In the middle of May, 2012, I exhibited my behavioral and fabricated works named 'know and observe all but stay obscure' on "Weiji" Exhibition (Dai Guangyu's solo exhibition at Hong Kong Art Fair at Weiji Exhibition). These works are characterized by high mobility of time and the interaction between behaviour and form of fabrication. The meditation inclination of the work is intended to show that it is associated with the consideration of China's humanistic and ecological environment, which is the thought orientation and concern having been lasting for more than twenty years, and still the research topic I am dedicated to explore in the artistic sense.
The idea of my work originated from Tao Te Ching (also called Lao Tse). While at a time of a turbulent and waning society one dares to stick to noble faith, be soaked in a dark liquid without becoming black, to hide oneself fully, to keep one's spirit alone in a corner of obstinacy, to think carefully before speech and to step the way of 'being instilled with the spirit of heaven and Earth only' for the right track. That is what these works mean to emphasize, with the name of 'know and observe all but stay obscure'. Only when the evil of vain life (including venality and lust for materialism) is renounced, can virtuous roots of human nature be recovered.
In a word, it is concrete, fundamental and meaningful only when we start with our own. That is to say, only when people go back to themselves, ponder over the world with the soul and vision of human beings and view other people and objects from their own, can life become authentic. To this end, Guo Xiang, a great analyst, said, 'thus whoever gets it must neither get it with the help of the Course or by his own power of will, but by a thought popping irrelevantly' ('Notes to Chuang Tse, by the Great Master'). To say 'irrelevantly' is to testify that a self is the spirit trace of the self, a spiritual consciousness in the sense of existentialism. To achieve that stature, the first is to uncover--- the natural being covered and twisted by the culture (authenticity), and then keep and stabilize this with knowledge and clarity.
Only uncovering allows self-cultivation in an authentic world; only the conservation of authenticity allows clarified thinking in face of the finest goodness, which in the end turns to the imperial 'Tao'. This is the spiritual natural being to be demonstrated in the world with supreme beauty and wisdom, as well as the poetic thought in the humanistic world. Based on the principles of being human beings, it is the debate of nature to reach 'the immortal being'. As the saying goes, 'The pursuit of learning increases daily. The pursuit of Tao decreases daily, decreasing more and more, until it reaches the point of inaction. Inaction: then nothing cannot be done by it,' (Chapter 48 of Tao Te Ching).
Observation of the daily changes and transformations goes in harmony with the misperception in the current adversity of living, and it further seeks to bring out the spirits of living in the self-contrasting adversity alongside the river of time. In fact, it is the spiritual call of the highest level from human beings in their realistic situation, which is justified and in consistency with natural law.
Upon meditation, one may find that this is not something to be debated with others. Meanwhile, the society, where depressive news is constantly heard and told as the failure in speaking up, and changing the situation becomes frustrating, has long-standing and profound problems that are hard to resolve. Therefore, life, which is respected by natural law should not be wasted or lost in vain seeking the unworthy reputation. Moreover, it is not worth dancing to the tone of evils, barking to the innocent or doing indecent deeds.
Punished for being right, Hu Shih, in his years, wrote a prescription for that sick era: 'For the cure of a seven-year disease, there is enough time to seek the needed mugwort which requires three years to prepare', quoted in Li Lou I by Mencius. To put it simple, to cure the disease, it takes three years to prepare the herb (mugwort). In Hu's opinion, China was severely sick and it needed time to cure. The fundamental solution was to prepare the herb. A century apart from then, the heartbroken prescriber is long gone and rested, yet his country is still in the worsening illness. People today with eyes to see and conscience to judge would know without saying what on earth the reality is.
In this regard, to pursuit the truly and fully independent academic autonomy, and quality, it requires efforts to create and acquire a work space beyond any party or group, which allows one to remain graceful, spiritually free, devoted to learning and fruitful. And the passion of doing so will not fade away however limited his material life is. Hence the saying, 'Have faith and love what you learn, fight for the Course till death; leave the nation that is unstable or in chaos; come and work for the nation if it is well governed under the guidance of the Course, leave for reclusion if it is not' (Analects Taibo by Confucius).With such teaching followed by people,, the Course is followed and entitled with supremacy.
Later in time, Tao Qian came into the view with bright and inspiring thoughts and described in his writing such a resort as 'Peach-blossom Spring'. As it mirrored the reality in a quite alarming sense, Tao's writing thus attracted more and more followers in the journey of pursuing his course. Judging in that sense, the mainstream Chinese art since the medieval times is mostly built on the same philosophy as referred. If one has a full understanding of the history of 'literati paintings', he will recognize that without saying. Reclaim the principles and clarify the origin; restore truth and get rid of falsehood. The ecology of humanities has seen in the past decades the blowing up of dust ahead of desire for modernization off the leash, whinnying and hoof-clicking. It has become the mainstream school of the thoughts and has secured the power of speech.
