Abnormal Wave – Artists from China

Angelo Capasso

“Abnormal waves” are one of the greatest mysteries of the sea. They are sea phenomena of which nor the causes nor the origins are known. Anomalous waves from 25 to 35 m. high have been observed forming in unforeseeable ways amid the oceans. The difference between them and the tsunamis is that abnormal waves happen to form in the middle of the Ocean, while tsunamis grow higher only when approaching the shores. These waves can be extremely dangerous as they can sink even heavy ships. As there are no scientific proofs of their existence, until short ago many experts considered this phenomenon nothing but an invention of sailors. The few survivors have always told stories that weren’t believed real, also because according to statistical models a wave so high could happen once every 10000 years.

This symbolic aspect, that links imagination and reality regarding a physical phenomenon of indefinable implications, is the basis that links the artists Cao Fei, Zeng Guogu, H. H. Lim, Yang Jiechang, Yan Pei-Ming, Xu Tan, Wang Du. The abnormal wave is Chinese art, the artists its impetuous force. Chinese art has spread over western culture with a wave whose flow seems inexhaustible and still indefinable. It’s the art of the 21st century, just because it establishes itself trough the extremely narrow running knot of the new millennium, that’s to say when exhibitions, biennals, conferences, and art fairs have increased their number, to the auctions that have consecrated artists of Chinese origin as the newest reality of the world of art.

Contemporary art rejects any tight linking with ethnical, local or racial distinctions. And it isn’t actually possible to distinguish any subterranean quality  that strictly keeps together Chinese artists, if not “China”, a huge container that for every artist has different characteristic features, symbolic, political, economic; that anyone anyhow experiences according to the vicissitudes of his own life.

China’s peculiarity is that of being a world apart. A world that westerners have often considered as parallel to theirs, hermetically sealed, remote and separated, while it’s actually had deep links with the West. The “Chinese” issue for Europe and the U.S. has first had a strictly political connotation (with sometimes bursting cultural implications, such as the Italian avant-garde groups of the 70s, born  in the name of the union Mao-Dada), and then economic, since in the globalized and relocated world, China has become the centre of productive work on a large scale. The word China is a synonymous of cheap labour force, poorly protected even if highly qualified.  A terrible menace in global economy, living under the ominous spectre of the “end of work” (Rifkin). Art shows a very different face of China. Chinese artists, many of which have chosen to leave their country, and so have built a great China far beyond the borders of the Great Wall, have built a language based on the culture of exchange.

Art is free sharing. That great world in which one lived inside a protecting wall, that’s often represented a threat to its inner cohesion ( and for this reason has been object to attempt of destabilization) speaks of itself through art on the wave of avant-garde renewing language with brand-new ethical, aesthetical, social issues. Art lays stress on labour, not according to the aberrant terms imposed by economy (with the harmful consequences for working quality and working conditions). Art is creation, broad and self-conscious declaration of a strong and free identity living at the centre of society, as the success of these artists shows. The success of Chinese artists lets us understand the direction that China is heading for. A direction of opening to the world that sets itself as the first economic force of the world: “Chinese economy is a war machine constantly growing up, five years ago its G.I.P. was the tenth part of that of the U.S.,  now it’s the sixth, but if we estimate China’s economic power considering the purchasing power, then the forecast is that in five years China will be over the U.S. On the political plane, in a few years China has made deals with Africa (the great  Chinese-African summit of 2006), with Russia, with India, and also, regarding commercial exchanges, with Japan. In the next five years China exponentially could become the first great economic superpower”*.

On the artistic plane, an increasing number of international galleries are opening their seats in China, which considering the great economic development, could be the first market for international exchanges when the communication between  the creation and the fruition of art will be perfect. Chinese artists of the abnormal wave have practically built a bridge between Western art and China opening a cultural channel which will have great economic relapses. The abnormality of this wave thus resides just in this two-direction force, which undermines cultural resistances and sets them to communicate, through a simple, transparent, ironic language.

The artists shown in “Abnormal Wave” belong to a generation which  has grown up with Coca-Cola, Kung-fu films, pop  music and electronic games. They are the artists of the generation subsequent to Mao’s cultural revolution of the 70s. It’s a generation that got rid of ideology and embraced variety and cross-disciplinariety. In the great abnormal wave of Chinese art, the artists of this exhibition, Cao Fei, Zheng Guogu, H. H. Lim, Yang Jiechang, Yan Pei-Ming, Xu Tan, Wang Du, sum up the principal qualities of the work of art as Chinese origin. The transversality  of media, irony, the attention paid to social life.

