Merkur Gallery Chinese artist Group Exhibition - Midnight Laughter
Collaborated with ACAF, Curated by Aimee Lin
In his autobiography Istanbul, Memories of a City, Orhan Pamuk has described a certain kind of anxiety: “To Some degree, we all worry about what foreigners and strangers think of us. ” Like Pamuk’s Istanbulites, Chinese also share the same anxiety, which, like that of the Istanbulites, is caused by the tension between a national pride in history and heritage and the rapid process of westernization modernization. Indeed, from a European perspective, Turkey (or the Ottoman Empire) and China were both historically rreferred as the East. But what does East mean? To human eyes, the East is where the sun rises, which implicates the end of the night, and then inspires what this exhibition aims to create: a time and space before the sun rises.
Lu Xun (1981-1936), the most sophisticated writer of twentieth century China, once described an autumn night, in which he heard the ‘midnight laughter’, a sound that was “muffled, as if not to wake those who sleep; yet all around the air resounds to this laughter.” If the autumn night could be used as a metaphor of contemporary China, a situation that features its rich history and heritage and rapid transformation to a more western model, then the artistic practices of all the artists would become the laughter that muffles and (yet) resounds all around the air. That is to say, what artists do is to use their unique voices to join the past, the present and the future, in a season when the night is longer than the day, when the light meets the dark and the two intersect with social histories and human spirit.
The night, a realm of shadows, is where the existence between material and immaterial, human memories, subtle emotions, hidden desires, observation and reflection interact and materialize. The shadows are created by light, or the brightness and darkness are caused by light. In this show, there are many artists’ works which are related to the use or understanding of light. To painter Zheng Jiang (b. 1980), light is the non material visual character that he encounters when he tries to capture and enter his personal memory. Since 2014, Zheng has been creating a series of tempera paintings on crabapple glass (Malus spectabilis-patterned glass widely used and manufactured in China), in which, he studies light and how shape and color change in different light. By representing the appearance of light at a particular moment, Zheng has re-created a memory that had been striped of the story and the narrative.
To Chen Wei, whose practice covers photography and installation, light is a main feature that constructs the stage for the performance of the human mind. In his work In the Waves (2013), Chen meticulously sets the stage for a psychological spectacular of Chinese youth’s desires and confusions, normally hidden under the calm appearance of modern life, which is developed through the vague, dreamy lighting of the night.
To Hu Weiyi, an artist whose interest focuses on the production of both still and moving images, light is the first condition of image manufacture. Hu has developed his methodology through connection and restructure. In Pulp Landscape series, he collected a group of unrelated objects, cheap, small and useless – called by him the ‘pulp objects’, connected and housed them in an old suitcase and thus, made a material theater, or a portable scene of movie filming and screening.
Apart from the light that creates the shadows, the night is also a time and space, a scene for happenings. Indeed, as a metaphor, the night is where the bright light and the dark shade exchange each other’s length, where matters of different natures meet and react. Painter Li Qing’s Neighbour’s Window Series, uses collected old window frames as a critical boundary and creates an inside-out viewing machine. The city- or landscapes that Li painted across the window frames are based on his background research and field investigation. Through these installationized paintings, Li has built up a separated while conversational relationship of two different beings, and a lyrical while researched way of seeing, a modern way of seeing.
Shao Yinong and Muchen also hold a strong interest in communication and exchange between two entities, or more precisely, cultures. For East Wind, West Wind series (2007), the artists have collected some European style mirrors that is could be found in a local decoration market, and covered them with black velvet cloth. In China, these Baroque- or Rococo-style mirrors are very popular as they represent a trendy European lifestyle. But to the artists, the mirrors are function as a tool of self-reflection. Therefore, by inactivating their function, the artists have put their critical comments on the conflicting exchanges between eastern and western cultures, which have resulted in the ‘eastern side’, the loss of its subjectivity.
As a metaphor, the night also provides a time and space where destruction and re-creation meet and intersect, where the artists would place role of the observers, the critics and the creators of the new narratives. Miao Xiaochun, one of the most important new media artists in the country, has always been focusing on the changes and conflicts of cultures, technology as the extension of human desire, and how human perception of history and reality are composed of broken personal and collective memories. The 3D animation Restart was made by Miao during 2008 and 2010. The work started from Bruegel’s classic work The Triumph of Death and cites a number references to classical western oil paintings. In its 14-minute length, Miao, in the roles of a cameraman and a sound recording director, guided (as Vergil and Beatrice di Folco Portinari did in Davina Commedia) the viewers on a tour from earthly world to the civilized heaven, then to a pure natural world. By doing so, he has connected all the unrelated or broken pieces from western art histories and contemporary China, and reconstruct a Grand Narrative. In this way, Miao’s art is very close to what Osip Emilevich Mandelstam has postulated: “To free life from jail and begin a new absolute, the mass of knotted days must be linked by means of a flute. ” (The Age, 1922).
Last but not the least important; let’s go back to Pamuk’s anxiety by a close look at Ling Jian’s painting. Ling is one of the first Chinese contemporary artists who work and live in Europe. His early practice includes abstractive painting, installation and performance. However, since he started to study Buddhism and practice Buddha paintings around 2003, he has switched to portraits through which he finally found a ‘comfortable’ status and a personal language to express his thoughts on art and the contemporary world. Ling believes that the surface of human appearance shows the evidence of self-destruction, traces left by the passing time, and the emotion and real status of one’s inner world. But all of these could only be seen through a professional kind of gaze of a particular individual – the gaze by a painter like Ling. If Pamuk’s anxiety about foreigners and their views has inspired the writer to investigate his own eyes and to testify his thoughts and behavior with a double view, then Ling Jian’s painterly gaze at those particular individuals, normally seen as beauties, has triggered a moment for one to look into oneself. The moment when looking at the beauties in Ling’s works, is very close to one when Lu Xun heard the muffled laughter in that autumn night. It was a quiet and seemingly peaceful moment, but with a slice of uncanny atmosphere. And the perception of this uncannieness is a destructive and revolutionary moment that the eastern shadows could provide to a contemporary man. In other words, art like this has provided a moment to investigate the crisis of the modernity, a moment when you hear the laughter at the midnight.