A Clinical Report on Contemporary Society

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A Clinical Report on Contemporary Society

— On Zi Bai’s photo

By Luo Fei

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. 
-Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

In modern society, there are no longer any isolated landscapes. Even in the most remote places, one comes across distressing scenes like the one that occurred just a few days ago in the Artic, where the melting of sea ice due to global warming caused a number of polar bears to starve to death, leaving behind a scattering of blanket-like bodies. All natural spaces in the modern era have been transformed into sites of interchange between the natural, cultural and social spheres. Given this situation, we can use French theorist and film director Guy Debord’s term of “spectacle” to describe all that we see.

In his 1967 work “Society of the Spectacle,” Debord uses the concept of “spectacle” to explain that both the public and private domains of daily life have experienced a sort of existential crisis due to the development of capitalism in Europe. He believes that in the “society of the spectacle,” relationships between people and commodities have replaced those between people. Because in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles – a perversion of what ought to be the case. In a mediatized age, mere appearances become our most authentic reality – people come to live for them. The “society of the spectacle” makes people’s lives barren and devoid of authenticity; it gradually causes people’s critical thinking abilities to wither away.

This more sociological conception of “spectacle” (景观) has also affected the way artists have come to think and speak about landscapes (which in Chinese are now even referred to with the same term, 景观). The idea of “landscape” has come to include not just natural scenery, but also man-made wonders. Particularly since the 1960s, this understanding of “景观 (spectacle/landscape)” has expanded the range of techniques and subject matter used by landscape photographers by prompting artists to reconsider their views on the way man relates to nature, to the urban environment, and to his fellow man.

Zi Bai’s photography presents us with just such a virtual yet nonetheless real landscape, echoing the society consisting of an immense accumulation of spectacles described by Debord.

Since 2007, Zi Bai has taken a great number of photos of the refuse in garbage collecting stations, first in his hometown of Xishuangbanna and later in Kunming, Shanghai and other cities. He worked for many years in an advertising agency, and his outstanding Photoshop design and editing skills provide an excellent technical background for his creative works. In these hundreds of photographs of collected materials, impressive, nearly suffocating scenes emerge from the densely piled accumulations of our spectacular society.

In his “City Series 01,” under a dim sweep of thick clouds, billions of scarlet cans are heaped upon Tiananmen Square like the passionate masses that swarmed there during the Cultural Revolution era, waiting for their leader to appear. Here, what people cheer and worship is called “consumption,” and what they shout is: “Long live consumerism! Long live the Great Unity of consumers!” Zi Bai has created a scene of heathen idolatry; a fetishistic movement is on the rise, and in it brews the ecstasy and tumult of consumption.
“City Series 2,” “City Series 3,” and “City Series 4” are, respectively, images of the river below Shanghai – the Pearl of the Orient – filled with plastic water bottles, of roaring waves of beer cans swarming the feet of the American Statue of Liberty, and of drink cans piled high as mountains around the islands of Southeast Asia. In the equally inspiring piece “Men are Higher than Mountains,” discarded drink bottles are stacked like Himalayan peaks. Zi Bai uses these iconic scenes and landmarks to make the garbage seem even more vast, imposing and able to shock viewers, as well as to imbue his landscape photography with a Neo-Romantic character.

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In his “More? Less? (How Much?)” Series, Zi Bai uses a panning overhead shot to photograph densely packed bottle caps, drink bottles, cans or syringes, creating images that look like beautifully colored wallpaper. Among them two photographs are of bullets and grenades used during the Vietnam War when the Americans tried to block North Vietnamese and Chinese supply lines to South Vietnam by dropping massive quantities of explosives on the mysterious Ho Chi Minh Trail. Later on, these areas became sites for tourism, attracting large numbers of people who came to collect fallen ammunition. It’s said that every year there were people who died doing this. In 2008 and 2009, Zi Bai went to local recycling centers in those regions to photograph these discarded munitions.
Aesthetically speaking, Zi Bai tends to showcase his propensity for the shocking yet delicate. Admiring his works from a certain distance, they always arouse a feeling of delight. But behind this attractive exterior lies a brutal reality – billions of piles of garbage and the crushed carcasses of road kill (“Disappearing Landscape” series). These works are in fact composed out of human greed and vanity, and function as visual evidence of our inability to act as proper stewards of the earth.

According to recent survey data from the Department of Housing, more than a third of Chinese cities are now completely encircled by garbage, which has even begun to spread into the countryside. These “garbage-besieged cities” have also led to the rise of increasing numbers of cancer villages.

