Shanglie Zhou Beyond ‘Landscape’ and ‘Face’

Shanglie Zhou moved in 1991 from Shanghai to Antwerp, where, after applying through academic contacts and having been accepted at the National Higher Institute of Fine Art, she concerntrated on drawing; not as a basic training but as a new starting point. She had behind her the beginning of a career in Shanghai as a painter and a muralist, moving from landscapes to conceptual figurative oil paintings. She had won a prize at the Chinese Youth Art Exhibition in Beijing in 1985, an exhibition which was generally considered as marking the advent of a new generation of Chinese artists. During the same year, she taught at Shanghai University Fine Arts College. These were the years when China built up connections to the West, and young avant-garde artists negotiated the space of liberalisation, slightly opened up by economic modernisation, to reclaim freedom of expression. The strictly centralised ideological control of representation had slowly begun to crack. In this shift towards more freedom of thought, the year 1989 saw the opening of a breach, both at Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall: two historical moments, connected yet opposite in outcome, which were to become points of departure for much rethinking of a complex world.

The West’s reception of contemporary art from other continents and its market policies towards it are very much locked into stereotypes about identity and authenticity. If ‘africanity’ for instance is judged in relation to masks and ‘primitivity’, the expectation when it comes to work from China alternates between that of an extended tradition of brush and ink work and a Cold War notion of political art identified with Social Realism. In the emerging market scenario, the Chinese post-89 ‘Political Pop artists’, producing travesty rather than critique in their attack on established ideological art, and hence not really dangerous to the regime, have managed to get a foot in the door of the West, becoming part of national trade strategies in much the same way as neo-primitive pop art in African countries.

Among the young Chinese artists who steer clear of the collusion between political power and art market, there are different lines of approach. One, as Hou Hanru recently reported, is represented by an avant-garde which is testing new, de-ideologicalised utopias and scientific knowledge. They avoid individual self-expression, mainly by proceeding collectively, thereby keeping to a historical mainstream in China, where individualism has been as unfamiliar to Confucianism as it has been condemned by Communism.

Another line is characterised by processing existential experience - the art of the ‘Imaginary’ as opposed to that of the ‘Real’, - and it is in this category that Shanglie Zhou’s work may be included. While the philosophical problems connected to this orientation have to do with the positioning of the individual subject, the tactical difficulty involved, at least in the Chinese art scene, is how to produce representations of life experience and subjective world views in visual formulations which can be deciphered in a meaningful way by a common observer and still not provoke suspicious political interpretations from the ‘supervisors’.

Moving abroad might be said to make things easier, but it should in Shanglie Zhou’s case be seen more as a consequence of an orientation towards transgression and international contexts than as a solution to a political dilemma. For her, this orientation is not new but connected to family tradition of combining Chinese and western thought. In a postcolonial situation - the parallel may be permitted as China came to modernity via a semi-colonial intermediate stage - some social groups, due to class, education and cultural influence, are generally in a privileged position to assimilate and appropriate foreign knowledge and ways of thinking more swiftly than their compatriots.

Among them, there are individuals who enter diasporas, bringing with them as a sounding-board a life story from another background and from the history of another country or continent, as well as involving themselves in global discourses to a point where they refuse to stay within borderlines imposed by preconceived notions of cultural identity. The role of these outriders is, of course, often controversial, especially when seen from nationalist or essentialist points of view.  But within the context of a new modern internationalism, they often turn up as key  contributors to an ongoing process of construction and deconstruction.

Growing up in a family of intellectuals with an established European orientation, Shanglie Zhou had been acquainted from an early age with a European perspective as well as with Chinese cultural traditions, and she acquired a basic knowledge of western philosophy through reading and through contacts with visiting professors and others during her years as an art student in Shanghai in the late Seventies.

