In light of recent success of the Chinese art market, two issues seem of ongoing concern to artists, observers and scholars of the subject.   The first is the way in which Chinese art is “selling out”—both figuratively in terms artistic practice corrupted by market concerns and literally in terms of locally produced and immediately exported art which often never sees the light of day in the land of its production.  The second relates to the first as it involves artists’ dialogue with an international art market, an involvement which sees them turning away from a Chinese audience for the sake of satisfying tastes or assumptions of a global market place alien to local concerns.  These issues bedevil accomplished artists in particular as their success in the international art market threatens to become the very mark of their failure at home.  Naturally, none of this would be a problem in the absence of the spectacular success of China’s art market as a whole, an enviable predicament for an artist to be in.    As we look at work  produced by these artists, though, thorough appreciation of the kinds of pressures generated by this predicament will require a more subtle view of interior/exterior dynamics on a theoretical level.  In other words, the critic, no less than the artist, must be aware and prepared to analyze the aesthetic impact of these high economic stakes on the creative process. 

 

The focus of this essay will be one such globally successful artist, the Sichuan painter and professor of painting at the Sichuan Academy of Art in Chongqing: Zhong Biao Zhong’s work demonstrates an acute realist quality that derives both from his prodigious rendering talent as well as from his methodology of working with digital photographs.  His approach is to assemble a database of digital photographs, random snapshots of his experience in the world, distill significant fragments of the complete images and re-render in paint, acrylic or charcoal in novel juxtapositions.   To help explore the ramifications of Zhong Biao’s work, particularly in light of the high-stakes art market mentioned above, I rely heavily on sociologist George Ritzer’s work The Globalization of Nothing (2004).  In this work Ritzer provides a useful framework for understanding global consumerism, one which identifies forces at work that put to risk aspects of human culture many consider to be of high value, or at least substance.   Ritzer does so by establishing a continuum, placing the “social form” of “nothing” at one end and “something” at the other, and arguing that the what is often vaguely described as “globalization” is in fact a global drift away from localism (and “something”) towards an ever expanding global bounty of “nothing” (Ritzer, 3).  In this view, what is produced locally by real people for local consumption occupies one end of the spectrum and what is centrally managed in transnational board rooms and disseminated world-wide by a globalized system of advertisement and trade is the other.  The reason, in essence, that nothing succeeds in the global system where something, by and large, does not, is because nothing is far easier to package, transport (translate) and receive.  Each of these, Ritzer is careful to explain, are in their purest form impossible; they occur in reality at varying points upon a continuum (Op cit, xi). 

 

A more specific focus in applying Ritzer’s analysis, and the one which appears in the title of this paper, arises from Ritzer’s concern with the inadequacy of particularly the “global” “local” dichotomy.   As Ritzer explains, the notion of the glocal “ignores global processes that tend to overwhelm the local” (Op cit, xiii).  In response Ritzer coins the term: “grobalism,” which he describes as follows:


the process in which growth imperatives (e.g., the need to increase sales and profits from one year to the next in order to keep stock prices high and growing) push organizations and nations to expand globally and to impose themselves on the local” (ibid).

 

The notion of the “grobal,” then, takes the matter a step further; it is the vanquishing of the glocal by the global in any given local context.  In other words, where the hybridity of all glocal interaction begins to give way to mono-formulas of centralized global authorities, the grobal has won the contest.  Nothing, exemplified in credit cards, the Disney corporation characters (and experience) and The Coca-Cola Company, sells primarily because it is more portable and able to establish itself in a greater variety of  contexts (the bottom line), its lack of substance the very heart of its success.

 

One can well imagine that the increasing prominence of nothing would be problem for artists, whose creations attempt if nothing else to be substantive and also to be sold as such.  Yet, what is at issue in this paper is the very question of the relative nothingness, Ritzer’s terms, of this particular instance of global consumerism, and the degree to which Zhong Biao both foregrounds this type of emptiness in his own work, and does so while infusing a new something in the process.  My argument is that Zhong Biao illustrates Ritzer’s theory of the grobal drift towards nothingness—and in fact reaps the benefits of the effective functions of the global market where the sale of his paintings are concerned—even has he refutes the basic assumption about how grobal, glocal and global relate to one another.  Zhong’s images of particularly urban China, which on one level depict a flattening out or emptying out of local experience under pressure from global systems, also frequently contain clear and substantive glimpses of local something in the process of its own erasure, and in this respect Zhong refutes Ritzer’s notion that nothing circulates where something does not.

