Dai Guangyu is a self-taught artist who grew up in a educated environment (with his father well versed in history and a student of calligraphy since the age of five). It is likely that Dai Guangyu would have followed a traditional career path had he not found himself a part of the New Wave Movement in 1985, which was a perfect fit for the development of his creative scope. He quickly became one of the leaders of the avant-garde scene in Sichuan. In the 90s, Dai Guangyu discovered performance, which employs the body as a key artistic medium, which he found most suitable for expressing himself artistically, being powerful in movement, incisive in meaning, radical and transient. It was during this time that he showed his penchant for ‘ink games’. In the north and in Beijing, during this period, performance raised the themes of suffering and the challenges of oneself in society, with the performance taking on what were often seen as masochistic forms.
In contrast, performance in the south west of China questioned topics such as social order and ethics, economic and cultural disruption and the environment, gathered largely around the energy of Dai Guangyu. Performance and conceptual art had found its mentor until 2003, the year that Dai moved permanently to Beijing.
Throughout these years Dai Guangyu developed a body of art and conceptual approach strong in cultural references, rich in poetry and symbolism, and beautiful in form, all of which attracted continual criticism.
He created a system of codes and symbols that intensified along with the progress of his installations and performances: black Chinese ink or porcelain vases, symbols of the complexity of Chinese culture; flour to evoke the staple food of the commonalty; suited men with faces painted white or gold as metaphors of westernisation or the pursuit of wealth. Through the act of performance – a temporary action passing from one state to another – Dai Guangyu maintains that all solid forms belong to one moment only and that all circumstances are in the process of transformation. His installations and photographs maintain a vestige of this ‘state of procress’ which is the essence of performance and provides a poetic poignancy to the still forms.
Dai Guangyu is now recognized as an important and original figure of the Chinese artistic scene. His interdisciplinary practice is written within a socially engaged trajectory. Through his performances, photographs, paintings or calligraphy, he enacts his body and the symbolism of Chinese society to the ends of their resistance or their disappearance.
"Cultural Landscape", Landscape Art Exhibition, Langdao- Guilin, China
"Chinese Glamour - Conceptual Images", East Link Gallery, Shanghai, China
"Unusual Ways of Writing", Art Museum of the Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing, China
"Chinese Artists in the World - Installation and Documentary", Hong Kong Art Commune, Hong Kong, China
"Preserving Memory", Sichuan Library, Chengdu, China
"In the Wild", Simultaneous Performance Project, Beijing- Shanghai- Chengdu- Guangzhou, China
"Water Protectors - Outdoor Art Performances",, Lhasa, China
"China!", Museum of Modern Art, Bonn, Germany
"Water Protectors - Outdoor Art Performances",, Chengdu, China
"Inside - Outside: New Chinese Art",, Toronto- Ottawa- Hong Kong, Canada- China
"Dream of China, Exhibition of Paintings", City Hall, Hong Kong, China
"First Biennale of Chinese Art in the 90's", Central Hotel, Guangzhou, China
"Dai Guangyu, Wang Falin, Li Jixiang Joint Exhibition of Paintings", Chengdu Art Salon, Chengdu, China
"000'90 Exhibition of Modern Art", Chengdu Art Salon, Chengdu, China
"China Avant-Garde Art Exhibition", Chinese National Art Gallery, Beijing, China
"Itinerary Exhibition of Modern Chinese Art",, Bonn- Bremen- Frankfurt, Germany
"Red–Yellow–Blue: Young Artists of Sichuan", Sichuan Art Gallery, China
Interview by ifa gallery about censorship and art
Dai Guangyu studio (Beijing, on 24 april 2013)
Dai Guangyu: Of a Different Kind
by Duan Lian – critic
Translated by Margarete Werner
One day last year, in a bookshop in Montreal, I came across a two volume “History of 20th Century Art”, a new publication by the German art publishers Taschen Verlag. This publishing house is very influential in European and North American art circles; their titles generally cover renowned artists and, as a rule, are of a high standard and popular with readers, so I decided to buy a copy of this art history.
The volume was originally published in German, and has entered the American book market since its translation into English. Going through the book, I noticed a chapter dedicated to contemporary Chinese art which, in the context of multiculturalism and globalization, discusses the work of a number of Chinese artists, among them Dai Guangyu. Observing that Dai Guangyu has entered international art history compendiums, and taking note of the accompanying plates of paintings, I was naturally delighted. This is not just because Dai Guangyu is a close friend of mine, but also because the story of our friendship and that of the featured paintings are closely interwoven.
