ACTIONS BEHIND REALITY: THE WORK AND OBSTINACY OF GENG JIANYI
I can’t tell the difference between wisdom and the ability to feel (intuition); they’re the same thing. — Jean-Luc Godard
THERE REALLY AREN’T many things we can do.
Most of the time, initiating an activity begins with “observing” both the world and our own position within it; the means and outcome of this observation often must be united. For example, if an X-ray machine can’t produce an exposed scan, then, as far as people are concerned, it has no significance or meaning.
Observation, accompanied by exposure and its many synonyms, is embodied within Geng Jianyi’s rich creative output: to scan a crevice, to investigate the time it takes for traces to form on a book when dipped into water; to continually rub a stamp to observe changes in its imprint until this has completely disappeared; reverently describing the miniscule mark left by an insect’s bite; using blank forms, questionnaires, and examinations to conduct investigations and to decompose the most ordinary of actions and attitudes; to expose photographic film in various kinds of circumstances; to ask different kinds of people to predict the future; to wipe out all the characters besides the possessive “de.”
This exposure is often connected to a certain objectivity, which lies outside the agent of action. However, this objectivity is not the “pure” objectivity of subjective-objective opposition; it is actually explored and accessed by subjectivity through different methods, manifesting itself through marks left by different kinds of actions.
The miniscule edge of an insect bite, a crevice, a trace left by water, overlapping areas of photo-sensitivity… within such objectivities, arrived at by exposure, an interesting issue is that of the relationship between objectivity and abstraction (form): once exposed, is it “form” or “abstraction”? Or is it the formalization of a something further abstracted?
Of course, the key question is: does total objectivity exist? In quantum mechanics, objectivity unaffected by observation is considered impossible. Since subjectivity is inescapable, only through this subjectivity can one respond to this objectivity. But there can be a certain, imperceptive subjectivity, as if the body has no feeling. Such explorations of objectivity possess a reserved and respectful nature, and in some cases take great pains to maintain distance.
Such ideas characterize Geng Jianyi’s creative disposition, something that naturally permeates his role as an educator. As head of the media department at the China Academy of Art, Geng established the “Institute of Radical Visuality,” centered around the establishment of a method of surveying the rules that govern the world outside of tradition, and without the apparatus of scientific investigation. That is to say, a direct method of observation, based on appearance or the design of certain observational apparatuses that possess metaphorical qualities. Geng’s outlook is extremely defined: without observation, he sees no way to establish cognition. He even once said that art can only study, it cannot teach— if it cannot engender cognition, then its teachings are nothing less than harmful. The fundamental tenet, the founding basis of his research institute, translates into English as “radical”: both of its root meanings “radical” and “fundamental” apply, at the same departing from “subtlety.”
SEPARATION IS A particular method of film development or measurement; it is also our “laboratory” method today: to separate one thing from the others and examine its specific parameters in isolation. However, Geng Jianyi’s separation in this case takes the form of a social experiment, particularly in cases where the subject needs to turn into an object.
In Do Yourself In A Right Way (2005), a group of laborers, poor street cleaners, plasterers, rubbish collectors, and sugar cane sellers are taken out of their working environment and brought into a film studio. The group of people look at videos of themselves working, they then begin to imitate their own actions “out of thin air,” suddenly becoming impersonators of themselves, their tools suddenly being turned into stage props.
Ordinarily natural actions, taken out of their ecology and then imitated, become mechanical and unnatural, this harsh separation exposing and negating the original relationship of subjectivity-objectivity, this state of almost unconscious perfect harmony. When sweeping the streets, the sweeper might be thinking about something else, but when performing the same action inside a gallery, he might begin to question it: what actions constitute sweeping? What is sweeping exactly? The question that needs asking is whether a standard, or a norm, actually exists. After separation from its environment, all that remains of the action is its bare shell. In terms of spectacle, the point of interest lies in the image of the self becoming a “model.” The self deprives itself of its own actions, is stripped of genuine pose. This piece simultaneously exposes the fact that labor instills a certain discipline in the body, which, within the most hardened “natural” state, is turned into a set of “rules.”
This piece is also about observing. A group of people staring at videos of themselves at work, behind them two video cameras and a cameraman filming them from different positions. And behind this scene is yet another camera, filming the activities of the entire studio studio. This is multi-layered, multi-faceted observation; its gaze possesses an intense intrusiveness, beyond mere observation. The operator of the final video camera, together with the operator of the camera of the initial documentation of labor, becomes a temporary separator of surfaces, which include the audience who stand before the screens watching the videos.
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF separation relies on re-performance. Re-performance isn’t simply repetition, or reduplication. In a 2007 piece, Geng Jianyi evoked a particularly apt term: “offset.” In this quite intensely engineered piece, a CCTV camera was placed in a foot massage parlor, filming for an entire day. This was then turned into a script, its lines recited by all those who had entered the shot, their actions re-predetermined in rehearsal. And then, strictly according to time, the actions we re-performed and re-filmed. The key to this re-performance was achieving a harmony with the counterpoint of time. Today, you will be compelled to repeat the actions of the previous day: for Geng, this causes the previous day to become quite dubious. A re-performed day is placed in time that moves rigidly forward, even though “today” has never been a singular entity. The differences between days are not simply numerical, mechanical, or clearly delineated. I am within you, and you within me.