Cao Fei mainly works with video in an electronic landscape that mixes imageries coming from different contexts, in a kind of visual estrangement where heroes of the Chinese, the Japanese and the international pop culture live together. He narrates urban culture and its continuous mixing of images and cultural references using media like video, photography and graphics. He chooses subjects connected to the contemporary pop culture coming from cinema, tv  and comics, such as: American super-heroes, characters from Star War’s imperial troops or the Japanese manga, put into a pretty Asiatic background. His films echo with Japanese b-movies of the 70s, with their kitsch costumes and their fantastic fightings.  Zheng Guogu is the artist that most reflects Chinese post-modernism with works mixing different contexts, and that let leak out the loss of objectivity and the prevailing economic culture of consumerism. Zheng Guogu’s objects undergo a process of transformation which we could call of visual liquefaction, they melt in their tones and loose every identity or function.  The artist combines hard and resistant materials with fragile and delicate substances. Thus his sculptures, as well as having a symbolic value, are seductive objects that call us to a tactile participation. In the case of “Waterfall”, for instance, fused wax melts on a metal footboard, covering  some texts of poetries, playing with this ambiguity between history and memory, the preservation of things and their melting in time. Between permanence and caducity. White, in Chinese culture, is the colour of mourning. The same principle of the firmness and corruptibility of time can be found in the 23 natural size bottles of wine and beer, made of iron, part of the “A. D. 2000, to oxidize 2000 years” series, which the artist described as “anti-easy-to-carry-about, anti-fictitious, anti-pop, anti-gaudy, anti-advertising”. H. H. Lim has the undisputed record of being the first Chinese artist in Italy. He is since his arrival in 1976, and he continues to be. H. H. Lim uses different media but his strategy  has by this time consolidated  around the absolute v alue of word. In a play between the meaning and the significant, word in his works enlarges into a double reference, graphic and dealing with the meaning, leaving the image to synthesize the divarication. That is, the words and sentences that stream on all his pictorial works –which we could divide into cycles:  the white cycle, the black and the red-  are graphic elements referring to an oriental graphic tradition, reconverted in western world into signs that make no sense: just in containers of vacuum. In Lim’s new cycle of works, the deaf’s language fully enters his work  and is turned out into an object for symbolic representation. Word, in deaf’s language, is action, movement, image. Every action for H. H. Lim, like word, is articulated through time: through waits, on a moment, for reflection. Yang Jiechang  gets into the dimension of Chinese art that gets in action. His work tears down the limit. So much so that his works intervene directly in the reality of art as a metalanguage. They are works that enter into the artwork. In a broadening of concentrical circles that puts on a perfect multimedial dimension, made of videos, musical concerts, moving sculptures, just as in a Chinese feast. His work has deep political connotations, in the best tradition of new Chinese art. In 1997, for instance, in the circumstance of the end of Great Britain’s protectorate on Hong Kong and the return of Hong Kong to China, Yang Jiechang used the ancient technique of acupuncture to mark this passage: he considered Liverpool, the city  where his exhibition was held, as a body and he drew a map of the city just like a traditional acupuncturist draws a map of the body of his patient.  Jiechang answers my question “What do you think about this sudden generalized interest in Chinese art? Did you expect it twenty years ago?” saying “When Jean-Hubert Martin invited me to take part in the exhibition Les magiciens de la terre at the Centre Pompidou, twenty years ago, I felt that there was already a strong interest… so, when  I arrived in Europe, I decided, together with other artists, to stay here and to have a kind of nomadic existence… I think that the interest in China today differs from that in Russia and Eastern Europe of the 90s. China is immense, obscure, for the Chinese themselves. And, on the other hand, besides the popular Republic there are other Chinese communities, like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, South-Eastern Asia, etc. Thus China doesn’t actually exist… it’s an imaginary country” **. Yan Pei Ming is profoundly immersed in his original imagery, through  which he has generated a different pop iconography: Mao, Bruce Lee, the Pope, are the characters from which a vaste iconography was generated, including today other myths of the western world. “I’m interested in man in general, and my work could be considered a  kind of universal portrait. What I do paint in the end is an idea of this humanity.” The universal meaning of his portraits stems just from the monochrome choice of his painting, which is substantially articulated with three colours: black, gray, red. Yan Pei Ming is engaged in a violent action on his canvas, a kind of an uneven struggle, in which the ability of the artist is challenged  to revive the great Renaissance tradition of  Portrait and to bring it to the present, made of rapidity, concentration, transiency and expression. Bruce Lee is certainly the most representative figure of these qualities in martial arts. But the tie between Bruce Lee and Yan Pei Ming inevitably much more subterranean.  