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2017.09.07 Thu, by Zhu Yingying Translated by: Alvin Li
Ears Set Free

It was last April, at Fruity Space, Beijing. Walking through a narrow entrance and down the stairs, a traditional Indian ensemble was about to start their performance. The sound of a sarod and a sitar dipped in and out of the tabla drumbeats as though they were improvising a heated conversation. Soon, a melodious and rich female voice chimed in; it was from a woman sitting on the ground. Her expression was calm and composed, but her singing gave the impression that she was telling a tragic story in tears. The strings rattled under her fingertips, resonating like metallic particles; together with the sometimes groovy and at other times uplifting drumming, it forged an exotic soundscape. Everyone sat cross-legged on the floor as if performing a ritual where they followed the enchanting melody to a mysterious and profound dimension. For a moment I lost myself in ecstasy, and I sensed the existence of a veiled community. This community had a natural cohesion; like a constellation in chaos, its shape was ungraspable to my eyes, and yet I really could feel its existence. The poem Pipa Xing (The Lute Ballad) suddenly came to my mind, which perhaps translates to: if the singing wasn’t genuine, how would the singer know if the audience was moved? In a situation where isolated individuals come to be connected through shared sensorial experiences, individual and social differences are dispelled, albeit briefly. As a non-professional arts writer, I am always parsing the artworks at an exhibition. I wrestle with language and weigh it against my interpretation as well as the status quo, and it is always exhausting labor. In a puzzling situation where one performs after another, I often find myself distracted. But at that moment, the melody felt strangely compelling and spontaneous.

“印度传统音乐会”,Fruity Space,2016年4月22日

At Fruity Space, April 22, 2016

Fruity Space门口,演出结束后的观众

In from of Fruity Space after the performance

In the 1970s, a prevailing anarchism prompted youthful rock and rollers who were mostly of the proletariat to unite and revolt against hegemony. One era ushers in another; this anarchist spirit has waned and has instead given rise to the listless attempts at imitating and “playing cool” among Chinese youth. The yesteryear scenes of punk, skinheads, scoundrels, and left-wing youths occupying and setting fire to the streets of Europe are long gone, only leaving the Mohawks and leather jackets behind as mere signs of idiosyncrasy. Similar situations are also evident in the art world: young artists are often smitten by some supposedly avant-garde movements, and they tirelessly chase down trends by dwelling in notions of contemporaneity, post-modernity, and other theoretical doctrines. Perhaps any youth culture must first undergo a stage of worshipping an idealized Other, and in their pursuit of the selfhood of the Other, most people start to mask the weakness of their souls, avoid questioning what lies between ultimate meaning and practical value, and instead escape into their romanticized sentiments. Losing their basic understanding of the self and a sense of belonging, their original intention now turns into a corrupting rhetoric and hollow slogans that do not at all offer any hope of self-liberation. Meanwhile, the incessant emphases on the value of the individual have ironically blurred individual differences, leaving our mind in a state of passive unconsciousness. Many are deceived by these terms and concepts, and they take these excuses as the sufficient reason for their further imitation.

When we hear a melody, or a beat, it alters our auditory perception, moves our body, affects our emotions, and triggers our memories. And different genres of music can create distinct ambiences in different performance spaces. The performance space is itself a field of energy. For instance, small “live houses” dedicated to experimental music tend to leave out the raised stage typically seen in more commercial venues so that the audiences and performers can gather in their narrow space and together enjoy a dynamic moment. In this moment, the musical experience becomes much more integral: the flow of air, the sounds of coughing, the drawing of the breath, the odor from sweating, the smell of cigarettes and alcohol, the crowd’s gaze, their hairstyles and looks, and the myriad ways they perform and listen—all a part of an organic whole. Many artists who emphasize the power of sensorial experience often share this desire for a deeper and more extensive connection with audiences. The history of rock has witnessed numerous collaborations between artists and musicians: besides Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, generations of artists have drawn from the underground rock movement in the second half of the twentieth century and found inspiration in its transgressive spirit, which manifested itself in the manifold forms of free jazz, psychedelic rock, and experimental noise. These artists went on to paint the white cube with dirt, and blasted harsh and deafening noise in gallery basements. But the artistic environment in China is a complete different case. No thanks to censorship, we can hardly see the performances and live acts we crave; meanwhile, creative practices in the art field and in music have shown little confluence or attempts to learn from each other.

Over the past year or so in Beijing, performance venues have closed down one after another. Since then, I have witnessed a group of young experimental musicians moving around bars, hutongs, underground passages, and friends’ living rooms, where by strategically using a wide range of instruments and equipment, they have managed to continue their spontaneous performances.

