Climbing the ladder with your feet on the ground

Anders-GustafssonClimbing the ladder with your feet on the ground
Luo Fei seen through his work ‘The Black Spot’

Anders Gustafsson
Former Programs Director at TCG Nordica.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the artist.

It was during a performance at TCG Nordica called ‘The Black Spot’. He was balancing a piece of paper on his face, nose up, using his tongue to keep it still. He aimed towards the ceiling, towards a strong spotlight. The paper looked like a thin veil between him and the blinding light. The paper would repeatedly fall off his face, down on the floor, and he would have to start all over again. A seemingly pointless exercise.
Finally he managed to reach the spotlight. On the floor there was another paper where he kept on writing the Chinese character ‘guang’ (光light). Suddenly his performance seemed intriguing, like a novel with an open end.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the thinker.

‘The Black Spot’ can be seen as a metaphor for mankind’s search for knowledge, for enlightenment and assurance. A task I can easily identify with Luo Fei. When I first went to China in 2005, I hoped I would find a friend among Chinese intellectuals. I wanted to learn more about the art, culture and history.
In Luo Fei I found him.
There’s a story about when he participated in an internet discussion forum, debating topics like art and different aspects of contemporary society. After a while, the group decided to meet face-to-face. People laughed when they saw Luo Fei: ¨’We thought you were at least 50!’
After leaving a discussion with Luo Fei, this has often been my thought as well. His knowledge reaches over contemporary art, philosophy, history, technology. With ease he moves between Dali and Dalí; he is as familiar with 20th century European history as he is with Chinese dynasties.
In the interview with Jonathan Aumen, Luo Fei quotes an unnamed Chinese art critic stating that if you are a religious artist, you end up being either a bad religious person or a bad artist. I do agree there is an inherent problem. Some religious people tend to preach about a certain ‘truth’ with well-defined boundaries which you are not supposed to cross; contemporary artists tend to explore, often exactly by crossing boundaries. Few succeed in making these two worlds fit together.
But the avant-garde have always been dealing head on with challenges of contemporary society. Why not religion then? Is this not at the very center of societal debate on a global scale?
You can find several prominent Chinese contemporary artists that deal with religion. Two cases in point are the Gao brothers’ ‘The Execution of Christ’ and Wang Qingsong’s use of Buddhist imagery, both examples have recently been thoroughly explored in ‘Yishu — Journal of contemporary Chinese art’.
With ‘The Black Spot’ I see Luo Fei working in a similar tradition. Using the seemingly obvious as an entrance to ask difficult questions, he is revealing that these very topics are in fact multilayered and complex.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the joker.

‘The Black Spot’ had a worrying sense of humor. The artist seemingly invited us to laugh, because the whole exercise had a comic touch to it. At first there was a sense of ridicule. I then choked on my own laughter when I realized that the performance reminded me of my own life.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the ‘main-garde’ idealist.
In the autumn of 2012, I sent a link from Arts Asia Pacific. Hou Hanru (侯瀚如) wrote about the need to develop a ‘third way’: A system ‘between the state-dominated model of the previous century and the capitalist-dominated model of today’.
In the interview with him in this book, Xue Tao proposes the term ‘non-stream’ about some Yunnan artists, who he says are neither mainstream, nor non-mainstream. I would like to propose the term ‘main-garde’ as they are neither mainstream, nor avant-garde. For Yunnan, being in the geographical and economical margins of China opens up a space for being main-garde. Apart from playing with words, think of the closeness to main ‘guard’. Guarding against what?
Remember that the self-acclaimed avant-garde was born among artists and writers in 19th century Paris, that felt rejected or neglected by the established Salons and art institutions. Similar to The Stars Group in Beijing in 1979, one might add. Avant-garde was by definition an outsider’s perspective.
Some art historians even say that the concept of avant-garde has been co-opted by the market up to the point where it is meaningless to still use the term. The German art historian Benjamin Buchloh talked about ‘developing new strategies to counteract and develop resistance’ to the controlling orthodoxies of the culture industry.
There is a space open for small, non-profit art spaces and art communities to present something different. It might not be avant-garde, but main-garde. Not guarding against buying and selling art works; also artists need to make a living. But against rampant commercialism and mindless imitation. It is in this context I place the Jianghu project that you can read about in this book; it is in the same context I place TCG Nordica and Luo Fei.
The art scene already have so many people and galleries who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. I think this main-garde could be one example of Hou Hanru’s ‘third way’.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the humble.

I find some common traits among the best interviewers. Knowledge is important, but it is not enough. Among journalists, at least in the West, you sometimes find their ego obscuring the person or the topic they want to portray or explore. You need humility. Luo Fei has that. You will find he has been a contributor to art books, exhibition texts, articles and so on. But he always takes the back seat. Very often this humility has helped him in bringing forward the persons he is writing about.
Which brings us back to the performance ‘The Black Spot’. In my interpretation ‘The Black Spot’ ends with humility and with a warning. The character for light, ‘guang’, that Luo Fei wrote after having reached the spotlight, finally covered the whole paper black. As if saying: Even though you think you’ve found the light — or exactly because of it — you may end up fumbling in the dark. Either blinded by the light, or by your own ego, or by something else. This is your black spot.
In spite of these hazards, man’s duty is to carry on climbing. Luo Fei is contributing in his own way, by climbing the ladder with both his feet kept firmly on the ground.

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