Cai Dongdong’s “Fountain” at Klein Sun—Affinities Beyond Duchamp

“Cai Dongdong: Fountain”

Klain Sun Gallery (525 West 22nd Street New York, NY 10011), Feb 17–Mar 19, 2016

The Beijing-based artist Cai Dongdong’s exhibition “Fountain”, displayed on temporary zigzag walls at Klein Sun Gallery, adroitly illustrated the relationship between representation and meaning while remaining snugly contained within the closed borders of its theoretical vision.  With the exception of two installed works, the primary medium was photography: conservatively sized black and white photographs from the artist’s personal archive dating back to the Cultural Revolution. Developed and enlarged by Cai, they are manipulated using objects or through the paper on which they are printed; “Weeping Willow” (2015) is a photograph turned sideways, and several fruit are cut out in “Pick the Fruits” (2015).  All the photographs are “housed” in wide, brown wooden frames; the continuity of elements is noteworthy, with consistent use of paper, wood and glass. The two installations in the exhibition are a mirror (“Butterflies Flowers”, 2015) and a large branch hung by a chain with small photographs nailed to the wood (“Memory”, 2016); the former was exhibited against a brick wall over the back stairs of the gallery.

Cai Dongdong, “Fountain”, silver gelatin print, tap, 64 x 51 x 10 cm, 2015
蔡东东, “泉”,明胶卤化银照片,水龙头, 64 x 51 x 10 厘米, 2015

The exhibition’s title referenced Marcel Duchamp’s iconic 1917 transformation of a urinal into a fountain, beckoning an engagement with parody, the ready-made and semiotics (in the accompanying text, Cai discusses his interest in topology). All too appropriately, Cai’s work “Fountain” (2015) shows a photograph of two cheerful young women, guns slung over their shoulders, posing in front of a mural of a sea. A real water faucet is attached to the image. The work, like most of the works in the show, is small in scale and is displayed in a perfectly fitting, Ikea-esque wood frame which shelves the work and contains it. Is the miniature faucet and the protective display around the work a reference to the “Boîte-en-valise”, Duchamp’s suitcase for immigration to America which contained miniature replicas of his works? While escaping from Nazi-occupied France, Duchamp became a versatile salesman, promoting his works in New York and given the subject matter of “Fountain”, there is an almost disturbing quality about the stylized, compact and, most of all, saleable nature of Cai’s objects. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, captured in the artist’s snapshots, is a largely unwritten and contested history of mass violence that haunts the cultural imagination. The Cultural Revolution, launched by Chairman Mao Zedong and lasting from 1966–1976, was an ideological movement to purge the society of bourgeois elements that spread across the country and resulted in mass persecution, humiliation and displacement, as well as the destruction of cultural relics. The history that the images witness is glossed over with a veneer of design that makes them suited to hanging on a living room wall.[1] The Dada move is smart—poking fun at the ease with which memory can become objectified and made marketable—but the work appears much too referential, too eager to please. Cai Dongdong is clearly well-versed in visual theory; some of the works are made flat both by their commercial appeal and theoretical compatibility—from Dada to semiotics—within which they aim to be encapsulated.

Cai Dongdong, “Butterflies Flowers”, mirror, camera lens, 20 x 20 x 27 cm, 2015
蔡东东, “蝶恋花”,镜面,摄像头, 20 x 20 x 27 厘米, 2015

Fortunately, the manipulation of the photographs (the artist speaks of it as “surgery”) in this case creates a violence that breaks through to more interesting, poetic affinities with the manipulation of objects by artists such as Doris Salcedo. Through being ruptured, some of the works become stand-ins for bodies, and the paper in turn a skin. There is a certain power to manipulating the paper once the photographs are printed; physical tearing, folding and removing parts of the paper is a technique overwhelmingly employed by Cai. In some cases, this act falls into the realm of aesthetics, for example in “Reading” (2015), a perfectly balanced image of a female body over a black background. In others, such as “Rolled Road” (2014) and “A Tree” (2014), this technique highlights the relationship between reality and representation, between what is seen and hidden, and crucially, it points to what is concealed. As a metaphorical surgeon, Cai sterilizes the memory that these images represent. Making precise incisions into the cultural body, he removes tumors, and once the “patient” awakens, there is nothing but a small scar. The scar becomes a stand-in for something that was torn. Following this logic, the physical arrow that pierces through a photograph of a group of men standing with a bull’s eye in hand, “Off Target” (2015), transcends its affinity with Dadaism to leave a simpler, tongue-in-cheek depiction of a missed target.

Cai Dongdong, “Reading”, silver gelatin print, 52 x 62 cm, 2015
蔡东东, “阅读”,明胶卤化银照片, 52 x 62 厘米, 2015

The real subject of “Fountain” is seeing, reflecting and framing reality. Trained as an army photographer, Cai Dongdong reflects on the role of the artist in this process along classic lines from On Photography (in which Susan Sontag discusses the double meaning of the word “shoot”). The photographer has the power to see reality through a lens; Cai’s piece “Camerawoman” (2014)  inserts a physical lens in place of a woman’s head. The photographer archives time into snapshots, and Cai’s personal archive, in turn, offers a glimpse into a time with no official history. Reinforcing the thematic of context and displacement, mirrors are a constant feature of the exhibition. By inserting mirrors into images, Cai destabilizes the past that these photographs seek to preserve. The reflective surfaces correspond to an absence in cultural memory that is filled by the gaze of the present. The work “Practice Shooting” (2015, installed on two sides of a corner in the gallery, is a shot of two young people shooting. Their image is being reflected back at them through an adjacent mirror, which incidentally also reflects the viewer. Cai discusses his interest in breaking the confinement of the historical context of the given images and in finding a new dimension to their meaning. Living with this object would allow it to gain complexity as it reflects a changing viewer-but in a gallery space this interaction with one’s reflection becomes one-dimensional.

Cai Dongdong, “Off Target”, silver gelatin print, arrow, 54 x 54 x 80 cm, 2015
蔡东东, “脱靶”, 明胶卤化银照片, 箭头, 54 x 54 x 80 厘米, 2015

[1] Another allusion is to Ai Weiwei’s statement of contemporary China—and by extension—its art, as a form of readymade. Prodger, Michael. “Ai Weiwei—from Criminal to Art-world Superstar,” The Guardian. Web: 18 Mar 2016.

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