From Desire to Desire: Zhu Yu Solo Exhibition (ended 02.07.2016)
From Desire to Desire
In one of the most interesting dialogues of the movie “The Silence of the Lambs,” serial killer and doctor emeritus Hannibal Lecter and young FBI apprentice Clarice Starling exchange the following lines:
First principles, Clarice. Simplicity.
Read Marcus Aurelius.
Of each particular thing, ask: What is it, in itself, what is its nature…?
What does he do, this man you seek?
He kills women.
No, that is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does, what needs does he serve by killing?
Anger, social acceptance, and uh, sexual frustration…
No, he covets. That’s his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice?
Do we seek out things to covet? Make en effort to answer now.
No, We just..
No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?
I chose these lines as an introduction to Zhuyu’s upcoming solo show, “From Desire to Desire,” at Jiali Gallery because, from the first time I visited her studio, and over the following years, I was often reminded of that dialogue. Despite her generosity as well as outspoken kindness and empathy, walking around her studio and chatting with her still feels like being in some sort of danger zone.
Zhuyu’s work is “dangerous” in many different ways, and, because of this, deeply interesting as well as difficult to deal with.
Like anything which touches the deep, sensitive chords that most people seek to avoid, her practice moves beyond her work or its physical medium and emanates a powerful force in which the sometimes violent, mimetic, and multiple movements of desire take possession and then transform the visual, spatial, and mental space around them. Often the first impact of this work is quite direct and physical, leaving no time to build a safe intellectual distance, and then, when the mind regains control, it has already been seduced by the mental dimension of these same energies.
To say that, once in her studio you start feeling like a potential victim, is perhaps a good way to pay a compliment to Zhuyu’s art. I remember seeing her growing silkworms for months and using their silk to “cast” body parts of her Mexican artist friends neighbors. At the time she described how raising silkworms meant dealing with health risks, such as respiratory infections and chemical reactions linked to the ultraviolet heat lamps needed to provide a suitable environment.
During that particular visit, I also saw parts of one of the main installations we chose for this exhibition scattered around: a used metallic bed structure, the fragments of a broken glass and a floor snake light. They had the same intensity if I looked at them as an installation or just as leftovers from moving house.
Zhuyu just explained in full how time, process, and both natural and artificial events are all part of her practice with a sharp light in her eyes and an obsessive, meticulous precision concerning each detail. That’s when Hannibal Lecter’s speech about “desire” came to my mind.
Although at first sight one could be tempted to frame Zhuyu’s practice within the well known form of abject art, this would be a misunderstanding, because her work, although visceral, does not, (as in abject art), indulge the more scatological or voyeuristic aspects of the regression of the psyche but it explores, instead, another level.
This level is not just about emotional, unconventional behavior, but about something with a hybrid quality where the subjective and the objective cannot be easily distinguished.
Something accurate and wild, in the order of primary necessity, self-preservation and evolutionary needs (such as feeding, reproducing, dominating).
These dynamics, orchestrated by the ancient mechanisms of fear and desire, originally developed as a means of survival, and here converge into a type of instinctive, sophisticated knowledge.
In the spring of 2009 the genius English fashion designer Alexander McQueen created a very provocative collection inspired by his understanding of similar kinds of forces, whose insightful title was “Natural Dis-Tinction, Un-Natural Selection”. In this collection, different kinds of materials, natural and synthetic, were merged into unstable and disturbing forms and designs, deeply challenging to traditional fashion hierarchies but nevertheless rooted in history, In McQueen’s own words, “they were transgressing all the rules without dismissing the tradition”.
On a parallel level, this title could also be used to introduce Zhuyu’s practice and its complexity: one where unconscious forces are activated and explored in the precarious and scattered post-modern globalized context of contemporary China
As I already said, the feeling walking around in her studio was that the raw materials and the artworks were not really separated: paintings, canvases, metal structures, works in progress, dust, rust, strong smells and traces of acrylic colors and industrial paint…together they made the skin of this studio-cave, the epithelial layer of this Wunderkammer/cabinet de curiosité, where both organic and inorganic processes were happening every day, all the time.