 

Grobalism at Work

 

Zhong Biao’s own view of his artistic process, expressed in a 2005 statement seems a good starting point for exploration of his work in relation to Ritzer’s theory of globalization:

 

For art to be great, it must possess the following three qualities: Accuracy, Realism, and Freedom. 

 

Accuracy is the ability to express your aim with concision. It incorporates the combination of your knowledge, technique, intelligence and experience.

 

Realism does not refer to form, but to the fusion of artistic reality and the truth of life in the deepest parts of your heart.  It rejects the traps of the insubstantial, utilitarian and foolish, it is the pursuit at the beginning and the end of art, even the reason to exist as an artist.

 

Freedom is the territory that finds comprehension and realization along the path of constant breakthrough from the boundaries of ‘self’ and ‘history’.  It is the ambition of art. 

 

The English-language version of the second quality (“realism”) elides what in Zhong Biao’s original is a striking, even somewhat audacious appeal to the importance of “truth”   in the artistic process.  Given the post-socialist, post-ideological, economic free-for-all that is today’s China, Zhong Biao’s goal seems at least a tall order.  In the context of Ritzer’s analysis such word could also stand-in for the “something” on the something-nothing axis.  How an individual artist manifests that substance while the forces of grobalism exert constant pressure towards nothing presents the major problem, and it is one not lost on the artist. Thus, for Zhong Biao the notion of a “foolish entrapment” (愚见的迷障) follows directly from an attempt to apprehend the “real,” demonstrating his appreciation of the phantasmagorical quality of development according to market principles where one-time political directives ruled the day.  In the current context, an ambitious artist must, according to Zhong Biao, endeavor to resist “the insubstantial” circulated in the barrage commodity novelty in order to protect the “deepest parts of your heart.”

 

In looking at Zhong’s work, we find that part of his strategy is to join the forces of commoditization on an aesthetic level.  The fact, to begin with, that the above quote comes from a collection of post-card reproductions of the artist’s work, with detachable bond at the spine to allow easy removal and delivery into the global system, suggests at least the Zhong is unsurprisingly engaged in the commoditization of his own work.  Beyond the strategies of marketing, though, there are the deeper layers of the commoditization process, as images, even specific brands, circulate widely throughout Zhong’s opus.  The most startling example of this is surely a series of art-advertisement images Zhong produced for Dragon Airlines.   This series of three paintings executed in 2004, collectively titled: “The Beauty of Flying” (Chinese title: 美。好。旅途。)  is presented in a Dragonair press release as follows:

 

We are delighted to work together with such a famous artist, and more delighted still with the commercial paintings he has produced for Dragon Airlines. 

 

This “hybrid” form of ad-art was used in various brochures, and in some cases also enlarged to dimensions appropriate to the scale of China’s contemporary urban scene—large enough to cover the sides of buses and even buildings in Hong Kong, Shanghai and other cities around China.  Their purpose, to quote directly from the English-language version of the Dragonair website:

 

The works - entitled "You,” "We" and "Everybody" - respectively represent the world-class in-flight service, the warmth and attentiveness of the cabin crew, and the greater choice of frequencies that travelers enjoy with Dragonair.

 

With this maneuver Zhong would appear to have taken himself into the void of Ritzer’s grobalization, aiding and abetting a company with necessarily global/grobal aspiration.  Of the images, the most poignant in this respect would be “Everywhere” (每个地方):


