the back side of the eye

It is one of the ironies of a human life that we experience history not chronologically, but through the cultural present. This is especially true in the arts, where although painting had historically preceded photography, nevertheless most of us saw and took photographs before having seen a painting, whether oil or ink.

Moreover, with the increasing availability of digital images, there is now a generation who has probably first encountered photographic images on a cellphone or computer screen, before contemplating an actual, printed photograph, let alone having viewed a painting. Irrespective of the fact that in point of fact ink painting preceded oil painting, which in turn arose before the invention of photography, in my personal experience, the history of the image has been: photograph, oil painting, ink painting, and then digital image. Other experiential histories are also possible: digital image, photograph, ink painting, and then oil painting.

The Back Side of the Eye, a creative collaboration between photographer Martin Zeller and painter Vai Keng Sou (苏惠琼) reproduces and challenges our experiential history and culture of the image. On the one hand, the production of the images for the series reproduces experiential history, moving from the most recent image technologies toward increasingly distant (and thus increasingly shocking) techniques. Zeller’s digital photographs of Berlin winter landscapes were first viewed on a small camera screen and manipulated on a computer before being printed on rice paper; only then Sou added interpretive brushstrokes. Thus, their creative process itself formulates a question for the era: how do we bring cultural tradition into dialogue with industrial modernity?

On the other hand, viewing the images requires that the photographic and ink elements be engaged concurrently, as elements of a given whole, such that the object itself holds in tension two different aesthetics, which in turn, point to the ways in which human consciousness fabricates past and present out of experience. Indeed, the simultaneous presentation of a past created through digital photography and a past created through ink painting interrupts our appreciation of the image as an example of photography or ink painting. Consequently the result of Sou and Zeller’s collaboration reframes the question of productive process into one of receptive consumption, allowing us to ask: how might bringing cultural tradition into dialogue with industrial modernity enable viewer’s to otherwise engage what-has-been?

Consider, for example, the image “Uncertain Extension”. The underlying photograph is of a swathe of snow-covered trees and, in the background, a line of boxy housing, which evokes the streamlined precision of Cold War modernism. On top of this bleak stillness, Sou has overlaid a clouded spirit, muffled ink smear and trapped purple cloud. The image forces us to engage two past moments simultaneously, the hyper detailed what-has-been of the photograph and the ephemeral what-has-been of Chinese ink painting.

The enigma of a photograph is that a past moment – ‘captured’ on film, we say – is a product of a technological intervention, but is treated as a replica of what-has-been. In fact, no human eye sees the world with the same precision as revealed in a photograph, where details retrospectively emerge to be seen and having-been-seen, to be contemplated. Thus, in “Uncertain Extension”, as viewers note the pattern formed through the delicate wrap of snow on every branch and the rigid precision of housing blocks, we become increasingly sensitive to the atomized materiality of a winter’s day. At the same time, however, Sou’s boneless brushstrokes blur and activate the immobility imposed by photographic accuracy, enabling us to reconsider the psychological what-has-been of winter, not as snow white austerity, but rather as a time of dark sedimentation, of thick ink absorbed by paper already reshaped by printing.

Walter Benjamin asserts that the dialectical value of images, especially photographic images is that they create an analytic space in which to reconsider what has happened, “For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.” In contrast, Zhang Daqian scholar, Pai Tsung Jen (白宗仁) defines the yixiang (意象) of an ink painting outside of history, in terms of the intersection between interior and exterior realities, “創作者主觀意識(意),與外在客觀物象(象)”. In other words, the photographic what-has-been intentionally distances the viewer from the past, while the ink what-has-been purposefully sutures the viewer to the past.

Within their respective traditions, both photography and ink painting denote a particular moment in space and time. However, they emphasize different aspects of that moment. Photography makes the what-has-been relentlessly material, flattened into surfaces that can be endlessly reconsidered. In contrast, ink painting creates yixiang (意象), a sense of being in the world that is shared by both the artist and the viewer. Consequently, the juxtaposition of artistic techniques destabilizes the viewer’s culturally intuitive sense of the nature of what-has-been. Is what-has-been as meticulously concrete as represented in Zeller’s photography? Or is what-has-been as fluidly transient as realized through Sou’s brushstrokes?

The Sou and Zeller collaboration reminds us that although the dialectical contours of the what-has-been may be created and experienced through techniques such as photography and ink painting, nevertheless we use these techniques to make value judgments about what it means to contemplate the past. This is important because how we create the past and its relationship to the present defines who we are as historically and culturally situated people. For Benjamin, photographic pasts were deployed to critique an unjust present. For the ancient literati, ink brushed pasts recorded continuities between external and internal worlds, past and present.

