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Suman Gupta 看画随笔

small notes on Chinese art

 
 
 

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陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Ke's Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness)  

2013-12-10 03:30:59|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(14)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之十四》 December 9, 2013

陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Chen Ke (陈可), Another Me in the World, 2009, 170cm X 120cm .
陈可, 《世上的另一个我》, 2009, 170cm X 120cm。



Chen Ke’s Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness
陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱
Small notes on Chinese Art(14)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之十四》   December 9, 2013


My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.

Secondly, the specific nature of my individuality, therefore, would be affirmed in my labour, since the latter would be an affirmation of my individual life. Labour therefore would be true, active property. Presupposing private property, my individuality is alienated to such a degree that this activity is instead hateful to me, a torment, and rather the semblance of an activity. Hence, too, it is only a forced activity and one imposed on me only through an external fortuitous need, not through an inner, essential one.

My labour can appear in my object only as what it is. It cannot appear as something which by its nature it is not. Hence it appears only as the expression of my loss of self and of my powerlessness that is objective, sensuously perceptible, obvious and therefore put beyond all doubt.

Karl Marx, “Comments on James Mill's Elements of Political Economy” , (1844).

The brick red and orange patterned backdrop is a cover of some sort, like a carpet or tablecloth or wallpaper or gift-wrap. It is meant to hide, with its opaque surface-covering, a more material surface beneath, like the cement of the floor or wall or the wood of the table top, possibly rough in its materiality and bearing the traces of being worked upon. Why do we conventionally cover things thus, paint walls, cover tables and floors, and the like? As producers and consumers of the commodity form of such covers – paint, wallpapers, tablecloths, carpets – the utility function of surface-covering is often foregrounded: it protects, insulates, brightens, and so on. But none of that detracts from the stronger aesthetic function, the purposive aesthetic of design, which is to draw attention away from the objectness and seclude the madeness of whatever is covered – that becomes the definition of finish, the neutering of the materiality of and work on the object itself. The patterned backdrop is an alienation of the gaze from something beneath what is seen.

But here that alienation is interfered with by another sort of estrangement from above. The surface-covering’s design-purpose is deliberately troubled by two large blots of paint, crudely smeared to break the recurring pattern, breaking away from the smears into paint blobs. There’s another degree, then, of the alienation of the gaze, this time from the surface-covering and its attention grabbing design. And on top of that there is yet another kind of disturbance. Two figures appear in the careless smears of paint, and these two figures are not careless themselves – they are carefully articulated and executed figures of a girl, or two girls (perhaps twins looking at each other or mirror images), creating an illusion of formal presence in three-dimensions. In fact the smeared paint surrounding the figures threatens at the edges to break upon their clearly articulated lines, but doesn’t quite. More importantly, these two figures are oddly distorted figures – distorted in accentuating their infantile characteristics: they are cartoon figures, cute. And that plays interestingly against the title: who is the “me” in the title, and which is “this world”?

The “me” could be one of the cute figures looking at her double/reflection. That reading would be a bit out of synch with “this world” – the human world (人世), as opposed to the heavenly (天界). But the world occupied by the two figures, within the painted smears, is a substratum (at best) or a simulation of the human world: an art world, contained in paint which is all too obviously paint. It seems equally plausible that the “me” is the painter who has smeared the paint, contemplating her unfinished handiwork, looking at what’s before her, as we, the viewers, look at what’s before us – an artwork. This is the view the painter/the viewer, the “I” of the moment, has in “this world” – which is our world. From this perspective, this other “me” is that cartoon figure; and the infantilised distortion towards cuteness is also a level of estrangement, alienated from “me”. In this artwork, alienation is the condition of interception from below, by the design of the surface-covering, and also from above, painted human figures distorted into cuteness. We have the insertion really of a flat and thin world of cuteness at the interface between what’s concealed below and the gaze that looks from above, at the interface beyond and in front of the artwork. This flat world of cuteness is a world because it replicates and reflects itself, the “me” out here seems to be looking at the “me” of the cartoon girl looking at her double. This flat cartoon world of cuteness spins out with manifold resonances and replications in “this world”, our world, which is China or Britain or India or anywhere.

