Poets with Cameras, again

A few months ago I wrote about Mo Mo’s abstract photography. I neglected to mention that Yang Xiaobin has been using a similar strategy in a micro-photo series, which is to say taking pictures of physical objects (walls, street pavement, and the like) at ultra-close range, blowing up the results to impossible-to-decipher vistas and them exhibiting them as abstract work. This he calls his “post-photography” or “Traces as Palimpsest,” as his first show of such work was subtitled. A palimpsest is a work of layers, with older text effaced, erased, destroyed or otherwise just faded from view, and a newer text inscribed upon it. When applied conceptually to the built environment, which Yang’s work seems to suggest (near I can make out)–the waves of development in Taiwan in this case but in fact anywhere the built environment is constrained enough to require constant re-development–we can see older structures exerting their presence in shadowy forms through the new, ghosts which haunt any optimistic attempt to assume that our physical surrounds are “here to stay” (and of course all ideological implications with-standing).

By the time the work reached the Jiaodu Abstract Art Gallery (角度抽象画廊) the series had taken on the more inscrutable name: Post-woundism (后伤口主义), leading with the following image:

Yang Xiaobin photography image

The “scar tissue” of contemporary life makes a certain amount of sense to me, but I’m not sure I exactly see it in this image (or at least its reproduction, which may indeed have lost something in translation).

Regardless, and now it looks as though Bei Dao has joined this particular fray (or just gang), with an exhibition in Hong Kong Museum’s Beijing branch in October last year of related work. The Poetry Foundation carried a report (from Global Times), with little more than announcing the fact that the exhibition took place.



The title,  “Nil Mirror” is reminiscent of the title of Bei Dao’s Landscape Over Zero, something which would suggest word-image convergence on some level. I can imagine a terrific group show of poet-photographers, particularly if combined with readings.

China Avant-garde, 意派, 莫言 and so forth

The title of this blog is China Avant-garde, and I rarely have occasion to return to the question of what that means. It was selected as something provocative, and I trust many, critics and lay-persons (myself) alike, would have questions concerning which ‘garde’ Chinese art could in any way be considered ‘avant’. My concern from the outset has also been with the ‘where’ more than the ‘when’ of the cutting edge, and set within a global frame, the presence of Chinese experimentalism, such that the experiment ceases to be “Chinese” at all, is a clear fact, but not of course clear that once the dust clears there will be a consensus that ex nihilo maneuvers of any given artist or even group of artists in China gave rise to something which could be located at the forefront of what comes next for people outside of the Chinese fold.


I have in mind two instances signaling the legitimacy of Chinese claims–not that any have been made necessarily–to leadership in the arena of global art. The first is the Arts Journal blog “The Great Flourishing,” created by SHEILA MELVIN & JINDONG CAI, a couple with a considerable amount of expertise in contemporary Chinese arts, particularly music. The position of the bloggers, and significance of the word “flourishing,” is the immanent (in progress) rise of cultural China to the global fore, something which will accompany China’s rise as economic and other power.


(image courtesy of jusdeananas)

The second instance is Gao Minglu’s (still relatively recent) publication:  Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art (MIT: 2011) wherein one finds an exhaustive exploration of what this term means in Chinese context. Gao’s work is a rare combination of lucid and exhaustive, a result of his having been both “there” in this historical-spatial sense (1989 China Avant-garde exhibition held in Beijing was curated by him), and diligent enough to have kept hard at work in the years since on documenting, commenting, curating, and in short thinking carefully about contemporary Chinese art.

It is this notion of representation’s relationship to ‘truth’ that has set the foundation for realism and conceptual art as well as abstract art, three vital domains in Western modern art. Therefore, modernism, postmodernism, the contemporary avant-garde, the historical avant-garde, and the neo-avant-garde, all these categories of Western art are, in fact, in pursuit of a real, authentic, original representation of the truth, either from the outside world or from inner thoughts, even though they may claim a deconstructive approach against conventional visual representation. It is just another extreme gesture in the pursuit of mimicry of truth. (354)

