Ambiguous State and Pseudo- Sentiment
An essay on contemporary art and club culture in China, published by Kaleidoscope Asia
The site of a relentless pursuit of entertainment and consumerism, for Generation Y artists raised in post reform China, nightlife and club culture reflect the blurry nature of collective memory and the feeling of emptiness in the modern urban society.
At the end of 2015, Shanghai-based artist Zhang Ding “produced” a series of live performances at London's Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), featuring psychedelic rock and experimental electronic music. The project was titled “Enter the Dragon,” named after Bruce Lee's last film. Zhang installed multiple flashing mirrors at the venue, transforming the rectangular room into a space of illusion and ambiguity. The artist also invited twenty-six bands and musicians, whom he selected from an open call by London-based NTS Radio, to take turns givingone-hour-long improvised performances each night.Artists and bands played on stages opposite fromeach other, with spinning mirrors placed betweenthe two stages.
This elaborately arranged performance space was closer to a nightclub than a common theater inside a gallery—although it was different from a nightclub, in that it was far more refined and clean. The musicians added a casual sense of self-restriction to the space, which they naturally carried with themselves in such a venue. Zhang Ding's inspiration has a rather romantic origin. In the last scene of Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee was surrounded by mirrors. In order to overcome the distraction, he smashed all the mirrors. Of course, no mirror was broken in a fancy performance space like the ICA, especially not when gallery staff constantly stopped the audiencefrom touching the installations. Both the mirrors andthe sound-absorbing foam on the wall were Zhang’swork, and they took significant time and capital toassemble. What the artist hoped to achieve throughthis project was creating a simple and open platform.In his mind, he was acting as a mere “producer”of the event, and the audience should be able toenjoy the event naturally and freely as themselves.However, given all the designing, organizing andvenue managing, the audience acted with care andself-restraint.
The elusive and dazzling style of the performances at ICA echoed a prior project Zhang undertook at Beijing's ShanghART gallery. There, he invited four Chinese heavy metal bands to perform in his show, titled “Orbit of Rock.” The project was inspired by 1991’s Monsters of Rock festival in Moscow, which tried to revitalize the rock music scene in the face of declining global popularity. Zhang's show attempted to recreate an atmosphere similar to that of the festival and, in turn, possibly bring back the golden old days of rock music. For artists like Zhang Ding, who were born in the 1980s and educated solely in mainland China, Chinese rock music, especially heavy metal, is special. This genre of music is arguably an area where the newly reformed China took in Western ideologies and cultures in the most radical and complete way. To Zhang's generation of artists, Chinese rock music also reminds them of their youthful times when they rebelled against everything mainstream. When Zhang took the musical genre out from the era’s socio-political settings in China, the public receptionwas probably what he expected: regardless of theirage, the audience shared a feeling of exuberance andrebellion. This was perhaps due to a combination ofthe older generation's nostalgia over their rebelliousyouth and the younger generation feeling compelledto act rebellious in the context of contemporary art.In post-reform China, all imported genres of musicestablished their market presence in the lasttwenty years. This applies to rock, electronic music,experimental music, hip-hop, rap and the like.Even for genres that were highly political and anticonsumerismin origins, the music industry alwaysfound a way to make them less contested and moreaccessible for consumers through entertainment,fashion and consumer culture. If we were to travelback in time to bars in Beijing hutongs in the 1990s, wecould expect to see absurd performance art for thesake of absurdity, rebellious rock music for the sakeof rebelling, intellectuals using non-institutionalizedlanguage talking about contemporary art, all kinds ofDIY art occasions and other spontaneous exchangesthat allowed people to express their feelings. Today,these art-related activities are all commercialized,each accounting for a segment of the contemporaryart market in China. Bars and nightclubs have alsobecome a part of the mainstream urban culture,despite having the reputation as “underground,”“marginal” and “mysterious” in the 1990s.
The early forms of nightclubs in China can be divided to bars, disco bars and nightclubs. The concept was imported from the West. The earliest “Chinese nightclubs” emerged in Hong Kong in the 1970s.Based on traditional European nightclubs, theseclubs usually had banquets and ballrooms. Theirmain program was live performances of Chineseand Western pop music or Cantonese Opera. Inthe 1980s, a new kind of Japanese nightclub wasimported, offering escort services. Such Japanesestylenightclubs quickly gained popularity in HongKong. Shenzhen, a city bordering Hong Kong thatwas at the frontline of China's economic reform,was among the first cities in mainland China tobe influenced by the nightclub culture in HongKong. Artist Yang Yong has carried out multiplephotography projects exploring topics related to thenightlife in Shenzhen. His work showed the socialreality of sex workers and nightclubs with a touch offantasy, and reflected on the contradiction of materialabundance and psychological emptiness in fastgrowingChinese metropolises. In the 1990s, firsttiercities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhouall had their bars, disco bars and nightclubs. Theseentertainment venues attracted different groups ofcustomers in various locations with different tastesin atmosphere and music.
Shanghai held the status of being one of Asia's entertainment and cultural center in the 1930s. The famous Paramount Club used to be called the “Number 1 Oriental Dance Hall.” However, the industry died as communism prevailed in mainland China. When the concept of the “nightclub” was reintroduced to Shanghai after the reform, the sex industry returned to the city as well. In 2006, Shanghaiborn artist Xu Zhen created “Super Absorbent,” a photography series with digital printing on canvases. Xu downloaded texts from online pornography advertisements in extremely small size, rearranged them and used them as elements to reconstruct photos from pornography websites. These photos captured a wide range of scenes: young girls wearing mini-skirts standing on the stage in a nightclub, naked female escorts dancing in a private room in a club, fully exposed female bodies in hotel rooms and bathrooms, close-ups of private body parts. The text elements were as small as pixels. They came across as over-interpreted advertisements or wrongly printed posters. The context of these images was obscure yet specific, which made it hard to interpret the artist's viewpoint. Perhaps he didn't have one at all. Since then, Xu has repeatedly used this form of art expression, and has often engaged politically and socially sensitive subjects with elaborate methods and open-ended narratives that appear to be visually intense and conceptually ambiguous.