Facing this, people would be quite uncertain about whether the philosophy as referred above which prevailed in China through hundreds and thousands of years is still applicable. So is unsure when the humanistic sense of value and cultural environment will finally come into occurrence, although intellects like Hu Shih, Yin-Koh Tschen and others alike had thought about and called on them for life with enormous passion and efforts. To make it even worse, more than two thousand years apart from the era described by Confucius, when the Saint 'courtesy is broken and righteousness is ruined', the world today ought to be 'evil' in comparison to the social environment that worried the Saint, but which is highly praised now. It is as 'evil' as it is true, isn't it?
Just take art as an example. The 1990s saw our enormous efforts in promoting the ethics of art and engagement theory as the guiding thoughts, in taking stage in the public and building a certain alliance with other groups in all walks of life, getting through twists and turns all along. Once upon a time, the alliance gathered the power of all and made a slight hit at the level of culture, which was then followed by the media of all kinds who praised it as a cultural star model. Did that mean the triumph of pioneer art? As when the Avant-Garde later on got legalized, it even wiped out the misunderstandings and prejudice that used to make people jitter at the mention of it and demonize modernism and regard it as reactionary in the mentality of ideology supremacy coming into being since 1949. It felt like the daunting possibility of political retribution done by the authoritarian regime to art had disappeared over night.
Artists of avant-garde were extremely happy as if they had won a turnaround battle. Then what followed was the common exaggerated story in which the 'avant-garde' spirit was guarded. What's more, all fruits (if any in deed), were ruined by the blinded profit seekers who shared the spoils as if they had won a battle. One case to support that claim is that people comment on someone alive like putting out the final judgment, anointing him like showing mercy to the dead..
Everybody knows it is nothing but the bundle of interests by a group of morons,, but nobody rejects it: the dreamlike temptation, like passionate adventure and speculation and even savage plunder. People nowadays seem to realize: jungle law still rules the world merely with only the change in time and place. 'Jungle' is now made of cements, and the 'law' is even more technology-based and barbarian.
Such barbarianism is nevertheless widely accepted because it is built on the modern concept of happiness and rule of game. That is to say, participating in the Game and even if losing it, you are to blame nothing but your bad luck. The psychological system of the gamers is thus based on the belief 'if anyone else can, I can'. Taking a step back, losing the Game would still guarantee the participants excitement of hope and feelings of being legendary. It is also fair--- like casting the dice in roulette; it should work for everyone with luck in gambling. Many would acknowledge that becoming rich over night isn't just a fairytale in current days, and the unique feature of this period of time is to judge one by his fortune.
I do not want to judge the three-step revolutionary theory from which utilitarianism originates. However, as it denies the fundamental ideology of value orientation, we must identify and make a clear break with it academically. This is an issue of principle about the way ahead and it cannot be confused. Just like the upstarts like to show off, successors in the art realm would always like to praise the accidental achievement (if that is the truth), which is characterized by the gambler's disposition and lack of humanistic connotation, and even human nature. As a matter of fact, anyone with discerning eyes can easily see that this is nothing more than a new form of discourse power resulting from the conspiracy relationship in commerce and politics. Of course, going for utility in the name of academy is the central task of its operation.
Then, what's the core of utility? To sum up in a word, it is power and money. Ten years ago, I judged it as self-deceptive and irresponsible to history, with a result being kindly warned as 'abolishing my own effort'. The reason is that I'm also one of them, a banner man striving for the legitimization of avant-garde art. Although I'm only a territorial 'leader' similar to warlords or kings of the mountains, it seems to be inappropriate and unwise to say such things. Perhaps it is true (from the prevailing perspective), provided that we take responsibility for ourselves rather than history (from a pragmatic perspective), push the boat along the running water and adapt to the situation; pretend the revolution has been successful, sit idle and enjoy the fruits, receive official promotion after reshuffle (from a pragmatic perspective).
Maybe many people will not agree with my above opinion. Act to be pride? Why deliberately act contrary to the great situation? Isn't it the highest state and purpose of revolution? At the present, the environment for artistic creation is unprecedentedly free, which is quite different from the past age, with extreme situations. Pretty darned to ignore and not cherish at all. I have heard of these words, and I admit that they have changed a lot compared with the years before the 1900s. It seems like that. 'Favourable situation', 'Great change', 'History written by us', all of which are the strong voices from the artistic realm. Why these words are so excited. The reason is that the speakers live to see they have been concluded while alive.
