(Beijing, China) Months ago I was lucky enough to connect with an artist in China, Xu Fan, like me, a teacher of oil painting at a state university. Tsing Hua University is one of the best universities in China and in Xu Fan they have a highly skilled renderer and educator. We agreed then to try and put together a two-person exhibition; two weeks ago we saw it come to fruition in Beijing.
Xu Fan and I wanted to do a show that would allow me to engage with ideas about painting as it relates to Chinese culture, while subtly drawing attention to the fact that Xu Fan is working in a tradition that comes out of Europe. The resulting exhibition is our attempt at dealing with appropriation and painting history in a self-conscious way. We recognized that it is a bit reductive to suggest that the rectangular canvas of an oil painting in European tradition is akin to a hanging scroll in the Asian tradition. Still, a fundamental challenge of the human intellect is the fact that, as the great Saussure observed, meaning is created through difference. Our hope is that our humble show guides viewers beyond simple cultural comparisons and to more critical consideration of the use of various media technologies across the globe today. Is that too much? Oh well.
My first experience exhibiting internationally came with its own challenges. In addition to language barriers, I had to figure out how to transport work across the Pacific Ocean economically and/or create works in another place. In the case of this exhibition I did both, transporting the sail part of the installation from the USA, collecting some materials (electronics) in China to create the rest of it, and fabricating the scrolls in China as well. I figured this would be a way to more intensely connect with the community where I was showing, as sort of an accelerated mini-residency.
This show would not have been possible without the language and organizational support of my partner Jiemei Lin, who graciously acted as an interpreter and organizer. When my limited Chinese skills and Xu Fan’s limited English skills frequently failed us we, could continue to work together critically with Mei’s support. We stayed with Xu Fan and his wife Liu Ming, who also helped coordinate some aspects of the show. We all worked together to drum up some press as we finished our pieces in the weeks leading up to the exhibition. If you have ever done a DIY exhibition (or in this case mostly DIY) you understand the amount of work required, but also the reward.
I was amazed at both the graciousness of the community and the energy of 798, the Beijing arts district. I know of no other place in the world with such diversity in fine art. From wikipedia: “798 Art Zone, or Dashanzi Art District, is a 50-year-old decommissioned military factory buildings with unique architectural style. Located in Dashanzi, Chaoyang District of Beijing, that houses a thriving artistic community.”
One gets the feeling that, for better or for worse, something like 798 could only happen with a bit of big government assistance. While China is essentially capitalist economically, there is also a great deal of deliberate and controlled city planning of the sort that unfettered capitalism does not easily allow. Some of these projects result in disastrous displacement, while some of them are magnificent. From DIY spaces like the gallery we exhibited in, to large spaces showcasing blue chip contemporary artists, 798 is a rare slice of real economic diversity. In the USA, by contrast, most areas that begin with a concentration of DIY galleries are quickly gentrified to the extent that the small experimental galleries can’t afford to stay. What you’re left with are either blocks of overpriced restaurants and bars (as is the case in my former neighborhood Over the Rhine in Cincinnati), or enormous commercial galleries that only show artists selling works for millions (as is the case in Chelsea in New York City). Our show in Beijing was right across the street from a couple larger and more commercial shows I really enjoyed, including beautiful solo shows by Zhang Hui at Long March Space and by Ye Fana at Space Station. I was really excited to be in an area with such great company.
The show, Telepresence is up at Sishu Gallery (思塾画廊) in 798 Beijing through August 15.
My work is about media technology. As such, I often employ materials and processes that call attention to the presence or absence of the human hand. For this exhibition in Beijing I wanted to challenge myself to create works that fulfill these goals, but that also relate to the rich history of Chinese art and material culture. This resulted in the creation of one series of three scrolls and one sculptural new media installation.
Telepresence is a work that juxtaposes the form of the ancient Chinese junk-boat sail with a pile of media electronics displaying videos of oceanic scenes. These objects work together as symbols, suggesting notions of travel, progress and technological obsolescence. Telepresence is the sensation of being somewhere one is not, long the dream of magicians and technologists alike. Is our so-called digital revolution a triumphant realization of this end, or merely an unprecedented accumulation of consumer goods?