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王庆松的《跟你学》与教育焦虑或知识负担(Wang Qingsong's Follow You and the Anxiety of Education or the Burden of Knowledge)  

2013-11-07 00:30:14|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(12)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之十二》 November 05, 2013

王庆松的《跟你学》与教育焦虑或知识负担(Wang Qingsongs Follow You and the Anxiety of Education or the Burden of Knowledge) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
王庆松《跟你学》 (2013) 摄影 180cm x 300cm(放大局部见下面)。
Wang Qingsong (王庆松), Follow You, photograph, 180cm x 300cm, 2013 (For details see below).



Wang Qingsong's Follow You and the Anxiety of Education or the Burden of Knowledge
王庆松的《跟你学》与教育焦虑或知识负担
Small notes on Chinese Art(12)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之十二》   November 05, 2013


We shouldn't read too many books. We should read Marxist books, but not too many of them either. It will be enough to read a dozen or so. If we read too many, we can move towards our opposites, become bookworms, dogmatists, revisionists.

Mao Zedong, “Remarks at the Spring Festival” (13 February 1964),
in Mao Tse-Tung Unrehearsed: Talks and Letters, 1956-1971,
ed. Stuart Schram, trans. John Chinery and Tieyun
(Penguin 1974), p.210.

There are people who always want to learn more, but the result is just the opposite. The more they try to learn in excess of their ability, the less they will be able to learn. This is dialectics too. That is the meaning of Lao Tzu's saying: “One gains by learning a little, but is bewildered when he learns too much.” If there is too much to learn, both teachers and students will be too busy. They cram their brains, but they don’t have a clear understanding of what they have learned and are therefore not versed in practical work.

Lin Biao, “On Educational Reform” (6 November 1967),
in Selected Works of Lin Piao (Chih Luen Press 1970), p.165.

Wang Qingsong's Follow You (2013) appears in the China Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale. Also featured there is the obviously related Follow Him (2010, see below), and both these recall Wang’s well-known Follow Me (2003, see below) – together these form a series which is concerned with, as the artist has observed, the current education system in China.

Follow Me (2003), Wang observes on his website , took its title from BBC's late 1970s English learning series featuring Kathy Flower, who went to China in 1981 to present the programme – she, and the programme, were enormously popular. Wang says: “In the 1980s, I also enjoyed watching Follow Me (the TV series) while studying in high school. However, I could never keep up with the program. Twenty years later, Chinese economic reform has brought many dramatic changes. […] At least on the surface, China is communicating well with the rest of the world. However, when I look at myself, I see a 'backward' guy, still failing to speak English. Such thoughts inspired me to create my photograph Follow Me.” Wang doesn't mention that by 2003, when this photograph appeared, the business of learning English in China had moved away from TV entertainment/autodidactic efforts and become firmly entrenched at every level of the formal education system. The Chinese government had made assessment of proficiency levels in English compulsory for progressing through all areas of formal education, with effect in cities and counties from 2001 and in townships from 2002 (Cheng Zhaoxiang's paper "English Departments in Chinese Universities", World Englishes 21:2, 2002, gave a clear account of the policy and its implications at the time). Over the following decade learning English proved to be a particularly fraught element in, indeed symptomatic of, an education system which as a whole seemed to generate high levels of "educational stress" among students, parents and teachers. That Wang's Follow Me (2003) came with his own anxiety about seeming “a 'backward' guy, still failing to speak English” seemed of the moment. In Follow Him (2010), the prevailing sense of stress and misdirection related to learning was reiterated; Wang's website comment with the photograph says: “I am talking about the education problem in China. Knowledge is taught but not learnt by many people who fail to understand the real meanings. They don't know the meaning of studies. They study for their parents, for their grandparents, but never for themselves, for the love of knowledge itself. Therefore we see so many students trash their books after examinations.”

