Light as Fuck - The Drive for Diversity of Shanghai’s artists’ community, by Gu Zhenqing, 2003

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The phrase “Light as Fuck”, as in the title of Yang Zhenzhong’s digital photographic work evokes the ease with which a finger holds the new, feather-light landscape of Shanghai’s urban construction. The slum area of Lujiazui in Pudong ten years ago has risen to be China’s most condensed district of skyscrapers. At the snap of a finger, the awe-inspiring speed in urban construction has transformed Shanghai into the glamorous status of a modern globalized city. After the rather urgent start to the development in Pudong, numerous pressing projects and countermeasures have, as “easily” as lifting a feather, unsettled and transformed the city of Shanghai. Yet, in the meantime, has Shanghai been finding it “easy” to advance the general progress, raise the spirit, and shape the new, modern way of living for the city? This is precisely what artists have been intermittently investigating. The feather-light piece of Shanghai which artists could lift with ease, could in fact be for us the heaviest part of all, the part which is, ideologically speaking, associated with economic and financial achievement; this is also, for the past ten years, the most substantial and powerful symbol of self-confidence for our people. The masses, stripped of ideals and thirsty for riches, loftily regards the glittering revival of Shanghai as the symbol of the march to modernization. In the brightness of day or the warmth of twilight, Chinese people standing on the Bund watching the clusters of new buildings on the opposite shore that appear like a mirage, would feel a drifting sensation followed by a collective feeling of camaraderie warming their hearts. Progress, development, economic miracle – these particularly abstract concepts stemmed from a period of social reform could at times “easily” camouflage the misery, pain and injustice of people’s daily lives. Yang Zhenzhong, in his “Moving the Universe”, toys with the ease with which he lifts the Pearl Tower; this is yet the most overpowering modern fairytale that forces one to reconsider the superficial vanity behind the mask of ambition. Feigning ease whilst lifting a heavy weight – a playful, humorous, and slightly frivolous visual expression that depicts the anxiety and question of the so-called alternative kind of modern creation. In emphasizing on the concept of the work, Yang Zhenzhong is thoroughly sensitive to many levels of the Chinese cultural society, and objectively creates a force critical of this society. This type of work is strongly representative of the recent creations of the Shanghai artistic community.

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Another example of “ease”.

On 12 March 2004, the Chinese State Statistics Bureau Reports confirmed that Shanghai, for the first time in 2003, surpassed Beijing to become the number one city in the property market value in China. This is in fact the first time, since its rise in the 1990s, that Shanghai created its first number one in China, amongst innumerable ones that were to come.

In the sudden rush of globalisation and urbanization, the violently rapid urban construction of Shanghai has become an “easy” yet particular implement to the pattern of modernization. Before WW II Shanghai was the one of the most prosperous metropolises in the world, symbolizing the modernization of late-developed countries of the East, yet the history of a semi-colonial landscape has remained a memory of both glory and humiliation. After the reforms, Shanghai has rapidly advanced to the status of one of the world’s fastest developing metropolises and re-enacted the role of China’s financial engine. Shanghai is unique in the process of China’s economic ascension. The ease of its ability to implement, and the soaring aspirations of a unique state of mind, are in fact qualities uncommon to the rest of China. Cities in the mainland are mostly insulated agricultural regions, and the political and geographical conditions of the insulated lands along the coast remain forever unchanged. Shanghai is a city with a living standard and lifestyle that approaches, if not equals, that of a international and developed country; it is also the farthest away from the massive stretches of poverty, filth and misery in China. Its unique geographical position, historical background and cultural spirit nurtured Shanghai into a modernized culture with multiculturalism as the foundation. To pursue excellence in hardship – this Shanghai spirit of a new era has also informed an urban quality completely different from other parts of China. With its advanced and swift international exchanges Shanghai is gradually becoming an open and fashionable international metropolis, one that is in pace with the world’s post-modern culture, one with a courage to forgive internal shortcomings, and an energy to advocate multiculturalism and innovation.