First: When I was studying art theory in Montreal 15 years ago, I first came across “Marilyn Mao”, a painting by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. In this portrait, Dalí deceptively merges the faces of dictator Mao Tse Tung and movie icon Marilyn Monroe into one, allegorically hinting at the way they, through the strength of their personalities, exerted influence over recent world history; as well as expressing the artist’s attitude towards popular culture.
Reflecting on the intelligence underlying this concept and the manner of its realization, I made a photocopy of the image for Dai Guangyu. At that time I was writing a series of articles, for several magazines in China, which discussed post-modernism in the West and introduced contemporary Western art to Chinese readers; as well as noting trends in the Chinese art world. Dalí precedes post-modernism, and his artistic methods had a definite influence on post-modernism. At the beginning of the 90’s, Dai Guangyu had adopted post-modernist thought, and assimilated Dalí in his paintings. In a time and place very different from that of Dalí, Dai Guangyu thus expressed his own individual attitudes towards politics, history, society and culture.
Second: At the time, Dai Guangyu and I were regularly exchanging letters and discussing problems facing contemporary art. In the reproduction of one of his paintings in the above mentioned art history, I noticed Dai Guangyu had utilized an envelope bearing my address and, in another, a holiday snap I had taken. Dai Guangyu’s techniques of application and collage can be traced back to Duchamp’s use of the ready-made, as well as to a combination of painting and collage. But what interests me most is the historical awareness present in Dai Guangyu’s art. I know his father is a historian, and the historical sensitivity conveyed in his work is closely linked to his early upbringing.
It is by no means coincidental that Dai Guangyu has entered contemporary world art history. From the perspective of the development of Chinese art in the 20th century, more than twenty years ago, at the time of the “85 New Wave”, Dai Guangyu founded the “Red Yellow Blue Group” in Sichuan and was a leading figure in the Sichuan/Chengdu art scene. Dai Guangyu was then mainly a painter searching for a way to break the mould of Socialist Realism. At a time when Modernism was just beginning to be accepted in Chinese art circles, Dai Guangyu became fascinated with the mysteriousness of Surrealism and with Expressionist passion. Interchanging these two approaches, he explored Chinese cultural and historical traditions and produced a series of valuable works.
By the end of the 1980s, Dai Guangyu’s work had taken a turn from the figurative to the abstract, and through the interchange and interaction of figuration and abstraction, he was beginning to explore a more conceptual form of expression. In February of 1998, Dai Guangyu travelled to Beijing to take part in, what is considered by many, the most important exhibition in contemporary Chinese art history, the “Chinese Modern Art Exhibition”. This exhibition was a summary of the art of the “85 New Wave”, and it may also be said that Dai Guangyu’s work in the exhibition concluded a stage in his own artistic development. A year later, in 1990 in Chengdu, Dai Guangyu organized, with the help of like-minded artists, an exhibition called “00090”. This was the first modern art exhibition after the events of 1989, and therefore it is of particular historical importance. At that time I was still living in Chengdu and fortunate to be present at the opening, and I was able to witness the success of this exhibition. These two important exhibitions sealed Dai Guangyu’s directional change. He proceeded to shift his focus to conceptual art.
Dai Guangyu’s art had been introduced to the West at a relatively early stage. Still in the late 1980’s, his work was exhibited in Germany, and subsequently reproduced in a number of West-German art publications. In 1993, I organized an exhibition for Dai Guangyu in Montreal, Canada. The early nineties were a period of economic depression in North America, the art market was at a low, and galleries were unwilling to stage international exhibitions. But one of Montreal’s most influential galleries, Galerie Samuel Lallouz, showed a keen eye and took a particular interest in Dai Guangyu’s paintings. Despite economically unfavourable conditions they organized an exhibition of his works, and the event received extensive coverage and comprehensive review in Montreal’s English and French language art magazines. Ever since, Dai Guangyu’s work has been receiving increasing exposure on an international stage. In 1994, Dai Guangyu travelled to the United States, on invitation by the American News Agency, to take part in activities of cultural and intellectual exchange. I had the opportunity to meet with him in New York and, while accompanying him on visits to New York’s art museums, I was able to speak with him about works of contemporary American art.
When referring to present-day fine art disciplines, one tends to group them into painting and sculpture; installation, video and performance art. The former two being traditional mediums, the latter three belonging within the realm of contemporary art. The traditional disciplines can be further divided into two main categories: figurative and abstract, with tendencies for either representational, expressionistic, or conceptual. During his exploration of painting, Dai Guangyu experimented with almost all possible tendencies within those two major classifications, and eventually arrived at a conceptual form of expression. He concluded his important directional change by moving from traditional into contemporary art, and proceeded straight to the forefront of the latter.
