People crowd the raft of empty Coke cans and Pepsi bottles. Tourists, clubbers, musicians, students, sun bathers. Protestors are matched with actors, mendicants with diners, a photographer and his model with a mugger and his victim. The flag is red, the sky is grey, but unlike Delacroix’s “original”, there is no ship on the horizon, blind or otherwise.
“The Raft of the Medusa”, Hu Jieming’s huge photo-tableaux from 2000, might be read as another version of Cynical Realism, the movement that came to define post-1989 Chinese art around the world until its very success caused it to devolve unwittingly into self-parody as anodyne restaurant decoration. Yet it also contains the critical strategies Hu has employed ever since to pry out the complicated relationships we have with visual culture and history in the post-internet universe, namely the superabundance of images, an excess of information, and the apparent relativism of positions including (but not limited to) the political, social or intellectual realms, and complicated by imperfect memory.
“We are often indecisive about many things: such are the disordered fragments of our conscious minds.” (1)
Assuming individual agency, the inability within the body politic to decide for oneself is infantilizing—without the power to actually govern oneself, agency is belittled. Yet within the wider population, atomized and subject to random and unstoppable contradictory currents (be they bureaucratic, medical, technological or even ecological), even the desire for such precise personal control seems at most optimistic, perhaps obsessive and possibly even absurd. Hence, the strangely similar attractions of authoritarianism and anarchism: control and disruption, Apollo and Dionysus —the desire for things to be taken care of and to punch someone in the face. And it doesn’t matter, because it’s all the same anyway, which ultimately brings us to the self-abrogation of agency. Maybe we are children after all. Looking at world politics now, it would seem so.
Meditating on the whimsical, cavalier, and animalistic nature of our desires — political, social or sexual: what we want— forms half of the background to critical themes in Hu Jieming’s work. (2) The other is formal or artistic themes founded on our unresolvable relationship with history and technology, namely the super-excess of information, including images. Long before terms such as “politically correct” or “post-truth” were employed, for centuries strategies were invented and deployed to control language and thought so as to control people. Advertising is an example (the line between political and commercial was always artificial). Another way to think of this is to understand people not only as consumers of products, but also of ideas, time, space, working hours or entertainment quotas, and in fact to think of consumers themselves as data carriers, which in turn are products for consumption, including by the very channels serving us as consumers. The circularity is enervating, and tedious. It is also increasingly hackneyed. The worlds imagined notably by Borges or umpteen science fiction scenarios, from the The Matrix to Inception, are in a sense merely (infinite…) variations on the myth of Sisyphus: a compulsion to live with a relentless lack of agency, an infinite realm of repetition and boredom, and an inability to tell what is real anyway. Everything is the same, nothing will change. In the symbolic world, we now have the perfect model to demonstrate this: the internet.
“One Hundred Years in One Minute” (2010) is beguilingly simple: a “video and sound installation consists of 1,440 storage [boxes] arranged in the form of a matrix screen. 10 high definition projectors are used to project 1,100 videos onto the ….[boxes]….the video images are excerpted from a wide spectrum of the archive of international art.”(3)
The videos are then edited to augment their subjects. For instance, a Francis Bacon screaming Pope or an Yves Klein anthropomorphic monoprint painting are changed (animated) from their “original”. Meanwhile, 120 loudspeakers project recordings (human, artificial, and natural), which in turn are processed on site and then projected via a further 10 loudspeakers. Thinking—in particular metaphors—resembles synesthesia; we just haven’t recognized our symptoms. The chaos of images and cacophony of sounds here is a deliberate affront to hierarchy, knowledge, history, taste, and judgement.
“When looking back, we find that languages, visual patterns, beliefs, institutes, the internet, systems, academic regulations, and even the power mechanism cannot be regarded as subjects. They are merely a pile of fragments, leaving a series of obscure traces behind. Or there’s another possibility…[T]he free games and dances that have given rise to languages and philosophies are open-minded and boundless…”(4)
The risk here is relativism: everything is equally confusing.
Experiencing the works, from a distance or meandering along the snaking wall of boxes, despite the impression of omniscience, the panoptic ability to see everything at once, it is impossible to do so. Beholding one box means that others are obscured and other sounds are confused. And the image itself is changing — the video constantly broadcasting a variation on originality/reality.
Born 1957 in Shanghai, Hu Jieming has spent his career dwelling on the imperfections of memory.
“A World Is Under Construction” (2006-2013) is a proto-social network. A “virtual” world is projected onto a wall and visitors can send personal images via their mobile phones to the “surface” that other visitors can view if they wish. It is literally a world of memories, but they are disconnected — without context— and therefore also instance a type of cultural amnesia.
A work that pays homage to the Beuysian tradition of using cupboards as media, as memory data-carriers, is “The Remnants of Images” (2013). Old filing cabinets are filled with old and new photographs, public and private. Some are partially animated and displayed on video screens. The images are drawn from family albums and the internet. Some were taken by Hu himself. They flicker and change while the drawers open and close at random. Like memory itself, the information is there but not always accessible, sensible or reliable, and not necessarily where we thought we left it. Because we cannot trust our memories, we rely on external archives, and more often than not, that means the internet. But this public mind is also error prone, filled with holes, and frequently subverted.
