Modernity of the Zodiac Dragon: Interpreting Jiang Hai's Head-Brain Series Author:Jiang Dongxian Date: 2011-04-22 Size:
Jiang Hai’s Head-Brain: Hybrid Bodies of Man and Beast series is an extension of his earlier paintings in the theme of animals. In his On the Edge of Vision series, Jiang Hai used a grafting method to visually fuse man and animal, while in Amputated Animals and Transformed Butterflies he inlaid human bodies into those of animals.

Jiang Hai’s Head-Brain: Hybrid Bodies of Man and Beast series is an extension of his earlier paintings in the theme of animals. In his On the Edge of Vision series, Jiang Hai used a grafting method to visually fuse man and animal, while in Amputated Animals and Transformed Butterflies he inlaid human bodies into those of animals. In so doing, he creates a metaphor that equates animal behavior with that of human being, which works as a serious critique of degenerating human souls. In the Head-Brain series, he utilizes images of the twelve zodiac animals that are most familiar to the Chinese and integrates them into images of human bodies. Uncanny mouse, obedient bull, ferocious tiger, graceful rabbit, aggressive dragon, sneaky snake, unrestrained horse, humble sheep, intelligent monkey, arrogant rooster, loyal dog and considerate pig – animals that have long been taken as symbolic of our nationality – are integrated into a stream of meat and blood by the artist through beheading, hair-plucking and skin-peeling. Fluid blood and fat meat are gradually frozen within frames of skeletons with animal heads. Blood is frozen not into scarlet red, but reduced to pink. Meat does not settle into dark purple, but brightens into pearl silver. The effect of such ornamented violence is a precisely matching depiction of the vernacular colors of today’s society of fashion. Furthermore, Jiang Hai delicately transplants the chopped human bodies into frames with the twelve chopped animals heads, where they are soaked in streams of blood and meat and human bodies are fully integrated into bodies of animals. In his picturing of the twelve animal heads, he is also picturing his own vista world. This is very much like the repeated happening of the natural and man-made disasters, in a way of spraying salt onto the nerves exposed from inside our bodies. Jiang Hai’s peculiar social vistas are meant for us to face the reality of modern society.

Apparently, inside the head is the chaotic brain, while outside the brain is animal’s head. In so doing, the artist is equating human behavior of desire in modern society with that of animals.

The process of Jiang Hai’s artistic creation is a long one. He pours on the canvas all kinds of colors, which are ten mingled and penetrated into each other in the hand of God. This is the starting point for him to unfold his talent in painting. This is a process in which Jiang Hai gradually constructs his own imagery vistas. This process could not be experienced slowly by heart, a process in which an independent individual soul gradually and slowly communicates and dialogues with the society, although the weak individual voice is totally lost in the loud and noisy chaos of modern society.

Jiang Hai’s painting is a reflection of and response to modern society. But in his paintings of animals, he does not simply include signs and symbols of modern society such as skyscrapers, automobiles and motorcycles, etc. Man and animal as eternal entities in the chronicles of the world are the primary subjects of Jiang Hai’s painting, in which they are naked and deprived of anything that is symbolic of their time. It seems that Jiang Hai uses these symbols of eternity to question issues of modernity. Also at the very core of Jiang’s art are his questions about eternity, about the fundamental distinctions between man and animal, and about the very essences of human being, questions that have occupied the mind of thinkers ever since the beginning of civilization. One primary question Jiang raises through his art is: If there is a definition – even though ambiguous but resonant – about the essence of humanity, how far is man of modern society from man of perfect essence under the scrutiny of such definition?

This is one of the core questions about modernity since the 18th century. The issue of modernity has involved interdisciplinary studies and a wide range of academic fields where scholars have tried by different methods and from different perspectives to address the issue. As a fundamental issue of philosophy, humanity of modern society has been studied in all fields of social sciences. In a time after humanist revolution, this issue is often regarded “the first philosophy” in the study of modernity.

Leo Strauss, father of American Neo-Conservatism, has great discussions of the modernity of the modern and the distinctions between modern society and traditional society. In my opinion, Strauss is the most unique one of the thinkers who reflects on the issue of modernity. According to Strauss, the criticism of modernity since Bertrand Russell has been taken for the very sake of modernity, the very result of which is not the correction of modernity but rather a deepening of modernity with all its disadvantages. For this very reason, Strauss adopted classicism in opposition to modernism. In other words, the problems of modernity could be solved only by returning to classical philosophy. Also for this reason, Strauss and his followers had detailed study of Plato – symbolic character of Classical philosophy, which led to the establishment of Straussism in the Classical Hermeneutics.

It is not my intention to discuss here the efficiency of the prescriptions given by Strauss to solve the crisis of modernity. What I found interesting and relevant is his precise description and interpretation of modernity and issues of humanity in modern times. In The Idea of Luxury: A Conceptual and Historical Investigation, Christopher Berry also discusses the fundamental differences between the classical and the modern through his thorough investigation of the concept of luxury. On the issue of modernity, Berry and Strauss have a lot in common.

