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SKIN, FLESH & BONE
Cao Hui | Feng Feng | He Yunchang | Ma Qiusha
Curator: Feng Boyi
Curatorial team: Wang Dong, Bjørn Follevaag & Malin Barth
04.10.2012 - 20.01.2013
The artists examine different aspects and issues of the body in their artistic production. Changes of time, the identification of, appeal for, and even the ideology about the human body explored. The exploration that takes place is not purely private nor purely Chinese, but closely linked to comparable conditions and situations, as well as to the general experience of what it means to be human.
Curatorial Statement of Skin, Flesh & Bone
by Feng Boyi
“Skin, Flesh & Bone” refers to “my body”. Artists have long been using the human body as subject matter for their work, a kind of direct and intense self-expression. Changes of time, the identification of, appeal for, and even the ideology about the human body are shown automatically in an unexpected way.
Entering 21st Century China, globalization in economy and culture brings to the consumer society a physical culture; the economy of the consumer culture is a physical economy, and the aesthetics of the consumer society is physical aesthetics. This might be slightly exaggerated but is not false. In the modern consumer society, the body is increasingly becoming the core of modern self-identification. In Academia there has been the emergence of "sociology of the body," "aesthetics of the body," and "cultural studies of the body". Mass media is particularly interested in the body: a wide range of popular newspapers, magazines, fashion everywhere are filled with myriad images of the body. Of course, the interest in the body is not a new thing. But in the context of contemporary mass culture and consumer culture, physical appearance and consumption related to the body have become the center of attention. Especially in avant-garde art, the body image in popular culture and consumer culture continues to be highlighted, infiltrated, and excessively adequate; the physical body is turning into something dominated by desire. This is the result of the separation between the body (especially its production capacity) and its socio-economic and political structures, evidencing that the uplifted interest in the body, whether an interest of the artists or the public, is the product of a series of social, economic and cultural transformations.
Using this view to examine the exhibited works by the four artists, one might find that there are subtle differences from my above-mentioned statements, that there is a peculiarity of connectedness but not quite so much. From my point of view, as modernity unfolds, the rejection of social and cultural sanctity intensifies. But modernization destroys the religious belief and is not able to establish other forms of stable belief systems. The society is trapped in a state of either an anarchism where “anything is possible after the God is dead” or “Gods disputing”. Consumer culture is not able to come up with an ultimate spiritual/value system. As such, for those who lost religious beliefs and interest in the grand political discourse, at least the physical body seems to offer the only firm, reliable base of self-identification in the modern world. A central character of high modernism is the way of reflection that link individuals to their body.
In the works of the female artists Ma Qiusha, where the meaning of life is constructed on the young and sensitive body, the external representation (appearance) becomes a symbol of the ego. Her attitude toward the body is to treat it as a very normal thing. Similarly for Cao Hui, although he makes sculptures of pig, sheep, cow and horse, the depiction of the physical body and the perception of it has a strong saddening beauty, which also is, in a more genuine sense, a self-referential depiction of the intellectual spirit. The concept of the self differs from Descartes’ philosophical and sociocultural traditions in that the latter recognizes that human is human because what turns human beings into “social animals” is exactly the soul, based on the binary opposition between soul and body. However, the body cannot embody the humanness nature; it’s natural, organic and even animal, but not social, cultural. In fact, we have a physical body which enables us to taste, smell, touch, etc. These are the premise of our verbal practice, self-awareness and spiritual reflection. The body enables us to act and be involved in the daily routines of life. Without proper explanation of the body, one cannot reach an appropriate theory of self-initiation. Therefore, to a certain extent, people in action are a kind of body. These artists’ representation of the body breaks away from such grand narratives as “ethnicity”, “nationality”, “class”, “ideology”, “rationality”, “enlightenment”, and focuses on representing the female experience instead, a penetration into exploration of the unconsciousness of the body. The awareness of the body actually still falls into the category of modern self-consciousness and individualism, though it has fundamental differences from individualism in the enlightenment era.
