Friday, January 2, 2009

The Exquisite Corpse, China Surreal

I'm trying to wrap up all those leftover 2008 project entries before we get too far into 2009. "The Exquisite Corspe, China Surreal" is a show I recently curated along with m97 Gallery in Shanghai. It is an exhibition of photographs from Chinese artists and photographers that describe the surreality of this here country. It started out as an attempt to recycle an older exhibition but just expanded and expanded... some 40 artists later... The critics loved it. The Chinese version of Art Forum, listed it as a Critic Pick... totally unbeknownst to me, I swear That's Shanghai said "Every now and then an exhibition pops up to remind us that there is more to curating than simply hanging pictures on walls. Such is the case with Exquisite Corpse... Outstanding!" Furthermore 艺术当代 Art Contemporary magazine asked me to further float my boat by writing a curator's statement for their magazine. Here it is below.

"poetry must be made by all and not by one." - Comte de Lautréamont

According to legend, and the reasonable trickling down of historical record, the Exquisite Corpse was born around a table of poets and artists in France, 1925. Amongst this flamboyant group was the painter Yves Tanguy, the poets Andre Breton and Jacques Prevert. The game was a variation of an old parlor pastime and began as a way to fill the blanks of what was usually a lively discussion. Among the topics often discussed by these young intellectuals, who were already disillusioned by the so-called progress of a relatively young modern era, were the writings of Freud. Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis, dream interpretation and other explorations of the human subconscious helped these characters to foster the Surrealist movement. Surrealism was thought of as “a means toward the total liberation of the mind and of everything that resembles it…" , It was the mind that ruled reality, they suspected, and yet the mind itself was a deep mystery. While each of the original Exquisite Corpse players were involved in their own independent explorations of the mind at the time, the game relied on the group to collectively disrupt any sense of rationality in the world.

The game was played in an improvisational, lighthearted way and the rules were simple. A phrase was written on a piece of paper; folded to conceal most of its content and then passed onto the next player. Using the exposed word as a departure point the next player would continue to write. That player would then conceal most of his text and pass the paper along until everyone had completed his or her turn. In the end the unfolded paper would divulge the abstract sum of the players’ contributions. As the story goes one of the first rounds of the game produced the results, “The exquisite/corpse/will drink/the young/wine” and hence the name of the game. The sentence’s strange evocation was a utility of its contradictoriness. It was a complete, random chance that brought these words together. "Corpse" implied death; "young wine," fresh life. The beginning and end were united, and the polarized associations of each word came together like unlikely lovers. The strange, often nonsensical results that the game yielded delighted the participants who thought them to reveal the "unconscious reality in the personality of the group" or the group’s collective subconscious. Max Ernst identified these subconscious outcomes as the result of the process called "mental contagion." Not only did this activity help to reap strange collaborative possibilities but it also proved to be one of art history’s first flirtations with undermining the traditional concept of the independent author and thus helped to usher in the era of post modernity.

The game was soon adapted to the visual realm and included freeform drawing, collage as well as a version that left each player to imagine the human figure in its component parts of head, torso, waist, legs and feet. André Breton spoke of these games as "…the most fabulous source of unfindable images…" Some of the better-known players of this game were Jacques Hérold, Yves Tanguy and Victor Brauner whose renditions exposed, like psychotherapy itself, the participant’s subconscious sexual desires and perversions. Since its inception The Exquisite Corpse went on to take on many other forms including film, sculpture and theatre, each producing endless associations and collaborative possibilities. The influence of the Exquisite Corpse and other Surrealist modes of expression still persist in contemporary culture; China’s visual arts are no exception.

In 21st century China there is a surfeit of surrealistic inspiration that artists have and continue to draw upon. Rapid sociocultural transition in conjunction with extreme economic and psychical transformations has left a plethora of loopy phenomena and ideological fusions throughout the country. The undeniable psychological toll of nonstop “reform” mixed with an influx of outside influences and an increasingly conflicting economic and generational divide have made for some interesting conditions. Standing in the wake of these changes artists have attempted to deduce what little sense might be made from their metamorphosing environment. Photography, traditionally used as a tool to record social change, has been employed by many of these artists as a way to render the affects that these changes have had upon them. In the exhibition Exquisite Corpse, China Surreal an eclectic array of photographic work by artists of different generations and backgrounds expose the “mental contagion” in today’s China. It is a contagion whereby culture, tradition, the body and imagination have all been hijacked by rapid transformation.

