Sunday, 2 June 2013
There exists a fourth dimension in today’s China – the speed of development and change. The speed does not merely transform China - it becomes China. It is not only a phenomenon itself; it is also the relationship linking all facets of the evolution of contemporary China, be it society, culture, politics and even nature. Reality, and in fact the only reality today in China lies in the speed of the transit.
On this planet, the escape velocity is 11.2 kilometers per second. Within this speed our perception of the world is deemed to be normal. Is the double-digit rate of economic growth in China within the boundary of this watershed speed or far beyond it? I would like to find out. I would like to see this speed of transit. In order to reach a similar speed I jumped into a car and asked the driver to drive as fast as possible wherever he could, down high streets, through residential blocks, up on motorways, across rural areas and so on.
After hours of transit, I no longer felt the speed. I locked myself into the world of speed and transit, physically and mentally. I could hear the noise of the engine and the sound of the wind. I could feel the bumps in the road, but not the sense of the speed any longer. Speed became part of me and transformed to an entrance, through which I penetrated into an unknown reality where everything was distorted. I continuously pressed the shutter. In every fraction of a second, everything was blurred.
Wednesday, 22 May 2013
TABLE OF CONTENTS
LIST OF FIGURES 2
CHAPTER 1 HISTORICAL BACKGROUND 7
NAN TANG IN CHINA HISTORY 7
HAN XIZAI IN NAN TANG 10
CHINESE PAINTING 11
NIGHT REVELS OF HAN XIZAI 12
CHAPTER 2 CONTEMPORARY CHINA BACKGROUND 17
CHINA AFTER DYNASTIES 17
CHINA IN EIGHTIES AND NINETIES 18
LAO LI IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA 20
CHAPTER 3 IMAGE ANALYSIS 22
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1, Gu Hongzhong, 970, Night Revels of Han Xizai, Ink and Colour Painting on Silk, 28.7 x 335.5 cm, Courtesy: Gu Gong, Beijing, At: http://www.86art.net/art/UploadFiles_5617/200703/20070328110536987.jpg (Accessed on 06,02,2012)
Figure 2, Wang Qingsong, 2000, Night Revels of Lao Li, C-type Print, 96 x 600 cm, Courtesy: ICP, New York, At: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2004/05/28/magazine/30china.1.html (Accessed on 08,02,2012)
Figure 3, Gu Hongzhong, 970, Night Revels of Han Xizai, (Detail)
Figure 4, Wang Qingsong, 2000, Night Revels of Lao Li, (Detail)
Figure 5, Artist Unknown, BC 290, Bianfeng Lady Painting
Figure 6, Artist Unknown, The Emperor Li Yu, At: http://www.hottx.net/userfiles/2010108161948.jpg (Accessed on 10,10,2012)
Figure 7, Fan Kuan, 1010, Xishan Xinglv Tu, 103 x 206, Colour painting on silk, Courtesy: Gu Gong, Taipei, At: http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Travelers_Among_Mountains_and_Streams.png (Accessed on 11,10,2012)
Figure 8, Song Kun, 2012, How to view a Chinese hands scroll I
Figure 9, Song Kun, 2012, How to view a Chinese hands scroll II
Figure 10, Gu Hongzhong, 970, Night Revels of Han Xizai, (Scene 1)
Figure 11, Gu Hongzhong, 970, Night Revels of Han Xizai, (Scene 2)
Figure 12, Gu Hongzhong, 970, Night Revels of Han Xizai, (Scene 3)
Figure 13, Gu Hongzhong, 970, Night Revels of Han Xizai, (Scene 4)
Figure 14, Gu Hongzhong, 970, Night Revels of Han Xizai, (Scene 5)
Figure 15, The bed scene in scene 1
Figure 16, The bed scene in scene 2
Figure 17, The red drum in scene 1
Figure 18, Interaction between scene 4 & 5
Figure 19, Man caressing woman in scene 5
Figure 20, Drumsticks in hand scene 5
Figure 21, Artist Unknown, An example of propaganda poster in cultural revolution, At: http://www.theeastisred.com/posters.htm (Accessed on 10,11,2012)
Figure 22, Photographer Unknown, Star Fine Art Exhibition in 1979, At: http://www.fotocn.org/60/1979-4381 (Accessed on 12,10,2012)
Figure 23, Wang Guangyi, 1991-4, Great Castigation Series: Coca Cola. Oil on Canvas 200 x 200 cm Private Collection, At: http://www.andrewjamesart.com/chinesecontemporary/wang_guangyi.htm (Accessed on 11,12,2012)
Figure 24, Hong Lei, 2000, After Song Dynasty Painting Circle Series.
Private collection Set of 5 color photographs. Dimensions: 34.9 x 46 cm (each), At: http://www.terminartors.com/artistprofile/Hong_Lei (Accessed on 06,09,2012)
Figure 25, Wang Qingsong, 2000, Night Revels of Lao Li (Scene 1)
Figure 26, Wang Qingsong, 2000, Night Revels of Lao Li (Scene 2)
Figure 27, Wang Qingsong, 2000, Night Revels of Lao Li (Scene 3)
Figure 28, Wang Qingsong, 2000, Night Revels of Lao Li (Scene 4)
Figure 29, Wang Qingsong, 2000, Night Revels of Lao Li (Scene 5)
Figure 30, Marcel Duchamp, 1919, L.H.O.O.Q. At: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L.H.O.O.Q. (Accessed on 06,12,2012)
Figure 31, Édouard Manet,1862–1863, Oil on canvas 208 cm × 265.5 cm Musée d'Orsay, Paris, At: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Manet,_Edouard_-_Le_D%C3%A9jeuner_sur_l%27Herbe_%28The_Picnic%29_%281%29.jpg (Accessed on 02,08,2012)
Figure 32, Artist Unknown, A typical year painting probably created in late 1970s, At: http://www.nipic.com/show/4/110/2f07bfcc71545b5d.html (Accessed on 10,10,2012)
Figure 33, Jeff Wall, 1979, A Picture for Woman, Transparency in Lightbox, 1425 x 2045mm Collection of the Artist, At: http://www.voidport.com/21/picture-for-women/ (Accessed on 12, 10, 2012)
Figure 34, Edouard Manet, 1881, A Bar at the Folies-Borgere, Oil on Canvas, Courtesy: Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, At: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edouard_Manet_004.jpg (Accessed on 02,09,2012)
Night Revels of Lao Li is a contemporary photographic work by Wang Qingsong (born 1967) made in 2000. It is based on a Chinese traditional painting named Night Revels of Han Xizai by Gu Hongzhong (A.D. 910 – 980) made in ca. 970. Night Revels of Lao Li is a C-type print of 960mm x 6000mm. Night Revels of Han Xizai is an ink and colour painting on a 287mm x 3355 mm silk cloth mounted on a hand scroll. Night Revels of Lao Li has been widely exhibited globally since 2000. Night Revels of Han Xizai is considered one of the most important masterpieces in China art history. Lao Li is Li Xianting considered as the “Godfather” in contemporary China art. Han Xizai was a highbrow intellectual and a minister in Nan Tang dynasty.
