The Shoulders of Little Clowns No. 5, 2012 Performance, customized clown costumes and props

The artists’ talk that followed GUEST’s recent show at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) was more an extension of the exhibition than an explanation thereof. Three group members, Zhao Yao, Xu Qu, and Lu Pingyuan— Li Ming and Lin Ke were absent— spent a good deal of time showing images and videos downloaded from the Internet. From the staging to the contents, not to mention the pair of “little clowns” that sat front and center, the event had all the elements of a performance piece.

At first glance, countless associations can be drawn from the images they showed to the completed artworks on view. Yet one cannot shake the feeling that whatever epiphanies arise were designed by the collective and somehow planted ahead of time. The obvious and direct linkages between the Internet videos and artworks raise suspicions: Which part actually came first? Are these images— still and moving— the real sources or something else entirely?

Even during the question and answer session with the audience, the artists’ answers reinforced this impression. The responses were evasive, vague, inscrutable, and mischievous. A phrase from the exhibition catalogue comes to mind: “There are different classes of audience.” Think you don’t belong to a certain class? Then sorry— to borrow GUEST’s tone of voice—you can look for the answer to your question in the printed materials. For every direct question, the artists found a roundabout response. As a collective, they stayed on message.

Before becoming a part of GUEST, four members—  Zhao Yao, Xu Qu, Li Ming, and Lin Ke— worked together as the collective Garden of Eden during an artist-in-residency project at the Organhaus Art Space in Chongqing. Their collaboration resulted in an installation of reconstructed pre-fab models of human bodies, some of which were painted with patterns while others were taken apart and rebuilt. From that time, they have established an intense and high-tempo work model that emphasizes over-thinking. Working together during short periods of time, each stage of creating a work, from design to construction to installation, was completed under clear directives and high pressure. Yet the stress on action did not mean that thought was abandoned. This model was based on preexisting concepts that were not tailored for a certain artwork or a specific exhibition, revolving instead around a more basic question: how to make art?

For their first show, GUEST has filled a gallery at UCCA with a multitude of objects, materials, and influences. A fountain combining modern and classical shapes is prominently displayed. Frozen in mid-stride, Magritte’s famous motif of the man with a bowler hat is extracted from the paintings and placed on steps constructed from discarded computer keyboards. A cat pauses above a painting made out of white silicone. Nail clippers, fake grass, and small toys are just a few of the elements found in the other artworks. Even the walls of the gallery have not been spared, but covered with white-and-gray checkered wallpaper. While the artworks’ references are not always clear, they still call to mind Picasso or Magritte. But the art historical footnotes seem to have been applied jokingly and deliberately, without purpose.

The exhibition highlights terms such as jester, circus, and carnival, as if it were an innocent game of Mad-Libs, drawing out ideas and words from the playful surroundings. The actual scene in the gallery, however, is neither festive, wild nor carnivalesque. The visitor senses instead a strong undertone of self-restraint and respect for limitations. GUEST does not let itself be caught off-guard. Even the actors hired to play jesters and clowns behave cautiously, ambling around the gallery in silence.

The Shoulders of Little Clowns No. 7, 2012 Fiberglass, stainless steel, silicone oil paint, 170 x 140 x 140cm

The topic for the artists’ talk was “What does GUEST want to break through?” Although the answer remains unsettled, the phrasing of the question indicates a clear intention to create a new possibility for making and exhibiting art through action. “Breakthroughs” are an end to the tendency toward inertia, to cease lingering over the old. Young artists must radically break down previous modes of thinking. The impulse is timely and appropriate, but the collective’s execution leaves the audience at a loss, unable to use the experience of past exhibitions to critically judge what is being presented.

GUEST spares no effort to make art; it is also unafraid to talk about art. In the catalogue and the accompanying essays, both questions and answers abound, covering all the topics of discussion. “Slogans are also a part of making art,” reads one such phrase. Yet concepts are barely defined because they are immediately deconstructed to the point of self-contradiction.

The exhibition’s curatorial team, MadeIn Company, is no stranger to this format of action and theory. In the introductory remarks, MadeIn Company is characterized as having “developed a tricky artistic personality, often employing disguises and playing with the audience. [All] in an effort to force viewers to question their own interpretations.” The same could be said of GUEST. An unavoidable question is then, what traits do the two collectives share? To this query Zhao Yao would probably respond that similarities are not the issue. But to those asking the question, the focus is not the ultimate appearance of the exhibition, but whether the underlying intellectual approaches are of the same vein. Does standing on the shoulders of little clowns mean being able to see farther than the clowns, or merely following in their outsized footsteps?

“The audience is the user. We are responsible for providing different versions of experience.” “Do not believe everything we say. To believe means believing in your belief.” Responsibility for the exhibition is pushed onto the audience. Even the name GUEST reflects this fact. The idea for it arises from the anonymous “guest” who lurks in Internet forums. Anyone can be a guest, so everyone’s attitude can be a part of GUEST’s attitude— a cunning circular logic that entwines the viewer and the artist.

Yet despite GUEST’s emphasis on poking fun, behind their outwardly playful attitude, their fundamental stance is solemn and unsmiling. Perhaps most revealing is their proclamation that they are a “conceptual artist collective,” an act of self-labeling that is mocking yet dead serious. Its sincerity and veracity, however, can only be ascertained so far as the audience is willing to seek an honest response. GUEST, on the other hand, can continue to play these games, becoming better and stronger in the process. But perhaps one day they’ll decide to pause and rewrite the rules.

Ultimately, as they say, “there are different classes of audience.” GUEST’s audience is the art world. Without the crowd of concerned adults, it gets lonely on the playground of thought when all that’s left are five overgrown boys. After all of the excited provocation, it would be a shame for them to lapse into a state of unseeing stagnancy. (Translated by JiaJing Liu)