Text by Nikos Papastergiadis
The letter X and the term blindspot are like beacons – warnings that serve as the title of this exhibition.
At the junction of the optic nerve and the eyeball there is a blindspot.
Moving between the core of the heroic character and the essence of the object that eludes his reach is a blindspot.
Buried in the nation’s founding myth and tucked between the furls of its commemorative symbols is a blindspot.
X is the closest thing to a universal symbol. It designates place and identity by becoming the primal or central point of differentiation and destination. In order to define the ultimate point of arrival, or the relationship between two places we use the sign X. When the technology for revealing the condition of hidden structures first became available, it is no coincidence that it was popularly referred to as X Rays, long before X was seen as the key symbol for representing the abstract value of things and the boundaries of truth. Could there be any thinking – both in the mathematical and philosophical modalities – if there was no X. All thought would merge with speculative imagination. Borders, precise points that measure the journey between the origin and the telos, dialectics and distinctions, all these modes of classification and organization would all disappear. Perhaps the very distinction between art and life only begins once we have invented the power of X.
For the purpose of this exhibition the function of X has a simple, and in Marxist terms, a classical role – to announce the gesture that things need to be turned on their head in order to be put right side up. Every image starts in a negative light in order to reveal a truth that is there in the centre of our vision but to which we have become habitually blind.
The blindspot that is referenced in this exhibition is both literal and symbolic. It refers to the immediate space that surrounds a vehicle but is hidden from the driver’s view. In the case of the massive trucks used in the coal mines, this space has a perimeter of 50 meters. Drivers learn to read a terrain even after it disappears from sight. Their sensorial perception extends the reach of their own body and, as noted by Merleau Ponty, it becomes one with the vehicle.
In symbolic terms the exhibition also makes reference to the way the acknowledgement and value of labor has vanished into a blindspot. Historically, the status of the miner has been at the edges of visibility. For a brief moment the communist rhetoric elevated him to hero. In the new world order of neo-liberalism, all labor rights and the economic worth of physical work has been minimized. According to one calculation the value from production has been reduced to 3% of the financial speculation in global economic exchange.
Art is also constrained by its own blindspot. Gregory Schollete argues that collaboration is the dark matter of art. It is the basis, the atmosphere, the energy that surrounds and constitutes the force of art, and yet, it is also the matter that is so often taken for granted, dismissed as mere background, undervalued as practical support, or outsourced like the invisible armies of technical and service providers. The identity that overshadows everything else, and thereby distorts all its real meaning, is the authorial presence of the artist. Blindspots are now a ubiquitous part of everyday life. In the cities we attempt to guard with vigilance against the blindspot that appears at the rear of our cars, but prefer to remain comfortably oblivious towards the simple steps in the chains of production. The hype surrounding new communicational technologies has blinded us of our dependence on the most basic material requirements. As Bill Viola often notes in his lectures, “all technology starts with the minerals in the earth”. The centre of the earth is at this point, dispersed across the numerous mines and factories of China.
What does this centre look like? How does an artist represent it?
These are the questions that have preoccupied the artist Yang Shaobin. He was born in the region surrounding Kailuan coalmine. This was the subject of his earlier exhibition ‘800 Meters Under’. It marked a crucial shift in Yang Shaobin’s process of linking aesthetic and social engagement as it enabled him to return to his hometown, not as a visitor, but as someone who could approach his subjects, share their experiences, relate to their everyday life and be involved in the co-production of a perspective that was expressive of their specific worldview.
The development of such a perspective has been one of the most important challenges for contemporary artists and thinkers. Gayatri Spivak has spoken of the critical intimacy that is developed by people who work in fields that they have known long before they acquired scholarly and aesthetic techniques for representation. This shift in perspective not only allows a closer engagement with their subject but also prompts both subtle and radical adjustments to the prevailing categories and modalities of representation.
For instance, it is conventional to represent nature and machine, the landscape and industrial space as opposing states. We immediately think of the machine as a tool for interrupting nature. Industry is the organization of machine tools that maximizes the exploitation of nature. The appearance of this ‘interruption’ is never a neutral image. It is noticed with a combination of negative and positive associations. We can admire the ingenuity with which a surplus is generated as machines rip, dig and suck, or mix, ignite and move natural matter. However, with the sight of this dis-placement or re-configuration of nature there is also the expression of a lament, a sadness at the violation of a pre-existing state.