This dissertation will discuss both works but with a focus on Night Revels of Lao Li. I would like to use it as an example to de-construct China’s contemporary art context by discussing China’s historical heritage and contemporary social, cultural, and political background. I will also use some visual cultural theories including semiotics, allegory and appropriation to analyse and discuss the work.
As most of the readers are from western culture, I would like to explain China’s historical and contemporary background in enough detail to help readers gain some essential knowledge to understand and engage my discussions.
In the first chapter, I will elaborate the social, cultural, political and historical milieu when Night Revels of Han Xizai was painted. Han Xizai will be introduced. I will also discuss and introduce the medium specificity of Chinese painting. Chinese art used to use silk to paint and preserve images. This tradition still has a strong impact in China’s contemporary art. After this discussion, the painting will be discussed and analysed.
Then, in the next chapter, a concise summary of China’s contemporary art development will follow laying out the context to help understand Wang Qingsong’s artistic development and his work. Li Xianting, as the key figure in Night Revels of Lao Li, will also be introduced.
Chapter 3 will analyse the image of Night Revels of Lao Li. The theory foundation is semiotics. Based on this, three layers of readings and analysis will be discussed. The initial discussion will be centered on connotation and denotation concepts. Then the intertextuality aspect of semiotic theory is introduced and an allegorical reading will be analysed. Appropriation will lastly be studied and discussed. To help understand this art strategy, postmodernism will be elaborated to give the social, cultural and political background followed by discussions on China’s contemporary art and cultural background, focusing on the 80s and 90s, when globalisation started to emerge in China. Finally, signification of appropriation in Night Revels of Lao Li will be analysed and presented. Some semiotic theories will also be presented and discussed in this section on appropriation.
The Conclusion will summarise and conclude the findings of this dissertation.
CHAPTER 1 HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
In this chapter, I would like to introduce China’s historical background. First, a rough history of China is summarised, with a special focus on the Nan Tang dynasty in power when Night Revels of Han Xizai was created. Then Han Xizai, as the key figure in the painting, will be also researched and introduced in this historical context. Lastly, before the painting is discussed and presented, I will explain some background of how a traditional Chinese painting is created and viewed.
Nan Tang in China History
China is one of the oldest civilizations. From around 5000 - 2000 BC, an agriculture-based economy and culture were gradually established and then in the following 4000 years, from 2000 BC to 1911 AD, China was ruled by various dynasties. The length of their rule varies, but on average, a dynasty would reign for two or three hundred years until some other group overthrew them. The original system in China was slavery or feudal but it entered to an absolute monarchy from Qin dynasty at around 221 BC., followed by Han (202BC. – AD.220), San Guo (221-165), Nan & Bei (221-581), Sui (581-618), Tang (618-960), Song (960-1279), Yuan (1260-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and finally Qing (1644-1912).
The civilizations have many cultural milestones. To name a few, Chinese hieroglyphic characters and language are believed to have been invented before at least 1300 BC from the found archeological evidence. Some of the Chinese philosophy such as that of Yi Jing originated earlier, but prospered around 300 BC together with other concurrently established thoughts such as Taoism, Confucius to name a few. Silk fabric was found and developed as early as 3500 BC and had been used as a medium for painting and writing. A silk painting of at least more than 2300 years ago (Figure 5) was found in Anhui China in 1949 (Zheng, 2005, p29).
Among the monarchical dynasties, Han and Tang stand out as the time of consolidation, of practical achievement and of immense stability. Han and Tang themselves are like ancient Greece and Rome in China’s history. Especially, the Tang dynasty has been considered the ideal period in China’s history, unmatched even today. For example, the Chinese name for China Town, as found in many western cities, is “Tang Ren Jie”, which literally means Tang People Street.
The Tang dynasty greatly improved the government system by replacing the previous family reference system with imperial examinations to select government officials. The government also adopted a fair land policy called the “Equal-field System” allocated evenly to people according to the size of the households. During this period, the country went through a series of advanced technological developments, such as papermaking, woodblock printing, firearms manufacturing and shipbuilding. Economically the Tang dynasty was recorded as the largest economy in the world of its time. The Silk Road trade route had been re-opened, and much maritime trade with distant foreign countries took place. Tang’s capital, Chang’an (now Xi’an) was considered vibrant and cosmopolitan, admired by its neighboring countries. (Clunas, 1997, p152)
Under such a circumstance, much more than earlier periods, the Tang era was renowned for its time reserved for leisure activity, especially for those in the upper classes. During this period, ancient Chinese philosophy and thinking such as Confucius and Taoism developed further and Buddhism became a popular religion for common people.
The Tang period was the golden age of Chinese literature and art. There were over 48,900 poems penned by some 2,200 Tang authors that have survived till now. (Sullivan, 1977, p.125) Visual arts prospered and there were more painters than ever, especially in the royal court. The culture and art activities burgeoned and thrived in the Tang dynasty.
However, like any other dynasties, there was a decline of central authority in the later half of the dynasty. Tang finally was divided up into the state of political chaos dignified with the name of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Nan Tang (937-975) was one of the ten smaller kingdoms split from Tang. However at that time, each kingdom coveted the rest of the fellow kingdoms, and tensions and threats were always felt everywhere. There were skirmishes and even wars from time to time. Despite this situation, Nan Tang’s last Emperor Li Yu (Figure 6), who himself was one of the greatest poets and writers in history, had been indulged in writing and leisure while having no intention to strengthen his military power and no time to manage his government. His whole government was corrupt and decadent. Not surprisingly, Nan Tang survived only 38 years.
Han Xizai in Nan Tang
Han Xizai (902-970) scored high in the government examinations. He was talented in both politics and art, good at writing and composing and highly skillful in calligraphy and painting. He had been one of the Emperor’s favorite high-ranking officials in Nan Tang. He joined Nan Tang, one of the most powerful kingdoms after Tang was split, with a wish to unite China and to build another Tang dynasty. There are many alternative accounts, and I would like to present the most common one. As explained, the Emperor’s mind was not in the governance. His ruling group was split in political ideas. Mistrust, corruption and conflicts became prevalent within the government. He pleaded allegiance to Nan Tang’s fellow Kingdoms, sacrificing Nan Tang’s sovereignty to a temporal peace.
