Seed [Buffalo | Beijing: Translation]
The following essay was written for the catalog of Buffalo Beijing: Translation, the resulting exhibition for the two year (Spring 2010-Spring 2012) academic and cultural exchange between University at Buffalo, SUNY and the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing
Millie Chen, Professor and former Chair of the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Buffalo, the State University of New York (hereinafter UB), who is also the founder of the UB|CAFA exchange program, accompanied her colleagues and students to Beijing on three separate occasions between 2010 to 2012 to participate in the visual arts program at CAFA. At the end of the program in March 2012, Beijing Today Art Museum exhibited to great success “Buffalo | Beijing: Translation”. My ongoing communication with Millie, her colleagues and students during these two years made me an indirect participant in the program. Yet I was able to reach its core only a month after its completion, by the occasion of my visit to UB as a guest lecturer in April 2012.
On a chilly evening in UB, I was able for the first time to view the works from the “Buffalo|Beijing: Translation” group exhibition shown at the Beijing Today Art Museum and the University at Buffalo Art Gallery. In the past few months, while interviewing the artists, reading related texts, searching websites, examining photos and illustrations, and watching videos, these students’ works that could be easily overlooked by the temperamental art world kept providing me with fresh information and concepts, which constantly resonated with my own point of view. I have to admit that to entirely understand these works, in particular the spirited exchange between the group members, was unexpectedly difficult. To gather all data and classify them in order to deliver a stimulating, even decent, article both in English and Chinese appeared to me to be, without a doubt, quite an inviting challenge for my writing skills.
Compared to the overflowing contemporary art market in China, the two year UB|CAFA exchange program seems as imperceptible and ephemeral as a grain of sand in the desert. Yet the constant exchange with another culture, a different language and an unknown people, and the repetitive attempts of syncretize to some faraway mind and society offered these students a new interpretation of the word communication, which goes far beyond its basic definition: the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, writing, or behavior [Wikipedia]. I divided these works into the categories “Self-identification and acknowledgement,” “In search of cultural origins,” and “Communication, translation, and societies,” hoping that the current structure will convey my understanding and interpretation of the UB|CAFA program.
Self-identification and acknowledgement
“Identity” is no longer a new topic; however, put within the context of the UB|CAFA exchange program, the topic somehow appears particularly complex and challenging. In an international exchange program such as the UB|CAFA program, the topic of identity refers simultaneously to the artist’s self-identification, interpretation, and acknowledgement, and to the artist’s reflection on social phenomena or problems.
“Very fruitful” is how the artists Shasti E. O’Leary Soudant (USA), Alice Alexandrescu (USA) and Feifei Yu (CN) describe their collaborative three-channel video, “The Sponge: Come, Blood, Milk.” I found it intensely symbolic and powerful. A pair of female hands immediately catches the viewer’s attention as the video starts. They are manipulating and twisting a piece of sponge, dipped in come, until the sponge is dry. The pasty semi-transparent liquid oozing between the long, thin, and delicate fingers casts a tone of sensuality.
In other sequences, the sponge dipped in blood-red liquid and milk, respectively, is twisted by two other pairs of female hands. The entire video is accompanied by different pre-recorded sound tracks revealing each liquid’s texture.
Clean, subtle, effectively contrasting, and straightforward in its expression, “The Sponge: Come, Blood, Milk” reflects the strong yet individual personalities of the three collaborators. Feifei Yu, who grew up in a single parent household in Canton, struggles in the “Bei Piao” (Floating in Beijing) lifestyle and the insecurity imposed by her family situation. Nevertheless, her fortitude in fighting against the harsh realities appears both fascinating and discomforting to her Western collaborators, Shasti and Alice. Meanwhile, they seemed stimulated to re-discover themselves as women and artists by helping Feifei find her identity both in her motherland and in her life.
