"Pandora's Curse" Ma Ye Archival Art Exhibition
City: Beijing
Curator: Wu Hong
Duration: 2018-04-07 ~ 2018-05-07
Opening: April 7,2018,3 PM
Venue: Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive (2F, 3F)
Address: South lake Arts District,Songzhuang Town, Tongzhou District,Beijing
Participating Artist(s): Ma Ye
Host(s): Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive

Producer:Hu Jiebao

Curatorial Assistants:Li Xiaoting、Xiao Feng、Ma Jian、Shen Zhenxia、Yang Qing

Designer:Hu Yuwei

Pandora's Curse

Wu Hong

Typology is the most basic methodological tool in sociological research. However, in the study of art history, typology is an effective practical method, but it also very likely blots out individual existential value. In the study of Chinese contemporary art, we often rely on largest common divisors such as region, time, and circumstances, and simply incorporate unique individual artists into the typological classifications of art history, thereby ignoring and omitting the most precious information about those individual artists. At least prior to the first decade of the twenty-first century, our studies and explanations of Chinese contemporary art were mired in the typological methodology., In addition to the grand narratives of Chinese contemporary art, artists’ personal experiences and individual values have become worthwhile subjects in the study of art history in recent years.

With this as background, outside of the collective experiences of Yuanmingyuan and Songzhuang, our rough utopia of typology began to relax. We began to focus on individual experiences apart from the mainstream. We were actually negating the negation of “the Other’s Other.” For both Yuanmingyuan and Songzhuang, this process was independent of the mainstream system, but it also constituted its own mainstream interpretive standard. “The Other’s Other” is another research method for marginal identities after “the marginal was made mainstream.”

Based on this theoretical premise, we discover that, in studying Ma Ye’s artistic experience, he was a typical member of the group that moved from Yuanmingyuan to Songzhuang, but he has an individual value and personal experience that is not entirely identical to the typological formulation of the group.

We should first talk about the ways in which Ma Ye’s experience and the collective experience of the group are similar. Ma Ye and the vast majority of the Yuanmingyuan artists formed a relationship with the geographic location of Yuanmingyuan under the same circumstances. In the 1980s, after China’s monolithic social system relaxed somewhat and the individual-level economy began to grow, people who were dissatisfied with the inflexible and dull work unit system innocently believed that they could rely on their own artwork to support their pure artistic ideals. Without any prior research or basic material preparation, they hastily turned themselves into a generation of “professional artists” without the support of an art market. Of course, after shaking off the restrictions of an unbending and mechanical system, they found “freedom” in the ivory tower, and they achieved a delightful, idealistic release that only existed in their own subjective consciousnesses. One might even say that this way of understanding “freedom” was bound up in the surging hormones of youth. They were not prepared to understand and consolidate this “freedom,” so this idealistic practice of artistic freedom could only be destroyed in the brutality of youth. In the first few years of the post-Yuanmingyuan era, after those illusory artistic ideals were destroyed, the artistic existences of these wandering artists diverged. The commercial artists became commercial, the speculative artists became speculative, the surrendering artists surrendered, and the steadfast artists became more steadfast. These dividing lines could even be extended into the various lifestyles of professional artists today. After moving from one place to another on the outskirts of Beijing, Ma Ye came to another post-Yuanmingyuan utopia: Songzhuang. Of course, Songzhuang was not Yuanmingyuan. The small rural courtyards of Songzhuang were different from the large shared courtyards of the Yuanmingyuan era. Artists tried to blend in with the villagers, leaving behind the collective living environment of the Yuanmingyuan period; as a result, the differences in the lifestyles of these individuals from regions and cultures all over China became obvious. Whether working in the cynical or vulgar style, they were “unified by hiding in small homes.” Compared to the collective experience of the Yuanmingyuan period, Songzhuang’s relatively scattered life and living environments compelled artists to embark upon experiences with society and life as individuals, meaning that they had to independently examine the challenges of and responses to social pressures. Of course, the influence of mainstream styles in the newly-rising art market and the experiences and realities of long-term rural living were naturally reflected in the artists’ works. However, the establishment of individual value judgments and the formation of personal methods also began to find a few sources of action within this previous collective experience. The later tide of art industrialization and the arrival of more artists stylistically diluted and eventually eliminated the collective typological traits of the group that moved from Yuanmingyuan to Songzhuang.

