Seeking the Depth of the Nature of Things
Source:Artintern.net Author:Qu Bo Date: 2012-12-29 Size:
Susan Sontag talked of "Against Interpretation". She believed that in the West the overall consciousness and thinking of art in history have always been limited within the scope marked by the simulation theory or the representative theory of the ancient Greek art, which means the art itself needs defense, and a strange idea resulted from defense is: the form is separated from the content, and the content is a dependency of the form in nature. Even in the contemporary era, the simulation theory, though superficially abandoned by most artists and critics, still retains it influence that should not be under-estimated.

  Susan Sontag talked of "Against Interpretation". She believed that in the West the overall consciousness and thinking of art in history have always been limited within the scope marked by the simulation theory or the representative theory of the ancient Greek art, which means the art itself needs defense, and a strange idea resulted from defense is: the form is separated from the content, and the content is a dependency of the form in nature. Even in the contemporary era, the simulation theory, though superficially abandoned by most artists and critics, still retains it influence that should not be under-estimated. In the thinking of art, people first think of content, and emphasis of the content leads to "continual and never-ending input into interpretation ". Take literary criticism as an example: Franz Kafka's works have been subject to plunder by interpreters for not less than three bouts; Marcel Proust and other writers have been clothed in a thick, hard shell of interpretations, while Samuel Beckett's works, in Sontag's acerbic sarcasm, "have been attracting vampire-like interpreters". Sontag's special attention to the literary circle originated not only from her dual identity as a novelist and an art critic, but also from her observation of the American pioneer art circle in its entirety: in the art categories of novel and drama that have negligible colors of pioneers, "most of the American novelists and playwrights are actually either journalists or amateurish sociologists and psychologists, who were creating literary equivalents of program music". Different from poetry, painting and music, they didn't show any interesting concern over their own change in the form so that they could be easily invaded by interpretations. And interpretations of the 1960s in Sontag's eye were "often aroused by overt hostility or obvious disdain over superficial things", "generally reactionary and ossified", and were "revenge of the intellect to art" and "revenge to the world". Sontag said: "trying to interpret is to make the world infertile and to exhaust the world". Therefore "we should weaken the content so as to enable ourselves to see the works themselves". 〔1〕

  Quoting Sontag doesn't merely come from an interest in the mental analysis of a pure theory grown in another space and time, but more from the fact that this theory accords and is related in some way with the current status of the contemporary art of China. Certainly as analyzed by Edward Said, empty and abstract theoretical forms, after a "theoretical travel" should localize in a new situation to become materialized and incarnated.〔2〕Therefore, I'm not ready to take a formalistic stance as seriously as Sontag did to stand "against interpretations". On the contrary, I believe that in China's current context, artists might be "journalists", "sociologists and psychologists" as well; critics light up the space of the meaning of art works, whose writings deserve our respect and whose interpretations to penetrate the contents of art works are conducive to enhancing the capability of art to involve in the society and magnifying the significance of art to the society. Sontag, however, has her value in reminding us that interpretation is a behavior based on the contents of art works; if we blindly slide to the interpretation of the contents of art works, the value of art forms will be covered up and man's feeling before art works will be deceived. Therefore, "it's important for us to restore our feeling. We must learn to see more, listen more, and feel more".

  The contemporary art of China, after many years of development, has seen great prosperity today. One of the examples is the great number of works from artists' studios. Compared to some three decades ago or earlier, the contemporary artists have created more works per capita. Why such a situation would emerge? One of the major reasons is apparently the drive by the art market, which guides almost all the artists to labor on constantly. For a majority of the artists who have entered the art market, working on their works at ease and leisure has become a distant classical ideal, but the artists' all-season devotion has been the top theme. Another reason, which is not in people's attention, is that most of the contemporary artists work in a way to create series of works, which objectively lead to the rapid increase of the number of works by the artists. It is just in this sense that Sontag is related with the contemporary art of China in a depth.

  Why do the artists work in the way to create their works in series? Combing the history may be helpful to us to clarify the true significance. According to incomplete statistics, the way of creating series of works in the West may perhaps date back to the various impressionist artists. The Rouen Cathedral Series under Monet's brushes are among one of the earliest series. Monet, who used to spread a number of canvases on the same spot at the same time, worked on each canvas for about 10 to 15 minutes and in two months' time he completed some 20 frames of the Rouen Cathedral. In his action as rigorous as doing a scientific experiment, Monet gently caressed the facades of the cathedral, pursuing the trace of light, wandering about in the intriguing image, the light beam and the color to explore the characteristics of the building and the light ray, and unveiled to the peers of his time an unknown, different Rouen Cathedral that was so familiar to them. In the history of Chinese art there were traditions to make series of works. As far as Literati painting is concerned, perhaps since the Yuan Dynasty when it rose up, some artists began to work this way. For example, Ni Zan (1271~1368) repeatedly described the Taihu Lake, and Wu Zhen (1280~1354) continuously portrayed fishermen. Since the end of the Ming Dynasty, it has been popular to work this way till the contemporary artists such as Xu Beihong (1895~1953) and Qi Baishi (1864~1957) who were practitioners of working this way. Lothar Ledderose, when studying the Chinese traditional art, proposed the concept of "Module" as an analyzing tool. To a certain extent, the main work to create art works in series is a process to apply the module. Lothar Ledderose believed that modularized thinking was found throughout the Chinese painting art either in composition, motif or technique of painting. Literati painters, however, used "their means of artistic expression with clear-cut individuality" to "give play to endless creative enthusiasm in the varied description of details". Therefore, to the Chinese literati painters, the modularized system and individuality are just the two sides of a coin. The name of this coin is creativity. What Lothar Ledderose appreciated is the series of works, each frame of which distinguishes itself from the other and contains advancement although created in a modularized way, such as in the entire works of bamboo paintings by Zheng Xie (1693~1765), in which "no bamboo leaves have ever been found absolutely the same". 〔4〕