It is with this background that Shanghai-born artists and those who have settled in this city gradually and “easily” appeared to the scene. They are at the frontlines of cultural conflicts, and the crossroads of cultural fusion and conformity. Choices are ample; they are also free to choose. The huge number of white collar workers and the hoards of visitors in Shanghai become the never-ending resource for the spectators of the contemporary art world, a huge social sounding board that has become the propelling force for the artists’ innovation and creativity. Under these conditions, artists such as Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong and Yang Zhenzhong actively organized artists’ movements, held independent exhibitions and opened the eyes of the local society to their work, many of which were concerned with self, with the everyday life, and with the conditions of existence. Distance from Chinese politics, from the cultural centre Beijing, and from the concept of abstraction – these were their common characteristics. It was perhaps because of this that their work all started to mature towards the end of the 1990s.

As early as 1993, contemporary Chinese art marched into the international art community as a pillar of visual strength, and stirred up the “China Wave” which refused to die out even after ten years. Yes during a large part of the 1990s, the relationship of contemporary Chinese art with the social and cultural reality was neither friendly nor aloof. At that time artists from the political capital Beijing, as opposed to other cities such as Shanghai, would indeed include political elements and social satires in their work and style; it was thus easier for them to procure the attention of cultural sections in European and American embassies and art organizations from overseas, and to be given the opportunities to exhibit abroad. Artists had to rely on resources provided by the international cultural stage, and lacking independence, they could neither fully express their language, thoughts and ideals in the foreign environment, nor obtain support from the local societies. This identity as the object of display forced some of the more sensitive artists to reaffirm themselves and question their direction and style while disassociating from foreign aesthetic standards and requirements. This orientation towards “extroversion” imposed a meaning of cultural strategy to the artist’s behaviour and attitude – the development of individuality is entirely enveloped inside the large frame survival strategies. Strategies often transform into goals; the expression of survival eventually becomes a fashionable ideological symbol. The symbols of the Chinese tradition and the culture of pre-socialism might be easily recognized, yet, once separated from the dynamic scene, they are but ossified and empty.

Although independent exhibitions in China were limited, in the 1990s Beijing was till the centre-stage for contemporary art in the local society. The popular style of these exhibitions involving foreign participation, or self-supported by artists, tend to be related abstractly to politics, or ideology. The participation of artists established in the West, such as Fang Lijun, together with their fairytale stories of success, exerted to artists from other places as well as artists-to-be a force of influence and guidance that could not be ignored. At the time, more active Shanghainese artists such as Ding Yi, Zhou Tiehai and Hu Jieming, because of their individuality, became well-known figures outside of the popular artistic trend.

From 1999 -2000, independent exhibitions organized by artists or independent curators, such as “Art for Sale”, “Post-Sense Sensibility”, “Home?”, “Fuck Off”, “Useful Life”, and “Usual and Unusual” , shattered, like a succession of cultural earthquakes, the mono, “extrovert” pattern and structure of contemporary Chinese art. These independent satellite exhibitions were organized, on the local platform, as public or underground shows; their work methods and presentations all adhered to the standards and models of international art exhibitions. Due to the reasons of location, and of the different reactions from the public and society, these exhibitions became sincere responses of contemporary Chinese art to the realistic questions and issues of the Chinese society. In 2000, the Third Shanghai Biennale, also conducted according to international standards, was the first successful large-scale event organized by the government – for the first time, contemporary Chinese art was presented to the public as one of the mainstreams of Chinese art. What is worth noticing is that most of these contemporary art exhibitions, bearing both academic and historical significance, were held in Shanghai, the biggest metropolis in China. From then on, the structural position of Beijing as the only cultural centre in the country was fundamentally challenged, and the process of the localization of contemporary Chinese art made gave Shanghai its reasons and potential to lead.

