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Fire His Breath, Jade His Bones - 1

(2008-07-16 12:08:11)










分类: 评论文章

Fire <wbr>His <wbr>Breath, <wbr>Jade <wbr>His <wbr>Bones <wbr>- <wbr>1


Text / Wu Hung   Translation / Lee Ambrozy


Leafing through notes, the critical juncture for this project began to germinate in the summer of 2007. It was just when Shi Jinsong had finished a three-person show at the Today Art Museum, Nine Trees, and he took me to Beijing’s eastern suburbs for a look at the place where his works are being manufactured. I walked through tree roots and tree branches big and small as I listened to him talking about his current project: he was experimenting with smoldering the entire trunk of an enormous tree, turning it inside and out into a charcoal log. He would then burn it again as a work of art during an exhibition. From his suddenly quickening speech and the sparkle in his eyes, I could see the excitement that comes along with a technical challenge: even though few people venture to think, manufacturing charcoal is no easy task. Without mastery of the duration of and heat during the smoldering process, even a branch with the thickness of a finger will be destroyed, turned to coke on the outside but white on the inside. I learned this bit of knowledge as a child eating hot pot. At that time there were no such conveniences as natural gas or electric stoves, if you wanted to eat hot pot at home, you had to buy charcoal first. I remember that we often went to a charcoal chop near Houmenqiao. Mrs. Li, who took me, was an old Beijing Manchurian and it was said that her father was a guard for Empress Dowager Cixi’s state treasury, but by the time of her generation the family was already in a complete state of decline. She had to spend at least half an hour picking through the charcoals, asking questions like what kind of wood was a type of charcoal made of, what color of smoke did it give off, and what kind of smell was it---while snapping a piece of charcoal now and then to see if the pitch black color was distributed throughout.


It was also in the summer of 2007––a time when I was anxious to settle a plan for Shi Jinsong’s work in my exhibition Net––that I received a succinct e-mail he sent on August 8th. He apologized for a late response, casually excusing this by stating he had “recently been to a jade mine, in preparation for a jade work.” My heart jumped: I was curious about what attracted him to charcoal and jade at the same time. I knew from my study of art history that this kind of simultaneity is never fortuitous, even if even the artist himself isn’t conscious of the relationship between the two.


Looking back, from then until now, I can generalize my planning for this exhibition as continuous reflections on this simultaneous occurrence. After the Platform directors Natalie Sun and Chen Haitao invited me to act as curator for Shi Jinsong’s exhibition, I began to formally engage him on the contents of this show. A few early proposals were negated through discussions and e-mail exchanges, while some obscure links became more distinct and more appealing. Finally, the exhibition concept was prescribed as the potentiality of fire and jade as art mediums, as well as the relationship between these two seemingly different natural materials or phenomena within the artistic imagination. The title of the exhibition––the Chinese character yan 琰 comprised of the radical for “jade” with two components for “fire” beside it––provides a compendious description for the interrelationship of these two concepts. Here I must explain a little about using Chinese characters to summarize artistic ideas---a practice which reminds me of the theory of the late American art historian George Rowley. Rowley proposed that an important characteristic of traditional Chinese art is its “ideational” representation, meaning that the artist is not principally trying to capture the external appearance of the observed world. Rather, his images result from subjective thoughts on the essence of and the conceptualization of objective reality. I agree with this view, and would propose that the most concentrated proof in the infallibility of this thesis lies in the Chinese written characters, whose formation often simultaneously combine pictographic and ideographic elements. Regarding the character yan, Han dynasty philologist Xu Shen already stated in his Shuowen Jiezi that the character’s structure integrates “the graphs of jade and fire, which provide the character’s significance and pronunciation.” Therefore, this character can mean either fine, multicolored jade (as defined in Guangyun) or “blazing radiance” (as described in Yunhui). The composite of these two meanings leads to another significance concerning the relationship between jade and fire. Here we return once again to Shi Jinsong’s exhibition. 




