Behind “Butterfly Flutters” Author:Yang Xiaoyan Date: 2012-08-30 Size:
In my view, what Jiang Heng seeks to express is an issue to do with growth and development, which is accompanied by constant chaos, incessant coaching and upbraiding, and infatuated dreamlike youth imagination.

Behind “Butterfly Flutters”

——Revisiting Jiang Heng’s Material Worship and the Patriarchic Mindset behind it

Yang Xiaoyan

I once commented on Jiang Heng’s works and was of the opinion that the conception of “cartoon” did not fully explain his artistic pursuit. In my view, what Jiang Heng seeks to express is an issue to do with growth and development, which is accompanied by constant chaos, incessant coaching and upbraiding, and infatuated dreamlike youth imagination. It is a denial of growing up either genuinely or spuriously, in the intervention of the legitimization of adult society. There are three keywords to this: growth, material desire and idol. I think that the artistic practice and significance of Jiang Heng’s art reside in these three keywords.

The first keyword is growth.

I still remember the word by French existentialist writer Jean Paul Sartre, which basically means that one can not choose his birth; and at one’s birth, he is thrust into adult society. I cannot remember his exact words but the meaning is there and it complies with the basic laws of existentialism, which is “existence precedes essence”. In Sartre’s view, people are not born with the thing-in-itself; it is given to us after birth by the external environment, which, to us, is the adult society. Therefore, one’s birth constitutes one episode, in which one is thrust into the society. Once he is there, the adult society starts “writing” on and “shaping” his nature/essence, until he is remade, or as most philosophers argue, is possessed with an inherent existence. From the standpoint of existentialism, the essence in one’s nature is not born but imposed upon him. One’s nature is not self-derivative but other things will derive from it, such as the predetermined essence that philosophers discuss.

If we apply the theories of existentialism to art, in especial, to artistic styles, we will find that art, including its style, is also created and defines the many rules in an artistic society, described in line with its own significance so as to provide people with its identifiable traits. In other words, an artist, on deciding to do art, will be flung to the artistic society where, through his exploration and innovation, he will acquire the essence. Of course, the essence here denotes the essence of art. Art initially does not have any essence and its existence precedes its essence. That is an undisputed fact.

From that point, when one discusses art, one does not discuss its so-called style but rather, uses art as evidence to discuss the society, which gives rise to its birth and shape. Then the artistic society drifts towards the adult society and then to authoritarian society. To me, there has never been such a thing as pure art. Pure art exists only in theory and is used as rhetoric, to express one’s rejection of or resistance to social reality. Yet, to deny the existence of pure art is to refuse discussing the aesthetic roadmap of art. I even think that there is no connection between art and beauty. The material idols under the brush of Jiang Heng, with their enchanting eyes, appear to be patronizing the spectators. In fact, seen from Jiang’s practice, there is a long distance between his artworks and aesthetics.

First of all, Jiang Heng’s art points to growth, to an environment he can not choose but have to live in. He was hurled into it at the very outset and there he had to accept the rules of the game. At the same time, at a certain point, under certain conditions, one learns how to respond to things. This response is art and at the same time, not art. It is an adjustment, with which one lessons the tension he is under living in social reality. Once the style has become an effective mediator, its symbolic significance is established. In that context, art is indeed a kind of emblem rather than anything else, such as philosophy or aesthetics.

Jiang Heng’s development faces two dilemmas. One is created by adult society and the other by the visual context.

The first is of a universal character, which is a common feature of adult society in which rules and disciplines reign. These rules are repeated day after day and, hand in hand with one’s growth, immersed into adult life. When characterizing social phenomena, they become what is defined by sociologists as generation gap, so as to describe the discrepancies or even confrontations in taste between two generations. Growth is indispensable but it has to be achieved in accordance with the rules of adult society. Yet, clashes are also inevitable and, evolving with the changing time, may lead to serious social problems, which will then harass and increasingly reform the aged adult society. The clashes often take the form of youth agitations and, on a personal level, become the will to refuse, to refuse to grow up, to refuse to bend to the rules of adult society. However, growth cannot be denied or stopped. Therefore, only interests may be stalled. If one refuses to grow up, he had better subsequently evolve towards art, and show his resistance to the style.