By way of exemplifying these resonances, let’s stick at present with China.

There is an extensive academic literature which analyses cuteness in terms of capitalist commodity aesthetics and patterns of consumption, visual culture and counter-culture, the technologies of visual production and design. These analyses involve tracing the fluidity of images (meant broadly, including fashion, lifestyle, behaviour as self-imaging) across geopolitical zones, and evolving taxonomies of cuteness. The taxonomies on offer, which build upon terms which circulate in cultures of cuteness, are however fraught by their own fluidity. Taxonomies here seldom lay a clear grid upon or define stable categories within the field; instead, any momentary clarity almost instantly blurs so that categories merge and grids flicker. In China, there is thus a spectrum of cuteness which can be variously tracked and almost invariably slips away from stable grids and definitions. In a general way, this spectrum may be signified as 可愛 ke-ai (cute, the adorable or sweet), which now is more strongly associated with Japanese kawaii and anime. The spectrum of cuteness that is Japanese kawaii has been replicated and adapted in China – for a discussion from Taiwan see Tzu-i Chuang’s article. Within that Japanese spectrum are included a range of manga styles, from simply childishly cute to adolescent sweet or romantic to violent fantasy and slash/straight hentai 変態. Some of this spectrum overlaps with and is yet distinct from Chinese Q-Version animation. Q-Version cuteness seldom delves the explicitly sexual, but has on occasion been used in ironic play with dominant and establishment (adult) discourses. The complexity of the kawaii spectrum is, however, particularly multi-layered where infantile and adult sexuality converge, whether in the suggestion of demure restraint or nymphic femininity, sometimes verging on the paedophilic. This sexually-charged end of the spectrum (not necessarily sexually explicit) is best grasped by contemplating a range of stock female images which are identified, in China and Japan and elsewhere, with the suffix or standalone word moe 萌え (to ‘bud’ or ‘sprout’, and a homonym for ‘burning’, such as with passion). Patrick Galbraith’s paper usefully discusses the practices and implications of moe. Woven in this dominant, largely commercially driven and partly counter-culturally recuperated, kawaii spectrum is the commodity aesthetics and commercial imagination of American Disney and DC Comics creations. More interestingly, at various junctures of the Chinese ke-ai more conventional folk and festive productions, with traditions going back centuries, are co-opted: e.g. Chinese New Year prints; Wuxi and Tianjin clay figurines; Huxian, Wuyang, Jinshan and Qijiang peasant paintings; Beijing bean sculpture (a few pictures below).

A number of contemporary Chinese artists have naturally been interested in the kawaii spectrum. The artworks they have produced are generally distinct from the work of professional animators, such as Daxiong and Benjamin Zhang Bin (see below). The latter operate within the frame of graphic series (comics), and stylistically their figurative artworks and compositions have a dynamism which carries the eye across images, even when focusing on specific images. The single-image artwork which draws upon or reflects on the kawaii spectrum tends to stylistically still the animation, make it static. These fall broadly into two categories. One includes compositions which mostly gesture in an ironic or sarcastic spirit at consumer culture and modern lifestyles. The other category – more relevant to considering Chen Ke’s Another Me – focuses on individual or lonely cute figures, usually female, by displacing them from their circuit of affective fluidities and material transactions. Several examples are given below, by Liu Ye (刘野), Xiong Lijun (熊莉钧), Poon Shu (潘舒) and Cui Dayong (崔大勇). These have (perhaps) ironic gestures towards consumer culture and modern lifestyles too, but they also co-relatedly foreground – largely by the very act of stilling and isolating cute girl cartoons – the complex resonances of the kawaii spectrum. Those include the layering of infantile and adult sexuality, constructions of femininity, the technologies of production and presentation (in different media), the strangeness of commodity aesthetics, the sheer range of the spectrum that shadows a single cute figure, the spill-over into everyday life. These paintings effectively convey a kind of alienated perception which might be obscured in the whirl of affective fluidities and material transactions, but which catches the viewer short when his/her gaze has to pause and consider the single-image artwork.