Yes, it appears to be true. Take Chengdu for instance, it is well known that a 'modern art museum' emerged abruptly in the last years of the past century, followed and continued by the first, second and third 'Chengdu Biennales' in a long-scheduled and well-organized manner. Undeniably, a regulated avant-garde temple has been formed. Talents and geniuses now find their stage there. Art in various forms is presented there as you ever expected; all is glorious. Moreover, the exultance of the authoritive figures being nominated and listed with other candidates, the routine attendance and prize-presentation of fine guests, the ear-familiar speech of thanks, ribbon-cutting of a politician, and the follow-up reports of the media, etc.
All these make the others green with envy, including the new elites with the smell of quick money and the endless polite formula and nonsense, which in a word the lies guarding the alliance of the vested interest groups. No need to hide it, such temple has turned into a frontier of 'avant-garde'. Thus is Chengdu splendid as the significant town of avant-garde in China. Should it have happened before the 1990's, this would have been above anyone's imagination. That shall be inevitably deemed. In fact, Chengdu is not the only case but merely one example. The convenience of such an example comes from my attendance to the first 'Chengdu Biennale' and knowledge of the activity; also my experience of living there and familiarizing myself with it. Not knowledgeable of other 'biennale', 'triennium' or 'document' at all, I'm afraid that a book has to be written for all those things to end decently. This is something called 'the onlookers see most clearly'.
Where shall art go? It is historic experience that is worth paying attention. Watch and see! Nowadays, who are digging for the interest in the name of art, academics, revolution or even justice? It is de facto clear and crystallized without debating. A near matter-of-fact consensus is prevailing in current days. That is: Whatever is on currently shall be dealt with in a timely manner in a realistic and pragmatic perspective. Share and division of Interests and harming others to benefit yourself right happen in current times. Even things like putting names on the scroll of fame or giving out the final judgment are no exception. That explains why everything nowadays seems so pressing and interest-oriented. Historic view has no meaning to the people, who are now short-seeing. Seizing the day and recreation to death are better than anything else. This is an era of vulgarity and mediocrity. We speak cut-and-dry, mediocre and vulgar.
I might as well take 'liberalism' to the analysis. Today, 'liberal' can be and is talked about by anyone who wants to: anyone including the government; about anything including good and bad. It is like 'liberal' is a no-limit passport to modernity transformation, promoted by free and democratic nations as well as totalitarian and authoritarian nations. As art has always been acclaimed as the foreteller of academics, 'avant-garde' has therefore caught the trend in China. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes use it as coverage for their business and brag about it in a wrong but creative way--- especially in the current era with confused values. Europe and America now hear little about 'avant-garde'; different from Asia and Africa, especially China, where it becomes a hot topic.
Yet 'avant-garde' is in fact the ideological motivation descending from 'freedom of art' held dear by early modernism in Europe and America; now since there is no question of the freedom, 'avant-garde' therefore only refers to the art criticism of modernism over post-modernism cultural pluralism. Indeed, the modernism embracing the spirits of 'avant-garde' has played a role of criticizing poignantly the existing value and its predominant expression of the past and never tended to change with time. Consequently, the meaning of 'avant-garde' shall not change. Thus it is the unquestioned topic and responsibility of significance for art criticism and studies in the future to form the concept of 'avant-garde' and fit it into the modern circumstances.
Historically, the current ecology of art in China has changed to embrace much more freedom. Yet I have to point out: the freedom for the language of creation is not equally the freedom of thoughts for the independent personalities. How can it be? Such freedom that is promoted as a national strategy and culture fictionalization based on the national interests, that treats real freedom like a deck of cards in the hand, and that is only freedom of creation on the level of language tactics, is the lowest level of freedom filtered, integrated and given by the power monopolist. In a nutshell, such freedom is raped, castrated and tone-modified:
As long as it does not threaten the stability of power, 'art' will be allowed to make free expression to counteract the freedom for seeking the true spirits of freedom. Thus is the method of counter-spelling freedom in the name of 'freedom'. However, whenever art starts pursuing the true freedom, the ruler (the regime) can freely outlaw that 'freedom'. The fact is that we are enjoying freedom in a state where freedom is given and utterly limited. It is the fake freedom that pollutes the true one, and an open declaration of war against freedom. As a result of the counter-spelling, the so-called 'avant-garde' has been detected by more and more analysts, even by the manipulators themselves. A trick would lose its value if seen through—even if it's just a trick of title. That is why 'avant-garde' gradually lost its popularity in China, and finally got replaced by 'contemporary art'.