Here, even in the hybrid form we find Zhong Biao’s characteristically complex juxtapositions of old and new, central and peripheral, foreign domestic, substantive and frivolous at work.  Framed in terms of the global local dialectic, a kind of glocal geographical collapse is at work between and beside the figures of the two women; Shanghai at left, Hong Kong at the right, and the two bridged by the iconic Temple of Heaven pavilion of Beijing in the center.  The singularly important plane takes off from all three at once, its trajectory a typically Zhong Biao geometrical configuration—perfectly uncanny in its ability to recapitulate impossibly contiguous arrangement of shapes provided by architects of Chinese structures past and present (e.g., Shanghai’s Pearl Tower, Hong Kong’s Bank of China, each of the late twentieth century, and again, the Temple of Heaven of the early fifteenth century).   Even the bodies of the “attentive cabin crew” are drawn into vaguely meaningful shape.  The message is an apt affirmation of Ritzer’s grobal idea: the more connected these lines of intersection, the smoother, more rational, streamlined and convenient the global processes, the more thoroughly vacated the semantic structures, the better the flying experience will be.


The image is, as promised, an encouragement to purchase a Dragonair ticket; it is an advertisement.  As such we might take the Hong Kong company’s successful contracting of a contemporary Chinese artist to do the work of an advertising unit as the vanquishing of local artistic impulse at least in this isolated case.  If, however, we look more widely through Zhong Biao’s work we find a more subtle phenomena at work.  We note, to begin with, that the artist has been producing advertisement for global corporations since quite early in his painting career.  The images viewed over time draw rich array of implications, as can be seen for instance in Zhong’s “Passer by” (过客) from 1996:


In the case of this painting, similar qualities of what I would call the geographical collapse of Zhong’s work become even more expansive, yoking Japan’s iconic Mt. Fuji together with Beijing’s Forbidden City.  A kind of synthesis offsetting this imaginative act of dislocation occurs in the telecommunication device central to the painting, providing the means by which global unity through communication might be achieved.  In Ritzer’s analysis, though, the image provides instead a snapshot of grobalizing tendencies of global corporations, a strangely dominant Coca-Cola on the telephone booth, and the considerably more subtle but nonetheless distinctly Disney Mickey Mouse on the young man’s shorts.  The way in which the global brand circumscribes the human experience of the scene is suggested as well in the black and white human (and animal) figures juxtaposed with the vibrancy of the inanimate world. 

 

As an instance of geography flattened by grobal forces it seems appropriate to wonder about the titular “passer by”—the boy with the baby?  the baby itself? the grandmother (we presume)? the young woman or bicyclist in the distance? Or perhaps the viewer herself.  In other words, the very situatedness of visiting suggested in the Chinese term (guoke), is coming apart at the seams, as no interior—exterior binary offers itself in the context of the image.  The painting’s imaginary amounts to an undoing of space and time as we know it not symbolically but in fact; as a telephone disembodied voice early in the twentieth century, so does the iconography of global advertising in the twenty-first.  The gesture is one of substitution, placing touristic abstractions in the place of human experience, just as Ritzer describes the global dynamics between grobal and glocal forces.  The spaces opened by Zhong Biao’s images are thus uninhabitable, unless of course one is a centrally conceived, globally distributed brand image. 

 

The field of meaning is open to the advertiser as to the artist, a canvas which has the blessing of a high degree of visibility due to world-wide attention paid to China now, and a curse or crisis of meaning.  Zhong Biao command of design (accuracy from the text above) serves him in the composition of images which plug easily into the circuits of global circulation—his paintings, even those not created on commission by major corporations, look like advertisements—but they can also be said to short-circuit the very global flow in which they travel.  In his “Space for Life” (生活的空间), the artist’s product placement generates an acutely resonate tension the entreats the viewer to partake of the grobal experience just as its casualties pass into oblivion:

 

This particular “combination of your knowledge, technique, intelligence and experience” (above) is uncommonly accurate; the artist, not unlike one of the myriad builders of modern China places, places young, vibrant, ethnically indecipherable woman into grobal context. She occupies the space with an angular corporality, consuming a large quantity of some indecipherable liquid (clearly not Coke—is it beer with a straw?) while a peddler looks on; she consumes him just as she erases him visually, metaphorically, and in fact.  In China of today, it is perhaps less a question of have and have not, as on the way in, and on the way out.   In this contest, she and the grobal corporation which frames her are the winners. 

