From New York to Beijing, Polit-Sheer-Form’s Collectivist Propaganda Committee

Just as ever more contemporary Chinese artists (especially of the younger generation) are transitioning to new media, video and other multi-media, with “fresh” themes emerging in exhibitions in China and elsewhere, and just as individual experience and life conditions are becoming a cornerstone of artistic creation—even the embodiment of a work itself—rather than political overtones in the likes of hooligans, the helpless, or “painful histories of revolutionaries”, an artist collective that takes collective living as the principal creative method and material appears all the more prominent. Such is Polit-Sheer-Form.

In 2005, Polit-Sheer-Form was jointly founded by the artists Hong Hao, Xiao Yu, Song Dong, and Liu Jianhua, together with Leng Lin, the founder of Beijing Commune and now also the director of Pace Beijing. The group’s conspicuously earnest name “Polit-Sheer-Form” seems also to carry a whiff of that old Socialist rectitude of “good Red families”. Much like the “Propaganda Bureau” or “Family Planning Bureau”—acronyms with which many of our compatriots are so familiar—Polit-Sheer-Form seems imbued with an antiquated sensibility and particularly “Chinese characteristic”. These five artists even synthesized their own digitally manipulated portraits, with a “Polit-Sheer-Form blue” as the standardized background. In the image, is a man dressed in a white shirt with a Polit-Sheer-Form badge adorning his chest—indubitably a most worthy spokesman to stand in for this art collective.

In November last year, Polit-Sheer-Form held two retrospective exhibitions at the Queens Museum, New York and at UCCA in Beijing; the performances “Do the Same Good Deed” and a charity auction and dinner at UCCA were planned to accompany the two exhibitions. As the saying goes, “When it rains, it pours.” In all truth, Polit-Sheer-Form’s participation in and design of this art performance appeared far more forceful and worthwhile than just their exhibitions. In late November, when the Polit-Sheer-Form exhibition “Polit-Sheer-Form!” opened at the Queens Museum in New York, the collective organized volunteers to clean Times Square in order to complete the foreign segments of the work “Do the Same Good Deed”. The respective definitions in China and the United States of a “good deed” and the necessity of and perspective on “doing a good deed” in public places posed astute rhetorical questions in this work, and the participation of artists and foreign volunteers in the performance lent greater sincerity and real backup to the concept. The portrait of “Mr. Zheng,” with its massive scale, was placed atop the main entrance of the Queens Museum—when seen from afar, as imposing, solemn and official as the portrait of Chairman Mao on Tian’anmen Gate in Beijing. At the same time, “Mr. Zheng” is not dissimilar in form to the small advertising flyers in the New York subway.

Polit Sheer Form Office at Times Square for “The Same Good Deed”政纯办清洗纽约时代广场的现场
Polit Sheer Form Office at Times Square for “The Same Good Deed”政纯办清洗纽约时代广场的现场

On November 21, the Polit-Sheer-Form “Fitness for All” exhibition opened in Beijing at UCCA and a charity auction dinner was held—designed as a replica of a State Banquet—to continue the show’s work and draw attention to creativity in China. On the day of the UCCA festivities, with a unified “Polit-Sheer-Form blue”-decorated venue, the curator Philip Tinari recited the “Fat Report”, which displays Polit-Sheer-Form’s unique, bantering humor and their serious emphasis on pure form and mastery of performance.

In contrast, the blue flower beds on the floor of the UCCA hall and large quantities of receipts from group events by Polit-Sheer-Form in the exhibition space were retained and made into wallpaper (the Queens Museum also has this work on display); blue fitness equipment echoed the exhibition’s theme of “Fitness for All”. Even the opening scene was replete with prints and images of circus performers brandishing whips, leaving traces and marks on the walls of the exhibition hall. Whether in terms of the expression of language or idea, this appeared tenuous and dull. Such an exhibition is certainly not enough to assume the mission it claims—as “this largest exhibition in the country by a small artist group of five people is also the first in its nine-year creative career retrospective.” Polit-Sheer-Form’s raison d’être or the value it seeks to carry across is about breaking down the binary opposites of the individual and the collective, form and content, while their specific artistic practice is rife with design, transformations and details. Such a creative aim thus finds a better embodiment at the Queens Museum.