Dai Guangyu immersed himself simultaneously in contemporary art’s three major disciplines. Back in the early 1990’s, as a painter, he had begun exploring the medium of installation. He was then producing experimental works of a highly conceptual nature in Chinese ink and wash, while investigating the conceptual language of installation art. Towards the mid-to-late 1990’s, Dai Guangyu started trying out effects of adding video to installation works, or one may say he was using video to create a new kind of installation. Later still, he began introducing his own body into his installations, and this naturally developed into performance art; Dai Guangyu’s physical performance becoming the vehicle for the communication of ideas. In the 21st century, performance art is one of Dai Guangyu’s main artistic mediums.
Speaking in ontological terms, I believe a piece of art is made up of several layers of language. Irrespective of whether referring to traditional or to contemporary mediums, art’s most exterior language, its use of ink, colour, line, form, light, composition, rhythm, etc. is what I call art’s formal language. Progressing a step further, we find rhetorical language, which refers to the artist’s chosen method of story-telling, like appropriation, parody, juxtaposition. This is followed by aesthetic language, as in the principles of classical inscape or contemporary irony, and the artistic worlds that come to life around those principles. Finally, there is conceptual language, the central idea conveyed in a work of art, no matter whether this is achieved through subtle or direct means. Art encompasses four levels of language; artistic language consists of the fourfold layering of form, rhetoric, aesthetics and concept.
From an art critic’s methodical point of view, I evaluate Dai Guangyu’s work on these four levels. Regardless of whether in his painting or in his installation, video or performance work, Dai Guangyu’s art has consistently, on all levels, been of an experimental nature, and this, for an artistic career spanning 30 years, is a most rare and outstanding achievement.
I particularly appreciate Dai Guangyu’s persistent explorations of the medium of Chinese ink. Towards the end of the 1980’s, he began to become formalistically interested in the abstract effects achieved through the throwing and splashing of ink (“Po Mo”). Then, in the early 1990’s, he moved beyond the two-dimensionality of painting, and began employing Chinese ink in his installation and video work making his work ascend from the formalist into the rhetorical realm; as well as, through the use of ink in installation art, giving shape to an idiosyncratic aesthetic universe. At the end of the nineties, Dai Guangyu introduced ink into his performances, and thus his investigations of the medium, through form, rhetoric and aesthetics, eventually reached the conceptual level. At the beginning of the 21st century, Dai Guangyu’s experimentations in Chinese ink have reached a mature stage and it has become the predominant vehicle for the communication of ideas in his performance art, an aspect widely appreciated in the art world.
Contemporary Chinese art today no longer bears the experimental, critical qualities it once possessed. In the tidal wave of a globalized economy following postmodernism, contemporary art circles have been reduced to a mere playing field for name and fame. Modish artists with bourgeois aspirations have fallen victim to the vulgarity of greed and common fashions. Despite the conditions preordained by this new kind of society, Dai Guangyu is uncompromising in his pursuit of art, which he continues to explore on all levels, from form through to concept, and in contemporary art this sets him apart as one of a different kind.
By Bérénice Angremy, Critic & Curator (Beijing, 2007)
Translated by Lauren Gollash
A large part of my desire to be directly involved in China’s contemporary art scene I owe to Dai Guangyu.
I first met Dai in 2001. He had just completed preparing for a group exhibition Holding White at the Chengdu Academy of Painting in Chengdu where I went to see the first Chengdu Biennale. In spite of the rather tedious biennale, I discovered him, his work and the work of those that he so generously defended. After seeing his original, subtle and challenging works and after commencing what has been a continually enriching conversation over the years, it became clear that I could not continue to work in the field of Chinese art from overseas. It was impossible for me to engage with creativity without working on the ground and taking my time to view and to exchange, in the way in which Dai Guangyu inspired. That is to say, I owe much to him.
There is nothing astonishing about being moved by Dai Guangyu’s work, as he is an artist who has established a deeply mature artistic approach. More than twenty years of creation have positioned him firmly as an important figure of Sichuan and of the 1985 New Wave Art Movement. The slogan of this movement – ‘art forms are unlimited and nothing is prohibited’ – corresponds perfectly with Dai Guangyu, who proceeds to refine a language free of constraints through painting and installation, and where he expresses already a taste for ‘ink games’. In the 90s Dai Guangyu delved into performance art– his favoured medium of expression. The body, such a quintessentially direct medium that is in between being in action for his subtle works, and being a strong aesthetic force evoking the recurring themes of his work: the weight of cultural heritage, the obligation to remember, the marks of time…. At the beginning of the 21st century, Dai Guangyu is decidedly amongst the most important performance artists of his time.
In effect, and this is one of the strengths of his work, there are no fixed or definitive limits between the genre of painting, installation and performance. This gives his works the impression of being ‘in motion’. His installations are often open to an element of performance, and can then become an object, installation, painting or work of calligraphy.