A series of photographs made before the artists embarked on making the video already reflect a common search for identity by the three artists. The photos show Feifei dressed in an army uniform made of plastic and sponge patches. Her posing as a soldier reminds us of the famous Japanese cartoonist Kurumada Masami’s work “Saint Seiya.” The photographs are the result of the artists’ visit to a giant Chinese supermarket. Amazed by the fanaticism of Chinese consumers, the first idea to come to their minds was to showcase the consumption culture represented by young promotional girls dressed like the fictional figures in Japanese animation. Cute, charming, but strange and disturbing, these young girls are, for Shasti and Alice, the perfect reflection of a contemporary China that is distorted by the hyper-explosive economy. Feifei’s performance in front of the camera transformed a promotional girl into an anti-consumption soldier. Challenging in her pose, provocative in her regard, Feifei seems to find a way to confront reality through photography.
The need for self-identification in the west seems less urgent for Shasti and Alice, although in their own works Shasti questions how women use their bodies and Alice investigates power relationships. Both feminists appeal to Feifei through their views of this world. Sponge is chosen as the best symbolic object to interpret their ideas about women, their intense inner exchange, and their fruitful collaboration. By manipulating and twisting this soft, absorbent and resistant material, the artists are also trying to reveal those stories hidden within themselves, inviting the viewer to step into the most delicate movements of their inner world.
“The Sponge: Come, Blood, Milk,” ‘pure and oblique’ in Feifei’s words, mirrors its creators’ inner thoughts, providing a unique way for them to stay powerful while confronting the society that they live in.
If sponge, with its flexibility and resistance, gave inspiration to the three female creators, hair, the most intimate part of the human body, was for Yan Zhang and Eduardo Velazquez the emblem of their expression. This extremely fine and fragile object that faithfully reveals each individual’s sex, culture, personality, lifestyle, and health, is considered one of the most important symbolic icons in Asian culture.
Hair as a theme of research has preoccupied Yan’s mind before the UB|CAFA exchange. Meeting Eduardo offered her a great opportunity to develop the research into a real exhibition project. In the little brochure BEIJING BUFFALO she sent to me, Yan retraced – with the aid of texts and photos – the laborious research process that she and Eduardo had to come through to accomplish the final installation. The term “laborious” not only describes their search for the final presentation of the artwork, but also the process through which they came to understand and accept each other.
Yan’s narrative in diary form in BEIJING BUFFALO lead us to imagine that a big part of the research that she accomplished was on Eduardo her collaborator. His thinking, behavior, life style and working process all seemed enigmatic and hard to understand for the Chinese artist.
Exploring the individual overlapping within a collaborative research on aesthetics, Yan navigated the vast and adventurous ocean of imagination between the East and the West, trying to find the pathway of communication to reach her collaborator and the culture he represented. Opposite to Yan’s methodology, Eduardo took on the whole Chinese contemporary society as his research target by pursuing a series of photography and performance art works, but soon felt overwhelmed by the immensely complex and confusing system of Chinese culture and its various social problems. In “Ceremony,” in which Yan participated, Eduardo wore a wig made of 100% human hair, portraying a student and a Chinese female maintenance worker in a series of performances held at different venues in Beijing and its suburbs. The performances likely took the form of cult ceremonies, referring to a 6th century Chinese poem “The Bitten Peach” by LIU Xiaozhuo. The practice seems interesting, yet the goal of the artist remains unclear. Compared to this, Yan’s research process seems much more straightforward and better organized. With the hair as the unique medium, and Chinese ancient brush as the main element for building the future installation, Yan only needed to find the ultimate expression for the final artwork.