Classicism and modernism exist in contrast. They belong relatively to thinkers of different times, and differ from each other in method and in their views of humanity. Classical thinkers focus on value, whose method is teleology. Their thinking, whether of Plato or Aristotle, is more about what man ought to be, the oughtness of which is about the idealized status of humanity. In his writings on ethics and political philosophy, Aristotle explained that the happiest life is the life of a philosopher as it is one of pure thinking. Such a statement came from his belief that man’s ability to think about pure, eternal and spiritual issues is what fundamentally differentiates him from animal and what stands for the core of humanity. As a human being, man has the potential ability to think philosophically, and can achieve the perfection of humanity through the realization of his potential abilities. What guarantees man for his philosophical thinking and his search for meaning and value is rationality, which is the core concept that defines humanity. Rationality is used not only to perceive the world but also to make judgment between the good and the bad. Rationality transcends and controls desire because desire can never be satisfied and thus is related more to animal. Human behavior under the direction of rationality could thus be conducted with self-consciousness and a sense of direction, which means spiritual purposefulness. In contrast, animal behavior is completely determined by natural law and instinct. Animals are not capable of conducting meaningful behavior, or in other words, they have no value rationality. Therefore, value rationality is the very essential element that makes man as man.

The addition of value to rationality is the very point where classicism differs from modernism. Rationality is a term that is commonly discussed in classicism and modernism, but modern philosophers tend to give rationality new meanings. In methodology, modern thinkers abandon the teleological system of classical philosopher and construct their own philosophical system from the perspective of isness rather than oughtness. This means that although spiritual thinking is the supreme value for man, most human beings are subject to their desires and their behaviors are often decided by their own interests. Since such motive is deeply rooted in reality and is more common than sublime motive, we should take it as an objective and inevitable being and use it toward a better direction rather than simply criticizing it as dark fact as the classical philosophers did. One representative of this thought is Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan discusses man’s favor of advantage over disadvantage – an element in humanity that classical philosophers equated with animality – as the most profound motive in humanity. It is based on this motive that Hobbes built his political society. It is based on their understanding of this isness that Hobbes and his followers tried to discuss the desire-driven element of humanity in neutral terms, or in the words of Berry, in a way of “demoralization”. Since man’s favor of advantage over disadvantage is an expression of desire, the essential motivation for human behavior is not based on spiritual judgment of value but on primitive desire. To maximize the interests pursued by desire, a calculative way of thinking is taken into account, which Hobbes and his followers named as “rationality”. But this is not the value rationality defined by classical philosophers, but an utter instrumental rationality. It is not a restrainer of desire, but rather its instrument, if we have to express in vocabulary of morality.

The neutralization of human desire and a relativist method of study mark a modern revolution in thought. As we know, modern society operates according to philosophers’ new perceptions of humanity. Industry and commerce have taken the place of agriculture as the primary industries of modern society, where individual interests are protected by legislation and all individuals have the right to pursue their interests and realize their desires under any legal circumstances. The vernacularism and materialism of human desires are not to be intervened by government, or blamed by religious organizations or despised for any moral reasons. Calculable money is the ultimate measure of modern value, and material interest is the goal of modern man. These are the phenomena most familiar to us that they are not worth further discussion. Whether such a life embodies the privileges of man would demand a lot of thinking in the eyes of those thinkers who insist on value rationality. As such pro-profit doctrines bring tremendous damage to nature and human relationship, we see a rise in anti-modern criticism of modernity. How does man differ from animal if human society is but one of unceasing desire and one of primitive instincts in which rationality functions as an instrument of desire?

This is precisely the reason why Jiang Hai continues using hybrid bodies of man and animal as a primary theme of his art. What is worth mentioning is the artist’s method of hybridizing man and animal in his Head-Brain series. As we know, hybridization of man and animal is not uncommon in modern art, which is also very often seen in cartoons and PS works. Artists often express their disgust of animalist conducts by replacing human heads with those of animals, most often those of pigs and dogs. Jiang Hai is not interested in this conventional approach. Instead of using human bodies as primary images in his painting, he uses animal heads as primary images that are inlaid with human bodies. This is an embodiment of the idea as discussed above – rationality as an instrument of desire. Human rationality is used by man as noble being in their behavioral activities, activities with sense of direction and purpose. However, when rationality is used as an instrument, it functions as a measurement of behaviors of animalist instincts. But even as measurement, only human being is able to develop rationality to a scientific level. Why then do not human beings direct this very capability for the search of noble spiritual goals? By inserting human bodies inside animal heads rather than replacing human heads with animal heads, Jiang Hai displays his profound thinking about the human nature in modern society in a way that is not simply one of cynicism.