When Dai Guangyu left Chengdu in 2003 the art community in Sichuan, which owes him for having generously and effusively brought together young, and not so young, artists outside of the major events, lost one of its main mentors. We are particularly indebted to him for events like Water Protectors in 1995 and 1996, which encouraged artists to be conscious of environmental issues. He is also noted for events that received less media coverage such as People and Animals in 2000, Remains or Holding White in 2001 which focused on young artists and gave Chengdu standing as an important city in China’s contemporary art world.
Since his move to Beijing, Dai Guangyu continues to work discretely but steadily at the margins of an increasingly mundane art scene.
This first solo exhibition in Beijing finally reveals over fifteen years of creation, whose unifiying thread are his ‘ink games’, unequivocally symbolic of Chinese culture, through which Dai Guangyu has formed a unique and creative body of work. Questioning the values that can be associated with ink (its meaning), Dai recreates its possible forms and functions. Brushstrokes are no longer the norm, quashed by an explosion of ink – a creation in itself. Ink falls, drop by drop, from the roof of a siheyuan onto a mountain of flour, recreating a three-dimensional landscape that echoes traditional painting (Landscape – Geomancy, 2001). Ink dribbles from a cracked vase, obscuring a misogynous ancient text (When Stillness Culminates Movement Begins, 2000). Ink creeps over a nuptial bed (Death Bed, 2001) or boils over from a kettle (Waters of Poetry, 2004) or a vase that the artist deliberately shatters (7’23”, 2000 Shooting at Myself, 2000). On white xuan paper, the ink takes the form of a calligraphy free of constraints, metaphor for an omnipresent culture which he reappropriates.
Becoming more familiar with the universe of Dai Guangyu, the spectator succeeds in deciphering the sometimes complex symbols in his works. The artist manages to form his own vocabulary through Chinese cultural idioms and his imagination: ink marks that spread across white paper; white flour; modern white collar man, his face painted white (western man) or gold (the nouveau riche) ; a man suspended by his feet, suffering his upside down life ; food that symbolises who we are, or who we are going to become ; as well as all those factors that change form over time. Dai Guangyu organises this vocabulary through contrasting mises en scènes which add an aesthetic dimension to his installations and performances. He succeeds to carry out with as much rigor a performance of a couple of minutes (7’23” ,2001) as an installation of gigantic proportions (Landscape – Geomancy, 2001).
The transformation, or to be more exact ‘the state of being in process’ is a question that Dai Guangyu raises in this body of works. The themes that are closest to him – culture, heritage, history, memory etc – all imply this question of ‘process’. What is surprising about his work is that the process is not merely illustrated, but rather put into practice. In other words, he does not talk about process, but rather he brings it to life in his work. His most powerful and poetic installations thus tackle directly the issue of process whilst he leaves ‘time’ to complete that which he starts. A portrait of Dai’s mother is revealed when ice melts after several hours in It Passes Like Flowing Water (1997). Several days of an exhibition are needed for the ink to saturate the white sheets in Death Bed (2001) or the text of Fangzhongshu, or for the flowers to wilt in When Stillness Culminates Movement Begins (2000). Likewise, even Dai Guangyu’s performances can become installations once the performance has finished, by leaving certain objects behind. In My Name is Red, My Name is White, My Name is Black (2007), Dai is himself in progress: once having covered the entire map of China with black ink, he completes his expression by elaborately painting his own body.
By Bérénice Angremy, Critic & Curator (Beijing, 2008)
Translated by Lauren Gollash
‘Ink Games’ takes a revealing look at the universe of Dai Guangyu: a metamorphosis of ink, its symbolic power and its cultural, social and political references. Across the different floors of ifa gallery various are creative alcoves of this artist who positions himself as a socially engaged creator, working across the diverse artistic mediums of painting, installation and performance over the past 20 years.
Born in Chengdu, Dai Guangyu is a self-taught artist who grew up in a educated environment (with his father well versed in history and a student of calligraphy since the age of five). It is likely that Dai Guangyu would have followed a traditional career path had he not found himself a part of the New Wave Movement in 1985, which was a perfect fit for the development of his creative scope, and it was in the 80s that he became one of the leaders of the avant-garde scene in Sichuan. In the 90s, Dai Guangyu discovered performance, which employs the body as key artistic medium, which he found most suitable for expressing himself artistically, being powerful in movement, incisive in meaning, radical and transient. It was during this time that he showed his penchant for ‘ink games’. In the north, in Beijing, during this period, performance raised the themes of suffering and the challenges of onesself in society, with the performance taking on what were often seen as masochistic forms. In contrast, performance in the south west of China questioned topics such as social order and ethics, economic and cultural disruption and the environment, gathered largely around the energy of Dai Guangyu. Performance and conceptual art had found its mentor until 2003, the year that Dai moved permanently to Beijing.