 

Search for the Glocal Dimension: Coming Home to the Contemporary Chinese City

 

At the root of Zhong’s juxtapositions, the contradictory elements found in artists’ meditations on the “truth of life,” is a dynamic human experience set in the contemporary Chinese city, the situs of change on an unprecedented pace and scale. As Hutong restoration, which follows closely on the heals of demolition, continues apace in Beijing and massive expansions of infrastructure continue in Shanghai, new projects also spring ex nihilo from formerly rural or in some respects unsatisfying urban spaces everywhere in China, including Zhong’s place of residence (Chongqing, Sichuan).  This restlessly built environment is, for an artist like Zhong Biao, a tableau of impermanence, a study in human endeavor apprehendable only if it can be slowed enough to be perceived.  By zeroing in on images of home in this urban context we are focusing on a restless and dynamic city culture when it is arguably most rooted and “solid,” the moment of return. 

 

To begin with, a 2004 painting by the very title “Coming Home” (回家): 

 

Zhong Biao’s return is an appropriately fleeting moment, arrested only by the overcrowded street which ferries the figure to his/her home.  In this respect the image can be considered characteristic of Zhong Biao’s experience and method, one which involves constant domestic and international travel, and constant use of a digital camera to document the process of travel.  

 

This particular image is, however, uncharacteristic of Zhong Biao’s work as a whole.  As mentioned, the artist works clearly in terms of juxtaposition, setting matters side by side in a way that calls attention to their dislocation.  These juxtapositions express, according to the artist himself, patterns which have been culled or distilled after long periods of time of compiling the visual diaries.   What is uncharacteristic about this image, then, is that it juxtaposes nothing; as a scene it stands alone.  As a painting it is part of a group of three images, all of which Zhong produced in 2004.   Following are two of its “cohort” works, first “On the way to an Appointment” (赴约)and Traffic Jam (塞车):


The three versions differ principally in terms of color shading, distribution and intensity, and the dimensions of the figure driving the car, larger in the second image such that he clearly breaks through the frame established by the darkness surrounding the windshield.  Apart from this, the three states are closely related, comprised of the same image even if parts of its rendering are not identical.  The titles as well would seem to take us in different directions, so to speak: to an appointment, or home, or, no place.  But these are, in Zhong Biao’s world, overlapping, complete and not in contrast to any alternative space, state or time which might be suggested by, for instance, Beijing Opera performers, Ming Dynasty vases, Chinese Communist Party cadres or impoverished peasants, the types of juxtaposed elements seen often in Zhong Biao’s paintings.  In this series the artist is content to work on developing the tangibility of the material texture (the “feel” of the car’s interior entirely clear in the image) that is arguably “homey,” a world unto itself nestled almost by intention in slow-moving traffic.  The reason for the self-sufficiency of car as subject in each of these paintings may relate at least in part to its association with the newfound wealth of contemporary China. In this respect the act of driving is, for those not employed in the transportation industry, a fundamentally nouveau riche activity.  Thus a correspondence is struck between the phantasmagorical materialism, predicated on novelty, advertisement, desire and the successful navigation of the same.  In order to be successful, the driver hones perception, selecting the relevant, discarding or circumventing all the rest.  In the wider scheme of restless and mercurial Chinese urban spaces, Zhong Biao’s paintings can be said to do the same.  There is no suggestion of subjugation here, and possibly dystopic visions of change are replaced with a wide-eyed if vigorously framed vision of beauty, wealth, light. 

 

An even more vivid example of interior car image had emerged in a 2003 painting entitled “February 14, Chongqing”: 

 

As a group, these car paintings suggest a theme: the view of a shifting contemporary state seen through the eyes of the car owner, in this case herself strangely caught in her own external, horizontal and sleepy-eyed gaze.  The extraordinary geometry of these intersecting views, when coupled with the blonde-wigged model above the McDonalds and of course the rear-view mirror-attached figurine, establish the subject with almost gravitational integrity despite the fact that angles of vision are clearly awry.  Nonetheless, the driver moves through the scene, wending her way through one of Zhong’s many urban-scapes, a night-time sunglassed eye on pedestrian traffic of which she is also curiously a part.  She is securely positioned as both object and subject, acutely alone save the company of the vapid and over-eager tissue dispenser.  From this secure position she and by extension we have a powerfully demarcated interior experience, the world of the car and world of the street two worlds entirely. 

