EX: 1/30/2012
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2012.11.05 Mon, by
From the (Ridiculously) Sublime to the (Sublimely) Ridiculous
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PG: Did you see anything in Shanghai that caught your eye?

GSD: Yes, I did; Geng Jianyi’s retrospective exhibition at the Minsheng Art Museum. It’s a selective overview of Geng’s work since he first came to prominence within the PRC as a member of the ’85 New Wave during the 1980s. There are some glaring omissions, notably the artist’s so-called “rationalist” paintings of the mid-1980s. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome showcase of the work of an artist who, up to now, hasn’t received the public attention he deserves. The production values of the show are lacking by international standards, as one has come to expect within China. But that’s the actualité there and it sits well with the work…it allows the work to retain a certain vitality and spontaneity.

PG: Geng has a desultory view of his own work and status. He’s shown very little in recent years. I never expected to see a retrospective of Geng’s work during his lifetime. I think I’m right in saying that Geng has been dangerously ill of late.

GSD: Yes, he has, with the escalating effects of a long-term hepatic condition. Although I believe he’s now recovering after a life-saving operation. Under those circumstances the retrospective has the unsettling status of a near-posthumous event. Given Geng’s often bleak sense of humour, I’m sure he finds that highly amusing. The final piece in the show incorporates a bed from an intensive care ward. It suggests that it’s not just Geng, but his work that has been brought back from the brink. There are some lost or destroyed works that have been recreated especially for the show. One of the best is entitled “Trembling with Fear” (1989), which consists of a series of small wall-mounted metal boxes, each of which has a cast of a human tooth or teeth attached to it. In one case, teeth are attached by a wire that vibrates intermittently and noisily. In spite of its modest scale, the work gives rise to extraordinary feelings of annoyance and anxiety. It’s also hilarious ― a perversely vicious variation on Jasper Johns’ “The Critic Smiles” (1969). Perhaps it’s also how one feels as a protester standing in front of a tank.

PG: Geng has been a brinkman throughout his career, always playing at and across the edges of things. He uses conspicuously disjunctive techniques that undermine any attempt to arrive at settled meaning. This extends to any fixed interpretation of his work. He is persistently “elusive and vague,” to borrow from Laozi.

GSD: Indeed. A good example in the Minsheng show is the paper installation “Reading Manner” (2000). It’s a book whose otherwise blank pages have been marked and therefore given significance as a text by the red ink-stained fingerprints of an indeterminate number of “readers.” As such, it can be understood to invert and problematize the conventional opposition between the author as producer and reader as consumer. Another example is a video work entitled “The Direction of Vision” (1996), which presents a series of close-up shots of the constantly blinking eye of a duck. Towards the end of one sequence the duck’s eye begins to close and then dim, suggesting that the animal has been subjected to a lethal act of violence somewhere off-screen. From a Western point of view ― with its deeply ingrained Judeo-Christian restrictions on all visible acts of bodily sacrifice ― the apparent death of the duck is undeniably chilling and repellent. However, the same work takes on another less obviously transgressive meaning if considered in relation to the immediate conditions of its production and reception within China at the end of the 1990s, where there was still widespread acceptance of public acts of violence against animals in the preparation of food. As its title suggests, “The Direction of Vision” can therefore be interpreted as a performative demonstration of the unresolvable contradictions inherent in any generalizing de-contextualized attempt to uphold one cultural perspective over another. Setting high theory aside for a moment, it’s also a telling engagement with the inevitability of the passage between life and death. In the Minsheng show, “The Direction of Vision” comes towards the end of the run of works and is placed near the intensive care bed. It has real poignancy, not just in relation to Geng’s situation, but the human condition we all live with. The paradoxical status of that condition clearly isn’t lost on Geng. Maybe the duck didn’t die. Maybe it’s a non-sequitur ― a category mistake. Nevertheless, the aesthetic effect is penetrating. Like many of other works by Geng, it constitutes a focus for extended meditation on the fugitive nature of lived experience.

PG: Still…

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