assumptions about our literal and metaphorical surroundings. The appearance of Fan Ling’s work in what I took to be an art exhibition, in an art museum, serves to upset my assumptions on the one hand for the show I was in, and on the other hand of Fan Ling’s works themselves.

Looking at the presentation itself, the three parts of Fan Ling’s exhibition progress in an apparently rational fashion. Starting with what amounts to a close reading of a Chinese scroll painting (FAT), the picking apart and remaking of the scenes and viewpoints depicted within it create (or perhaps reveals, in the sense that it was in full view all along) an understanding of the representation of space through time. Fan Ling’s final result being a tortuously cut and folded version of the scroll laid out on tables in the exhibition that re-presents the original painter’s manipulations in completing the task of representing a landscape adjusted by a changing narrative.

The second part (FLAT) applies the lessons learned from this scroll manipulation to an already extant urban setting: Shanghai’s Century Avenue. In a similar way to that in which the subject creates and is created by the views in the scroll, the Avenue is analysed (and made “FAT”) through a subject’s movements through the space, defined by the pivoting and warping of viewpoints.

As a practical experiment, taking advantage of these analyses of the past and the present, the third part (FLOAT) rips from its physical and conceptual moorings a small, ubiquitous section of the urban fabric, the grassed area, and pulls it apart to renew the subjects understanding of the compromised nature of the land they inhabit.

A purely formal reading of these pieces might make comparison with the styles of Futurism and Cubism, with their fractured realities and abstraction of forms. The folds which Fan Ling puts his landscapes through, and the meanings of those folds as analyses of time and space perception seem to have parallels with the Futurist awareness of and obsession with the dynamics of movement in space. The multiple viewpoints pulled apart and put back together in other forms also bear a comparison to the Cubist faceting of space on the flat canvases of Braque or Picasso.

Other, more recent, formal links can be made with Deconstructivism, an informal movement that knew no disciplinary boundaries. Deconstruction in many cases abstracted influences from the historico-geographical nature of a site, expressing them through a layering and accretion of architectural elements and plans, itself initiating a productive relationship between art and architecture. One can see the oil paintings produced by Zaha Hadid’s office for the Hong Kong Peak proposal as an appeal to the techniques and methods of art to serve in the presentation and understanding of architecture.

Raised against these formal exercises is that they lose any relation or meaning to reality, becoming simply spectacular imagery serving as props for the projects, satisfying a need for excitement in what one suspects may be a less than exciting realisation. Architectural renderings have always aimed to present projects in a positive light, whose link to the reality may be tenuous at best. Art, though, is not necessarily beholden to such requirements of clarity or practicality. Indeed art which upsets clarity, forces new ways of seeing and understanding the world, something which architecture equally taps into.

As a whole, Fan Ling’s development of the analyses of the scroll—through the application of the analyses and development of them in the Century Avenue site; ultimately leading to the original adaptation of Floating Green—serves as a case study in how art, as a way of looking, in a productive relationship with reality, can engender new methods of working with and within the world which can productively map back onto architecture. In art it is no matter perhaps that the dream cannot be built – failure can be built in as a productive tool. The process of solving the problems arising from the interface between fantasy and reality creates new methods. This process works both ways, as can be seen by the starting point to Fan Ling’s project: the scroll as artwork is on one level an aesthetic object informed by architecture and experiences of space and time.

The work itself displays a concern with the creation of the subject, the audience for the work as well as the characters in the work itself. This understanding is of an external agent as viewer and participant in the pieces and the spaces that it represents, with the power of the pieces as having an effect on the construction of the subject through those spaces and through their representation in the particular ways we see in the galleries. The role of the subject is as completer of the works, as addressee for the meaning of the work. The original painter of the scroll and later Fan Ling take this subject as central in the formation of their respective pieces. Speaking to this subject through the pieces, the artists attempt to set up a conversation in both directions, between the didactic effect of the work itself and the subjects’ input through their existence in and interpretation of the work.

This active role of the subject is parallel to the subjects’ contextual understanding of the works. Returning to my initial experience, an important event for the work lies in the audiences’ reception, where every person interprets the works (in part) based on their understanding of their immediate surroundings. The piece being first presented in a gallery expressly dedicated to architecture creates a fairly clear context. Possible confusion about the meaning of the works then comes from within them, as the works themselves move beyond concerns with buildings per se to work with more ethereal concerns of time and space and experience. Once the works were transposed into the Today Art Museum, their context changed but apparently is still clear: it is a given that this is an institution for art.

What happens between these two venues is simply a shift in expectations and of the understanding of the role of the work. In the architecture gallery the work seems more linked to its practical applications; in the art gallery it seems more linked to its flights of fancy. These two perspectives give different understandings of the work, which are not exclusive and work together to inform the process that the work itself takes. This to-ing and fro-ing from reality to fantasy is simply the way of the creative process.

Author: Edward Sanderson

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