Throughout these years Dai Guangyu developed a body of art and conceptual approach strong in cultural references, rich in poetry and symbolism, and beautiful in form, all of which attracted continual criticism. He created a system of codes and symbols that intensified along with the progress of his installations and performances: black Chinese ink or porcelain vases emblematic of the complexity of Chinese culture; flour to evoke the staple food of the commonalty; suited men with faces painted white or gold as metaphors of westernisation or the pursuit of wealth. Through the act of performance – a temporary action passing from one state to another – Dai Guangyu maintains that all solid forms belong to one moment only and that all circumstances are in the process of transformation. His installations and photographs maintain a vestige of this ‘state of procress’ which is the essence of performance and which provide a poetic poignancy to the still forms.
Ink Games is a selection of works – photographs, installations, performances in situ – that illustrate the career of Dai Guangyu from the end of the 90s to present. Each floor in the house is organised according to a theme dear to the artist – Landscape, Performance, China and Art. The common thread of these works is ink – not the only medium that the artist is skilled and imaginative in manipulating, but it is one that he is most fluent in working with and is gradually becoming his ‘trademark’.
Ink is not only a part of Chinese culture but it is also a unique and specific part of China’s long history, well documented since the Han Dynasty (221 AD-220 AC). Ink is the origin of calligraphy and painting, traditionally thought of as China’s only true art form. Ink is a symbol for aesthetes, those who are guarantors of cultural transmission. It is the heritage of those who have ‘made’ China; a China that has endured from generation to generation, dynasty to dynasty. Ink also embodies the power that it has represented over time.
Dai Guangyu provides a continual reminder of cultural heritage, which is so strong that it endures to have a presence in daily life, along with the burden that it represents for those attempting to free themselve from it. At the same time, Dai points to the undergoing changes to the cultural model in China, and the disappearance of those values important to the educated, giving way to an essentially western model of globalised culture. This dichotomy of easily recognisable Chinese culture with globalised culture, is a reminder of what we have become in relation to the past, and also what we are doing to our memory.
The ink is in turn drawn, repainted, assembled, decomposed, deconstructed, thrown away, recomposed, clearly in the ‘process of being’.
In A Scenery I Once Knew So Well, an ‘interactive painting’ whose name comes from a famous verse of poet Bai Juyi (772-846), Dai Guangyu invites the audience to take a brush and ink and to repaint the lines of the landscape, whose form is well known and considered to be quintessence of Chinese art. The artist then reconstructs the painting by gathering together all of the ‘Ink Games’ in whatever fashion he chooses, to demonstrate that it is impossible to keep heritage in tact.
In the Landscape, Ink, Ice, Geomancy, Ink, Ice and Picturesque Landscape, two words related to landscape,shanshui and fengjing, are drawn with a brush on the frozen surface of a lake. The metamorphosis of the ink that is trapped in the ice over the winter captures poetically that no landscape is completely still, whilst the mark itself, Chinese culture, is at risk of disappearing.
In the photographs of the performances of Dai Guangyu, ink splashes and drips on xuan calligraphy paper, recreating abstract and unrestrained forms.
Ink drips from a crackleware porcelain vase, slowly revealing an ancient misogynist text written on white paper below it, whilst red roses in the vase wither (Quietly Moving). Ink drips down the body of the artist, symbolic of his powerlessness to control the time and changes to the new society (Incontinence). In Shooting At Myself, Dai shoots an ancient blue and white vase that splashes ink on xuan paper as it smashes, signifying that he himself plays a role in the disappearance of symbols of his culture. The ink in Awaken forms brushstrokes on women’s hands in actions demonstrating freedom, referring to the power that women can have through the act of enjoying their bodies.
A huge map of China, drawn with ink in a mound of flour in Borderline, gradually changes size and shape as the ink borders seep across the flour, giving China the impression of being a country in a state of continual development. Ink falls, drip by drip, on the babies of Hospice Care as if it were a nutritious liquid, even though it is obviously an inedible substance.
Returning to its traditional calligraphic form in New Calligraphy – Art Slogan, the ink humourously describes the boom in Chinese contemporary art. With the statement “Art can make you rich in just one night”, the work denounces the historic sales of art at auction that increased by up to five or ten times, the price of a Zhang Xiaogang or a Yue Mingjun painting. The eight Chinese characters form an ensemble of eight vertical hanging scrolls called ba jiao ping, a very traditional form of interior decoration for the formal room in the Chinese home. This somewhat kitsch proverb has quite a different effect from the traditional ba jiao ping, which generally is a sign of the wealth and good taste of its owner.
