Abstract 


As a speculative artist, Zhongbiao was born, educated, and started out his painting career in the times of mondialization or globalization in which the contingent individuals confront with the world and the regional cultures come into the world system. Cultural conflict becomes the dominant tonality of the Zeitgeist in the context of mondializtion. Zhong is sensitive to the Zeitgeist and attempts to represent the conflict between many cultures by means of his figurative language. Therefore, his works of art provide us with a series of species of modern experiences and their images and help us understand Chinese modernity. Zhong uses parody as something of post-modernist artistic form to represent the living experiences of individual artists and conducts the symbolic practices. Consequently, his paintings construct the profile of the cultural conflict in the mondialization of individuality and regionality. In his paintings there are struggles of many values for the cultural hegemony and their negotiations with each other, which is not only the nowadays situation of all art over the world, but also the aesthetic spirit of contemporary China in the transformation of the traditional society into the modern-postmodern mondialized society. 

 

Introduction

 

A contingent individual confronts and comes to terms with the world, which we may call "mondialization”.  Similarly, a regional culture cannot be isolated from the world and must enter into the world system, which may also be called “mondialization” or “globalization”. The so-called “mondialization” or “globalization” is in fact a conflict between the individual and the world, between the culture represented by the individual and the heterogeneous cultures.

 

It is in the times when the individual faces the world and the regional cultures enter the world system that Zhong Biao, a speculative artist, was born, grew up, and started out his artistic career. It seems to me that the visualization of the conflicts in the world is the cultural implications of Zhong’s paintings and his rhetoric in the visual images. 

 

The aim of this essay is to read into the appearances of modern culture manifested through the living activities of the artist as an individual and of his symbolic practices. Before developing my argument, I’d like to make two points clear: first, Zhong’s paintings are like complicated textures, their semblances are so strange to us that critics who try to catalogue his works may feel puzzled. As the artist’s name “Biao” suggests, his works look like a field raged by storms, disordering and languishing. The audience feel they are thrown into a ruin where the terra-cotta warriors buried for thousands of years, the disappearing Peking opera masks, coca cola, fashionable female bodies are put into juxtaposition. Such a grotesque texture as this, it lacks a consistence, let alone a system of artistic discourse. However, we may as well view the artist’s works as individual cases, as we need to pursue the tonality of his paintings. Then, what is his tonality? The artist himself has a clear awareness of his symbolic practice.

 

Second, Zhong writes the stories of contingent individuals in the risky course of mondialization, and endeavors to turn the stories into fables with universal explanative power. He made explicit statement of “mondializatio” : “Whether or not the local native can melt into the whole human civilization is not a question of weak regional cultures searching for internationalization , but rather a need of the situation in which the strong globalization actively configuring and accepting the multi co-existence in a united system.” In the meantime, the consistence of artistic narration and state of life is the ultimate goal of his paintings. “ What my works represent is the state, privacy and fable of my existence.”

 

In order to interpret the modern cultural implications of Zhong’s paintings, to tell the artistic tonality and to read into the allegory of contingent individual life, we now begin with the two basic visual elements of his works.

 

1. The Gray-Bright Paradox as the metaphor of visual dialectics

 

Life is sometimes unbearably heavy and sometimes unbearably light. The heavy side is the seriousness, ambiguity, secrecy and cold-bloodedness, while the light side suggests ease, bright, open and shapelessness. If an artist wants to grasp the heart of the world and human, he will definitely use gray and bright colors to depict things and to convey his ideas. Gray is the color of abyss, which expresses a kind of depth, temping people to the state of meditation. Bright is the color of the sun, which manifests a kind of strength, attracting people into an opening world. The color of the abyss stands for bewilderment while the color of the sun symbolizes ecstasy. The mergence of the two becomes the natural “ wakening and melancholy”. What Heidegger said about Hölderlin’s poems is also true of Zhongbiao’s works, “ Nature is wide awake, but in a melancholy way. This sadness retreats into the universe and begins to miss the One.”

Let’s now start reading into Zhong’s artistic discourse, feeling life’s heavy and light, nature’s wakening and melancholy. In Star S (2003) and Copies (2003), the painter plays the dialectic game through the use of gray and bright colors, demonstrating the depth and strength of life.

