Disease under the Sun
—On Hu Jun’s Series of New Life
Author: Luo Fei
Translator: Xu Yang
Author’s Note: Hu Jun’s atelier was on the upstairs room of my workplace, he often invites me passionately to go to his atelier to drink some tea and chat with him. I’m much moved by his enthusiasm and especially by his special countenance, so we became intimate friends soon. The short distance between us gives me convenience to observe his working state and makes me know more about his art.
Desire Landscape 6, oil painting
Hu Jun’s works can be divided by different topics into three stages: the first stage is the series of Lips from the year 2003 to 2006 which are a group of sexy and showy red lips. The second stage is the series of Desire Landscape from 2007 to 2009, this series are mainly works about the orange-red landscape of the city wrapped and permeated by a kind of liquid (the artist said his inspiration came from the semen), and there is a strong light from the outer space pierced through the mist. Watching these paintings you would got a feeling of eschatological spectacles. There was a small part of this series named Desire—Flow which were abstract paintings about the floating things withdrew from images. The third stage or topic is the series of New Life which started from 2006 and lasted till now. The initial paintings of this series are cartoon-like, depicting the lives of men and women. The figures in these paintings evolved from the artist’s self-portrait, they are of a jocular style and filled with philistine sentiment. The earlier works of Hu Jun were more or less influenced by the methodology of the “Cartoon Generation”, the figures in these earlier works have big heads and funny facial expression. The colors that he used were light, pure and pink. For the spirituality in this period, he was influenced by the Cynic Realism which advocates a joking attitude towards life.
From 2008 on, Hu Jun has experimented and developed a unique way of art not only in the style of the painting, but also in discourse and composition. In other words, the artist began to reflect sincerely on his works in the previous years and try to dig out the originality and express human beings’ appeal for the spiritual existence through his own life experience. He turned from a compassion for broken marriages in the contemporary society to the deep concerns over human’s despairing existence.
New Life 9, Oil Painting
The original title for this series was Human·Nature. From the names of his work series, we can discern the artist’s continuous concern for the living condition of human being and his interest in the effect and expression of desire. There’s no doubt that New Life was a title of irony. As an artist born in the 1960s, although he was still a child in Culture Revolution, the discourse pattern of “New China” and “New Life” in the Revolutionist Idealism Period still imprinted much on his mind. “New” is the renunciation of the “Old” system, pattern or order which had a blind optimism about the future. However, the New Life we talk about here has detached itself from the blueprint of society and history and become the daily incident of men and women’s/husbands and wives’ psychological life.
In this series, men and women are not passionate first lovers; they had married and got their children. They repeatedly appeared in a boat which looks very soft and springy, the texture of the boats seem like sofas or mattress, and they are basically pink, warm grey, flesh-colored or black. The delineation of the boat benefits from the earlier series of the Lips, so there is also a vague feeling of flesh in these boats. The boats are floating on the surface of a boundless sea; the background is always very simple, sometimes sunrise, sometimes sunset, sometimes the vast clear sky. The colors used are light and replete, the sun was shinning brightly—those are the common scenes which appear repeatedly in these paintings. Photographic techniques such as staged photography and snap shot with a strong flashlight are commonly used in this series of works.
New life 11, oil painting
New life 14, oil painting
Body and Marriage
In New Life -No.9, three members of a family are sitting on the boat, but they all look like the artist himself. This may be an extension of Hu Jun’s sense of humor in daily life and the exaggerating style derived from his cartoon period. The picture has a subtle dramatic feeling. The man and the women has lost tender and affection for each other, the naked man looks very tired and necks with his wife to seek for some comfort. However, the woman who dressed vulgarly doesn’t care the man’s feeling. Instead she is immersed in the connection with the outside world using her mobile phone and the sunglasses she wears conceal her indifference. The child dressed fashionably, plugged his ears with headphones and is totally steeped in his own world. In Hu Jun’s opinion, this is exactly the portrait of middle-aged man: career and family already been set up but the only found himself totally lost. He should know his fate decreed by Heaven at this age, yet he is still more confused, not knowing what he should seek for. The only thing left is an exhausted body and a much more indifferent and estranged family relationship. In New Life-No.11, the estrangement between the husband and wife appears to be more subtle and perceptible under the peaceful holy light of the setting sun. Both of them are naked and frank with each other, and with such slack bodies and portraits they are enjoying the mild breeze swaying over their faces. The stiff “gulf” between them reveals the irreconcilable feeling of estrangement.
