A Chinese Dream by Wang Jin
Born in 1962 and first trained in traditional Chinese painting at the prestigious Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts), Wang Jin resigned his teaching post and became a freelance artist in 1992. Since then his many performance and environmental projects have made him one of the most socially engaged experimental artists in his native country. A large group of his projects responds to the rapidly growing capitalist economy in China. Some of them comment on the clash and fusion of new and old values by staging ironic combinations of foreign and Chinese symbols. Knocking at the Door (1993) consisted of a group of old bricks from the walls of the Forbidden City, each bearing on its uneven surface a suprarealistic depiction of an American currency note. Wang Jin continued to produce such “cash bricks” over the following years and used them to “restore” damaged sections of the palace wall. Other projects in this group comment on the inflation of material desires in contemporary Chinese society. For example, a new slang expression for “making a fast buck” is “stirfrying” (chao) money. Wang Jin’s 1995 Quick Stir-Frying RMB (Chinese currency) made the verbal expression literal: He rented a space in a famous night market in central Beijing and set up a food stand. With all the aplomb of a master chef he fried a wokful of coins for his customers. A more ambitious project, Ice: Central China 96, involved building a thirty-meter-long ice wall in front of a new shopping center in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. Frozen inside this translucent wall were over a thousand sought-after commercial goods. The show ended with the audience’s spontaneous destruction of the wall to get at the goods, thus turning sheer images into material possessions. (For an introduction to Wang Jin’s life and works, see Wu Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century [Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art and University of Chicago, 1999], 86–87, 154–59, 189–90.)
A Chinese Dream (1997–present) represents a new direction of Wang Jin’s social critique by focusing on contemporary Chinese art itself. This shift is logical because the practices of this art—its production and circulation, exhibition and collection, reproduction and publication—are all closely related to China’s new economic system and to globalization. It is relatively simple to conduct such a critique from the outside, either from outside China or by means of words. But as a visual artist working in China, Wang Jin comments on these practices through an art project first prepared for a domestic exhibition/auction. A Chinese Dream, therefore, tests the possibility of his working within the current system of contemporary Chinese art while self-consciously reflecting upon this system. This internal position, however, must make the subject and object of his critique interchangeable and thereby runs the risk of being self-parodic, as Wang Jin’s ridicule of some general conditions of contemporary Chinese art can and must also be applied to himself. This may explain certain limitations of his critique. As we will see, he most consciously responds to issues of authenticity and commercialization in contemporary Chinese art but is silent about other of its aspects, such as production, reproduction, and collecting. It is worth thinking about the reason for such inconsistency. In this sense, A Chinese Dream also offers us an opportunity to reflect upon a self-reflection by a Chinese artist working inside the general operating system of contemporary Chinese art.
This photo essay, therefore, does not simply reiterate the artist’s view. Rather, through Wang Jin’s project I try to understand both general practices of contemporary Chinese art and the specific practices of an individual artist. In preparing for this essay I have interviewed Wang Jin extensively and studied documents and images related to A Chinese Dream, including a large number of photographs taken at different times and places. The selection of the photographs for this essay has little to do with their artistic merit. Rather, the diverse photographic modes or styles of these images help define specific locations of meaning both within Wang Jin’s experiment and beyond it.
Picture 1: Presentation
Here, as an isolated physical construct removed from any social situation or narrative context, Wang Jin’s A Chinese Dream is at its most iconic. Faithfully reproducing the dimensions and design of a Peking Opera costume, Wang has replaced the garment’s colorful silk and satin with translucent plastic sheets (PVC). He has retained the fanciful embroidery of the costume but substituted nylon filament for silk thread. The fundamental strategy of the artist is to work with an existing object, duplicating form but substituting matter. Therefore, we cannot analyze this work within an interpretative framework based on mimesis, or the relationship between reality and representation, because its method forges a new reality by appropriating an existing one. This new reality is no longer harmonious but is intentionally self-contradictory. In particular, its preindustrial design and industrial material allude to different historical moments and aesthetic sensibilities, and signify simultaneous attachment to and detachment from a particular cultural tradition. Slightly bluish, the costume looks illusory and weightless. (It is actually much heavier than a real silk costume.) Translucent rather than transparent, it is both there and not there, both attracts our eye and diffuses our gaze. On a different level of observation, the composition of the photograph is analogous to a formal portrait, frontal and stable. But the human subject is omitted; the translucency of the remaining costume enhances the feeling of absence and emptiness.
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