Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hip-Hop-Visual Arts Interdisciplarity and Pop Culture by Graham Bannon

Graham Bannon

Contemporary Art and New Media in China

Defne Ayas & Zhao Chuan

4 June 2009

Hip-Hop-Visual Arts Interdisciplarity and Pop Culture

The contemporary visual arts scene in China has recently begun to
delve into hip-hop as a new means of exploration and expression. Two
aspects of hip-hop that are so appealing are its relation to popular
culture and its subsequent status as a symbol of globalization. By
using hip-hop in conjunction with visual arts, artists have been able
to create works that are uniquely situated to comment of the state of
pop culture and globalization and their effects on modern Chinese
society, with a heavy focus on the advent of capitalism in China

Before we delve further into the connection established with popular
culture in the binding of the fields of visual arts and hip-hop, it is
important that we have an academic and philosophical grounding in what
exactly pop culture is and means. This grounding will allow us the
understanding to form the basis of what the visual arts world attempts
through interdisciplinarity. Specifically, pop culture's relationship
with society and forms of mass culture must be developed.

The theorist Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their essay "The
Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," examine the
relation of popular thought with those objects of mass production-
oriented media. The two particularly dive into the concept of the
system of media and culture as a facet of the constant reproduction of
the capitalist cycle. What is worthwhile to our study here is their
analyses of the language and logical confines of this system and its
supposed manifestations in the public. A key concept to Adorno and
Horkheimer is how language and images have become tools used in such a
way as to effectively negate thought, serving only the endless
reproduction of society in a pre-fabricated mold while eroding the
possibility of intellectual exploration and creativity. It is such a
system of simultaneous subtlety and self-imposition by the same
population it seeks to chain, that, remark the two: it is "more
binding than" any "official rules and prohibitions" (47).

This is a concern that has begun to rear its head in Chinese society
as a more Western influence creeps in. Following the Cultural
Revolution and the domination of Soviet realism, the trend of Pop Art
began to take hold in various art circles throughout China. From the
1990's, Lee Shan's Rogue series and Yu Youhan's Mao series presented
those sacred images of the Cultural Revolution (Mao's portrait, for
example) in an irreverent and light-hearted tone. The pieces, with
their grounding in the hyper-politicized past of China, juxtapose the
images of Cultural Revolution China against the modern depoliticized
world of the increasingly capitalized China.

However, the works, with their appropriation of pop cultural images,
instead began to signify only that China had moved from the cult of
Mao to the cult of the RMB. With artists beginning to be accused – by
organizations as prominent as Forbes – of factory style production of
art for Western buyers ("Forbes Calls Chinese Contemporary Art a
Scam"), the credibility of the Chinese contemporary art scene was
called into question. These works, to Adorno and Horkheimer, signified
a growing social trend in which "developments are to emerge from the
directly preceding situation, not from the idea as a whole" (52).
Development is taken piece-by-piece, moment-by-moment, fractured and
meaningless with no relation back to a greater picture from which to
draw an understanding. Explains Kenneth Thompson in "Social Pluralism
and Post-Modernity," a study of post-modern thought:

If the links 'between the sequential chain of words' become unstable
and the sequence disjointed, then there will be a fragmentation of
meaning, manifested in an inability to think things through…Experience
is reduced to a series of unrelated presences in time and the
experience of present becomes overwhelmingly vivid (570).

This trend, to some, proved the flaws in much of the art world and the
pop-art movement of the 1990's. The works lost meaning as pieces
themselves that said anything and became instead merely empty attempts
to cash in on the current trend. This focus on the present – the over
eagerness of Western buyers – was heavily blamed in the bursting of
the art market bubble ("How the Contemporary Art Bubble Burst").
Several artists began to explore new approaches, such as Lu Xun who
began to experiment with installation pieces, or Cao Fei, emblematic
of the younger generation of artists who have begun to develop the
digital world they were raised in into their art.