I have also seen the crowd in Dada and Lantern Club losing themselves in fake liquor and electronic music. The young people partying in these places are a quirky bunch: girls wearing snow-white foundation and shiny red lipstick walk in and out in darkness; intoxicated, the crowd give chase to liquor and lose themselves in the hormonally infused groove. What consumers in nightclubs look for is spontaneous pleasure. Sometimes, it doesn’t even have anything to do with music; to get high is their most essential need, their only commitment.

In contrast to regular performance venues, music becomes flat in those art events held at galleries and museums, where music sometimes only serves the purpose of breaking the ice or pleasing the crowd. In a social setting filled with industry people sipping and chattering mirthfully, a mild dose of electronic beats always feels chic. Elegant professionals eagerly flaunt their taste in art through their style from head to toe. They always want to blend into a group and reap benefit from the conversation; anxious of becoming an outcast, they avoid the strange looks of others and would rarely let themselves relax in the groove. After all, they only feel like getting wild when intoxicated in a dimly lit space. A place where artworks gleam during the day, the white cube immediately transforms into an uncomfortable space at night. Realizing this limitation, some move their exhibition’s after party to a regular performance venue. They would usually pick a theme best suited to the exhibition and select the music according to the tastes of the artist and his or her social circle, in an attempt to set the mind and body of the guests at ease so that they can lose themselves in a good night out. Isn’t that exactly the purpose of a party?

“第六颗子弹:形式的弹性”,散装演出现场,拾萬空间,2016年7月16日

“第六颗子弹:形式的弹性”,散装演出现场,拾萬空间,2016年7月16日
At Hunsand space, Beijing, July 16, 2016

“吹万在美术馆”,2016年8月27日,北京民生现代美术馆

“吹万在美术馆”,2016年8月27日,北京民生现代美术馆
Minsheng Museum Beijing, August 27, 2016

In the meantime, some art spaces seek a closer engagement with music in hopes of integrating it into the agenda of contemporary art, and their common strategy is to invite bands or ensembles for performances that are more formal than the ones typically seen in bars and live houses in order to differ themselves from the latter. At Chui Wan’s performance at Minsheng Art Museum last year in Beijing, audience members were invited to sit in a big circle, with the four band members standing in the middle. The sound of the drum, the bass, the synthesizers, and the guitar moved fluidly in the air and through the audiences, generating an intense energy in the empty museum space. Last July, when night came at the opening of the exhibition “Drug” at Husand Space, several figures walked to the front of a dim projection screen one after another. Slowly, the chaotic noise from the electronic hardware, the saxophone’s whimsical timbre, and the calm beats of a drum machine rose from the dark alongside the early fall breeze. Several new media artists from Hangzhou and experimental musicians from Beijing started performing together on stage. The audiences could hear from their music how they shared a youthful and experimental spirit, a connection that transcended their different fields of interest and geographical distance. The empty field outside the gallery was packed by both art professionals and music fans; while some seemed unimpressed, others stood still and listened.

Both musicians and artists hope to play a more proactive role on the social stage and interact with the public more effectively and concretely. When art has fully integrated into society and everyday life, “art” as a conceptual term in turn loses its meanings. That constricted vision of art which we often lament is nothing but the product of an ideologically imposed order. All actually existing realities and matters have been resting somewhere in peace, without undergoing any changes. It is only in our mind where they go through transformations. You accept it and then reject it, only to realize after relentless twists and turns that they have always been there in place. Perhaps we always mistake the order imposed on our mind as truth, and forget that the true origin of the creative power lies in the matter behind the categories within this ideological order. To experience and to perceive through experience, to actively listen and observe, to respect a thing regardless of its maturity, to focus on the reasons and conditions of its formation without imposing arbitrary assumptions or categorization—this allows your hands to break free from chains, to light up a fire in the hidden corners of the quotidian. To relish in this process of wandering and exploring is what makes anything matters. Life rose out of a strange relationship between subjects and objects, and it is in life where those flickering concepts are born. All of this is to get you fully prepared: one day, you will wake up in the morning from a bad dream, and as you open your eyes, an image appears, a sound rings by your ear, the air is frozen, you sit up and observe, waiting and carefully listening. You then discover the resurrection of the old, and the rebirth of the new. In the crisscrossing of space-time, the soul is lost, and reality feels cruel; you feel the tears of joy and exploding ecstasy. Aspirations and illusions violently collide in your mind; in this state of restless fever, everything is quietly waiting for you to document its life, to prove its existence.

地安门西大街某地下通道演出,阿科,刘心宇,Daniel Aschwanden,阎硕,2017年5月26日

地安门西大街某地下通道演出,阿科,刘心宇,Daniel Aschwanden,阎硕,2017年5月26日

由颜峻发起的“客厅巡演”,2015年7月14日于美术馆后街某观众家中

由颜峻发起的“客厅巡演”,2015年7月14日于美术馆后街某观众家中