Bruce Lee owes his popularity not just to his work in martial arts, but rather to its cinematographic reproduction: he’s been a  star like other great American actors, such as Steve Mc Queen and Marlon Brando. Yan Pei Ming is nowadays a star of painting, his name growing in fame like the dimensions of his self portraits. Information is the matter of Wang Du’s work. Communication, the right to inform and to be informed, the free expression of thought are conditions for civilization and democracy, often threatened by censorship and economic interests which change information into a pulp of texts, images, statistical  data, unrecognizable truths and falsehoods. Wang Du’s work on informations  follows three directions: the plethoric magnifying of the figures of the media into paradoxal, gigantic and grotesque sculptures that take possession of the space of the exhibition; the installation of rivers made of twisted newspapers’ sheets, sometimes also reproduced in sculptures of huge dimensions, which flood the space erasing its limits; his personal presence as media-man (with an histrionic behaviour he declares: Je suis la réalité, Wang Du) which occupies city signs in an ubiquitarian form. Wang Du has become internationally famous during the 1999 Biennial of Venice in which he built the installation Marché aux puces , that presented a parade of the celebrities of the moment like Monica Lewinsky and Yasser Arafat. In 2004 Wang Du has been the protagonist of a travelling “Parade”, with a series of exhibitions in four different cities in France, from Toulouse to Rennes, from Lyon to Paris’ Palais de Tokyo, in which the  resin and paper sculptures-war news, taken from Chinese newspapers, paraded around. In the new millennium, according to Wang Du,  Humanity is shaped by the noise of the media, not by its real life. A particular case has been the publication on “L’Express” the 27 September 2004 of an article titled Le planète Wang Du, that considers Wang Du as he who’s made of France “la société de consummation de l’information”. Wang Du answered my question: “Do you think that the same could happen soon to China, India and the Far East that have lived until now in small communities? Isn’t it sad thinking of the ancient idea of local communities that will have to surrender to the super-production of mass information?” saying : “No region or country can avoid the society of information consumption, of course. But that’s not a  pessimistical  forecast. Fortunately each one of us belongs to a different life inside our times, and that’s our reality. My work is based on this kind of reality.”*** Xu Tan is one of the four members of the “Big tail elephant group” founded in 1991 in Guangzhou with Lin Yinlin, Chen Shaoxiong e Liang Juhui. The purpose of the group was that of developing a critical strategy aimed to cause substantial changes in Chinese culture and economy.  Xu Tan says: “Knowledge is power. Is power power? In my dreams I become a pig with human brains and organs, and I possess enormous power”. The principal force of Xu Tang is his exuberance and humourism. According to him  art must lay aside its intellectual seriousity  and demonstrate its light ability to interpret reality. In one of his works, Xu Tan has given us a map of his thought. In “Qing Hua porcelain  (blue and white)” a video and musical installation in which Xu Tan explores the differences in American and Chinese cultural interpretations of what is “real” and what is “fake”. Although each culture distinguishes and classifies “real” from “fake”, neither clearly defines these terms. Xu Tan draws his inspiration from the teachings of philosopher Chuang-Tzu (circa 250 BC). Successor to Lao Tzu and a foremost proponent of Taoism, Chuang-Tzu presumed that no matter how alike two things are, a difference between them can always be found and, conversely, no matter how different two things are, one can find a similarity between them. Objective similarities and differences do not justify any particular way of distinguishing between things. Qing Hua Porcelain (blue and white) consists of 4 videos in which Xu Tan posits that situations play out differently depending upon location (in this case China versus America). Location relates to culture, hence culture plays a role in how one understands the world, interprets “true” and “false,” “authentic” and “fake”. Through a dialogue with an American female friend, Xu Tan asks the question: “What is true love?” hence shedding light on diverse interpretations of love. Xu Tan further addresses differences between “real” and “fake” by recording specialists of Qing Hua Porcelain – perhaps the most well known Ming China- who discuss the notion of “authenticity” and the controversy around authenticating these imported ceramics. Can anyone be certain that a piece is genuine or counterfeit?

This question is strictly related to work, craftmanship and  manuality, but also to the mental aspect of every kind of creation. It directly concerns China, for it is often pointed out as a threat to original production, and as a forge of forgery. But Chinese art completely breaks off with the creation of a fetish-object, and concentrates on creaation of ideas, messages, action, changements. That’s to say what truly has consistency in art.****






*Angela Pascucci, “Talking China”, Manifestolibri, Rome 2008, p. 23.

**Angelo Capasso, “Opere d’arte a parole”, Meltemi, Rome 2007, p. 75.

***Angelo Capasso, “Opere d’arte a parole”, Meltemi, Rome 2007, p. 81.

**** This text is published in the catalogue of the exhibition: “Onda Anomala. Cao Fei, H.H. Lim, Xu Tan, Yan Pei-Ming, Yang Jiechang, Zheng Guogu”, curated by Angelo Capasso and Marina Köppel-Yang,, Parallel Event to Manifesta 7, Trento 16 July – 10 August 2008.