Zhao Shaoruo’s work, or, does solipsistic representation parody Mao’s cult of personality?

Visited the Wutongshan Culture Highland with friends, Jonathan and Gigi; resident artist director, Ryan Mitchell showed us the site. Of note, Zhao Shaoruo’s (赵少若) solipsistic exhibition in which he appears as every character in every painting and image. In addition to pieces in which he has substituted his face for Mao’s, Zhao has also produced work in the name of a variety of others, ranging traditional Chinese through Jews to insects. Telling, the only time that others appear in Zhao’s work, they do so as an extreme end of a continuum in which Zhao’s features are blended with his other.

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Solipsists argue that the idea that only one’s own mind exists, that knowledge outside one’s own mind is unsure, or that only one’s own mind exists. Zhao’s relentless substituting his own face for those of others reminds us that extreme forms of solipsism are brutally pathological; I exist therefore you cannot. Indeed, in a 2004 artist statement, Zhao makes philosophical and epistemological claims about the solipsistic nature of human understanding, placing narcissistic experience at the heart of artistic creativity:

In my opinion, photographs that concretely reflect a particular place and time are like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal: manufactured goods and nothing more. I believe that a photograph bears a connection to me after I look at it and use it. Its verisimilitude, or lack thereof, is secondary; the important thing is my own appearance or my feeling that I am already there – this is enough. When I preserve original, concrete times and places and simply delete the people and things present, my goal is not to stress or voice respect for reality; it is precisely the opposite, to criticise and thoroughly deny historical truth. .

In his introduction to the show, Highland founder, Zhang Yufang (张雨方) referred to Zhao’s work as “恶搞,” which was translated as “manipulation”, but might also understood as “to parody” and literally combines the characters for “evil” and “do or make”. Wherein the “parody” of Zhao’s show? Precisely in linking various flavors of solipsism through Maoist images. The substitution of Zhao’s face for that of his interlocutor does reveal the brutality in personality cults. Indeed, without the sociological context of the Cultural Revolution, the show’s edge gets lost in the narcissistic urge to deny any historical truth except for one’s apperception.

In contrast, the title for Zhao’s Highland show, “I am the Wutong Mountain, the Wutong Mountain is Me” seemingly cites both Daoist and Buddhist – “traditional” – understandings of emptiness, where no distinctions between self and other exist. In his artist statement, Zhao also elaborates on similarities between his artistic practice and Buddhist understandings of emptiness.

As I encounter something in a photograph, I draw it. If I encounter a man, I am a man. If I encounter a woman I change myself into a woman. If I encounter old people, I become old, and if I encounter young people, I become young like them. If my partner is fat, I naturally grow fat too; if my partner is homosexual, I become like him (her). Who are you? Who am I? Who are we! You are me, I am you; there are millions of people, and there are millions of me. All in all, I am everywhere and nowhere; I am everything and nothing; I am everyone and everyone is me; the Buddha is me and I am the Buddha; God is in heaven and I am below ground – but the earth is in a remote place in the universe, and heaven is very big! If people ask: ‘Where is God?’ I reply that perhaps he is far away in the sky, or right in front of our eyes, or perhaps he is even me.

And yet.

Comparison of the Show’s title with the poem, “Sitting Alone at Jingting Mountain (独坐敬亭山)” by Li Bai (李白) reveals the way in which Daoist and Buddhist ideas of emptiness are antithetical to linguistic conventions of “I am”. Instead, the point of practice is to extinguish discriminating consciousness.

众鸟高飞尽,孤云独去闲;相看两不厌,只有敬亭山

A flock of birds has vanished high above, a solitary cloud has gone to play; Looking at each other without growing tired, there is only Jingting Mountain.

In Li Bai’s poem, the perspective or voice of the poet residually creates a sense of self; “I” am implied in the mutual viewing and in the next line “I” am completed in union with Jingting Mountain. However, the character for “I” does not appear in the poem. Likewise, Daoist and Buddhist paintings identify the viewer and the viewed by representing only the other, rather than displacing the other with images of oneself. Moreover, in Daoist or Buddhist aesthetics one does not sign the mountain (as Zhao signs several natural objects in his oil paintings). Rather, the mountain occupies the self. It is enough to say “Wutong Mountain”. Adding “I am” is therefore not simply redundant, it marks the moment of violent distinction between self and other that permeates Zhao’s work and allows for the substitution of the self for the other.

I don’t know if Zhao Shaoruo’s work parodies Mao’s cult of personality. I do think, however, that the distress I felt when viewing his work is usefully cautionary. As Zhao’s images of imperial China suggest, the urge to annihilate the other has existed historically and cross-culturally; as his images of insects remind us, our current relationship with non-human others is violently imperial. The point is not to ease our loneliness by annihilating the other. The point is to find a way to co-exist beyond who we think we are.

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