Because of their close contact, young artists in Shanghai share common interests in the special media of expression such as video and photography, and advocate experimental art; a healthy, loose group of young artists without a consistent ideal or a written manifesto. They choose a kind of personal standpoint, cultural concept and behavioural criteria which do not conform to social standards. They often get together to discuss working methods and ideas, and to offer mutual help. For example, in Yang Zhenzhong’s “922 Rice Corns”, it was Yang Fudong who did the voice-over; and in one of Yang Fudong’s videos, Xu Zhen would be seen speaking in one of the shots. They think independently, and know how to make use of the special criteria that Shanghai possesses. Together they curated the exhibition “Art for Sale”, and according to the commercial and consumerist trends of Shanghai, designed for the audience the role of the art buyer and consumer. In the exhibition a supermarket area was set up, where inexpensive artwork promoted by the artists were displayed on the shelves. After this show, they organized a series of exhibitions in Shanghai, promoting experimental art free of the limitations of location and space. Amongst these included public spaces – such as “Park Images”, a show similar to outdoor cinema organized by Yang Zhenzhong, Yang Fudong, Liang Ye and Song Tao in 2001 for the exhibition “Homeport” in Fuxing Park – as well as independent art centres, an example being “One by One”, a series of solo exhibitions organized by Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong, Song Tao and Liang Yue at BizArt in 2002. As these exhibitions constantly involved media such as video, photography, installation, as well as audio-visual and multi-media equipment, the artists were able to exercise their abilities and creativities on a very large scale, collectively heighten their artistic experience, and strengthen their individual statuses as the pioneers of innovation and evolution. From 1990 onwards, with Shanghai as the base, they frequently participated in international cultural and artistic exchanges. Not only did they acquire international standing, they also became the cultural symbols of China’s open policy.

Shanghai’s young artists are a rare, neglected group in the mainland that is often reduced to a symbolic significance. Yet with their distinct individuality, logical thinking and clear tendency towards diversity, it is impossible to categorize them with a label. In fact if we assemble their work and effort, what will appear is the formation, in every sense of the term, a ”Shanghai Assemblage”.

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If one is to create a “Shanghai assemblage” for contemporary art, the three most brilliant and most essential pieces have to be Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong and Yang Zhenzhong. One can say that they are the three young artists in China who had matured the fastest. In the short period between 1999 and now when they have been most active, contemporary art in Shanghai have gained, without difficulty, a place in the Chinese and international art circle that cannot be ignored. With their rich artistic individuality, their contribution to contemporary art in Shanghai is obvious to all. As their respective creative paths become more methodical and the spiritual value more heightened, the value of diversity and polarization in different artistic directions become gradually visible.

From 1998, Xu Zhen grew increasingly active – his body became the principle medium and channel for the expression of his thoughts and ideals. In some of his work with keys to continuity, such as the video “Rainbow”, and the photographic work “Sewer” and “Problem of Colourfulness” , bodies infected with hunger for the flesh appear to be everywhere – he is constantly challenging the limitations of the human body. Due to artificial reasons, the nature properties of the body are perpetually eclipsed by social living. He uncovers this camouflaged existence in numerous, sensuous ways, and even succeeds in challenging social taboos and in profaning the traditional preaching of morals. His captivation with the body and abandon to the vitality of life is a constant reminder of the necessity of renewals and transformations of values in contemporary culture. From 2002 onwards, with considerable experience in participating as well as curating exhibitions, Xu Zhen gradually devoted more attention to arrangements for the public in an exhibition, as well as its reactions. His performance work “6th March” placed 100 people, dressed up as mentally ill patients, at the entrance of the exhibition hall, each prepared to follow a member of the audience from behind, as he or she entered the hall. They would follow every move of the audience, at a distance and in silence, until the audience left. Their presence made the audience uneasy, and disrupted the normal mentality of a spectator viewing an exhibition. The piece rewrote the unspoken rules of the role of the spectator, and limited the ways of viewing. The audience came to view the work on display, yet ended up viewing these additional characters in the exhibition who were not part of the audience – the traditional rights and experience of the audience were stripped and refuted. The act of their tailing the audience at a distance created disturbance, suspicion and anxiety, and this in itself inevitably formed the content of Xu Zhen’s work. Towards the end of 2003, he presented his moving installation work “Earthquake” at the top floor of the Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art – the appearance of the ground and space in the exhibition area was no different from normal, except that one could see from the glass roof an endless view of Shanghai’s architecture. As the audience stopped at this space to chat, they would feel an abrupt movement from under their feet, and the simultaneous violent movement of the landscape behind the transparent roof. Though it did not cause them to fall, and that their reaction could be weak or strong, there was a momentous loss of psychological balance. The tremble the audience felt was in fact the trembling of the heart, and what they saw was in fact the subconscious reaction and change of facial expression in each other.

