“I have only one dream, that is, the people I paint will, many years later, pay a visit to people of the future on my behalf, bringing along with them the chaotic world.”--- Zhong Biao

 

It can be said that the transformationChinaunderwent throughout the 1990s is essentially economic. From the transition to market economy launched in the early 1990s to the current macro economic restructuring and the implementation of stock-holding system, nearly every economic measure has brought about great social stirring while resulting in economic growth at the same time. The economic reform and opening up to the outside world, initiated in 1980s, have considerably improved, the living standards of Chinese people. Generally speaking, in the early period of economic reform the improvement in living standards was merely quantitative; in other words, though the old Three Durables used to measure the wealth of China’s citizenry (wrist watch, sewing machine, and bicycle) have been replaced by the new Three Durables (TV set, washing machine, and fridge), no significant change in life style has taken place. Given the inevitable trend of economic globalization and integration,China’s economic reform in the post-1990 era will necessarily lead to the opening-up in the economic realm, which in turn will result in cultural opening-up. It can be said that starting from the 1990s every material improvement inChina’s living standards has been intimately related with a spiritual aspect.


Telecommunication has made inter-personal communication ceremonial, private car ownership imprinted ordinary life with conspicuous class distinctions, and the thriving of real estate destroyed the traditional life style typical of courtyards with four sides surrounded by houses and made private space possible. The immediate consequence of social and economic opening-up is that large quantity of foreign-made commodities began to flood the domestic market. For Chinese people, what they accept is not only the commodities themselves but also the life style advocated by the numerous advertisements accompanying these commodities.China’s repeated efforts to crack down on VCD industry and CD-ROM piracy have proved ineffective. Products of this kind have tremendously changed Chinese people’s concept and consciousness, for these cheap products are affordable to urban residents in most cities. The emergence of pirated CD-ROMs have not only brought about improved artistic appreciation of films among Chinese people and an immense impact on officially controlled imported films, but also exerted an influence on the ethics of Chinese people. In the meantime, the geometric growth of Internet users within the past years and the development of pop music and fashion magazines have resulted in changed structure of Chinese people’s knowledge. In addition, the uneven progress ofChina’s economic reform relative to political reform also has brought about changes in traditional social structure and the corresponding values. The undeniable consequence of economic reform is the breakdown of the traditional values, which is primarily reflected in the loss of life security in modern Chinese society, the newly emerging economic pressure, and the temptation of material wealth. Economic pressure and the richness of material life have, under such circumstances, joined to produce a “composite force” which enables pop culture and consumer culture to irrevocably replace previous ethics education and to become the real dominant force in every aspect of contemporaryChina’s social life.

 

Beginning in the 1980s to the early and mid 90s,China’s new art movement has brought about the emergence of two artistic styles which take pop culture in two forms: political bop and gaudy art. Considering the history of western art, the two styles are typical examples of art classification in contemporaryChina. Yet the fact remains that the two styles and their hidden origins are characterized by an obvious gap and a disparity in values. Whereas political bop, with its basis in politics, features parallelism and juxtaposition of pop culture symbols and political symbols showing the chaotic state of China’s social values, gaudy art is a two-way tampering of political and pop culture symbols, i.e., commercial credendum is used to break up political symbols and self-consciousness to ridicule philistinism and ignorance of commerce. The internal spiritual orientation and cultural values of gaudy art are jumbled and what we observe is but an artist’s cultural attitude. In general, political bop and gaudy art, both internationally recognized standard art styles of contemporaryChina, target atChina’s official ideology, and pop culture is merely the medium they adopt, not the focus of their attention. Or what they are concerned is the disintegration of mainstream ideology, and pop culture is nothing but a tool. Pop culture is, in fact, a double-edged sword which can break up certain ideology on one hand and disintegrate the credendum of humankind on the other. If political bop possesses certain meanings because it can foresee the disintegrating function of culture, then gaudy art under the same guidance degenerates into a handcraft catering to the curiosity of foreign “art sightseers.” For gaudy art does not possess the sensitivity to the changes of contemporary Chinese society, nor does it probe deeper into the “Chinese characteristics” of pop culture than political bop does, thus making it merely a political stunt.     

 

Zhong Biao’s art and his artistic values have to be understood in the context of these cultural and social changes. As a sensitive artist, Zhong Biao has captured the pulse ofChina’s social reforms through the visual symbols Chinese people are familiar with. He takes all the visual experience of an era as the image sources of his works, including sculpture and china representingChina’s past glories, the labor models in the Cultural Revolution, and such symbols of modern life as McDonalds and Boeing aircrafts. Of course, most symbols are skyscrapers and western-style buildings in oldChina. What attracts artists is the different meanings of these images, because in the language of ordinary Chinese people, what used to be synonymous of the once corrupted capitalist society or colonization is now the symbol of modernity. With the development of movie, TV, printing, and digital technology, modern people have successfully undergone an acceptance style transition from one of letters to one of images. With such a new style, images from different times are frequently taken out of their original context and used repeatedly. And in this process they are continuously endowed with new cultural meanings. Zhong Biao’s work is like what Facult Michael described as “knowledge archeology.” In “visual archeology” similar to “knowledge archeology,” he cuts a section from the visual symbols people are familiar with, then takes out those fragmented symbols from the cultural deposits of different times, and last arranges and combines them in a unique way. What he wants to present is not the symbols themselves, but the track of changes in the meanings of the images by setting up specific scenes.     

 

As an artist, Zhong Biao adheres to “visualization” to accomplish his “archeological work.” Instead of juxtaposing concepts, he expresses himself through paradoxical scenes. While his early works usually juxtapose cultural images of different times, his later works are characterized by more transformation. He sets color dimensionality against time direction. Those aged images are endowed by artists with colors, yet the images close our daily life are deprived of any color and scene. Lively men lose color, yet the dresses and accessories they wear, which are the symbols of the era, stay on. With the fading away of colors, the limit between reality and memory is completely destroyed and illusion begins. This illusion, rather than being founded on pure biological sensation as in the case of surrealism, is based on cultural accumulation and memory. If surrealist style is but the crisis in self-identity reflected in the early rapid industrialization, then Zhong Biao’s works appear to have initiated a “new surrealist style,” which embodies an individual’s doubt about his knowledge.      

 

Zhong Biao’s unique work style means that his cultural attitude is entirely different from that of previous artists. Be it political bop or gaudy art, what they were eager to put across was their own attitudes, criticizing either ideology or commercial culture. Zhong Biao seems to keep distance with this sort of criticism. In his works we find calmness unique to intellectuals. What he broods over is not how to criticize, but where our evidence for criticism comes from and how their meanings undergo changes. Behind Zhong Biao’s pondering overChina’s pop culture and mass culture, we find a new cultural attitude. Unlike artists concerned about pop culture who either mix their works with real pop culture under the pretext of concept or criticize mass production of pop culture as artists defending old handcraft. It is possible that art based on handwork and individual production is not a match to real mass culture and its media. The relationship between art criticizing mass culture in the name of art and mass culture itself is more like that between a fly swatter and a big fly. In Zhong Biao’s works, we can see that through the setting of illusions and the incompleteness of images he gives up not only the antagonistic relations between art and mass culture but also the attempt to control mass culture, finding by “visualization” a surf for art in a place where there is no influence of mass culture. 
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