Next to another silk mummy-shaped cast of a mutual friend, there was a series of paintings depicting only people’s legs from the knee down. Just legs, ankles and feet, socks, high heeled shoes and soft slippers, leather shoes and sneakers; these images strongly suggested the idea of a repetitive, meticulous, obsessive “coveting”. In a corner, pieces of mannequins wearing chains, ripped clothes, gas-masks, and an S&M suit.
An empty, dirty raincoat hung on the wall was glowing like a ghost in the strong chiaroscuro created by the few neon lamps around the space. Attached to the ceiling was a huge silk replica of an anti-pollution mask she planned to show on the rooftop of some gallery as a protest against the at-that-time unbearable Beijing pollution.
I could perceive the same texture in her way of looking and talking as in her studio: an intrusive and powerful energy not coming from a rational logic as we understand it, but from another one, seemingly coherent but lacking the need to justify itself.
After exchanging more, I learned how she was well aware of the challenging and provocative aspects of making art within one’s very personal universe, without forgetting to address the external world. She made it clear that what she was exploring was not just about herself but also about China and Chinese society, and that she understood the artist’s role not as detached from society, but rather engaged with it, and with all the implied political and social consequences. Then she showed me some photos and videos in which she documented the development of Christian communities in her homeland, Zhejiang province, and the inherent dynamic tensions between the political power and the growing need of spirituality and legitimacy on the part of these communities.
I understood that in her pieces she tried to witness how her own deeper drives and instincts, and those latent in Chinese society, overlap and intersect each other as a result of education and social norms. Walking a thin, slippery line, she is trying to bridge the individual and the collective dimensions of trauma, not studying or documenting them, but making them present and embodied in her powerful artworks.
At that point I thought, how come such a good artist has not received more visibility? It came down to the danger: Zhuyu’s work is dangerous because it deals with the personal and collective unsafe psychological territories of desire and of the unconscious: something that Chinese society cannot dismiss anymore, but that has not yet been fully accepted without suspicion and judgment. In fact, in the eighties, similar kinds of visceral and even more extreme artistic practices appeared in China, but they remained confined mainly to performance art and then lost momentum (apart from a few exception always in performance art) when the neo-pop cynical realist paintings became the first important international trademark of Chinese contemporary art.
From a Western point of view, it is easier to find the existing references in the tradition of psychoanalysis to explain what Zhuyu is doing, starting from Freud’s original theory of desire, (Eros and Thanathos) to Lacan’s petit objet a, with a parallel digression into Jung’s collective unconscious. The problem starts with “being a Chinese female artist, born, grown and trained in China.” Can she fit into the current artistic paradigm and discourse of Chinese contemporary (female) art, when she does not represent what is expected of her? We will see later that other references in Chinese history do exist, however, they may not be too obvious, or were perhaps neglected on purpose.
Zhuyu’s work is dangerous because, as a woman, she does not address the gender issues in education, social norms, and behaviors from the predictable position of feminist art, but from a daring, intimate research which not only stands up, but challenges (with its force) the rooted clichés about male and female art in the Chinese context. Her work is dangerous because it presents something unmeasurable (because to measure the order of desire would not make sense) and impossible to tame through ideology and dogma, in a country where too often, artists fall into the trap of replicating, with their attitude, the same manipulative patterns of conformity and discrimination which they are trying to challenge.
Ultimately her work is dangerous because it deals with things such as “control”, “survival”, in a larger psychological sense, that includes (but goes beyond) both politics and ethics to reach out to the unresolved question of human nature in which the individual, the collective impulses and the social order come together with severe moments of friction.
As a woman bravely pursuing this direction in Chinese society, and more generally within the east Asian Confucian-rooted civilization, it is obvious that “she is trouble”.
For this exhibition at Jiali I have a precise angle on how to present her work.