Zi Bai’s manner of critiquing our social condition is in some ways similar to the technique of clinical analysis. Society in his eyes is like a diseased behemoth that needs to consume and excrete in alarming quantities. In order to diagnose this behemoth’s condition, Zi Bai attentively wades through and examines its excrement, documenting, using photography as this monster’s lab test results: a clinical report on the condition of contemporary society. He helps us begin to notice that the bottles and plastic bags in our own hands and our concept of consumption are working together to further the spectacle of the garbage that surrounds our cities in ever-increasing piles.

Art, as visual documentation of an era, asks people to look beyond the world of appearances to the reality that exists below, and glimpse people’s greed. Art is a prophecy for this generation, calling on people to realize that if we don’t make any changes to our patterns of consumption or our manner of waste disposal, it will be the end of our world as we know it. Art is an expression of the human spirit: behind the billions of drink bottles there are billions of human beings with dry throats and dry souls. This is what I learned from Zi Bai’s clinical report on the state of contemporary society, of our horrifying society of the spectacle.

August 11, 2013
Translated by Becky Davis

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Interview with Adam Lik Lui


Thought-Image Landscapes, oil on canvas

Interview with Adam Lik Lui

Time: Afternoon of July 18, 2012
Location: TCG Nordica Gallery, Kunming

Luo Fei: Curator at TCG Nordica Gallery
R. Orion Martin: Art worker, translator
Adam Lik Lui: Artist

R. Orion Martin (hereafter Orion): After you returned from the United States in 2005, what was your impression of the Chinese contemporary art scene?

Adam Lik Lui (hereafter Adam): At first I thought about moving to Beijing, and Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Hao invited me to stay with them. Later I realized that my body wasn’t suitable for living in Beijing. The sandstorms were terrible, and I think that if you’re going to make art, you need to be in place where your body is a bit more comfortable. In Beijing there’s a feeling that you’re wrestling on an enormous stage, and it’s something I’m not fond of. I like to peacefully settle down in a location.
At that time I thought that Chinese art was in a terrible state. It was all commercialism and hype, like selling stocks. When artists got together, they would talk about brands and luxury goods instead of art. The successful American artists I know are all very low key and lead simple lives. I think it’s great that the bubble burst in 2008. It allows us to reflect a bit. We can’t over-speculate art to such an absurd extent. I returned to Yunnan in order to peacefully paint, take photos, and think.

Luo Fei (hereafter Luo): Your paintings after you had just returned to China feature clear symbols such as pandas, Chinese tunics, and umbrellas. Now you have moved towards pure abstraction. What caused this change?

Adam: When I had just returned I was bewildered. I saw other people painting like that and thought [that style] had ideas behind it. After a time I discovered it wasn’t interesting. Many people were just developing their own recognizable symbols. It was too Pop, too preachy. It lacked artistic perseverance. I realized that artists need to have their own unique style, and express things from their inner world. Of course among those paintings I did there were some that were good, but I never published or exhibited them.
This new group of paintings is based on my reverence of and return to nature. Nature is the eternal vessel and mother of life. I believe nature is created by God. When I enter nature, I am struck by a vast longing and creative power, a feeling of drifting. Especially when I take a plane above the clouds, I feel an inner release and tranquility.

Luo: I think your paintings search for a stark contrast between nothingness and reality, between movement and stillness, between dry and wet, between pure and mixed colors. Is this correct?

Adam: Adam: Yes, abstract art in China is actually just [the Chinese artistic tradition of] xieyi (spontaneous expression). My recent series of “Thought-Image Landscapes” is an example. In Thought-Image Landscapes I listen to the wind and observe the scenery. Traditional Chinese painting has always carried poetic connotations, integrating images with texts and poems.
Actually I began making abstract works when I was living in Hong Kong in the 90s. Later I returned to oil painting from ink paintings.
The essence and significance of art is to create the realization of the present and the recollection of the future! It is to enjoy all of the experiences and joys that the artistic process brings, and have an ultimate justification for and rich interpretation of life.

Luo: In the past year you have been using your iPhone to take pictures. This method is more sensitive and convenient in capturing a feeling of daily life. In your experience, what is the difference when using a camera phone, traditional SLR or film camera?

Adam: Professional cameras put people on guard because they seem so much like those used by reporters. When I use an iPhone, there’s no fear. People act very naturally. As soon as you take out a professional camera, everyone scatters. Mine has been in my home, resting for the past year. The iPhone also has software that allows me to photograph and edit at simultaneously. It’s also useful for consultation when I paint landscapes.
In the Dali International Photography Exhibition coming up in August, we will have an exhibition named “Cellphone Yunnan – the Images Around Us.” This allows everyone to find their own method of recording and become their own director. I want to thank Steve Jobs for making life more beautiful and changing the way we see the world.

