Shao Yiyang: I see, I am seen, I see I am seen – Three Cases of Visual Cultural Study in Contemporary Art (Part II)
Early in the 4th Biennial of Contemporary Art in Berlin in 2006, Sehgal was the focus in the art circles for his performance of human bodies “Kiss”. In an open museum, a couple of dancers were hugging each other, kissing and caressing. Posing in various postures, to imitate the master pieces of a similar theme in the history of art, such as the Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the same name created in 1889, Constantin Brâncuşi’s sculpture of the same name in 1908, a series of nude paintings by Gustave Courbet in the 1960s, Klimt’s painting of the same name in 1907-1908, Jeff Koons and his wife’s performance of sex acts “Made in Heaven, 1990-1991”. [When the audience entered the room, the actress cried: ‘Tino Sehgal’, actor said “Kiss”. About an hour later, another couple entered the room to imitate the actions of the previous performers, while the former couple left one minute later, leaving the latter to continue the performances. This work was exhibited for eight hours a day, lasting six weeks.] The actor and actress were wearing normal clothes, uninterrupted they performed it time after time in a very slow speed, and never felt shy in front of prying eyes, while the audience was embarrassed that their identities as observer were exposed in public. “Kiss” is like a hymn of love, at the moment of watching it, our sensory experience from the visual perception beyond the ideological awareness.
Since the Enlightenment era, rationalism, represented by Kant, particularly advocated the pursuit of personal feelings, believing that, through the pursuit of romantic love, it was possible to release individuals from the various social shackles of religion, morals, materialism, and standards, to gain spiritual freedom. Furthermore, Foucault thought the pursuit of sexual freedom was an important way to rid social constraints and to practice self-liberation. [Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of Care of the Self as a Practice of Freedom” (1984), in The Final Foucault, eds. James Bernauer and David Rasmussen, Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1988, p. 3.] Foucault used the process of pursuit to question the outcome which was sought by rationalists. He once said: “I don’t know whether we can reach maturity.” [Foucault, “What is Enlightenment,”? (“Qu'est-ce que les Lumières?”), in Rabinow ed., The Foucault Reader, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p. 49.] For Foucault, freedom was not only a term, used to describe a way beyond the restrictions imposed by society and others, but also a never-ending practice. Its purpose was not to overcome the constraint and limitations, but to continue to test them. Even though we might break some personal bondage, to achieve a certain degree of freedom at this stage, we can’t be fully liberated yet, because freedom is not a fixed state.
Different from any works of the same name in history, Sehgal’s “Kiss” refused to attempt to beautify and freeze the romantic moment, instead, it freely interspersed in daily life. The couple, dressed in casual wear, slowly moving, with a denial of vent up excessive passion, subtle physical contact between the two bodies, like a reproduction of a Hollywood movie in the 1930s, or the “action” sculpture in the 1970s, [For “Action Sculptures” and body art, please see Shao Yiyang “Beyong Postmodern”, publisher: Peking University Press, page 65.], but their intimate actions conveyed an endless feeling of love. With the use of an ordinary performance, Sehgal broke the locked and fixed viewpoint, to record the physical and mental experiences which were difficult to retain in memory, transient, immersed in a romantic feeling, to note that it was the same with the pursuit of freedom, the pursuit of love from the bottom of spirituality was born innately and never ceasing.
Sehgal integrated the art of the human body, ideas, performances and music, to go beyond the general scope of performance and dance. He constructed the “situation”, which was funny, weird, but attractive. In the Venice Biennale 2005, Sehgal invited the museum staff to suddenly face the audience, dancing and singing loudly “This is so contemporary!” In his solo exhibition held in The Tate Gallery of Modern Art, UK, the “interpreters” discussed personal life experiences together with the audience. There was no objective subject, no material, no value of commodity circulation, the artist hoped to take the most basic living proof including body, language, voice, etc., against the growing proliferation of commercial art trends. Driven by the biennial mechanism and investment market, contemporary art circles are unprecedented in being active and full of appeal during the two decades, meanwhile, it is like the economic world filled with inflationary bubbles. Like many prescient artists, as early as the 20th century before the economic downturn, Sehgal seemed to have foreseen: It is nothing but a myth that constantly-heated-up contemporary art and the overheated investment markets.
