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刘小东的《肋骨弯了》与艺术的劳动价值 (Liu Xiaodong's Bent Rib and Artistic Labour Value)  

2013-08-27 02:13:23|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(8)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之八》 August 26, 2013

刘小东的《肋骨弯了》与艺术的劳动价值 (Liu Xiaodong’s Bent Rib and Artistic Labour Value) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
刘小东《肋骨弯了》,布面油画,140cm x 150cm (2010)
Liu Xiaodong, Bent Rib, oil on canvas, 140cm x 150cm, 2010.



Liu Xiaodong’s Bent Rib and Artistic Labour Value
刘小东的《肋骨弯了》与艺术的劳动价值
Small notes on Chinese Art(8)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之八》   August 26, 2013

(点此阅读中文译文)


When I painted a real, ordinary scene, I didn’t feel embarrassed. It was very sincere [tranquil]. It was what it was and it made painting simple work. If you over-analyze [think too much when trying to create something], painting would become exasperating [affected].

窗外的城市很有意思,就画进来了,这样画写生让我觉得坦然,不会觉得脸红。它是什么样?就是这个样子,绘画是很简单的工作,想得太多就会很别扭。

Liu Xiaodong, 9 July 2009 interview, Asia Art Archive Materials

Bent Rib appeared among a series in an exhibition entitled Hometown Boy《金城小子》, first shown at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, in 2010-2011, and then in the Eslite Gallery, Taipei, 2011-12, and in Kunsthaus Graz (along with paintings made in Austria, entitled Prozezz Malen), 2012. The exhibition was threaded around a narrative of the artist's return to the small town of Jicheng, Liaoning province, which he had left at the age of 17. Liu's notebooks of this visit, along with an hour-long documentary filmed by Yao Hung-I, featured as part of the exhibition. Thus the exhibition framed all the paintings by presenting the artist as an active dramatis persona just outside the frame of the images, as well as a narrator giving an intimate commentary. Most of the paintings didn't feature him directly (there was a self-portrait), but he seemed to be standing by them all and telling the viewer how the artworks should be viewed. Viewing the artworks, it seemed, was to partake of the artist's personal vision and to have the artist-persona in view. The viewing of the artwork, it was suggested, had to be sieved through the artist's current standing, personal history, nostalgia, alienation from and closeness to this environment, relationships, etc. Whatever qualities one might perceive in the artwork appeared to be co-extensive with the artist-persona: if the theme seems down-to-earth, honest, realistic, unaffected, etc. (all adjectives amply used in relation to these and other works by Liu), that's because this artist is a down-to-earth, honest, realistic, unaffected, etc. sort of guy.

In the 2009 interview which the above epigraph is taken from, Liu Xiaodong had started by extolling the influence of Tom Wolfe's book Painted Word (1975) on his outlook. Wolfe had shown, he said, how abstract post-1950 American artists had made their art sellable by assuming certain personae and lifestyles, and how art critics had constructed convoluted theoretical frameworks to valorise that art – with Wolfe, Liu seemed to be saying that kind of abstract art actually lacked substance. Liu's artistic realism seems then to be offered as a counterpoint to that lack of substance in abstraction; his resistance to thinking too much is also a refusal of any greater justificatory framework than the artwork itself; and his appearance as an unaffected, down-to-earth and ordinary sort as an antithesis to pretentious artistic personae and lifestyles. However, some viewers at the exhibition might have felt that this artist-persona who so articulately imbues himself with ordinariness, simplicity, unaffectedness, etc. is neither more nor less constructed than any other persona – there is no reason to consider it more “authentic” than those post-1950 American abstract artists' personae. There is no reason to take the artist-persona's claims at face value; this persona could be as much enacted. The viewer might also have felt that the Hometown Boy exhibition was thrusting the narrative of the notebooks and documentary film too emphatically, to much the same effect as those post-1950 American art theories. Perhaps the best way to get to grips with Bent Rib and Liu Xiaodong's larger artistic project is by putting this overbearing artist-persona aside. Despite Liu's resistance to thinking, his work is open to thinking-through in terms other than those he offers.