Dai Guangyu’s Clothing relates the art of love with small erotic scenes painted with ink and brush on the inside of white shirts. These scenes are reproduced from slightly lascivious and in a manner of speaking, scientific, handbooks that were published during all the dynasties in Chinese history. These erotic scenes are as much a traditional part of Chinese culture as the landscapes that can be seen on the front of the shirts.
Dai Guangyu powerfully creates a universe in which ink is used in totally unexpected ways, and where there is a persistent reminder that culture is the history of memory and change.
Neatly Arranged Freedom, Present Absences, Dislocated Contexts and Signs of Our Times: Some Readings of Dai Guangyu’s Art
By Maya Kóvskaya, Critic, Curator & Writer
Though his critical writings, curatorial projects, and most of all through his socially engaged art, Dai Guangyu has been an active contributor to the Chinese contemporary art world for more than two decades. With such a rich career, it is impossible in the short space of this essay to do justice to the breadth and depth of this artists’ body of work. Rather than attempting encyclopedic coverage of his work, I will try to offer an analytical avenue of approach to help understand the powerful underlying connections between Dai Guangyu’s aesthetic, conceptual and social preoccupations. Indeed, it is his staunch and passionate social conscience linked to his conceptual and philosophical concerns that under-gird and lend substance and significance to his visual, linguistic and aesthetic explorations.
If we simply take materials as the starting point, ink, the sort used in traditional ink wash painting, plays a prominent role in Dai Guangyu’s work. Other objects that frequently appear in his art include Chinese vases (often vessels containing black ink), hills of flour (always white), men in white robes and Grand Inquisitor-style hats, black attire, white face make-up or masks, as well as ropes and other means of tying up and suspending the inverted human body in the air. If we start from expressive language and symbolic coding, we find his work is rife with binaries and dichotomies that he ruptures, blurs, confuses, inverts, and calls into question: black/white, bad/good, up/down, concealed/revealed, visible/invisible are among the most prominent. His work uses these binaries and dichotomies in ways that push us to think past them, ways that complicate them and call into question the simplistic conceptualizations of the world through the filter of these dyadic either-or tropes.
If we took all these elements as the baseline from which to evaluate Dai Guangyu’s work, we would find his works interesting, even visually arresting. But it is not until we take his works and ground them in their appropriate worldly contexts and the artist’s engaged, socially conscious positionality that their genuine significance and power is fully evoked. Indeed, it is against the larger social, cultural, political, historical and ecological backdrops, that the core issues in Dai Guangyu’s work truly come to the fore. In this way, rather than perpetuating the “either—or” binary logic of the specious dichotomies implicit in oppositional sign relations such as black or white, bad or good, up or down, concealed or revealed, free or not free, the artists’ work offers what polymath philosopher, semeiotician and logician Charles Sanders Peirce（皮尔士） called a “dialogical” model of thinking, rooted in a semeiotic “trichotomy.”
Using Peirce’s semeiotic trichotomy, we can unify the seemingly disparate elements of visual aesthetics, conceptual explorations and social significance, getting us beyond the simplistic analytical (binary) trope of form/substance, and either/or. By engaging these elements in dynamic relation to one another, structured as a trichotomy that encompasses language, the world, and the thinking mind, Dai Guangyu’s work can be viewed in such a way as to include the process of reception, interpretation and investment of meaning into the relationship between the signs he produces, their “objects” and their “interpretants,” and always with respect to some specific “ground” or mode of meaning. In Peirce’s own celebrated words:
A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea.” This idea is the “ground of the representamen.” “Idea” is meant in the sense of a thought that has continuity, or like content, either in traveling between people or in the thinking of one person’s mind, or in memory.
This semeiotic system is inherently open and dialogical. As a mode of reasoning, dialogism differs from logical syllogism in that each premise has two “alternate conclusions,” each of which can function as the premise for another argument, and so on. In the same way, every interpretant is “capable of acting as a sign to further interpretants and so on.” What this means is that the chains of signification, which are generated by the thinking mind as it places a sign in relation to some object with respect to some particular ground, are potentially infinite. Their meaning is by necessity grounded in the relation between those signs and their placement and use in our lives.
But what is this ground against which the artist situates his system of signs? And where does the role of “interpretance” and the thinking mind come into play in his conceptual sign systems? To answer these questions we must move from the abstract to the concrete, and from the general to the particular, for meaning is made relationally, indexically rooted in context.
