"International Joke" Shen Jingdong Solo Exhibition
International Joke: International and Regional Politics in the Eyes of a "Soldier"
In the Chinese context, the title “International Joke” has two meanings. First, it signals the enormity of the joke, the absurdity of the situation, or the seriousness of the consequences. Second, it shows that the joke has a broad appeal, and might even touch on some international issues.
Jokes, amusement, and humor have always been important to Shen Jingdong’s work. Most importantly, he employs absurdity, appropriation, self-ridicule, and ordinary political satire, which arise from identity dislocation. From a global perspective, the artistic forms of The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech author Jaroslav Hasek and Don Quixote by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra approach those that Shen employs in his work. Shen’s works resonate with these two literary works, because he uses the pedestrian to deconstruct and ridicule hypocritical classicism and blind worship, just as he uses the admixture of laughter and tears to announce the end of belief.
Shen’s artistic methods were inspired by an actual psychological experience. His career began in a way very similar to that of the majority of his colleagues and contemporaries. When he was young, he studied drawing and color in the art classes at the local youth center, and after the Cultural Revolution, he was lucky enough to receive systematic training at a professional art academy. The course of his life underwent a dramatic change after he graduated from the Nanjing University of the Arts and he was assigned to work on stage performances with the frontline cultural troupe in the political department of the Nanjing Military Command. The cultural troupe or the “cultural soldiers” in the army are a distinctive phenomenon in many socialist countries. Of course, for many Chinese people of that era, this was an excellent, almost ideal, profession, because it provided a stable income, substantial social status, and allowed you to work in your field of interest with dignity. These cultural soldiers also had other privileges, including the fact that they did not need to complete the rigorous military training required of the combat units and that they could usually dress in street clothes.
When the vast majority of his colleagues in the military were satisfied with simply working in art and culture, Shen Jingdong became aware of another possibility almost by chance. Every time the cultural troupe performed a drama, many of his colleagues would have fun taking group photos in military dress uniforms that they were not usually allowed to wear, and Shen Jingdong served as the photographer. After he developed the pictures, he discovered a “self” that he did not recognize, a politicized and symbolic self. I think that, after this, the question of whether he was actually a soldier or an artist, and how he would balance the relationship between the two became identity issues to which he could not find solutions.
Since the ’85 New Wave, the city where Shen lived, Nanjing, has had a tradition of experimental art, with a tendency toward conceptual artistic expression. Compared to the symbolic works that would later make a splash in the art market, the art made in Nanjing was characterized by a literary symbolism, and this might have an intrinsic relationship to the long humanistic tradition of southern China. I first saw Shen Jingdong’s work at a group exhibition in Nanjing in 2002, and he presented a video of a performance piece. The work was called “Scrape Scrape Scrape,” and in it, a nude Shen Jingdong had others scrape all of the hair off of his body. As I recall, Shen introduced the work, which seemed to be related to his emotional experience. Within the scope of conceptual art in Nanjing, I did not pay much attention to this piece, which overemphasized personal emotional expression. Now it seems that, on the surface, the piece dealt with the travails of love, but its deeper psychological motivation may have been the conflict and dislocation of identity that had previously troubled him. This artistic action seemed to bring to an end to his long-standing anxiety about his identity. Before long, he moved to Beijing to begin his life as a professional artist, even though he had not yet retired from the military. At the time, I was an editor at Tomarts, and Brian Wallace at Red Gate Gallery in Beijing put out a global call for artists-in-residence. After the call was announced on Tomarts, Shen Jingdong was the first artist selected, and with that, he began working in Beijing. I think that this was the most important choice of Shen’s life.
In the few years before he came to Beijing, he did not seem to immediately find a creative direction that suited him. For those years, he continued to work under the conceptual “Nanjing tradition.” This changed in 2003 with a ceramic piece, a bust of a soldier wearing an old-style military uniform. The soldier had a round face and a simple, innocent expression that also revealed a bit of cunning. The figure was obviously imprinted with Shen’s form and personality. This rather small piece has clearly become a significant motif that has permeated all of the later work that would bring him significant fame. Despite this, I find this sculpture a bit feeble; it is unidirectional and lacking in richer transformations of language and juxtapositions of meaning.
This turning point for Shen stemmed from this porcelain piece; he chose a change in form, transposing the porcelain onto a two-dimensional plane through the language of oil painting. Many artists now use different media to continually replicate the same stylistic symbols in their work, but Shen was different. When he transformed the modeling techniques and textures of porcelain through oil painting, the signifier in his work became more distinctive and the signified became part of a richer and deeper re-creation process.