He had a high hope for Han Xizai but distrusted those officials who came from the north where Han Xizai was from. Additionally, his corrupt officials framed Han Xizai, being jealous of Han Xizai’s ability. They told the Emperor that Han Xizai would like to overthrow his dynasty and betray him. Therefore, when Zhou’s soldiers of the Northern Kingdom pressed on the border, Li Yu offered Han to be his prime minister to solve the crisis and to test Han’s loyalty.
Judging the situation well, Han Xizai was disappointed that his loyalty was suspected and the government was corrupt. He was not satisfied at all with the Emperor’s incompetence, suspicion and corruption. However, he did not see that he could make a change in the government and to the situation. He therefore rejected the offer. He would rather indulge himself in drinking, partying, and womanizing at a much more elevated level than his peers. He was using this self-insulting way to protect himself too. During that time, partying had been considered a shameful lifestyle among intellectuals. By indulging in this lifestyle with such enthusiasm, his loyalty would never be questioned by the Emperor as he would appear to lack ambition, and he would not be considered as a threat to the government either.
The banquet party became so grand that the Emperor became suspicious and curious about it. He would like to find out the reason why Han Xizai rejected his offer and he would like to know if Han Xizai had another ambition and if the banquet was indeed what he heard of. So the Emperor Li Yu sent his court painter Gu Hongzhong to stay overnight at Han Xizai’s house to document the party in a painting. The painting Night Revels of Han Xizai was created in such a background. (Wu, 1996, p.26-27)
Chinese painting could be traced to the appearance of the hieroglyphic character followed by some representational but mainly ornamental patterns or designs on pottery and fresco in ancient times. Paintings on hard surface such as album sheets, lacquer ware, folding screens and walls are all important areas in the painting history. However, it is the introduction of silk that developed Chinese painting significantly. Paper painting happened at a much later stage. The paintings on these soft media were normally mounted later on scrolls such as hanging scrolls or hand scrolls.
The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms time is the watershed period in Chinese painting history. Before this period, there was great interest in realism. However, later, the Chinese painting style became more stylized. Rather than being representational, it focused on “Xie Yi” literally meaning, “painting to ideas”. (Xie Yi style painting example: Figure 7) This style emphasizes the artist’s thoughts and subjective perceptions. It is an idealised painting with freehand styles where proportion, light and perspective are all subject to the artist’s personal conception of the subject. The definition of time and space are highly subjectivised.
The scroll form of paintings in China had distinctive effects. For example, Chinese paintings do not have a single point or a linear perspective like the western art does. Instead, the perspective points shift as the viewer's eye moves through the landscape, unrolling, perhaps, a section of the scroll at a time. Texts are also important and inseparable from painting, especially after this “Xie Yi” shift. The painter would normally write a poem on the painting to express his reflections. Also collectors of paintings would sometimes write an aphorism, comments or a poem along side the painting scrolls.
Night Revels of Han Xizai
The painting Night Revels of Han Xizai was created in this distinctive historical and cultural context. It was the highlight of realism before the representational style developed in the previous thousands of years shifted to the idealism style. It was actually a product of “painting-journalism” more than one thousand years ago.
The painting is mounted on a hand scroll of 28.7 x 335.5 cm. There are five parts in the length of 335.5cm with every part of around 60 cm approximately.
Hand scroll was a popular form of painting and presentation. Viewers roll out the scroll from the right to the left. As the hand scroll is normally very long, the viewers have to roll in the right part back to the scroll to save the desk space to view further left part. (Figure 8 & 9: an example of a hand scroll being viewed by the author)
As we start to unfold the scroll, it starts from a glimpse of a bed, where blankets are untidy (Figure 15). A pipa, a Chinese instrument similar to a western guitar, stuck out of this untidy bed. It is like a prelude, a frozen moment from somewhere in the past or even future. Then we see Han Xizai in grey sitting in another bed together with Lang Can who is the Zhuang Yuan of that year, the first prizewinner of government examination. There is a waitress beside too. Three of them are looking to the left. In front of them is a table with food, tea and alcohol. Further left, Li Jiaming, another government intellectual, appears with hands folded in front of him and eyes staring straight to the viewer. Then a group of five people identically are turning and looking towards left side. We become curious and motivated to continue to roll out the painting from the scroll. We start to see that in front of a picture screen sits a lady looking over the whole area playing a pipa. (Figure 10)
This first frame can be appreciated as a separate painting with a typical pictorial structure and composition. However as this frame is in the hand scroll, we feel a time element as we follow the slow speed of rolling by both hands. Before we go further we noticed that a lady stuck her body out of the screen, and we also glimpse a red drum between the gaps. (Figure 17)
Everything is subject to time and as we unfold further we start to see another man standing beside the screen. The part seen disappeared as our right hand fold them away and we are motivated to look for more scenes to be unfolded leftward.
In the second scene (Figure 11), Han Xizai changed to his informal dress knocking a big red drum. We realise that the drum was the drum we glimpsed in the previous scene. Wang Wushan, a beautiful dancer in Nan Tang history, was dancing in front of the drum. There are eight persons in the frame all immersed in the music and dance except a monk. Monk Deming, also an important intellectual monk in the history, dressed in a typical monk’s costume looking away as if contemplating something. He seems exist out of the context and out of the time and space.
There is nothing but a blank space between the second and the third scene, however this blank serves somehow to the thoughts of time and space – time is continuing and there are no numbered presumed separations. This blank is called “Liu Bai” in Chinese, literally meaning flowing white, which was actually a void physically in a painting, and was used widely later in idealised painting to create conceptual space for contemplating.
The third part (Figure 12) starts from a waitress with a tray of foods and beverages. Right beside her is the pipa lady walking towards a bed. The bed is covered with untidy blankets. From the red drapes, we recognized it is the similar bed from the very beginning. (Figure 15 & Figure 16 to compare) We remembered the pipa in the untidy bed. The logic of the time gets reversed. The bed, the pipa and the untidy blanket become a symbolic sign. In the time and space created by this hand scroll, it seems that every fragment of the scene could be considered as a start or an end or any time in between with no linear concept. We start to doubt again the separation of the painting with the time and space concept. They become more and more mixed up and integrated as we roll out the hand scroll further. Han Xizai is dressed up again sitting in a bench bed with five ladies around him. He is relaxed washing his hands. He is looking to the right, corresponding to himself playing the drum from the previous part.
Separated by another screen and the bed, we enter into the fourth scene. (Figure 13) This time Han Xizai is dressed in underwear exposing his chest and stomach. There are five ladies playing flute in front of him and another three ladies chatting around him serving. In front of another screen, Li Jiaming is playing a bamboo instrument and looking to Han Xizai.
