This Is The World: Figuring Capital in the Art of Hua Yong
Source:Artintern Date: 2009-10-17 Size:
Art aspires to permanence. This is the point of painting’s materiality. Even the most transitory of conceptual works, performances, and installations want above all to be remembered, burned into the cortices of their audience. That’s how they create new criteria of relevance and meaning.

Art aspires to permanence. This is the point of painting’s materiality. Even the most transitory of conceptual works, performances, and installations want above all to be remembered, burned into the cortices of their audience. That’s how they create new criteria of relevance and meaning. But as we all know from experience, contemporary life in the developed world is so ghostly and unreal and frenzied, aflame with instant consumption and waste, that memory itself is under permanent threat. Theme parks, airports, designer outlets that are everywhere the same; DVD remotes (pause, rewind, fast-forward), microwave ovens, mobile phones; celebrity culture; the mediascape. Time is collapsed, dismembered and dis-remembered, in the interest of profit and convenience. Social reality is drained of substance. Individual lives lose their density. The virtual takes over. Although it is often corrupted, art remains one of our last forms of resistance to this nihilism of the virtual. It penetrates beyond appearances into the soul of things—even, or perhaps especially, into the soul of appearances themselves—in order to make sense of our condition. In several recent works, the painter and installation artist Hua Yong has struggled to come to terms with virtuality, financial lunacy, and the experience of being led, as if in a dream, through those mazes of greed and disorder that make up the current world.

1. “Most of them had the look of institutional boredom etched in their faces. They sat behind wafer-thin screens, tracking the undulations of the market, trying to make sense of its volatility, its sudden surges and kinetic crashes. He looked closely into their fallow eyes. Their sources of life seemed to come from outside, from the artificial glow of the filtered neon lighting.” – Viken Berberian, Das Kapital: A Novel of Love and Money Markets.


While the virtual is destructive of the real, that destruction has real effects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the global economy, whose nature and human impact is the subject of Hua’s work. Let us start with the basics. For some years now, the derivatives market—the buying and selling of investment vehicles whose value is derived from the ever-changing value of something else (like currency, bond rates, pork bellies, mortgage debt)—has been almost twice the size of the “real economy” (the global market in actually existing goods and services). The derivatives market is essentially a giant casino. Traders are speculators, gambling on market fluctuations. The more volatile the market, the higher the stakes; the higher the stakes, the greater the potential profit for any lucky investor. This is an economy driven by ignorance. As Warren Buffet has written, “No matter how financially sophisticated you are, you can’t possibly learn from reading the disclosure documents of a derivatives-intensive company what risks lurk in its positions. Indeed, the more you know about derivatives, the less you will feel you can learn from the disclosures normally proffered you. In Darwin’s words, ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’” The recent financial crisis was triggered by the collapse of the global market in subprime-mortgage derivatives, exotic investment vehicles so byzantine in structure that even their own creators don’t really know how they work. Formed out of highly unstable loan-practices, and then sold and resold in “black boxes” (designed to hide the value of the assets contained), they are now considered “toxic”: impossible to value objectively. That is because their market value depends on the speculators’ perception of their value, which is itself a function of their idea of what other speculators perceive. Investment banks and hedge funds created an inherently volatile commodity, made a lot of money quickly, then when they saw the crisis brewing rushed to limit their exposure by selling short, thus depressing the market even further. The crisis spiraled downward in a self-reinforcing feedback loop, clearing the field of buyers and lenders. And since this steroidal casino-economy is connected through pension funds and savings banks to the real economy, the human cost was immense. Hua Yong himself lost a considerable amount of money in this crisis. The occasion gave him a chance to study the presuppositions of our economic lunacy, to transmute his experience of loss into more public, more historically engaged art than the expressionist painter had yet created.

2. “Visitors to the London stock exchange will great a free leaflet which explains that the stock market is not about mysterious fluctuations, but about real people and their products. This really is ideology at its purest.” – Slavoj Zizek, Violence


In his installation entitled This is the Question, Hua has crafted a spatial equivalent of the thrilling confusion and anxiety that defines psychic life as a gambler in the market. The space is narrow, confining. Bleak light streams through a star-shaped hole in the ceiling. On the walls a graph tracks the artist’s turbulent investments, the spikes of profit and loss, together with newspaper articles detailing the market’s temperature and behavior—a reminder, if it were needed, that the financial media functions as a Heisenbergian observer, twisting and changing the nature of the information conveyed. Hua has also magnified and enlarged the panic-stricken faces of traders, investors, and regulators, who are screened onto the walls like shades of the living dead. Numbers are everywhere. Divorced from any material referent, they are pure signs: abstractions grounded in nothing but their own ceaseless circulation. In the center of the room, suspended from the ceiling by hundreds of red and green threads (color-coded to signal the market’s gains and losses), hangs a human skeleton. A statement on the wall reads: “If you love someone, let them invest in the market: it’ll make them rich and bring them to heaven. If you hate someone, let them invest in the market: it’ll make them poor and drag them down to hell.” Where is the skeleton headed? It is impossible to say for sure, but the fact that it is a skeleton—dematerialized, like the digital money being traded—gathers the sense of death and self-loss. More red and green threads drop from the skeleton’s body, weighed down with long needles. Emblems of pain and irritation. The total effect of the installation is one of violence and uncertainty, where the immersive experiential concreteness of the space (you are there) highlights, by counterpoint, the grimly real unreality of the market spectacle. The inherent systemic violence of market turbulence is brought vividly to life. One can see why Hua chose this shared, public medium. The market is pure connectivity, a network binding us all into a system whose operations liquefy the selfhood of its participants, neglecting their real human needs and negating any commitment that can’t be monetized, packaged, sold, and resold.

