"International Joke" Shen Jingdong Solo Exhibition Ⅲ
International Joke: International and Regional Politics in the Eyes of a "Soldier"
In the Chinese context, the title “International Joke” has dual meanings. First, it signifies 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. His more important ways of representation is to employ absurdity, re-appropriation, self-ridicule, and political satire from the ordinary’s perspective. All of which come from the issue of identity dislocation. Looking around the world, the artistic forms of The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech author Jaroslav Hasek and Don Quixote by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Savedra resonates to Shen works.
On one hand, Shen uses the easy-understanding approach to deconstruct and criticize on hypocritical classicism and blind worship, on the other hand he create a mood with a mixture of laughter and tears to announce the end of such belief.
Shen’s way of representation is inspired by his actual psychological experience. His early career development was similar to most of his colleagues and many other contemporary artists. When he was young, he studied drawing and painting in the local youth center. After the Cultural Revolution, he was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have systematic training at a professional art academy. His life underwent a dramatic change only after graduation from the Nanjing University of the Arts and worked fir stage Arts in the Frontline Cultural Troupe at the Department of Politics, Nanjing Military Command District. Having the cultural troupe or the “Art and cultural soldiers” in the army is a distinctive phenomenon in many socialist countries. Certainly, this was an excellent, almost ideal profession for many Chinese people of that era since it provided a stable income, substantial social status and chances for you to work in your interested field with dignity. These cultural soldiers also had other privileges, including the fact that they did not need to complete the rigorous military training as the soldiers the fight units did. Moreover, they could dress in street clothing.
When the most of his cultural troupe colleague in the army were satisfied with their special privileges working for art and culture, Shen Jingdong became aware of his identity almost by chance. Every time after the cultural troupe performance, many of his colleagues would have fun taking group photos in military uniforms that they did not wear usually, and Shen Jingdong usually served as the photographer. After he developed the pictures, he discovered a “self” that he did not recognize, a politicized and symbolized 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 an identity issue, which he could not find the solution.
Since the 85’ New Wave, Nanjing where Shen lived has had a tradition of experimental art, with a preference on conceptual artistic expression. Compared to those symbolized works that later made a great success in the art market, the art from Nanjing was characterized by a literally symbolic and collective, and this might have an intrinsic relationship to the long humanity tradition from southern China. I first saw Shen Jingdong’s work at a group exhibition in Nanjing in 2002 where he presented a video of his performance. 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. According to my memory of Shen’s introduction of his work, it was related to his love experience. Within the scope of conceptual art in Nanjing, I did not pay much attention to this piece, which overemphasized personal expression. Now it seems that, on the surface, the piece dealt with the matter of love, but its deeper psychological motivation may have been the conflict and dislocation of identity that had previously troubled him. This performance seemed to bring to an end to his long-standing anxiety about his identity. Not too long from that, he moved to Beijing to begin his life as a professional artist although he had not retired from the military.
In the first few years of his Beijing life, he did not seem to find a suitable direction of making immediately. For those years, he continued to work on the conceptual work under “Nanjing tradition.” It changed in 2003 when he made a ceramic piece which is 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 recorded Shen’s facial feature and personality. This small piece has clearly become a significant motif that has consistently occurs in all of the later works which have brought him significant fame. Despite this, I find this sculpture a bit feeble; it is unidirectional and in lack of the transformations of language and juxtapositions of meaning.
This turning point for Shen is to turn this porcelain piece into object to be re-formed. He has turned the porcelain onto a two-dimensional plane through the language of oil painting. Nowadays, many artists used different media to replicate the same stylistic symbols continually in their work, but Shen did the reverse. When he transformed the modeling techniques and textures of porcelain by oil painting so that the signifier in his work became more distinctive and the signified became part of a richer and deeper re-creation process.
First of all, the three-dimensional nature of the porcelain makes the subject real and tangible, but its environmental context is uncertain and fictional. However, in two-dimensional paintings, the visual language of depiction is mostly 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 to depict flat space, yet the colors have specific and strong psychological implications. After shifting to work on two-dimensional paintings, the relationship between signifier and signified becomes richer and more multi-faceted. Secondly, in these paintings, Shen further strengthens the visual effects of highlights on the surface of the porcelain-like figures. Therefore, he further enhances the kitsch and humorous nature in his visual language system, which has become a kind of iconic symbols. Last but not least, these porcelain objects in his painting were not real humans; they were manufactured dolls, which are inevitably standardized，typified and mass-produced. In art theory, these are not positive descriptions, but in Shen Jingdong’s work, they become a way to deepen the meaning of his works.