Unlike Benjamin or Pai Tsung Ren, however, we live in an era where although digital images have gone global, nevertheless aesthetic conventions for understanding the relationship between the what-has-been and the present are radically different between  historical generations, let alone different cultures. We need different ways of thinking about the past in order to create a common present. The images brought together in The Back of the Eye beautifully hold the contradictory tension between pasts we create through modern technology and the pasts we create through more ancient forms of human creativity, offering one model for using art to bridge our different approaches to the past.

Their most recent collaboration New Gardens will be exhibited at the Goethe Institut Hong Kong, November 13 through December 18, 2012.

anxious masses: Thinking about Gu Wenda´s Ink Alchemy

Yesterday at the opening for experimental ink artist Gu Wenda, I was struck by the unfolding of scale in his work. His early work could be completed by one person. There were large paintings, like Surreal Horizon (超现实地平线) or images from Lost Empires (遗失的王朝) but nevertheless the actual works themselves conformed to a human-sized world as I have come to know it. I felt myself and the art to be at the same scale. Indeed, often I was larger than the pieces and some, like the Red Heart Series (红心系列) of seals on small, abstract ink paintings, I could hold in my hand. However the later work, such as the Ink Alchemy Series (水墨炼金术系列 – above image) was large scale industrial. As such, these pieces could not be completed by any one person or even by a group of people working with their hands. Instead, the artist became both an industrial designer and an organizer of human labor and machines over time.

Made entirely of died braids of human hair, Gu Wenda’s most recent installation Black Gold (黑金)  fills the entire OCT Art Terminal. In the middle of the cavernous room, a large rectangle of ink powder lies flat beneath a canopy of black braids. To the left and right of the canopy, evenly spaced sections of died braids hang from ceiling to floor in fine, delicate loops. The installation is deceptively simple – blocks of color shimmering neatly beneath gallery lights. However, Black Gold took three years (2008-2010) to complete and thinking about what would be necessary to complete such a project left me feeling both frightened and exhilarated. Frightened because I imaged thousands of woman, who had given several years of their lives to grow their hair, scalped to make an epic statement. Exhilarated because the level of coordinated precision needed to execute Black Gold spoke to me of how one might go about representing Chinese society – massive blocks that from a distance seem a well-organized whole, but which upon closer inspection dissolve into idiosyncratic anonymity.

Neatness or tidiness (整齐) of large groups or objects is one of the mass aesthetic values that I have had difficulty appreciating. Not that I don´t enjoy watching several thousands of people making the same motion at precisely the same time, but when I think about the level of work that is necessary to achieve such precision, I feel the same anxiety that I felt upon seeing Black Gold. Several examples of mass coordination come to mind: military marching, classrooms full of Chinese students taking tests over and over and over again to prepare for the gaokao, highways full of cars, miles of grazing pasture in the American West and wheat fields in the Mid. Massive, national bureaucracies. Each of these instances of mass coordination exemplifies the human potential to submit to external hierarchies that take sameness and repetition to be the signs of unity and belonging.

And here´s the rub: one what?

Military marching and mass test-taking provide living metonyms for the modern, industrial state. Nevertheless, these mass exercises also remind me of feudal traditions, in which being born into oneś place enabled large societies to hold their form for generations. In other words, for many to become one, for each to find her ¨place¨ takes a lifetime of practice. This taking one´s place in a larger order is natural insofar as to be human is to belong to various groups of various sizes. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is the whole point of education – helping young people figure out how to inhabit diverse sets of coordinated relationships.

The anxiety I feel when thinking about Black Gold, specifically and mass coordination, more generally has to do with the means and goals of mass practices. Military marching, mass test-taking, driving on the highway, planting acres of wheat: each of these practices takes an abstract idea of what it means to be human and imposes it on the diversity of the world, creating conditions of idiosyncratic anonymity. Moreover, these practices aren´t particularly healthy. Armies go to war, Chinese students become test-taking machines, carbon monoxide kills as do the pesticides necessary to maintain wheat fields.

In contrast, if there is such a ¨one¨ out there, I’m Buddhist enough to believe that the point is to create conditions of mutual recognition. Creative collaboration rather than mass coordination, so to speak. I’m not sure what this means in terms of reorganizing nations or highway systems or college entrance requirements. Yet I trust the process. When I take the time to understand each of my students, something happens between us. And that state of sharing between – elusive, delicate, and quite beautiful – could transform mass culture in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Gu Wendaś Ink Alchemy retrospective is currently up at the He Xiangning Museum of Art and the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. Worth a visit.