Monday morning carries with it many things left over from Sunday night. In fact, another kind of “re-performance” has always existed: our daily existence and work within society, clocking in, going down to the fields, business trips, shopping… for a period of time, Geng Jianyi inspected a certain old book day after day, “ignoring the text, depicting the page.” He states very earnestly that each page is different, there being slight changes in the edges of each. In one’s labor one can clearly distinguish and perceive these extremely subtle variations, and take endless pleasure in this kind of reproduction or imitation. The hidden connection of this book to its one-time reader is also constantly re-imagined within this process. Beneath the repetition that seems to exist on the surface is in fact a very lively and sensitive labor, renewed day after day. All the most strange and wonderful of the world’s activities, including the continuing persistence of humanity, generation after generation, exist in the differences between these repetitions.
THIS INVESTIGATIVE TRAIL leads us to another activity of Geng Jianyi’s, regarding natural or quotidian states: the decomposition of certain units. Beats, pages, characters, words, parts photo-sensitively light and dark, like a cuisine broken down into different adjectival descriptions and qualities. What happens when something is broken down? What comes out of it? What is drained away? A sequence, an assemblage (of time, action, event, matter) is cut open by certain fabricated elements. The flow of the everyday becomes a set of mechanical instructions.
The appearance of the instructions becomes ridiculous, the strength of this ridiculousness stems from two sides: a skepticism of the everyday, and a ridicule of the instructions. The subtleties of the everyday are solidified, transformed into a disciplined set of directives, making it appear that it is not the subtleties that are unimportant, but the rules and instructions. This effect is then magnified in matters usually deemed “particularly” unimportant.
Take, for example, those two pieces about laughing, performed by Yang Zhenzhong: The First Series of Eight Steps and The Second Series of Eight Steps (both 1991). The rules and restrictions placed on the body by society are imposed in many different ways, like radio broadcast exercise routines: action (daily exercises), sound (symbolically fitting music), and image (instructed routines). Foucault long ago reminded us that all habitual actions are governed by rules, some of which carry particularly violent, hostile attitudes, and it is the more neutral and open rules that deserve more attention. This is also evidently about a standard: if we don’t extract the object from the subject, then the single, non-specific entity cannot exist. And the implicitly known unwritten rules are proclaimed as superfluous, according to the contemporary buzzword “low emotional quotient.” But the truth always has zero emotional quotient; based on the above, it simply doesn’t “feel” emotions.
SO WE RETURN again to the technique of observation, which varies with both individual and context. More importantly, every instance of observation contains an element of chance, while our actions have no way to directly control an outcome, are always interrupted by ignorance and the plain unknown. To keep waiting for the right outcome, one can only follow desire and expectation. Thus, so-called objectivity is actually simply waiting to be expected. Predicting, waiting, and taking a chance are all a particular kind of active state. We have no way of escaping chance occurrences; they leave us both passive and impotent. Only when impotent must one take a chance; only when there is the possibility of chance can one take it. Taking a gamble in chance circumstances, but attempting to fix its outcome. From a certain angle, the actions of Geng Jianyi and his cameramen can be read in this way: film is simultaneously the perfect agent of objectivity, chance, and waiting.
A further issue is that of boredom: doesn’t the world, waiting for objectivity, always experience a certain kind of boredom? Like Godot’s wait, or Heidegger’s boredom: frustrating, empty, directed at nothing in particular: “this kind of profound boredom has the appearance of silent, noiseless mist, pervading, filling the abyss, throwing all living things, people, everything connected into a strange state of apathy. This kind of boredom reveals the totality of existence.” Is reality heartless? Does boredom lie at the essence of time?
BUT, AFTER THINGS out of utter boredom become simply recollection, everything changes.
The most exemplary piece being Useless (2004), first exhibited at BizArt Art Centre, then again in 2012 at Minsheng Art Museum, the two occasions exuding a completely different atmosphere— the richness brought by the ferment of time always beyond expectation. However, according to Geng Jianyi, something can be anticipated: time will always gradually add strength to an object— he learned this from Forms and Certificates (1988/2012).
Today, these objects encased in glass are in one sense simply shabby old things. But in another they aren’t, as each also contains the tale of a person. Inside the accompanying documents one may discover certain kinds of information: who; when it started to be used; how this person knew Geng; and at the end of the form, the two most important items: “reason for discontinuation” and “the story of the object in question.”
In 2004, these characters simply constituted a section of narrative, but today they have become history, the reading of simple text transformed with time into experience. Within these documents, these abandoned old things seem to possess a psychic ability: the thoughts, actions, emotions, and feelings of the person who bought and used them at the time all rely on their resurrection, their new vitality and the opposition of this to their stagnating existence. Which is older, the object or the person? The past held within the objects flood back, making one sigh with sorrow. This intense feeling of fermentation is due to the relationship between object and organism (the person): object— provider— Geng— object. The informative object’s function disappears, and this useless cultural relic is immortalized under a spotlight. When an object is turned into a work of art, will it live eternally, or is it already thoroughly dead? In other words, if an object can die, is its death in its functionality, or in its materiality?