First, the three-dimensional methods of the porcelain original make the subject real and tangible, but its environment is fictional. However, in two-dimensional paintings, the modeling language is fictional, which leaves immense space for the re-creation of an image; in paintings, the background can be specific and realistic. In Shen Jingdong’s work, the majority of the backgrounds for the figures are monochromatic, flat spaces, but the colors have specific and fresh psychological implications. After the shift to two-dimensional painting, the relationship between signifier and signified became richer and more multi-faceted. Second, in these paintings, Shen further strengthened the superficial visual effects of light on the surface of the porcelain. In this way, he further heightened the kitsch and humor of his linguistic system, which has become a kind of personal symbol. Third, and most importantly, the paintings of these porcelain originals were not specific people; they were manufactured dolls, which are inevitably standard types that can be easily replicated. In art theory, these are not positive terms, but in Shen Jingdong’s work, they become a way to deepen the meaning of his pieces.
In Shen’s mature creative period, the polyphonic textual structures embodied by his work and the juxtaposition of dislocated forms and meanings had their psychological origins in that identity dislocation and anxiety that plagued him for so many years. After a long period of accumulated social experience and experimentation with artistic styles, that identity crisis finally became a rich creative resource and a way of individualizing his work.
Looking back, the most obvious theme in his Hero and Bound series was light comedy, to the point that his works do not reflect a clear values judgment. However, the innocent, simple, and almost dull figures in his paintings, reveal their humorous, cunning side when they conscientiously work to play a game with the sublime. The power of comedy lies in the absurdity of the juxtaposition of forms and scenes, the self-mocking boredom, and the vulgar, petty ridicule and satire. Light-hearted jokes cause the instant collapse of the classics of the collective unconscious and the sense of the sublime supported by national will. Like the good soldier Švejk that Hasek portrayed, the more he worked to play the role of the “good soldier,” the more the overall absurdity of the standards that made him a “good” intensified the dramatic and satirical effect of the “serious” innocence of his behavior. The figures in Shen Jingdong’s work also bear a resemblance to Don Quixote; in an era of mistakes, he stubbornly follows a “correct” and idealized set of values. Although his entire way of behaving is absurd, the mixture of laughter and tears in his story announces the end of faith; its psychological foundation comes from the shift in China’s society and culture toward commercialism and consumerism, depressed by losses felt deep in the Chinese heart.
Strangely, Shen Jingdong’s works employ a very individualized form of self-mockery, cunningly returning himself to the ordinary, normal masses, but within the scope of signifier and signified in his work, the signified person is rarely present, so an obvious violation is never felt. In contrast, the vast majority of people interpret his work through a kind of collective revelry. This is a deeper level of satire.
Returning to his solo exhibition at the Korean Craft Museum, because the context in which the works were displayed had changed, Shen Jingdong no longer wanted to simply scatter them around the venue; the changes in the environment transformed the logical framework and display methods of the entire exhibition into a creative process for a new work. Based on the original jokes of the works and the social and historical patterns and international political situation of the place in which the exhibition will be held, Shen was keen to discover that the past and present of the complex regional politics in northeast Asia was something he could use in this exhibition. Combined with his personal experience, Shen hoped to observe, consider, and express the internal and external logical relationships of regional politics from the perspective of a “soldier,” which was the source of the “International Joke” idea.
The current political situation in northeast Asia is the result of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the problems of terrorism and the environment have become more prominent and economic globalization has increased, thereby causing immense changes in the old Cold War order. In today’s world, bilateral and multilateral relationships between nations that are neither friends nor enemies or both friends and enemies have become normal in international politics. In the specific case of northeast Asia, the Cold War mentality has naturally persisted, but political tussles between major nations, the reciprocity of cultural imports and exports, and the balance between international trade surpluses and deficits invariably control changes in the regional situation. Military confrontation is the extreme expression of the conflicts between nations, but today, economic sanctions, cultural resistance, and even visual and psychological warfare on television and the internet are methods for enriching traditional regional politics. That is to say, today’s economic wars, trade wars, currency wars, culture wars, and media wars have already become the normal manifestations of conflicts between nations, and military power has become an invisible deterrent. As a “soldier,” how should he treat sudden, unexpected changes in current regional political patterns? Is he not confronted with immense emptiness and absurdity that occurs when his identity and society change, much like Don Quixote and Švejk? In Shen Jingdong’s solo show, we can see that the soldiers purposely play the role of symbols of traditional national power and dignity, but this performance has increasingly become a part of the visual consumption of mass media. These figures represent the dislocation of identity faced by a “solider” in today’s mass consumer society and the immense absurdity that this dislocation often inspires.
Jokes and humor are the most distinctive artistic traits in Shen’s work. The formation of his artistic language was related to the confusion brought about by his early dislocation of identity. In his mature period, his early experiences were extended into a consideration of the collective unconscious of several generations of Chinese people since the time of the revolution. On the surface, the works are full of absurd self-ridicule and satire, but behind this comedic absurdity and fiction lies an authentic Chinese emotional experience. At this solo exhibition in South Korea, Shen Jingdong has further expanded this humor to the regional political situation and international relations, thereby examining and exploring commercial globalization, mass consumerism, and traditional military methods in the post-Cold War era, as well as the hilarity and absurdity of their present interdependence.