3. “Time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make room for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent. This is why something will happen soon, maybe today.” – Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis


Two paintings by Hua are exhibited here as siblings, non-identical twins. They are works of immense technical precision and clarity. Both feature a note of currency on the top half of the picture plane, and a stream or tableau of black & white images drawn from the news media on the lower half—the division between the two is not flat, however, but jaggedly marked. 8/8/2008 – 9/9/2009 features a vividly green US hundred dollar bill whose lower half is burning; the spaces below comprises scenes of Wall Street upheaval, the faces of Barack Obama and Alan Greenspan, tanks rolling through Baghdad, an iron bull, and other such reminders the past year. The saturant color of money is contrasted with the gray lifelessness of the human world below, a clear indictment of our inverted values. This effect is repeated in the painting’s sister, 5/12/2008 – 8/8/2009, where the currency depicted is the Chinese renminbi, a lustrously red hundred yuan note featuring the face of Chairman Mao. The division in this case is marked by a spiky concave graph of falling and rising stock prices, and the scenes below are drawn from the Asian news cycle. Exuberance, victory, corruption, and outrage are all present. Wen Jiabao, his hands clasped to show national unity during the Szichuan earthquake, stands alongside a handcuffed Chen Shui-bian; episodes from the Olympics blend with an image of Huang Guangyu, the billionaire electronics tycoon who went from being China’s richest man to an alleged criminal held in police custody; the comedian and pop star Xiao Shenyang shares space with two lovers, kissing through masks during the swine flu scare, and camera recordings of the riots in Lhasa; Michael Jackson, a burning car, the sun’s total eclipse: a single red line at the bottom of the painting—the “bottom line” that indicates financial status (it is also a “flat line”, a dead man’s non-pulse)—connects all of this imagery, linking human triumph and self-destruction, politics and entertainment, with viral life and the life of the cosmos. All is equalized in money’s monochrome perception. Hua has rendered in the concreteness of paint, in the undeniable presence of the artwork, a vision of what economic virtuality does to our priorities. According to the images we project back to ourselves, to history as we are making it, we have consigned the organization of public life to some of the most ignoble human drives: status rivalry, greed, worship of self, mindless consumption, and so on. It is no wonder that the dream of financial globalism—one world, one market—has become its own nightmare: no escape for anyone, anywhere.

4. “Money is what money does.” – Martin Shubik, The Theory of Money and Financial Institutions


The last of Hua’s paintings, a large untitled pseudo-portrait of a man clothed entirely in a suit of money, recapitulates the themes of the other work in an especially stark and forceful way. The man, in effect, does not exist independently of what covers him. He is only a form for the display of money, for the texture woven by money. Hua has even hidden his eyes behind black protective goggles—or, to be more precise, he has no eyes. In the reality of the painting the man is a pure function, a pure fiction. Only the money is real. As in his other paintings, Hua here uses predominantly the stunning reds and greens of the renminbi and the dollar, the currencies of the world’s two most vital economic powers. History has come full circle in 2009. It was the Chinese who invented paper money in 910 AD, but it was the Americans who first used it widely in the industrial age, who gave money its definitively modern nature. As a medium of exchange with no intrinsic value, money establishes a standard of deferred payment: it opens up time, stretching and collapsing it, thereby allowing the circuit of exchange to remain open and fluid. The neutrality that makes it, in Georg Simmel’s phrase, “completely adaptable to any use” also allows money to assume many guises, to have no determinate or necessary form. Money’s reality today is, in fact, formless. It is the flickering light that passes endlessly through the world’s networked computers, through fiber-optic cables and between satellites, in the very air we breathe. The paper is merely a token of a symbol, many steps removed from those ones and zeros coded in light. Money is both the most virtual of entities and the most necessary of social realities. In Hua’s pictorial world, we sacrifice everything for money in our global rituals of creative destruction. The sacrificial nature of money is evident in the history of its language. The German word for money is geld, which derives from the verb gelten (to be valid)—the earliest use of the word was in the 8th century, when it meant “to sacrifice”. The common Greek coin is a drachma, a word once reserved only for sacrificial meat. In Roman times the sacrificial bull was the pecus, origin of the English term pecuniary: “of or pertaining to money.” Money is both the sacrifice offered for the furtherance of our economic life (we must constantly be making and spending it) and the altar on which we sacrifice our time, our consciousness, our social relations, and—as figured in Hua’s painting—our very selves. As pure utility, devoid of any inner value, money is the opposite of the artwork. In his Critique of Judgement (1790), Immanuel Kant describes the nature of the artwork through its possession of “Zweckmaessigkeit ohne Zweck”—purposiveness without a purpose: that is, the end or telos of an artwork comes not from any external exigencies or demands, but from its own inner details and components. It is infused with intelligence and meaning, but they are there only for their own sake, not for the satisfaction of any extra-aesthetic purpose. And in fact, according to Kant, the only way we can access the “inner finality” of an artwork is through an experience of disinterested contemplation, a mode of awareness that is free from the fear of power and lust for advantage that usually governs worldly life. But in order to achieve this condition of self-sufficiency, the artwork must trade in appearances. It must become “magic”, as Adorno said, “delivered from the lie of being truth”. When Hua depicts our self-tormented, greed-haunted age, he does so through the intellectual lens of Pop, a mode of artistic formalization whose smooth surfaces and recycled televisual imagery cunningly hide the presence of the artist. Pop is almost, in this sense, a documentary technique. Instead of imposing his own idiosyncratic self on the viewer’s mind, Hua opposes the forces of virtualization and economic enslavement by offering us a concentrated vision of the world we’ve made. There is pleasure in this, and truth, for artist and viewer alike, and through this pleasure comes a hope that we may recover the real. Only in that way can we correct our destructive deformities.

[Editor] 于添