HD, Single Channel video, 3’45”, black & white, stereo
Chen Shaoxiong’s Ink Media and the Aesthetics of Protest
Small notes on Chinese Art（6） by Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之六》 July 27, 2013
These are two images from a series of ten which Chen Shaoxiong exhibited in 2012-13 at Pekin Fine Arts Gallery, Hong Kong, under the title Air-Dry History (see below for the others). These didn’t appear alongside each other. My plucking these out and putting them side by side might seem an inexcusable act of decontextualization and recontextualization. But my doing so doesn’t infringe too seriously on the integrity of this artwork. Decontextualization and recontextualization are implicit in the production and display of these (and such) works by Chen. The Artist’s Statement which appeared with this exhibition said as much. He plucked out photographs of protests in different parts of the world from the internet, seemingly more or less randomly. Then he painted those images with ink on rice paper, reasonably faithfully but with the stylistic licence that the medium offers. The effect was of, so to speak, flattening the various photographs and their different subjects into a uniform style – starkly black and white, with fluid brush strokes. The flattening effect deliberately distances the image of protests from the specificity of the protests depicted – from the time and place and impetus of the actual protests. Chen’s selection for the Air-Dry History exhibition was evidently made from a larger pool of such paintings for a larger Ink Media project. These images, Chen’s statement says, will later be incorporated into another artwork: an animation video composed of a sequence of paintings. Chen has made similar animation videos before, composed of ink paintings – Ink City《墨水城市》(2005), Ink Diary《墨水日记》(2006), Ink Things《墨水东西》(2007) and so on (Chen’s website features ananalysis of these by Xin Wang).
Decontextualization and recontextualization therefore seem to be consistent with the rationale of the painted images here at two levels.
First, the painted image is itself dislocated from the source photograph and, more importantly, from the specific protests recorded in that photograph; the painted image is apparently of protests in general and not of particular and immediately contextualized protests. In other words, the painted image ostensibly reaches for an essential aesthetics of representing protest at the expense of the specific political contexts and dynamics of protests. It doesn’t matter which protest is represented; the paintings seem to seive out an acontextual aesthetics of representing protest. To that end, the paintings are labelled and framed by the Artist’s Statement without regard for details of the protests represented. The medium and technique are foregrounded (“air-dry”, “media ink”, “mass media” and “social media”), not the content. The content is admittedly hit upon serendipitously or through an intractably subjective process. Chen Shaoxiong has been pursuing this acontextual aesthetics of representing protest seriously for a while: it also underpins his 2012 exhibition and project (as artist-in-residence) at the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas – Prepared: Strategies for Activists .
Second, each painted image has a fluid relation to the others, in being placed alongside others in exhibitions and video artworks. Given the removal of these images from their specific political contexts, it seems possible to combine them in any order or put them in any kind of sequence. The point of bringing them together is to foreground the consistency of the flattening stylistics.
My plucking out two images from Air-Dry History is therefore as justified as plucking out any selection or number. But I have a reason for choosing these here: these are two of the images that I am able to place in terms of their specific contexts of protest (I can do so for a few of the others too, but not all). That means I can reinsert the photographs and actual protests that these images were removed from, against the grain of their acontextual aesthetics of representing protest. Doing so, it seems to me, clarifies the mechanics of stylistic flattening that Chen Shaoxiong has performed here. The photographs these two images are based on can be seen below: the first (a black and white one) is of a Wall Street protest on 10 February 1967 by an anarchist group called the Black Mask; the second (in colour) is from the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York which began on 17 September 2011. The removal of the hues and textures of the photographs in the ink paintings, the painterly blur through which the photographs are translated into paintings, levels the images of protest in both. Some of the immediate assessments that could be made by merely looking at the two photographs, even if one didn’t know what they were photographs of, are wiped away in the painted images. Little details in the photographs (the colour tones, the apparel and postures of figures, etc.) immediately suggest that one is of a 1960s scene and the other of a very recent one. In Chen’s paintings these could be two images of roughly the same time and place, even of the same event since the placards are so alike. Effectively, Chen’s paintings visually and stylistically erase the differences between the contexts and dynamics of protests – so that they seem to foregorund a common aesthetics of the depicted protests, and, by implication, of any protests. It doesn’t, then, seem to matter that in 1967 the protest was made amidst the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Liberties movements, and in 2011 it was amidst the financial crisis that started in 2008. It doesn’t seem to matter that the resonances of “Wall Street” itself had changed in the interim, with a series of 1980s and 1990s deregulation measures (climaxing in 1999 with the withdrawal of the Glass-Steagall Act that ended the distinction between commerical and investment banking) which effectively brought about the latter crisis. In Chen’s images of protest, the aesthetics of representation works to disinvest protest from causes, actors, geopolitics, history – protest is flattened out of time and space into a single plane of representation which broods on its own technique and material.