Under the new coverage of 'contemporary art' that sets for freedom but counter-spelling freedom, the fake culture is essentially plotting with power (a.k.a. interest groups) in current China. Guarded by power and money, it even wears the coat armor of 'mainstream'. Its name in the fields of art is quite international: Chinese Contemporary Art. Does it mean that 'contemporary art' is now a problem? No! First, 'modern art' as one form of art is interpreted determinedly by the variables in the art ecology. Names and titles of this kind, similar to academic issues, have their essence totally in their depth and width of thoughtful attention, in the dimension of language, art-form transformation and more. To conclude with the meaning of 'contemporary art', what was mentioned earlier stays true: As avant-garde's everlasting poignant criticism of existing senses of value shall guarantee its existence and contribution, the academic identity of 'contemporary art' shall be measured by its cultural specialty and value orientation.
So is called 'the course shall last as long as the sky keeps the same'. Secondly, 'contemporary art' as said also has its concept in both broad and narrow senses. In a broad sense, all arts that occur in the current period are entitled to self-address as 'contemporary art'. But the narrow sense of 'contemporary art' regulates itself according to the academic distinctions, which enables it to walk in the sky and to be seen as incredible. To sum up, 'contemporary art' is not to blame for this, or for its sole existence. However, it must be 'Chinese contemporary art' that should be responsible. In other words, it is the new problem of the Chinese art predicament today. Notwithstanding, it is the pure fact that the ecology of humanity in China nowadays came to forms in an authoritarian regime.
That determines the complexity and ambiguity of Chinese contemporary art for the bizarre origin. With the persistent de facto, such fake art that go against humanity will not mirror the history or reflect the present situation, however glamorous or glorious its decoration or its protective power is. What it would actually do, besides sucking more power and money, is to destroy the existing system of value and spirits of aesthetics step by step: It is what the domesticated art does. Taking the above into consideration, we should face art and life with authenticity as stated afore and see how it goes. To achieve this, we have to start from ourselves and do it concretely, essentially and meaningfully.
That said, I try to harvest the essence of thoughts in the framework of Tao Te Ching and adjust it on the basis of my own prudent critical thinking. In doing this, it is of significance to hold tight to the righteous course persistently, and stick to it with consistency throughout the trendy popularity or tempting interest, even with stubbornness. True wisdom will be harvested at the end of persistence. That is always vital to the requirements and responsibilities of art. Meanwhile, it is also obviously the teaching of 'doing nothing that goes against the nature'. The Taoist wisdom has left us a great teaching in spirits that requires deep thoughts for understanding and further analysis.
Therefore judging from embryology, this approach should not be ruled out as a reference for the artistic language today. Maybe this is an inevitable path unfolded by the origin of culture and spirits, which approaches all the way to the ideological origin defining the art . Only with this awareness can one transform art into a humanistic mediation and pursuit with a profound cultural background and eventually dwell on the origin. To dwell on the origin and accept a school of thoughtful wisdom, we need an artistic language that is flexible and constructive, to break the blockage for creation. This is the spiritual expectation of art that cannot be described by words but is some kind of watchman spirit.
As to the work itself, 'Know White; Stay Black' prepares a transformation of four parts to testify the dialectics of 'knowing' and 'staying'; 'white' and 'black'. Among them, the beginning part of this variation--- it might as well be addressed as 'Chapter 1'--- lasts the longest. An all-white schematic structure (including the characters built with flour) turns gradually into white-black (penetrated by ink); with white replaced by black, it is a daily new artistic scheme with aroma of Chinese ink painting. The following 'Chapter 2' is smashing the bowl (full of ink). Then separate the characters into four pieces and put them into four glass bottles individually, as for Chapter 3. Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 are closely related and intricately woven together.
The energy, breath and soul of the work are delivered out in this section with great efforts. The unintended finger-cutting with blood mixing in the ink, a variable that pumps into the scheme accidentally, has denoted better the discourse meaning of 'staying black' against 'knowing white', as well as the power of self-efficacy. Nothing besides naturalness could be depicted from all these if observed on the surface or lumped into a big being and viewed that way. Taking a holistic view in accordance with rules of the universe, you would definitely see it different. It can be sticking to the fundamental rule against the ever-changing world, yet it requires time and potential to make it happen. Obviously, under the seemingly ambiguous discourse stays the ambiguous existence of the dialectics of 'knowing' and 'staying'. However, the textual reference of words, as well as the intended meaning, is usually judged by its consequence, especially in the niche field.