Ma Ye was typical of this group’s movements, but beyond the collective experience I have just described, the personal traits of Ma’s work are obvious. We could see him as a typical yet atypical Yuanmingyuan artist and Songzhuang artist.

Before he became a member of the Yuanmingyuan group, Ma Ye was teaching in a rural middle school in his home province of Shaanxi. Prior to this, he studied in the art education department at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, but the national ’85 New Wave movement did not have much of an impact on him. We can imagine how it must have been for him; living in a poor rural place, he worked hard to get into a specialized art academy despite the pressure of misunderstanding and criticism for not “engaging in honest work.” He was the village’s first university student. With this as his background, painting in a quiet, professional environment based on a standardized educational model at a specialized institution may have been the greatest pleasure in Ma’s life at that time. After he graduated from university, fate played its first trick on him, and returned him to a closed rural environment. His life during this period was a bit like Gao Jialin’s in the novel Life. I noticed that, in Ma Ye’s later fragmented recollections, he was extremely sensitive to and repeatedly mentioned his connection with the identity of the “painter,” in a way that was different from the distinction other people make between artists and painters. We can imagine how frustrated a young person with a dream of being a painter must have felt, thrown by fate into an environment where even physical education and music classes had to be combined. I want to emphasize this point in order to show that Ma Ye was different from others who were influenced by modern and post-modern thought in various rural environments and who were prepared to see Yuanmingyuan as Montmartre or New York. Instead, Ma saw Yuanmingyuan as the romantic Barbizon. Of course, this may have been an idea sparked by his elopement at the time. For Ma Ye, material poverty did not influence his longing for a specific kind of life. He saw poetry in the thin vegetable soup he ate every day; the songs of the birds in the trees around Yuanmingyuan’s broken walls were songs of freedom, and the piercing northern cold carried the freshness of freedom. It is precisely because of this emotional experience that work from Ma’s Yuanmingyuan period does not have some of the stylistic traits of the “typical” Yuanmingyuan artist. Ma Ye had nothing to do with deep thoughts about metaphysical philosophy, conceptual expressions of sociological significance, or imitations of postmodern art trends that were happening in Europe and America at that time. His work from this period often presented the primeval, lived impulse of ancient Yellow River culture and the natural vitality of freedom.

I emphasize this point because I see it as a starting point for my understanding of Ma Ye’s creative career. His artwork and social thinking are based more on direct, personal experience or emotion, and not on larger trends of collective experience or conceptual implications. However, Ma Ye’s creative experiences were founded on his feelings about changes in the social environment that he personally experienced and directly expressed in his artwork, so the works that Ma created in different periods present a very authentic, continuous contemplation of the changes in Chinese social reality from the 1980s onward. This impulse of primitive living force, after being largely thwarted by society, was transformed by later mercantilist social practice into the naked pursuit of materialism. At the same time, due to the collapse of existing values and standards, new social and ethical relationships suited to the commodity and market economy could not engage with mainstream culture because they ran counter to mainstream ideological demands. In this way, the mercantilism and mammonism, which rose due to a one-sided, crippled market economy, stoked human desires. When the restrictions of social ethics and cultural traditions no longer exist, overflowing primitive desires inevitably converge into a society’s grand, universal psychology. Once this universal psychology of a society is expressed as a hidden mainstream value, even if it is still a hidden social sub-culture compared to the rest of mainstream ideology, it creates unprecedented devastation in opposition to mainstream culture, and unprecedented injury to the ordinary individual living at that time, precisely because of its universality and lack of restriction. This is why I have chosen to call this essay on Ma Ye’s artistic career “Pandora’s Curse.” This vigorous eruption of human force is similar to Pandora carelessly opening the box filled with the scourges of the earth. Before the box was closed, the butterfly representing hope or resolution did not have the chance to flutter out, so we are confronted with the intensity of Billowing Golden Waves…