Instead of commissioning a site specific installation, I have tried to put together different pieces that can convey a broad perception of Zhuyu’s research around two references: a western one and a Chinese one.
The Western one is Jacques Lacan’s definition of “objet petit a”.
The Chinese one is an interesting and lesser-known philosopher of the late Ming Dinasty, Li Zhi, who wrote two books that challenged the status quo, respectively “A book to burn” and “A book to hide.”
In 1957, in his Seminar Les formations de l’inconscient, Lacan introduces the concept of objet petit a as the imaginary part-object, an element which is imagined as separable from the rest of the body. Later he articulates objet a with the term agalma (Greek, an ornament): “a precious object hidden in a worthless box”, so objet petit a is the object of desire which we seek in the Other.
The “box” can take many forms, all of which are unimportant, since the importance lies in what is “inside” the box, the cause of desire.
In a further elaboration, objet petit a is re-defined as a leftover, the remnant left behind by the introduction of the Symbolic in the Real, and also as the “surplus meaning”, a surplus of jouissance that is always produced when a signifier attempts to represent the subject for all other signifiers.
Slavoy Zizek, describes petit objet a, in relation to Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, as a “hole in the center of the symbolic order.”
To produce this level of perception, Zhuyu’s installation “From desire to desire” is recreated in Jiali’s main space, (appropriately darkened), suggesting a ritualistic mis-en-scene where a snake light on the floor designs an “x” outline filled with broken glass surmounted by the sharp-edges cold steel surfaces of an old bed. What does the symbol stand for? What happened here? Is this where the victim was or is going to be abused?
The piece is reinforced and completed by other elements: a spectral photo of a empty raincoat, another one of the artist during her pregnancy, posing as one of the hooked arms of a swastika, a golden cage containing bones, and a small trompe l’oeil “Black Chicken Empress”. There might be a transparent funerary glass urn and a round mirror covered with black felt. A cylindrical totem adorned with a collages of random people’s facial details cut and recombined (as if they all had been part of a symbolic dissecting practice) hangs from the ceiling.
Perhaps the same rooster which appears in the trompe l’oeil painting is walking around in the scene. Perhaps we just imagined it.
These are all physical imaginary part-objects separated from the rest of the body, the “worthless boxes” with many different forms, which contain and remove the cause of desire.
In this cave, petit objet a is replicated over and over, but instead of witnessing structures dissipated into chaos, we feel a different order kicking in, harder to accept.
From there on, like “Kurtz’s snail crawling along a sharp razor blade” every move could cut our belly open as it exposes the hidden double nature of things.
We are reminded how maternal instinct is also the “fascism of the child,” (Zhuyu’s own words to describe the social implications of giving birth in Chinese society) and loss, decay, and death (the bones, the ashes, and the ghostly raincoat image as a post-modern “vanitas”) will inevitably catch up with us in our golden cage.
Nevertheless, there is something dangerously attractive in this cave, something alive, still capable of movement and transformation.
Outside, in the “desert of the real”, all movement is frozen by the empty repetition of the pristine bureaucratic machine and of the polished consumerist kaleidoscope.
And to this desolation, Zhuyu responds with a symbolic act of humor, contextualized in a provocative metaphor about contemporary Chinese art. She identifies the problem as the fact that even in such times of apparent quick change, power and authority rarely change hands. The “desert of the real” of culture is a frozen apparatus that does not move and whose rules, behind the progressive façade, are mainly about self-preservation.
For this piece, she collected images online of the most important local and foreign players of Chinese contemporary art and froze them in ice cubes inside an industrial fridge. During the opening of the show she will gradually take the ice cube sets out of the fridge and put them on Jiali’s glass veranda ceiling to melt in the summer heat.
With this installation she leaves the “interior” psychoanalytic dimension and engages reality in connection with a long tradition of Chinese anti-conformist philosophy, from which I would like to single out the figure of Li Zhi. Li Zhi 李贄 (1527–1602), widely known as one of the foremost iconoclastic thinkers in Chinese history, was born in Fujian.
