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.

Seth Siegelaub

Seth Siegelaub: It was my lack of economic means and l’air du temps which created the relationship that existed between the kinds of shows I did and the artists with whom I was involved. It was an attempt to get away from the gallery because my feeling at the time, as it is now in the case of publishing, is that a space becomes sacralised. The economics of the situation is such that you need to fill a space with eight or ten shows a year, and it is inconceivable that you can do that and remain interested in all of the work you show. You didn’t run a gallery, the gallery ran you – it was just another form of alienated work experience. The gallery came to determine the art to the extent that painters would paint paintings to fit the walls of their dealer.*

  • Buren, Daniel and Siegelaub, Seth (1988/89). May 68 and all that. Interviewed by: Claura, Michel and Dusinberre, Deke. In Bickers, Patricia and Wilson, Andrew, eds. Talking Art: Interviews with artists since 1976. London: Ridinghouse 2007, p.298.

Authenticity: Artworks that cheat

“What Else Could We Talk About?” [Venice Biennale, Mexican Pavilion by artist Teresa Margolles] addresses the increasing violence and record homicide rate in her home country with a series of visually understated installations including several rooms left empty except for a bucket and mop, which are periodically used to wash the stone floors by one of the pavilion’s attendants. The wall text reveals that the water has been infused with the blood of murder victims, so, in a sense, we are walking on dead bodies. But my major problem with the work is this: if any of the rules are bent over the course of the six-month exhibition – the blood not real or the buckets filled with ordinary tap water, then the work loses its efficacy and authenticity. A work like this can’t simply be a metaphor: the execution should be strictly faithful to the concept; any deviation cheats the audience and makes the whole work disingenuous.1

I think this is too essentialist a view for my liking – the idea that an artwork consists of rules and they must be followed for it to be successful (do I mean that? There are many works that I value because they are convincing expositions of their raison d’être, which is where their power comes from). When the meaning of art is in the head, à la Conceptualism, the actual form is demoted in importance. As arch-Conceptualist, Sol LeWitt said:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.2

So, in this case, I already get the idea behind the piece, but does it matter if—in reality—it’s real blood being used? And, if it’s the actual blood of murder victims? Personally, I think not.

To be honest, I think that if you find yourself raising questions like this, it reflects a deficiency in the piece itself: it could just as easily have remained an idea. The execution (as light as it is) actually pushes the piece over the edge into heavy-handedness. But as an idea it’s a pretty lightweight response to the subject matter, and raises practical questions like: how is all this blood being obtained? Questions which are not entirely irrelevant, but perhaps subsumed to the original meaning of the work, and end up being distractions. I think if you’re asking questions like this, it’s a good symptom that the work has failed in it’s purpose.

UPDATE: More information about the Teresa Margolles piece:

For the last two decades, the artist has brought to light the bureaucracy and protocol that has arisen in order to process the dead in Mexico City’s morgues, many of whom are casualties of police corruption, gang violence, drug wars, and poverty. Her work is an attempt to create a memorial and a space of contemplation for the cyclical violence that has prematurely ended these lives by using the material traces left behind– the water used to wash corpses, the blood stained rags from the clean up of a scene of an execution, and the shards of glass embedded in the skin of a victim of a drive-by shooting. The exhibition was staged in the crumbling, dilapidated sixteenth century Palazzo Rota Ivancich in the Castello district, whose uneven floorboards, peeling baroque wallpaper, and rusted light fixtures recalled an aristocracy that had long since vacated the premises. The interior was left exactly as is, and each day the floors were washed with water containing blood from damp rags used to mop up crime scenes after the official forensic work was complete. These same rags were hung up and hydrated on the ground floor of the building, and the pools of water collected underneath were then used in the next day’s cleaning. The interdependence between Mexico’s drug wars and a globalized economy were brought to the fore by the artist’s intervention in the Giardini grounds a week before the opening. Margolles hung fabric infused with the blood of executed people from drug-related crimes in the northern border of Mexico on the entrance of the United States Pavilion, signaling the U.S.’s inextricable ties to the Mexican drug trade and resulting violence.…Margolles and Todorovic’s investigations of the fate of the human body vis-à-vis biopolitical control underscore the fact that artists often do not have the privilege to make worlds, but must create in the worlds made for them.3

  1. Lange, Christy (2009), Editors’ Blog: Postcards from Venice – Part 6: The Awards, Frieze Magazine. Retrieved 8 June, 2009, from
  2. LeWitt, Sol (1967), Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum, No.5 (Summer 1967). pp.78–83. Retrieved 8 June, 2009, from
  3. Moss, Ceci (2009), A Whole New World? On the 53rd Venice Biennale, Retrieved 12 June, 2009, from