Behind Li Jiaming there is another screen. A man turns left and talks to a woman at the other side of the screen. (Figure 18) They seem to be not only in scene four but also in scene five. (Figure 14) Han Xizai is facing directly to the right with the drumsticks. (Figure 19) In front of him, a man is sitting caressing a lady erotically while another lady is giving him a massage. (Figure 20) Behind Han Xizai, a man trying to seduce Wang Wushan walking from left to right. It seems to be a time of some climax of the party in this scene. This last scene also reminds us of the second scene where Han Xizai is knocking a drum accompanying Wang Wushan’s dance. It seems that this scene is before the second one but at the same time maybe implies another round of party.
We then finish the viewing and have to roll everything back to the original hand scroll mode; therefore we have the chance to look back swiftly, maybe spending a few more moments looking at some interesting parts during the previous procedure.
After this work is created in 970, during the next 1000 years, many Emperors and collectors collected the original painting. They wrote comments along side the painting and extended the hand scroll. Hundreds of famous painters re-painted and coped the original one. Night Revels of Han Xizai becomes a canon in China’s art history and the story was told into many different versions, eventually becoming different legends. It was not until 2000 that a contemporary artist Wang Qingsong created a new version of Han Xizai and reverberated this classical Chinese artwork, this time with a modern medium - photography.
CHAPTER 2 CONTEMPORARY CHINA BACKGROUND
Within the last three decades from the 1980s, contemporary art has developed significantly in China. Photography as an avant-garde medium is of no exception. Wang Qingsong constructed the photographic work in 2000 and named it as “Night Revels of Lao Li” based on the painting Night Revels of Han Xizai 1030 years ago. To analyse this work in Chapter 3, I would like to discuss the social, cultural, economical and political background in this Chapter, presenting a concise roadmap of the development of China art in this period.
China after Dynasties
Imperial China ended its last dynasty in 1911. From the late Qing dynasty, following the Opium War from 1840, China had been invaded by foreign powers. The country struggled in a series of civil and foreign wars and suffered with catastrophes and continuous economic downturns. Comparing with other neighboring countries such as Japan, China had not been open to the rest of the world and hence has been much less influenced by the culture, science and politics from the west. There were sporadic innovations in politics, economics and culture from the west but they never resulted in any major movements. GDP contribution percentage to the global economy had been dropping since 1840 for more than 100 years. Due to the unprecedented havoc during the period, the culture production had been poor. During the period, China’s art tradition had been doubted, adversely challenged, negated and yielded by western art like in any other colonised culture.
A new government was formed in 1949 and the country has become stable since then. After China Communist Party became a major political and ruling force from 1930s, politics played an important role in art, echoed by the Soviet Russia’s political art movement. Art came to serve the purpose of politics and became a propaganda tool for the government. The “red, light, bright” public and political idealism and realism became the mainstream to praise the success of the government using an easy-to-understand utilitarian ways targeted at the farmers, the major target. (Figure 21) Thousands of seminars, workshops and forums had been held to implement, unify and instigate the political values to artists since 1930. Artists who did not follow the then Zeitgeist were removed from important positions and even subject to prison terms. This situation developed to a climax in the notorious Cultural Revolution from 1966 till 1976. Thousands of intellectuals and artists were repressed to death during the period by the government or government affiliates. Mao’s principles of utilitarian and mass art were accepted by most of the people, which had great impact on the later development of art.
China in Eighties and Nineties
In 1979, China started to open up to the world and changed its centralised and planned economic system to a market oriented one. Under the official art association system, national galleries were still full of politically correct propaganda art works but young amateur and un-official artists started to self-organise exhibitions such as the milestone one, Star Fine Art Exhibition in 1979. (Figure 22) These ideological emancipation movements in the art world reached to a climax in 1985 and created the 85’ New Wave Movement, which studied, absorbed, and adopted the modern and contemporary art from Europe and America pursuing individual and cultural freedom. The movement and its artworks were accepted into the official and national art systems. (Gao, 2006, p23-32)
After 1989, China social transitions accelerated. The avant-garde art development lost its support from national art authorities and was confronted with unrelenting ideological context and governmental interference. Art activities changed its front from the public to the underground. Cynical Realism and Political Pop became prevalent with many artists coping, appropriating and deconstructing artistic works of the previous “Cultural Revolution”, (Figure 23) At the same time, new and diversified forms of art flourished with the phenomenon of the artist’s village and apartment art. Around the second half of 1996, conceptual photography began to emerge in contemporary Chinese art. For example, staged photography with Cultural Revolution themes appeared frequently such as Wang Jinsong’s Standard Family and Zhuang Hui’s collective photography, (Wu, 2005, p.148)
Around 1999, artist Hong Lei, Huang Yan and Wang Qingsong used photography to revisit classical Chinese paintings. (Figure 24) They used contemporary concepts and aesthetic strategies to transform and replace the original significations of the traditional painting and produced many new allegories with displaced visual impacts and strategies. Night Revels of Lao Li was created during this period in 2000.
Lao Li in Contemporary China
Lao Li in Night Revels of Lao Li is acted by “Lao Li”. The Chinese tend to address someone with the surname and add “Lao” as an honorific. Lao means old literally in Chinese. Lao Li is actually Li Xianting. He is one of the most influential contemporary art critics especially in the 1980’s and 90’s, when Chinese contemporary art was emerging. He is sometimes referred to as “the Godfather of Chinese contemporary avant-garde art”. He organised one of the most important exhibitions, Star Fine Art Exhibition, in 1979 and was the first to use the terms “cynical realism” and “political pop” in China. He graduated from Chinese Painting Department, Central Academy of Fine Art in 1978, and became the editor of Fine Art Magazine until 1983. From 1985 to 1989 he was the editor of the authoritative China Fine Art Newspaper, and was also active as an important independent critic and curator based in Beijing henceforth.
During his post, he published and edited hundreds of seminal critiques most of which were considered to be heresy in the late 70’s and 80’s. At that time, the government controlled most of the art magazines. Editors had to make sure all voices and opinions were in accordance with the government values and propositions. Due to his straightforwardness and audacity to say no to what he did not believe, he was demoted and made redundant in 1983 from Fine Art magazine. (Li, 2000, p.38) He was also summoned to clean his thoughts by authorities several times in his career.
