Sunday, November 16, 2008

Exquisite Corpse at m97

The exquisite corpse, both an intriguing concept and combination of words, provides the idea that informs the exhibition of the same name currently at m97 Gallery. For those unfamiliar with the game of Exquisite Corpse or the ideology behind it, below I quote the curator’s statement:

“The Exquisite Corpse game began in France in 1925 around a table of poets and artists. In this improvisational game a player would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to cover part of it, and pass it on to the next player for their contribution. “The exquisite/corpse/will drink/the young/wine” was the poetic result of the first round played and hence the game’s name was born. While many initially condemned it as a frivolous game, others were quick to praise its significance for illuminating what Nicolas Calas deemed as the "unconscious reality in the personality of the group" or the group’s collective subconscious. Max Ernst identified these subconscious outcomes as the result of the process called "mental contagion." The game was quickly adapted to the visual realm of drawing and collage by assigning a section of the human body for each player to imagine.”

More familiar to most young people today is probably the visual version of the game, which I remember being played during math or science class, as it was easy to covertly pass a strip of folded paper to a nearby classmate. I’m not sure how much the game tapped into the subconscious of ten-year-old minds; we, however, found it thoroughly amusing to see the head of an alien on the body of a horse with the feet of a ballet dancer.
The intellectual, more ideological side to the game (I suppose it should henceforth be referred to as an “exercise”, not a game) is something I had never really considered before. The name alone, exquisite corpse, lends a mysterious tone of 19th century thought (at least in my mind). The combination of exquisite, evoking something extremely beautiful and delicate, and corpse, perhaps suggesting something not so much delicate as vulgar, together create something elegantly macabre, like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. This combination is not thoroughly paradoxical though, and it reminds us that even the most unlikely pairs can work in harmony under the right circumstances.

Just as paradoxical is the word that might come to mind when hearing the term exquisite corpse, I have realized that many people also think of contemporary China as paradoxical. Cities in China are paradoxical. Take Beijing as an example. Beijing, the imperial city, is the pride and joy China, home of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and numerous famous temples. However, the Chinese are quick to forget about that history in the name of upward mobility. One of aspect of Beijing culture that doesn’t involve emperors but common people, is the style of neighborhood construct known as the hutong. Anyone who has been to Beijing, or seen older photographs of Beijing can visualize these low, curving blocks of houses divided by narrow, swooping alleyways. They are the epitome of the word community, as most people not only live in them but work nearby, and there are many people living in close proximity (which I imagine doesn’t lend itself too much privacy). However, in the wake of the recent Beijing Olympics, the government was all too quick to destroy much of this housing, early versions of which date back to the 13th century or so. About 15% of Beijing’s hutongs have been maintained for tourist purposes only. The paradox here is as follows: China takes a certain pride in its history, however, it fails to realize the value of such a structure that not so long ago dominated the city. The Beijing government wants the city to appear modern and prosperous, and decided to do so by destroying anything that wasn’t super modern, lest a Westerner’s conception of China actually be accurate. However, what people want to see when coming to China is, in fact, China. I can see incredibly modern buildings in New York, saving myself the 22-hour flight and visa application process. When I am in China, however, I would like to feel as though I am actually on a different continent. That said, there are definitely benefits to a modernized China, most of which are too complex and great to go into here. However, what China fails to achieve is balance, that harmonious blend between Eastern and Western (often things in China are dramatically polar, Eastern or Western, modern or ancient). More and more often, in dialogue about contemporary Chinese society some kind of binary will arise. As China grapples with its rich history and its desperate hunger to catapult itself into a future of modernity and prosperity, it remains caught up in (and set back by) much of its past.

To relate this back to the exhibition at m97 and the principle of exquisite corpse, I will reference Hong Lei’s photograph entitled “I Dreamt I was Hanging Upside Down While Listening to Emperor Song Hui Zong Playing Guqin with Chairman Mao” (2004). The photograph is a montage of bizarre images that cause a few double takes. The photograph depicts the following in a barren field: a man dressed in imperial clothing seated under a tree, apparently Emperor Song Hui Zong, playing the traditional Chinese instrument guqin. To his right sits a somewhat disproportionate Mao Zedong, whose profile is not entirely clear at first glance, but whose haircut is unmistakable. The ground is not only barren but appears to be the kind of overworked, nutrient-free soil so dry that the ground cracks and crumbles under foot. It is enhanced with obviously digital, copy-and-pasted emerald green shrubbery. To the left of the Emperor, looking more digitally imposed on the scene than either of his historical counterparts, is the artist, feet bound in rope, hanging upside down from an unseen source. A chair identical to the Chairman’s sits below the hanging man, suggesting that he was previously seated for the Emperor’s performance. Above the horizon line floats a small explosion, surrounded by the heavenly glow usually associated with the father of China, Mao Zedong. This photograph is almost an exquisite corpse game on the subject of Chinese history, juxtaposing several elements of Chinese politics and society from different eras. The way I see it, three eras are represented: the golden age of China’s dynastic years, the formation of the PRC and the Cultural Revolution, and the present. The artist chooses himself to represent the present, which I admire, as he is admitting that he can only speak for himself. Though the sentiments he expresses might be shared, but ultimately they are of his own opinion. And his opinion is clear- whether he his suggesting suicide by hanging (though he dangles from his feet, probably more torturous than suicidal) or he is simply evoking the feeling of blood rushing to one’s head from hanging upside down, the feeling isn’t good. His arms dangle at an unnatural 90-degree angle, and if he is turned right side up he appears to be putting his arms up in surrender. Is he surrendering himself to history, to China’s inescapable past (both the good and the bad) or is he surrendering himself to the future? Or do both just make him want to hang himself? There is a wide realm of interpretation in this photograph, much of it depending on how you view contemporary China. Physically, the emperor is entertaining Chairman Mao, not as a host but as a bard. I think this use of classical Chinese imagery suggests the employment of sacred Chinese history and culture as commodity, something that is prided in on the surface yet really exploited in the name of money. I get the feeling that, like Mao Zedong, contemporary China would rather forget the history that it somehow can’t escape. It seems as though China has jumped from ancient times to hypermodernity, which accounts for many of its current issues of identity. Mao sitting there, politely listening to classical Chinese music is akin to snap-happy tourists gawking at underdeveloped parts of old Shanghai or buying qipaos to take home to Florida. They are tokens of a bygone era, yet they are inextricable symbols of China, past and present. Symbols that China paradoxically seems equally eager to embrace and escape.

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