In the mature creative period, Shen’s works embodied the juxtaposition the polyphonic textual structures and dislocation of forms and meanings. The psychology comes from the identity dislocation and anxiety that has plagued him for so many years. After a long period of accumulated social experiences and experiments with artistic languages, his identity crisis finally became a rich source of inspirations and individual characteristics.
To sum up, the most consistent theme in his Hero and Bound series was light comedy. To certain extent, his works do not express a clear values judgment. However, the innocent, simple, and almost dull figures in his paintings became humorous and cunning when they intent to play a game of sublime diligently and seriously. The power of comedy lies in the self-mocking boredom, and the vulgar, ridicule satire and the absurdity generated by the juxtaposition of forms of the image and its context.
These kind of light-hearted jokes led to the instant collapse of the classicism and sublime of collective unconsciousness lead by the national will. Like the good soldier Švejk Hasek portrayed, because of the absurd standards of “good”, the more he try to play the role of the “good soldier,” the more the dramatic and satirical effect is intensified by his “serious” innocence in his behavior. The figures in Shen Jingdong’s work also bear a resemblance to Don Quixote who stubbornly follows a “correct” and idealized set of values in a wrong era. Although his behaviors are totally absurd, the mixture of laughter and tears in his story announces the end of faith. Its psychological substance comes from the shift in China’s society and culture towards commercialism and consumerism, repression of a great loss deep in the Chinese heart.
Strangely, Shen Jingdong’s works employ a very individualized form of self-mockery, cunningly placing oneself aside with the ordinary commoners. In addition to it, the signified person in his works is rarely present in a clear form, so an obvious violation to the signified is never felt. In contrast, most people interpret his work through a kind of collective revelry. This is a deeper level of satire.
The transformed logic and framework behind the installation of the entire exhibition is a creative process for a new work. Considering the initial jokes of the works, and studying the socio-historical patterns and international political situation of the exhibiting region, Shen discovers that the past and present of the complex politics in northeast Asia region could be his materials for his exhibition. With his special personal background, 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 original idea of the “International Joke”.
The current political situation in northeast Asia is the result of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the growing environment problems and terrorism, economic globalization, the old Cold War order has largely changed. Nowadays, the bilateral and multilateral relationships between nations are “neither friends nor enemies” or “both friends and enemies”. The phenomenon has become normal in international politics. In the case of northeast Asia, the Cold War mentality has naturally persisted. However, political struggle between the big countries, the balance of cultural imports and exports, and the equilibrium between international trade surpluses and deficits have an impact to the change of regional situation. Military confrontation is the extreme expression of the conflicts between nations, but economic sanctions, cultural resistance, and even visual and psychological warfare on television and the Internet are methods adding color to 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. Thus, the military power has become an invisible theat. As a “soldier,” how should he treat sudden, unexpected changes in current regional political patterns? Similar to Don Quixote and Švejk, would not the soldiers today confront great emptiness and absurdity when his identity and the society has changed? In Shen Jingdong’s solo show, we can see that the soldiers in his work intend to perform as the traditional national power and dignity, but this performance has become a part of the visual consumption offered by the mass media. These figures represent the dislocation of identity and great absurdity faced by a “soldier” in today’s mass consumerist society.
Jokes and humor are the most distinctive artistic characteristics in Shen’s work. The formation of his artistic language was related to the confusion brought by his dislocation of identity in early year. In his mature period, his early experiences grow into the reflection on the collective unconsciousness of several generations of Chinese since the revolution era. On the surface, the works are full of absurd self-ridicule and satire, but behind this comedic absurdity and fiction, they reveal an authentic Chinese emotional experience. At this solo exhibition in South Korea, Shen Jingdong has further expanded this humor to the issue on regional politics and international relations so as to examine and explore the idea of economic globalization, mass consumerism, and traditional military strategy in the post-Cold War era, as well as the hilarity and absurdity of their interdependence at present.
August 18, 2016
(Wu Hong is an art critic, curator, and chief editor of artintern.net)