Nevertheless, the ceremonial emphasis in Eduardo’s practice did differentiate their project from those of the others, and infuses their work with a particular subtlety that stimulates the viewer to reflect on the message hidden under the visual data. Some parts of Eduardo’s performances as shown in the documentation appear philosophical and mysterious. The various symbolic elements seem to carry imperceptible meanings much too delicate to be interpreted: the mirror, portraits of ancient Chinese figures, red paper, the choice of different venues, the abandoned construction site, the Great Wall, etcetera. All of these reveal the performer’s strong interest and reflection on Chinese civilization and social mutations. Working hard to decode the rich data of Chinese history and civilization, the creator appears as a rebel representative of Chinese people, protesting against specific social phenomena by speaking out about his own points of view through these performances. In his artist statement, Eduardo mentions his concern for the plight of homosexuals in China by “converting himself” into a female character in the photograph entitled “Lovers.” He also tries to show his compassion for Chinese laborers by playing the role of a maintenance woman in his performances. Can we consider the above-mentioned pre-set scenario as the artist’s criticism of China’s concept of hierarchy and its judgmental attitude toward social layers and individual identity? The message that the artist tries to deliver through the two female roles seems blurry in the scenario.
It is, however, these practices without clearly articulated purpose that accidentally form the best contribution to Eduardo and Yan’s final collaborative artwork, which aims to describe the impasse in the translation and communication between different cultures and languages. The eternal misunderstanding – probably the most charming part as we navigate the multifaceted cultural environment – was showcased, enlarged, and emphasized through the 80 Chinese brushes made of human hair and suspended above a Chinese Promise Tree, symbolizing the artists’ common aspiration for global harmony. Meanwhile, their continual search for their own identity and existence in between multiple cultures chases an elusive “harmony.”
The devil is in the detail. This is a rule that applies to all games, including art creation. A refined work in detail is shown in quite an original way in the documentary movie “I Seek,” a collaborative project between Christopher Fox and Liu Lingzi.
The real thing to be searched for is the first stroke of the Chinese character “I” (我). This intrigue seems like a word game in the Chinese language, alluding to “me,” searching for “my origins” which have been lost. “I Seek” is another work, which relates to the topic of self-identification.
Different from the previous works, “I Seek” takes on a much more humble and truthful style. The documentary makes the act of searching for the missing stroke of “我” (I or me) lively, real and meaningful. In fact, this apparently simple documentary touches on extremely complex social problems that force the Chinese participants to meaningfully ask themselves a very basic question without ever finding the answer: what do I look for in life? To put it differently, what’s the meaning of life? Why do I live in this world? The mournful erhu music at the beginning of the video announces the dilemma, which the two collaborators pose.
In this documentary, which is based on interviews, the two collaborators cover almost every walk of life in Chinese contemporary society, dialoguing with representative figures from various social layers. Besides the interviews, venues and music have also been selected with great care. The erhu melody at the beginning prefigures on the one hand the truth we are going to see in the movie, the heavy real life of Chinese bloggers, and on the other the reactions of people from different generations when they are confronted by the interviewer in front of the camera: puzzled, confused, thoughtful, lost, resigned, replying with great ease, revealing the truth, hedging or refusing with diplomacy…The end scene shows a middle age man enthusiastically singing the classical Chinese military song, “The Little White Tree”; his expression symbolizes the deep expectations of China’s common people for a safer and more promising future, while at the same time inadvertently conveying to the interviewers their disappointment in China’s current society.
This documentary challenges the common Chinese by pulling out from their hearts their deepest expectations for life. The “me” (the Chinese character “I”) seeking the lost origins (identity) is a faithful reflection of the state of affairs of most people in contemporary Chinese society, yet things that have been deformed in this society are far beyond one’s identity (symbolized by the downward sloping line on the left side of the Chinese character “I”). This apparently casual and playful downward slopping line in the movie in fact carries a heavy symbolic meaning epitomizing innumerable realities that the Chinese face such as lack of insurance and being defenseless in the face of incursion and despoliation to the point of losing all human rights, yet still constantly chasing the so-called “pie in the sky.”
In addition to their approach in the search for self-identity, the two collaborators focus in particular on the broader and problematic contemporary Chinese society and the meaning of life. This provides a wonderful opportunity for Christopher to witness the various attitudes of Chinese from different generations participating in the interviews. The openness and frankness of the young versus the prudence, hesitancy, ignorance or rejection on the part of the elderly deeply impressed Christopher, who was raised on Western culture. The cautious reactions of the elderly implacably reveal the radical damage that Chinese modern history has caused on their mental health. Nevertheless, for someone exploring a creative experience in China for the first time, all types of attitudes encountered in these interviews would be considered a life experience to be fully tasted.