In her early drawings in Antwerp, she used several layers of semi-transparent rice-paper to displace the conventional order of figure-ground. This dissolution of the image as a coherent icon was her first response to the artistic climate of deconstruction that she encountered in Europe. In her first academic year, she traveled around to get an overview of the contemporary art situation. The changes of philosophical thinking reflected in it, the departure from the heritage of classical rationality, the scrutinising of knowledge, institutions and power and the dismantling of language, also corresponded to her own experiences of disillusionment vis-à-vis power structures in a Chinese context.

In the second year at the National Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Antwerp, she started working with installations. She proceeded to process ideas on culture, language and mass media, using newspaper as material and experimenting with paper rolls, paper mass and multilayered newspaper, sometimes painted with oil paint, acrylic or ink. Working with cultural waste products, she wanted to reevaluate culture itself, altering, reconstructing and transforming its elements into new expressions. Especially, she tried to deconstruct and to recreate language in a new environment.

At the beginning of 1995, these experiments resulted in Unreadable Library, an installation which was part of a solo exhibition at the Jacob Jordaenshuis Museum in Antwerp. Old Flemish books in wooden covers were scattered around the walls and shown together with pillars covered with pages from old books, which were only partly readable. In the middle of a stamp on the book covers, reading ‘The word that says everything’, there were undecipherable scribbles.

The visitors were plunged into uncertainty: were the books in a foreign language? Those from abroad were left in a stage of non-communication, whilst the native public, on discovering they were in  Flemish, found that the legible fragments had nothing of importance to tell them. All were left with the impression that the truth was perhaps hidden in the scribbles, just as we might wonder in front of prehistoric signs or speculate in a posthistoric future about unreadable writings from our time. She chose to deconstruct the supremacy accorded by western thought to the written word. But she could as well have been referring to Confucius’s reminder of the power of words, or to the Maoists’s use of political slogans, which prejudiced many of her generation against the media.

When Shanglie was fifteen, her father taught her to paint landscape in the way that he himself had studied in Europe. Later, she was to leave this genre behind, but it seems to have fuctioned as an important introduction to western concepts of perception and knowledge which she was later to deconstruct. Historically, the invention of the landscape as nature-without-people dates back to Romanticism and to Rousseau contemplating vistas in the Alps. In fact, mountaineering as a recreational sport was to some extent part of the early development of European landscape painting. Likewise, father and daughter climbed mountains in China to paint views, exerting themselves to cover the distance to the next lodge in half the time in order to save some hours to be spent at the easel, thus physically conquering the landscape and reconstructing it as a model of artistic study. The first time they painted together, he had to correct her. He observed that her attention was directed to his canvas instead of to the space before her. ‘You have to talk to nature’, he explained.

The whole operation and its aim was fundamentally different from that of shan shui (mountain, water), the tradition Chinese landscape painting closely related to ancient poetry and calligraphy, to which Shanglie had already been introduced by her grandmother at the age of five. The difference between the two concepts has been commented upon by the Japanese literary historian Karatani Kijn: the ancient Chinese artist did not look at landscape as an object but as a model of transcendence, whereas for the European artist, the landscape represented a totality of what could be apprehended by an individual with a fixed point of view. “The relationships between all things that can be apprehended from this point of view at one instant in time”, he writes, quoting Usami Keiji from ‘The Despair of Japanese Landscape Painting’, “are determined objectively on a grid of coordinates. These are the laws of perspective which have conditioned the modern visual sensibility.” A subject-object relation is established. The philosophical standpoint which distinguishes between subject and object, Karatani resumes, came into existence within this landscape paradigm.

Developments in painting were paralleled by developments in philosophy. Cartesian philosophy can be seen as a product of the principles of perspective. The subject of Descartes’s cogito ergo sum is confined within the schema established by the conventions of perspective, and the concept of the object of thought as a homogeneous, scientifically measurable entity is an extension of the same principles. Nietzsche claimed that European epistemology itself was an “illusion based on the principles of linear perspective”. Thus, Karatani concludes, the ‘self’, the ‘inner’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘cogito’ in Cartesian philosophy were all based on an inversion of subjectivity. In effect, learning a European concept of landscape could be tantamount to a training in rationality and individualism.