The problem, Gao goes on to explain clearly, is that China’s aesthetic tradition was never concerned with “truth” zhen .  Instead, the Chinese tradition, in Gao’s terminology, demonstrates continued respect for yi , or “something that comes from your mind.” This is a conceptually powerful line of distinction, particularly as we look forward to developments in Chinese art.  When the agent of art, the artist, is always in balance (or tension) with her context, be it external environmental, internal mental, combined physical/material or what not,  the conglomeration of factors is never mistaken for re-presented reality, just one person’s yi.  Full (or fuller) appreciation of this fact renders certain tried and true dichotomies common in the West, from truth/fiction, reality/fantasy to art versus politics unsatisfying as frames for understanding Chinese art, avant-garde or other. On the latter point there is assuredly no better example of this recently than the Mo Yan Nobel prize controversy. The Flourishing blog dispatches with this problem (or thought they did, way back on 11 October) thusly:

Mo has been criticized within China for being too close to the establishment; he is a recipient of the 2011 Mao Dun Literary Award and some interpret his writing as praising authoritarianism.   China’s Weibo is already alive with criticism of the choice – as would be the case no matter who won.  It seems fairer to say that Mo walks a fine line, does his best to stay true to himself as a writer, and, perhaps wisely, avoids the punditry circuit.  Indeed, his self-chosen name means “doesn’t speak.”

Yet, the questions and accusations (CCP propagandist) continue in numerous venues around the world. Too bad, too, as the Chinese artists (Mo Yan among them) deserve better than this.

Mo Mo the Abstract Photographer

Mo Mo 默默, Shanghai poet, arts organizer and editor of the highly influential journal Coquette 撒娇 has, like many other poets in recent years, taken to visual art. Mo’s chosen medium is photography, or “Abstract Photography,” one example of which:

The abstract can broadly be drawn into two (at least) categories, fundamentally distinguished by the absence or presence of a title. The title, it seems to me, brings the abstract work one or more steps closer to the figurative, to the articulable.

In Mo Mo’s case there are titles to his images, the above, for instance  有时候感觉自己有很多自己 (“sometimes I feel there are many selves of the self”). The question I wish to pose is: in the domain of visual-verbal intersection, does the poet have a kind of edge, a special knack or gift for negotiating the territorial overlap between the language, such as it is, of the mind’s eye and eye itself?  In that case, perhaps, we speak (?) more of synesthesiac harmonizing and less of communication, bridges, or other ferrying of some “thing.”  So what do the “many selves of the self” say visually? Truth is, not much to me at least.

But there is a visceral quality image itself, something almost delicious, or even luscious about this imagery. The harmony, in other words, is less with the words, than with an eye for elemental and material experience.

what we miss every day

In this instance we have  “每天,你错过了什么”  (What do we miss, day after day?). Here, by contrast to the image above, the hints of an urban scene, akin to Mo Mo’s Shanghai, enveloping built environment, figures subjected to warmth and light. What they “miss”? Again, unclear, though in this case apparitions amidst urban scape certainly not unfamiliar theme.


In the above image (世界大同后的第一个早晨), though, I find a more compelling vision. The “first morning after great harmony” is both soothing and unsettling, dynamic in idea and image. Technology is convened to a purpose here, a fact of production and a thematic element, the thing that “brings us all together,” for better or worse.

Abstract art/poetry in contemporary China

The question of abstraction hinges on the question legibility or intelligibility, with communication of visual idea divided semiotically between the semic and asemic forms of expression. Works can be plotted along a spectrum, and I am particularly interested in relationship between word art and visual art in this context. But before this, perhaps a reference to the very eloquent defense of the illegible or ‘asemic’ side of the spectrum, provided in this case by T.J. Clark who was writing in this case with regard to the innovation of Jackson Pollock:

What Pollok invented from 1947 to 1950 was a repertoire of forms in which previously marginalized aspects of self-representation –the wordless, the somatic, the wild, the self-risking, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled, the “existential” the beyond or before our conscious activities of mind—could achieve a bit of clarity, and get themselves a relatively stable set of signifiers

(T.J. Clark, Farwell to an Idea, 308)

Such a stable set of signifiers the like of which Clark describes has long been in existence in ink painting and calligraphy in China. I am reminded of  Zhang Xu 張旭 and Huai Su 懷素, two great Tang calligraphers whose works exhibit asemic qualities (in Zhang’s case often because he was just drunk enough to “stop making sense”).