This ambivalent association with nature and machine produces a false dichotomy. It constructs a difference on the basis that the natural is static and harmonious, and the industrial is mobile and destructive. However, nothing exists unless it is in some state of flux, and there is no necessary tendency for balance in nature. Both the natural and the industrial can erupt with cataclysmic force. The real difference between these two states is in the attempt to regulate the speed of nature. The industrial age distinguishes itself from all preceding ages in terms of its self-belief in the capacity to control speed. Speed is both the dream and the collective blindspot of the modern age.
With the naturalization of speed the real boundary between nature and machine begins to blur. To turn things right side up Yang Shaobin must therefore proceed with a simple but incisive act of reversal. Every image begins in negative. He projects an X Ray vision onto the landscape, which has lost its separation from nature and machine. The barely faint distinction between the open cut mines and the already scorched valleys, the resemblance between the entrance to a deep underground mine and a metropolitan railway network, the merging of windswept caves and the dusty hovels are all suggestive of an absolute endeavour to squeeze both human culture and nature inside the same vice. It has produced an architectural sense of place, which as Robert Smithson observed is in a state of ruin just as it starts to function. For Smithson the tour amidst the detritus of the industrial town of Pessaic was an exercise in both the aesthetics of wonder at the twists in entropic forms of habitation as well as a critique of the modernist rhetoric of linear order and control. Yang Shaobin adopts a perspective that is at once both more clinical and anthropocentric.
The use of the negative image sharpens and expands the appearance of the landscape as ruin. It is neither a ruin on a landscape that is highlighted, nor the ruin of the landscape, but a more pervasive and immersive field of ruin. The space of ruin and the landscape have been merged in a new kind of totality. Images of simmering and smoldering coal fields once shown in negative suddenly take on a different naturalism – the expanse of minerals suddenly looms into an image of a frozen tundra being swept by snow storms. Similarly, in the juxtaposition between the long tunnels and the cavernous baths we lose track of the difference between night and day. Yang Shaobin commences another scene with a powerful speck in the centre of the horizon, as the colors reverse we begin to see the image alternatively as a solar sunset and then back to an ocular trick that appears when you rub your eyes late at night. Perhaps the most disturbing inversion is the collapse of the boundary between inside and the outside. As these images switch between negative and positive light they expose the confusion of the sensorial world. States which are normally kept distinct from each other are shown to have been folded together. We can appreciate how this form of industrial exploitation of the land has been an integral player in the economic boom of China, but the consequences on the workers is not just an overwhelming sense of moral disorder.
Yang Shaobin’s videos and paintings take the viewer close up the body of the worker. Every camera shot and all the canvases reveal images that come from being intimate with the subject. The eyes of the artist like the eyes of the driver have their blindspots. While no one can see into the dark space of the desperation that drives people into working in such conditions, nor fathom the desire to survive and escape, Yang Shaobin can take his own body into the scene in which this drama occurs. He places his camera alongside the jaw of the crunching earth biting machines, next to the wheels of the trains that drag the quarry from the bowels, at the bended-knee of the worker who shovels the spit clear of the tracks, as low as the ankles of the naked men in their showers, within the circle of the smokers as they smile with relief, and finally at the eyeline of the doctor that examines the victims with infected organs. If anything were to crush, spill, slip, collapse, Yang Shaobin would be there. His aim, as I previously mentioned, is to “get involved”. His vantage point is not that of the white collared managers, engineers or owners. Yang Shaobin’s concern is not confined to documenting the plight of the worker – that could be done by more direct means of reportage – but rather it is to offer some understanding of the experiences that are kept away from the scrutiny of the public eye. In an earlier essay on Yang Shaobin’s practice Wang Minan made an important distinction between conventional documentary realism and this new aesthetic mode of social engagement:
“Drawing life together is no longer just tracing the subject, but rather it means to get actively involved, it is a method of artistic intervention which links together art and society through continual survey of the subject, visiting and critiquing. It is just this idea of criticality of experience of intervention of portrayal of images of laborers, and more importantly, of the use of art to express social concerns and through artistic practice, and turn concern into a social movement that Yang Shaobin’s series of work extends upon.”