In 2000, Wang Qingsong, a photographic artist, meticulously planned a constructed photographic of Night Revels of Han Xizai but replaced Han Xizai with Li Xianting addressed as “Lao Li”. He commented on his work as follows:
“What has been haunting in my mind is the position and destiny of the Chinese intellectuals’ experience in our history. In such an era that lacks ideals, people have cast doubt on the heroes and ideals of the past. I wanted to catch some scenes that describe such loss of hope and its replacement with the desire for money and power. To compare the past and present, I appropriated the old and known masterpiece “Night Revel of Han Xizai” which was the best piece of Chinese traditional figure painting. This old art piece reflected the then social life in the torrents of transformation, and depicted the life of a worried intellectual and high official in Post-Tang Dynasty, Han Xizai. He was powerless to fulfill his ideals of reconstructing the country. To “cleanse” himself, he chose to evade and “indulge in” comfort. After several centuries, even though the Chinese dynasties have changed frequently, the status of intellectuals in society has remained the same. With some thoughts on this question, I created “Night Revel of Lao Li”. It is a portrait of contemporary Chinese reality in this new century, portraying the situation of contemporary Chinese people, and of intellectuals in particular”. (Wang, 2000)
CHAPTER 3 IMAGE ANALYSIS
From its development in the second decade of the 20th century, semiotics has been widely applied in the field of image analysis since the 1960s. This chapter will apply semiotics tools in multiple ways to analyse and discuss the photographic work Night Revels of Lao Li. In different sections within this chapter, based on this foundation, I will first discuss the image from the connotation and denotation point of view. I shall then extend the analysis and readings from an allegorical dimension. Finally I will discuss the work from an appropriation viewpoint in the relevant social and cultural context with the introduction of post-modernism in the globalised background.
W.J.T. Mitchell (1994) introduced the phrase “pictorial turn” (p. 11-35). The phrase is used to describe the increasing importance of image oriented in the textually dominant language world. Semiotics, originally developed as a text language theory, is widely used in image or pictorial language discussions. Language and image are made up of ‘signs’ through which we make meanings.
F. Saussure defined sign as being composed of a signifier – the form that the sign takes and the signified – the concept it represents (cited in Chandler, 2004). The two elements are related by “signification”.
CS Pierce categorised sign into three types:
Index: a mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified.
Icon: a mode in which the signifier is perceived as resembling the signified.
Symbol: a mode in which the signifier does not resemble the signified but which is fundamentally arbitrary.
(cited in Chandler, 2004, p. 36).
Using these semiotics theories and devices, R. Barthes developed theories by structuring signs into two levels. He introduced denotation, connotation and myth. Denotation refers to “the literal meaning of a sign” (Burgin, 1982, p.128) and connotation refers to “the meanings that lie beyond denotation but are dependent on it”. (Burgin, 1982, p.128). After a sign is formed by signification as the denotation procedure, the meaning acts as a signifier of the second level – connotation. As the second level somehow directs ideology and culture meaning in the society, Bathes called this second level “myth”.
1. Signifier 2. Signified
(Barthes, 1977b, p.115)
While the first level is usually clear and literal, the second level will have a polysemic nature due to the arbitrary interpretation from different angles and contexts. Dyer (1986) raised the issue “concept of codes” (p.131). As codes are deeply rooted in the social, cultural and ideological context of the observer their interpretation may vary.
In Night Revels of Lao Li, the verisimilitude of colour and abundance of detail instantly correlates with our minds perception that this is a photo work. The index characteristic of the sign is demonstrated by the causal relationship of the light reflected from the actual situation to the film or digital sensor of the camera.
The image size is 96 x 600 cm not conventional for normal photographic works. After careful observation, we notice that it actually consists of five parts with repeating appearance of some of the sitters. It is so long that we don’t know which side we should start to look from. We understand it is taken in a studio, as there is no inference from the background just a blue backdrop. It seems that there is no sense of time and space as all the scenes are seamlessly linked. We know it should be done by digital technology, but why?
There are five groups of people, both men and women. Some of the ladies are playing instruments and some are serving men whilst others are flirting with other men. Men are mainly sitting, looking and enjoying all kinds of services and performances. Guitar, China flutes and colourful fans are used in the performances. Men are dressed mainly in dark and grey colour. The ladies are dressed erotically with very colourful costumes, resembling underwear. They all wear flamboyant clothing and heavy make up.
There are beds, tables, stools and screens, most of which are obviously in the traditional Chinese style. There are fruits and beverages on the tables. We see Coca-Cola and the “Jack Daniel’s” whisky. We also see a Chinese traditional stone art craft on a table.
Our common sense formed in the daily life and culture context tells us instantly that this is probably a scene of a party in modern China. It is a contemporary scene evidenced by the presence of cola and whisky – not a traditional Chinese selection of drinks! We can infer that some of the men are getting very intimate with some of the women by observing one sitting relaxed in bed with a maid washing his feet whilst another massages his back. We can also tell those ladies are probably not limiting their services to entertainment only. There are also a few girls sitting in the bed chatting in a relaxed fashion. The screen is covered with a cloth. We understand that the wooden screen is to maintain privacy and with the draping cloth we can infer there has been some level of high privacy taking place.
We notice the title of the image as “Night Revels of Lao Li”. This “anchoring” function of the text verified our surmise of the location and further reacts to our signification, which is the “relaying” function of the text. We are sure this is a night party. We can infer that Lao Li is the man in black as he repeatedly appears in the five scenes in focal positions. While most of others have facial complexions, Lao Li is always immersed into some kind of thinking with a deadpan face in each scene, looking remorseful and probably not happy at all.
These meaning processes happen at the literal level, which in our semiotics model, is the first signification level. This denotation is the ‘mechanical analogue of reality’ (Barthes, 1977a, p.18) which then acts as a signifier and pushes us to the next level - connotation.
We are all influenced by the media around us, from which we know that China has opened to the world since the early eighties but democracy has continued to suffer since this time. Continuous control of the ideology has made it difficult for people to accept things and instead question everything. What beliefs people due have are void of any spiritual element, situation further eroded by the utter commercialisation and globalisation sweeping modern China. The ethos, “work hard, play hard” is subscribed to by the masses as the route to success and dictates their lifestyles and aspirations. In this context we can surmise that the moments captured in this image capture this moment in society.
The kitschy colours of woman’s dress, the carefree, sexy and erotic interaction, foreign cola and whisky, as the symbols of “social spectacle” (Debord, 1967), signified the change from a closed communism to an open capitalism society. Deadpan expressions portray the numbness of feeling in reality and feeling of loss in this fast developing economy and society. The old Chinese traditional props such as furniture, flutes, and fans can be interpreted as the old values of China. They co-exist with the newly developed ideologies and cultures. Finally the whole scene seems to signify and is a social comment that the present generation appears lost in making merry and seems devoid of the idealism that has defined the distinctive Chinese culture over the millennia.
