Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Search for Truth . . . Promote Socialism"

Detail, Slogan 7 by Zhang Dali.

Striking the eyeballs like so many of those infamous hammers-with-iron-sickle, these ideograms form a static compositional grid. Baffled—with my face hovering a mere breath's distance from the vinyl surface—I attempted to "read" from left to right, and, quickly realizing my predictable, "amateur" error, I tried again vertically.1

But… I was still missing the point. Yes, the paintings are made of Chinese characters. (Each line spells out a slogan of Communist propaganda.) I realized, though, that the most dominant visual element here is the background void of solid black.

And this is what the full image looks like. What a sad, sad little boy... Zhang Dali opened his Slogans series at Kiang Gallery last Friday.

The color black. All other shades of value, including subdued hints of blue and brown, are contained, exclusively, within the tiny brushstrokes of Zhang Dali's lettering. What a potent statement: the figure can only be seen through the intermediary of state ideology.

We can only express our opinions with the vocabulary we're given:
PRACTICING GOOD MANNERS LEADS TO A BEAUTIFUL LIFE
PROMOTE SOCIALISM AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF A HARMONIOUS SOCIETY
And you don't have to experience the Cultural Revolution to sympathize. Just turn on the radio—the talking points repeat themselves over and over. Simply replace a single party with two.

Slogan A.4, on the other hand, has slightly more color.

The content interests me, but I'm more inclined to treat these as a study of the human mark. Names like Chuck Close come to mind. While the grave subject matter demands an unfortunately limited color palette, the meticulous labor that went into each stroke does make the in-gallery experience more meaningful than simply viewing these photographs.

I'm reminded of Jonathan's thoughts on Local Ephemera about the significance of "duplicating text by hand." I'm still chewing on the question.

So begins "My Self-Education in Beijing Artists," Part 1…

Navy/Army/Airforce by Shen Jingdong (photo taken at China Square's exhibit booth at Art Santa Fe). Click for closeups of each panel: Navy, Army, and Airforce.

Compare Zhang's disciplined sobriety to Sheng Jingdong. Like the tarnished backside of a silvered mirror, Zhang shows us the emotional reality beneath the shiny surface. His portraits are a far cry from those well-fed, beaming faces of yesteryear. But Sheng's military renderings (above) have their own subversive charm. Those deadpan, bubblegum colors can't be serious.

Is this a generational difference between artists? Or simply a stylistic choice? I have so many questions. For example…

Demolition: Time Plaza Beijing, 1999. Reminds me of Banksy's "transparent" designs on the Israeli West Bank barrier.

Why does Chinese art cost so much?

Zhang made a name for himself creating activist graffiti in Beijing. These profile silhouettes (above) marked buildings slated for demolition, drawing public attention to the effects of "progress" on the city's anatomy.

Touted as "the only graffiti artist in Beijing" during the early 90s, Zhang's pseudonym was "AK-47." The tag appears in one of the Kiang Gallery pieces, repeating like a deadly postmodern sutra over some poor child's face.

But now Zhang's framed Slogan pieces sell for $52,000 each…


Of course, everyone's favorite graffiti artist, Banksy, just broke the $500,000 mark last year. His Space Girl and Bird (above) sold for "only" 288,000 pounds, roughly $576,000. However, that still doesn't put "the Beijing trend" into perspective.

I suppose I shouldn't consider it a serendipity that, less than a month after the Beijing Olympics, ARTNews magazine's cover story this month focuses on China's art market. To illustrate some of the recent incredible leaps in value, Barbara Pollack cites the case of Zheng Fanzhi: "Five years ago his works sold for under $50,000. Today he commands prices on the primary market closer to $1 million."2

Zhang's Chinese Offspring, an installation meditating the plight of migrant labor. Click here for a detail. Zhang's range is impressive; he completed this two-year sculptural series in 2005 before moving on to other media.

I don't mean to challenge Zhang's integrity. I just don't want to live in a world where the sex appeal of "graffiti" outstrips the word's credibility. And though I can certainly see the value of individual Chinese artists, the recent lust for "anything Beijing" should be treated for what it is: a trend.

---

1 I don't speak or read Chinese. Fortunately, technology amplifies my normal powers of deduction. The repetitions in Slogan 7 seem to indicate horizontal orientation. Slogan 13, judging by the placement of key words 社会主义 (Socialism) and 十七大 (the shortened name of the 17th National Congress), reads vertically, although from the bottom to the top instead of what you'd expect. The choices vary according to aesthetic. Correct me if I'm wrong…

2 Pollack's article is an excellent resource, especially for the illustrations in the print edition. It saves me the trouble. : )

20 comments:

littlejoke said...

Am I missing the point or is it just that the price point is so much higher? Adjusted for inflation, it seems like the previous arrival of the American graffitists turned graffiti into five and six figure art many years ago, and more than once in the cycles of the art world. Graffiti has long been a point of entry into high-cost hipness and the world of being able to buy Italian suits.

troylloyd said...

excellent posting Jeremy.

big ups for nibtip skills w/ that opening line, hammer to head/sickle to sight.

i dig the open honesty, baffled; but yr working thru that bafflement is what good
art-writing makes.

i enjoy such close readings of art, not only illuminating/alternate-viewing the specific artworks in question, but also aiding in future investigation when engaged facewith & "how to look at art".

i kinda dig how the graffiti guerillas are gaining viability/respect/fashionability & i dig thr public operations as one of the most radical attempts at shifting focus from trad-gallery artworld to streets of the "real world". who knows how the crucial pissoir-urinal of this century will be plumb'd? the future of art-history always in the making, w/ the population explosion of the creative class doing everything everywhere combined w/ the alloverness of worldwidewebs has given us greater breadth --

but the money?
serious.
velocity of economics.
who makes the market?

almost appearing as if capitalism is about to collapse, dash'd, social realism realizes subjective certainty.

Jeremy Abernathy said...

Thanks Troy. I really hoped that this post would read that way--as an attempt to work through some problems inspired by a show. I was worried that it'd be taken as a passive aggressive shot at the artist, which is not what I intended. By the by, Troy, what is "social realism?"

And Jerry: maybe I *am* showing a bit of my naivete... you're right--the "graffiti track" into upscale fine art galleries is a mold that's been created and followed many times already. I don't think it hurts to reexamine the formula, though, even if there's little new insight to be found.

troylloyd said...

what is "social realism?"

well, officially the term can be summ'd up via wiki as:
social realism

Not to be confused with Real socialism or Socialist realism

& it was the Communist stuff that trigger'd that association & in paricular how effective the inversion of propaganda can be, esp. when in deft clever hands,e.g.: John Heartfield

but the term "social realism" is a bit over-generalizing, eh? like it could apply to the Ashcan school or the WPA murals or any number of other things it seems, but whatever it is, it's always more appealing to me when view'd & produced thru the lens of a subjective individual as opposed to that of a State apparatus.

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