 

None of these images is of “home” per se.  They are instead snapshots of an arrested urban experience, one in concerted transition with the built world which encapsulates it.  The importance of the intimate automobile interior to Zhong Biao’s world is, to my mind, no accident.  I find Zhong Biao’s car images to be a distinctly grobal mode of coming home.  Indeed, in the current Chinese city, there’s arguably less and less to which to return.  The artist instead depicts his subjects driving on through, touching the realities, material objects, aspects of human form, finely-wrought details of signage and other urban text (--the English-language “TRPE”  for “tape” and “tupso” for “turbo” are interesting slips) in passing.  Zhong comes grobally home in/to a car, and then moves on.  

 

In this respect the artist’s glocal engagement is a matter of perpetual motion, in his own words:

 

My art is in pleasure, in bed, in deep and sound sleep, in the bursting warm tears, after drinking, in Marilyn Monroe’s philosophy, in others’ eyes upon me, on the cattle Lao Tzu rode when he left home, in the moment when the train started and the lamps outside the window began moving, in the inconspicuous glamour of Chinese blue and white porcelain. (Zhong 2004, 2)

 

This is more than a mere question of the here and now, as the here and now, at least in most Chinese cities of the early twenty-first century, is so soon the there and gone.  The glocal—grobal oppositional scheme presented by Ritzer negates the possibility that the glocal could indeed be the accurate and compelling form of grobal processes caught in the act. The intolerable emptying out of human experience that comes with grobal processes (such that his figures, though often compelling, are more often giving into to the type of figures that would appear in mass marketing campaigns) do not entirely negate the satisfying quality of the designs themselves, the comfortable interiors, the acutely juxtaposed but somehow altogether harmonious fragments of contemporary experience, seem almost to revel in their vacuity.

 

BED

 

To push the search for the glocal a bit further, we may leave behind a hopelessly  fugitive home and try at least to discover where the artist lays down his head. Here Zhong Biao’s vision is characteristically vivid, as in his “Insomnia” (失眠) from July, 2004:

 

Zhong Biao’s powers of selection draw the tussled and chaotic lines of bedding (rendered with charcoal and acrylic paint) together with the smooth, complex and impossibly envisioned angles of Shanghai.  The line dividing them is a precipice of terrifying implications for the would-be sleeper (we note even the pillows themselves seem in danger of falling over the edge).  The recapitulation of the sleepless predicament—a theme in Zhong Biao’s work—reinforces the psychological state of the one (or ones) vacated nonetheless, perhaps themselves having fallen “back in line” with the city. 


In the subsequent two images “Body Temperature” (体温) from 2006 and “Industry” (工业)  from 2005, the collapse of the local comes most clearly into view:

 

The precipice ostensibly separating humanity from the grobal systems of the insomnia image is removed and the public private dichotomy falls apart with the very structures which might once have held them in check. These images are of course exemplary of Zhong’s juxtaposition method, positing two stock images in Zhong Biao’s symbolic system—the first is the city in change and the second featuring one of Zhong’s prostitutes, perhaps his single most enduring subject.  In the latter case, the human figure is typically arrayed, herself a material object (right down to the boots) signifying consumption and desire itself, setting off typically phallic arrangements (buildings, trees, and increasingly in recent years, guns), that bring “color” or motivation to the whole operation of “industry,” to use the painting’s title.  In short, she is most meaningful in the context of a grobal system.

 

In all three cases the beds are the orphans of the city—their naked humanity at best an impression, a fleeting memory to turn away from once the “job” is done or the day begins, often of course both.  The interpermeated spaces become sites of temporal and symbolic hybridity, layers of discourse and history caught by the painter in the act of exchange.  As we look through Zhong’s work we discover that it is the exchange itself that drives matters, the underlying principle which emerges in the process of the artists’ creation.  If there is something local to be discovered, it is already well on the way to transformation, and its transformation will occur according to principles discovered in the process of creation.