Years has left a mark, by iPhone

Orion: Today there are many people using iPhones. In regard to your audience, how can looking at your works be more valuable to them than looking at those that they themselves have taken?

Adam: My works worth the gaze of the audience because of their cultivation, unusual entry point, and unique viewpoint. I search for subjects that can convey content and significance in conventional and unconventional ways. This is true of all things that are worth looking at, and a fundamental goal in my work with the iPhone.

Luo: A few years ago when LOMO photography was popular, it was common to cover the walls with photos during exhibitions in order to construct the overall exhibition atmosphere. This is quite different than the methods used for traditional photography. Have you thought about how best to display cell phone photos?

Adam: For the exhibition we’re preparing now, we have decided on a unified system. There will be a frame of 45cm by 45cm and the artist will decide the dimensions of the photo inside. It could be the size of a postage stamp or some other dimensions. This will be relatively conventional exhibition style.

Luo: Whatever media they use, all artists face two questions. The first is how to develop their own language that is not merely based in their tools. The second is how to effectively communicate with their audience, that is, how to display their works. As I understand, the best platform for smart phone camera photography should be the internet, such as Weibo, facebook, and other Social Networking Services (SNS). In a conventional exhibition space, the audience primarily admires the works and has no actual interaction with the works and the artist. But if a photo is posted on the web, it will quickly receive comments, support, likes, and attacks. Internet friends may even use Photoshop to recreate and reinterpret your works. The interactivity is very strong. If the photos you take have news value, they will quickly become a public event. Photographers aren’t just artists, but citizen reporters. In other words, in a digital environment, cellphone photography is not just for aesthetics but for information and social contact.

Adam: That’s right. The internet is more interactive. In the next 20 years, will paper media cease to exist?

Luo: Perhaps after some time the profits of book publishing will be 80% from digital sales and 20% from paper-based works for collection.
Last year in Louisiana, Copenhagen I saw an exhibition by David Hockney that was done completely on iPads and iPhones. I found that his iPad based works were almost of the same quality as his oil paints. Do you think cellphone photography can stand shoulder to shoulder with traditional photography?

Adam: In terms of development, it should be possible. From film to digital and now to cellphone photography, we should keep an open attitude. In the future there will be more iPhone artists around us. I think that the media they use is the only difference. It’s important to take many photos and gradually develop, and to pay close attention to the composition, lighting and message. If it has a clear message that comes across naturally, that’s enough. Actually I see many people using iPhones on the internet who shoot very well. There’s no need to compare equipment, so instead we compare ideas, vision, and accomplishments. You can write with a pencil or a Parker fountain pen. Ultimately we don’t care about what you write with, but whether your essay is good or not.

The Fantastic World of the Kaleidoscope

During his time at Yunnan Academy of Art (2001-2006), Guo Peng worked hard but ignored his proper duties at school, just like me. He majored in sculpture, but engaged in contemporary art with a group of feverish young experimental artists without looking back. From live art to installation art to performance art, Guo Peng explored different art forms, and gradually found his own way of creating photography-based work. He independently accumulated a lot of experience making art when he was still in school, a rare thing among those Yunnan art students.

His first foray into photography involved a kind of performance – recording couples’ happy moments with one-inch photos, developing those photos in his humble darkroom which was once his kitchen, coloring them with tea, trimming fancy borders, then drying them. When the photos were done, he sent them back to those couples. It was warm and sincere. Maybe in the process of coloring photos with tea, he recalled a childhood memory: our parent’s generation used to color their black and white photos, the impressive scarlet lips and expressed the romantic family sensibility of the 1960’s and 1970s, yearning for a colorful world in times of scantiness. After the popularization of the color photo, hand coloration was of course abandoned. And now people modify their digital images with Photoshop. Hand-colored photography is vanishing, but is re-used by Guo Peng, a post 80’s artist.

From 2003 to 2005, Guo Peng used this out of date method to work on different contemporary subject matters. He re-took pictures of cover girls, garden landscapes, city squares, ruins, puppets, Pecking Opera on the TV screen, and other images he happened upon, hand-coloring them, creating a nostalgic and wistful feeling. These pocket-size photos were kept in an old photo album, becoming the memory of the family. Such work seemed the result of indulging oneself in private images. Since 2005,in order to get rid of this nostalgic style, he started developing A4 size silver salt black and white photos, the biggest size one could develop at home. Here he focused on water, reflected images, lotuses, rockeries and trees, totally fascinated with certain delicate qualities of light. He gradually formed his own method and style evoking the literati’s ideal landscape through hand-colored black and white photos.