The film and video work of Yang Fudong has always been fascinating. He likes the touch of the film strip, and, with a masterful control of the language of the image, is extremely sensitive to the camera. His talent lies in the deliberate use of misty, fleeting images to create abstract scenes with a loose, casual style and a soft, soothing rhythm – an example is five-minute traditional Chinese painting performance at the start of “An Estranged Paradise” . One could see from the film “Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest” that Yang Fudong is deeply moved and influenced by classicism and traditional Chinese aesthetics. Under the eyes of his camera, the extraordinary and elusive beauty of the misty Huangshan Mountain is reminiscent of the spiritual and unworldly sphere of the ancients. “Backyard – Hey! Sun Is Rising” , in which he repetitively depicts, with a dreamlike touch, the unconsciously collective behaviour, is in fact also a form of traditional mentality deep-rooted in the psychology of the people. “Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest” is very close to his concept of abstract cinema – the grainy texture of black and white film, the stark contrast of shadow and light, the actors expressionless as in photo portraits. The transitions from one shot to another were even softer than before, smoothly delineating an ambience of continuity. The few verbal narratives are in harmony with the long periods of silent images. Seven educated city youths, with expressions of confusion, enter the silence of the mountains and, despite the lack of key plots and narratives, their psychological state of stress and helplessness is dignified by the exquisitely expressive images. Dissolute naked bodies and troubled lovers disclose the unavoidable eternal conflict of their old and new styles of living. The camera, howling to the empty mountains, displays the illusionary struggle of the compromising city youths with the bottomless fragility. Perhaps it is at this very level that they are spiritually connected with the seven ancient hermits of the mountains. “Flutter, Flutter – Jasmine, Jasmine”, a video work comprised of three different screens playing simultaneously, is one of the few of Yang Fudong’s realistic, though still poetic work. The combination of video recording and documentary film technique creates an imagery voice that is both realistic and vivid. A city couple narrates the secret love story in the form of song, verbal narration and body language; the trivial moments of their everyday living in the room are exceptionally realistic. The most graceful and dreamy scene is when they climb to the roof of the building and, standing shoulder to shoulder, contemplate the lush concrete forest of Shanghai. On their faces are expressions of enchantment and yearning for the future. The rhythm and interaction of the three screens provide a rich, three-dimensional effect to the narrative structure of the work, and invite the audience to vividly experience the way video images emphasize and shape the romantic ambiance of the young couple.