In the search for cultural origins
Ellen Rogers, Timothy Scaffidi, and Ji Yucheng (aka Cody) may have been inspired in part by the Chinese zodiac to interpret their creative communication. There is no lack of Western artists who base their creations on the Chinese zodiac, however, the Chinese zodiac doesn’t seem to be the soul of “Legend,” their collaborative work, which actually reminds me more of the early bio-art works based on gene research, creating new life forms with the technology of hybridization. The creators of “Legend” intentionally worked with relatively simple, older technologies.
The three collaborators’ strong interest in cultural heritage and its symbolic icons are revealed by the work’s presentation: the projection screen is designed in a long horizontal row for Chinese calligraphy; images are printed on lanternslides and projected from old slide projectors. The installation looks intriguing and effective thanks to both its technical achievement and its presentation; the exploration of the meaning of life is playful yet direct. The only weakness of this installation might be the slight imbalance between its appearance, and its theme and materials, which should have provided much more intense philosophical connotations. The alliance of art and technology very often represents as many advantages as disadvantages. The integrity and the success of the artwork completely depend on the balance between the advantages and disadvantages. It might not be a bad idea for the collaborators to more deeply investigate ways to interpret their thinking about the exchange between the U.S. and China in their cultural and historical domains.
Despite its shortcomings, the installation still amazed the audience with the creators’ search for the cultural origins hidden behind its playful presentation. The continuity of culture and history are often neglected or forgotten both in China and in the U.S. The discussion of cultural heritage in China is particularly lamentable with the intellectual community constantly appealing to the government for support. The continuity of life is determined by the prosperity of culture. “Legend,” using simple language and humble technologies, advances the most urgent issue of our time: how to create new life in order to give continuity to culture? Could it be a real “legend” in the near future? Surprisingly accomplished in its restrained production, the three artists’ thoughts definitely deserve our greatest attention and active feedback.
With the same focus on culture, “The Book of Dust” shows a world of flavor dominated by aestheticism, classicism, and subtlety. Each single element in its decoration, however, is just banal, simple, and minor enough to be easily neglected.
Lian Fang and Jonathan Barcan’s “The Book of Dust” is a combination of the most humble elements in the world, yet it is also a collection of the most imperceptible data of time, a recording of the most sensitive perception of the two artists from different cultures and surroundings, and of their most subtle fluctuation in consciousness as stimulated by the environment. It’s a poetic expression interpreted by flowers, colorful fingernails, dust, paint, a piece of copper wire, spices, fake coins used for funerals, incense, a few scars on a construction wall, a manhole cover on the street – all come from the earth, and will return to the dust.
Surprisingly, “The Book of Dust” doesn’t allow us to perceive any cultural or mental conflicts between the U.S. and China. The project appears to be accomplished without any obstacles. It’s the result of a perfect exchange between two young souls, who both have a strong sensibility of icon culture, an openness to a collective exploration of the world, skills in handling different materials, accurate research of various forms and attentive observations on life.
The ‘pages’ of the book are mounted on Plexiglas sections that are interlinked and displayed on a long, narrow platform that is set up as a suspended sculpture. The work’s striking but fragile appearance is a delicate metaphor for culture, which carries the same properties. Each color, grain and material in the interlinked pages were found by the two artists as they wandered through Beijing and Buffalo. They are the vehicle for the rich, spirited exchange between Fang and Jonathan, which vary from individual thoughts or emotions to discussions on culture and ideology. They also carry the old histories of Beijing and Buffalo, embodying several hundred years of change that China and the U.S. have experienced.
“The Book of Dust” is most of all a dialogue between its creators on different cultures and ideologies; it seems to operate as an outstanding retrospective of human culture and history.
