Can We Flash Back to Art History?
Source:Artintern Author:Wu Hong Date: 2015-07-31 Size:
Everything happens for a reason.One morning, Fang Lijun sent two ink drawings he had just made to a WeChat group called “Enlightenment,” and the drawings very quickly garnered praise from the other artists……

Everything happens for a reason.

One morning, Fang Lijun sent two ink drawings he had just made to a WeChat group called “Enlightenment,” and the drawings very quickly garnered praise from the other artists. Immediately after that, other artists began uploading their own fun and interesting little pieces. Everyone in the group got really excited, but you would be hard-pressed to define what these pieces were. Were they sketches? Small-scale artworks? Playful doodles? They were all of these things and no one of them. The only consistent trait they shared was that these drawings are linked, but not entirely identical to, the styles for which these artists are known. They may have been made for the artist’s eyes only, or because the drawings “had no other use,” they scratched an itch you didn’t know you had. In any event, do these drawings have any relationship to the market for their work or a relationship to these artists’ positions in art history? These small pieces are simply little games they play for their own amusement!

As an outside observer of this group, I saw what was happening, and I could not help but snicker a little bit. These extremely successful artists were also rather sad; these small moments of happiness made them as giddy as children. I might even have made a rather nasty association; when I was attending art school, you would see spontaneous little scrawls on the walls of the bathroom when you squatted down. Those structures, those formal gestures, those spirits were more than “lively;” they were masterworks of the highest caliber. Perhaps all of the school’s best sketches were there!

After these two scenes came together in my mind, I suddenly stumbled upon a seemingly deep question. What came first: art or artists? If art came first, who made art before the emergence of the artist? If artists came first and art was not pre-defined, then how would one deem oneself an “artist?” This lands us in that famous chicken and egg paradox, with echoes of those old questions from our Introduction to Art classes. What is art? Where does art come from? What is the function of art?

There might be millions of answers to these questions, because “where there are one thousand readers, there are one thousand Hamlets.” Personally, I prefer the playful answer. There may be functional, religious, and educational answers to these questions, but I firmly believe that the guys who made this art are actually doing something fun, something they like doing. If it was just “work” you did in exchange for a small chunk of venison, would you want to lie on a massive rock in the hot sun scratching out a massive cave painting with a small stone during pre-historic times? Or, would you rather get dirty and smelly in a dark cave, using ash mixed with deer blood to paint images of the hunting tips the village elders want to pass on to the next generation? No! This “work” would not have been anywhere near as much fun as chasing game through the wilderness with friends. Once art became “useful,” once art became “work,” it lost its pleasure and became labor.

As a result, art can be seen as a symbol. Art is a concept to which increasing numbers of overlapping regulations have been attached in the course of human civilization. Artists are a professional category to which many capabilities and skills have been attributed. Art history is a process of layering concepts and functions according to a certain logic. Since the concept of art emerged, art history became the intellectual framework for building a theory of visual art. In producing “knowledge” about art, art history and art theory endlessly multiples “knowledge” about how to interpret any initial piece of knowledge. People use theory to explain theory, so theory derives further theory. Differences between theories create chaos, disorder, and fiction in the art historical framework, which is unhelpful to our understanding of the essence of art. Perhaps, we only “work” in art in the service of some pre-defined concept. We work hard to approach the essence of art, and perhaps it is only after we feel close to our goal that we discover that we had simply created a theoretical mirror image in the name of “understanding the essence of art.” For the sake of theoretical accuracy, we work to approach art’s essence, which still remains rather far away. Like Jorge Luis Borges’ novel The Library of Babel implies, the library (the universe) is comprised of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries. “The library is unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, becomes order: the Order.” The Book of Sand is a seemingly related story, also by Borges, that some might find prophetic. The narrator receives a strange book that has an infinite number of pages, a fact that terrifies him. “I felt that the book was a nightmarish object, an obscene thing that affronted and tainted reality itself.” In the end, the narrator hid from a member of staff (a symbol of the maintenance of order) and lost the book (a symbol of knowledge) in a library (a black hole or an origin point). Thus, he completes the cycle, moving from nothing to something and from something to nothing.

Fang Lijun playfully called his lines “floating like air,” a type not part of the eighteen classical types of line. The name indicates that this sketch-like work might be a way to relax body and mind when not making artwork, or it might be a way to make use of every moment between artworks. In any case, these small pieces emerge when the artist’s spirit is “floating like air.” These forms find the artist when he is defenseless; the artist did not create these things. This state might be close to the “black hole” of knowledge raised by Borges; it absorbs everything, but is closer to the origin.

Within the structure of a flashback, the state of art before the theoretical framework of “art history” was established is the first thread in this exhibition.

The second thread in this exhibition is the artwork before the formalization of “the artwork.” This thread actually has an intertextual relationship with the first. Artworks are the creative products of artists assumed to be professional; artworks are specific vehicles for “art” after conceptual layers have been added. Here, the artwork is the linking intermediary, and it must represent the logic of “art” stipulated by art history and the artist’s logic stipulated by social roles. In this narrative framework, because of its “formality,” the artwork must pass through the ceremonial legend of “creation” and leave the artist’s hands before it becomes a link in the splendid chain of art history. The things that precede the artworks are often called “drafts” or “compositional sketches.” Usually, they are just for the artist, so they might be part of an intellectual process or a temporary record. Precisely because of their lack of integrity or completeness, they can represent an artist’s unconscious state, devoid of technique or theory; these sketches best approximate an artist’s spiritual freedom and emotional truth.

The third thread in this exhibition is the ability of artists to transcend “stylization.” In order to differentiate this from the two other threads, we will tentatively call them “small artworks.” These types of works may be gifts that artists exchange, or emotional refreshers between two conventional “artworks,” or the process of finding forms out of nothing with brush and ink. Because these works are small and temporary, they do not often appear in an artist’s works list. Stylization is the expectation that an easily-discernible trait will appear, and this expectation is often placed on an artist by art theory or the art market. The marketization of Chinese contemporary art and the Chinese contemporary art market are two linked but inherently different concepts. The marketization of art means that the entire art ecology, including art criticism, has become market-focused, which is fundamentally different from the art market, in which artworks enter into a commercial system. Artists create a trademark style in the course of the creative process, and this is a natural result of this process. Due to the strong integration of the market environment, artists may yield to the market, which raises the need for easily recognizable stylization and labeling. We might discover a complementary relationship between the stylized works and the small works that were clearly not created for the market. We must seize the opportunity to observe the diversity of an artist’s style or ability. The small size of these works makes them easy to grasp, and they are not necessarily bound by predetermined thematic limitations, so this free state best approaches the playful spirit of art. Only those in the industry understand this state and applaud it in their peers, because it reflects traits such as “talent” and “elegance.” It can only be found by accident, when the artist has found himself in a state free from stylistic limitations; it can only be inspired by interactions with brush and paper or canvas. In this sense, small works are valuable because they do not need a style outside of “stylization;” instead, the artist, as the creative entity, may be able to return to the origins of art in the process of their creation

These three threads constitute the basic framework for this exhibition. On this foundation, we want to emphasize the handmade, unprocessed, and incomplete elements of these works. Only here might we be able to see the principles, truths, and intentions of art and artists.

These recollections and flashbacks of art history do not attempt to propose another theoretical framework; they are more a symbolic mode of expression for the first exhibition in our “Chinese Contemporary Art in a State of Fission” series. Returning to art’s origin, essence, and true state makes it possible to find a way to escape from the increasing alienation faced by Chinese contemporary art.

May 27, 2015

Songzhuang Art District, Beijing

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[Editor] 张艳