It was around 1973-74 that Shanglie used to listen to the nocturnal discussions between her father (then under house arrest) and his friends about the ideas of Descartes. Shanglie wanted to find out by her self, so discussed Descartes’s philosophy with her friends (it was also an issue at the time among students) and borrowed books. “It was very strange”, she told me, “I read Descartes like being in a theatre, seeing a play going on. That must be me, I thought. When I was reading, I started to think about isolation. I was always so closed.”

Shanglie’s biography in her native country follows the historical trajectory of a new China which had passed through the first revolutionary decade following the establishment of The People’s Republic. She was born in 1958, the year Mao launched The Great Leap Forward; Zhou Enlai had sent her father on a mission to leningrad. The distance between the two cities in the East and the West, Shanghai and Leningrad, that separated her parents at her birth, is inter-twined in her name, Shang-Lie. It was an era during which the politics that aimed at creating equality and welfare in a socialist society did not steer a straight middle course, but vacillated through sudden reversals in a tug-of-war between two main strategies. The more pragmatic one, argued principally by Zhou Enlai, was, from the beginning, connected to the Soviet model and envisioned a step-by-step development on the foundations of technological and economic modernisation. This position was forcefully countered by Mao’s populist ideologies of perpetual revolution and of mobilising the masses for rapid change. The negative outcome of the Great Leap Forward gave the pragmatists power for some years, but the pendulum soon swung back. These continuous reversals left the role of the intellectual in particular open to controversy. Zhou Enlai had argued for the necessity of the Party to unite with the intellectuals, while Mao’s ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom’ campaign at the next turn had proven to be a trap for those who reached out for freedom of speech.

When Shanglie was eight years old, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, his most drastic and, as it proved, most ill-fated ideological mass mobilisation. Overnight, everything changed. What was right? Who was a class enemy? The confusion was total. That is how she remembers it. In school, the teacher divided the pupils into the red, the good ones, who came from working families, and bad ones who like herself were branded ‘black kids’. Much later, she and others who had been in the same situation reflected that the ‘bad’ kids, who were persecuted by the other children, at least at the time had the privilege of rather more freedom of thought because no one expected them to be right-minded.

When her father was arrested, many of his paintings were destroyed and his books from Europe, together with her grandmother’s art collection, were confiscated. Shanglie kept house and helped her grandmother to take care of her brother and sister and children from other intellectual families who had also suffered. Some young people from the Red Guards secretly gave her money for the housekeeping. They were either her father’s students or students of her mother, a teacher in philosophy. In her isolation, she kept to herself and was able to develop her interests, largely due to her closeness to, and support from, her grandmother. When she was twelve years old, she wrote her first poem and made her first accomplished drawings and decided to become an artist. She did not stop drawing and writing poems when, four years later, she was sent to Chongming island, to a conglomerate of eight big state farms in a wild and salty land. Under the hardships shared there with other young people, most of them students, her writing and portrait drawings turned into an underground activity of resistance and solidarity.

While they had been sent to the farms on the pretext of being reeducated, what they encountered on arrival were signboards with slogans telling them that, from now on, they were to spend the rest of their lives as farmworkers. They were urged publicly to confess that this was what they in fact desired. Their dreams as striving young intellectuals were to be eradicated. Shanglie protested: this is not my choice! She was stamped as a troublemaker and was condemned to hard labour. Her drawings and existential poems in defence of their threatened identity elicited a strong response from her fellow-sufferers.

The year 1976 somewhat changed her position. She had saved her twenty-four free days and used them to visit Beijing. While there, she witnessed how, at the death of Zhou Enlai, the town was filled with flowers from a China in mourning. She was not alone in being filled with misgivings by his death. For her, for what she believed in, Zhou Enlai was seen as a protector. For others, he represented equilibrium. Back on the farm, she was approached by several Red Guards serving as leaders, who urged her to tell about what she had seen, without disclosing their own thoughts.