Dai Guangyu’s works frequently use ink to make a variety of conceptual and aesthetic points that emerge most clearly against the grounds of their relevant contexts. He uses ink that stains, spreads in unruly and unpredictable ways; ink than can be concealed only so long as the vessel that contains it does not break (and break it will); ink that leaks out from private places, ink that has the capacity to reveal both prowess and impotence. In his performances, ink is frozen in ice, visually representing the ways that the once vibrant traditional culture has become rigid and ossified—beautiful and frozen, just beyond reach. Ink is alternately ingested, spat out, splattered on the body, splashed across the room, and even leaked from his dangling pants leg like the urine of an incontinent man who no longer has even a modicum of control over even such basic bodily functions. What have we become?, he seems to ask. What can his rethinking of ink tell us about ourselves and our lives today?
To understand the role played by ink in his work, it is necessary to consider ink not merely as artistic medium but as social signifier (the sign vehicle that stands for something) with a set of complex relations to various social, historical, cultural grounds, against which a variety of possibly significations becomes evident. How can we conceive of ink apart from the context its history? And yet by sundering his use of ink from the traditional historical contexts of its use, Dai Guangyu implicitly foregrounds the present absence of that historical function and meaning, and in doing so, pushes us to consider who and what we have become and whither our relationship to the past.
Without the ink used in calligraphy, landscape painting and even basic the writing of words by the literate classes, Chinese traditional culture would be unrecognizable. The definitive causal connection between the level of a person’s cultivation, self-mastery, and that person’s literacy and refinement in the various uses of ink is an ancient conception that held sway in Chinese society for thousands of years until recently. In the modern era, the power of the written word has certainly persisted in the form of canonical texts, maxims, slogans, blackboard newspapers and the mass print media. But the role that ink (both shui mo and mo shui) once played as a medium for the practice of self-cultivation and metaphorical litmus test of one’s refinement has gradually receded from the hegemonic public consciousness, as new forms of self-cultivation (such as shopping) and new standards of value (such as property-ownership and self-definition through brands and possessions) emerge triumphant along with market reform in the new order of things, and with it a whole new mentality.
A close reading of one of Dai Guangyu’s most important works is a good starting place to deepen this grounding. In the performance piece, “Missing,” filmed in early summer of 1999, on a date of critical historical significance, the artist uses the visual devices of the mask, the uniform, and the gesture. He and a participant in the performance dress in black, don identical masks, and make their way from the center of the city towards the periphery. They walk, take public transportation, buy newspapers and sit around reading the day’s news before going on to a movie theater on the outskirts of town. Throughout the course of the day, they frequently repeat a familiar repertoire of gestures—body language that is both familiar and simultaneously bizarre in this performance because these gestures “makes sense” only against the background of certain institutions, scenarios, and routinized social practices and that background is missing.
What are these gestures and why do they matter? The two identically dressed and masked men raise their hands, they applaud, and they cringe at random intervals. On the bus, on the street, in the movie theater, with porn and B-movies blaring in the background, these gestures, removed from their usual contexts seem hollow, absurd and meaningless. Yet it is precisely this removal of context (much like the sundering of the uses of ink from its traditional contexts in order to bring our attention back to those contexts and concomitant meanings which have now grown sterile and disconnected from contemporary life) that allows the full meaning of the gesture, replete with its unthinking automaticity, to manifest itself. When we seek the absent “ground” against which this gesture makes sense, we find school rooms, board meetings, committees, small group sessions, in a word, social settings in which a predefined authority structure has already dictated how one is to answer the question: “all in favor, raise your hand.” We assent, says the gesture, we know exactly what we are supposed do to in this sort of situation.
Raising their hands, applauding, or cringing, are enacted out of context in this performance. The absurdity that arises brings the invisible deeper meaning of these gestures starkly to the foreground. “We assent” is only the literal, semantic, meaning of the raised hand, what Ordinary Language Philosopher J.L. Austin calls the “locutionary force” of an expression or utterance. “We approve,” says the clapping, “we won’t fight back,” says the cringing, hands raised as if to ward off blows. The pragmatic meaning, or “illocutionary force,” however, is what really counts—that is to say, on the level of what this gesture does and not merely what it says—is how it functions a shared social sign in its usual context, expressing, performatively enacting, reinforcing and perpetuating conformity to the established structure of authority. And this is far more significant than mere assent to a motion or a measure in a meeting; more significant than approval of any given point made in a speech. The gesture is not so much a vote for whatever is specifically in question, as it is a clear communicator of the hand-raiser’s submission to the hierarchy of authority that calls them into the charade in the first place. The raised hand says, “I will not rock the boat, I know my place, I know the rules and I will play by them.” It is complicit in constituting that order by performatively fulfilling it.