As one of the true realities, China is now in a world of madness, desire, and distortion. He Yunchang's self-torture and self-mutilation; Feng Feng’s "human bones" were "archaeological excavation", but with a coating of gold foil: the remains that symbolize death and decadence mingled with desire which is a symbol of wealth and desire, implies the conflict, transformation and same fate of the two. Bai Yiluo carries a ship of skulls, an obvious depiction of the myriad souls drifting along with no idea of when to return. Though they belong to different life experiences, they all used the skeleton and corpse as a means of expression. This concept and approach, in fact, are deeply planted in people’s heart, a pair of complexes in the human nature, contradictory to but closely linked with each other. Therefore, their works of art are probably giving a timely warning signal to the current conditions in which we indulge ourselves in materialistic enjoyment and entertainment. Transforming the external sadism into the self-inflicted autosadism and using this as a release of pains in the environment; this is not only an extension of the “Trauma Art” after Cultural Revolution, but points to our new “trauma” of desire and restlessness. A strengthening interpretation and direct representation of man’s destiny in the current society is also a desperate appeal for the context of life. This exaggerated harm thus saturated the nihilist nature of life and any attempt to construct meaning—from memory to the futility of history. Happiness may not be sympathized, but the same pain can be felt by another individual. The difference between happiness and pain decides the focus of attention and cultural responsibility of the artist in a genuine sense. One of the artist's social responsibilities is not to help others increase happiness, but to advise or warn others to prevent from suffering.
With that said, his/their attitude and approach to the body narratives can only be appropriately understood only when placed in the contexts of Chinese contemporary art, China’s society and culture, and especially the evolution of the view and social function of the physical body. As a matter of fact, art and the body have always been closely linked. We can not imagine aesthetic, artistic and creative activities without the presence of the physical body. We can not even imagine any human activities separated from the body. Aesthetic activities are more physical/personalized/personal, more of the body, compared to other forms of human activities. As such, examining artistic literature in terms of imagination, treatment, and presentation of the body, will reveal the rich cultural and historical meanings behind. To my point of view, this is what precisely forms the charm about studies on the art of the body, and probably one of my purposes in curating this exhibition.
My starting point of attention is avant-garde art in China from the 1980s and 1990s to the present; the kind of attitude and approach when artists use "body" as a medium in their artistic creation; and the relationship and changes between Chinese contemporary culture and its context.
Looking back at history with today’s eyes enables one to see that the narratives of the human body in Chinese avant-garde art movement in the 1980s were significantly restrained by the grand enlightenment narratives of the time, with a differentiation with asceticism of Mao’s time.
The widespread sensation and controversy caused by the “Grand Exhibition of Oil Paintings on the Art of the Body” at the National Art Museum of China, Beijing between the end of 1988 and early 1989 was a typical and intense reflection of such restrictions. It is part of the new era of cultural reflection and ideological emancipation movement at the beginning of China's reform and opening up in 1979. Mainstream ideology of this period was to an extent loosening the ban on the attitude toward the body and the control of it (emotional desires). "The body" was therefore incorporated into another kind of ideological discourse—enlightenment and the rejuvenation of the nation. In a certain sense, the enlightenment and the development ideologies cannot but mildly affirm that the body, as the core of daily life, is reasonable.
In the early 1990s, performance art derived from marginal cultures raised concern, for example the series of works by Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, Zhu Fadong, Zhu Ming, Cang Xin in Beijing’s "East Village". They each embarked on their work based on the state of their existence, their own different understandings of life, especially the personalized attempts to find salvation from the harsh realities. The common characteristic of those works is the strengthening of their cultural pertinency and formal extremism: politics, power, suffering, sex, violence, and so on. Their concept about the body are closely linked to national destiny, with an obvious duality: liberating the body while stressing the spirit of dedication.