It seems to me that Chen Ke’s Another Me explores that alienated perception from several directions, heightening its effect and conferring on it a sharp social import. This import is not so much of social critique, as of registering the normality of alienation as a social condition in relation to the kawaii world, and registering that normality as coextensive with the alienation of the artist. The epigraph above from Marx’s early notes, on the alienation of work where private property and the money form rules, is a useful analogy for this alienated perception. It is an analogy which clarifies the conceptual structure of how a manifold layering of alienation can be discerned and expressed, in words for Marx as in the visual medium in Chen Ke’s Another Me. The conceptual structure depends on conceiving an ideal unity of human investment and work and product, against which the strangeness of systemically separating and objectifying their relations to each other appears as alienations/estrangements. Similarly, in Another Me there is a ghost of an ideal absolute perception where what’s behind the surface-covering and in the paint and in the artist’s work and viewer’s gaze may cohere and become manifest; and against that ghosted ideal, the surface-covering smeared with paint and cut across by the plane of cute figures in a kawaii world – a complex cute world stretching away along that plane – alienates artist/viewers from reality and artistic work and renders every element in their relationships strange. The pathos of the image is in that registering of several layers of alienation.

The epigram then is useful as an analogy, but perhaps it is pertinent in other ways too. Marx’s early notion of the alienation of work through private property and the money form spun into and concretized the most influential critique of capitalism of its time: it informed his understanding of the schisms that break out from the worker’s dissociation with the whole product, through piece work and division of labour, and thereby of the wage form and the appropriation of surplus value from that labour. What was a conceptual structuring of alienation in the early Marx translated into political-economic structuring of the capitalist mechanism and its production of social relations. Alienation became less a ghostly and rhetorically-substantiated discernment, and more a tractable contradiction within forces of production and class relations. In a way, the alienation of the artist’s work represented by the intervention of cuteness in Another Me reminds of that potential for further clarification. In Another Me this potential does not appear as revolutionary potential, but more as portending further recognition and crystallization – to know better if not to change. Perhaps a negative dialectical understanding is promised, a la Theodor Adorno’s various analyses of infantilism in what he thought of as late capitalist mass market forms (popular music, cinema and so on). Adorno too used the Marxist conceptual manoeuver to understand the alienation of, for instance, popular music (in “The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” [1938], The Culture Industry, 1991); he posited a wholeness of musical listening (putatively adult) against which to characterize the infantile experience of listening to popular music. Unfortunately, in Adorno’s case this wholeness of musical listening wasn’t an ideal horizon but an oddly conservative horizon of time-honoured classicism, and it is therefore difficult to share his moral denunciation of popular music. But the conceptual strategy that he used to place infantilism as a symptom of late capitalist social and industrial relations still has persuasive power. Infantilism is deliberately cultivated in the world of cuteness, and if an artist/art-viewer clarifies a sense of alienation with reference to it, then that rebounds convincingly into social relations in “this world” of even later capitalism.

While saying that though, I find myself considering the counter-argument: that the reference to cuteness as alienating is also a performance of cuteness, a cute artwork, to make that point. What is undermined is also performed. Chen Ke’s Another Me foregrounds the alienation in cuteness by being cute.




陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
by Daxiong
陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
by Benjamin Zhang Bin

陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Liu Ye (刘野), She's so beautiful, 2000,
oil on canvas, 50cm X 40cm.
陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Xiong Lijun (熊莉钧), Look at Me, 2005,
oil and acrylic on canvas, 160cm X 200cm.

陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Poon Shu (潘舒), A Fashionable Lady, 2007,
mixed media on canvas, 100cm X 100cm.
陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Cui Dayong (崔大勇), Adolescence No.9, 2011,
oil on canvas, 30cm X 40cm.

陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Wuxi Huishan clay figurines 惠山泥人
陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Chinese New Year print 年画

陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Wuyang peasant painting 舞阳农民画
陈可的《世上的另一个我》与异化了的可爱(Chen Kes Another Me in the World and the Alienating Intervention of Cuteness) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Beijing bean sculpture 北京豆塑




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