Connotation makes meaning via a set of codes that are “the forms of social knowledge which are derived from social practices and beliefs” (Dyer, 1982, p.135). While the above is one of the semiotic reading, others who understand China history especially art history will signify another level or kind of connotation to be discussed in the next section.
The connotation suggested at the end of the previous section is an allegorical reading. Allegory is allos agoreuei in Latin. It means to speak otherwise (allos=other; agoreuei=to speak) – to tell one story through another. Originally from literature, classical allegory had been widely used in art from before the Renaissance until the emergence of modernism. Since the start of postmodernism, there has been a resurgence of allegory in contemporary art. Intertextuality theory in semiotics can help explain the allegorical process and the analysis of Night Revels of Lao Li.
One of the weaknesses of early structuralist semiotics is that the study tends to consider the individual text or element of language. Textual or pictorial, separate or discrete, it tends to consider only internal structures. In the early eighties, Julia Kristeva introduced intertextuality. She developed two axes: a horizontal axis connecting the author and the reader, and a vertical axis connecting the text to other texts (Kristeva 1980, p.69). Kristeva claimed “every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it” (cited in Culler 1981, p.105). She proposed that we should shift our focus to structuration meaning how the structure come into being rather than only study the structure of a text or an element of a language. Later Mikhail Bakhtin developed this theory further by suggesting that language is “dialogic” which means that when a language is used, what we use is tied both to things said before and to utterances that we expect to be made in the future. (Bakhtin, 1981)
The concept of intertextuality argues that each element of language exists in relations to others. For anyone who is either of a Chinese background or has some understanding of Chinese art history, the artwork Night Revels of Lao Li instantly signified another Chinese painting Night Revels of Han Xizai, as the layout, scenes, and content are very similar. The modern photographic artwork directly alludes to the painting more than 1000 years prior.
We understand the social context of how this old painting was commissioned and how the storyline of the content developed. Rather than a simple copy of a night party scenes, this modern artwork manipulated and re-contextualised the old vocabulary, in this case, the old painting. This signification and connection give rise to an allegorical reading space.
Under our gaze, the content of the photographic work is intercepted and supplanted by “something other”. We notice that the props and subjects were replaced with new modern ones. Then after we conjure up the historical background and the old story, combined with the contemporary contexts, the allegorical meaning is generated and conveyed.
Craig Owen (1980, p.69) claimed, “the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them”. Wang Qingsong, as the author of this work, did not invent the ‘truth’ but used a camera to confiscate the scenes. He used Night Revels of Han Xizai as a vessel through which to convey something other. The allegorical meaning developed in horizontal axis, between the photographer Wang Qingsong and the viewer, and in vertical axis, between this artwork and the old painting.
Introduced and explained in Chapter 1, we understand Han Xizai was a high-level government official and an important intellectual in Nan Tang dynasty. He was deeply dissatisfied with the Emperor’s incompetence in managing the country and the government. Whilst he could do nothing to stop the government from deteriorating, he indulged himself in this wild night revels life style to declare his displaced belief and the ambivalence to the Emperor and his concurrent peers and at the same time to protect himself.
The photographic work is constructed yet not fictional. Lao Li, i.e., Li Xianting is an important art critique and was repressed due to his insistence to speak freely the ideas different from the then government. Like Han Xizai, he could not do anything to change the situation either. The photographer Wang Qingsong knows Lao Li well and considered this situation as a typical one in contemporary China. He constructed scenes copying the old painting and invited Lao Li to replace Han Xizai. Modern props replaced the traditional ones such as food, costume, and etc.
Within this constructed reality, an allegorical signification takes place and we start to use the old painting to learn the message that the contemporary intellectuals position is the same as that of more than 1000 years ago when China was feudal imperial. Wang Qingsong deconstructs the readings of the pre-existing interpretation and supplants one with another.
In an allegory, “the image is a hieroglyph; an allegory is a rebus – writing composed of concrete images” (Benjamin, 1938, cited in Owens 1980, p.84) “Night Revels of Lao Li” is a political and historical allegory. What is depicted in the photograph is not just a group of modern people partying but a social and political phenomenon with multi layered allegorical significance such as democracy, freedom, commercialisation and spectacle. We “super-induce a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events”. (Owens, 1980, p.96) Owens considered this as Barthes’ “obtuse meaning” and explained as something to do with disguise. (p.97) It is identified with “isolated details of make-up and costume (which properly belong to the literal level)” (Owens, p.98) and proclaims their artifices through excess.
Photography is an indexical surface functioning as allegory signifiers. The allegorical obtuse meaning is the “third meaning” following literal and symbolic ones. It is the third surface, under which we deconstruct the presumed meanings of the images and reconstruct another reality with the intervention of obtuse meaning. Night Revels of Lao Li draws historical and current reference reflecting allegorical enigmatic and complex realism.
This art making strategy is called appropriation. It has a further potential in signification process in the social, cultural and art context. It is more complex than both the first signification discussed as denotation and connotation and the second signification as the allegorical readings. I would like to discuss this further in the next section within its social and historical context.
Appropriation literally means the process of making something one’s own. In art, it is defined as the creation of a new work by borrowing pre-existing and already-authored images materials and objects with little or no transformation applied to them. (Chilvers, 2009, p.27) An artist may borrow from a variety of sources including artworks in history or everyday objects. One of the early and important example of appropriation is Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q in 1919. (Figure 30) Duchamp painted two moustaches on the classical work of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Since then appropriation has became an artistic tool, especially important and popular in post-modernism western from Pop Art movement in late fifties and sixties. In this section I would like to discuss appropriation in general and its background post-modernism. Then I will discuss how this international trend influenced China contemporary art. Lastly I will discuss and analyse the usages of appropriation and parody in the work, Night Revels of Lao Li.
To understand how appropriation became widely used in art in the second half of twentieth century, it is crucial to understand the social and cultural context of post-modernism, a continuation of modernism. Modernism, as the successor of Romanticism rejected the previous religion related and authority dominated artistic values. The individual subjective experience became more important. The onset of the industrial revolution and rapid technologic progress and socio-political rumblings, led to the development of Modernism “involving the pursuit of change for its own sake and issuing in forms of militant avant-gardism and experiment”. (Harrion, 1997, p.11) During the period roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s, visual art underwent radical changes from Édouard Manet’s “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1863) (Figure 31) through Impressionism, Futurism, Cubism, and at the turn of the century to Abstract Expressionism. Greenberg was one of the key art theorist of the time. His high formalism claimed that art has to liberate itself by removing ideas and meaning, from its content. Only then, can art purify itself to a higher form and become distinct from mass culture. “The significant form” becomes the reflection and expression of artist’s emotion and self. Self-criticism developed out of this process via continual avant-garde works.
