The Obscurity of "history" – A Look at Cai Zhisong's work
Source:Artintern Author:Wu Hong Date: 2009-07-21 Size:
Cai Zhisong's acclaimed figure sculptures, that won an award in France in 2001, provoked discussions when it was later shown at the National Gallery of Art in China. At the time, the most poignant debate was centered on whether the artist had demonized the Chinese people represented in his work. But

Cai Zhisong's acclaimed figure sculptures, that won an award in France in 2001, provoked discussions when it was later shown at the National Gallery of Art in China. At the time, the most poignant debate was centered on whether the artist had demonized the Chinese people represented in his work. But in fact, this was a superficial evaluation determined on a standard patriotic Chinese type.


Frankly, we find Chinese traditional sculptural elements among Cai Zhisong's figurative sculptures. In the field of Chinese sculptural arts, since the beginning of the last century with the introduction of western sculptural learning techniques, there has been an unceasing effort to combine Chinese traditional sculptural elements within the framework of western composition system.  Sculptural development parallels the effort of "sinification" of oil painting. However, the effort of simply "merging the east with the west" on elements or models of composition would only yield certain superficial or coincidental "compositional overlaps" at the level of "formalistic" logic. For instance, certain seemingly "witty" works combining eastern and western models were, on a compositional level, simple processes of "collage", and were unable to push further on an experimental level. This in fact explains why certain artists fade out once they have became famous with a few representative works. In other cases, artists often use a visual grand narrative by relying on mainstream values to conceal, with superficial nationalistic elements, the lack of content. In contrast, Cai Zhisong's works did not fall victim to the two aforementioned "trends" in the world of sculpture.


In Cai Zhisong's work, we realize what the artist is attempting to do is to grab hold of the "obscurity" of Chinese historical culture that hidden under the surface of traditional composition. Western sculpture, since ancient Greece, emphasized representing freedom and confidence of "human nature," whereas, in traditional China, sculpture embodied the "sacred" and the "obedience" contrasting to it. It is precisely these historical and cultural characteristics that determined the "aesthetic" visual and compositional qualities. Accordingly, Cai Zhisong's command of the "historicity" of Chinese nationalism allowed him to choose specific compositional elements that embodied such historicity. Under the oppression of sacred, monarchical, and "institutional" power on the individual, the individual has acquired a docile and subordinate appearance.  Although "docility" embodies the antagonism of two internal struggles, the tremendous tension gathered from endless struggles is precisely the unique artistic quality Cai Zhisong expresses through the language of sculpture. In other words, Cai's work embodies the psychological tension imbued behind intense mass volume and generalization.

Coherent to this psychological axis is the artist's selection of material. We notice that he prefers to use bronze and lead as his main materials. Materials with the physical qualities that combine "softness" and "durability". Moreover, they also correspond to the "obscurity" of Chinese history and culture, thus, the material are also given a spiritual and cultural quality.

His work, The extension of History, bridges our understanding to Cai Zhisong's work, moreover this work also serves as a conjunction in his artistic practice. In this work, we notice the sustained "regimented" formalistic uniformity against the "progression" of history. With a representation of the grand narrative of "history", in examining his sculptures of the body we can discover the tremendous psychological tension beneath the tranquil docile and subordinate surface.

In fact, among the artist's various works, we find the embodiment of "commonality" of cultural implications.

The installation Dossier is both a diversifying shift of form, as well as a key transitional phase from focusing on "history" to "reality". The earlier sacred and monarchical power has been replaced with the symbols of "regimentation". It is among these works that the obscurity of Chinese history and culture, which Cai Zhisong's is interested in demonstrating, was elevated and expanded, as they developed from specific spiritual tendencies to a more common and quotidian cultural concern. Meanwhile, the cultural implication of his work is no longer only conveyed through form, but, more importantly, the "cultural" and "conceptual" qualities of the material and symbols themselves are enhanced.

The installation work Stamp developed following this logic.  In this work, the carving on the rubber stamp – symbolic of a particular "regimented" power, has been effaced and replaced with an inlaid concave mirror. Using the physical qualities of light, the concave mirror reflected an upside down image, which was an obscure image due to the focus of the light.  However, if one squinted, the image became clear. Here, Cai Zhisong further scrutinizes the power of such "regimentation" and the "legitimacy" of the symbols. In other words, when you come to realize the absurdity of "history", its stateliness completely dissolves. Thus, Cai Zhisong's work is like derailing a tragic "play" and turning it into a satirical "comedy", and uses laughter to subvert the solemnity of "history" and "regimentation".

Though in the work Rose, his sense of the grand narrative of history shifted towards the history of the soul--the lead "rose" conveyed a tragic impression to our psyche. It is comparable to the "monologue of the master" that revealed the inner sentiments of the artist directly to the audience. Such solemn and tragic conscience is in fact a psychological embodiment of Cai Zhisong's personal insights and concerns toward history and culture. In relation to his previous work, a massive scroll made of lead without any writing allow us to grasp the artist's internal trauma of historical sentiments.

In sum, we discover in Cai Zhisong's work that the "commonality" in different works is the key to understanding his work as a whole. Moreover, his tragic view of history is an approach of human nature embodied in the "cultural" and "conceptual" qualities of his composition and material applied.

2008-9 -16
Beijing Tongzhou

[Editor] Elemy Liu

    Artintern