Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Mo Chanlue: Art Education, Damn It!

Last Thursday, the Zendai MoMA provided a lovely and much-needed respite from the drizzly dreariness (of yet another day) of rain. To be perfectly honest, I had absolutely no clue about what to expect upon entering the museum, but as I entered the main gallery space and started reading the exhibition texts, the insatiable humanities nerd in me blossomed in full force.

There were several works which piqued my interests, such as the screen projecting a shot of Velázquez Las Meninas with the artists' mirrored faces looking at the viewer (the artists' and the title's names escape me at the moment). However, I was most drawn to Mo Chaolue's Art Education, Damn It!

In this work, Mo Chaolue, a student at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (GAFA), chronicles the year-long leave of absence he took from GAFA in which he grew out both his hair and fingernails. Mo undertook this venture as both a protest and statement against the inequality of higher education tuition costs (which effectively bar lower-income students, such as Mo himself, from attending such institutions). Documented through framed letters (a formal application he wrote to GAFA requesting a leave and the letter he received approving the application), a series of candid photographs, and the hair and fingernails he grew out during that year--Mo's work stood out to me amongst all of the other works in Zendai for its distinct lack of pretension, for its message, and its subtle questioning about the definition of art and its future.

In Art Education, Damn It!, Mo essentially denies himself that which he hopes to achieve (i.e. an education at GAFA) in order to provide a voice for an otherwise marginalized sector of the art world, that of the poor and non-privileged. In regards to what I mentioned earlier concerning this work's lack of pretension, it might seem as if Mo was mis-appropriating the plight of the poor. However, the statement "Art Education, Damn It!" is not just the rallying cry he carries for the unheard voices who cannot afford higher education--It is also his own demand, a demand he must assert for his own situation.

His work therefore transcends the confines of the gallery into something greater and raises dialogue concerning the function of art as performance, existence, sacrifice, as well as a vehicle for social justice and social action. In terms of sacrifice, Mo's shaved head evoked a monk-like ascetism while his uncut fingernails deprived (or at least severely limited) the use of his hands (arguably the two most invaluable tools for an artist). However, the latter two functions of Mo's work stood out to me as the most profound, as its message of dissent empowers those who would otherwise be voiceless. And as idealistic as it may seem, I hold steadfast to the belief that art education serves as a powerful and efficient impetus for social change, drawing attention to those who would otherwise be neglected by the majority. So here's hoping that Mo's work is indicative of the future wave of art--art that not only inspires, but also impacts the world outside of galleries and museums.

(Here's a link to Social Justice journal's introduction in their issue regarding "Art, Power and Social Change". Most of it relates to articles within that issue, but it contains a few interesting topics concerning topics that Art Education, Damn It! raised about art-as-empowerment, art-as-protest, and about inequality in both the education and art worlds).

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