The literal meaning of Postmodernism is “after modernism”. However, it refers to a complicated movement in a wide range of aspects including cultural, social, philosophical and other areas from mid 20th century. Postmodernism is difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist's premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist. Heartney (2001) used Narcissus’s reflection in water as the analogy saying the postmodernism disintegrates the moment one reaches out to grasp it. Postmodernism is a reaction towards modernism and a reflection of the conditions of our time.
Postmodernism rejects the methodology of rationalization, which itself originated from the Enlightenment period. It questions and deconstructs the system and foundation upon which science, culture, and society are based and developed. It considers that any assertion of truth and any appeal to nature, principle or system are purely sham. It argues that reality is fragmented with many old assumptions not unitary. Pluralism exists in culture, art, society etc. There is no universal foundation standard as pluralism has its own context. There is no right or wrong, superior or inferior, nothing is out of context. Same thing could lead to different perceptions in different contexts. We can no longer judge on the grounds of truth, knowledge and justice. Lyotard claimed that “grand-narratives” is substitute by “mini-narratives”.
In visual art, postmodernism was a deliberate rejection of modernism practice, theory, and criticism – especially Abstract Expressionism and the formalist criticism of Clement Greenberg’s modernism dogma. Pop Art and Conceptual Art are major movements that attack this dogma and appropriation is one of the tools. The art movement inherited the method of commercial kitsch from Pop Art and followed the approach to involve the viewer as part of the work against Greenberg’s “high art”. It deliberately abandoned the artist’s self, sometimes employing highly mechanical constrictions in creating works as a rejection of Greenberg’s “emotion and feeling”. All these attribute to the reaction and reflection against modernism. It questioned and deconstructed the modernism art system and it offered a great plural art form to postmodernism art. It is of “mini-narratives” in the historical context when pure formalism thoughts dominate the art world, which is opposed to the fact that the movement eventually walked into art institution - the “grand-narrative” in modernism art.
Postmodernism, as the continuation, reaction, reflection against modernism, provided a much-needed corrective to the exclusionary and falsely universal worldview of Greenberg-style modernism. Postmodernism is the avant-garde movement to develop modernism. It is within this context appropriation became one of a major tools to confront previous canon work, question authority and follow the post modernism trend.
China followed a different time frame. Appropriation art and other avant-garde art approaches appeared in China 30 years later. There had been wide use of appropriation only in the early 90’s when political pop became a major movement. Artists like Wang Guangyi (Figure 23), Zhang Hongtu and others appropriated mainly propaganda images and materials from Cultural Revolution to create many social critique works. Then it is up till the end of 90’s did some artists start to appropriate traditionally and historically classical canons to confront self-expression in their work. These artworks use methods of appropriation that evoke and alter works, images and concepts essential to China history and re-contextualise to convey new messages.
The social, economic, cultural and political complications in China in the last 150 years resulted in this delay. As discussed in the earlier chapters, foreign invasions in the late 19th and early 20th century together with long period of civil wars reaped unprecedented havoc in the country. Art and cultural development within this period was rather limited. With the government stabilized after 1949, the ensuing communisms utilitarian art movement stifled intellectuals’ and artists’ originality and disconnected China from the rest of the world. The ten year long Cultural Revolution in sixties and seventies deeply suppressed all forms of culture and artistic creation. Therefore different to the west, there had been no “self-reflected” and “significant form” purification process like what occurred in the early 20th century. There had been no social, cultural and political context like previous western modernism for this country to step into the postmodernism. When China opened its doors to the world, adopting economic reform in the late seventies and early eighties the changes radically altered all aspects of Chinese society including social, cultural, political and economical aspects.
Russian Soviet Realism had been dominating art in China. The system had been rigid, not accepting any other art form. Anyone who dared to use any other art form would be thrown out of the official art system, which was the only art circle at that time. The system was like a factory with sets of rigid rules to create art. For example, for any sketch, the background had to be in a dark grey colour, for high key areas 2B pencil had to be used, for shadow areas, 4B pencil had to be used, students sketch otherwise would be doomed to fail in exams. (Wang, 2010, p.232) Any other form would be branded as capitalism thought and would be criticized or even punished.
Additionally, Chinese art education had been traditionally conservative. For thousands of years, not only in art but also in literally everything such as literature, calligraphy and music “Fang” has always been the key process. “Fang” means copying in Chinese. It is prescribed that students should train their techniques by copying from past masters and referring to the masterpiece of classical paintings and the fixed set of conventions of subjects and compositions. An artist could spend most of or even all of the life copying canon works sometimes even without creating their own.
For decades due to the closed nature of the country people knew nothing about the west and artists were ignorant of how western art developed at all. When the doors opened in the eighties an despite the lack of readiness to digest and accept western new techniques and thoughts, the cultural and art circle started to be vibrant out of a sudden. The system at that time was yet to catch up and art was yet to be free from system checks. Within a couple of years, contemporary Chinese art was swarmed with new, radical, and interesting art works, exhibitions and movements. Modernism and Post Modernism art technique and strategies had been used at the same time. As Martina Koppel-Yang (2004) argued in Semiotic Warfare,
“Contemporary Chinese art should not be understood as a copy of Western modernity or Post-modernity, but… ‘as a set of cultural translations’.” (p.126)
To China, this period was a cultural phenomenon, a social experience and an ethos or spirit, which challenged people and society to explore something new and unknown in uneven means. In the current context of China, post-modernity should not be understood as a coherent response to the decline of modernity, but rather as a range of responses to all sorts of phenomenon of pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity. It was within this context appropriation started to be used and became a mature art techniques in contemporary China.
The previous semiotics theory can also be used to understand this. With the basis of myth formation as part of a process of signification, Barthes explained in his book Mythologies (1957) that dominant culture is seen to operate through appropriation: It abstracts the specific signified into social groups into general signifiers that are then consumed as cultural myths. By the same token, the culture and institution appropriate a well-known or favourite work and mythify it as a canon or a popular reference. Then Barthes proposed a counter-appropriation:
“Truth to tell, the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth: and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology… All that is needed is to use it as a departure point for a third semiological chain, to take its signification as the first term of a second myth.” (p.135)
Much appropriation art flourished in the seventies and eighties in the west. These arts followed Barthes’ strategy: to break apart the authoritarian mythical sign, to appropriate some or all of them in a critical montage, and then to circulate this new artificial myth in turn. Douglas Crimp (1977, p.27) defined appropriation into two categories: regressive and progressive. Regressive appropriation is to find and mimic historical style and content while progressive is to utilize current everyday material such as ready made. Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q appropriated Mona Lisa myth in this way challenging the definition of canon. Most of the Pop Art in the sixties created new myths using a progressive appropriation.