AS AN OBJECT has no control over its own fate, behind Useless lies a process of selection. What makes one decide that something has lost its use, or should be thrown away? What is interesting is that the basis of people’s decisions often doesn’t arise from positive or direct actions. Of course, when one takes a liking to something, this act is often full of uncertainty, fortuity, melodrama, and chance… but when abandoning, rejecting, or beginning to loathe something, one often has quite firm reasons, both rational and assured. Choosing something can be quite complicated, while abandoning something is often comparatively simple. At a 2004 exhibition on the fourteenth floor of Loft 49 in Hangzhou— a recently vacated dormitory that was about to be rented out— Geng Jianyi collected up all the objects that had been left behind and classified them, pairing them with photographs of the room in which they were found (Fourteenth Floor, 2004). This very simple and impartial process of collecting and classifying objects actually brought to light the basis according to which certain people made certain decisions, as well as a hierarchical system which exists within society. This very simple act also points towards a more profound issue: “what exactly creates reality, and what about the things excluded from it?”
WHAT MAKES REALITY interesting is that problems come eternally out of nowhere. For example, how does one prove that a normal person (really) exists? An“everyday”kind of person. Society, in fact, quietly asserts this very idea. It invents its certificate of proof, and Geng Jianyi borrows this “invention.” He wonders how the rules came to be as they are, and why they are so inconsistent. Furthermore, they aren’t simply laws, but statutes, policies, the highest of directives, and they guide our lives. There will always be an invisible shadow, following us around, making us nervous, and we never know how we ought to react to it. Geng has discovered that rules are simply things that exist to make you nervous. They affect you as a person.
Geng Jianyi is responsible for the trend of forms and documents in Chinese contemporary art: variously sized pieces of paper, with squares and patterns that salvage the other side of reality. To fill out a form is to engage in a secret dialogue. It supposes that you will be honest, and pretends that the whole process is confidential. It both reinforces and opposes the rules. Geng sees these rules as a bit like communicative tools, occasionally borrowed for another use, unconventionally. But to the operation and running of the state machine, these vehicles, forms, examinations, documents, files, certificates— they are actually totally conventional.
Ergo, any kind of deliberate, superfluous act of certification or investigation will serve to expose the secret and automatic side of society, along with all such things that monitor or assess. Furthermore, this exposure is two-sided, because this model, according to Geng, only goes “half-way.” There is another side: the respondents. The information they provide always relates to themselves; the works they now see are their own selves, brought out and exposed by Geng.
Even though we’re accustomed to using terms like “people” or “ordinary people” to encapsulate the majority, if one was to pick out a person at random from this group and certify that he or she genuinely exists, then this “he/she” will no longer be someone who can be briefly summarized— nor would there be any need to prove their existence; one could simply look at the person. In Eternal Rays of the Sun (1992), a “lens” examines the “great unifier” that is the ten renminbi note, each nameless, anonymous person placed in the same position. These nameless people expose that “he/she” is an individual fact, begrudgingly freed from the populace.
ONE APPROACH GENG Jianyi often takes is to plant a new space within the space of reality. This is his way of “connecting” to reality: according to Geng, at the moment when one is attracted to reality, and begins to decide to do something, one can grasp that which lies behind reality, yet one begins to stray, take leave of the order of reality, and move into another channel. This is how the artist explains the title his latest exhibition, “Wu Zhi” (literally, “ignorant”) at Minsheng Art Museum: from work to obstinacy, here is doing, there is refusing. This is in some ways carefree, and— in my opinion, with respect to a certain mistake— it contains a kind of youthfulness, that is, youthful ignorance and self-confidence mixed with a relaxed, playful, and fearless self-negation. It is genuine courage to speak ungracefully, even with a firm and resolute attitude.
Geng Jianyi also presides over a “privately run imagination laboratory,” its standpoint being that nowadays people go about their lives with far too much caution, and that this has caused a decline in imagination. Illumination, rules, and guidance now reign, and too many things are carried out according to strict consultation. Concern with results and potential gains are considered before anything is committed to; practices are inseparable from their foundation, and if there is no foundation, then people will be immediately fearful, and regard the project as “unreliable.” Thus there are nowadays too many gaps and blank spaces in people’s lives, which are often inevitably filled with “imitative” things and experiences. Geng doesn’t believe that imagination has died, but that it has been smothered. If it is given fresh soil in which to grow, then it will sprout up again. This laboratory is dedicated to restoring imagination; its central hypothesis is that people only begin to use their imagination when plunged into darkness. The first essential element of “work—obstinacy” is to construct an area of darkness, in which there is the possibility of a highly compressed mixture of work and obstinacy, both waiting to be ignited. Only at this point can imagination genuinely become an active force. (Translation by Dominik Salter Dvorak)