As Sehgal’s works depended on the interpretation of media and communication, this strategy was also questioned by many people. Artists were afraid to be exploited by the alternative marketing strategies, while ordinary spectators were often afraid to become a laughingstock in the complex game designed by the artist. However, Sehgal’s works raised the criticism to a practical issue at least, exposing the invisible and invisible levels in life, noting the so-called “trap of visibility” of Foucault.
[Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, New York, 1995, 200]
“Visible” or “Invisible” ? – Visible? – Sui Jianguo’s “Absolute Darkness”
Sui Jianguo’s “One Cubic Meter of Absolute Darkness” (2012) exposes an absolute dark invisible world. In the Guangzhou Triennial in 2012, Sui created a back cube box by steel sheets. It was exaggerated when laid on the ground, attracting people’s attention, when one curiously looked into the single small hole, nothing was seen, because the inside of the big iron box was dark. Involuntarily, people were disappointed with curiosity, people were in awe, fearful, and even hated the black box. The darkness nearby seemed so deep and thick, what kind of “reality” it actually hide? It seemed that the detained “reality” would never be known, but firmly and eternally blocked by six sheets of steel. Even if our eyes pierced the plates, into the interior space, we could not see the insider yet, the reality that covered the inside remained invisible, unknowing.
Darkness is possible to not only to block our sight, but also block any perception of this world. Do we really see the “darkness” itself? Poet Gu Cheng said: “The night gives me black eyes, but I use it to pursue light.”
“Even if we have lived in the darkness, even if our naive eyes have been deceived and polluted by the “night”, as long as there is a light, even if it is weak, it allows us gradually to perceive the presence of darkness, and ultimately the oppression of darkness. Standing in the brightness, the artist firmly captures a darkness and puts it into the iron cube, it is impossible to probe and escape from it.
Sui has also produced some similar works such as “Tension of Movement” and “The Limited Power”. In September 2009, when the “Tension of Movement” exhibition was held in Today Art Museum, along with the walls, the artist customized a giant steel shelf of circular pipes, where the rolling steel ball struck the pipes with the help of gravity, to produce a big sound that filled the exhibition hall. Meanwhile, the two iron balls of 230 cm and 360 cm diameter rolled on the ground, which also produced a force of “threat” to the audience, during the entire exhibition process, all the audiences fell into the huge sounds from the walls, and felt attacked, squeezed by the huge rolling iron balls, which were mandatory and created a violent sense of participation, allowing people to experience the common feelings of life: depression and anxiety produced by being exhausted, threatened, controlled by social mechanisms.
In 2011, Shanghai Art Museum featured “The Limited Power” which is an extended version. In the closed iron box, whose internal structure could not been seen, but through the deafening sound people would imagine and speculate that there was an “invisible” monster hitting back and forth inside. Iron box gives people an impression that: the iron curtain or black box is strong and cold. The huge iron ball in the black box symbolizes the imprisoned struggle, or the brute force of the darkness? Facing the black box and the hidden force, we might not know what to do, except for panic and even despair. However, if we can see it, clearly understanding its existence, we might have a greater strength to face it, and even compete with them.
In the process of exploring the “invisible” logic, “One Cubic Meter of Absolute Darkness” furthermore proved this more than the previous works did. It has also withdrawn the auditory perception, to more thoroughly reveal the darkness itself – the “invisible” reality. It prompts us to consider the limited and temporary nature of the “visible”, while warning us the “invisible” danger, or the terrible aspect of being blinded. As Foucault observed: Our vision was always influenced by the structure of social power, that was the panopticon model, and the more relatively centralized the social form was, whether a political centralization or an economic one, the more stringent the monitoring mode was, the lower the social visibility was, the more subjectivity people missed, the more narrow the vision was, the more narrow the thinking was, often seeing nothing but an illusory scam. [Ibid.]
In our history, there are countless events that should be recorded but are not recorded; numerous facts have been distorted, a variety of memories which shouldn’t be forgotten, are blotted out; many “confidential”, “inside” news are gradually publicly, decrypted, and there are a variety of hidden facts coming out of the original black hole, thrilling. Such things have not only happened in a particular historical period, but are also happening right now, very close to us. How much can we see? What blinds our eyes? Who spies on us? How great is our social visibility after all? Darkness symbolizes ignorance and stupidity, while the significance of enlightenment is to give our minds a beam of light, so that we have enough wisdom for insight into the darkness, to explore the brightness.
To be continued…