I am not suggesting that the artist can ever be absent from reckonings with such obviously realistic paintings; more that it is not the artist-persona – that particular person Liu Xiaodong with his experiences and dispositions – who is manifested therein, but the artist as an underlying formative and perceptual principle, an implied-artist. This is a distinction that has been oft pondered by authors seeking to convey a strong impression of unmediated reality: i.e. attempting to do so involves erasing the personality of the artist and merely becoming an implied-artist, becoming metaphorically a “fly on the wall” or the “eye of the camera.” The absent-presence of the implied-artist strives to be without personality: in Gustave Flaubert’s words, “The artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him” (Letter to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie March 18, 1857); or, in James Joyce’s – or rather his fictional alter ego Stephen Dedalus’s -- even more self-effacing and simultaneously self-inflating words, “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916). This kind of absent-presence of the implied-artist is amply woven into Liu’s Bent Rib (or any of his paintings). To perceive it we simply need to consider where the artistic vantage point is from which this scene is depicted. The eyes of the implied-artist are evidently at the same level as the heads of the two figures, and look down at their feet and straight ahead from roughly their height. The implied-artist seems to be positioned slightly to the right between the two figures, close to them and nearer to the viewer; that is, the implied-artist is positioned as a third point in an intimate triangle with the two figures. On the one hand, the implied-artist could be a participant inside this scene: the two figures don't seem aware of him, but then they don't seem unaware either – they are absorbed in contemplating that x-ray plate. On the other hand, the implied-artist is outside and roughly where the viewer of the painting is, also looking at the scene with the assessing gaze of a connoisseur. The implied-artist is as self-aware here as the viewer of this painting might be. This is not the artist-persona Liu Xiaodong but the abstract implied-artist whose absent-presence tacitly shapes the painting and how it is approached.

Liu has often sought to make his presence as implied-artist less tacit and more obtrusive than it is here: e.g. by creating obvious and elaborate tableaux vivant (see below), often with subjects facing the artist in the manner in which photographed subjects may be positioned to face the camera (see below). There the subjects are evidently posed at the behest of the implied-artist and for the beholding of the audience, so that the presence of the implied-artist/audience is not tacit but focalised by the subjects – by their postures and arrangement, by their gaze. In other paintings the subjects are painted from life but arranged so as not to seem obviously arranged, so that they seem inattentive to the implied-artist or audience -- to render the artist’s absent-presence tacit. In Bent Rib Liu has chosen the latter approach (see below for a photograph of the tableau vivant here), but then compensated for that rather subtle registering of the implied-artist by thrusting his artist-persona forward in the exhibition.

In different ways, quite a few of Liu’s artworks seem preoccupied with making himself apparent as implied-artist or as artist-persona through – somewhat at odds with or in a tension with -- a realistic genre where the former is liable to be overlooked and the latter disregarded. Liu’s is a searching way of doing so, always with an appeal to the audience’s empathy or sympathy with the implied-artist’s gaze and the artist-persona’s unassuming relationship with his subjects.

However, it appears to me that Liu’s way of foregrounding the implied-artist and/or artist-persona is actually even more consistent than suggested so far. It works in an even more searching and tension-ridden fashion by its very relationship with the ostensible realism of the artworks than I have made out above. To get to that a more nuanced understanding of realism in art, and particularly in Liu’s art, is needed.

So far I have been discussing Liu Xiaodong’s kind of realism as if it is obvious what realism in art is. Notions of what is real and what is realistic in art are of such complexity, and so wound up in theoretical precepts, that any considered discussion thereof is well outside the scope of this essay. However, a more nuanced understanding of realism can be brought into this argument from a narrow perspective. From the perspective of the viewer of a painting (nothing more), the following are some of the ways in which realism may be recognised in and attributed to an artwork:

  1. Most obviously, a realistic painting uses techniques which convey a strong impression of verisimilitude to (mimesis, illusion, reflection etc. of) something that may be perceived within the range of everyday and normal vision. Unmanipulated photographic images are generally seen as a standard against which such technical realism in painting can be gauged.
  2. A deeper level of perceptual realism in painting is often associated with the kind of themes and subjects that are depicted. Poverty, conflict, ennui, anxiety, apathy, anomie etc. as/in themes are sometimes considered more realistic (“gritty reality”, “cold, hard realism”) than their opposites; and in a similar but distinct way, familiar or common themes (ordinary lives, everyday happenings) are usually considered more realistic than the relatively unfamiliar or fantastic (privileged lives, momentous or out-of-this-world happenings). Such perceptual realism is generally associated with technical realism, but may take technical liberties to heighten the perceptual effect.
  3. An even deeper level of visionary realism may be found in paintings which appear to convey a non-obvious or not-immediately-apparent truth by taking considerable liberties with technical realism and without any necessary investment in perceptual realism. Abstract art which putatively gives access to a deeper-than-surface reality, or exposes the reality of perceiving/constructing art itself, figures here.