   

Internal Order” in the Grobal System

 

In a 2004 interview with scholar, curator and critic Gao Minglu, Zhong Biao summarizes his efforts as an artist in terms of the pursuit of an “internal order” (内在秩序), a principle or power which drives the changes of our contemporary physical and social environment (Zhong 2004, 5).  The changes on the material level are easily discerned in Zhong’s work, an ever accelerating cycle of tearing down and building up China’s built environment generating an endless array of images of new products, new structures, new modes of contemporary living.   Amidst these, however, are fragments of a different kind, referred to by Zhong in his own writings as “History” (e.g., above “What is Great Art”).  It is in these fragments, or symbols, that Zhong Biao’s art of specifically glocal expression hits its mark.  As the critic Pi Li, in his article “Visual Archeology” points out, Zhong Biao’s symbolic language, inclusive of mass culture both from China and abroad, but most crucially appeals to a local context:

 

As a sensitive artist, Zhong Biao has captured the pulse of China’s social reforms through the visual symbols Chinese people are familiar with.  He takes all the visual experience from an era and uses them as the main images of his works (Zhong 2004, 3).

 

Indeed, one immediately observes a rich collection of Maoist-era symbols (cadres, model peasants, young PLA soldiers, propaganda posters and other accoutrement), and even larger frames of reference (images of China’s cultural tradition) which draw on Chinese experience.  Far more than orientalist window dressing, these figures remind his viewers of the ways in which meaning itself has come loose from these symbolic containers, now empty and adrift in an increasingly meaning-challenged environment. Combined with the occasional appearance of world historical figures, (e.g., Benjamin Franklin, Che Guevara, John F. Kennedy), Zhong’s works read well, and sell well, in a global market place.   But those actually reading his works are only those able to experience the full ambivalence present in his juxtaposed imagery, an implied viewership that is Chinese and of at least Zhong Biao’s own generation.  The internal order at work may well be the domination of Ritzer’s nothing in the global context.  But amidst this, something is happening, and Zhong’s works stage that occasion for the viewer, as can be seen in his 2006 canvas “Midday Sun” (烈日当空):

 

Taken as their constituent elements, Zhong’s re-presentations of contemporary Chinese experience appeal widely, which is to say grobally, and in some respects to the lowest common denominator (e.g., appealing young women).  Each fragment, be they recognizable historical figures, Chinese Communist Party officials, or globally recognized name-brand products, is yet in summary view both muted and made more vibrant through Zhong’s method of juxtaposition.  The fragments of Zhong’s visual spaces are in a sense cut down to size, of equal weight—which is to say no weight at all—and open to exchange at the highest bid.  They parallel successful products in the grobal system, topically relevant and easily consumed.  Unlike the grobalism described by Ritzer, though, Zhong’s is not designed to merely maximize profits.  His work presents instead an opportunity for the minute sites of resistance, like the human figures the artist depicts, gazing back from the canvases in defiance of grobal domination.  This may be the artist’s most compelling achievement, to allow the individual visual slices of human experience which he has culled over time (his digital photographs) to articulate themselves with such independent clarity as to actually arrest the processes of change in their tracks.  In other words, the artist’s subjectivity can be seen to give way mid-way through the process of creation, leaving surprising room for the dialogical engagement with his subject matter he has only incidentally assembled.  In so doing whether or not the artist is truly able to “transcend history and self,” as his third component of great art dictates, is surely sure debatable.  Nonetheless, Zhong’s work is, I would argue, an instance and illustration of the strength of the grobal force of nothing as well as how substantially it can be connected, imaginatively at least, to local to human experience.

 

Conclusion:

 

As a kind of canvas to be written upon by grobalizing forces, China is at the moment uncommonly blank.  As authors of a new order, those who commandeer the built environment—not to mention the helicopters which surveillance it—are no doubt little concerned with glocal responses, resistant or not.  Nonetheless, there is of course always something there in the interstices between what has been and what’s to become of China’s built environment.  The ones able to actually fit the pieces of this mercurial, if not often traumatic experience together in a meaningful whole, even for a moment, are few and far between.  To accurately apprehend the changing Chinese aesthetic, to, as Theirry Raspail puts it, “step into the void of the present” (Raspail 2004, 9) requires the kind of subtle perception in which artists excel.  To be able to reproduce aesthetically the same requires a powerful imagination the like of which Zhong Biao demonstrates in his work.  

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