Saturday, December 18, 2010



Noor Chadha & Mikael Larsson
Contemporary Art & New Media
Fall 2010

It Snows in Shanghai
It is currently zero degrees Celsius outside and delicate flakes of white are floating down to the earth, frosting Shanghai over in a soft layer of white – a sight one would never have fathomed in the unbearable heat of Shanghai summers.
Both Shanghai’s art scene and the city itself have been developing at a rapid pace, emerging at break-neck speed from a time where any true creativity was suppressed or re-tailored into what the government deemed appropriate for the public. As this evolution has picked up momentum fairly recently, especially in the past couple of decades, the intrinsic method of what should and should not be emphasized in China’s cultural atmosphere has also been constantly shifting. This fall in Contemporary Art and New Media, via in-class lectures, documentaries, artist interviews, site visits to various commercial galleries, independent exhibitions, museums, and simply through our own general observations and experiences living in Shanghai over this past semester, we have found that for Shanghai, this past century has been a constant battle of writing and re-writing history. How do we deal with the past? Who determines history? What stays, what goes? What will be remembered and what will be forgotten? What is the relationship between history and value and what significance does the past have for the present? Does “true” objective past even exist?
In response to these questions, we initiated an on-going artwork that mirrors the layering that has been taking place in Shanghai and will continue to shape the future history of the city.

The Premise
On a 40” x 47” using acrylics and a 4-inch wide brush as their only weapon of choice, Mikael and Noor embarked on a journey of creation and destruction, ownership and censorship under the title Layercake. A game of drunken dice decided that Mikael would create the first layer of the work keeping the following five rules in mind:

一 Only one artist may be active on each layer. (both conceptually and technically)
二 The artists cannot communicate with each other during the process of creating a layer.
三 Only the active artist may decide what to keep and what to dispose of from the previous layer of the canvas.
四 Only the predetermined tools may be utilized.
五 Once a single layer is complete, the other artist takes over.

Holding these rules intact throughout the process of the artwork, Mikael and Noor initiated Layercake, taking turns at separately shaping the artwork, layer by layer.

Our interest in starting a project like this was sparked by the 2010 Shanghai Biennale and a couple specific artworks within the exhibition. The theme for this year’s Biennale was Rehearsal, the concept that the final product of an artistic process is not necessarily the most important – that within every stage there is substance and in some cases, the “rehearsal” stages may be even more essential than the final artwork. In one of the rooms, there was no “artwork” as such, but an actual studio of the artist Ma Leon. This focus on process rather than product encouraged us to dispel ideas that the actual painting we have been creating together is what is important but the concept and entire process is what the work is all about: that meaning is brought out by the actual evolution, destruction, and reworking of each layer.
In the biennale, Qiu Zhijie’s work “Qiu’s notes on Colorful Lantern at Shangyuan Festival” and a layered painting piece by Liu Xiaodong especially caught our eye and got us to start thinking about how to deal with the past: ideology, traditions, history, and got us to start thinking in layers.

Writing and Re-writing History
In the process of Shanghai’s rapid evolution, several layers of Shanghai’s history are constantly being visually wiped out. The 2010 World Expo center with its pavilions represent the future the Government wants to keep, while the previous inhabitants of the site are now relocated and have had their dwellings and personal history with the site, removed. Now that the Expo has come to a close, the pavilions are once again going to destroyed – the only pavilion left standing as a reminder of what took place on the site will be the China pavilion.
The area of Xintiandi is another example of destruction and recreation as most of the area’s original inhabitants have been completely relocated, their humble neighborhoods that initially characterized old Shanghai completely revamped into a hip modern area with skyrocketing real estate prices. Only one original street has been kept, but changed into something luxurious, far from its previous history. The Urban Planning museum presents this “old” street as an achievement of the Shanghai government – a tribute to their effort of preserving older aspects of the city.
Yet again, someone has to make a decision of what will be kept on ever site, what history and culture will remain for future generations. In history class we have been taught how the Chinese Governments attempts to recreate and mold history to suit their own agenda and goals happen often. Mao might be placed in situations he actually never attended, and the yellow river is painted out to seem as the origin of the Chinese population. (Professor Andrew Fields)
In Layercake with each layer being painted, history is changed and molded into the current artist’s ideal of present. The idea “winners write the history” and the concept of censorship and ownership heavily influencing each following layer.
Utilizing Censorship to Present an Image
Through the vessel of art, we are constantly making and unmaking history, evaluating and reevaluating every aspect of life as we know it. By looking to the past by visual representation, the values of any one time period are made more apparent as a whole but the truth is, we are only able to learn about the past from what there is left of any specific time period in terms of artifacts and literature. Destroy the evidence, and no one will ever know it happened. Hide the evidence, and only few will find out.
One of our first site visits was to the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. Because times have changed, the once public posters are now situated in the basement of a completely nondescript residential compound in Shanghai as to stay below the current government’s radar. The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre is one of the only venues in Shanghai where these rare political posters are on display. Nonetheless, this instance of censorship in the form of lacking presence demonstrates the way in which the government has utilized censorship to force the posters into having a minimal role in representing China’s history to the masses.
The Chinese propaganda posters were serving the purpose of building a future empire by instilling very specific concepts and images into the people’s minds. China has always placed importance in patriotism, controlling the image of the country, and keeping it’s people ideologically in line. In this moment of strong political zeal, the propaganda posters served the role of CNN or Fox at the time, communicating the incumbent regime’s ideology to the masses through text and art of the posters. The posters’ lack presence in modern shanghai because perhaps the government no longer wants to show those messages to the current public.
In Layercake, we also had first-hand experience at deciding what should and should not be seen. Each layer of the piece had a specific intention which was born in each artist’s head but the only the next artist had the power to decide the fate of the previous artist’s vision. In certain instances, much like the propaganda poster situation, parts of previous layers remained faintly visible in newer layers. For example, the portrait of Mao in Layer No. 2 remained faded in the sunset of Layer No. 3 and even more covered up, almost unrecognizably so, in Layer No. 4. On the other hand, the incomplete star of Layer No. 1 was immediately and opaquely covered up by Layer No. 2, no longer physically existing but only existing in the records of the work.

