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Suman Gupta 看画随笔

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杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容 (Yang Shaobin's Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile)  

2013-06-18 07:04:51|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(2)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之二》 June 17, 2013

杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容 (Yang Shaobins Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔

杨少斌 《纵深800米》(2006)     Yang Shaobin  Miners 800 Metres Under (2006)




Yang Shaobin's Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile
杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容
Small notes on Chinese Art(2)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之二》  June 17, 2013

 

I am intrigued by the iron-grey sky here.  There is no gradation in light, no transition in shade, from the sky to the bowels of the earth.  The surface and crust of the earth don't intervene -- they have been cut out, those interim 800 metres of soil and stone.  So there are the innards of the earth, mineshafts and mine cart and miners in their own space, and then suddenly there's the sky across a fine jagged line.  The shaft for the lifting cage seems to have been drilled through the sky rather than through the earth.  Between the space of the empty sky and the space that's the mine there's nothing.  The emptiness of the sky presses against the forms of the mine.  Miners are funnelled directly into the mine from somewhere over the sky, stuffed into the lifting cage like sardines in a tin.  Thus the mine is thrown into relief, removed from the map of human life on the earth's surface. 

The coal cart at the mouth of a mineshaft on the right is brilliantly lit, an abstract collocation of white lines.  It barely has substance, the light that outlines and frames it renders it uncertain as a child's pencil drawing.  The white light that glows on it and on the three miners foregrounded on the left are from a single brilliant source.  Persons and equipment are bound by the manner in which our gaze is directed by the white light.  The three miners are carefully arranged to focalize the smiling miner at the centre.  The miner closest to the viewer is too close, he blurs slightly out of focus; the miner furthest from the viewer is a tiny bit too distant, shadows and coal grime obscure much of his face; the smiling miner is between them and yet in front, and the light catches his face and smile clearly.  The wide smile of the centred face, at the centre of the face, contrasts with the painful compression of bodies in the cage just above.  

The smile and the shaft of the cage are at a line of symmetry, accentuated by the distribution of shapes on either side: the smiling miner's head on one side and the mine cart on the other, the helmet of the miner in profile on one and the mound at the other.  The suffering of confinement and the smile are put on the line of symmetry. 

The faces of the three miners chart a movement between them, from profile to half-profile to face-on, from pout to half-smile to shining grin.  The heads of the miners figure a sculpturesque singularity; between them we have miners’ faces from several directions, and between them the archetypal image of the coal miner's face is captured and fixed -- yet again.

The coal miner's face – the coal miner's body -- is a modern archetypal image of Industrial Labour which has been captured and fixed repeatedly since the birth of Industrial Society.  Humans toiling at the coalface seem to underpin modernity,humans extracting enormous energy from within the earth to give life to machines and mechanized society above.  In giving life the labouring body of the miner is consumed. There is an elemental quality in this figure,suffering and buried underground so that all may rise above earth-bound existence (agricultural society).  The coal miner is forever at that nexus where the impetus of industrial progress and the regressive exploitation of labour (alienated, surplus value from his labour expropriated) are entwined -- capitalist and socialist worldviews diverge -- and refers back constantly to its historical emergence and continuing ideological resonance.  In the introductory words of William Thesing in Caverns of Night: Coal Mines in Art, Literature and Film (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2000) that historical import and its continuing resonance are captured well:

What distinguishes the industry of coal mining … is its enormous scale and its terrible human costs.  From the early 1800s in Great Britain and the mid 1800s in the United States, miners began to dig up large amounts of coal from the earth’s dark caverns to feed the power and light of the Industrial Revolution.  From the early 1800s to the early 1900s coal was the main source of energy in all industrial countries … However, the dynamo power behind industrial might of the past has also had a high cost in human terms: few jobs were more arduous or more dangerous than that of an underground coal miner. (xi)

Even though energy sources have proliferated and the conditions of post-industrial society seem different, the image of the coal miner carries its original resonance: a strong and yet vulnerable figure, necessary and disposable at the same time – the figure of Industrial Labour.  The black streaks and stains of coal on his weathered face/body are like war paint and stigmata.

It needs little more than the image of the coal miner, streaked with coal dust, to evoke all that -- just the still image of the coal miner.  The three miners in Yang's painting are caught thus, in a photographically stilled moment.  Their stillness chimes with numerous other images of faces and bodies of miners,such as Song Chao's photographs (2001) [see below;宋朝的摄影作品,见下列图片].

Around that stillness, more of-the-moment political significances are found according to the context of composition and the context of viewing.  Yang Shaobin's painting is thick with the political nuances of its context.  China’s coal mines were much in the news and in years preceding 2006, in terms reminiscent of the 1800s and early 1900s in industrial society.  Coal remains the principal source of energy in China amidst phenomenal post-1990 growth; the scale of coal production is the highest in the world; coal-mining operations are diversified between a diminished state-owned sector, a private foreign-owned sector, and a range of small-scale (often illegal) township and village enterprises.  In the last, especially, regulation is indifferent and corruption rife, and untrained poor peasants are often employed at subsistence wages.  The disturbing rate of miner-deaths by accidents, flooding, and so on (the highest worker casualties in any sector in China) has been in the news constantly, and subject to wide-spread criticism and strenuous but only partially effective government intervention.  An informed account for the period preceding the painting is available in Tu Jianjun’s essay “China's Mining Safety: China's Achilles Heel” (2007).   Yang Shaobin, himself from a coal-mining family, has been concerned about the condition of coal miners.  He made the Al Jazeera documentary “On the Coalface -- People and Power” (2008).  Two of his art projects, 800 Metres Under (2006, the painting in question features there) and X Blind-Spot (2008-2009) were undertaken among coal-mining communities and are featured on the Long March Space .