Later on, in the summer, she was allowed to return to Beijing to accompany her grandmother, who had been taken ill, back to Shanghai. They were held up in town by an earthquake. Beijing had by then experienced an open clash between two positions, when citizens, refusing to take off the mourning-bands after Zhou Enlai’s funeral, seized upon the opportunity of a traditional commemoration of dead ancestors to honour his memory at Tiananmen Square. This was in the days of the reign of the Gang of Four. The demonstration, which had been forbidden, ended in bloodshed. When Mao died later in the same year, at the farm they were assembled and told to make paper flowers. But nobody made any comment. Everyone worked in silence.

Two years later, the year Deng Xiaoping came to power, Shanglie was allowed to leave Chongming island and enter the Art and Design Department of Shanghai Light Industry College where she could resume her studies as an artist and also her interest in western art and philosophy. A new era followed in Chinese politics, in which Deng, while forcing the pace of economic modernisation, handled the reverals between liberalisation and party discipline by alternately promoting and demoting advocates of the different factions. While the conditions for intellectuals and artists generally improved during this period, the confusion about their role, produced by continuing political zigzagging, nevertheless remained and deepened. This Indian historian and writer on modern China, Professor Ranbir Vohra, hints that this confusion might have contributed to the Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989.

During her third year at the National Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Shanglie started to experiment with different materials in her installations. She was looking for a more subtle disorder in her work, free, floating on different surfaces, in which she perceived a reflection of her existence in the West. She began, among other things, to use wax, which offered her many new possibilities for displacing representation “towards the mystification of relationship between existence and coincidence”. On leaving the academy, she concentrated on working with wax. It enabled her to take further the dissolution of representation and to play with the clear and the unclear, the implications of sealing and the diffusion produced by semi-transparency. In an installation called Hands, part of her exhibition at the Jacob Jordaenshuis in 1995, she applied photos of hands taken from old Flemish paintings to pieces of sponge or soap. She noted with satisfaction that sometimes air between the wax sealant and the photos added subtlety, an indistinctness between existing and disappearing. In another installation of the same year, which was about memory and consisted of hanging pipes covered with book pages, she combined the effects produced by the wax with pastel colours in order to call forth an impression of “memory like a mist in man’s mental world”.

In two central works from 1996, Oblivion and Echo, she crystallised the repositioning of herself as a transgressing artist. What I personally perceive as characteristic - of her work and perhaps also of the period we live in - is that the transgression does not represent a transfer from one cultural point to another. It does not contain a mish-mash of new acquisitions and bric-a-brac from ‘back home’, as is often the case with diaspora artists. As a ‘positioning’, it could be described rather as purposely getting lost and taking one’s bearings from an unidentified nowhere: a kind of opting-out of the mapped world, which Shanglie, in her former travels in China, often experienced as an exciting act of liberation.

Both Oblivion and Echo deal with questions of identity. Now identity is a notion with numerous facets, some of which have haunted multicultural and transgressional discourses ad nauseam, specifically those aspects connected to ethnic and cultural belonging as well as gender. These are not central to her reflections. What pre-occupies her is the ambiguity and the contradictions contained in the notions, for instance, between difference and sameness, distinction and belonging, or between the need to maintain individual integrity and personality and collective pressures to conform.

In Oblivion, she uses wax as a sculptural material. Eight empty wax heads without facial features are arranged in a circle, facing inwards, whilst the broken faces are scattered on the floor. Where are identities manifested? There are no obvious ethnic characteristics, neither in the heads, which have a kind of ‘sickly’ skin surface texture, nor in the faces, which are produced from the same mould, only slightly stretched and altered. The installation is powerfully suggestive, yet open to different readings - about losing face, circular games of power and mask plays. The artist hints at some reference points by noting that it is about “emptiness and moaning about the fragility of mankind” and also about “paying attention to crossing borders and looking for new exits, although we never can get rid of the historical paths and the cultural shadows of the past”. There have been two paths that have led to this work, she explains: one leading from memories of China, the other from the experience of living elsewhere.