  Since the period of the Republic of China, however, due to constant self-revolution, constant demand for new and newer works, the "progressive" artists of China, who attempted to exceed themselves by refreshing yesterday with today, gradually gave up the working style to make series of works. After 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded, this style basically disappeared. Till the early 1980s, artists were working their heart out spending months on a piece of works that could win them a perpetual fame. In the middle and later periods of the 1980s, enlightened by Western art, the working style to make series of works quietly returned to the art circle of China. In the 1990s this working style became an unstoppable trend. Currently the style to make series of works is almost a standard working model. It may be fitting and proper to give one's thoughts on this working style at such a time.

  Because things – elements that constitute the world – are complex and plentiful, the world in which we live is naturally complicated and abundant consisting of multi-dimensional faces and multi-layered construction. But just as Roger Fry analyzed: "in the actual visual sense, we will no longer care about a thing once we know its name as our vision stops activities after completing its biological function". Therefore common people are often blind to the multi-dimensional and multi-layered world, and as far as art is concerned, it is an "article of luxury" from "a biological point of view", which has one of the main values to guide the public to discover the complexity and abundance of the world. An artist's vision is different from that of a common man, who maintains "a continuous and restless attention" to the presentation of things, and this attention "requires thorough separation from the presentation off any meaning and implications. A natural kaleidoscope in any revolving may arouse a detached vision without emotional coloring from an artist".〔5〕Monet's success lies in the fact that with the artist's eyes he saw the various faces of the cathedral and light. As to the Zheng Xie-style literati painters in the art history of China, their value lies in their response to the richness of the world of life with the richness of the world of art.

  History has given an answer to the meaning of the working style for series of works, but reality is different from history anyway, which has its own uniqueness. Artists today may be quite aware of the great pressure in competition than the artists of any era. They not only have to face piles of books of art history but also compete with quite many artists of the contemporary times and make breakthroughs as well. It is an effective way to make breakthroughs by building up an art style of your own. Through repeated description of a certain thing, he takes possession of this thing from its symbol, and his style has established a mutually-constructed relationship with this thing, giving people an impression that this thing belongs exclusively to him. Sontag, while analyzing the relationship between style and repetition, pointed out that every style is dependent on a certain principle of repetition or redundancy. In terms of the contemporary time when style is making rapid succession, the art audience even don't have enough time to fully digest the principle of repetition upon which art works are built so that "if people are not able to perceive how an art work repeats itself, then that piece of art work can hardly be perceived actually, and as a result it is incomprehensible at the same time".〔6〕It can be seen how great a force the repetition gives off. Therefore, it is needless to say the contemporary artists repeat their revelation of some things repeated through the working style of making series of works so as to illustrate their own existence in the complex contemporary art circle. Nevertheless, serious artists, while preserving their exclusively-owned symbols, should, by referring to the self-negation of the "progressive" Chinese artists since the period of the Republic of China, reflect distinction in the continuity of series of works in order to be able to seek the nature of things in depth through repeated study of the form.

  From the above, we may conclude that the working style of making series of works has provided an opportunity for artists to study the form and to explore the nature of things, and by the depth at which the artist seeks the nature of things and carries out experiments on the form. For exploration and experiment, it is not necessary to burn with impatience and to be in haste. We can't rule out the possibility that some artists have quite mature performances in some series of works, but in a general sense, there must be quite mature concept to be conveyed and exploration of the nature of things in depth, both of which are mutually related and as repeated hashing of the form that artists do in a calm mood. Series lead to repetition and repetition leads to style. "Each style is a means to stress something", and an artist's stress narrowly concentrates the viewer's attention to something. The reason why the viewer does not care about the narrowness of the gap is that this attention is considerably strong, trustworthy and quick-witted.〔7〕Therefore, to the artist, the working style to make series of works, while in establishing his own style, should display his own instant sensitiveness and lasting enthusiasm towards things. The viewer, when accepting the artist's style, should experience the depth of attention.

  In the viewpoint of Lothar Ledderose, "the modularized" is helpful for the art form to be succinct. Today, though the working style to make series of works has an inseparable ambiguous relationship with the art market, the artists should have a considerable degree of conscientiousness and vigilance: repetition is not a symbol to supply some consumption to the market, but it is conducive to seeking the depth of the nature of things. The depth at which the contemporary art concept is expressed ought to be mutually linked with the exploration of the nature of things and the experiment on the form by the artists in making series of works. This is the very reason why we hold this exhibition.

  December 12, 2012

  Notes:

  [1] Susan Sontag. Against Interpretation. In Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Trans. Cheng Wei, Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2011:3-15.

  [2] Edward Said. Traveling Theory. In Edward Said: The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP. pp. 226~247.

  [3] Susan Sontag. Against Interpretation. In Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Trans. Cheng Wei, Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2011:15.

  [4] Lothar Ledderose. Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. Trans. Zhang Zong and so on, Bejing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2005:280.

  [5] Roger Fry. Artist's Vision. In Roger Fry: Vision and Design. Trans. Geng Yongqiang, Beijing: Jincheng Publishing House, 2011:39,38,41.

  [6] Susan Sontag. On Style. In Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Trans. Cheng Wei, Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2011:37-38.

  [7] Susan Sontag. On Style. In Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Trans. Cheng Wei, Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2011:38-39.

[Editor] 常霞

    Artintern