The inspiration of Tao Te Ching shining light to the criticism of current living situation is one of such cases. That said, what can dig in the wisdom of Tao Te Ching and get inspired on art criticism, just like what the ancient saints did (to be specific, the school of thoughts in Wei and Jin Dynasties - that is worth a separate piece of writing). One thing I have to mention here: Do not compare the Darwinist evolution to the process of cultural evolution. In most occasions, the de facto 'today worse than yesterday' is clear and bright, hard to deny. Take the dark politics in Two Jin period in comparison to that of today: the intelligentsia tired of the darkness in that period was available to reclusion; today nobody is available to leave it all. Do not call such reclusion a passive hiding light-heartedly: what quality of life people nowadays have while they live on just for the sake of remaining alive?
Seeing these, you may confer that it is the respect and recognition for the value of life not to waste it in resigning to the dirty and cruel reality. With the knowledge of the prevailing dark reality, one will also realize the delicacy of the dimension of thoughts suggested by the opposition to 'all glared tempered, all dust smoothed'. In conclusion, the teaching of 'so is the state of mixed assimilation' stands out for its resilience: under this guidance, we can either leave the mainstream theatre of life for the leisure or step up with knowledge throughout time to the historic responsibilities.
As the reflection of times, art which expressly states and clarifies its poise towards the reality with vivid language, is quite a model for all. Though people may often pretend to ignore its sheer existence, thoughts alike accumulated through days and years would one day erupt unexpectedly and sweep the old view away like the molten lava pouring out, unchangeable by the power of will. That is the ultimate inspiration of Tao Te Ching.
Back to the work itself: the discarding of the work is followed by the sealing of the bottle. The schematic structure with aroma of Chinese ink painting is gone and finally comes back to the beginning. Of course, sealing the bottles avoids a lot of nonsense afterwards. The discourse reference of the work is still brewing in them, yet the result is made unknown. Maybe it is exactly what, beneath the surface of texts, the reference of the phrase 'knowing white; staying black' actually lies. Meanwhile, the work in context has also delivered a message on the language genetics: throughout my practices of art, I have improved the inner relation between body and soul and found the consistent discourse in exploration. Thus it is made on good grounds, apprehensible and satisfying.
Truly, it is safe for me to affirm the success of the exploration by its unlimited applicability and the legitimacy of methods. In the work in context, words and symbols and the artistic schema will finally review themselves by their materialistic nature, in view by themselves, and have demonstrated the meaning sought by their words. The conflict exemplified by the twist of material-artistic scheme changing has asked a question on the apprehension of materials, difficult but not confusing, which comes down to, 'Tao changes to One, One to Two, Two to Three, Three to all' (Chapter 42 of Tao Te Ching). Hence 'those who seized the One in the past: The sky becomes clear, land tranquil, spirit blessed, grain harvested, all things surviving,, and king and royals winning the loyalties of the world'.
Also is stated 'so nobleness is set upon lowness as fineness is built on obscenity. As for King and royals self-addressed as 'the lonely', 'the poor' or the 'the barren', they promote themselves on the basis of lowness, don't they? Hence the saying: too much praise means no praise; instead of the scarce jade, we should rather be the ordinary stones' (Chapter 39 of Tao Te Ching). Righteous as naturally is, the teachings above are subject to individual interpretation.
In my opinion, the inspiration of such teachings is endless and measureless. Should anyone doubt, I hereby testify this with my works. Description of works: On the backdrop of 'Knowing White; Staying Black' built with flour on the rice paper (367x144: cm), infusion apparatuses are hung over 12 ink-filling bowls of white porcelain, each over one with water dripping into the ink, mixing with it, gradually flowing over the brim of the bowl and sinking into the flour characters and the paper, leaving the mixed colours spread naturally.
The trace of ink spreads flowing like the dynamic abstract Chinese ink paintings, unpredicted yet beautiful. However, this is not where the core of the work structure lies.
Take a second look: The water drops are the pendulum in the clock, threading through the presentation of the work in context every day. In other words, the observing channel of the work is delicately set up, so is the apprehending route. As for the work itself, such setting has been used to give vigour to the language and emphasize some kind of fame. Only if eyes are casted to the pendulum-like water drops (the ear to the dripping sound), and follow the trace of ink flowing over the brim of the bowl can this form of life enter, unfold and flow away quietly without declaration and follow the natural law, been understood. Or, there is nothing out there at all.