Hu Jun has been continuously practicing realism in body portrait and he also goes out for scenery sketch frequently, these all endue him with strong capabilities in using color to shape body and space to form a delicate and vivacious picture. For him, typical Chinese contemporary art lacks depth and the aesthetic enjoyment which are shortcomings he tries to overcome. He tries to evoke a an aesthetic effect which embraces the wish to extol human bodies in the Renaissance period, so he made microscopic depictions on the bones, tendons, structures and the minor undulation of the skins of the body. In this way we can say that he was also influenced by Michelangelo, but the bodies in Hu Jun’s paintings are not as powerful as Michelangelo’s. Under the appearance of the delicate, strong and near perfect bodies was the broken essence of the despairing contemporary metropolitans. This was especially prominent in New Life-No.14 where Hu Jun used the composition pattern of Michelangelo’s The Mourning of Christ to express his sympathy for the married man. By referring to a masterpiece in art history, Hu Jun wants to intensify the self-consciousness of a sufferer in marriage. He wants to evoke people’s attention to the moments of failure and hurt in marriage by referring to a total failure pattern of selfless love just as Christ’s Crucifixion. However, the women who embrace Christ (men) is not the beautiful, tender mourning St. Maria (women) anymore, but rather a shrew who has just won complete victory and is coating her face with powder and paint. It seems that the artist has turned his pike toward the female sex. Women are neither beautiful vases that can add value to men nor tender, domestic and obedient housewives. On the contrary, they have become offensive and ferocious. In New Life-No.21, the woman was painted as an androgen-increased female chimpanzee with strong body and ferocious face. From this point it’s not hard to understand why some women are so surprised and angry when they look at Hu Jun’s paintings that they want to destroy them, and why some middle-aged man would be moved to cry and sigh that they are exactly the man in the picture.
New Life 21
New Life 23
Viewers’ emotions tend to be offended by an artwork’s apparent provocation and then they would form some misunderstanding about the artist and his works. So we need to follow and observe an artist for an enduring period and compare his/her works both transversely and longitudinally with other artists’ works in order to know the true intent of the artist. Sometimes even the artist himself can not be sure about his intents and need other people to sort them out from the numerous works by using their own life experiences, spiritual traits and cultural psychologies.
Just as what we observe in New Life-No.23, there is a body in the foreground of the boat under the glimmering of the early morning (the head does not appear in this painting.) He/She lays elegantly, the upper part of the body (breasts) looks like women’s body while the lower part looks like man. Such kind of cross-gender figure embodies a more neutral and conservative consideration compared with the aforesaid masculine-predisposed women. He/She was displayed and portrayed with a more classic aesthetic perspective. This seems to reveal the artist’s deeper consideration: the mixing gender identity (psychologically/physically) and the dislocated relationship (the individual’s relationship with the self/ the interrelationship between the couple) are fatal problems in marriage, although this kind of dislocation appears to be common and of no novelty.
Dislocation means that there should be some kind of appropriate relationship in which men are men and women are women, and that conjugal relationship should be based on loyalty, humility, restraint, tolerance, sincerity, responsibility, determination and happiness which are the important qualities in setting up a happy marriage. However, a mutual conquering and possessing relationship has subverted the original healthy conjugal relationship which makes people feel exhausted and despair over marriage.
But the artist does not care only for marriage problems (though there are very few artists in Chinese contemporary art who are concerned about marriage), for the artist did not play a role as a marriage consultant but rather as a guardian for people’s spiritual homeland and their patterns of life. As one of the most primeval and important relationships of human being, the symptoms of marriage has revealed the deeper problems of human per se, for the despair of something is not thorough despair, but the despair genuinely unfolded is the despair of human per se.
