The Afterlife of Images: Yan Lei and Zhou Tiehai

Reiterate, Erase

Perhaps the most misunderstood work at dOCUMENTA (13) was Yan Lei’s “Limited Art Project,” the reaction founded on preconceptions and prejudices about Chinese art – particularly painting – lazily assuming it merely riffs on Western clichés, that it is derivative and repetitive. And if there was pause to ask whether “Limited Art Project” (LAP) was playing on these same prejudices, it seemed only to reinforce the jaundiced view.* But while LAP involved objects we might call paintings, it was not about “painting.” And to the extent it referenced clichés about Chinese art, this was merely a provocative gambit. Ultimately, the LAP was an elegy to images and a tragedy about forgetting. That it was misunderstood was part of its art. A performance that had much to say was predicated on the expectation it would not be heard but ignored, for failing to listen, to reconsider, to reiterate is all part of the process of forgetting. So pay attention.

Yan Lei first selected hundreds of images from the Internet that appealed to him. What unified the multitude was how images are digested. Here was a room heaving with pictures, a mad 19th-century Salon. The walls were jam-packed with them, more hung from the ceiling like so much laundry, and even more hung on racks visitors could roll out. In fact, there was a picture for every day of dOCUMENTA (13), but the impression left was of far more – an infinite Googlescope of ghosts.

Yan Lei likes to give the impression that the selection was made through casual internet browsing but in reality it is deliberate. The images were then reproduced on traditional stretched canvases according to his directions, whereby certain dimensional ratios and an etiolated register of hues were maintained. The subjects are frequently but not only people, especially portraits. The backgrounds are often plain, though some include the unifying radiating sunbeams typical of Yan’s earlier works. When hung, the spacing between the images respected the layout of how the source images were displayed in the search engines where they were found (although direct reproduction would be impossible). Themes were supernumerary, including China, art and (Western) art history, celebrity, religion (Buddhism), finance, Ai Weiwei, Coca-Cola, color.

Yan Lei’s “Limited Art Project” for dOCUMENTA (13), 2012 (installation view).

dOCUMENTA was also a theme, and it is important to note that Yan Lei’s first involvement with dOCUMENTA was subversive – sending fake dOCUMENTA invitations to many fellow artists in China (some still haven’t forgiven him). LAP is thus also an index of Yan Lei’s career – the images a sort of catalogue raisonné, and a personal history of his involvement with dOCUMENTA (sadly, Chinese artists are often defined only by their careers outside China). Of course, the self-portrait is doomed to fail, for how can one ever truly present oneself as a unified, concentrated whole? The allure, tragedy and eventual bathos of self-portraits are that they always remain somehow both incomplete and manipulative, and so inevitably also traduce their subjects. So here is Yan Lei himself, in a brightly patterned shirt, with his messy mop of hair and stubbly beard, standing right in front of one of his earlier “target” paintings — ready for the knives to be thrown – and which recall the work of so many other master artists, including Jasper Johns, Ugo Rondinone and John Armleder, to name but a very few. One of the most commonly heard expressions of intention by Chinese artists is the desire to make something “true.” Yan Lei is far from the first to deride such desires but he does not dismiss their earnestness. He laughs at everything, including himself, but it is the laughter of Lu Xun’s hobo anti-hero, Ah Q, on his way to being executed.

Is it political? There are images of Mao, the door to No.10 Downing Street, the CCTV tower in Beijing under construction, Hillary Clinton at the moment of Bin Ladin’s assassination and a portrait of former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Maybe. Is it sexual? A woman’s varnished fingers load a pistol. A bowl of ice cream hangs beside a naked female torso, hands over pudenda. Maybe. But what of the tiger, the Queen of England, fireworks, cake and sushi? It does not really matter. These byways are interesting but not the point – all the works could be hung differently and the images interchangeable with infinite alternatives. And anyway, they no longer exist.

The Cave

Think what it is like to be in this room. It is a cave, Plato’s cave, and a death factory, and a Pinakothek of a “prolific artist,” and a knock-up cathedral, and a warehouse for go(o)ds, and an “academic” collection, and a calendar without numbers. It is also a place where dementia is enforced and the shadows on the walls extinguished. Each day of the exhibition, one of the pictures was removed and taken to a nearby Volkswagen automotive factory where it was brightly spray-painted. Volkswagen, the “People’s Car,” was born out of democratic ideals but into a fascist world (benefiting from forced labor during the Second World War). After the war it became a colossus. And part of its success has been China, where its Santana taxis crowd metropolitan streets. Again, this is background, not irrelevant but tonal and contextual, because a primary theme of dOCUMENTA (13) was the reverberations and distortions between history and memory – a critical issue for Yan Lei, given the parallels and divergences between China and Germany in their respective histories, and approaches to these histories.

What is important is the process of erasure that eventually extinguished all the images – umpteen individual stories – interring them beneath cheery surfaces, giant DayGlo pixels. Self-censorship is insidious not only because of the refusal to look but the perceived inability to do otherwise (and anyway, a censored world can appear so much brighter!). Our tendency towards self-preservation is understandable but cynical, leading us to absolve ourselves of decision-making, of culpability. In the face of horror, we blind ourselves. But Yan Lei sees how we blind ourselves daily, with every failure to look; with every time we glance away or fail to remember, seeking solace from the opium of bright trinkets and comfortable aspirations.

But there is another side to his machine. For each and every image still exists in the memory cards of cameras and mobile phones and on the vast search engine servers, true Baudrillard simulacra, indices of image algorithms. This is the afterlife of images, the suns’ corona, nothing ever quite forgotten but also never fully understood.

