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2010.10.09 Sat, by Translated by: 徐苏静
Popular Music in Contemporary Art…
....or Adolescents groping in the dark

During a recent debate over sound art that seemed to grip several quarters of the Hong Kong art world for the better part of the summer of 2010, one of the recurring topics of discussion was the relationship between art and music. Dominated by figures emerging from the contemporary classical and experimental spheres, however, this has been a distinctly theoretical conversation, revolving around the parallel but temporally offset historical development paths taken by the contexts of music—in and beyond the concert hall—and art—in and beyond the white cube of the gallery. Setting aside, for a moment, the many sensitive and intelligent artists working with sound as material, medium, and genre, of which there are many in China — from Yan Jun in Beijing to Yao Dajuin in Taipei and Cedric Maridet in Hong Kong — one particularly overlooked territory may yet contribute something additional to the field: that of independent popular music.

This is a fraught topic, one that often devolves all too quickly into hype for “genre-spanning hipsters” and other distasteful members of the fray labeled “creative China.” On the other hand, this was also, until recently, a marker of some cultural resentment, especially as the period that saw musicians like Zuoxiao Zuzhou sharing live-work space in the East Village with artists like Ai Weiwei gave way to the auction bubble for Chinese contemporary art and international obscurity for domestic music. For the historical background to this transition, see the important scholarly work on politics, identities, and relationships within and between these two communities carried out by critic and curator Maya Kóvskaya. The topic of this column, however unfortunately, is both less expansive and more prosaic, attempting to examine several of the more recent instances of exchange between contemporary art and independent pop music in an effort to determine what further dialogue might be able to accomplish, and what alterations to this process may be necessary.

In Hong Kong, at least two of the leading artists working locally also lead independent bands. Nadim Abbas, who has lent keyboard and vocals to the disco punk and modulated noise quarter A Roller Control since 2008, is recognized primarily for his visual work, as with the project installed in the Hong Kong Museum of Art exhibition The Hong Kong Seven that compared the varying shapes of window barriers to Rorschach blots and assigned a new superhero identity for each. Having completed advanced formal studies in literary theory and being widely read in critical modalities, Abbas represents a more intellectual pole of the Southern Chinese art scene. With A Roller Control, on the other hand, he fabricates walls of noise uniquely suited to art contexts—which is appropriate, given that the best live music venues in the city more or less recreate the rote/cookie-cutter post-industrial shells from which gallery spaces are created. This is a new incarnation for the group—which previously emphasized more danceable styles—but this seems likely to stick given the increasing preponderance of large-scale cultural festivals, exhibitions, and other events, even as longstanding performance venues like the Fringe Club fade into the background of the local scene.

Also in Hong Kong is the part-time resident, Adrian Wong, who teaches for a portion of the year at the University of California in Los Angeles. He has just recently taken the helm of an energetic group that has seen a quick succession of names, and is at the moment working under the label Fantastic, I Love You. Born and educated in the United States, Wong brings the tactics of rigorous archival and scientific research coupled with a crude sense of humor to the Chinese art world, thus rarely fitting in amongst the more subdued artists emerging from the official Hong Kong art education system. His latest project may be the consummate demonstration of this approach, investigating sobriety as a parameter of expressive performance and offering an unbridled space of energy to a quiet scene.

Artists moonlighting as musicians (or musicians making art, or dilettantes trying out a bit of everything) are nothing new, of course; this is a long-standing tradition in many parts of the world, and the nexus of independent music and experimental art has played an integral role in the historical development of scenes from Los Angeles of the 1960s to the Lower East Side of the 1980s. In Hong Kong, however, this offers new possibilities for less systematic, more purely affective or sensory approaches to the creation of cultural objects, creating a plane of exchange removed from the straitjacketed processes of traditionally insular studio practice that is derived from an odd imagination of scholarly painting implicit to the post-colonial ideologies of education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, from which (until recently) the majority of practicing local artists graduated. We are also beginning to note similar trends in mainland China, though the quality of musical practice in that situation is highly variable.

The most interesting example at the moment may be the relationship between N12, a group of painters who studied together at the Central Academy of Fine Arts that once included now well-known figures like Qiu Xiaofei and Wang Guangle, and Shanshui, a record label operated by Sun Dawei that represents 8-bit and intelligent dance music artists like Sulumi (a stage moniker for Sun himself), Liman, Dead J, and B6. Recognizing that commercial success had bolstered visual art long before music, a nebulous organization known as the N12 Foundation has offered funding for publicity and compilation publications for the label, while Shanshui events have also seen participation from a crowd of like-minded painters and other artists. This cooperative relationship is no doubt spurred on by the relationship between Cao Yang, the lead singer of the respected electronic rock band Exit A, and N12, though it should be said that there is also a certain overlap in terms of aesthetic sensibility, as with A Roller Control and Fantastic, I Love You in Hong Kong.

Other attempts at cross-genre synergy, as with attempts by the Modern Media music critic, Jian Cui, the second-rate punk musician, Wang (Gia) Yue, of Hang on the Box, and others to present themselves as artists, often under the aegis of exhibitions and markets known as “Mary Inn” and organized by You Yang, have fallen remarkably flat, offering stunningly naive interpretations of the discourses of contemporary art. Falling into this latter category, too, would be the “graphic art” with which many self-consciously hip foreign observers and young Chinese are enamored, works that offer nothing whatsoever for intelligent viewers and do little to enhance the music, design, and apparel with which it is associated. Much of this activity is carried out in hopes of building wider markets for this material, an explicitly statistics-oriented commercial aim for which serious artists and musicians have little patience.

These highly visible missteps notwithstanding, the transferral of artistic energies into music (and, more occasionally, of musical energies into art, though this asymmetry derives more from the primary position of independent music in the popular consciousness rather than the elitism of high culture) can be extraordinarily productive in venting some of the pretensions attendant to the professional practice of art in a society largely ignorant of and removed from international cultural histories. This can occur through the changing relationships between subject and audience, a distinction that has attracted so much commentary in the literature that it requires no further theoretical articulation here. In the art exhibition, which is typically open to the public but limited to geographically marginal sites, entities that range from environments to objects and images rarely ever offer personal presence, no matter how impressive they may appear. In this model, such phenomena are intended for review by a large audience but, ultimately, for consumption by only a minority. In the musical performance, live human bodies present a rehearsed but transient experience funded jointly by all viewers. These two divergent models indeed can lend theoretical support for experiments in configuration within both distinct discourses; the key to success lies primarily within focus on the assemblage of the scene, as outlined here, and aesthetic coherence or at least stylistic consistency. This is where so many musicians-cum-artists fail: a lack of respect for disciplinary histories and boundaries allows for an undiscerning desire for linkage and connection between scenes and individuals, thereby bringing in cultural products with no meaningful relationship to the work at hand. Fortunately, the art scenes of Hong Kong and mainland China alike find in the karaoke lounge a litmus test pertaining to the viability of this crossover, a filter that discriminates between the endlessly devolving and overlapping categories of artist, musician, consumer, and pretender.

http://www.adrianwong.info /http://www.shanshui-records.com/

A Roller Controlhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Prv9Vh3IZ8Q&feature=player_embedded andhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Prv9Vh3IZ8Q&feature=player_embedded / plus a Dead Jv.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTYwODEwMzI=.html/ and a Sulumiv.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTQ0MjEwNDU2.html