Refusing to grow is not only the starting point of his art, but is also the continuous power source behind the artistic practice, which doggedly targets youth. This begs the revelation of the backdrop, against which Jiang Heng studied art, a visual context that is shifting.

It was not a long time ago when what had been termed as “shallow art” became “cartoon style”, which is now accepted and widely discussed. It was the pursuit of a whole generation. A few years ago, Stan Lee boldly used the popular Disney style as his artistic principle. That was attributable to the environment, which was conducive to the spread of pop culture. Certainly, we do not know if it was pop art that resulted in the emergence of Stan Lee or the other way around, i.e. Stan Lee’s participation promoted pop art. That is not so important. The important thing is in an environment, to be popular becomes the objective of the new art, and traditional visual styles, with which teenagers, the youth and general public are infatuated, suddenly becomes Avant-Garde art. This is doubtless a kind of subversion to the aesthetics, which is obsessed with making in-depth analysis. .

In the 1990s, when Japanese cartoons made inroads into China, a quantity of pirated cartoon books, along with the cartoon programs on TV and attractive cartoon toys in the stores, became the playmate of the young people, who barely had any private time. These shaped their visual taste. In addition, in reality, as adult society pretentiously prohibits things, the young generation intentionally or unintentionally regarded the taste as a carrier of their denial, so as to unleash their right to self-expression. That is the most important visual context that accompanied Jiang Heng’s growth, and it explains the basis of his artistic style. In other words, he grew up under the influences of such visual contexts and could find justification in the process for his later styles in art. Today, his images of women with seductive eyes, not only carry the yearning one has for denial but also effectively strengthen the cartoon elements in the visual context. In time, they will grow into striking symbols of individual art, and will become celebrated in the artistic community.

Now, we have to come to the second and third keywords: material desire and idol. In my view, these two keywords are both different and similar. They vary in the concept but in the visual field, they constitute Jiang Heng’s art, and the stylistic origins of the artistic trend, which is associated with his own.

Material desire, cynicism and pretending to be daft, these combine to shape contemporary Chinese art since the 1990s, and are the ideological background to this movement. No matter how rebellious some of the individuals are, regardless of the once effective subversion that lay in store in traditional artistic style, out of which the movement stemmed, by the 1990s and the succeeding century, spurred by the economic boom and inflation of art capital, everything becomes the substitute of material desire, cynicism and sham stupidity. Together, they mark and exhibit the holistic ethos of the age. What is special about Jiang Heng is that, when he gives material desire a tangible form, he not only transforms the innermost denial of adult society into an idol, but also imbues the idol with a seemingly frivolous but in fact neutral temperament.

In other words, the beauties under Jiang Heng’s brush with their winning eyes wide-open, stares into the distance, and has nothing to do with sex. That is to say, Jiang Heng’s beauties are not sexy. The reason is rather simple: his beauties are not flesh but are the exterior of material desire, a standardized idol. What is more, when Jiang Heng keeps repeating his idols, he is only stating a concept, one that is about the relationship between material desire and idol.

That is indeed an interesting phenomenon, using beauties as idols, with their physical attribute divested of its fleshiness. Seen from that perspective, Jiang Heng is a standard conceptual artist but not a perceptual one. It is not his goal to be expressional. On the contrary, stripping the works of their expressional features is conducive to the concept he wishes to express. Thus, he draws a line between him and expressionalism.

Interestingly, Jiang Heng’s concept is imbued with his personal perceptional experience, and is mixed with many growth hazards, which, once deprived of the pervading desires, is left with a flamboyant imagery.