 

First loot at Star S. Against the gray background is the main figure of the painting sketched by gray lines. She is a fabulous super star, her eyes looking up dreamingly, half asleep and half awake. She is awake in a melancholy way, emitting a tempting odor around her. Upside the frame the background turns into blue, the woman image in the mirror is sketched in white, with red underwear, a color symbolizing the erotic. Although the star in the mirror and the main character in the painting resemble each other in appearance and gesture, they are not doubles. Their main difference is the eyes. The eyes of the woman in the mirror are shining and brightening, while the figure’s eyes are wandering in gray. The former is disappearing in the vanishing point in the air while the later is floating in the disseminating space. On the left of the frame, a spectral double-like woman exposes her above breast and half complexion to audience and the rest of her body is hidden from the scene. So we have the impression of the figure as the unreality sketched by many abstract lines and thereby of confronting the ungrounded abyss.  In Star S, the configuration consists of three S-images, namely the figure as the subject, a woman as the mirror-image, and the unreal woman. And correspondingly, the arrangement of the color spectrum is gradually turning, from the gray, through the bright, and again, to the gray. In the frame, the half real and half unreal images, the counterpoint between the mirror-image and the real subject, and the alternative appearing and disappearing of the reality and unreality, all this gives us a strong impression that life is changing from the true to the false and vice versa, and the mind is vibrating between the abyss and the lighting. All this is the allegory of the contingent individual existence and the allusion to the situation of life in the modern world.

 

Then let us look at Copies. Copy means reproduction, namely one image reproducing another, one scene repeating another. But here, to copy is to reproduce with variations, and therefore to repeat is to represent with differences. The main subject in the frame was described with superb color, but the mirror image is sketched by means of the abstract lines. So the former has a kind look with smiling while the later has a sad look with melancholy.  Whereas the right hand of the main figure is out of the frame, her left hides behind her back. The blood-like red background disorders the scene on the frame consisting of the gray and white colors and stimulates such a stormy feeling that we sense the ominous atmosphere holding sway over the main subject and mirror image. The dramatic conflict between the serene color and the fever color drives the audience to tell a thrilling story. This kind of artistic discourse has the potential of narrative discourse, this is one of the successes in the revisit to the poetic protesting against the strict formalism in art. The revisit to the poetic means the humanistic element in the plastic art comes to presence again in the context of post-modernism. In the frame made up of the main character, mirror character and red background, a feeling of anxiety, or even a feeling of horror is aroused by conflicts. This is the aesthetics of sublime derived from the dialectics of visual perception,which is the sensual shock given by life’s depth and strength in the context of mondialization.

 

In Zhong’s artistic text, this aesthetics of sublime can always leave a deep impression on us. It presents the unpresentable in the context of post-modern culture. What the painter tries to present is the heavy and ambiguity symbolized by the gray. What he endeavors to recapture is the paradox and aporia in the visual and spiritual stimulus caused by the gray and bright colors. Therefore there is a kind of impossible possibility here. Like saying the sacred, one has to avoid the trap of negativity between aporia and hopelessness. On one hand is the omnipresent individual and the chaos he encounters, on the other hand, is the cosmetic coherence existing in disorder. To turn the metaphysical and substantial aporia into visual language is a very difficult task for the aspiring and persisting artists and poets in history.

 

2.Parody: the Competition of Multiple Simulacrum in the Art

 

The heavier the cultural tradition becomes and the more profound the accumulation of artistic history gets, the cleverer artists become. Zhongbiao is running the risk of expanding the symbolic practice of parody when he attempts to present the existing state of individual life in the context of mondialization. Reading his artistic text always gives us some deep impressions that embody his stylistic idiosyncracy. First, he loves repetition, as those female faces and postures in his paintings show. Second, he likes using the image of mirror, such as the above mentioned Star S and Copies. Third, his paintings produce a cold humorous effect. Fourth, he is fond of pastiche with which he composes a conflictual scene. Put all this together and we feel that there is a struggle of various illusions in his works. Theoretically, we can generalize this as parody.

 

Parody means imitation with free play. Originally it derives from the Greek word “παροδια”, which means the ode by the members out of chorus or the added song before the prelude of a drama. In the progress of literature and art history, this term gets different meanings in different contexts: inferior imitation, satirical imitation, comic imitation, obscene verse, and so forth……In the situation of postmodern culture, parody becomes the means of art creatively linking history with the present and of self-reflection and self-transcendence for art. As Linda Hutcheon pointed out, the so-called parody is the repetition with a critical distance, the return from the present to history, that is to say, to reflect on the modernity from the classic perspective, in order to constitute the tensional intertexuality. Parody became a main form of art in the 20th century especially in the situation of postmodern culture. Once used by artists in their symbolic practice, it will produce a carnival in the desperation and a return in the excursus.