Communication, translation and societies
“The Empty Box” by Marc Tomko, Caitlin Cass, and Luo Zilong could easily confuse viewers who are not familiar with the theme of “emptiness,” who would thereby forget to explore the connotative meaning that the artists are trying to reveal. “The Empty Box” looks like a very simple installation, nothing more than an old suitcase that Marc purchased from an antique market in Beijing. Retaining its vintage look from the 1930s, the three collaborators modified it into a sort of sanctum, in which the viewer is invited to lock him/herself in order to experiment with the feeling of isolation.
An understanding of the meaning of the installation begins from the moment of isolation. Being locked in this enclosed space, we see the walls covered by notes written in different languages, relating various stories or topics; we hear our own breath, heartbeat, flow of our consciousness, disorder of our mind. We feel our anxiety and doubts caused by the enclosed environment; we experience our body until it slowly gets used to the very specific space; we are attracted to the mass data and patterns on the walls, start reading them, feeling calm and focused. Our brain is reactivated, our body is no longer rigid, and our eyes start looking around. The exterior world appears completely cut off from us. The only thing that concerns us is to interact with the data we see on the walls, to try our best to integrate into this isolated space, to experiment with the absolute peace and the feeling of focus, from our consciousness to our entire body.
This unique experiment of isolation inspires us to look at this simple installation differently. We might hope to have more chances to get into a similar state of isolation, to experiment with those moments of existence – the rare state where mind and body become one. This work appears to be about self-interpretation, a process of psychological analysis. People are encouraged to break out of rigid structures, to have a broader conversation with the empty box, which is at the same time the centre of ideas, and to seek the existence of ‘truth’ with a different medium. The artists invite people to enter this private space, dominated by confusion and chaos and a mass of complex information, in order to experiment with their own existence in a very unusual way.
Reading each artist’s curriculum, I notice that Marc and Zilong have common interests regarding their research. Marc is fascinated by the alliance of art and consciousness, especially psychological analysis, while Zilong’s works focus on the interpretation of reality and dreams. The flow of human consciousness became the major topic that drew their attention in the collaboration. Caitlin brought a different interpretation to “The Empty Box,” which for her served as a vehicle of misunderstanding, confusion, and conflict over the creation process she went through with her team members. These obstacles were impossible to erase, existing at all levels in their collaboration. On top of it all, the awkward communication between the team members made language, the main communication tool, the most fitting embodiment of “emptiness.” The various bits of information covering the interior walls of “The Empty Box” recorded the difficulties that each team member encountered in his/her communication with the others. The entire empty box is therefore transformed into an object symbolic of the cultural exchange and communication between two countries.
The term “emptiness” is interpreted differently in Taoism in China and Buddhism in India. In general, being empty is a state of mind beyond reality in Chinese philosophy, a cultivation that helps humans to gain an inside perspective on the real world, a return to nothingness for both consciousness and body. This interpretation that Caitlin used to describe her team members’ communication based on language is in fact the theory established by Marc in their collaborative installation. Zilong, the Chinese collaborator, is to Caitlin and Marc the only person who can foresee the future among them. In Caitlin’s own words: “This is the Chinese imagined by American young people.”
At the moment we step into “The Empty Box” and take part in the creation process, are we, like Zilong, also supposed to be able to foresee our future?
The four-channel video “Cannot control the meaning of the life process” created by Katrina Boemig, Nicole Zayatz, Yang Xin and Lou Wei is the first work I reviewed at UB, but the last to be mentioned in the current article. The reason for this intentional arrangement is simple to explain and has a personal purpose. On one hand, the work carries a Chinese name, “种子” (Seed), which is totally different from its English title, on the other, its English title responds coincidentally to my conclusion for the current critique: it is actually impossible for us to control the meaning of our life process. This is an unfortunate fact that is impossible to change for the above-mentioned artists, and for all humans.