What is it specifically about their concept of the language of culture
that abstraction can gain such a stranglehold over reality? To Adorno
and Horkheimer, cultural language (of which visual art is a part of)
operates within a superficial history of prior neural connections. The
meaning of words and images, the direction of thought – or the
subsequent logic of thought – is predefined along a set path cast by
an understanding of popular culture. The language has become merely
associative. It relies not on the meaning of what is presented, but
instead places that object, that meaning, in relation to some other
thing. As opposed to finding meaning through that other, its physical
from is supposed to act as a substitute for deeper understanding, for
actually any meaning. Here is, as described earlier, the equivalent
nature of language; all words can thus theoretically become equal, as
the associative reference is empty and meaningless. Cultural language
has become a second order semiological system with anything being
understood only in relation to some other representation of itself
(one which is wholly understood; its analysis already completed and it
is taken as a whole); the whole is understood only in relation to some
particular and the particular is only understood in relation to mass
culture, "crushing equally the whole and the parts" (45).

Hip-hop in China has the unique characteristic of, not
only straddling but also resting firmly in, both the realms of
mainstream mass culture and an independent experimental culture. The
distinction can be made between the two dominant sides of the hip-hop
world: the mainstream pop culture hip-hop found often in clubs and the
radio; and "underground hip-hop," a scene which is focused less on
mass recognition and more on the value of the artist as an
independent, creative, and experimental source. In many ways, the
entrance of artists usually associated with the visual arts world into
hip-hop culture is an attempt to escape the confines and influence of
galleries by working with independent experimental hip-hop artists.
The relationship can cover the range from: using hip-hop music as a
soundtrack to video works ("Wait Us Rich" by Wu Junyang), creating
performance pieces in which the art and hip-hop are more unified into
a single entity ("Hip-hop" by Cao Fei), and visual design works (i.e.
flyers, album covers, advertisements).

Mainstream, or "club hip-hop" (as its main platform
comes from clubs), holds with it the associations of the Western
American culture from which it comes (almost all "club hip-hop" is
American produced), speaking of wealth, modernization, and
globalization. "Club hip-hop" is comfortable in its role as a
commodity; it's audience as consumers of its production. In fact, this
form of hip-hop is dependent on a form of self-reproduction and
planned obsolescence exemplified by the field of DJing and "song-
mixes" (the reworking of songs with different beats and computerized
editing). DJ V-nutz, also known as Gary Wong, a two-time DMC China
champion, believes that pop culture appropriation in China is
prevalent, linked to a desire to be associated with the wealth and
status of the West:

So music scene is about pop music scene 99 percent. Even hip-hop you
can find a lot of club play hip hop but its Chinese people treating
hip hop as a pop culture…But Chinese people love pop culture. So no
matter what kind of new things come into china they will find a way to
make popular as soon as possible.

Works such as Wu Junyong's "Wait Us Rich" are full of
commentary on aspects of consumerist hip-hop, utilizing the stylistic
motif of "clone" images, in works such as "Parade":

[A] magical, mesmerizing continuum a character and its clones traverse
the scene variously losing their faces in sudden glutinous drops,
digging and cultivating the brain of a leviathan or simply bobbing
along playing their drums ("Wu Junyong: The Sky Has A Mouth").

Other examples such as this still from "Wait Us Rich" also play to
this idea, albeit in a slightly cruder fashion, the clone-like figures
literarily defecting money, a visual

representation of the waste involved in the process and to point to
the sameness created by turning art into a universal equivalent: here
shown to be money.

"Wait Us Rich." Artist Wu Junyong, 2005. ("Wu Junyong: The Sky Has A

In this regard, visual artists are given a medium whose
very structure is a means of expressing many of the growing issues
raised by increased capitalism and globalization. The introduction of
large sums of wealth into China over the past decades is reflected in
the opulent culture existing around mainstream hip-hop, in which
spending on luxury items (the so called "bling bling") is regarded as
the ultimate fulfillment. Mainstream hip-hop's connection with
expensive jewelry and brands such as Cadillac and Crystal Champaign
are examples. With luxury being centered on a preconceived Western
notion, the artwork tends towards the belief in a global sameness, a
loss of diversity into a universal culture. The use of hip-hop here
can be still further examined in the technical nature of the musical
genre, one in which the sound "loop" (a segment of sound connected in
a loop so as to have the sound constantly repeated as desired) plays a
large role. The sound loop, with its basic nature as a repeated copy,
something not in itself unique, provides a simple example. This idea
of a loss of diversity is mirrored in the advent of a universal
sameness of economics, with China's centrally planned economy
devolving into the private market capitalism of the same Western
culture from which the musical style originates.