Near the entrance of one of the mines is a monumental sculpture of a miner. It depicts the upright figure in the heroic pose that we have come to associate with socialist realism. Yang Shaobin does not film this sculpture with the kind of ironic distance that he once might have during his phase as a leading artist in the Cynical Realist movement. Instead he adopts a camera technique that is far more sympathetic. There is a slow pan of the body. The camera looks up to the firm muscular body, almost in awe and certainly with tender respect. Then it pauses on a section that has crumbled or broken away. An arm is missing. A moment of pathos at the obvious metaphor is cross-cut with any other clever reference, but simply held in silence. Yang Shaobin is astutely aware of the loss of dignity that miners suffer. They were once celebrated and rewarded for their sacrifices and now they are disposable commodities. Yang Shaobin draws attention to this reversal of fortune, as another instance of the inverted moral order of the contemporary economic system that is dominating the world.
What was once positive has now been rendered negative. To show the world we must now use negative structures of representation and as Yang Shaobin does, go into the working spaces of the laborers who produce the most fundamental materials of our everyday existence. This method of getting involved, going close, or working within the spaces of production in everyday life, and thereby creating a new space for art is central to the broader aims and philosophy of the Long March Project.
A critical feature of this specific exhibition and the Long March Project in general is the experimentation with collaborative working methods. Yang Shaobin’s collaboration with the miners is not in the practical sense of sharing tasks or providing complimentary expertise. It is a more subtle form of social engagement in which the artist places himself inside a field that he is already familiar with, and then alongside the others he not only learns the local ways of seeing but also becomes aware of how his presence contributes to the formulation of new perspective that is shared by all the partners. Hence the aim is not only to enter and thereby document the ‘dark spaces’ that are hidden from public view or ignored by global capital, but to become an active partner in the process of collective self representation. This task is different from the more conventional documentary traditions that aim to expose the hidden conditions. In this new mode that I call imaginative collaboration the aim is to do more than reveal the condition that exists within the blindspot. Imaginative collaboration is the outcome of the interaction between different people whereby the respective ideas, knowledge and perspective of each person interact with the other. This form of collaboration operates at a practical and conceptual level. By sharing common tasks, or approaching a similar issue in a combined manner, people from different backgrounds can discover new means of comprehending and representing the conditions that affect their everyday experience. Hence the value of this form of collaboration, as is witnessed in Yang Shaobin’s practice, is in its capacity to extend the conventional boundaries of knowledge. By becoming involved in the very spaces of production of a specific community in an ongoing manner Yang Shaobin has slowly developed a perspective that an outsider would not normally grasp, and perhaps shared in the articulation of new way of seeing that insiders have only barely expressed.
This complex movement between the outsider and insider perspective was a crucial step in the initiation of the Long March Project. Dissatisfied with the populist hype of becoming global, Lu Jie proposed an alternative model of cultural exchange that he defined as ‘inter-local’. From the outset the aim of the Long March project was both an exercise in giving people who lived in the remote rural regions of China access to contemporary art, an opportunity for contemporary artists to work with people that they would not normally encounter. Lu Jie also stressed that the project was not simply an excursion in which the two groups simply observed each other or consumed each other’s products. The aim was that they would become involved in the shared production of new cultural objects, develop new modes of cultural interaction and thereby create new forms of social and aesthetic exchange. The context of this new form of cultural production was thus not dominated by either a local or global perspective, but constituted out of the constant oscillation between both. Lu Jie noted that the working method of the Long March project was modeled around five interconnected principles; localized knowledge, relational understanding, self-restructuring, interactive exchange between local and global, and finally a simultaneous perspective on both the local and the global.