 

Zhongbiao began the journey of recovering the soul for postmodern art in 1994. At the moment of postmodern history, the overlap and montage of multiple simulacrum leads to the fact that the inner spirit of art was rarefied. Therefore to go through the illusion is to wander in the gorgeous ruin and return to reality. Here the “reality” refers to an original state of life deprived of its heavy historical sediments, its over-interpretations and its disorder of illusions --the ultimate reality. One of Zhong’s series, Return Home, is the symbolization of this thought. So his artistic texture has the intellectual value that presents contemporary cultural conflicts. The antenna of his reflecting, questioning and interrogating has dived to the classical world, at the same time, he turned the fable of life into the grand narrative of national community, merging artistic life into cultural conflicts. Erotic and seductive modern girls with long hair and bare shoulders are bathed in the light of classical culture, as if waiting for the caress of two Peking opera actors. The close scene is a cluster of modern buildings, the distant scene is the horizon where the sea and the sky merges into one color, with a giant bird flying in the sky. Most eye-catching is the actors’ facial expression and posture that takes a main position in the frame, which reminds the audience that the artist is trying to distinguish the classical feom the modern, cast light on the modern situation of existence from the perspective of classic art and pacify the riots and anxiety in this modern world. The whole effect of the painting is produced by parody. It copies classical art but keeps a distance from it; it represents the present existing state but takes a critical stand while doing so; it presents the natural scene but puts it within cultural limit and thus acquires the humanistic aura. In the text constituted by parody, the blue sea and the flying bird constituted (natural) sacred symbols, the voluptuous body of fashionable girl constituted modern existing symbol, the costume and action of the Peking opera actors made up classical art symbol. These three symbols demonstrate the conflicts of the three cultures. The conflicting modern life and classical art express and convey the desire of saving through natural symbols.

 

To return to classics and search for history is to shed light on the modern and seek the truth of life. What kind of modern do we have? The modern situation, in which Zhong works, consists of a series of existing states represented by the mass culture and entertainment industries. In this situation aesthetics permeates in the surface of daily life that is upgraded to sacred position of culture. In the postmodern situation, the object of art becomes the original pattern of other cultural practice and has lost its unique atmosphere. The symbolic practice of art enters the illusive space of the hyper-reality, “the reality becomes a problem”. Therefore, to save the reality, we must return to the simple and pure natural realm of truth from the hyper-reality of simulacrum and the narcissistic imaginary. This is a hard art project, as hard as enlightening and civilizing life.

 

In order to save the truth, Zhongbiao is on the road of detour in his artistic creation. He interrogated the illusion by the use of mirror image, implying the way to truth by representation of female body. The mirror image is the medium of parody, projecting the subjective figure on the mirror. The mirror image is a repetition of difference, a critical representation, constituting a butterfly dreaming world of illusion. Above all, neither the mirror image nor the subjective figure is real. The Real lies in the transcendence of illusion. Here the function of art is not to know, not to preach, not to aestheticize but to save, to get out of the world of symbols and imagination and return to the real world. Then what does the real mean? Apparently, The female body becomes an important motif in Zhong’s artistic texture. The female body also becomes a new center and even acquires some sacred value and thus becomes the object of expression of cultural form and moral discourse in the postmodern context in the cultural field constituted by media, information technique and symbol production. Zhong’s representation of female bodies makes his artistic text “a forest of pleasure”. As the pleasure beyond any meaning and the detritus resistant to the symbolization, they try to be persistent in his works and become a bridge to the unknown realm of the divine, which is in the shadow of the deep reality.

 

3. Parody and the spirit of contemporary Art

 

Culture becomes our central interest and the introspective dimension of nowadays life world in the present situation of mondialization. But the domain of culture is filled with conflicts where many heterogeneous civilizations clash with each other. Explicitly, culture has been involving in the complicated engagements with various actual interests by which cultural semblances are made. Today cultural conflicts have become such an apparent reality that the purity of the cultural productions was lost without any dispense.

 

More importantly, it is necessary for us to be aware of the inescapable fact that cultural conflict produces a dystopian system of world. As some contemporary theorists of society pointed out, in the system of world, the behavioral agents, who departed from different traditions and operated in different positions, become a radical counter-image to the hierarchical, divisive, and pluralistically co-existent system due to western expansion. What is more, the movements that aimed at dealing with social dissatisfactions are, in effect, involved in the global project.

 

Using parody as the artistic means, Zhong consciously manifests in his paintings the plurality of cultural world in opposition to any single artistic system. To make world “world in itself”, or mondilaizing, is not to totalize, but to disfigure the world. In the mondializing landscapes of the multi-layer movements consisting of techno-science, media, money, finance and ideologies, culture is not to be purely and simply presented as a whole unit, but to be collected as innumerable fragment of words and images. We are not so much in the stories or images as live in the spectral abstract concepts or materialized illusions. The culture in the age of mondialization is an anti-narrative one. Anti-narrative culture is senseless, or without direction, and thereby it has neither origin nor end, wandering in the limitless space, like planets out of their orbits. In other words, it is known as the disaster of culture. Consequently, we have no choice but face up to the death as the irrepressible tragedy because we are unable to recognize our own identity through the vivid fables and to succeed in grasping the meaning of our existence. The spectacle culture made of technique, fashion, consummative goods, styles of life, commodities, software, computer games, CD-ROMS, simulacrum or virtual space on the internet, turns out to be the most dominant and gravest repressions on the artistic practice up to now. Over against the dystopian process of mondialization and the anti-narrative artistic situation, Zhong struggles for revisiting reality and returning to narration. His critical move is to redeem the poetic aura in the fragment of the world.

