As the rest of the world turns its gaze on Beijing and the Olympic Games, Yang Shaobin is locked in his studio, working on the final preparations for his upcoming exhibition. September 4th marks the opening of “X – Blind Spot”, a major solo exhibition of Yang Shaobin’s work at Long March Space, which shows the work he has produced over the last 2 years, the second phase of a collaborative project based on coalmining between Yang Shaobin and the Long March Project. In this exhibition, the viewer will once again confront a Yang Shaobin reborn.
During Yang Shaobin’s “800 Meters Under” solo exhibition at Long March Space two years ago, many people familiar with this artist’s practice were unsettled by how different it was from his previous work, resulting in the widespread reaction, “Is this Yang Shaobin?” The general feeling of surprise and confusion was caused by the abrupt transformation of both his work’s content and technique of expression. Yang Shaobin’s departure from previous stylistic familiarity, of a particular relationship between theory and work, moved towards what Michel Foucault terms an “infinite relation” between language and painting, or what Michel de Certeau described as the reappearance of heterogeny. Such explorative experimentations presented a fundamental infinite possibility for Yang Shaobin, separating textual from visual narrative, desiring a descriptive no-man’s land.
Notable changes in Yang Shaobin’s practice had also occurred previously, since 1990, in which the conceptual qualities and artistic techniques of Yang Shaobin’s work shifted from the stereotypically termed political pop of Cynical Realism to the establishment of his unique “red violence” style, and the transition from this style to the murky grey hues of his “international politics”. As such, his artistic reputation underwent a transformation from a political pop artist to an independent artist with critical acclaim. Here the word “transformation” is used to describe these changes, however, it is the unidentifiable aspects that we must explore further. We must also consider that Yang Shaobin is not the only Chinese artist who has used coalmining as a subject nor who has experimented with medium and representation. Artists Xu Weixin and Zhang Jianhua are amongst those who have also approached coalmining as subject in their work. If we analyze Yang Shaobin’s practice only from a social, humanitarian and ethical standpoint, then his work is similarly comparative to such artists, however if we consider his context of transformation in approach to his subject, then we can see how Yang Shaobin differs in his embrace of what constitutes ideas of the ‘contemporary’.
What first strikes one’s attention in the group of works realized for “X – Blind Spot” is how reality is mediated. “Mediated” here is not meant as oil painting as a medium, but rather the way Yang Shaobin has transformed representations of the real. Producing an image similar to a medical x-ray, Yang Shaobin paints in the negative, giving the images a surreal sense of mystery and obscurity. The surreal qualities created here are not those encountered in Art History’s Surrealism, where form and content take on aspects of the banal, but rather reality is shone as transparent and multitudinous, its contrast in colour, a straightforward painterly technique, revealing a kind of aesthetic abnormality. In previous works created for the “800 Meters Under” project and his “red violence” and “international politics” series of paintings, this surreal quality took on different and important embodiments. The rationality of what constitutes a normal, or objective narrative is given question by an irregularity in time, of space and composition, uniquely evidenced in Yang Shaobin’s particular painting technique. Both “800 Meters Under” and “X – Blind Spot” were projects investigating coalmining, made in collaboration with the Long March Project. However, for the second phase in ‘X – Blind Spot’, Yang Shaobin immersed himself in the perspective of reality which raised greater challenges and demands than ever before – whether it was in a geographical, social or psychological space – seeking different goals and focuses, searching for new conceptual breakthroughs.
The issue of coalmining remains at the core of the project, however the focused areas surrounding this subject in this two-stage collaborative undertaking are significantly different. The title “800 Meters Under” is a direct reference to the processes and realities of coalmining work, the resulting works visually arresting for its reflection of a kind of physicality. In “X – Blind Spot”, the “X” remains deliberately ambiguous and mysterious, the act of marking a given site akin to an x-ray. “Blind Spot” comes from the huge earth-moving machine KOMATSU 170 used in coalmining. At either end of the machine, there is a blind spot – 50 meters in diameter at the front, and 60 meters in diameter at the back, from which can be construed a number of metaphorical references in Yang Shaobin’s works. The coalminer claims central focus in the works in “800 Meters Under”. The fundamental aim of these images was to create juxtaposition with objectivity, using a realistic style in both colour and form, to challenge ideas of different places and structures, or by breaking down the viewers’ perception of time and space. For example, in “No. 1” the background is the simple housing and the surrounding areas of a coalmining district, but a large portrait of a coalminer half-submerged in a pit interrupts the horizon. This unusual composition gives the painting the sense of a mirage. This visual displacement of time and space cannot be found in the painting series of “X – Blind Spot”, instead form is akin to a photographic negative where space is given a surreal substance via a manipulation of light and dark. Furthermore, the coalminers are no longer the focus of the paintings, but become the departure point for consideration of their environ. In these paintings figures other than coalminers are depicted (they even include the curator of the project and the cameraman), the images also leave the scene of the coalmines and move to the photography studio, the emergency room, the medical treatment centre, and the video editing room. In ‘X-Blind Spot’ the concept of the coalmine is extended beyond its locale, by depicting these satellite scenes, he informs this subject from a lateral perspective. However the coalminers are still at the heart of the work; by looking around them and at the after-effects of coalmining rather than its actual practice, Yang Shaobin goes to the heart of their lives.
