A Visual Specimen of Heterotopia - on Jiang Hai's painting
Source:Artintern.net Author:Feng Boyi Date: 2011-04-22 Size:
Ever since the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the currents of change in modern and contemporary art history have always been accompanied by a kind of cultural radicalism, a call for "art for life's sake". This is rooted in our historical predicament of having fallen behind the rest of the world in terms of culture.

Ever since the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the currents of change in modern and contemporary art history have always been accompanied by a kind of cultural radicalism, a call for ‘art for life’s sake’. This is rooted in our historical predicament of having fallen behind the rest of the world in terms of culture. We have been trying, through the collective struggles of several generations, and resistance against world order, to realize a kind of historic goal for China, that goal being the prosperity and strength of the nation and the liberation of the individual. Though the resistance and struggle have made achievements and have been affirmed by history, it appears that anxiety about our ‘unfinished’ modernity is still the central theme of our culture. On the one hand, there is a strong mentality of ‘weakness’, and on the other, there is still a strong mentality of ‘resistance’. These two mentalities have determined our choices of ‘modern’ values and ethics. Though after the establishment of the New China in 1949, this left-wing radical attitude was warped into an ideology with political authority by the government, it still influences a perhaps throwback continuation of this revolutionary stance. Since the reforms and social transformations that began in 1979, Chinese avant-garde art has taken this as its aim, challenging tradition, subverting order, criticizing reality and even engaging in extreme behavior. The flourishing of Chinese avant-garde art, and its continuing acceptance and praise at home and abroad, are closely and directly linked with this state of affairs. Of course, it is precisely this state of affairs that has led to underhanded opportunism and voraciousness, and it is also the reason that it has been repeatedly castigated in the realm of public opinion. There is another undercurrent which has been obscured by the left, which is the tradition of ‘art for art’s sake’. Outside of the realm of enlightenment and national salvation, this current has never had the opportunity for full realization, and has been repressed within the Chinese modern art system.

If we observe the relationship between art and reality from the perspective of Chinese contemporary art history, we will discover two phenomena that are worthy of our attention. One is the phenomena of many avant-garde artists persisting in direct projections and reflections of reality in the belief that modernity can gain insight into the truth of life and the essence of reality. As a result, the use of art naturally becomes the reflection and expression of trends in history and reality. The second phenomenon is the persistence in expressing the grand progression of history in an investigation of the impending social crises of ethnic and class conflict. These two phenomena are both inextricably linked to China’s modern history of national humiliation and social conflict; they are historically inevitable, defining traits of Chinese modernity. These ‘one to one’ selections and presentations of history and reality have determined that the artists’ creations all focus on the contradictions, perplexity and anxiety created by ethnic conflict, regime change or social transformation. As a result, critiques, revelations, skepticism, satire or mockery of reality have come to form some of the main threads of Chinese contemporary art. The richness and complexity of the Chinese reality that arose from the social transformation since the reform and opening have provided Chinese avant-garde artists with rich resources at their disposal. One of the sources of this art’s unique charm is its rootedness in the spectacle of this world. If we analyze the various trends and characteristics of Chinese art according to the different generations of artists, then most artists born in the 1950s emphasize straightforward accounts of the grand issues in society and history, a conscious pursuit of the grand narrative. Artists born in the 1960s stand in an individualized context, with a passion for the expression of the hidden relationships between individual memories, personal histories and reality, as well as extreme distortions of human nature, in an attempt to use the inner disputes of humanity to present the various possible conditions between individual existence and history. Compared to artists born in the 50s and 60s, artists born in the 1970s also emphasize individual traits, but they are more enamored with the modern metropolitan life experience and transmission of aesthetics, and are accustomed to expressing the perceptions of individual existence in the cracks of the metropolis.

If we follow the above reckoning, then as an artist born in the 60s, Jiang Hai’s creations mostly follow social reality, using critical, experimental and highly individualized aesthetic perspectives in an effort to express alienated human nature within society, and the predicament of individual life existing within the space of reality. When facing the connections between history, reality and the individual, he places more importance on the inner spiritual qualities of the individual, and emphasizes the complex, hidden states of existence within humanity. Back in the 1980s, when Jiang Hai graduated from the Tianjin Fine Art Academy Printmaking Department, he immersed himself in the 85 New Wave. His Margins of the Land and Faces series discarded with the then popular rustic realism influence. Though these works did not directly express the clamor of reality, the logic was derived directly from reality. This was especially the case with such works as Lumped Object and Red Sail, which collaged newspapers, those organs of official mainstream discourse, together with warped objects, forming a contrast that reflected people’s befuddlement at the social transformation taking place at the time, the internal struggle of not knowing where to turn after the old spiritual pursuits had been swept away, and the absurdity of reality itself. I am personally quite partial to his early 90s series such as Burial, Receding Tides, Free, State of Embarrassment and Inexplicable. The abstract and expressionist painting language concealed the shadows of our spirits and minds that lay behind the social upheaval. The repetitive lines and tangled emotions were an accurate portrait of what lay behind the social upheaval. They displayed how his oil painting art, having discarded with the pursuit of ‘realness’, and entered into non-figurative relationships, highlighted the ‘uncertain’ state of existence and an ungraspable sense of infinite change. In this sense, Jiang Hai continued along the enlightened, humanist path of both the May Fourth Movement and the 85 New Wave. Meanwhile, the artistic transformation and presentation of this state of affairs is attained through an expressive language of distortion, alteration and extremely tense expressive language defined by the concept of ‘heterotopia’. That is because sensitivity towards the contemporary cultural predicament lead Jiang Hai to alter his artistic forms of the past, and what artists need is a method and speech defined as ‘art’ to express this conceptual thinking and experimental exploration.