Thus contextualized, the miners in the painting are apt to be seen as victims – resolutely smiling amidst the dark caverns after being dropped down in cages away from the sky.  The caged miners above the smiling head turn the smile of the centred figure into a grimace.  These are passive victims awaiting rescue (by whom? government ministers and bureaucrats, soul-searching artists, curators and art collectors, activists of the world?).

And yet, the smile is not a grimace.  It is a wide smile, unaffected, perhaps he's chuckling at a joke or simply with unalloyed pleasure.  This coal miner's smile is a throwback to other coal miners' smiles, when the depiction of Industrial Labour was routinely conceived as representation of self-possession and worker solidarity.  The smile of Yang Shaobin's miner is akin to the smile that appears in Du Yuxi's painting Coal Miners (1986;杜玉曦 《煤哥们 : 黑色的金子》), and in numerous Cultural Revolution posters featuring miners in the early 1970s (like the two below).  Yang's miner is obviously less sanitized than Du's or the Cultural Revolution posters' miners.  The latter are impossibly clean, untouched by coal dust, with unblemished white collars and scarves.  Yang's smiling miner has the coal-touch of labour on his person and visage, but the smile is the same smile.

The clean smiling coal miner of Cultural Revolution posters was also a modern archetype of Industrial Labour, an erasure of persons not unlike that of the image of coal-dust-stained and weathered faces and bodies – these are not coal miners as persons but the generic coal miner.  But this clean image is of an impossible generic coal miner.  This clean image of the coal miner is painted in the idealistic imagination of someone who is not a coal miner, who has not seen a coal miner.  These clean coal miners have been divested of the stains and visceral investment of labour.  These are like film actors who have dressed up as coal miners and forgotten to wrinkle and stain their new costumes, have moreover been asked by the director to soap and wash their faces before the act.  This image constitutes an erasure of that which makes even the generic coal miner such.

But it would be a mistake to simply forget this smiling and clean coal miner blithely.  His sanitized image, representing a double erasure of labouring miners, appears at a fraught juncture.  The smile is a ghostly reminder of an idealism that had already died in the early 1970s, so that the smile can only be ghosted and the depicted person can only be a cypher.  The history of that erasure is entwined with how the coal miner is recalled before and during the Cultural Revolution.  The backward nod is towards that iconic moment of the communist movement in China, the 1922 strike of coal miners at the Anyuan coal mine, Jiangxi province, and its memorialization thereafter.  I don't ponder this history here.  I only dwell momentarily upon two memorializing paintings/posters of that event in the 1960s, between which the grimy coal miner vanished.  When that happened only the smile of the sanitized coal miner remained, and that smile returns paradoxically and many years later amidst the tension of passively victimized miners in Yang Shaobin's painting – de-sanitized again now, and yet with that unmistakable smile.  For those interested in the significance of Anyuan to the Communist movement and its history in China Elizabeth Perry's book Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition (Univ. of California Press, 2012) is useful.

Hou Yimin(侯一民) painted Comrade Liu Shaoqi and the Anyuan Coal Miners in 1962 (see below) to commemorate the 1922 strike.  It was turned into a poster.  When Liu Shaoqi fell from grace and was arrested in 1967 the painting and most copies of the poster were destroyed.  Liu Chunhua's(刘春华) painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, recalling Mao Zedong's role in organizing the Anyuan miners before the strike, was first exhibited in 1967 and became the most recognizable poster image of the period.

In Hou Yimin's painting Liu Shaoqi is centred in his white shirt, but his seems a relatively diminutive figure amongst the miners who surge ahead on either side of him.  These are not clean smiling miners; these are fierce emaciated figures, clothed in black shreds, coal dust on their bodies, ominous and purposeful.  They emerge storm-like from the mineshaft into the daylight.  They are agents of change, not passive victims.  The lines of the composition are sharp and dynamic.  In Liu Chunhua's painting there are no mines and no miners.  We can see what's there, and know what it is about.  Importantly, there are no miners.  In fact, Anyuan is depopulated entirely except for the one overwhelming figure which looms above a pre-industrial vista of mountains and sky.  The miners have already become clean smiling figures somewhere else, in other posters which might appear somewhere alongside the numerously replicated Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan.

If only the smile of self-possession and solidarity could have appeared – and stayed – on the image of the Anyuan coal miners of the 1962 painting/poster.  It was deflected instead into the impossibly clean cypher coal miners of Cultural Revolution posters, and stayed there for a couple of decades.  It was wiped away in favour of an older archetypal image of the grimy coal miner afterwards, the image of Industrial Labour.  The smile reappears wreathed in coal dust on the central miner's face of Yang Shaobin's painting.  This smile, it seems to me, undermines the passively victimized image of Chinese coal miners post-2000 – undermines the aura of victimization that gathers around the rest of Yang's painting, so that the painting finds its place in a swelling discourse of resilient victimhood.  The smile shines out of that victim-centred discourse and on the face of a coal-dusted weather-beaten miner to suggest another possibility, of not passively waiting to be rescued but actively taking possession of themselves and the mines and doing it properly this time.




杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容 (Yang Shaobins Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Song Chao:  Miners (2001)

杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容 (Yang Shaobins Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Du YuxiCoal Miners, Black Gold (1986)


杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容 (Yang Shaobins Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
More and better coal for the socialist construction(early 1970s)


杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容 (Yang Shaobins Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Develop coal mining in the South (1972)

杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容 (Yang Shaobins Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
 
Hou Yimin: Comrade Liu Shaoqi and the Anyuan Coal Miners(1962)
杨少斌的《800米纵深》与不灭的笑容 (Yang Shaobins Miners 800 Metres Under and the enduring smile) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
 
Liu Chunhua: Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan(1967)
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