How are we, Chen Shaoxiong’s audience, to understand this kind of representation of protest? It seems fair to say that Chen’s determined disinvestment of the aesthetics of protest from their real political contexts come with a politics of its own. This could be understood from two directions.
One: this aesthetics of representing protest could be a comment on the uneven flow of information across and within state boundaries, especially in China. The groundswell of protests in the Americas, Europe, Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere – against wars and invasions, against oppressive regimes, against corporate and state corruption, against the neoliberal flattening of the “world order” – through and since the 2000s perhaps seem remote in China. Perhaps these paintings are a gesture towards the regulation of information flows that makes protest seem remote in China. Perhaps these paintings suggest that in China significant protest always seems to be removed rather than immediate – mysteriously only apprehensible as decontextualised images. [Arguably that would be the peculiarly blinkered view of a comfortable intelligentsia; China has witnessed, as other countries have, numerous grassroots and ground-level protests over this period. But then the comfortable intelligentsia might say that even protests at the doorstep can be made to seem remote.]
Two: this aesthetics of representing protest could be a comment on the manner in which protest is mediatised and flattened everywhere now, globally. Perhaps it suggests that protest everywhere has gradually assumed a decontextualized life of its own as it proliferates; that protest is now centred on consensus abstractions (like “human rights”, “freedom”, “democracy”) which are actually emptied of meaning, made devoid of ideological agendas and political reasoning, endlessly co-optable by whatever alignment has the wherewithal to jump in; that protest is now only apprehensible through a flattened mainstream mediascape which perpetuates the emptiness and preempted self-obfuscation of protest while protests proliferate and grow. Indicatively, in Chen’s Artist’s Statement the very articulation/imaging of “protest” seems good in itself, irrespective of what the protest is about — just as the very word “activist” is often used nowadays as if it refers to a worthy person, irrespective of what that person is active about. In taking this attitude Chen merely reflects a widespread hollow moralism about protest in-itself – a moralism that is rife among many protesting constituencies around the world. That hollow moralism obscures the fact that the validity and effectiveness of protests and activism are utterly conditional on asking “where”, “when”, “why”, “how”, and especially “to what end”. “Protest” and “activism” are not words which mean anything morally positive in themselves, they don’t refer to gestures that are worthy per se; these have meaning only in terms of well-defined ideological considerations and rational political agendas and grounded historical contexts. Fascists and fundamentalists and racists organise protests too (often do), and, as things stand in Chen’s vision, could come to be depicted without distinction among the images of Ink Media artwork – would Chen worry if that happened? Perhaps Chen’s acontextual aesthetics of representing protest draws attention to this empty moralism of protest, or perhaps it is an unthinking symptom thereof.
Taking a different tack: to my eyes, Chen’s Ink Media images seem to chime with other images of protests/protesters in Chinese art history. These remind me of some woodblock print images by artists associated with the New Woodcut Movement (新木刻运动) initiated by Lu Xun (鲁迅) around 1931 in Shanghai, images from the 1930s and 1940s (before 1949). Five such images, representing protest and protesters, are given below. These too have a stark black and white appearance (unlike the typically black, white and red Cultural Revolution woodblock prints), and represent protesters in a stylistically flattened fashion. Despite circumstantial similarities between Chen’s ink-paper images and these 1930s-40s woodblock prints, the differences are considerably more striking and noteworthy. Contemplating those differences puts Chen’s images of protest, and their/our contemporary contexts, into a clearer perspective:
- The woodblock prints are clearly placed by their labels: three are from the 1930s and addressed to the Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation; two from the later 1940s amidst the civil war between Nationalists and Communists, on the cusp of the latter’s victory (Zhao Yannian’s (赵延年) Rice Riotrefers to riots in Nationalist-ruled Shanghai and other cities in May 1947, when rice prices climbed 300% within 4 months though wages stayed static). We know what the protesters are up to and where and why and when. In Chen’s Ink Media images we are discouraged from asking what the protesters are protesting about and where and why and when.
- The heavy lines of the woodblock prints make for a strong and well-defined visual impression, idealistically accentuating the power of the protesters’ bodies and postures and togetherness. These are protesters whose power is visually enhanced through art. Chen’s ink-paper images, worked from photographs, literally water-down the protesters’ bodies and postures – they seem blurred and muffled. There’s also a sort of idealization there, not of strong enhancement but of sentimentalized remoteness.
- The woodblock prints are part of the protest; the woodblock prints are themselves political and ideological interventions and instruments of protest. The politics of Chen’s Ink Media images is that of wistful and stylized removal from politics and ideology, from the undertaking of protest.
- The woodblock prints were designed to be easily replicated; their simplicity and material qualities were meant to be widely dispersed and available, to be found pasted on billboards and walls or distributed as leaflets. Chen’s Ink Media images speak of the artist’s labour, the time-consuming effort of replicating photographs in ink painting, so that each image is of a unique original. These convert the easily replicated photographic image into unreplicable original artworks. These artworks are then meant to be found in galleries by the cognoscenti.