Technically, the symbolic crackling of pigment and dribbling paint style that Yang Shaobin used in “red violence”, and further extended and tested in his ‘international politics’ and ‘800 Meters Under’ body of work, is very different to the more realistic, photographic style that he employs in “X – Blind Spot”. Works realized for the coalmining project do not simply consist of paintings, but also include installation, sculpture and video. This two-stage project also demonstrates how Yang Shaobin’s conceptual thinking continues to progress. For example, the video work in “800 Meters Under” is divided into 2 documentary short films, which can be installed together, or separately. They are divided into “Underground” (documenting the working conditions of the coalminers), and “Above ground” (documenting the coalminers’ everyday lives). Both works use a simple narrative technique that revolves around the coalminers themselves. However the four-channel video work in “X – Blind Spot” cannot be separated. It is a montage of shots in the negative and positive, moving from colour to black and white using contrasts of light and dark, resulting in a visual experience that is powerfully emotive and visually arresting. Furthermore this video work is not pure documentary, but rather uses a narrative style similar to that of David Lynch – a journey through the semi-conscious, piecing together fragments of film undefined by time. Furthermore Yang Shaobin’s sculptures are not merely three-dimensional representations of his paintings, but historically informed by a literary and cultural context, for example the figure of Charlie Chaplin appears in his paintings, sculptures and installations.
So what are the motivations behind the differences and backgrounds of the different phases of Yang Shaobin’s work? Will he ever stop questioning himself and seeking breakthroughs? Yang Shaobin states, “I am constantly searching for stimulation. If I can’t paint, it is because there is a problem somewhere. I don’t hide from it and I tell my friends the same thing. But somewhere down the road, if we are successful we repeat ourselves, it’s fatal and inevitable.” We could read pages of psychological analysis into this autobiographical statement. Some people are never satisfied with things as they are, they will never be able to accept compromise, and constantly seek the challenges of self-exploration. It is these people who must be stimulated and inspired, because for them, numbness to the outside world is their worst enemy. Yang Shaobin’s artistic temperament is the epitome of this, as demonstrated when he left his hometown to be an artist in Beijing, his works focusing on the violence and brutality of the real world; or being weary and doubtful of the progression of his style and artistic concepts; ignoring all the risks, he chose to keep on transforming. Yang Shaobin is addicted to the challenge of questioning himself and the outside world. As argued by Albert Camus, like Sisyphus whose punishment involved the pushing of a huge rock up a steep hill, only to see this rock roll back down again – this desire to achieve, the desire to test repetition and ritual until he reaches the height of his labour is akin to Yang Shaobin and his challenge of his own limits. In a literal and experiential sense, Yang Shaobin’s life provides him with a limitless network of inspiration, “He keeps looking for these breaks and developing resources in his own logic, even if they are sometimes in conflict with the trend.”
From an art historical perspective, Yang Shaobin is a model case of an artist well read and internationally informed. His extensive research and explorations into Western art historical conceptual and technical perspectives can be found in his work and his constant questioning of the Western tradition of “contemporary”. For Yang Shaobin, this idea of the “contemporary” concentrates on the complex nature and definition of the relationships and boundaries between the art world, government and people, between academic and folk conceptions of art, between notions of tradition and modernism in today’s China. In collaboration with the Long March Project, Yang Shaobin brings the coalmines to Beijing through his process of documentation and art production in his studio. It is through the questioning and criticising of these definitions and relationships that he corrects and revives his memories, provoking the narrative of art history, investigating the values placed on ideas of the individual in current society.
Yang Shaobin possesses a critical drive that motivates him to explore the darker aspects of reality, to challenge himself and the market-driven art world around him. Through self-destruction and re-construction, he perseveres and fights for an idealistic sense of freedom.
 Foucault, Michel, Les Mots et les choses, 1966, translated as The Order of things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Random House, NewYork,1973, p.9
 de Certeau, Michel, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, translated by Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986
 Dialog with Li Xianting,Yang Shaobin – Essence of Violence , Hebei Education Press, 2006, p32
 Pi, Li. ‘Yang Shaobin’s Paintings’ in Yang Shaobin– Essence of Violence” , Hebei Education Press, 2006, p13