On Limitations & Censorship
We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity of talking with artists Li Mu, Gao Ming Yan, and Jin Shan on this very topic and found that each artist has a different response to censorship. Jin Shan felt that it is difficult for ideas to improve or for an artist to make progress when working within a limited system and that government censorship generally has a negative impact on the authenticity of artworks because certain artists begin to self-censor their work so that the work will not be censored later on in the system. On the other hand, Gao Mingyan feels that freedom is not always a good thing and that too much freedom, the type of which he has encountered in exhibitions overseas, is in fact a bad thing. For him, censorship and limitations force him to use a higher language of art to surpass the system. The inward pressure makes his body want to explode with ideas whereas he feels if there were no limitations, no pressure, his work would have less meaning.
Our five self-imposed limitations on Layercake were both disablers and enablers. The large nature of the brush forced both of us to focus on the bigger picture rather than get carried away in details of the work. It also forced us to think around the brush and figure out ways to force the brush into creating our individual visions. The fact that we were not allowed to communicate with each other during the process of the work also turned out to be much more of an enabler rather than a limitation because this rule insured that each layer was purely the creation of a single mind rather than a collaboration between two artists. We feel this more accurately mirrored what has been happening in Shanghai in terms of the government’s limitations on artists from the early 80’s onwards.

Ownership and Collectives
Layercake also forced us to take a closer look at what it means to be in a collective and how when working in collaboration with another artist, ownership of an artwork shifts as the artwork itself evolves. The collective of Li Mu, Gao Mingyan, and Jin Shan agreed that final ownership is a bit of a touchy subject when it comes to working together because an idea can always only be traced back to the mind of a single person but in the end, the credit goes to the whole group. Moreover, individual identity is intrinsically compromised when working in collaboration with others, because as ideas and art styles merge, identities merge as well.
In a way, our rule of not communicating with each other during the actual creation of the work allowed us to hold on to our individual identity more so than if we were completely merging artistic styles. However, the piece Layercake is not about the individual layers but about the layering process itself and in that sense, we are presenting this project together as a partnership and not as individuals. We feel that within Layercake we found a good balance of individuality and ownership by holding on to our individual styles and visions while creating a coherent conceptual project together.

Layer No. 1 – Mikael

The incomplete yellow star and bright red background represents the beginning. How Chinas art world is still in its cradle and far from having found its own clear identity. It is a representation of the insecure strokes in the early stages of shaping history.

Layer No. 2 – Noor

All that remains from the previous layer is the trademark red color that characterizes China. A stern young Mao overlooks China’s many layers both future and past as a spirit that has left the body.

Note: 靈魂出竅 - ling hun chu qiao – the spirit has left the shelter/soul has left the body
Layer No. 3 – Mikael

Mao still slightly present in the background, yet a new dawn is upon Shanghai and China. The rising skyline of Pudong and the Suns rays shine on the new. Although the past is still present, New China is shooting out of the ground with all the optimism it brings.

Layer No. 4 – Noor

The Shanghai sky darkens towards night when the city comes alive with neon lights and skyscrapers reaching for the moon and the few stars in the bright city sky. The overarching figure of Mao fades further into obscurity.

流星趕月- liu xing gan yue – a meteor catching up to the moon
Layercake Today

New York University in Shanghai has kindly accepted to keep Layercake on display while the artist’s are out of the country. You may visit Layercake today at the NYU Academic Center in the ECNU Science building.


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