The Visual “Object”—Xu Hongxiang’s Action and Viewing Guidelines
by Yang Xiaoyan
Jan. 31st, 2018
It has come to my notice that in the project of Li Qiang, Xu Hongxiang treated the paintings as “objects” rather than “works”, a choice of wording which I believe is quite deliberate on his part. The story goes like this. Xu painted a medium-sized painting and gave it to his childhood friend Li Qiang as a gift and received a pack of betel nuts in return. Later, Xu enlarged the original painting “object” to the height of several men piled up and hung it up on the hillside by the village. So conspicuous was this object that people could see it from very far off—it just stayed there, out of place, among the ubiquitously featureless construction site and jugged cement buildings.
There’s quite a sense of disparagement in this designed arrangement. The object of painting is analogous to the pack of betelnuts, to which people are easily addicted. Likewise, would we also be hooked to appreciating paintings? But there’s a distinction—paintings are for people to see instead of chewing, so we’d develop an addiction to the “visual betelnuts”. In a way, appreciating paintings and chewing betelnuts are the same thing. If you have a habit of chewing betelnuts, there would be a smell of betelnuts in your mouth, and the inside of your mouth would be tinted with the color of them. In the same sense, eyes addicted to seeing paintings would be tinted with the shadow of paintings, and glimmer if they’re set upon a painting. But we do not care about describing the act of chewing betelnuts, thinking it not worthwhile to do so. In contrast, appreciation of paintings is regarded as a matter of aesthetics, cultural refinement and sentimental display—so it is, at least, in the view of the secularworld, the academia and the artists.
However, judging by Li Qiang’s giving a pack of betelnuts to Xu Hongxiang, it is my guess that Li Qiang does not share this view. What is his take on this? I don’t think he has one, let alone one that would take us art people by surprise. If anything, he would find incredible what Xu Hongxiang had done. From Li Qiang’s perspective, this childhood friend of himhas devoted his life to art, having studied at the first class Central Academy of Fine Arts and graduated with a master’s degree. Xu Hongxiang has become someone superior whom he could only look up to. But now, Xu has returned to his hometown, drawn a portrait of Li Qiang, enlarged it to stories high, and put it up against the hill. What does this all mean? Xu Hongxiang is well aware of the reason why the estrangement came about between him and his friend. They are now belonging to entirely different classes. He belongs to the social elite, an artist who live to think, to criticize, to subvert, and to rebel, while Li Qiang remains in the village, living a more concrete yet numbing life, chewing betelnuts now and then, speaking the dialect and being used to swearing probably. His plumpness also suggests a life filled with secular pleasure, a life has nothing to do with thinking, criticizing, subversion or rebellion.
In fact, this piece by Xu Hongxiang demonstrates his sentimental reaction to the inevitable gap in taste between different classes, the neglect of which is rendering art an ennobled way of self-entertainment enjoyed exclusively by the elite, losing the power ofsocial influence. It compels Xu Hongxiang to wonder: what is the meaning of art? Without power, how can we be justified to do art? I think Xu Hongxiang was attempting to create an opportunity for himself to erase the inherent hauteur of art by returning to his hometown, drinking and chatting with his friend, and drawing pictures of him. Frankly speaking, Xu Hongxiang knows well that the critical power of art is being diminished in the immersive presence of arrogance, and once the critical power is gone, so is the meaning of art. In other words, if art fails to keep people sober, or facilitates individual growth, the artist is not justified to be engaged with it any more. Therefore, Xu Hongxiang tried to make a breakthrough by renewing the earlier intimacy between him and his friend. He called his work “object” and put his friend in the place of the motif, making Li Qiang a social metaphor integrated with comprehensive judgment. The field became a guide for the audience to see the work, and the work per se a “visual betelnut” for people to chew on. In this way, the creative work is imbedded with the meaning of action and is elevated to be an organic contingency withinthe grassroots in society.
In the Field, another project by Xu Hongxiang, redefines the act of viewing. Set in Shiren Village, a hamlet in the outskirts of Changsha where he grew up, the paintings focus on the environment and the wandering people. There’s an element of fortuity in his practice. He painted as he walked, and the paintings would be placed back to where they were made, on a dilapidated wall, on the corner of a chaotic street, or even on the branch of a tree. They were exactly the images of where they were placed. For example, the picture of the branch would be put on the tree. Xu Hongxiang used another term to define this project— “temporary display” for the purpose of “seeing the work at the places that related to me” It’s quite interesting because the exhibition can’t be there for long, in the field, by the street, among his childhood buddies. For this reason, exhibitions have been monopolized by art museums, where deluded people look for classics and worship idols, giving the works on the wall a sense of sanctity. By the name of “In the Field”, Xu means to return the works to where they belong and replace the illusion with authenticity. What’s more, the fascinating mirroring effect between the work and the image of the place attracted people passing by, who would stop and watch, comparing the image with the real. What could be the result of this temporary display? There is no gauge for a conclusion. Perhaps no effect has been achieved, or a lurking curiosity was piqued, a doubt raised, a challenge proposed against the stereotype that art equals aesthetics. In fact, it is quite clear that the artist intends to return art back “in the field”.
Visual Questions is different from In the Field because of its compulsiveness. In response to questions from his friends, Xu Hongxiang said: “As early as 2008, I did an experiment on printed pictures. I succeeded in removing the image on them and creating works in a straightforward way, instead of borrowing images from elsewhere. Later I moved on to canvas, completing animage first and then developing it further. Every time I paint something new, I would work on a finished image, trying to remove, blur or repaint some part of it to make an integrated painting with little narrative. This practice lasted till 2015. I explored several paths in that period, but all in all it was about the relationship between painting and image.”
Xu Hongxiang made it clear that he craved to paint more directly, hence the painting on the image practice. But this time, he is confronted with the reality of the seaof pictures, a background of his visual growth as well as globalization. The globe has been compartmentalized into small villages by the Internet, where the increased storage and transmission speed have created a ghastly seaof pictures. In the face of this reality, he bases his collection of materials on the massive amount of computer images, randomly selects the ones for the replacement of painting, and put them together. To avoid the customary cognition that artists borrow images from pictures, or that the nature of realist art is the handling of pictures, Xu Hongxiang used the pictures as carriers of painting. Put it another way, he would dab right on the pictures—as for which part, that would depend on the image itself so as to establish a connection between the dabbing and the original image. Back in the times when images were rare, artists created meaningful images to explore the logic through different elements in order to give them a voice. But drowned in today’s sea of pictures, we are elevating the meaningless image instead. The randomness of his selection of pictures from his own collection, and of his dabbing has resulted in the intra-mirroring between the picture and his dabbing. They reveal and explain each other, a relentless cycle which consequently diminishes his painting practice.
Based on the projects mentioned above, we can tell that Xu Hongxiang’s practice is imbued with a strong sense of action. For him, to create is like setting rules for a series of actions so that the viewing process could be liberated from the narrow space. But it cannot be said that the viewing should be done by his fellow villagers and childhood friends—that would be amisunderstanding of his intention. His fellow villagers and childhood friends could never relate their viewing to art, because their vision could not see through the world. But this is what Xu Hongxiang wants, to at least see through the surface that art defines and the surface of the normalized reality. This is why he calls his works “objects” and goes “in the field” time and time again. Living in this age and country fraught with questions and opportunities, he’s been asking a string of questions about vision, art, life and society, trying to turn them into opportunities, or converting opportunities into questions.
Will the guidelines still work once the vision stops being an object? This is what we keep asking as well as what Xu Hongxiang is anxious about. This is also the reason why the act of viewing matters.