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. 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.