Image, Narrative and Anti-image

author :

Source :  Original 

Image, Narrative and Anti-image

- Image as Access to Contemporary Art


By He Guiyan                                      


       In the late 1990s, He Wenjue attracted the attention of the art world with his "Water" series. However, the "Water" series, though with a tendency of expressionism, showed strong intellectual atmosphere still to some people, since it involves no clear social subjects, nor has an ideological feature. This understanding resulted from the dominance of three discourses in contemporary painting in the 1990s. One is "Cynical Realism", a ridicule and irony way to cope with reality. Another is "New Art", which takes a "close" way to represent "reality without meaning", thus to detach the grand narrative formed in the mid-1980s. The third is the popularity of "Political Pop" and "Pan-political Pop". Obviously, "Water" series was far away from these three trends. However, the "Water" brought vitality and re-injected lyricism into contemporary painting. The canvas is still and silent, dominated by a distant, deep blue, or clear, bright green tone; a swimmer, calm and at ease with a quite move in the water and ripples. Ever since the "educated urban youth subject" in the early 1980s, lyrical narrative, as an aesthetic orientation, had been excluded by sociological narrative. However, "Water" series, the expression of a personal existence also, went consciously away from the discourse of cynicism and "close range", showing a more personal and free existence.

He Wenjue then began an important diversion in his creation with "Watch Movie" series. Thereafter images became the center of his work, being not only the content, but also the starting point of narrative. We cannot help but think about these questions about "Watch Movie": do the images have their "meta-images"? With what criteria does the artist select the images? What is the logic behind the images? He’s mother worked in a cinema when he was young. Under his mother's influence, he became fascinated by the movies at quite a young age. But as an artist, he must face the question as to how to convert the movie images into paintings. By "Watch Movie" series, we can see the logic behind these images. Some are hard-to-forget pictures imprinted on his personal visual memory standing for his youth experience. Some reflects movies with significant impact, such as "Red Sorghum", "Raise the Red Lantern", etc. While others were directly selected visual scenes from "blockbusters". "Watch Movie" evolved into a grand project and the artist tried to build up a system of film-related images, in which there was his personal visual memory, but also those image slices reflecting the collective memory of a timeline. On the aesthetic orientation, He continued with lyricism in his "Water" series, but meanwhile incorporated classical and aesthetic factors, and in some, also a touch of nostalgia. In terms of image expression, the critics Yu Ding once pointed out, "He Wenjue paid so much attention to the selection for images, which looked as if fill stills, full of lofty sense of Richter type. The characters in the images were dignified like monuments. Obviously, these were coming from different movie images, with a strong narrative, which intensified the power of his works. And this was the most important style in this series of He Wenjue's works.”

In fact, when we look back, we could find that since the invention of photography in 1839, modern Western painting has been keeping much alert on the upcoming age of images. According to Benjamin's later interpretation, what withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the “aura” of the work of art. Meanwhile, the legalization crisis of the "imitation" of the real world by traditional painting became aggravated. Thus, starting from the first generation of impressionist artists, the tradition of imitation and reproduction of the real life by painting, which had lasted for nearly five centuries since the Renaissance, has been gradually given up. The reason was quite simple: the reproduction of the real world was being replaced by photography. To modernism, which has a tradition of nearly a hundred years, modern painting must avoid the representation of the world and separate itself from the imitated object, being so as not to lose the value of its own and not to be swallowed by the time of images. It is with the cultural elitist stance as well as the vigilance against the image production of popular culture industry that modern Western painting, based on the original and personalized form of revolution, though with the hope to build a huge utopian world by means of "self-discipline in form", eventually headed toward anti-image. The reason why Western Modernist painting rejects images is that in essence it rejects the viewing experience of the middle class and the mass. More importantly, in their view, the visual and aesthetic experience of the middle class and the mass is shaped by the culture industry, formed in the age of mechanical reproduction, thus vulgar and cheap. Anti-image went to its end with the rise of "Pop" art in the 1960s. An important feature of it is the use and share of images, which are mass-produced, replicable, sexy and consumable. It was the presence of Pop art that re-legitimized the position of images in the field of painting, and that especially helped those derived from everyday life to gain entry to the work of art.

