What is a manuscript? In my view, manuscripts should present the ideological trajectory of an artist's creation, or a working method and habit that is both connected with and independent from a specific creation. Compared with western artists, most Chinese artists today do not seem to be good at creating manuscripts, nor do they regard manuscripts as one of the criteria to evaluate professionalism of artists.
In 2009, I did a series exhibition of the artists' manuscripts. At the time, confronted with financial difficulties, we were nonetheless ambitious to change the customary way of exhibition at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, especially the inertia in the way of thinking resulting from art marketization. The exhibition had had three major intentions, i.e. to emphasize the experimentality of artistic creation, to provide the audience a gateway to the artist’s creative motive, and to explore a new angle for the justification of the exhibition space. In the beginning, we made a rule with the 10 artists selected that only the manuscript, i.e. the conception of creation, relevant correspondence, discussion of painting and exchanges of ideas would be highlighted, and the concept of finished products be weakened. However, in the execution stage, when implementing the concept of "manuscript", we came into a lot of trouble. In fact, some artists did not have any manuscript to be exhibited, not at least in the professional sense. What they could give us were only small-sized compositions, which we were not certain whether they reflect the ideological track of the artist. I talked with the artists about the role of manuscripts in artistic expression and one of them held the view that curators failed to acquire in-depth understanding of artists and their works because they did not bother to get to know their past. I disagreed. There is a gap between the artist’s interpretation of his own works and that of the critic and curator, who are more concerned about the meaning of the work from the perspective of the art history, and only when the work has some bearing upon society does its significance emerges. In this sense, the personal preferences are of no importance to the research of art history. Put it another way, references should and must be made to the standard raised by art history and the public space in the artistic creation. Serving as the record of the creative process, the specific and conceptual manuscript should be in line with the finished creations in a logical manner and jointly tell the evolving process of the artist's creation.
From another point of view, the manuscript can also help the art historian gain access to information as a basis for art history literature. Therefore, professional art institutions are obligated to explore the artist’s ultimate purpose and how it relates to art history. In the meantime, art institutions could take the initiative of digging out the artist’s development of artistic understanding, instead of acting as a passive presenter of art pieces. This practice will also encourage artists to develop a critical view of his works and their role in the social and cultural construction.
Of course, artists have different professional needs for manuscripts. I remember seeing Leonardo da Vinci's Manuscripts Exhibition at Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University two years ago, and I thought at the time that only such manuscripts were able to satisfy my expectation of "manuscripts" and win my recognition of the artist's professionalism. Another case in point is the exhibition “House of Oracles: A Huang Yongping Retrospective” organized by Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. What’s interesting about this exhibition is that its exhibition catalog ended up more influential than the show itself, which is a rare phenomenon in China. In the decade to come, the catalog of “House of Oracles” was so popular that it went out of stock many times. Why? Because there are so many creative projects worth to learn, and art teachers and students find it contains highly instructive knowledge and methodologies worthy of their attention. If we take creative factors like manuscripts as the criterion for judging the professionalism of an artist, then we’ll gain a clearer understanding of the manuscript, and artists will pay more attention to the logic and context with respect to information, texts, creations and presentations.
Why are we emphasizing the significance of the manuscript today? Why are we engaged in this discussion? Firstly, because today's way of presenting art emphasizes the artist's personal identity, and his works are only part of him. The other day I waited in the queue and paid 80 yuan for an exhibition and was astonished upon entry that the works on display were mere copies. But why were there so many of us willing to spend the time and a fortune on it? It is because it provides us with information that could help us understand the artist per se. From this perspective, artists are seducing the public with their manuscripts, whose popularity reveals the public keenness on the artist’s personal story. It is a relationship that artists can avail themselves of because manuscripts carry more literary romance in terms of the artist’s secrets.
Secondly, from the advent of modernism, audiences are having more difficulties in understanding works of art. However, art development increasingly emphasizes on publicity and requires public participation. Artists want their works to be recognized and accepted by more people and create an impact on a wider scale. In turn, the public also hopes to understand more works of art and appreciate art up close. Considering this mutual demand, manuscripts are resorted to for the public to evaluate the relationship between the result and his thinking process. It is in this interaction between the creative thinking of artists and daily thinking of the public that lies the significance of manuscripts. This may also be one of the reasons why people pay more attention to the creation of manuscripts today.
Furthermore, the mode of exhibition has changed. It is no longer a dead-end discussion about form, aesthetics and material under a fixed concept. Most of the experimental exhibitions do not require completed works, themes or the integrity of the production. Rather, they focus on the procedural, geographical and cultural characteristics of the exhibition and the venue. In this framework, the relationship between art creation and social and historical contexts is underlined. It also emphasizes the function and meaning of art in the society. In contrast, those past works that were clear-cut and highly conceptualized would fall into a relatively non-literal and isolated situation. As an early record of the ideological path of creation, the manuscript is far from perfect, but it is such defects that give room for openness and flexibility, and allow for the demand for interaction between artists, curators and the audience. The handling of time and space in today’s exhibitions is quite different from the past, and this requires the artists to be more than ever adaptive. Many western artists have begun to make extensive use of manuscript creation methods in the specific exhibition space so that the exhibition has taken on new meanings.
In addition, curatorial needs are also important factors. Exhibitions today differ from those in the past in that artists are required to submit plans, the writing of which has become an essential part of the artistic professionalism. In the process, the artist has to modify their journey of contemplation, and when they are lacking in the mentioned manuscripts, they will make one up after the exhibition to meet the needs of publicity and catalogs, or to improve creative thinking. However, it is debatable whether such images and texts out of contexts are justified to be called manuscripts. In fact, it is difficult for curators to study manuscripts, because it involves more than just creation. Today's manuscripts are highly targeted. In particular, some artists have a wide range of interests and thoughts, covering philosophical thinking, historical understanding and forefront trend.
As far as the general trend of art development is concerned, manuscript creation is a part of the professionalization of art studios, which emphasize more on collection and analysis of information, providing the foundation for artists to quickly be engaged with the public space. The form of manuscript in the studio is also the artist's feedback on information. In recent years, I went abroad to see a lot of excellent artists' studios. By contrast, the Chinese artists' studios appear to be one-way, mostly at the traditional level, while foreign artists are more logical and stress more on the close connection between the function of their works and today's society. Manuscripts often become an important approach to realize the three-dimensional construction of their studios as well as the window to understand the artist's creation. Domestically I know only two artists who have set up a room specially for information collection, they are Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang. Many artists may not be aware of this yet, but this unidirectional work style obviously hinders the improvement of their mindset. In my opinion, the artistic feedback of information is presented in the form of manuscripts from the very beginning, which will also facilitate our understanding of manuscripts and the artist’s creative thinking. In the process, it also marks another kind of our understanding of art, meeting the needs of the audience and offering more room for diversity in the understanding of art.