In the late 1990s, a series of works by Zhang Shengquan, Zhu Yu, Yang Zhi Chao, Sun Yuan, Peng Yu, Qin Ga, Xiao Yu, He Yunchang, Wang Chuyu who headed a group of similar artists, presented an array of bloody test reports. They not only adopted the use of flesh, blood, corpse and other forms of physical violence as witnessing devices, but went further as to lead the viewer to witness the violent tendency of the process. The concept and method of “hurt” and “self-infliction” are limit the artist cannot bypass. From the scars of those works, and the body that bears pain and self torturing performances, there was a direct observation point for us to witness a “ceremony” of plethora and void consumption.
The exhibition #RealLifeStories, also curated by Feng Boyi as well as Bjørn Inge Follevaag, opened at Stenersen, Rasmus Meyers allé 3.
Feng Boyi made the opening speech for both exhibitions at 3.14.
Friday October 5th:
> Debate “Artistic subject matters and its effect on society”
with curator Feng Boyi, exhibiting artists Cao Hui, Feng Feng, Ma Qiusha, artist Morten Traavik, Rafto Foundation w/ Arne Lyngård and moderator Bergljot Jonsdottir.
The exhibition received support from:
Hordaland fylkeskommune, Norsk Kulturrådet, Bergen kommune, OCA, Fritt Ord
Exhibition catalog >>>
Cao Hui’s shaping of powerful contrast between the gentle and the sanguine can serve as a reflection on our plundering of nature during the process of so called “modernization.”
The influence of modernization touches on every realm of human activity, and is particularly manifested in the epistemological worship of the infinite powers of the subject and the unbridled economic exploitation of natural resources, these being the soil that nourishes modernization. The contradictions, paradoxes and even loss of control that are concealed behind the process of modernization produce “bizarre” results that are the very crux of the matter, and are what Cao’s creations take aim at and intend to derail.
Feng Feng´s Golden Age draws from the powerful contrast of the materiality of the body and the symbolic nature of gold leaf, as well as the systematic dismantlement of the skeleton to reflect the fragmented world of today’s China. The decadence and terror of the skeleton, and the value and splendor of gold are all so direct and nakedly presented, and this directness reflects and mocks the state of existence in China – the constant pursuit of desire.
He uses this to attain awareness and reflection of the abuses of the modernization process, through which he expresses the aspiration for a beautiful and fair sanctuary for mankind behind revelations and criticisms, declaring that material development in no way guarantees the fall of the spirit and the collapse of morality.
He Yunchang performance One Meter of Democracy. He had a 0.5 to 1 centimeter deep incision cut into the right side of his body, stretching one meter from his collarbone to his knee. A doctor assisted in this procedure, though no anesthesia was used during the entire process. Before the surgery, he held a satirical “Chinese democracy-style” vote, using the farcical methods of Chinese elections to ask the roughly twenty people present whether or not he should carry out the procedure. The final tally was 12 votes for, 10 against and 3 abstaining, passing by two votes. The process was shocking to watch. He used a self-abusive, self-mutilating method to push himself to the edge, near the brink of death, and attained a self-redemption of both spirit and flesh. Perhaps this is the price of democracy, and perhaps He Yunchang is using his own suffering to awaken and probe the languishing soul.
The brutality of adolescence is a theme that permeates the video works by Ma Qiusha. In the process of growing up, adolescence in and of itself implies brutality. Adolescence is a special time in one’s life, one marked by a particular form of restlessness that is a product of dreams and evasion. Everyone must face such a stage in their lives; it is just that it manifests in different experiences and expressions within different living environments. This theme perhaps asks how this brutality of youth is manifested in the cultural contexts of different periods, and how the scars it leaves behind are transformed and expressed in the language of visual art.
From #4 Pingyuanli to #4 Tianqiao Beili, the artist holds a blade in her mouth as she faces the camera and tells about her experiences and important memories.
Us explores that no matter how we strive, every effort we make to figure ourselves out and to find the thread that ties us to the external world, we are actually using certain methods to cut those bonds.