Her ideas and work leading up to the installations most often proceed by a process of questioning, of turning things upside-down and breaking down certainty. She writes down the questions as they emerge, in a kind of diary. In the one accompanying Oblivion, she reflects upon identity. Do I really have my identity? Can I choose it, have I any choice? Why do I need it? In a national or international situation, or in a situation in-between, what is the difference between having and not having my identity? What is your face? We are facing each other without any face. We are fighting each other with the same empty heads.

Among the entries are some that refer to the diaspora experience. “I have had several i.d. cards. You shouldn’t live here because you have another face. You should be watched because you have another face.” Other entries refer to memories from the Cultural Revolution and to how she and others of her generation were distorted by its coercion. “Everybody should live together with same face. Everybody should fight each other with fake face.”

In Echo, she works with several layers of photocopies on red paper and transparent plastic, covered with many layers of wax. The photocopies are taken from familiar, mostly Italian Renaissance portraits, such as the Mona Lisa, Raphael’s Castiglione and Bellini’s Doge Loredan. By taking them out of art history, cutting them up and transforming them, she is able to recreate new images with the pieces, “trying to show the shadows of the past and the struggle of the present and the transformation through time”. Because they are taken from art and from the “museum of imagination”, the faces have acquired a kind of importance, the extreme opposite of                    

anonymity, a dimension that the individuals portrayed could not have been aware of themselves. This accumulation of ‘identity’ is strong enough to prevail even in radical deformations of the image, a power which often frightened the artist when she was manipulating the transparencies.

While Oblivion has a tangibility, in Echo she has brought her search for a more floating complexity to perfection. It is, as she has noted herself in her diary of comments, about replacing and transferring, about deconstruction and about play. And if the shadows represent to her the relation between the past and the present, here, barely perceptible between the layers of wax, one gets the impression that they are physically integrated in the material.

Identity is now condensed to face. But the concept ‘face’ is taken beyond life’s multitude of physiognomies - much as ‘landscape’ was taken out of the overall context of nature - and it opens up to wider reflections. About man and God, “Even God can change his face.” About doubleness. As in two semi-faces combined. “I only show two equal semi-faces... a gap (separation) - bisexual.” Personal life experience is obviously behind Echo, just as it is behind Oblivion. But these ‘behinds’ should rather be conceived of as some coordinates among others in the tentative mapping of a multivalent precipitate of meaning that is also reflected in the process of questioning. In any case, what may have been invested in Echo is, as the artist herself notes, hidden behind clouds. Some of the diary comments read: “You change me, or I change myself. They have been changing us all the time. Destroy me! You cannot get rid of me. I am human now. I am still watching you with my other face.”

In the installation Ubi cumquam umquam from 1996, one could nevertheless talk of a more distinct experience as the main starting point for the work. The installation is constructed as a doorway of hanging envelopes covered with fragments of drawings from her travels in the western world. On the envelopes, one finds the no-place-postage-stamp in Latin which has given the work its title (meaning ‘wherever and whenever’) and understood as the feeling of being a stranger, always and everywhere. It refers back to her experience of shock and alienation when, in 1978, she returned from Chongming

island to the seething city life of Shanghai. She could not recognise herself in it. She refused to feel at ease in the reversal of influence and privileges that was taking place. And she concludes: when you feel like a complete stranger in your native town, then you remain a stranger ubi cumquam umquam.

The first version of this installation, from 1995, was exhibited in Shanghai at an exhibition of artists from Shanghai who were living abroad. In a more or less willfully reversed interpretation in the local press, it was greeted as an expression of homesickness. But when the artist visited Shanghai last summer, for the first time since leaving China, it was with fiercely mixed feelings. It was her home town, the town of family and friends, yet still she felt estranged. This time she was not taken by surprise by the dramatic changes in the town, of which she had been forewarned. Today, Shanghai is a large construction site, exploding with building activity. Now second in the world as a location for international investment, it is being annexed by global economic expansion. She felt estranged, probably because her own aim to be in the world as a transgressing artist is to be understood as a globalism of another kind.

Everlyn Nicodemus

THIRD TEXT nr.37 (winter 1996-1997)