Huai Su

Zhang Xu

In the contemporary era, the tradition continues, reinvigorated by by a century or so of modernist practice in the West, but fundamentally no departure from the eigth century. This brings me back to my (ever!) ongoing (contemporary) visible (Chinese) poetry project.  I am trying to work out a nexus of visuality, Chinese poetry, modernism, and contemporary Chinese aesthetics. A thorny mix, perhaps, but conveniently summed up in the following image by Li Zhan’gang 李占剛 .  Here Li is echoing the Chinese literary tradition in calligraphically performing a well-known poetic text in this case namely, “A Generation” 一代人 by Gu Cheng 顧城

First, the poem,


The dark night has given me darkened eyes And I use

   them to look for light

Next, the calligraphic execution of the poem by Li Zhan’gang:


the tradition of re-inscribing a well-known poem can now be introduced into the realm of contemporary poetry. It is now possible to “return” to that work, to borrow from yet another medium, and “harmonize” 2009 sentiment (when Li inscribed it) with the 1979 “original.”  This in effect gives legs to a now considerably more mobile visual-verbal tradition, one which evolves anew into the future precisely for its solid anchor in the past.

New Abstract exhibition


Zhang Jianjun 张健君

from Mindmap Exhibition, curated by Gao Minglu

Another exhibition of contemporary Chinese abstract art, this one at Pearl Lam in Hong Kong. The historical time frame provided in title (80s to the present) seems a more standard fixture of literature about Chinese abstract art, but Gao Minglu’s brief description on the website intriguingly suggests that the last 10 years have seen the substantive development (thus change) in abstract art in China. I’ll be following this exhibition to see what Gao suggests accounts for these changes.

Also, and not to pick on what looks an exciting exhibition, but what’s up with the name? The Pearl Lam website has Mindmap, but I find Mindspace elsewhere, as in Depauw advert below. *Anything goes* with “mind” ?

This exhibition of mixed media installations portrays a new realm of artistic expression.  Mind Space introduces 4 Chinese abstract artists who convey the concept of “Maximalism” to a global audience.  Maximalism is a term coined by curator Dr. Gao Minglu, one of the world’s leading scholars of Chinese contemporary art.  Maximalism expresses the meditative mind of the abstract artist during the creation process, emphasizing the spiritual experience of art-making.  The creations of Zhu Jinshi, Zhang Yu, Lei Hong, and He Xiangyu are a dialogue between artist and nature, an inventive response to a rapidly changed material world.

Zhang Yu
Scroll Fingerprint, 2008
Ink on Xuan paper
Courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries, Shanghai, China

More abstract, still (World Art 世界艺术 View)

Feeling somewhat slow on the uptake, having only now noticed that World Art 世界艺术  had already done a “Special Edition of Chinese Abstract Art” in 2008. World Art, edited by Xu Liang 徐亮, brought in He Guiyan 何桂彦 as guest curator, and the issue is spectacular assemblage of recent abstract expressionist work by Chinese artists. There are 43 artists profiled, and the issue, at 232 handsome pages, provides an indepth view of the state of (this) art in China. Also profitably, the issue is divided thematically, with the following categories: Trace to the source 溯源, Gaze 凝视, Retrospect 回顾, Discussion 探讨, Cases 个案, Dialogue 对话, Master 名家, and Prospect 展望 . The work concludes with a chronology.

The sense one gets looking through such an assemblage of abstract art is one of freedom, letting ourselves go across the pages of abstract expression (nearly entirely painting) in contemporary China. We are drawn in because we are not distracted by form, rebuffed by representation. Yet in this process are we closer or farther away from “Chinese reality,” the site of accelerated change? Is it possible to see into Chineseness if what we see is in fact unidentifiable as such?

In any event and in combination with LEAP 12 (December, 2011), the contemporary critical attention to the question of non-representational art in China has been significant. The LEAP exploration is on the whole more contemporary than the World Art, which includes more scholarly attention to historical development of abstraction in Chinese visual art, as well as targeted regional focus (Shanghai, Taipei, etc).  The problem for both, nonetheless (and if one is inclined to think in terms of “problems”) lies in eternal questions of space and time, the “where” of a Chinese abstract art, and the when, on the “heels” of Other abstract expressions. As one of the LEAP author avers: “Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, we will see the abstractionism of China today as something akin to American Abstract Expressionism.” (THE BAMBOO CURTAIN: THREE AESTHETIC CONCEPTUALIZATIONS OF ABSTRACT ART /TEXT: PO HUNG / TRANSLATION: DANIEL NIEH) But, is this possible?

I think it is. But even to say so doesn’t produce much.  What I think the abstract conversation produces is a context wherein we push further with the very language of description of art phenomena in Chinese context.