Although we may have very intense critique of modern society, we may not deny that, taking Western developed countries as representatives, modern society has its precision and that mature modern society can not simply be seen as composed of animalist instincts and some instrument rationality – a view of the West popular among the Chinese for a long time period after the Opium War. Although the current society of the West has its profound problems of modernity – the biggest problem, according to Straussians, lies in the fact that civilian spirit as ideology has dissolved human transcendence, we must admit that in the Western society there has been formed a status of stability. This stability is not one of rigidity, but one of dynamic balance. Unlike what has been predicted by pessimistic thinkers, the West after the World War II did not head toward its declination, or in other words, modernity did not come to its end, but rather to a new life. The system is embodied in a healthy market, legislation and interests, which indicates that the Western society is by and large in a situation of favorable operation. Judging from the perspective of Classicalist definition of humanity, man in modern society is in fact guided by desire rather than value rationality. Thinking from the Liberalist point of view, however, it is precisely the instrument rationality that prevents rather than promotes man from degenerating into animal. Hobbes’s allegory about state of nature indicates that human beings will fall into endless greed, evilness and bloody conflicts had there been no such a being as Leviathan created among human beings by instrument rationality. Instrument rationality promoted rationalization of social organization, which is embodied in the construction of a series of social systems epitomized by legislation. The limitations enabled by rational legislation dissolve fundamental conflicts of materialist interests in a desire-driven individualist modern society. As stated by Adam Smith with his allegory of an invisible hand, individuals can come to a general relationship of harmony in their pursuit of interests. That Smith defends in favor of a new social system against moralist criticism of a desire-driven modern society is because in a legislated society of market economy the dependency of the human being is completely broken and man for the first time achieves true freedom – although Leftists believe that privatization-based freedom is a false one. If we start with Smith to understand other liberalist thinkers since the Enlightenment, we find that their defense of modern society is based on similar value expectations – man can not lose the freedom they are entitled to enjoy from the beginning. For them, freedom is not just a material form but more of a spiritual state. Isn’t freedom, as a value, under the constant scrutiny of rationality? Isn’t this an embodiment of an existence of value rationality? Therefore, modern society – from its very beginning – is not a society that negates value rationality. Although many scholars insist that modern society is the inevitable result of capitalist economy, a mature modern society with all its orders might not be possible without great thinkers’ conscious design with freedom as the ultimate value.

How, then, is all the above relevant to Jiang Hai’s art? As discussed earlier, Jiang’s Head-Brain series is a logical continuation of his earlier works in theme. This, however, is not the whole point of this series. His works of animals have a generic critique of modern society – whether Western or Eastern, of the 19th or 21st century. Their critique points to the general characteristics of modernity. But the fact that the artist chose the traditional zodiac animals from Chinese culture has something special in meaning. As the artist explains when discussing the series, “that I use the twelve animals built up with human bodies is simply because they stand for the nature of our nationality. The current mainstream of our collective consciousness and unconsciousness is one of materialist civilization and pragmatist interests. Its primitivist behavior is very close to that of animal.” This is to say that this specific series is a reference to particular problems of today’s China. It is precisely because of this that I use “modernity of the zodiac dragon” as the title of this essay in response to Jiang Hai’s choice of the twelve zodiac animals.

China has been in a process of modern transition ever since the 19th century. Such transition has created many elements of modernity – a modern nation-state, modern industrial system and market economy, which pushes China onto the international track of development. But as we observe, the cause of modernization in China is far away from ideal. Although we are not sure what the ideal state would be, we do not it is not what we have now. As discussed earlier above, one of the elements that promote modern society toward maturity is the value rationality of freedom under legislation. To devalue human desire is for the realization of individual freedom. We cannot simply say that a mature modern society is completely subject to desire because value rationality is in fact directing instrument rationality in the direction of what Max Weber calls “rationalization” and what Ray Huang calls “fiscal administration”. But what is the current status of China? It lacks generally desirable value rationality and it is still in an early phase of instrument rationality. In many aspects of the current society, the systems are deficient in regulating liberated desires. One obvious example is the jeopardized safety of food and medicine, which prompts many to believe that today’s China is a society of “mutual poisoning”. If there is no safety in the area that most directly relates to people’s life, how far is this society from the state of nature described by Hobbes which is a condition of war of everyone against everyone? All this is due to the fact that in today’s China there is lack of efficient supervising system and modern legislative system and rationality, and a lack of basic knowledge of instrument rationality. It is for this very reason that the government was able to fund raise through a fabricated story of “Tiger Zhou” for building a natural conservation site, and for the same reason that some experts and scholars endorsed the so-called historic discovery of the Gaoling tomb of Cao Cao. I do not know how serious the problem of “soulless experts and heartless pagans” is in mature modern societies. But this is exactly what is happening in today’s China.

We could understand from above discussion that Jiang Hai’s Head-Brain series is a profoundly meaningful critique of modernity with all its problems, especially of modern society of today’s China. In its early construction, modern society had a low expectation of humanity. But continuing efforts were made for the realization of modern values even in the time of extreme materialism. In contrast, we have to ask where the future is in a China where all values are deserted and instrument rationality is totally attached to animalist instinctive conducts. Will this chaotic chaos continue under the circumstances of the “Chinese characteristics” and “Chinese mode”? It is not known to us what an ideal modern Chinese society would be. But what is known to us is that the current society could not be simply covered up with ideologically fascinating vocabulary. The ultimate goal of art lies in its function of revealing and criticizing a crucial and indifferent society. But the rest is in the hands of the operators of the society.

[Editor] Elemy Liu