This cultural language, argue Adorno and Horkheimer, acts on a subtle
level, promoting a specific "alertness" to its contours "so ingrained
that it does not even need to be activated" – it is entirely
automatic, drawing you in without your approval or even knowledge so
that it "can be alertly consumed even in a state of distraction" (45).
Every image or word, by being in reference to some other, by its very
nature acts to reproduce the system and bypass thought; the reference
is activated before the meaning of the word and before any analysis
can kick in, the fleeting character of modern media language has
darted off once again to some new, unconnected situation.

This analysis of the pop cultural elements of hip-hop is one that has
attracted several visual artists to try and examine how this plays
into the everyday lives of people. Wu's work "Wait Us Rich"
sarcastically uses several images that work to automatically call up
ideas of middle class life and consumption (a house, a garage, three
cars), along with a hip-hop track (the associations here being the
glorification of luxury consumption), but acts to cut off the
associations of the positive aspects of consumption by inserting in
direct references to waste and greed, hoping to create new references
or at least, to stop the automatic process and force the viewer to
step back for a moment as reevaluate the situation.

"Underground hip-hop" attempts to remove itself from the
capitalist cycle of reproduction by valuing the independence of the
artist. Wang, speaking on his time as a free lance DJ, sums up this
sentiment: "I'm pretty stubborn to play what I like to play. If the
place didn't allow me to play the stuff I like to play I would never
stay there" (Wang). It is this sentiment exactly that appeals to many
in the visual arts world.

Wang founded the Lab, a non-profit DJ studio for public
use in Shanghai in order to lay some foundations of support for
independent artists creating their own art. Speaking on the
development of the independent scene in Shanghai, Wang elaborates,
"the scene is not that good, that's why you have the opportunity to
build something new here… build something cultural" (Wang). The Lab
operates hand in hand with the bar Shelter, also owned by Wang. Wang
uses Shelter similar to an independent gallery, offering performance
time to promising DJ's from the Lab.

The underground hip-hop world here, based on its
undeveloped status, allows a figurative tabula rasa for artists to
create as they like. The community provides a haven also for
interdisciplinarity, rooted in a culture that transcends purely music.
The Lab's main room, for example, is dominated by a huge (10x5 foot)
chalk on blackboard art piece created by musician and artist Cut
Chemist; while the hallways are adorned with elaborate and colorful
graffiti by local artists. Says Wang, "music is really street
cultural, t-shirts, sneakers all relate together" (Wang). Wang also
plans on opening a boutique in which to sell clothing with designs and
designed by local artists. Shelter too has been used to involve the
visual arts world, such as the May collaborative effort with art
students from New York University's Shanghai study abroad program,
hosted an art auction during a fund-raiser for the 2008 Sichuan

Other venues in Shanghai supporting independent hip-hop
also produce collaborative media works with local visual artists.
These flyers from the bar Logo

are works produced in conjunction between the performing musicians and
visual artists. The flyers use elements of digital design,
photography, ink, and painting – art appropriated for use outside of
the gallery circuit.

That consumerism itself becomes a driving force behind
the independent hip-hop scene is not necessarily contradictory, as the
"independent" scene is ultimately dependent upon the larger mainstream
scene so as to stand in contradiction to. Adorno and Horkheimer take
the view that the result of all of this is a "permanent compulsion to
produce new effects which yet remain bound to the old schema…merely
increase[ing] the power of the tradition which the individual seeks to
escape" (46). It is a system with the appearance of being healthy and
able-bodied, capable of producing thought, yet it can only act to re-
produce, bounding those who use it by "proving" all that it produces
that is new is merely part of the old. So while the independent hip-
hop scene appears to attempt to provide artists a haven outside of the
moving wheels of economics, the ultimate affect is to become an agent
of advanced capitalism, a narrow-casted niche marketing movement able
to more effectively home in to specific demographics than does the
behemoth of "mainstream" culture.