Katrina and Nicole’s notes about the work and the visual documents they sent me by DVD, which seem abstract and quite confusing, jump in front of me like strange but useless icons. The notes are short, combined with a series of key words about the entire process of the women’s spiritual exchange with China and the development of their thoughts on creation. The letters, images, and voice-over in the video seem to be edited in an intentionally haphazard way. You better have an elephant’s memory and a strong sense of logic to put them back in order. The work attacks you with a large quantity of data and cultural elements from its beginning, and continues so until its end. The only factor that can barely help us to regain the harmony between our auditory and visual sensations is Nicole’s voice. Soft, tender and peaceful, she slowly describes to the viewers her feelings and perception coming through all of these adventures that are dominated by chaos, confusion, or disorientation in a foreign country.
Relying on auditory and visual disorder, “Cannot control the meaning of the life process” (or “Seed”) aims to express the obstacles in “communication” and “translation” the four collaborators encountered. Yet, these obstacles do not purely exist in language, as people speaking the same language might misunderstand each other; they also exist when oral expression delivers a more superficial meaning than body language does with its deeper connotations. Between a text and its translation, the same nuance and misunderstanding may exist as well. When it comes to communication between humans and animals, both sides play out a similar process of “communication” and “translation.”
The above-mentioned nuances, difficulties, and obstacles are related in the four-channel video. The images are strewn with symbols: horse (representing animal), finger language, children’s drawings, lit candles in the church, melody from a matouqin, dialect, letters or characters, photos, etcetera. The various obstacles and details that are impossible to solve by communication and translation exist everywhere in this international collaboration, and even more so in their daily lives, which give the impression to these young people that life itself is a process of communication and translation.
The video presents an observation, or more precisely an attitude, to the viewers, with the ending accompanied by a melody from a matouqin; it advances a series of questions without giving answers. The questions investigate the communication between individuals, humans and animals, and even different elements, in order to help seek the meaning of their mutual existence. Nevertheless, our whole life is built with these eternally missing points caused by impossible obstacles in communication and translation, which actually provide the best excuse for each of us to individually pursue our communication and understanding with the exterior world.
The French proverb “Chaque chose a son temps” means that everyting in our life happens naturally when the right time comes. This now seems to me the best way to describe my connection to the current article.
After my lecturer residency at UB, I moved to New York City to pursue a short journey for my own Ph.D. research. The current article was written during this period, and the discussion on “communication” and “translation” was precisely appropriate to what I experienced on a daily basis living in New York. Compared to the students from UB and CAFA, I have some advantages with my language skills, which allowed me to understand the local people and integrate with much more ease. But the cultural shocks, conflicts, and the subtle nuances between different languages that we have absolutely no way to eliminate still caused, from time to time, some unexpected misunderstandings that challenged my sensible nervous system and occasionally took control of my emotions.
If some of my thoughts in the current article can be resonant for the young artists from UB and CAFA, or help them to express more than what they would have tried to do through their works, it is a coincidence with the life I am living at the moment. Speaking, however, within a more general and broader context, no matter where we are living today – in our own country or abroad – we should always remain global citizens, keeping our mind open to multiple cultures. Traveling and living abroad have become a way of life for me. Connecting with a foreign culture, understanding it and integrating into it is much more meaningful for me than being a workaholic or fortune hunter, like many of my contemporaries. Yet I believe that there are many others in this world, those who are of like mind, trying to pursue the same dream as mine, giving their best effort to explore cultures and peoples in order to discover other inspiring minds and behaviors. But are we always speaking the same language or better understanding each other than we would those outside this circle? Living on this vast planet, I don’t have a better answer than my own uncertainty to these questions.
The exchange between UB and CAFA advanced an apparently absurd but indeed severe question to all participants in the project, no matter directly or indirectly: How to understand Me? And how to understand the Others? Could the continuity of life be based on basic human behaviors such as communication and translation? The professors and students from UB and CAFA gave two years to establish their arguments. I would rather return to the English title of the last work I mentioned to answer the question: “Cannot control the meaning of the life process.” Why don’t we try to plant the Seed produced by these young creators and help it to grow? When the time comes, we will naturally find our answers.
Xiaoying Juliette YUAN
Dec. 20th, 2012, Paris