Just Desserts

Zhou Tiehai’s Desserts is a sequence of hundreds of small-scale paintings of images selected by Zhou but painted by his assistants “representing” a variety of “professions” –  diplomat, juge, ministre, prof, commissaire, sycophante, caroleuse, blancheresse, financier, bouffon, chiffonnier and sabotajnik (diplomat, judge, clerical or political minister, professor, policeman, sycophant, dancer/dessert, washerwoman, financier/cake, buffoon, ragman and bottom-smacker). A selection was displayed in early 2010 at MoCA Shanghai. Hundreds of small paintings snaked up MoCA’s Guggenheim-esque ramp, a scrabble-tile mix of seemingly random and interchangeable images playing on political, social and cultural clichés, literary, artistic and historical, sexual and seductive, naïve and corrupt, with doses of luxury and royalty, Francophilia and necrophilia, celebrations and incinerations of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois taste. Presently the “Le Juge” sequence is displayed in the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, Australia. Originally it was intended that the full cycle would be shown but due to a customs crackdown in China in 2012, it was not possible to export the full series and now portions of Desserts have been distributed around the world, making its complete exhibition very difficult. But it is intended that one becomes lost in Dessert’s labyrinthine possibilities, whether in the entire sequence or only a part thereof. Critics prone to reading entrails and tea leaves will see all sorts of political reference, some to China, some to France, some to America, some to the West in general. And all predictions will come true; you just have to shut your eyes and wish it. And it will. And everyone does.

Now everything can be repeated endlessly and everything via the internet is somehow immediately available, among other things Zhou asks what is the purpose of painting now? Why do we still bother? If Desserts were a machine it would combine an automatic jukebox, arcade games (particularly involving awkward cranes and teddy bears), a vending machine (coke, condoms, snacks, underwear, parking tickets) and some sort of Duchampian grinder. This infernal automaton plays us both for Dr Faustus and for idiots, a horror-film invitation. You know you shouldn’t say yes but of course you do. Eat me! Alice might get away with it, everyone else gets guillotined, eventually even the Tricoteuse.

The conceit and the magic in this most intellectual bon-bon, this work of art, is that the frottage between the necessary seduction and delusion is inevitably already corrupt. However we shuffle this huge pack of delicious cards, the deck is stacked against us. In fact, even the magician who devised it is very aware that also he – of course! – does not escape unscathed. While at its pinnacle, painting as art aspires to, perhaps even sometimes reaches, a type of epiphany, it remains always tied to our sensual appetites, our greed. The marvelous excess of “Desserts” is never enough and always too much. And at last, and most disturbing of all, it is but a small model of a cosmos of images, endless and expanding, where absolute meaning is impossible and anyway, finally irrelevant. This is not cynical but terminal.

Seemingly similar

That both these artists are Chinese is noteworthy but might breed cynicism amongst jaded art visitors – bitterly ironic, given the cynicism of which both artists are regularly accused.

Desserts is certainly cynical about the “West” but is not itself cynical. On the contrary it is very sincere. It is an elegant labyrinth with many openings but no exists, that exists at the endpoint of painting. In this direction, there is nowhere else to go. Art history’s road runs out. (Unsurprising then that recently Tiehai was not practicing but the director of a museum.)**

Yan Lei’s “Limited Art Project,” however, is tragic. For all its jokes, it is one of the saddest of artworks, an elegy to the meaning of images great and small, but also a warning. Blindness is often imposed but also often willed or indifferently ignored.

I saw the model for LAP at the Hong Kong art fair. Shortly after I met Zhou Tiehai and told him his work and Yan Lei’s work seemed similar to me. He went to look himself, talked with Yan Lei, and assured me, no, not even similar. Which in many ways is true but still there are important points of comparison –

  • Yan Lei and Zhou Tiehai are both Chinese artists whose work has frequently dealt with the interaction of Western and Chinese tradition, albeit ZTH is more critical of the impact of this collision on China.
  • Both employ others to produce painted images based on the artist’s selection.
  • Both have produced installations of these works, epic in scale, involving hundreds of apparently random pictures.

Whatever the importance of these parallels, the more intriguing question is why two Chinese artists produced these two singular works, great amongst any works produced anywhere in recent decades. Really the occurrence is random, so what follows is mere speculation. These two unique works, respectively about the limits of painting and its afterlives, are products of a unique point in history, whereby a media and communications revolution is occurring simultaneously with the rebirth of a vast nation that must digest the ubiquitous culture of an aging world order – and in the process inevitably be changed by it – and yet still revive its own culture. What it lends us, in the form of Zhou Tiehai’s “Desserts” cycle and Yan Lei’s “Limited Art Project,” are types of mechanisms or games for conceiving of this reality in all its pathos and bathos. Neither attempt to resolve the irresolvable. In both cases the central issue is the importance of how we read, understand and interpret images, how we use them, and forget them.

* A typically gnomic response was Jerry Saltz’s:

Like many of her academic ilk, Documenta 13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev seems hostile to art’s old unruly cave creature, painting. Unless it’s painting by older, unknown, overlooked, or dead artists. Or painting by or about people from third-world countries. [!] Before her show Christov-Bakargiev crowed that her Documenta would have “not much painting.” At least she’s upfront about it. But she also carried out a revenge scenario, sequestering most of the remaining painters in a single large building, the Documenta-Halle. Hanging like-unto-like all but negated painting’s power as one of the greatest tools ever invented by human beings to imagine and depict the world. As I walked through this dead zone, I thought, “This is where painting goes to die.”

This from one who gushes over Wade Guyton. Smug indeed, but if you live in New York, maybe you don’t need to think beyond Manhattan. Lucky Mr Saltz.

(Jerry Saltz: “Eleven Things That Struck, Irked, or Awed Me at Documenta 13“).

** Zhou Tiehai was the Deputy Director of the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, a leading private art museum in China, owned and funded by the Minsheng Banking Corporation.

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