aaajiao and the Management of Meaning

aaajiao is a new media artist based in Shanghai, whose solo show opens on Tuesday, 7 September at the 210V Arts Centre, 50 Moganshan Lu, Shanghai. I’ve been working with him for a while now, and when this show was being organised, he asked me to write a piece about his work for the catalogue. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to the opening, so, in celebration of this event I’m posting the text here and wishing aaajiao a happy evening!

I want to begin discussing aaajiao’s works with a piece which I believe encapsulates one of his major concerns – the transference of meaning – and from there move onto other pieces that provide methodological examples of this concern and which will provoke some consequences of that activity.

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Photos from Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art

Last night saw the Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art (DICA) take to the streets of Beijing for its first outing this year.

Last year DICA was showing a selection of artists’ videos on the screens attached to the donkey, but this time around Michael Yuen and Yam Lau have created custom-built shelves for the cart which display a library of artists books.

After being moved on by the police from their original spot, DICA ended up on the corner of Fangyuan Xilu 芳园西路 and Jiangtai Lu 将台路 near the Lido Hotel, a busy intersection. There was a good turnout of locals on their way home from work and art-people, and many people took the time find out what was going on and thumb through the books:

DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July DICA, Beijing 21 July

Essay on Zheng Yunhan – short version

As promised in my previous post about artist Zheng Yunhan, I have edited down the essay to a more manageable size. This version obviously is much more condensed and shifts the focus a bit. From the intro:

As an artist is it possible to hold your subjects apart from their ideology, to present their close-at-hand concerns, to present the people around you and their lives as they take place outside of larger systems? Chinese artist Zheng Yunhan works with subjects embedded in the cult of ideology, working to avoid being caught up by it in his presentations.

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Essay on artist Zheng Yunhan

I am please to say I was able to complete my essay on the artist Zheng Yunhan, whom we represent, ending up with an extended piece which goes through each of his works, tries to put them into context and provide some sort of critical commentary on them. My piece was informed by the work I’ve done with Yunhan over the past few years and the conversations I’ve had with him over that time. I’m very sad that we were never able to put on a show of his work in our old space, but there will always be other opportunities, particularly for the most recent project To Walk.

The dilemma I have in launching this piece of writing into the public is that I am coming with an inherent bias towards Yunhan’s work – I am his dealer after all, so perhaps you need to take that into account when you read it. However, I believe this piece is not trying to boost his works without good cause, I really believe that if there wasn’t something interesting about Yunhan’s work, something with which I could grapple in words, to try to understand (and which I thought was worthwhile trying to understand), then I don’t think I would bother putting the effort into writing 5000 words about him. Of course, you could just say “well, it’s my job to promote my artists,” but I hope that my genuine interest and enthusiasm for his work (and, yes, the issues I have with it) come through in this piece.

Right now, the text is being hosted by Li Zhenhua’s research platform Laboratory Art Beijing and I’d like to thank them for supporting of my work in this way. I’m also in the process of editing the piece down into a more pithy 1,500 words which I’ll post to this blog in due course.

Link to text.

djs and vjs: so what (are you doing)?

The previous post about the relationship between the fashion house Dior and the artists in its exhibition at Ullens Centre here in Beijing reminded me about a certain uneasiness I had about how much enjoyment I was having at the Laoban Mixing Event which took place at the CPU:798 in December and which we hope to continue in 2009.

[ASIDE: I don’t want to always seem like I’m complaining about things and especially not about Laoban, I had a great time and Jon did a great job and I fully support what he’s doing. I think in every positive I see the potential for improvement, and I also want to understand what it is that I am finding so good, I guess so I can find more of the same. So, I can be quite critical of things, as I have high expectations.]

There were some very talented performers and artists working at the event, producing stunning visuals and sounds, and I can happily admit that I loved it – I was thoroughly engaged in it.

But at times my self-awareness came back and I was left wondering: what is the point of all this, what possible purpose does it serve apart from instant gratification? There was a hermeticism about it all, cut off inside that room from reality, and that began to worry me.

Looking back, the only artist who directly addressed some audience or source outside of the small group, some kind of larger society, with a hope perhaps of making some kind of comment, was Du Qin (a.k.a. D4Q1N), specifically generating a flying array of what I think was the current RMB to USD exchange rate as part of his projection – at any point in time a quite meaningful piece of information for society.

Du Qin at the Laoban Mixing Event, CPU:798
Du Qin at the Laoban Mixing Event, CPU:798. 12/2008.

Many of the other visuals that I saw were semi- or fully-abstract patterns, which—while distracting and by and large visually appealing—seemed to serve only to distract, not to engage. In most cases the visuals were feeding off the music and vice versa, producing what amounted to a closed loop, again not entering into an engagement with an audience either within the room or beyond.

[ASIDE: Of course, there may have been meanings which were lost on me. I may have missed them, but also the nature of symbolism is much more deeply ingrained in China than in Britain (from where I got most of my visual knowledge), so the significance of some imagery may have been meaningless to me.]

Nevertheless, the disjunction between my enjoyment of the sounds and visions, and my disquiet over the lack of engagement, can be rationalised by understanding the evening itself as the engagement. The possibility of the evening happening and what it represents is the socially important thing, both looking inward to the participants and outward to the rest of the world.

I should probably learn from the Adorno quotation which I posted a while ago, about ‘commitment’ in art. He says: “It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads.” Looking further back in my posted quotes there is the Marxist Art Historian Meyer Shapiro presenting abstraction in art, for all it’s seeming lack of subject, and hence effectiveness, nevertheless is the “domain of culture in which contradiction between the professed ideals and the actuality [of our culture] is most obvious and often becomes tragic.” In a similar way, I think, the abstraction of Laoban’s participants, itself against the norms, presents an alternative which energises society purely by its presence in the system.

I would go further, though, and give more credit to the event itself as a process which creates some change, some difference. At the end of the day the event can only (re)present what the individuals are doing at any given moment. If no one is engaging through their work, then engagement will not appear. But the evening itself can serve as an engagement. By moving the means of engagement onto the level of the container, this perhaps avoids a situation where participants feel pressured to conform to a particular mode of display, one which has a rather bad reputation for histrionics.

It’s true that there are many ways to make a statement, and being part of something which makes a statement—even if you yourself don’t make one—is perhaps enough, and important. You are guilty by association, as it were.