We should also reflect on the traits of Ma Ye’s work from different periods. During his Yuanmingyuan period, Ma’s personality was rooted in an indescribable joy and impulsiveness that resulted from shaking off life’s restrictions. Although he magnified visual elements from the folk cultural traditions of his village in his textual descriptions, I tend to see this as a natural explosion of lived force; it’s more an instinctual response to the spirit of that era. In the first few years of the post-Yuanmingyuan period, Ma Ye wandered anxiously on the eastern outskirts of Beijing; the pressures of life and questions of identity became more obvious after the ideals of the Yuanmingyuan era died. These different experiences of life and society were directly reflected in his works from that period. The natural vigor of the instinctual, living force of his Yuanmingyuan period gave way to the dual pressures of society and life. His work during this time utilized abstract linguistic methods, but we can immediately sense his helplessness, terror, confusion, and depression as an individual tossed around within urban culture. This was a transitional period in Ma Ye’s personal creative experience, showing that he began to directly confront social reality after his dreams of freedom were thwarted by reality; he directly transformed his experiences of and thoughts about social reality into a source for his artwork.

Ma Ye eventually stopped wandering on the outskirts of Beijing and settled in a little courtyard in Songzhuang. After his previous tensions and anxieties, the more relaxed pace of life allowed him to begin considering the deeper social issues underpinning the surface appearances of life. His work from this period contains sexual metaphors, which actually reflect his beginning to consider the chaos that occurred after the Pandora’s box of human nature was opened. In his works from this period, female figures paraded coquettishly, stirring human desire. They were strikingly juxtaposed with normal social situations, so they are conceptual metaphors, suggesting the palpitations of desire that existed in people’s hearts at that time, and the fear and alarm that this desire may be left unrealized.

Taking the universal psychology of society as a creative motif, Ma Ye finally distilled these symbols of human desire into their most essential expression—money. Incorporating monetary symbols into the symbolic system of his work was the correct decision and a risky choice; it’s very difficult to create something new with this theme because so many artists around the world have made works using monetary symbols. Here, Ma Ye’s northwestern strength and resilience was a determining factor in his success. First, these pictures had to be large, so that they constituted an overwhelming, oppressive visual experience. At the same time, the details have to do everything—the works could not be given some empty, general treatment—only then do the works create an airtight, inescapable psychological environment for the audience. This experiment was successful as the unification of his chosen formal language and his certainty of conceptual communication.

Finally, the overall design of Ma Ye’s personal art archive juxtaposes Billowing Golden Waves series, the primary series in this exhibition, with a conceptual, documentary presentation of Ma Ye’s studio environment during his Yuanmingyuan and Dashanzi periods. As a curatorial concept, this juxtaposition is intended to highlight his transition from idealism to reality—the “Pandora’s Curse” hanging over every individual like the sword of Damocles—conveying his disillusionment and the cruelty of reality.

Note: The concept of “post-Yuanmingyuan” raised in this article is the author’s formulation. After the Yuanmingyuan Painters Village was disbanded, small artist groups that maintained some of the collective traits of the Yuanmingyuan era were formed, including the groups at the Tsinghua North Gate, Dashanzi-Dongbahe, and Binhe in Tongzhou, as well as the Xiaopu group in Songzhuang before the intervention of local government art industries. Due to slight differences in circumstances, these groups began and ended at slightly different times.

January 30, 2018

(Wu Hong: Critic, curator, editor-in-chief of Artintern.net, managing director of Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive)


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