Rent: A Plot, or Pure Consciousness?
Source:Artintern Author:Gao Minglu Date: 2008-06-18 Size:
Li Zhanyang’s 'Ren't – Rent Collection Yard (hereinafter ‘Rent’) is a successor work to the 1990s Myriad Lives, but forms its own separate set of group sculpture.


Li Zhanyang’s 'Ren't – Rent Collection Yard (hereinafter ‘Rent’) is a successor work to the 1990s Myriad Lives, but forms its own separate set of group sculpture.

Myriad Lives by Li Zhanyang germinated in the late 1990s, when the artist began to toy with the idea of sculpting a large-scale group set. It draws its materials from the daily street life of lower-echelon city dwellers, and especially from the lives of urban residents in one area: Chongqing’s Huangjueping neighbourhood.

I once referred in an article (The Force of Grass Roots Realism: the Trend Towards Populism in Li Zhanyang’s Art Footnore 1) to these works as encapsulating the phenomenon of the grass roots realism of common people in cities. The subject matter of Li Zhanyang’s recent Rent – inspired by Rent Collection Yard - manifestly exhibits a vast disparity with Myriad Lives. Firstly, it is not just another freeze-frame of Li Zhanyang’s own domestic tableau but, to the contrary, is a group sculpture narrating a motif from a certain period in history: thus, the work imports its motif from a well known socialist realism work - Rent Collection Yard in the mid-1960s. Li Zhanyang borrows the “rent payment”, “rent check”, “account-reckoning” and “rent extortion” plot structures, but casts some contemporary Chinese artists, critics, art dealers and collectors as substitutes for the ordinary characters, who include Despotic Landlord (Liu Wencai) flanked by his hired goons, Mr. House Accounts and numerous peasants paying rent, together with villagers forced to sell themselves into bondage.

The idea underlying Li Zhanyang’s Rent is to ‘bring in’, i.e., that Chinese contemporary art is all rented from others. This is essentially true. Rent uses an implied tone of satire to reproduce this phenomenon, because the processes of ‘paying rent, ‘rent’ and ‘checking rent’ really represent contemporary Chinese art’s face to the West alignment and market-oriented production, reception and bestowal of criticism. Over the past twenty years. Li Zhanyang takes several important critics, collectors and art dealers and these heavyweights of the art world are set into the work, clearly with the implied criticism that contemporary art also goes through the process of ‘paying rent’ and ‘receiving rent’. He uses the storyline in Rent Collection Yard as a metaphor for the story of contemporary Chinese art’s development. In this respect, Li Zhanyang, as an observer, brings into play very great imaginativeness.

I believe that once Li Zhanyang's Rent is revealed to the world, interpretations assigning all sorts of diverse “meanings” may ensue, people after all having differing tastes. However, what most interests me aside from this is: How does Li Zhanyang wed Rent Collection Yard with his Rent? Put another way, what indeed does Li Zhanyang borrow from Rent Collection Yard? Li Zhanyang was at great pains to mould the great energy of that period into this large-scale, Chinese contemporary art group sculpture; this could not indeed only have been done just to express the statement: “Chinese contemporary art is all rented from others”. Otherwise, Li Zhanyang’s Rent is then quite simply a work whose concept embodies a mere complaint, and thus its interpretation would not be worthy of the expenditure of great mental energy.

Firstly, Li Zhanyang has rented from Rent Collection Yard a narrative model, not historical or political symbols. Such symbols include Cultural Revolution-period costumes and props, together with effigies of workers, peasants and soldiers, images from ancient art and contemporary city fashion and scenery. These have been appropriated and cobbled together; since the 1990s, these symbols have already been incorporated into the political pop art and, in recent years, used as a cliched snapshot. However, Li Zhanyang’s Rent neither borrows nor appropriates these symbols, but rather “rents” them. Rent Collection Yard thus compares the resemblance between two narrations of Chinese contemporary art and "class struggle". Li emphasizes the readability of the story, but not the symbols.

For many years now, Li Zhanyang has been preoccupied with Rent Collection Yard and has examined many source materials in furtherance of this interest. He is convinced that many of the stories depicted in Rent Collection Yard are fabrications. Contemporary persons presented in this rented plot and these fabricated plots act out the myriad stories of Chinese contemporary art. Because of the fact that Rent Collection Yard relates the antagonism and resistance of hired farm hands towards landlords, these persons drawn from contemporary art are “classified” and “grading based on entitlements” in accordance with their affiliations. Though a rational argument, this interpretation of Rent might well be a misinterpretation.

Although Rent Collection Yard depicts a class struggle, it nevertheless reflects the nature of social class and humanity and commemorates its opposition and conformity to monumentalism and grass-roots activism. Li Zhanyang recognizes that Rent Collection Yard is “romanticism” or more specifically represents some kind of “baroque” spirit, which elevates above all a sense of sculptural momentum, actuality and human vitality.

The narrative pattern is a retake on a social topic or, perhaps, expresses a method of ideological description. Rent Collection Yard itself manifests an extraordinarily mature and self-sufficient narrative method. This is also why people can clearly discern that it is a Mao Zedong-era political propaganda tool with the three parts, “paying rent”, “resisting rent”, and “uprising”, each obviously relates to Mao Zedong’s historical teachings with respect to armed revolutionary struggle by peasants. However, people have also been quick to realise that the content embodied in the work Rent Collection Yard transcends its political-doctrinaire aestheticism. This set of clay sculptures thus not only received official government praise for its ideologically-correct morphology, but also enjoyed extensive and deep adulation among the common people. Critics of contemporary Chinese art and art historians have also taken a keen interest in this work, frequently convening discussions and publishing all manner of varying interpretations and debates. In the early 1970s, Rent Collection Yard also attracted the notice of various foreign post-modernist art critics and curators. At that time, some Western curators even considered exhibiting Rent Collection Yard in Western art museums. For example, in 1972 Rent Collection Yard received an invitation to exhibit at the world-renowned Documenta Kassel art expo, but due to the then-prevailing political climate, this overture came to naught.

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[Editor] Mark Lee