The Cell’s Longing
——TCG Nordica resident artist Jonathan Aumen(US)’s solo exhibition
Curator: Luo Fei
Exhibition Opening: 8pm, 25th of Feb, 2012
Exhibition duration: 25th of Feb – 31st of March, 2012
Address: TCG Nordica Gallery, Chuangku, Xibalu 101, Kunming
American artist Jonathan Aumen arrived in Kunming in September 2011 for an artist residency at TCG Nordica gallery. The works on display were all completed during the following six months of his residency in Kunming and all of them are intimately focused on the city, its people, and their inner longings. They also relate to the continuous demolition and relocation situation present in Kunming in recent years.
Before he arrived in Kunming, Aumen read a popular science article that said that a single cell is just as functionally complex as a city the size of Kunming. It has its own laws of operation, centers, transport hubs, and lives. In short, your very own finger tip contains 100,000 cells. If you continue this train of thought and do the math, we find the human body is a biological wonder and the complexity mind-blowing. Aumen was stunned and captivated by the beauty and wonder of life. In light of this extravagant complexity, how can one argue that there was no designer? This inspires a train of thought and a scope of work.
TCG Nordica will display Aumen’s more than 30 oil paintings in different sizes during this exhibition, from the eyes of an American, that look through the city to reflect on our living conditions and inner longings.
The exhibition opening will be 8 pm, 25th of Feb at TCG Nordica, Chuangku(loft), exhibit until 31st of March.
The Cell’s Longing
American artist Jonathan Aumen arrived in Kunming in September 2011 for an artist residency at TCG Nordica gallery. The works on display here were all completed during the following six months of his residency in Kunming and all of them are intimately focused on the city. Before he arrived in Kunming, Aumen read a popular science article that said that a single cell is just as functionally complex as a city the size of Kunming. It has its own laws of operation, centers, transport hubs, and lives. In short, your very own finger tip contains 100,000 cells. If you continue this train of thought and do the math, we find the human body is a biological wonder and the complexity mind-blowing. Aumen was stunned and captivated by the beauty and wonder of this knowledge. In light of this extravagant complexity, how can one argue that there was no designer? This began a train of thought and a scope of work, but it truly originates in a belief.
Aumen’s interest in cities is deep. Upon finding a computer motherboard he said, “Isn’t this a city? Look, here are the buildings, here are the districts, the factories…” His newest works all feature views of Kunming. If you look carefully, you will notice that the majority are slums or traditional homes from old-fashioned districts. Aumen is a nostalgic person, possibly because he is influenced by the memories from when, at the age of eight, he lived in Beijing for ten years.
In the paintings there are many houses – whether from above, from a distance, in our gaze, whether crowded or inverted or askew, whether a panoramic view or a fragment. This unfamiliar city gives Aumen much insight; first into the relationship between the complex structure of a cell and a city, but also into the longings of people. Consequently, his works can roughly be divided into two groups that focus, respectively, on these two themes. The first group features a series of expansive paintings in which apartments are densely packed together and solar water heaters are bustling with activity, all of it under a cloud-filled sky that suggests a coming storm. From the windows come sparkling bits of radiant light, as if prophesying that within moments, something important will occur. These paintings are organized in the form of grid. Aumen believes that if there wasn’t something supporting this complex city, it would have already exploded, just like atomic explosions occur when atoms lose their cohesiveness. Therefore, the grid represents a certain kind of conscious energy that holds together all the varied bits and pieces. This sort image is also transcribed onto 192 square pieces of wood that appear as if drawn from a Rubik’s cube. These groups of works all stand for Aumen’s understanding of the relationship between city and cell.
A city is not merely a community of convenience, materiality, and consumption, but rather a gathering of living beings. It has order. It has soul. It has moods, contemplations, and stories. They live in these towering apartments, one moment blissful, and the next moment they would be destroyed, if not for some force holding them together.
Aumen’s premonition of urban crisis is informed by the Jewish prophet Isaiah (Old Testament, Book of Isaiah), who says,
“The earth turns gaunt and gray, the world silent and sad, sky and land lifeless, colorless. Earth Polluted by Its Very Own People. Earth is polluted by its very own people, who have broken its laws, disruptedits order, violated the sacred and eternal covenant. Therefore a curse, like a cancer, ravages the earth. Its people pay the price of their sacrilege. They dwindle away, dying out one by one.”(Isaiah 24:4-6)
This excerpt prophesies that when the world no longer respects the laws of God, when there is no longer justice and rectitude, the world will pay a price and become a place of terrible decline and corruption. There will be no possibility to uplift oneself from the midst of squalor, due to the fundamentally fallen nature of the world. This premonition of crisis is reminiscent of “Be concerned about the affairs of state before others”, a traditional mindset among Chinese scholar officials that refers to the cultivation of a forward-looking awareness of approaching threats.
But Isaiah and other Jewish prophets were not overcome by a destructive nihilism. Rather, they noted that after God judged human’s for their sins, there was always the possibility of redemption. Therefore, shortly following the above passage, the Book of Isaiah reads,
“At that time the deaf will hear word-for-word what’s been written. After a lifetime in the dark, the blind will see. The castoffs of society will be laughing and dancing in God, the down-and-outs shouting praise to The Holy of Israel. For there’ll be no more gangs on the street. Cynical scoffers will be an extinct species. Those who never missed a chance to hurt or demean will never be heard of again”(Isaiah 29:18-20)
Notable in this Jewish scripture is that two themes, the punishment of sin and the longing for a coming righteous kingdom, alternate throughout the work.
I think these two views influence Aumen’s painting. In addition to works which focus on the darkness of urban decay, there are also scenes depicting one’s heart’s desire. This group of images is not broken up by the restricting image of the grid. They gaze into the distance at the city around us, with a slight glimmer coming through the layered clouds over our heads. They seem quite peaceful and every day, without any particular temperament. Within the house, we dwell. Below the sky, we live. Everything is in order, but one has the feels that their heart is heavy.
Chinese writer Shi Tiesheng writes,
“Whether art or literature, one need not be and imperial attendant or vocal promoter. One needs to be a detective, listening to the rocky voice in the otherwise flowing order, looking at every familiar place as if it was strange.”
I believe that in any age, this is the value of art. We don’t need art to confirm once again the progress, accomplishments, and arrogance of human beings. Nor do we need to sing once more the praises of the pleasantly livable city, all the while neglecting that which is lacking, that which is broken, the sins and longings. Aumen says, art must let one look upon the truth, and give them hope.
In this collection there is one painting where, as we peak behind a dark brown wall, we raise our heads to see a building, and from that exact point of view we see a sharp sliver of sky mediated by thin clouds. It is as if another kingdom is emerging clockwise little by little. In the moment it occurs, do we feel it in our hearts?
Written February 11, 2012
translated by R. Orion Martin (US)