Yang Zhenzhong’s quick thinking and rational personality render a solemn style in his work which constantly investigates the question of rules and conventions. His likes to change to rules of daily life and turn them into visual games that counter common sense. In the photographic series “Light as Fuck”, digital technology turns youths in the streets into strong muscular men, and colossal objects like cars and ticket booths are easily lifted. Here the normal rules of gravity are ridiculously aborted. Perhaps it is because Shanghai is unceasingly giving birth to miracles; despite it still being part of the earth, we can do in the place what could normally only be done in space. This infinite power born of confidence could regard all things as commonplace. In this work the normal rules of life are substituted by the psychological rules of the artist, and the result are unexpected yet marvellous visual spectacles. The artificiality of the society that the work satirizes is self-evident. “Cycle Aerobics” at first sight appears to be a game for lovers, but it in fact contains the a change of meaning and value of the bicycle, China’s traditional means of transport – he wishes to remind us of the long-neglected fact that the bicycle could also be a fitness machine. The subject of the video “922 Rice Corns” is simple: a cockerel and a hen eating rice corns from the ground. The video starts with a meaningless counting, and continues a live recording of the process of almost all of the rice corns being eaten, expressing the concept of documentation and the humour of this concept. This ridiculous, meaningless act of counting the rice corns as the chicken ate breaks the standard and heavily obtuse concept of experimental film in China, and instead acquires with time an ambiance of relaxation and amusement. The exciting dubbing voices and the appearance of digital numbers artificially creates a colourful fighting scene between the cockerel and the hen, with an effect similar to combat video games. The audience could not but smile throughout the video of which the rules are formed from the reflection of the spectator’s psychology. For the video “ I will Die”, he began by filming friends around him uttering “I will die” directly to the camera, then in the style of moving live recording, he went out to the streets and filmed whoever that was willing to face the camera. “I will die” – a universal truth, yet a phrase that social taboo has made difficult to utter. Especially with the elderly and the sick, to say a phrase of such misfortune in the social tradition requires considerable courage. This piece already has several versions overseas – because of the differences in religion, culture and tradition, expressions on the screen vary with the different nationalities. Yang Zhenzhong evidently highlighted these differences through meticulous details, as his cinematographic language became purer by the day. When a foreign man emerged a blue swimming pool and said with a trance-like expression “ I will die!”, a moving, emotional power is evoked from the work. For the sake of filming, Yang Zhenzhong continually does things which defy commonplace, which might embarrass others or even himself, yet he persists, with a scrutinizing eye on society, in thorough investigations in order to form a system of thought. It is with this persistence that his work transcends normal intellectual creation.

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The true “Shanghai assemblage” could not overlook artists such as Hu Jie Ming, Zhou Hongxiang and Jin Jiangbo. Their work is the pledge for the sustained advancement towards diversity of the Shanghai artists’ community. Hu Jie Ming’s “The Best Strategy is to be on the Move” which is concerned with the weaker groups of society, such as relocated households under the new urban planning and off-duty labourers; Zhou Hongxiang’s “The Red Flag Flies”, an expression of fond reminiscence of the passions and impulses of youth and their yearning for utopia; Jin Jiangbo’s online interactive multi-media work that linked Shanghai with the outside world – they all contain the essence of experience and spirit of the individual artists, and form an interconnected relationship with the different points of view. This avoids the tendency towards conceptualisation in the ‘”Shanghai assemblage”.

“Light as Fuck” could at times be the true working mentality of Song Tao and Liang Yue, two younger members of the Shanghai artists’ group. Although two years younger than Xu Zhen, they made their debuts relatively early. But from the diversity point of view, the spiritual aspect of their work has much disparity with that of Xu Zhen’s and his group; one could say that the two of them, amongst the “Shanghai assemblage”, have the most future potential. To them, producing art is a very instinctive, natural part of living. With a mentality that is at times playful and at times not, concept is not the main element of their work; therefore it does not matter at all whether personal creation has a significance for social responsibility and cultural structure.

Song Tao, with his puck appearance, could very well represent that peculiar group of youths of the new generation in China. His works from early 2000 were extremely radical – he did not need a reason to let out blood while playing in the streets. What appeared to be self-inflicted torture was not a live interpretation of disillusioned youth, but an extreme demonstration of distinctive, free-spirited personality. Song Tao would only do what he wants to do, only make friends with people he chooses; he believes in the importance of give his best in everything. He is full of ideas, wild about the internet, and passionate about loud electronic music. In between opening a supermarket, making a video, or preparing for a solo exhibition, he organizes international electronic games competitions and has set up a video games competition website to connect with similar websites in Japan – diligently looking for similar people, and weaving a network for Asian culture. He seems to appreciate Shanghai as the hedonist hotbed of China, and at the same time attain a purity in his way of living. In “Sudden Swerve” the images are mostly reeling, the revolving light from the streetlamps and headlights giving out a spinning blur. The explanation to the spinning images lies at the end of the work, which shows that he filmed it while rolling on the Pudong highway at night. Song Tao regards this bloody, mad and risky behaviour as listless, as if to say this is the result of the surplus energy of city youths like him who live their lives on the edge. Perhaps this is also their vent of anger for their incompatibility with this brand-new city. In the photographic series “In loud crowds I dream of hanging myself” this rebellious resentment of the mundane world is pushed to the highest level – the expression of feigning suicide is strange, grotesque, and has an inextricable feeling of play. Song Tao’s anger is obviously wilful; what he needs is not to criticize but to release his feelings, because this in itself is a pleasant sensation. “Bai Ta Ling”, according to him, originated from an advertising film idea for Bai Ta Ling in Hangzhou. Floating, shaky images, rapid transitions of shots, an occasional glimpse of a young girl’s shadow, scenes of the luscious, green, mountainous landscape of the Jiangnan region, creating a dazzling, magical world with the domino-like coloured words on the screen.