Night Revels of Lao Li on the other hand used appropriation both regressively and progressively. China economy took off especially in late 90’s. The market economy continue to develop further following the economic reform in the 80’s, and the whole society was abandoning everything to frantic consumerism. Drinking Coke and eating McDonalds became fashionable symbols. Colourful polyester garments were replacing the grey and dark uniform like clothes. Old values such as Maoism and Confucius were replaced gradually by lust for Epicureanism. Like previous pop art artists, Wang selected every day symbolic items and appropriated them in his work. We see kitsch colours, costumes and props such as the symbolic Coke, whisky, and colourful sexy dress in Night Revels of Lao Li. He used this technique to explore the dynamic change and the resulted confusion and contradictions of a country overwhelmed by the unprecedented market economic and social reform.
The colourful kitsch has another dimension of reading in China, too. The communist utilitarian art thoughts dominate China art for decades. One of the important advocates is to create artwork for the mainstream. For thousands of years Chinese art had developed as a language only for intellectuals. To please the major force of the revolution, the government would like to create an easy art form for the farmers as they accounted for the majority of the population. (Li, 1999, p.19) Farmers in China traditionally like rather colourful paintings especially for Chinese New Year. There is a strong tradition that every household buys paintings for the New Year, which are normally very colourfully created by government sponsored proletariat artist. (Figure 32) Wang de-contextualised the typical kitsch colour out of the farmer’s surroundings and used it in this work, a photographic re-made of a canon masterpiece in China art history. When it lost the down-to-earth farmer context, these kitsch colours start to echo commercialism and farmers taste and to act as an irony and satire for the social status quo.
Wang also regressively appropriated the classical painting Night Revels of Han Xizai. The long scrolls format, the five scenes setup, the storylines are all copied from the original work. He used modern dressed people and props to re-stage and mimic a scene 1000 years ago. Interestingly, while the painting was documenting the new work using the pencil-of-light photography medium constructed the scene. It is fictional yet not exactly. Wang invited one of the top contemporary intellectuals Li Xianting to replace the hero of the painting Han Xizai. While the scene is fake, constructed and fictional, Li Xianting is real. He stepped into a time and space deadpan and bewildered. The story and scene was from the past but it seems to have occurred in the modern times complete with modern surroundings. The studio cleansed all the traces of time and space like the painting 1000 years ago. It created a third space, in which the old and the new became convoluting and co-existing.
Wang, the photographer, was in each of the frame too. In the first scene he was hiding behind the screen like a voyeur; in the second scene he was hiding behind the curtain; in the third he was sitting just in front of the curtain talking to a mobile phone; the fourth beside a stainless rubbish can sipping coke looking towards the whole room; and finally sitting and looking to ground as if in contemplation. He was part of the group physically but at the same time he was not engaging, so he seemed, on the other hand, not from the concurrent group. At the beginning he was half hiding, then he was relaxed sitting in the space, and at last he seems deep in thought. There is another space here, that of Wang’s thoughts. He is an outsider but at the same time an insider; a contemporary figure but at the same time maybe from 1000 years ago too, from Night Revels of Han Xizai.
Night Revels of Lao Li blurred traditional China, modern China and the globalised west. It asked many questions to art, politics, culture and many other aspects in contemporary China. It also redefined China semantic mechanisms.
John Calvin Ferguson researched the painting Night Revels of Han Xizai and found that there are 18 versions created after Gu Hongzhong’s original one. (Ferguson, cited in Lei, 2008, p.293) We can infer that there should be at least dozens or even hundreds more of versions of Night Revels of Han Xizai painted by other painters in history as most of them probably got lost or damaged in the prevailing millennia. There are also dozens of books on this painting published, explaining, analysing and commenting this canon work. One of the books written by Michael Sullivan even mentioned Wang Qingsong’s appropriated photographic work. Sullivan commented Wang’s work
“…a somewhat tasteless work that claims to be a satire on China’s current flirtation with Western culture, and succeeds only in diminishing the original” (2008, p.74)
Night Revels of Lao Li may look bazaar or tasteless from a pure visual or formal point of view. However the content – the multi layered semiotic readings behind the work are far from tasteless. It is one of the milestone art works in China Contemporary Art History. To understand the work, the social and cultural context has to be thoroughly analysed and understood. Therefore, in this dissertation, being mindful that the readers are western, I purposely spend a significant part of the length to explain the social, cultural and political background for both Night Revels of Han Xizai and Lao Li.
Especially for the work Night Revels of Lao Li, as its context is rather complex with a globalised western background, I introduced the western influence to the social, cultural and political aspects in China. Being Chinese, I tried to analyse and discuss from an insider’s point of view, however at the same time I used some western theoretical frameworks such as semiotics, allegory and appropriation to analyse the work.
Above all my aim is to go beyond the obvious political and social commentaries on this photographic work. Instead I focus on the indigenous sources of cultural self-understanding and self-correction within China cultural context. Given the complex nature of contemporary China’s relationship with the west, the dichotomy of East and West must be taken into account. I consider this dichotomy as symptomatic social, cultural and political pressures, not as a given which exists in reality but as a system to understand two amorphous concepts. This dichotomy is especially important to China contemporary art from early 80’s when China opened its doors to the west. With this in mind, I introduced western postmodernism and its background related to the concurrent east for a better understanding of the context to the photographic work. Then using the semiotics, allegory and appreciation theories, I discussed and presented multi layers of reading for reference and some conceptual space for further engaging and studying.
Night Revels of Lao Li is a pastiche with less props, acts and even numbers of sitters. From the literal point of view, the painting of Han Xizai may be much more interesting, pleasant and engaging. However, as a product from an avant-garde way of contemporary art making, Night Revels of Lao Li is no doubt a complex presentation in China’s concurrent context. It is one of the milestone artworks, which demonstrates that photography became a mature medium in contemporary China art. Before Wang’s Night Revels of Lao Li, photography usage in China art was stagnated in pure documenting stage. It was like that of pre-conceptual art movement in western art history when photography acted as a proof to record the conceptual art process. Wang’s constructed photography gives photography confidence to exert its pictorial potential to emulate its bother, the medium of painting. This work in China contemporary art history can be compared with Jeff Wall’s A Picture for Woman (1979) in the west contemporary art history, which appropriated Édouard Manet’s Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1881). (Figure 33 & 34) Night Revels of Lao Li opens more possibility to utilise China’s thousands years of classic art and cultural heritage and propel contemporary art to the next era.
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