French thinker Michel Foucault proposed the concept of ‘heterotopias’ in his 1996 book, The Order of Things. Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of society. They present society itself in perfect form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case, these utopias are fundamentally unreal places. Heterotopias, on the other hand, transcend place, while also actually being real places. According to Foucault, heterotopias have the power to bring two spaces which cannot normally exist together into the same real place. As I see it, the fault-lines of history and the randomness of reality could be a real instance of a heterotopia. In other words, the difference between utopias and Foucault’s heterotopias is that utopias are just the ideals and suppositions of thinkers; they are not true presences. Heterotopias, on the other hand, are presences that can potentially realize existence through a web of spatial connections. They are proliferating in today’s world in many ways, revealing a trend of the ‘heterotopianization’ of the world. Looking at the fundamental thread of Jiang Hai’s artistic creation, we could venture to say that the themes, content and cultural directedness found through his artistic creations, as well as his painting style and form, are a relatively concentrated embodiment of certain aspects of Foucault’s heterotopias. That is because with the rise of globalization since the mid 90s, there emerged within China’s heterotopias an unimaginable presence that was full of historic serendipity and realistic desire, and stood in utter disregard of realistic logic. Through Jiang Hai’s paintings, we can discover a differentiated space that is full of various spectacles of the will to power and desire of capital together. In this sense, no other place in the world has more qualities of the heterotopia than China. In the development that followed China’s reform and opening, there have been promises that have been more real than real urban spaces, like the Power Point cities of urban planning. Though it is virtual, non-existent, it is also a real thing; though it is a mix of history and reality, it is also a construct of the future. From this, Jiang Hai’s works visually create a blending of the concrete and the abstract, a confusion of the real and virtual. They also radiate with real yet unreal brilliance and overpowering freedom, forcefully drawing us back to the real situation of society. This detached, murky visual effect is a visual specimen of the definitive traits of the heterotopia.

From much of Jiang Hai’s work, stretching from the late 90s to recent years, such as Differentiated Space, Urban Structure, Margins of Vision, Forms of Things, Drivers of Things, and Collage Utopia, aside from the gradual shifts to thick, striking colors and the tendency towards extreme tension in structure, in terms of structural layout, one can see Jiang Hai’s open and free creative state. This freeness stretches out to bridge the cracks that have formed from so many leaps, until the structure imperceptibly forms the whole. Meanwhile, his images all contain correlatives to specific objects we see in existence and everyday life, such as extravagant food, insect shells and vehicles, and he places warped, red human figures into various crafted spectacles. They have a directly dependant relationship to the space of reality, because it’s warping is manifested in the existence of reality; it forms a dualist relationship with us. From the images, we can see and discover that we are currently situated in a place that we are not really in. Its visual function is that in the instant that we see ourselves through Jiang Hai’s lens, it turns the place we are in surprisingly real yet surprisingly unreal, because we can only see that place in the imagery that Jiang Hai creates. For this reason, his overall thinking about reality often just views reality as a virtual spatiotemporal backdrop, a stage set for his warped human figures to play out their latent personalities and destinies. His aim in creating the subject is not reality in itself, but an irrational exploration of humanity or destiny in reality. This approach shows the creative subject’s artistic transformation and elevation of various phenomena in reality, and also reveals the artist's creative efforts to cast off the outer appearances of reality and highlight the individual subject. This is apparent not only in that the subject is the artist’s personal documentation of the past and present reality, but also in that it is today’s starting point for the artist’s gaze, inspiring our thoughts. It both reconstructs reality and uses the heterotopia to supplement reality, emphasizing the use of the creative subject to express and expound upon the truth within our hearts. As a result, rather than saying that Jiang Hai creates visual images, it would be more apt to say that the images are recordings and allusions to the spectacle of reality, ones which have recorded a spiritual and emotional history for the sake of their own existence. This is not an act of recording physical facts, but one of observing reality and expounding upon intuitive perceptions and attitudes from this predicament of reality. These artworks seem also to be responding to people’s doubts about realness. They tell the people what kinds of things actually happened, and outline the causal relationships behind them. Also, only we can strongly perceive that these tremor-inducing heterotopian spectacles are still unfolding.

This increasingly diverse era of China, and this modernization process which is taking us in an unknown direction, are making all changes rapid and baffling. In an era of transformation and great leaps forward, the conditions of people and things are highly complex, and their borders obscure. People’s desires, their interactions, the mechanisms of power, and even monetary relationships, which we thought were so transparent, are not as clear as we thought. Jiang Hai has continued to live in Tianjin, and is an official staff artist for the Tianjin Daily News. His artistic creations may be difficult to define and categorize in China’s categorized, iconified contemporary art scene, but as for his willingness to stand at the margins and persist in his extremely rebellious, skeptical and callous expression – that is a level that only an artist can attain.

[Editor] Elemy Liu