The diffuse and mottled colors in the dreamlike scenes of this series of works attract and confuse us at the same time: we can hardly tell it is true or fake. Guo Peng explored different possibilities within a limited space. For example, he borrowed the idea of coloring old pictures to awaken and decorate the black and white world; coloring a photo according to its original lines to create the feeling of modern design; or dividing the picture into wave-like color domains. These photographs give a sensation of a dizzying dreamland, just like the fantastic world of the kaleidoscope, like a huge projector casting gorgeous colors from the overarching sky.

Guo Peng is a quiet and thoughtful person. He enjoys his domestic life, has very healthy habits, and spends a lot of time meditating, reading and writing. He’s not slaving for anyone – I really envy such life condition. Recently, he’s been thinking about why Chinese literati sapped their spirit by playing crickets.

Suddenly I realized there are quite a few young Kunming artists who are living independent lives. They haven’t given up their dreams, they haven’t gotten caught up in the market, and they just cultivate their art with plain living and a peaceful mood. Guo Peng is a special one among them.

Written by Luo Fei
2008.4.10
Translator :Zhou qiao

An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism and the Metaphor of Camouflage

An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism and the Metaphor of Camouflage
–My views on Ms. Lei Yan’s latest works

Before the interpretations of the two groups of recent works by Ms. Lei Yan – “Frozen Series” and “Camouflage Cloth-making”, we should know of two relevant background factors. One is that she has been a female soldier in the army for 30 years (1970-2001) and then joined the Kunming contemporary art community “Chuangku” to set up her own studio after retiring from army. Lei Yan has experienced the transformation from the traditional art practices on creation of military subjects into the use of pictures, equipment, videos and other media for the creation of contemporary art works, and each article and event could sufficiently constitute the main raw material for her current creation. Secondly, the retrospection and reflection on the Mao Zedong era (mainly during the last 1950s-1970s) by the Chinese contemporary artists have never ceased. In each period Mao and his era’s symbols and images will be appearing in these artists’ narrative methods, which not only is the historical fact of the” Passion Burning Years” that the artists can not shun away from during the time when belief was absent, but also a kind of inquiry about the future. After knowing about these backgrounds, we can proceed with the interpretations of the latest works by Lei Yan.

“Frozen Series”: An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism

Lei Yan’s “Frozen Series” have frozen some military articles and the typical items of the Mao era, such as sleeve emblems, leader badges, the Little Red Books, the Red Guards shoulder badges, military uniforms, red flags, and female soldiers’ photographs etc., which are
photographed and can be seen dimly under the ice. By getting the typical symbols and items of the special years frozen and sealed, the artist is staring at the historical samples from a nebulous distance with a tinge of desolation, and arousing a reflection on that period of time.

As we can see, there are two clues in the “Frozen Series”, one is the “Frozen Reds”, which uses the typical items of Mao era and military articles as the narrating subjects that include sleeve emblems, leader badges, the Little Red Books, the Red Guards badges, military uniforms, red flags etc., they are not merely logos or decorations, but they also carry the spirit of that era. As a person who was filled with ideals and passions regarding the collective values under communism, each had to possess these materials and contents, which represent a miniature of the people’s political life in that period of time, and a miniature of the” Passion Burning Years”. They are also a miniature of Lei Yan’s 30 years of military life. However, since the factors of refraction, distance, and temperature, the items, which are put into the ice body by Lei Yan, display a much unacquainted historical texture and shape. The partial deforming and distortion, blurring and dimness, chilliness
and out-of-touch feeling created by the isolation of the ice layer. They seem like keepsakes from a previous existence. The archaeological-like association of ideas inspired by the sealing under ice. All of these have built a sort of sadness for the time of revolutionary passions, and a reminiscence of the disappeared spirit and resplendency.

The other is “Frozen Youth”, whose narrative subjects are female soldiers’ photographs including personal portraits, busts. Some are Lei Yan herself, but most of them are her comrades in the army. These girls of youthful spirit, each with tenderness, some seem a little depressed, some only being lost, and some with a poise that is typical during that period of time with a bag on shoulder or a machine gun in hands, head high and standing erectly with a passionate face under the willows. Among these photographs are several of military groups, and in these the pure eyes are filled with the young girls’ ideals and longings, smiling with tenderness and without the slightest hesitation for the future which is the typical expression of revolutionary romanticism. However, all of these various expressions and spirit states, with the addition of the classic poise, have been frozen into the cold ice layer and forced to drop in temperature, cold as well as out-of-touch, the high enthusiasm and innocent ideals are suddenly disappearing far away in the cold ice, which is just like a group of archaeological samples from the Mao era displayed ifor all to see.