 

One cannot understand the value and meaning of his artistic measures unless we connect them with the current world art situation and the art reform in China. Firstly, the cultural value returns to art. The western art deeply imbedded in the linguistic turn of the 20th century has begun to return to political ethic meaning beyond the aesthetic forms. In the current existing state where mondialization is a vertical movement, consuming culture is a horizontal force, daily life aesthetics including all aesthetic objects have lost their purity and glamour, ethnic spirit, genre sense and class ideology have become the deep invisible value structure of art. Instead of being absent in the art symbolic practice, cultural values are actively involved. Secondly, art returns to life. In the late 20thcentury Chinese art accelerated on the way of getting away from the rural atmosphere and moving to the cosmopolitan scene. But it has now got rid of the confusion of mondialization and rebuilt its native aesthetic experience. Separating from the rural atmosphere made artists sad about the collapse of native aesthetic experience, but the sentimentality made the revisit cold and savage. However, the double return of cultural value and native aesthetic experience is in fact the creation of modern-postmodern mondialization existing way, the cultural conflicts make the values become an acculturation of the diverse values and native aesthetic experience distained.

 

Under the light of the double return of art, let’s once again read into the parody structure and cultural conflict in Zhong’s works. His texture of art is composed of three heterogeneous cultural elements:

 

The first is the symbol representative of contemporary mass culture and mass aesthetic experience, such as fashionable girls, fashion, advertisement, etc. They represent the strong intervention of mass culture in symbolic practice. The popular culture has increasingly become omnipresent with modern media technology, clearing away the remains of idiotic language and the aura of cultural ethos. Therefore, the popular culture and its intellectual tenor are the establishment of the political unconsciousness that puts the classic ethos and the original reality under its violent control. 

 

The second is the symbol representative of classical art and its cultural spirit, such as the figures in Peking opera, terra-cotta warriors, classical ethnic buildings, china and etc. But the classical art and its cultural spirit have deformed in the encounter with heterogeneous cultures. At a moment when the community of religion, language and blood is declining in the course of mondialization, the way people understand the world has changed profoundly. At this moment people are more prone to consider the question of “ethnic identity”. We may call this artistic trend “wilful nostalgia” which has two forms: looking back on classics in the perspective of the present and casting light on the present from the classic.  No matter in which way, the classics will not regain its original purity, which is one of the biggest puzzles of the contemporary art. Zhong’s art dramatically expressed this dilemma by the use of parody.


The third is the symbol of the hybridization of multi-cultures and their pluralistic values in the progress. They are implied in his works. The contemporary life fable of the coexistence of multi-elements, cultural conflicts and value competition is crystallized in Zhong’s artistic textures, intensifying an anxiety of art. The object of art, or the existing object in a broader sense, is oppressed by the tyranny of mass culture and aesthetic experience, and cannot get rid of the harassment of the spectre-like classical art and its cultural ethos. Thus art turns to culture, artists get to know the self-irony of different cultural idioms and put them into the arena of competing cultures through the use of illusion or mirror image. But this is far from enough. How to get through illusion and mirror image and return to the real life itself is still a puzzle we must face.

 

Conclusion

 

The three symbols compete the artistic space with and interact with each other, producing an effect of renewing in repetition, transforming in copies and criticizing in a continuous movement. This is to dispose toward a world of carnivaliztion by parody in which the diverse voices struggling for the cultural hegemony negotiate with each other to reach the un-decidedness. It is the very spirit of Chinese contemporary art in its transformation if our observation is in point. Chinese contemporary art is, from the national self-redemption through art in the start of 20 th century, through 80s’ poetic enlightenment, to the hetero-glossal communication of the end of last century and the beginning of this century, perpetually persisting in self-reflection and self-building in its own transformation, which put contemporary art into an indeterminate state.      

 

The indeterminateness indicates the unfinished nature of mondialization or the endlessness of cultural conflict. In turn, it is the unfinished nature that provides space for the sublimation of the artistic aesthetic to the divinity. The pluralistic interaction and hetero-glossal harmony in modern art is at least an unfinished project at the same time when the ideal symbol of our spirit is eventually the absolute domination by simulacrum and the stray artistic texts.  Consequently, it should become a new ethos of art that mitigates the trauma and the anxiety in the process of mondialzation through artistic creation and makes a bridge between the finitude and the infinite divinity by aesthetic experience.

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