The key to Liang Yue’s work is the condition of a girl’s daydream, mostly revealing extremely powerful and personal emotions, tender yet melancholic. What she expresses is an almost unapproachable, personal world of intense subjectivity as well as brilliance. In the images all is connected with narcissistic, minute details of her fluctuating moods, and the external reality is all but a background to her mood. As actor-director in “Happiest Winter”, the whole filming process consisted of images of her strolling on the streets of Shanghai. From this, one could see that Liang Yue’s way of living has manifested as the result of the interaction of image and reality. Perhaps to Liang Yue, wandering in the streets of Shanghai is a psychological therapy for dispelling boredom in order to make way for a bright, optimistic mentality. Yet in this work, the subjectivity attached by the artist is replaced by the independent language of the image. On a winter day, a lone girl, with a satchel on her back, appears in and out of the crowds in the street. Perhaps it is only amid the crowds that she ceases to look lonely. But all she appears to be is a victim of the trailing eyes of the spectator – neither her motive or her intention is clear, all she does is to hold the attention of the audience – is she actually happy? At the end the audience cannot help but tacitly approve, on the psychological point of view, of Liang Yue’s secretive sentimentality; or else, be suspicious of or overturn her judgement of the value of happiness.

Since the images resemble a dream factory, Liang Yue has every reason to like all sensations of illusion and fantasy. The style of her work is unified: the introvert, lonely boy in the plotless video “Nowhere” and the deaf and dumb girl in “Deaf Land” are substitutes for some of her emotions; the chain of emotions that weaves through her work is meticulous and sensitive. They long for consolation, as well as communication and contact with the exterior. They always appear, alone and lonely, on the streets of Shanghai, seeking with their eyes the possibility of communication. The screen is unceasingly covered with overlapped images, and the scenes are joined together smoothly without a single dialogue, forming a poetic ambiance. But in the eyes of the boy in “Nowhere” who likes to hang upside-down on a bar watching the city, one sees an emptiness and helplessness which reflect the make-believe and fragility of daydreams. In “Blind Sweet” many of the scenes are simple and natural that are a source of warmth to the heart. The image and film have become an indispensable part of Liang Yue’s life; the image has given her a memory that replaces reality, and this memory could make youthful life long-lasting.

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Light as Fuck – this could often be the social mentality of a period of fast economic growth when people are generally impetuous and impatient for success. Behind the successes are the different types of passionate, impulsive, short-term behaviour. In many of the work of Shanghai artists are in fact voices of criticism and judgement of this impetuous social psychology and impatient, opportunist behaviour.

The bloom of Shanghai’s economy will definitely intensify the urgency for urban cultural development. Shanghai contemporary art, at the peak of its advance towards diversity, has not only verified the outstanding imagination and the industrious spirit of innovation of its artists, but has also reflected the richness and complexity of the changing process taking place in contemporary Chinese society. Most of the artists at the centre of the storm have this clear in their minds – they have proved their professional attitude of rigidity and perseverance, but contemporary art has never been, and will not be a ‘light’ matter, for Rome was not built in one day.

Published in
Ed. Per Bjarne Boym, Gu Zhenqing
LIGHT AS FUCK!
Shanghai Assemblage 2000-2004
The National Museum of Art, Norway, 2004
(ISBN: 82-91727-17-1)

Related exhibition: Light as Fuck! Shanghai Assemblage 2000-2004