The past decade has been the golden age for electronic music. From Europe to the rest of the world, electronic music has changed the main content of nightclubs from live performances to DJled musical selections. Clubbing culture in first-tier cities in China has kept up with this new trend, while rock bars and disco bars are no long popular. Li Shurui's painting series “Lights” and Fan Yangzong's painting series “Nightclub” both depict the changing trends in Chinese clubs, guided by the introduction of electronic music.
For the younger generation of artists, the rock music of the 1990s and critical realism of the 2000s seem overly serious. The so-called “Generation Y” grew up in the Internet age. Most of these artists come from middle-class urban Chinese families and were introduced to pop music at a young age. They are familiar with Chinese clubbing culture; they are used to dancing in disco bars and seeing shows in bars. Nowadays, the concept of the “nightclub” in major Chinese cities is more or less the same as the mainstream clubbing culture in Europe and America. Generation Y artists are interested in subjects that are ambiguous in form but specific in self-expression. Such an approach is in line with the way people interact on the Internet: short, shallow, fast. Neither serious criticism nor rigorous analysis fits such mode of communication. Only expressions that eschew logic and reason fit; only those using fictionalized situations, exaggerating images and unique styles match the context. Famous series mounted under this category includes Chen Wei's “In the Waves” and Cheng Ran's “The Music is Still On, the Band is Gone.”
Since 2013, Chen Wei has been working on a series featuring lounges and clubs. Being a music lover himself, Chen used to play in a punk band and made some experimental music in school. In making this series, he interviewed friends, encouraging them to remember clubs that they used to visit. Many of their memories are disjointed scenes of flickering disco balls, a few stairs, colorful lights and smoke, and other typical disco bar features. According to these narratives, Chen reconstructed a set in his studio andinvited his friends to enact the state of self-indulgencecommonly seen among visitors of disco bars. Chen'sapproach seems unpretentious and relaxed. Hiswork is based on his personal nostalgias, as well asthe collective memory of his generation. However,his subject is not specific; it is hard to define eithera physical or a psychological state in such distant,ambivalent, abstract, hazy atmosphere.
Cheng Ran's works takes a similar approach. Born in the 1980s, Cheng recently finished a two-year artist-in-residence program at the prestigious State Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam. He is known for using moving images, installations and mixed media to reflect on the popular culture in global cities. In his presentation “The Music is Still On, the Band is Gone,” Cheng collaborated with the Beijing-based experimental music group Soviet Pop on a live performance titled “THEXXX” during the exhibition opening. In the performance, Cheng Ran served as the drummer, though he had no idea how to play drums. His “pretending” was intended to be a reflection on the cultural identity of artists. On another occasion, he wrote a long detective novel entitled Circadian Rhythm in order to explore the potential space created by text and writing, though he had practically no experience in writing. Cheng Ran believes that if the conception of West and East can be fabricated by an imaginary author, then neither regionalism nor nationalism has reason to exist: “Nothing is purely objective. Everything is imaginary, ambiguous and ambivalent.”
These works emphasized the blurry and fragmented nature of collective memory. They also attempted to repute the political implications of a certain social group in the real world through personal “assumptions” and “imaginations.” These approaches are indicative of the ways in which young people who grew up in the Internet age have a fuzzy, changeable and imprecise understanding of reality. Through tackling subjects like pop music, dance, nightclubs and performance, the aforementioned work sheds light on the topic that the artists are most interested in: the Self.
Another artist whose work reflects on clubbing culture in China is Chen Tianzhuo. Chen studied art in the United Kingdom, and his cultural reference is at once Internet-based and international. For instance, his 2014 work ADAHA used highly contrasting colors and exaggerated visual symbols to create a surreal experience. The performers covered themselves in bright colors and used rich body language to deliver to the audience a world of violence, erotica, nervosity and absurdity. Similar aesthetics can be found in American video artist Ryan Trecartin's work, who uses colors, symbols, music and performers' body language to construct an imaginary space. In comparison, Chen's methodology is more smooth, refined and even somewhat “fashionable.” The application of visual elements in Chen Tianzhuo's work is symbolic and consumerist in nature. The way he filters and extracts cultural elements is based not on personal experience, but rather on conceptual utility and aesthetical considerations. The “state of madness” that Chen emphasizes is not necessarily generated by religion or subculture per se—it is evoked by consumerism, the relentless pursuit of entertainment. As a result, it further underlines the feeling of emptiness in the modern urban society.
Zhang Ding used the phrase “Pseudo-Sentiment Live” to describe the Monsters of Rock festival. It speaks to the tacit mutual understanding between musicians and audience: emotions need to be let out and art needs to have meanings. The past two decades have been the reforming era for contemporary art world in China. Commerce and consumerism, the driving force behind the clubbing culture, have also stimulated the growth of the art market and the development of the Generation Y artists. This younger generation is used to entertainment and consumerism being part of the market. While some artists work on matters highly political and socially critical, their viewpoints remain open-ended and even abstract. Other artists work using distinctive subcultural elements, but they are not necessarily interested in the political nature of these subcultures. Instead, their real interest may be to entertain and trigger madness from the audience.
These ambiguous states and pseudo-sentiments are not mutually exclusive forms of expression. Taking more from the clubbing culture in China can probably make art practices more diverse and rich in China’s contemporary art scene.