Follow You (2013) appeared to make the same points, with perhaps a stronger foregrounding of the “educational stress” experienced by students in institutions. Students in the classroom are obviously the subject here, whereas in the earlier photographs it was the individual teacher and student/scholar. But by the time, in late 2013, Follow You became available to public-viewing, a decade after Follow Me (2003), the tide of Chinese educational policy seemed to be taking new turns which inevitably bore upon this image. New guidance issued by the government was in the news in September 2013, instructing schools to reduce education stress by not giving written homework, cutting the number of mandatory examinations, organising extracurricular activities, etc. By October 2013, plans to reduce the emphasis on English language learning and increase the weight of proficiency in Chinese from 2016 were being debated.

That's one way of approaching this series: i.e. thinking of these images as reflecting the current anxiety of education in China. The latter has to do with the ongoing pressures of education policy and provision; the weighty social and personal aspirations that are pinned on education; uncertainties about the norms of education – perhaps more or less is needed, something better or different is needed, something unnecessary is being palmed off and something vital left out? This anxiety of education constitutes a prevailing social perception of education; a shared anxiety which most concerned souls apprehend to some degree (students, teachers, academics, employers, policy gurus, reporters … the concerned public). It is a generalised and dispersed anxiety, this anxiety of education – symptomatized variously as much in the concrete realities of individual and family life as in the abstract "condition" of the country. It can be referred to the vaunted destiny of the nation at this moment of resurgence: China taking its rightful place in the world (that 2003 slogan that Wang cites in Follow Me, “China Walks towards the World, and [the] World Learns about China” points that way). It can be referred to Chinese history and tradition, the Imperial Examinations and the great national archive of narratives and records from the Tang Dynasty onwards, featuring numerous candidate-scholars who failed or whose success catapulted them into influence and affluence.

The figure of the artist, which appears in each of these photographs, offers a kind of visual focus. This is a figure through which the viewer can position him/herself, and with reference to which resonances with the above social concerns can be grasped. Amidst the dense busyness of these images, the figure of the artist appears with the sense of revelation that a child may feel on finding Wally (in the UK, or Waldo in the USA or 威利 in China) in Where's Wally? picture books. In these visualizations of the Chinese anxiety of education, the figure of the artist appears as a diminutive and generic person whom the viewer recognizes and perhaps identifies with – is at the least invited to locate him/herself with reference to. In Follow Me (2003) the artist appears as a generic teacher, the authority figure with a cane trying to guide those before him (invisible students overlapped with art viewers) through the labyrinths of education; and in Follow Him (2010) as the generic struggling student/scholar, overwhelmed by his task, suffering from writer's block – in these photographs these figures are the only human presence, impossible to miss. In Follow You (2010) he may be (Wally-like) overlooked, because he is one amidst a mass of students (see Follow You detail below). And yet, he is distinctive enough to be spotted: at the centre of the image, sitting up where all others have surrendered to the burden (or boredom) of study, and sporting the incongruous wig and fake beard – unconvincingly disguised as an old man among the mass of youth. The artist's self-portrait in Follow You (2013) is obviously different from the two preceding in the series. In the others the artist is convincingly part of the scene; true it is all staged, but the figure enacted by the artist is within the rationale of the image that is created, indeed makes that rationale possible. For the earlier images, the viewer makes sense of the images and their import by recognising the generic role that the artist figure plays. In Follow You (2013) the presence of the artist does not serve that purpose; rather it makes obvious that he is playing a role and that it is incongruous – he announces himself as artist, as auteur, at odds with the illusion that he has created. It seems suggested that possibly the anxiety of education, the social perception of education, which is referred here is not just something that is merely happening in the social world of China; perhaps it is constructed in the artwork or is analogously constructed (artificial) in the social world. Moreover, the disguised artist figure appears here almost as a kind of metacommentary on the photograph, embodying the Chinese adage wei-lao-xian-shuai (未老先衰) – originally found in the Tang Dynasty poem by Bai Juyi (白居易) : “My heart is full with sickness and worry, / Though young in years my hair has turned white” (多病多愁心自知,行年未老发先衰). This image of sapped vitality due to excessive study is reminiscent of the vitamin and other supplements that parents ply their children with before examinations – hence the drip in the photograph. The incongruous figure of the artist here is, in brief, both a focal point and an alienating point for the viewer. Reference to the anxiety of education is sharpened through both the viewer's identification with and shared alienation with this role-playing artist figure.