For some reason unbeknown to me, whenever I look at Jiang Heng’s imagery, or at those seemingly duplicated idols series, I am gripped with an overwhelming desire to pry into his innermost secrets that accompanied his growth. To me, there lurks behind his imagery a psychological dream of a youth, whose core is to cast off maternal control and run towards patriarchic prowess.

I am not acquainted with Jiang Heng’s teenage life. Generally speaking, the dilemma and denial of, and resistance to growing up, in my opinion, is a common problem not only for his generation but also for his succeeding generations. The images of Japanese cartoons have behind them game-like indulgence, which visually legitimizes the refusal, sheltering the entire generation of girls and boys from the aggression of adult society. However, this is a haven in imagination only, in fact, growing up is inevitable and we all have to come into adulthood, and do so under the rules and disciplines of adult society. Then rebellion will unmistakably evolve into daydreams, into an alliance between fleeing and running away.

I dare to assert that Jiang Heng has indescribable reliance on women. It is not bodily reliance as it is commonly perceived. It is physical, with the hormonal scents scattered about. In an open society, the physical scent is so omnipresent that it has become nauseating. The handsome artist does not mind such superficial things. Engraved upon his soul is the tenderness that is drifting away from of youth; tenderness, which, like the rules he has to bow to on a daily basis, is not unrelated to power.

I think that we may without doubt consider growing up as a process by which we break free from the maternal body. Interesting, acknowledging patriarchic power and bowing to the rules are not contradictory. The objective of the rules is to make men the subject of confinement, paving the road for patriarchic power. Seen that way, the body may prove that in leaving the maternal body, certain nostalgic feelings will be retained; and with it the warmth the increasingly mature flesh has inherited from its maternal origin. The artist may not be fully aware of the significance his growth entails for his visual choice. But his vision has been consistently lingering on idols woven by young girls. This can be interpreted as a crooked representation of the maternal legacy there remains. At the same time, he does not allow himself to be made a prisoner of physical allurement. Instead, the retention of the maternal legacy, which has become an emblem of the material idol, harkens back to his concealed and irreplaceable fond reminiscence of the maternity. At the same time, he is undecided about patriarchic power, and does not wish to give himself up easily to adult society, whose foundation is patriarchy. Luckily, art is his profession and thus he has the chance to paint girl idols intermittently, so as to resist the brutality, peremptoriness and aggression of patriarchy. In this way, Jiang Heng shows in his images certain restraint that resembles material desire and this obviously makes a lot of sense. His perception of girl idols is itself imbued with restraint and helplessness at his inability to annihilate patriarchy. His art is his response to growing up and it is rosy colored: a flamboyant cantus divested of its sexuality. The result is that in ten long years of art experimentation, the artist has deepened his adulation for material-worshiping idols, his indescribable yearning for the maternal body that is drifting further and further away with each passing day, and his lingering thoughts on patriarchy. In a new wave of art movement, Jiang Heng is a prominent example, by which to keep the private visual territory, despite the social conventions and rules in the materialistic adult society. Thus, growth itself is instilled with a modal surface, while spiritual ethos is preserved deep down, so that the tender entanglement with power, with patriarchy can continue, although perhaps to no avail. Still, the entanglement is crucially important. If it is terminated, then the artist and his generation, or artworks holding similar artistic conceptions, will lose what significance there remains of them.

Apart from the typical big-eyed beauties, there emerges another object: fluttering butterflies. Jiang Heng’s butterflies are not without their connotations; it is a visual elucidation of the material-desiring idol as well as a fleeting memory of a fleeting scenario. Yet, I feel that the fluttering butterflies are like a group of symbolic expressions, which express the lightness of breaking away from maternity and of lingering alongside patriarchy. There is antagonism in the hesitation, antagonism which is not very strong but flutters upwards and downwards in the air. Perhaps, to his generation, maternity and patriarchy are like fluttering butterflies.

[Editor] 马西