I must clarify that the purpose of this text is not to introduce or analyze the exhibition Fire His Breath, Jade His Bones itself. This is because the exhibition will not open until a month later, and, like all kinds of installation, performance or site-specific projects, before such a project is made public we have no right to discuss its nature or significance. But from another angle, despite this we are not powerless to discuss a work’s creation––especially the artist’s imagination and experimentation. This is because no serious artwork will suddenly appear unexpectedly---it is necessarily the result of an artist’s unceasing contemplation and elevation. As a matter of fact, as people with a set purpose often discover, the process of realization for an artwork often contains more humanity and wisdom than what is apparent in the final outcome. This is because its creation process reflects the active involvement of the artist’s intellect and emotion, sometimes even of his painful struggle. The artist’s personal relationship with the artwork vanishes from the finished product, however, and the task of determining the work’s “value” changes hands from the artist to the critic, media, to the market. In regards to the curators who participate in an artistic project like the current one––rather than organizing large-scale exhibitions such as biennales––what frequently attracts them is the close-range tapping of potentials and the interactivity with the artist. Within this process he or she is not passing judgments, but is participating, and therefore must consciously reject the professional language and status of the critic.


Because Shi Jinsong and I are still entrenched in such a process of production and interaction, this essay can only discuss the roads we have traveled so far and the states we have achieved. The remaining road––including making adjustments in the exhibition, deciding on the works’ spatial installation, forming temporal viewing sequences and interacting with the audience––will need to be related in another forthcoming essay. At such a time, my status will have changed, and the artist will have a new relationship with his work. This was the reason behind our decision to compile two separate exhibition catalogues, the first documenting the project and concepts, the second the implementation and completion. The two cannot be mutually substituted, because even though our initial ideas might not all come into reality, the creative concept will by no means lose its value.


Based on the present plan, this exhibition will include three works: two are related to fire, one uses the material of jade. Thus together they form the Chinese character for yan. The two fire-related works are titled 1500_C and 2 min 56 sec. The former is the implementation of the charcoal project mentioned earlier, the latter consists of two exposed automobile engines that have been precisely calculated, transformed and reassembled, accompanied by two meticulously forged exhaust systems made of stainless steel. Owing to art history’s impoverished lexicon, we will temporarily call them “installations,” however neither work employ “readymade” materials in a conventional sense. Instead their materials have resulted from transformations painstakingly designed by the artist––an entire tree trunk has been treated to create the first work, the second work has been meticulously forged from mirrored stainless steel. The extremely high level of technology employed in the manufacture of these two works––evident in a glance at their precise design blueprints––completely rejects the original significance of installation art. However, their state of motion as shown in the exhibition and their rejection a pure visual signification makes us unable to classify them with other established art forms.


Both works imply force and danger, but force and danger of different sorts and divergent cultural connotations. Perhaps at first glance 1500_C does not appear very visually striking, but just like lava that has suddenly come into contact with cold air, a discombobulated dark red inside this black carcass radiates an enormous quantity of heat, daunting and far surpassing the bright flames of firewood and even of coal. In contrast to this implicitly violent form is the dramatic nature and explosive force of 2 min 56 sec. The title of this work suggests the ignition intervals of the engine: accompanied by deafening sounds, the tangled mess of stainless steel exhaust pipes are turned red in a quick moment, a burst of heat on one’s face and a radiant pierce of light amidst the surrounding darkness. There is a possibility that these two works will be impossible to display because of their excessive danger, or special protective measures need to be adopted for the exhibition period. Currently, what attracts me is the combination of an extreme artistic vision and the use of precise techniques––characteristics of Shi Jinsong’s work which are given purified and elevated forms here. If a Western art museum were to exhibit them, the fire would necessarily be “extinguished” to make the two works silent and safe objects for appreciation. Displayed in Platform China in Beijing,however, these two works would embody intense social psychology: their overbearing high temperature and sober technical process together reflect the present “China conditions”: the scorching-hot blasting method brings viewers into a modern state of anxiety, a pioneering, pulse-quickening critical landscape that causes cautious onlookers to hesitate a step before advancing.


These two works will respectively occupy the two symmetric ground floor halls of Platform China, the stairway between the two rooms will lead the audience to the main hall upstairs. Before entering the second-floor gallery, repetitive striking sounds will be audible, as if there is someone unconsciously and exhaustedly thumping on something. One’s first impression of this hall is a deserted and cheerless space, which forms a sharp contrast with the obliged boiling temperature downstairs. Searching for the source of the striking sounds, visitors discover that they are coming from a small jade sculpture of a human head that is installed on a motorized stainless steel base. Powered by the base’s mechanism, it endlessly strikes the wall in front of it at the frequency of every 16 seconds (the title of this work is 144.58N.m, meaning the torque force of the jade head as it strikes the wall). Following its movement, a sunken dent will gradually appear on the wall; a hole will expand and scatter red brick dust over the course of time. However, the jade head and its crude outer appearance will bear not the least sign of damage, and will indifferently continue to attack and destroy that seemingly much more substantial wall.


to be continued............


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