It is noteworthy that the Queens Museum is able to accommodate more works by Polit-Sheer-Form because of its relatively large exhibition space. At the same time, the detailed text description and the physical display of ready-made art also imparts greater and richer layers of content to the exhibition—for instance, the belts of the five members of Polit-Sheer-Form hanging high on the wall within the exhibition with the paper towels, mineral water bottles and other items Polit-Sheer-Form used when taking part in group events marked by time and place and displayed as part of the showcase. In addition, an unopened package labeled “prize” sits in the window display: In 2006, the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale bestowed upon Polit-Sheer-Form its Creativity Award, but with Polit-Sheer-Form was unable to attend, the Biennale instead mailed Polit-Sheer-Form a package. This package has not yet been opened, and thus  exists in between at least two possible identities: an ordinary but unknown object, and a prize with an identified value. This work had also appeared in UCCA’s “DUCHAMP and/or/in China” exhibition in 2013. Also noteworthy is that the “Fitness for All” installation, seen in Chinese public parks and residential compounds throughout China is painted in the PFSO blue and set in the art gallery’s main hall. Exhibited both in the Queens Museum and at UCCA, viewers in the US, however, were unable to interact with it: since artwork insurers deemed such equipment non-artworks, they declined insurance coverage; for its part, the Queens Museum proscribes the touching of uninsured art by the audience. As this equipment is designed to make people fit, this “elevation of form over substance” by the Queens Museum has reduced it to artifice, a mere formalistic shell or décor.

These five artists were all born in the 1960s. A strong emphasis rested on a collective personality for those coming of age in this era, yet their experiences of collective life recall a fun and memorable era. This summation may appear somewhat out-of-touch with the times, but whenever I see a group photo of PFSO, it is as though I see an “old boy” in the art scene. Without any disguise of a love for, commitment to and intimate experience with collective life that inspires envy, their persistent proselytizing of collectivism and its connections with art is both ingenuous and cunning. They have organized an organization without order, and make a great fuss about infusing their “daily pleasures” into the rubric of art; no effort is spared in their quest to forge a sense of form, either.

When all is said and done, it is hard to describe Polit-Sheer-Form. The five members are today rather famous artists; one member, Leng Lin, has yet another identity as the director of Pace Beijing and the founder of Beijing Commune. Interviews with Polit-Sheer-Form are often difficult to conduct because each individual can resort to the “collective” in this capacity to deftly evade questions; yet, in any case, no single person’s views are representative of the entire group. However, when everything returns to artistic creation itself, the artist’s own self-interpretation is unimportant. All Polit-Sheer-Form has to do is buff up a better expression of the complexity of their media and exhibitions.

Through processing by Polit-Sheer-Form, form changes into content itself—such as the slow-motion replay of the videos with a comic strip with blank speech balloons suspended around the lobby. On all sides hung banners with Polit-Sheer-Form declarations, overly enlarged photos of Polit-Sheer-Form’s bathing center . Anyone interested in Polit-Sheer-Form must go and leaf through their album and read their collaboratively authored manifesto, and then one finds both that Polit-Sheer-Form is not quite so simple—but also not so complex either. “Whether in the past or today, ‘I’ is often shrouded in ‘we’. ‘I’ is repressed and distorted; yet when we feel that ‘I’ also contains ‘we’, then the ‘I’ has become a more pragmatic ‘I’.” Polit-Sheer-Form has already explained their collectivism in their minds quite clearly. The seemingly ordinary “Polit-Sheer-Form blue” is actually—as per the CMYK color mode—mixed in accordance with a proportion of a 99% blue pigment, plus a 50% specially blended red (five individuals each “contribute” 10% of the red), hinting at a profound meaning. The album appendix contains pictures and text, and constitutes rich and detailed “Polit-Sheer-Form Memorabilia” as it exhaustively records Polit-Sheer-Form’s meetings, contacts, discussions and drafts (see the “Fat Report” for the preparation details). At the very least, Polit-Sheer-Form has one of the most completely documented histories of any artistic collective.

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