In the course of his lifetime, he came to participate actively in a wide and passionate discourse that centered around a cluster of notions, including “desire” (yu 欲), “feeling” (qing 情), and “genuineness” (zhen 真). Critical voices from this period—Li Zhi himself, Yuan Zhong- dao 袁中道, Jiao Hong 焦竤, Tang Xianzu 湯顯 祖, to name just four—differed, often times quite radically, in their focus, conception, and philosophical positions regarding these related ideas. The terrain of this discourse was complex and varied, and disputes were sustained, wide-ranging, and passionate.
Much recent scholarship has drawn attention to this widespread discourse among literati in the late-Ming and referred to voices within it as forming a “cult of feeling” or “qing.” The late-Ming, of course, is not the only period in Chinese history when we find such intense and feverish debate regarding the spontaneous expression of the self. But the period spanning the 16th and 17th centuries is certainly one of the high points in Chinese history on this subject and offers a distinctive variation on this broader theme. In Li Zhi we find one of the most compelling and subtle expressions of this general point of view and a developed philosophical vision that is relevant and significant to contemporary ethics. Li argues for a rich and philosophically viable account of the good life as the spontaneous expression of genuine feelings. He was one of the most central, celebrated, and creative thinkers within the late-Ming “cult of feelings,” and significant aspects of his view remain both viable and interesting today.
The titles of Li Zhi’s major works, A Book to Burn (Fenshu 焚書) and A Book to Hide (Cangshu 藏书） reveal much about his bold and iconoclastic character. The letters, miscellaneous writings including essays, historical commentaries, and poetry from the former work comprise a six fascicle, or chapter, book commonly considered the most controversial and imaginative.
Quoting a paper by Rivi Handler-Spitz, from the University of Chicago:
“Li Zhi (李贄) radically queries many of the entrenched hierarchies of his day: the privileged status of Confucianism over other ethical systems, the supposed superiority of officials to merchants, and the presumed greatness of Han culture in comparison with minority peoples’ traditions. Two related, though incongruous, rhetorical strategies Li uses to attack these orthodoxies are: skepticism and relativism. The origins of Li Zhi’s skeptical and relativistic thought can be located in the growing influence of cultural “others” in late Ming China, referring to peoples and ideas that diverged from the prevailing Confucian orthodoxy. During the sixteenth century, as foreign trade flourished in violation of the Ming dynasty’s official ban, and as Catholic missionaries made their initial forays into China, a host of new products and modes of thought became available for Chinese consumption. Li Zhi’s personal history offers windows on an individual not merely surrounded by but literally suffused with cultural otherness.
This cultural multiplicity did not result in Li’s consistent choice of one doctrine to follow, nor did it lead Li to combine these ideologies into a systematic whole. Rather, the cacophony of conflicting world-views seems to have threatened the very notion that any hegemonic ideology or stable set of values could be viable; it seems to have led Li to believe that the practices of each tradition were not necessarily correct or universal—each was just one method among others, one option among many.
The plurality of views contending with one another created a kind of leveling or nullifying effect such that each dogma cancelled out the others and no one perspective was fully privileged: All propositions became open to relativistic scrutiny and skeptical doubt.”
As an curious and interested reader, traveler and organizer of independent spaces and inclusive international group shows (which bring together artists and people from various countries and cultures), Zhuyu continues Li Zhi’s legacy, asserting the importance of artistic contamination and the transnational nature of culture.
Furthermore, like the late Ming philosopher, Zhuyu’s work, in its own way, states the importance of expressing and cultivating spontaneous feelings and to maintain a skeptical and critical attitude towards all influences that try and implement dogmatic forms of control.
With “ICE_Chinese Contemporary Art” this intention appears in a symbolic and humorously aggressive stance toward the status quo; art, like life (private and public), should not be frozen and excluded from change, evolution, and transformation by power and dogma.
It is artists’ responsibility to expose these frozen forces to the sun and let them melt in its hot rays.
Beijing, May 2016