Most of the above mentioned frozen objects, which were collected during Lei Yan’s military career, are well preserved. To most of us, these items and photographs are merely conceptualized image memories of a certain period, but those specific faces and temperature, are more like the family belongings in some box underneath grandmother’s bed, which are kept by mother for her daughter. When these objects and photographs are seen through the frozen ice, they have been endowed with new concepts, which are the memory of the public images and history of a female soldier, her private memory and feelings, and the reminiscence of ultimate issues such as faith to the land, spirits and resplendency.

If political pop art is “using the shock waves made by the western consumption culture in China, and turning the ’sacred politics’ of the Mao era into a popular and ironic political idea” as suggested by Li Xianting, and with current political pop art walking down a dead end via commercial obsequiousness, then artists, including Lei Yan, are going back to the starting point for art and soul by using a personal and poetic narrate of the Mao era. Let the real impression be explained via personal language instead of following the established groups style, it is a response which surpasses current political pop art.


“Camouflage Cloth-making”: The Metaphors Related to Camouflage

If the “Frozen Series” is the reminiscence and sadness of the long gone Mao era and its spirit and resplendency, then the “Camouflage Cloth-making” is the specific intervention in the current daily situation. Just like before, Lei Yan keeps on using the military goods as subjects, which are very familiar to a person who has 30 years of military service. However, the use of military goods in this series is different from that in the “Frozen Series”. The military goods in the “Frozen Series” belong to the section of borrowing, directly getting the existing goods embedded into ice to make them bring about the changes of concept, context and visual texture, but the “Camouflage Cloth-making” is the conversion and extension of military camouflage uniforms and patterns.

In this series Lei Yan uses camouflage fabric to make some hand-sewn items and scenes, items such as: camera, computer, teapot, vase, cup, tray, telephone, high heels, five-pointed star etc., which are daily mundane items. Setting up the items’ basic outline shape, the sewed items have more plasticity and flexibility. This series of work cross the boundaries between handicraft and sculpture. What is more, the symbolic features owned by the camouflage patterns themselves, give the remodeled daily goods the feeling of being covered by the camouflage with aggression and delusion.

In one group, the metaphor relating to camouflage is more obvious. Lei Yan has sewn with camouflage material into an ordinary family scene: a square table, a bench, a vase, two blurring persons in the picture frame and a crouching dog. The other one is the scene of a dressing table. These two scenes are modeled like reliefs, which simply present any day in our ordinary life without any dramatic moment. Persons, goods and scenes are covered by camouflage, mixing into the background, and therefore they are endowed with the meaning and metaphor of camouflage itself, the edges of people, goods and scenes are disrupted and guided by the camouflage patterns and become indistinguishable, characterless and without personality. So a metaphor related to camouflage, related to women’s identity, family and self-pity, can start. How should women live out their own unique vitality in the trivia of various household affairs? How should women be more visible in society? This is the metaphor and reflection of “Camouflage Cloth-making” by Lei Yan.

As a strong symbol of the military patterns, camouflage has been absorbed into the conceptual art of the female artist, Lei Yan. She would never have had such a profound reflection if she hadn’t had her own deep experience of the military. It is precisely because of this experience that we can see the double metaphors generated from the modeled objects disappearing into the camouflage, in addition to the interference and thawing from external forces. It also points at the internal crisis of the modeled object: a person may be defensive of their own identity, but to some extent they also face the risk of assimilation, of losing their personality and unique vitality. Maybe this is Lei Yan’s thinking in this exhibition. However, as a female artist, Lei Yan has not been assimilated; on the contrary, she has gained the unique vision and creativity. During a conversation with Lei Yan she said: “wherever we are, we should leave a window for our soul, facing the most real place of the heart to talk with your own soul and hold onto the innocence and passion found there.” And with her experience of the years of revolutionary enthusiasm and the attention to other people’s needs during her military career, not only does this become the source material and concept of her art, but it also expands her life experience. She does not rest on the complexities of this material and the hand-sewing but creates a deeper experience.

Written by Luo Fei(TCG Nordica gallery curator)
Translated by Liu Weiqiang

about Lei Yan’s solo exhibition