Another feature that hip-hop provides the visual arts
world with is its uniquely socially minded voice. Author Todd Boyd
writes, from "his book The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and
the Reign of Hip Hop, 'Hip hop is inherently political, the language
is political. It uses language as a weapon -- not a weapon to violate
or to offend, but a weapon that pushes the envelope, that provokes
people, makes people think'" (Hip Hop 6). Hip-hop acts from the early
1990's (such as Jurassic 5, A tribe called Quest, or De La Sol)
established the music form as one of socially conscious lyrics,
reflecting the quality of life in inner city environments, addressing
poverty, drugs, violence, and other social, economic, and political

When contemporary artists in China began to examine the
world of hip-hop, they found that these same themes could be
transferred into their works. Cao Fei, on describing her work "Hip-
Hop" states,

[t]he Hip-Hop project is about giving a street-created form the most
relevant interpretation through the movements of common people, to let
it go back to the streets, to people, to the inquiry and questioning
of reality. Pop culture is not my goal, it is rather a bridge. It can
reach many questions outside itself. It lets outsiders get inside
while allowing the insiders to know the outside. It smoothes the way
between the superficial look and truth of an issue (Hip Hop 8).

The work Hip-Hop, Cao Fei's second solo exhibition, is a series of
three videos in which Cao Fei presents ordinary people from the
streets of Guangzhou, China; Fukuoka, Japan; and Chinatown, New York
City, USA dancing to hip-hop music. Presented by Lombard-Freid
Projects, the works description sates:

Hip-Hop Guangzhou is projected on a bed sheet hanging on a laundry
line amidst towels and underwear; Hip-Hop Chinatown appears on a
fallen over Chinese restaurant banquet table surrounded by Chinese
steam baskets and kitchen utensils spread out in disarray; Hip-Hop
Fukuoka is projected on a Japanese hanging doorway complete with
oriental kite fish and printed curtains (Hip Hop 4).

The means of presentation itself is an important part of the work, the
aesthetics recreating an image of poverty that persists many of the
communities in which Cao Fei filmed.

The works are centered on musical collaborations with the artists DJ
Osho from Japan and Notorious MSG from New York City. While utilizing
the associative elements of hip-hop and social activism, the use of
the music also interestingly makes a subtle comment of the state of
globalization. A wall text from Tokyo's Mori Art Museum "argued for
the works as proof of Chinese people's fundamental Chineseness: The
dancers in the videos attempt to get down, only to find that they
inadvertently move to the inherited rhythms of traditional
taijiquan" (Tinari 5). In this context, one of hip-hop's major
elements is its globalized nature, travelling in its musical
development from Africa to the United States to Japan and Asia.
However, while sharing its thematic elements across the board, the
appropriation of hip-hop – and thus, the work seems to be saying, of a
universal global culture – by each unique culture is different.

Visual art's interdisciplinary connection with hip-hop
has allowed a new path to examine the changing nature of Chinese life
and society while escaping staid forms that evolved out of the initial
opening of the Chinese economy but have since lost part of their
meaning. This interdisciplinarity has overall allowed artists new
forms of examining pop culture while adapting to the changing
paradigms of the modern world.

Adorno, Theodore W.; Max Horkheimer. "The Culture Industry:
Enlightenment as Mass Deception. Media and Cultural Studies. Ed.
Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Keller. Blackwell Publishing. 2006

"Forbes Calls Chinese Contemporary Art a Scam." Art Market Monitor.

"Hip Hop." Chelsea Art Gallery. June 2009.

"How the contemporary art bubble burst." Timesonline. June 2009.

Stills from "Hip Hop Guangzhou." Global Heart Me. June 2009.

"Still from 'Wait Us Rich.'" Chinese Contemporary. June 2009.

Tinari, Philip. "Hip Hop Humans: On The Streets Of Chinatown
International With Cao Fei." Alternate Archive. June 2009.

Wang, Gary. Personal interview. May, 2009

"Wu Junyong: The Sky Has A Mouth." Chinese Contemporary. June 2009.

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