Similarly, in “Black Box Lab” (2012-2013), which Hu made for the 9th Shanghai Biennale, one enters a shipping container, 12 x 3 x 4 meters, an interactive performance space, recordings of which (e.g. blind men touching an elephant) become part of its archive: the thing itself, shaped by its experience (what takes place) and shared experience (what is brought to the box by the participants/audience), and interpretation: the archive was shared— broadcast— via the internet to the biennale’s non-exhibition spaces, such as the café and toilets. Again, despite an abundance of information and epistemological organization, the limits of humanity, of individual and collective memory, with all their idiosyncrasies and inadequacies, make memory quite febrile, but also mortally poetic. The search for meaning is quixotic: flawed and doomed but also noble and transcendent.
Hu concretized this notion in “Tai Chi” (2014), a mechanical installation of 220 larger-than-life fiberglass “human” bones forming a skeleton of the remains of an unidentified creature—whether it is a dinosaur, a mythical monster or a failed experiment is unclear. But somehow it is not dead: it slowly traverses the space. 108 projectors hidden in the creature’s bones beam historical images representing “happiness” and “sadness” onto the floor and walls, sometimes reflecting off the beast’s own skeleton.
“Overture” (2014) develops “Black Box’s” anthropic metaphor of a stage-room, with projections of 800 video images (threads from different stories and experiences), glimpsed through chinks in the wall of a dark, empty room. We are inside our own heads at the very moment of decoding, where (we think) we choose what we will (try to) interpret.
This brings us to Hu Jieming’s most recent work. “Synchrony”, an installation at ShanghART’s Beijing gallery that incorporates three works as a united theatrical performance; “Synchrony”, “The Remnant of Images— Day & Night” (a version of the 2013 work) and “Related to Happiness”. Here the darkened room is presented as a psycho-stage, with film wall-projections (the set) oriented around a central performance (the actor). The video and photographic fragments from “Remnant” —damaged family portraits, locations, public and private events, historical currency in the collective conscience—are dramatized by scale and setting but also made equal: the private is historical and the political is private, the personal and the public are equal. The fundamental conflict between familiarity and forgetting remains the confusion of similarity, of shared experience: everything you have forgotten is unoriginal and could be remembered by someone else; nothing is forgotten, but no-one owns anything.
Paired with “Remnants” is “Synchrony”, a single-screen projection, which acts as a summation and evolution of “Remnants”. Some images are drawn from Hu’s own family, others are found images, historical and contemporary, from different locations and contexts. The images have been “hybridized”, edited and augmented. Facial expressions have been animated using image synthesis technology. Things aren’t exactly as we remember them, appearing simultaneously familiar and foreign. Yet in the confusion lies freedom and even reassurance: the ability to re-animate ancestors and to travel across space and time. The context may be shifting but the ability to employ the images as a time machine affords an escape route as an opportunity to rebuild memories. It is a comforting opiate.
In the centre of the room is “Related to Happiness” (2016). A robotic piano plays a tune transcribed from an electrocardiogram. Via electrodes placed on the skin, an EKG records the electrical activity of a heart over a period of time. The EKG in “Synchrony” was taken whilst the adult-subject (patient?) masturbated (a reference to Vito Acconci’s (b.1940) “Seedbed” performance in 1972). A television monitor shows the score. Another shows the act, the private exposed as science and personal narrative— a dream— and its inevitable bi-product, pornography (the private dream transformed for public exploitation).
As in Borge’s short story, the library is infinite, but also, despite constant maintenance, decrepit at the edges. Parts of it have been lost or are too unstable to traverse. We are our own librarian and subject to the archive’s fate. We struggle to find that significant quote in a book we cannot quite recall, left somewhere, not where we thought, and maybe it was another book anyway. The stories are infinite and similar and the repetitions overlap —it is easy to lose our way. Truth is not so much a delusion as confounded by human imperfection. Yet inside the chaos there remains the solace of the images, of memories, and constant acts of remembering and performance, for all their imperfections.
1. Quoted in Our Future: The Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection, Ex. Cat., Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, July 19–October 12, 2008, p. 82. (Note: with the benefit of hindsight, we can only lament the galling hypocrisy of the exhibition title).
2. Interestingly, after graduation in 1984, Hu Jieming shared a studio with Shi Yong, another sharp critic of the conflations of irony.
3. Hu Jieming, “One Hundred Years in One Minute”, Ex. Cat., ShanghART and Hu Jieming Studio: Shanghai, October 15, 2010, p. 11.
5. Since the mid-2000s, employment of cupboards as memorial and fetish object has been a regular theme in Chinese art, examples including Chen Zhe’s “Remembering the Forgotten, Forgetting the Remembered (Revisiting the Bearable)” (2007-2010/2016), which is included in the 11th Shanghai Biennale, Shao Yi’s “Exposure: Wardrobe 07” (2008) and recently Geng Jianyi’s “Untitled 11” (2015).