What emerged from these projects was a deeper understanding of the conceptual and practical links between curatorial design, aesthetic production and public interpretation. Lu Jie has gone so far as to suggest that a new hybrid figure has emerged as curatist – within this figure the authorial role of artist and administrative functions of the artists are all subsumed in a collective process that encompasses the complex interactions with the public. By stressing that the work of art is neither simply brought to a specific location, nor the product that can be taken from a place, but rather that it is the set of experiences that occur in the time and place of its production and interpretation, Lu Jie argues that the Long March projects stimulated both a reconceptualization of traditional roles that separated artists from the public, and reintegrated art into the places of everyday experience. Through these complex processes of interconnection between artists, curators and the community of public participants, Lu Jie also observed dismantling of the conventional hierarchies that distinguished between different forms of knowledge. Artists were not the experts who could project their predetermined models into new situations. On the contrary, they were required to adapt their pre-existing knowledge in order to comprehend and make sense of the present situation. In short, the artists from outside do not simply impose their models onto the inside of the community, but rather they must translate and transform their available categories into the situation that they encounter. The interaction between the artists familiar with global concepts and the local participants who have lived at the intersection of the global and their local compels the production of a new set of hybrid structures and ideas. In Yang Shaobin’s context this has meant that by becoming ‘involved’ he not only immersed himself in the lifeworld of the miner, but also engaged in a collective process of re-thinking about the meaning of fundamental issues such as light and darkness, and the relationship between global wealth production and the health of the miner’s body.
At the same time as the Long March Project was experimenting with new collaborative techniques other curators and critics around the world were also engaged in similar exercises. Reflecting on the intensified patterns of global circulation of artists and the hybridization of cultures associated with globalization, the Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera proposed that there was a need for a paradigm shift in the understanding of the circulation of artists working in the South. Mosquera stressed that in the absence of new South-South and North-South axial routes the cultural contours of globalization would continue to reproduce prevailing imperialist inequalities and primitivist stereotypes. Despite the dominance of the Euro-American institutional networks, Mosquera suggested that collaborative projects which were initiated in the South might have potential to pluralize both the vernacular and the contemporary meaning of art and culture. Similarly, the former director of Documenta XI, Okwui Enwezor, claimed that the emergence of new artistic collectives in Africa and in other parts of the world was not just a symptom of the crisis in the modernist aesthetic ideology but also representative of a new ‘social aesthetic’. The emergence of socially engaged artistic practices in the 1990s, had already prompted the British critic Suzi Gablik to argue against the conventional modes of aesthetic appreciation and outlined a new concept of ‘connective aesthetics’. A decade later the American academic Grant Kester continued the examination into the artistic experiments with empathic modes of communication and proposed that this emergent approach could be understood as a form of ‘dialogical art’. Finally, the Swedish curator Maria Lind marked the artistic practice of the turn of this century, in which she saw an upsurge in the interest in interdisciplinary practice, a willing immersion into popular culture, as well as an extension of the affinities with political activist and minority groups, as the beginning of a ‘collaborative turn’ in contemporary art.
These few examples of the hybrid conjunction between artistic practices, curatorial strategies and critical commentary suggest that in this period we not only witnessed a spontaneous shift in cultural practice but also the first truly global movement in art. Yang Shaobin’s exhibition, and the Long March Project in general are part of this fundamental shift in the way art is produced and how it engages with social issues. This shift will provoke art historians to generate new ways of thinking about the context of art, and stimulate new thinking on the social significance of art, and its role in the construction of new forms of knowledge. I believe that a closer examination of artistic practices that have occurred since the 1990s, that is, the turn towards collaborative and ‘community based’ forms of artistic practice, will highlight the means by which artists participate in the mediation of new social meanings. In the shift from the position of the artist as sole producer, to the artist as a collaborator in the construction of social knowledge, there are not only greater possibilities for consensual representations of other people’s reality, but also a step towards the redistribution of agency in the production of social meaning. Jacques Rancière’s concept of ‘the equality of intelligences’, and George E. Marcus’s recasting of the relationship between the anthropologist and the native as ‘epistemic partners’, will be crucial tools for this rethinking of the way art has become more intimately involved in the production and mediation of new social knowledge. Perhaps these new working methods executed by artists like Yang Shaobin and the emergence of new modalities in critical thinking, will lead towards the forms of hospitality – “the closing of the gap between host and guest” – and the realization of the perspective – “from the outside toward inside” – that inspired Lu Jie when he initiated the Long March.