But so far I have merely outlined one approach to this series of images, as reflecting a pervasive and current anxiety of education. More eye-catching than the artist figures in these photographs are the fulsome backgrounds and surroundings. That is where the art of these images lie. As apparently unmanipulated photographic images, Follow Me and Follow Him and Follow You seemingly give access to empirically apprehensible scenes, unmediated views; but here that preconception simply accentuates the careful artifice of manipulating (staging) and capturing these scenes. The artistic vision is realised in the staging of the scenes for the purpose of realising these images. The staging is so visually excessive and busy that the technical capacities of photographic resolution are stretched to the full: between setting-up that staging and capturing it in high resolution the artwork is brought forth as art. The art here then is less in focusing the figure of the artist playing his roles amidst these surroundings and more in the overwhelming details and concentration of staging and in capturing those surroundings. The surroundings, so to speak, are the point of these images. The anxiety of education that is visualized via the role-playing artist figure is counter-posed against another kind of visualization: that of the burden of knowledge, conveyed by overwhelming the eye with background and surrounding details. The background and surroundings are filled with an excess of signs, a surfeit of miniscule objects and data, so dense and yet so vivid that it is unlike any ordinarily view – the backgrounds and surroundings are exaggeratedly and artificially full.

The backgrounds and surroundings are in fact full of signifiers of knowledge. In Follow Me (2003), knowledge is signified by scraps of written phrases and signs on a blackboard – a vast blackboard filled with dense scribblings, so vast that it cannot be contained in the frame of the photograph and the scribblings spill beyond to some indefinite extent. Moreover the scribblings seem to be layered over past scribblings, for there are many places which show evidence of having been rubbed and written over. If the viewer looks closely s/he can discern specific phrases and signs with no particular thematic or organizational pattern; if the viewer draws back the writings blur into an all-encompassing medley. In Follow Him (2010), knowledge is signified by a library. It is an excessive library: the books here are not neatly ordered and arranged, they are packed randomly and haphazardly to capacity on the shelves, and they spill out of the shelves on to the floor, the step-ladder, the tables … This library room cannot be contained within the frame of the photograph either and extends beyond indefinitely. The surfeit of knowledge signified thus in these two images, correspond with two accounts of how a person may engage with it. In Follow Me (2003) the figure in the foreground is one of authority: the authority figure who can dictate how this excess of knowledge can be approached. Authority is the key to dealing with knowledge. In Follow Him (2010) the figure in the foreground is someone trying to take in knowledge, making a persistent if futile effort – how persistent and futile is clear from the amount of unfinished writing he has crumpled up and chucked around him. He is surrounded by a wave of crumpled balls of discarded paper, and he is sustained by a hospital drip. Persistent and grinding labour is the key to dealing with knowledge.

In Follow You (2013) a synthesis of the two previous ways of signifying knowledge is offered: a great number of books is distributed (together they might make up that library) throughout the room, on every desk; and the walls are entirely covered by posters with scribblings, mainly questions (such as may be answered on a vast blackboard, or as if the blackboard of Follow Me has taken over the walls of the Follow You classroom). Here too, the classroom filled with books and scribblings cannot be contained within the photograph and continues to some indefinite extent outside its frame. Unlike the figures in Follow Me and Follow Him, in Follow You the many figures in view are not trying to deal with the surfeit of knowledge around them; they have given up. They have gone to sleep. There is no key for dealing with knowledge here. There is only the overwhelming burden of knowledge and the exhaustion and defeat it brings.