Likewise, the pro forma applause that we see as the two masked men watch a motley mess of movies, comes with no relation to what is actually on screen, it denotes no inner state of approval, and it not required to do so for its effectiveness, as it performs its more important function as a social sign that pragmatically enacts conformity. And the cringing that comes as reflex before a blow—an imaginary blow from an invisible assailant—shows the way in which the internalization of mechanisms of discipline and punishment render the physical presence of the punisher unnecessary, or as
Foucault puts it, the panopticon (a circular prison designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in such a way that the unseen guard at the center could see all the prisoners at once, without ever being seen by the prisoners, so that hypothetically the impression of being constantly watched meant that eventually no one would need to do the watching at all) renders the prison guard superfluous. Discipline acts from within. People have internalized the rules and increasingly there is little need for active external enforcement because the internally disciplined have learned to enforce discipline on themselves. Conformity is generated internally and affirmed and enlarged through compliance and complicity in the maintenance of the order of things. More frightening than the direct confrontation of force, is the gradual mass amnesia that facilitates the conscious charade of forgetting (another present absence that the artist’s works bring to the fore). We do not notice what date it is, and we don’t not want to notice because we have already forgotten why one date, over any others, might function as a sign in and of itself or the ground against which other signs might take on meaning.
It is precisely the widespread embodiment of such conformity enacted through these simple gestures (and other similar social repertoires of conditioned practice), so elegantly captured in Dai Guangyu’s work, and the conditions those gestures perpetuate, that gives the status quo its persistent power. In a sense one can say that such gestures, symbolically speaking and taken together, collectively and cumulatively across the time-space continuum of a nation, are what hold together, indeed what embody, enact and realize the status quo order of things.
Against the ground of the absent yet familiar social contexts of these gestures, we are able to see clearly the outlines of Dai Guangyu’s social and conceptual concerns visually reflected in, and reflected upon in, his work. This performance, like so many of his other performances, bespeaks anxieties over the transformation of the order of things and its deeper implications for human autonomy, and by extension, the social function and independence (or lack thereof) of art.
As people internalize mechanisms of discipline, there is a concomitant and growing erosion of the logic of oppositional narratives juxtaposing ruler and ruled, because those binaries in fact no longer make much sense in the world in which we live. Likewise, there is growing loss of analytical ability to think critically and independently within the conformist social framework. By internalizing the panopticon we no longer need to fear punishment for we have disciplined ourselves, and by disciplining ourselves, we have rendered prisons and prison guards obsolete, ushering in a new regime of freedom—a freedom of absent presences and present absences.
Nowadays, in this new era in which the power of the seemingly autonomous machine of global capitalism has swollen to an unprecedented degree, people enjoy a bounty of what Dai Guangyu calls a “neatly arranged” (俨然) freedom, and far more tolerance (at least superficially) towards art than at any time in recent history. He imagines a hypothetical day when the State will have prepared metaphorical spittoons to catch any phlegm that artists might want to expectorate, neatly containing any messy emissions. He worries that this seemingly enlarged and yet neatly arranged “freedom” which depends on mass conformity and internalized discipline, may ironically make us more unfree, and art less independent. While “art” enjoys a heyday of mass popularity this new era, it has also been transformed into cultural capital that testifies to the “intelligence and refinement” of its self-proclaimed new admirers, and an index of the “tolerance” and “openness” of the times. Expression of rebelliousness in art have been appropriated, domesticated, and neutralized into the endearing tantrums of a naughty, yet beloved child. “Art has become cute,” he contends, assessing the sizable new wave of forms that are weak on substance and strong on the manipulation of images of naughtiness, just naughty enough to provide a “lite” provocation, without any actual risk of subversion,” signaling the rise of a new ideological structure that is firmly grounded in the signs of the times.
Gone is the simplistic binary thinking of days past, this new ideology is characterized by flexibility, a stance that is open toward the future and increasingly pragmatic. One thinks of Deng Xiaoping’s famous invocation that black cats and white cats alike catch mice. An era of Manichean poles of good and evil gives way to a postmodern world painted in shades of gray. This has created an awkward and embarrassing situation for art, Dai Guangyu suggests, because while art can function as an “interpretant” offering us a conceptual space and critical distance for rethinking ourselves and the human predicament, many “independent” culture producers have largely lost their capacity for analysis and critical judgment under the hegemony of this new ideological structure, becoming compradors complicit in the emasculation of art. The rise of a new critical standard, rooted in the value structures of the market, by which to measure and evaluate art, becomes a co-opted weapon used to disarm the weapon’s original owner. What matters now more than ever is neither form, nor technique, nor explorations in “artistic language,” but rather, what is at stake is nothing less than discursive power (话语权) itself.
Charles Sanders Peirce, Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover Publications, 19XX), pg. 99.