New Life 19
New Life 17
The little child playing cards to divine the future in New Life-No.22 and the child overlooking the faraway scene in New Life-No.23 all had some anxiety not suiting their age. In New Life-No.17 the man squirts a pile of dolls nervously with water-pistol, in New Life No.18 and No.19 the men are trying painfully to break loose, and in New Life-No.20 the man is licking his knees eagerly…
Apart from broken marriages, we can also see anxious babies, recreational invading behaviors and painful solitudes in this series. All these plain pictures show the artists’ attention to people’s universal perplexity, upset, restraint, despair and the need to be comforted. The dismembered and attacked dolls in the picture seem to imply the character’s broken dreams.
New Life 20
New Life 16
All these characters are taking pictures in a photographical studio carefully lay out and decorated by Hu Jun. The artist hopes that the background would be aesthetic, the color would be bright and the posture would be comfortable. Under the bright sunlight, the air is so clear, the lake is so peaceful, the skin is so fair and white, the body so strong and healthy, but the human is so anxious! Do you think this was disharmonious? Do you think these people are mawkish and blot on the landscape? Why should the artist display the weakness of man in such an intensive way?
The characters’ pain and despair is set off by the aesthetic and peaceful scenes, just as the smoke from the Auschwitz death-camp’s cremator had been set off by the clear vast sky. The internal sufferings of human being are more hidden and profound than the sufferings in history or society. As the head of a family, the bearer of responsibilities, the guide of belief, man has retreated to a situation of self-entertainment, self-pity, self-abasement and self-lost. And this forebodes that the last defense line of social ethnic and belief is collapsing, which is the major problem of contemporary society.
Existentialism philosopher Kierkegaard once talked about despair in his work The Sickness onto Death and said that despair is a psychological disease of self, a misplaced relationship between man and himself. A misplaced relationship with God is the core mistake which determined that despair is a way of human existence.
But Kierkegaard also held that being able to despair is one of the qualifications that make us human, while existing in despair is the most unfortunate and mischievous thing. The universal situation is that we are not aware of our despair, which is one form of despair but the lowest level of it. Despair is like the sofa boat in New Life, it is a mattress for people to lie down and enjoy, entertain and play and then cut all their possibilities to fight against, it is a battlefield for people’s self-depletion and mutual-devour. Therefore the more one is aware of his despair, the stronger the qualification of people as a spiritual existence he would acquire. In Kierkegaard’s opinion, there is an ascendant gradient from existing in despair and existing within the relationship with despair.
Interestingly, those who admit frankly that he is in despair would be dialectically easier to be cured than those who do not admit or those who are not aware of his situation. This is one possibility for art to become a way of self-redemption though this option still has its limitedness. And the fact that the artist himself appeared as the protagonist in the pictures repeatedly also demonstrated his sincere wish to express his despair and his motivation to cure himself. Not only for middle-aged man but also for women and children, the artist’s expression will become a mirror in the cure activities for people in society to obtain both comfort and warning.
To be sure, as for the creative orientation, we can only discern Hu Jun’s experimentation on and discussion about the interrelationship between man to women (marriage) and man to himself (despair) which determines that this series of works are highly self-concerned and self-conscious. As to the experimentation on human’s perpetual existence and their struggle to get rid of the state of despair—as participant, witness and recipient, we have not got the answer yet. Although he compared the powerful beams of light from the outer space to the necessary capabilities to restraint human’s evil desire by using a grand narrative picture in his Desire Landscape series, how to transform them into the holy daily incidents in New Life and how to experience the moment of cure still needs a “confident leap” in order to enter into a more unfamiliar field in the composition schema.
After all, despair is the normality that we are more familiar with; cure and emancipation appear to be so strange and unfamiliar.
Finished at the forth day after the big earthquake of Japan, in Kunming
March, 13th, 2011