Strictly speaking, He Wenjue’s painting is not the reproduction of the real world but a translation of movie images, and these images from the very beginning are "second-hand", produced by the culture industry for mass consumption. The reason why "Pop" finally brought legitimacy to images is that it not only followed the logic of art history with its rebuttal against Western abstract expressionism, but also made effort to eliminate the gap between art and life, and that it also benefited from the 1960s, a period of rapid image production and consumption in Europe. In fact, He’s way to make contemporary art by "translating" movie images also benefited from the time of late 1990s, when Chinese society entered the "time of images", which is consisted of a public media network. With the gradual diversification of photographic techniques and the further prosperity of visual culture industry and the Internet, movies, television, photography, painting, advertising, animation, games, multimedia, etc., constitute a powerful visual - image system. Today, some Western theorists tend to use terms as "the society of spectacle," "simulated world" to summarize this information age built upon "visual images". It is this social condition that makes images a possible way of expression and a logic narrative in painting. However, the main method He Wenjue processes the images is "appropriation", that is to say, there is a "meta-image" behind each piece of the "Watch Movie" series, which forms "intertextuality" with painting. Therefore, two core issues must not be ignored if you want to interpret the true meaning of the images behind these paintings. The first issue is that these images originating from movies are produced by the culture industry, mass produced for mass consumption. Therefore, these images and their narratives behind are inevitably constructed by a power discourse and mechanism. However, the mass can only passively receive these images, and in the process become dominated by the discourse without notice. This naturally leads to the second issue: since these paintings are the product of "intertextuality", if the audience has not watched the movie or even does not know which movie the artist is choosing from, then the significance of the painting itself would be incomplete. Therefore He Wenjue has to make a compromise. He has to give some clues, or to form a unique atmosphere on the canvas to guide the audience into the picture, to attract audience to "watch", and to evoke some kind of emotion in them, and in the process, the image plays another role of meaning index.

He Wenjue then made further reflection on the production mechanism of images, the power of discourse, image narration and other issues in his "Daily Images" series, a product of the development of his artistic creation. However, when the Western Frankfurt School was criticizing the mass production of cultural industry, citing the U.S. art critic Greenberg saying the images produced by cultural industry are mostly vulgar and low-level, Debord and Jean Baudrillard understood that a basic feature of Western "society of spectacle" is that images create a fantasy reality, which is far more real than the real reality. In fact, when He Wenjue said goodbye to his “Watch Movie" series, he intended to stay away from "second-hand images". Because movie images and film narrative are dominated by potential power of discourse, and when representing the reality, they are obscuring the reality in the substance. In "Daily Images", the artist became a real image creator, rather than a passive recipient in "Watch Movie" series. The artist began to turn his attention to the real life around himself. These realities are daily, microscopic and fragmental, such as billiards room, operating table, playing mahjong, etc. According to the tradition of socialist realism in the past, those fragments of reality, neither with a subject, nor with certain meaning, are not suitable for a painting. "Daily Images" reflects exactly such an effort to question the visual system in which the image production is under the control of the power of discourse. On the contrary, it demonstrates that everyone can be an image maker in a visual age, and that production is a civilian and daily matter. From this perspective, the disenchantment of image is made possible. However, it is somehow a paradox that when the artist becomes a producer and coder of the images, there lurks a tendency of anti-image in "Daily Images". Of course, this "anti-image" is different from the "anti-image" in the history of Western Modernism. In "Daily Images" series, the nature of the anti-image comes from the "destruction" of the finished painting or the complete image effect by the artist when the creation comes to an end. Those various traces left by the drawknife seem to have dual roles: on the one hand showing the artist's fascination with the paintings and his exploration of new languages ​​and techniques; while the other is to make the picture appear to be incomplete and even broken, so as to set up a barrier to the audience. If we say in "Watch Movie" series, the artist is to try to lead the audience into the pictures and get them influenced by the emotion in them, then, the "destruction" in "Daily Images" is intended to obstruct the viewers from smooth viewing. In a nutshell, "Daily Images" generates an anti-grand-narrative image, but also tries to build a "meaning without meaning". It is questioning the existing image generation mechanism, and also keeping alert on the authenticity of the images.



He Guiyan

Wangjing Dongyuan

June 6, 2014