If the viewer finds an of-the-moment anxiety of education expressed in these images, correspondingly the viewer also finds visualization of the burden of knowledge to offset that anxiety. Perhaps the two are mutually constructed: education seems anxiogenic only because knowledge is regarded as burdensome, and equally knowledge seems burdensome only because the system of education causes anxiety. However, where the anxiety of education appears of-the-moment, regarding knowledge as burdensome seems a more general preconception – this seems to be a received understanding of what knowledge consists in. Corresponding to the social perception of education that is ridden with anxiety, we are offered here a social construction of knowledge that seems burdensome; however, where the former is a current anxiety the latter seems to be a notion of longer provenance.

What we have here, it seems to me, is a particular way of visualising knowledge. In this vision, knowledge is not about methods of ordering and analysing, processes of rationalization and clarification, but a random accumulation of texts and questions, the sum total of all the books ever written and all the questions that can be posed and the possibility or impossibility of answering them. Here knowledge is grasped not as critical thought or intellection but as a total archive. In fact, the prospect of finding any critical thought imbued in this total archive is carefully removed: by rendering the archive disordered and chaotic, excessive in its accumulation to the extent of being beyond processing, free of foci and resistant to being searched and disaggregated according to relevance. In this vision every scrap of the total archive seems equally relevant and equally irrelevant. Moreover, the total archive is uncontainable within the artist's frame and unassimilable to the viewer's gaze: it is not merely a bewildering surfeit, it is dangerously beyond comprehension. Unsurprisingly, the only ways of dealing with knowledge envisaged in this series are punitive authority (teacher with cane) and grinding labour (scholar with writer's block) and prudent defeat (overwrought sleeping students). No pleasure seems possible in engaging with knowledge in this vision: there is no clarity and joy in knowledge, only bewilderment and burden.

Wang Qingsong is evidently aware that what he has presented is a vision of knowledge as an undiscriminating total archive. In a video clip profiling the China pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, he interprets the library in Follow Him (2010) thus: it depicts “a person sitting in the middle of books, many books. These, however, are only a small part of all the books that exist, so clearly the person reading books cannot grasp the totality of knowledge. The image reflects the limitations of human knowledge.” Though aware, Wang may or may not agree with such a construction of knowledge himself; at any rate, as far as the images go, he presents this as the prevailing social perception of knowledge.

Wang's mode of visualizing the burden of knowledge, or reflecting a prevalent social perception of knowledge as burdensome, conveys a curious anti-intellectual attitude. It suggests that only being mindful of authority, mindless labour and accepting limits to pursuing knowledge are plausible options. People are not capable of anything else and knowledge itself doesn't enable anything else. Paradoxically, the anti-intellectual vision is woven into a sincerely felt concern about intellectual attainments through current educational practices. In the midst of an intellectual concern there is this anti-intellectual underpinning which ironically resonates with the most anti-intellectual social moment in recent Chinese history – which the epigraphs above gesture towards.

That anti-intellectual moment was not a singularity. It was but one extreme symptom of a schism that continues to appears in most established (establishment) social orders: that knowledge has to be cultivated to meet pragmatic social ends; that knowledge has the potential to slip outside social pragmatics and transform them. In brief, from an establishment point of view: knowledge needs to be cultivated but, against its grain, in a controlled and limited fashion. In various ways that schism plays widely in the present – Wang's photographs are evidence of that.



王庆松的《跟你学》与教育焦虑或知识负担(Wang Qingsongs Follow You and the Anxiety of Education or the Burden of Knowledge) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Wang Qingsong (王庆松), Follow Me, 2003, photograph, 120cm x 300cm.

王庆松的《跟你学》与教育焦虑或知识负担(Wang Qingsongs Follow You and the Anxiety of Education or the Burden of Knowledge) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Wang Qingsong (王庆松), Follow Him, 2010, photograph, 130cm x 300cm.

王庆松的《跟你学》与教育焦虑或知识负担(Wang Qingsongs Follow You and the Anxiety of Education or the Burden of Knowledge) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Wang Qingsong (王庆松), Follow You, 2013 (detail)


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