Liu lays particular store by technical realism. Techniques to convey a strong impression of verisimilitude to some real scene out there, as seen through a window (frame) or glimpsed as if in passing, are his obvious trademark. The impression his paintings make is of the visually apprehended scene rendered closely, sometimes at life-size – at a scale where the real-worldness of visual apprehension appears to be simply translated from the surface that is seen to the surface of the canvas with little mediation. In a secondary way, Liu also subscribes to perceptual realism: his choice of subjects, ordinary people in the midst of their everyday lives – especially workers of various sorts among the lower strata of society in provincial towns and relatively neglected regions -- is also part of his trademark. The two figures in Bent Rib are typical examples, bare-bodied, in working boots and wrinkled trousers, standing on a mud path with electric pylons and a wall alongside, perhaps just outside a factory. It is clear that Liu doesn’t subscribe to the deeper-than-surface insight of visionary realism; no attempt is made to delve the surfaces of ordinary perception. As if to emphasise his disregard for the deeper insight of visionary realism, one of the men in Bent Rib holds an x-ray plate before him – literally an insight through the surface of the skin. The x-ray plate is held, from the viewer’s perspective, in front of his ribs – as if the viewer has access to his innards. A story seems suggested there: perhaps the bent rib is his and what he sees in the x-ray is a symptom of labour and stress. But such a story is merely suggested. The x-ray plate is not really a visionary insight that gets, so to speak, under the skin; rather, the x-ray simply materialises a physical condition and brings it to the surface. The x-ray plate finds its artistic patterns and resonances on the surface that the implied-artist/audience sees: the colours and rib-lines of the x-ray plate appear to be continued in the folds of the man’s trousers beneath. The lines of the x-ray plate seem to be diminutively echoed in the lines of the tattoo on his companion’s biceps. The sternum of the ribs in the x-ray plate echoes the mud-path that cuts through the painting. The plate doesn’t draw the viewer inwards towards a deeper understanding of the man’s condition; rather, it accentuates the design of the outdoor scene as a whole. There is only technical realism and perceptual realism here, and these ultimately undermine an obvious gesture towards visionary realism (which is like x-rays drilling behind surfaces).

Liu’s commitment to technical realism and perceptual realism in relation to the subjects around him suggest that he is creating a record of contemporary social changes in China – that the body of his artworks are a kind of disinterested reportage on and archive for his time. That is often mooted by curators and critics interested in his work. It is undeniable that he does create a record of that sort. However, to understand Liu’s art only as such would diminish his efforts: after all, as reportage and archive well-judged unmanipulated photographs would probably do the job more efficiently.

Given that these are artworks, curators and critics also frequently mention a relation to the erstwhile “socialist realism” of communist art, and observe that Liu uses the realistic techniques of socialist realism while undercutting its celebratory depiction of ordinary people: workers, peasants, soldiers. The contemporary equivalent of those workers, peasants, soldiers (the ordinary people) whom Liu paints are shown without the ideologically-coloured drama or illusion associated with socialist realism. They are shown without dramatic pre-revolutionary suffering or exaggerated post-revolutionary contentment. Liu’s paintings putatively strip away the ideological distortion and political agenda of socialist realism to offer a clear-eyed realism without ideology and agenda – only level-headed sincerity and selfless sympathy for ordinary people as they are.

A connection to socialist realist art seems plausible for understanding Liu’s work, but to see it as an ideology-free purification of realism is misconceived. The misconception arises because the connection is generally made on the assumption that there exists an immediately understandable visual norm and experience of socialist realist art against and through which Liu’s art works. The assumption is untenable. As numerous art critics and historians have found, socialist realism consists in a diverse and complex range of artistic productions. Henri Arvon had observed during socialist realism’s heyday that socialist realism: “does not refer to a special style that the writer is to employ; it is used, rather, as a definition of the artistic principle underlying all works that win the ‘official’ stamp of approval” (Marxist Esthetics, 1970). [Boris Groys’s The Total Art of Stalisnism, 1992, and Matthew Bown’s Socialist Realist Painting, 1998, come to mind as attempts to chart a complex conceptual map of socialist realism in the visual arts.] So, in considering the relationship of Liu’s kind of realistic painting to socialist realist art, it is not so much the visual experience as the conceptual notion of socialist realism that is important. With that conceptual notion in mind, Liu’s work doesn’t appear as an agenda-less corrective to socialist realism but as quietly offering a distinctive agenda and ideology itself. This agenda and ideology can be usefully placed in contradistinction from socialist realism.

In a shorthand way, it is worth quickly reminding ourselves of the main conceptual thrust of socialist realism by recalling two much-quoted source-statements of principle. The first is by Maxim Gorky from his “Soviet Literature” (1934):

Life, as asserted by socialist realism, is deeds, creativeness, the aim of which is the uninterrupted development of the priceless individual faculties of man, with a view to his victory over the forces of nature, for the sake of his health and longevity, for the supreme joy of living on an earth which, in conformity with the steady growth of his requirements, he wishes to mould throughout into a beautiful dwelling place for mankind, united into a single family.