Inevitably, artists working within the same environment have drawn similar conclusions. Many artists’ works unintentionally inform, influence and question one another’s. One need not look too hard to see shared influences and themes throughout China’s visual arts. However, the links between these autonomous works and the potential sum of their total equation is what interested us most as curators. In composing this exhibition the question of how to explore the imaginary possibilities of a collective subconscious in the context of today’s China became the key issue.

While the works in the exhibition weren’t the result of a group activity, like the original Exquisite Corpse had been, they were chosen for their inherently surrealistic content. As the entire exhibition formed a delicately composed sequence of non-sequiturs each of the works themselves presented an independent enigma to contemplated. Hong Lei’s “I Dreamt I was Hanging Upside Down While Listening to Emperor Song Huizong Play Guqin with Chairman Mao”, a digitally composited image that shows a man dangling upside down from a tree while an ensemble of historical figures play musical instruments, is a surreal composition in itself that evokes a compounded sense of history and the artist’s own dream life. But pair this image with Mao Yu’s “Tree of Man” which shows six figures wrapped in red blankets hanging like pods from a tree while below the artist himself lays face up, naked and the Exquisite Corpse begins. As a series of stand-alone subconscious expressions each work in this exhibition is linked to the next by visual or conceptual themes, sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit, to produce one communal Exquisite Corpse.

Some of the artists have constructed neurotic testimonies to the growing sense of historical amnesia and individual alienation in today’s society. Han Lei’s alarming portraits of rural folk actors being punished by severe blows to the head follows Chen Wei’s “Sand and Nobody, No.1” which shows a man surrounded by stacks of manuscripts with his head buried in a sink. Both of these compositions, that posit the human head at the center, come as the afterthought to Bai Yiluo’s “Destiny No. 1”, a montage of thousands of faces that create one larger than life size skeleton. Nearby Zhang Dali’s “Demolition 1999101A” shows a simple head carved out of the ruins of Beijing hutong while behind it looms a glossy new office building. Urban transformation also becomes the metaphorical crux in the action-flick inspired works of Li Wei that shows a woman floating high above a construction site anchored only by a team of workers. Architecture is presented as a fictional, dream space in the works of Meng Jin, Sun Ji and Lu Jun. Liu Ren’s image of an apartment complex being hit by a huge tidal wave is placed above an image from Yang Yi’s series, “Old Town of Kaixian”, which illustrates the submerging effects that the Three Gorges Dam has had on his hometown; while in Wang Ningde’s film-noirish “Someday No. 33” a 1960’s-era character is pictured from the rear rowing a boat with a collapsed woman in it. Placed nearby is “A Missing Person’s Back” by Dong Wensheng showing a bearded head upon an ancient boat that floats slowly through the water.

Several other artists posit the figure at the intersections of nature, myth and imagination to produce results that are sometimes violent, disturbing and mesmerizing. In Yu Ji’s “Fang and Fang’s Doll” a naked pregnant woman stands in the middle of the road, while off to the side, an inflatable sex doll falls from a smoking car. Ma Liang’s quirky portrait of a bride and a man in a pig outfit seem to nod at Zeng Han and Yang Changhong’s medieval costumed players that stand defiant, yet incongruous against the industrial backdrop of Chongqing. Sheng Qi’s iconic “My Left Hand” shows the artist’s pinky-less hand holding an image of a skeleton. Here the artists’ wounded grip acts as a metaphor for personal and political anguish while at the same time linking us back to “Destiny No.1” Bai Yiluo’s imposing collection of identity portraits.

Through pictorial and thematic clues we can see the common traces of China’s collective subconscious emerge- where a schizophrenic sense of history puts the past in front of us, waiting to be contended with; in an environment where the cycle of demolition and construction seems to spin endlessly, rendering everything in its path continually obsolete; and where the human figure becomes a means to explore changing social behavior and the substratum of corporeal existence. It is a succession of oracular truths that only China’s present reality could have shaped and which, in the end, yields only more enigmas.

Mathieu Borysevicz 12.08

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