And the second from Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yen'an Forum on Literature and Art” (1942):

There is a type of person who has no enthusiasm for the people's cause and looks coldly from the side-lines at the struggles and victories of the proletariat and its vanguard; what he is interested in, and will never weary of eulogizing, is himself, plus perhaps a few figures in his small coterie. Of course, such petty-bourgeois individualists are unwilling to eulogize the deeds and virtues of the revolutionary people or heighten their courage in struggle and their confidence in victory. Persons of this type are merely termites in the revolutionary ranks; of course, the revolutionary people have no need for these "singers".

Socialist realism foregrounded, in brief, a conceptual expectation: the surrendering of the artist’s individuality now so as to bring about a shift in future perceptual realism – the envisaging of a future in which “revolutionary people” struggle and are victorious, heroically active and self-possessed, together and universalised. The terrible social distortions that follow from this expectation in a political state which claims that the future obtains now are obvious – the stuff of very recent history, within living memory.

The point I am reaching towards is: to understand Liu’s artistic project of technical and perceptual realism apropos socialist realism, we need to have those socialist realist conceptual expectations in mind rather than any reductive visual experience of socialist realist art. With those now-disavowed conceptual expectations in view, the following can be noted about Liu’s art. In his perceptual reality, the ordinary people are caught in perpetual passivity: at still moments, in contemplative interludes amidst work, at rest or leisure away from work. These people may live in straitened circumstances or at the margins, and yet they are not active but resting, not in stressed but in passive states, not harried but languid. They seem a bit withdrawn at times as they wander atomised against the vista or relax in casual togetherness, and they become objects of desire at times – in the gaze that looks at naked women at rest, male bodies in baths and pools, individuals in self-forgetful moments. In Liu’s perceptual reality there is little labour, anxiety, activity, effort, stress about what these ordinary people are at; there may be marks of all those (such as a bent rib or a tired face) but little depiction of those. These people often stare wistfully at the implied artist, as if seeking artistic confirmation, or are absorbed in themselves.

The artist confers recognition and confirmation of their passive presence in his artwork. This involves the painstaking and laborious deployment of technical skills to give a strong impression of verisimilitude – the labour of technical realism. Liu’s paintings are straightforwardly technical realist, but he doesn’t go all the way. They are not technically realist enough to appear photographic. They are technically realist, but only to the extent that they are also obviously painterly. The illusion of verisimilitude is tempered by the obviousness of their surfaces being manipulated and worked on by the painter’s brush. These paintings are not transparent in the way an unmanipulated photograph may be; these paintings at every point announce the painstaking labour of the artist. The labour of the artist on the painting’s surface is the counterpoint of the passivity and leisure of the subjects represented.

The viewer is ultimately always impressed by the careful technical skill and artistic labour that is visible in Liu Xiaodong’s paintings. Appreciating the artist’s labour and skill are the most elemental entry points into art. The artist’s labour thus stands out consistently through his art, while his subjects are stilled and rendered passive by that labour and within the fruits of that labour. I leave it to my readers to infer the ideological subscriptions and political agendas of such a project as it draws away from the conceptual horizon of socialist realism.



刘小东的《肋骨弯了》与艺术的劳动价值 (Liu Xiaodong’s Bent Rib and Artistic Labour Value) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Tableau vivant: Painting Hot Bed I (2005) by Liu Xiaodong
现场活人构画:《温床I》

刘小东的《肋骨弯了》与艺术的劳动价值 (Liu Xiaodong’s Bent Rib and Artistic Labour Value) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Tableau vivant: Painting Out of Beichuan, Into Taihu (2010), Liu Xiaodong
现场活人构画:《出北川、入太湖》

刘小东的《肋骨弯了》与艺术的劳动价值 (Liu Xiaodong’s Bent Rib and Artistic Labour Value) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Tableau vivant: Painting Bent Rib (2010), Liu Xiaodong
现场活人构画:《肋骨弯了》

刘小东的《肋骨弯了》与艺术的劳动价值 (Liu Xiaodong’s Bent Rib and Artistic Labour Value) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Looking at the artist/audience: Eating (2000), Liu Xiaodong
看着艺术家/观众:《吃》,刘小东,2000。

刘小东的《肋骨弯了》与艺术的劳动价值 (Liu Xiaodong’s Bent Rib and Artistic Labour Value) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Looking at the artist/audience: Displaced Population: Three Gorges Project (2003), Liu Xiaodong
看着艺术家/观众:《三峡大移民》,刘小东,2003.
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