Guan Xiao





    • Rhythm Of Singularity | Lai Fei

      To be honest, I don’t know how Guan Xiao does it. Looking at the ways she grabs and synthesizes materials in her work, it’s a bit like watching a contestant on The Brain1 microscopically examining a thousand goldfish. This isn’t a totally apt analogy, for today it’s nearly impossible to quantify—and to describe, even—just how much visual information we receive on a daily basis, via networks both  visible and intangible. In this imploding society, everyone is caught in the constant flow of data, always susceptible to some form of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. What makes Guan’s work unique is her ability to maintain an extremely high level of concentration while pulling content and motifs from    the massive material bank of the internet. In her process, she stays true to an internal worldview that is neither culturally specific nor general. In this dazzling world of data, she finds her own “basic logic” to connect forms.


      Guan Xiao works mainly in sculpture and video. For her, these two ways of working depart from  polar ends but somehow always meet in the middle. Essentially, her work is about how she understands    the world that surrounds her. Whatever medium it may be, she conveys her worldview by weaving myriads of readymade materials and motifs. Seen in this light, Guan’s way of working isn’t as different from    an old-school artist’s studio practice as her background might suggest (she entered the art world through     a self-enabling engagement outside the conventional academic systems, and describes herself as self- taught), the only caveat being that her paint might be downloaded from the internet. It is probably only natural that her work mirrors the appearance of the online world, as the internet has become the main repository of information for most of us on the planet, and by extension a default source of materials for Guan. Still, her art is by no means a commentary on the platform or tool itself. She is not particularly interested in the discourse surrounding media or technology. Her focus is rather on the universal process   of human cognition in the context of information implosion, which  she  draws  attention  to  through internet imagery and readymade motifs. In fact, much like the writer Kevin Kelly, she likens the internet    to our “raw awareness,” “the fact that our awareness has never been fixed since it is always encountering something else. That’s very much like the experience of browsing online.”


      Guan Xiao’s three-channel video work Cognitive Shape (2013) is a rigorous illustration of her own cognitive process in an overly saturated world of images, as well as her first attempt at using a  visual structure of images and symbols to give shape to cognition. She samples some 30 clips from her massive video database comprised of over a thousand clips. Taken from varied sources like YouTube,Vimeo, satellite TV, and DVDs, the found footage is interwoven with her own performance for the camera, narrating rather abstractly the formation of her internal worldview. At one moment in the video,  a glamorous shot of an automobile interior, the stamen of a flower, and prosthetic limbs on rotation are juxtaposed, flattened, and equalized on the screen, accompanied by Guan’s soft narration: “concentration, no matter what you concentrate on, as long as you concentrate.” The three heterogeneous elements  are stripped of their original context, each gaining a new singularity on the flat surface of the screen. Any dialectical distinction between artificial and natural, living and non-living, becomes irrelevant.

      The openness and flattening quality of the internet also provide footnotes to Guan Xiao’s dialec-

      tics on the old and new. In her 2012 installation The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture, she devises  an installation structure that emphatically calls attention to our ways of seeing in a media-inundat-       ed moment. Ancient motifs and sleek technofetishistic forms appear together in what seems like a

      photography studio from the future. In front of three brightly colored, snakeskin-patterned camouflage backdrops, a heterogeneous range of items with ambiguous cultural and historical backgrounds are    placed: tripods, totem poles composed of stacked-up camera lenses, sculptural objects by way of muse-    um artifacts. Pointing out the commonality between forms and the indistinguishability of subjects and objects, Guan deconstructs notions of old and new. What you perceive as a modern structure—the tripod for instance—may in fact be an ancient form. Guan exhibits a hypersensitivity to the new in her work,     but attributes this to her intuition for seeing the old and the consistent underlying new creations.


      The openness and flattening quality of the internet also provide footnotes to Guan Xiao’s dialectics on the old and new. In her 2012 installation The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture, she devises an installation structure that emphatically calls attention to our ways of seeing in a media-inundated moment. Ancient motifs and sleek techno fetishistic forms appear together in what seems like a
      photography studio from the future. In front of three brightly colored, snakeskin-patterned camouflage backdrops, a heterogeneous range of items with ambiguous cultural and historical backgrounds are placed: tripods, totem poles composed of stacked-up camera lenses, sculptural objects by way of muse- um artifacts. Pointing out the commonality between forms and the indistinguishability of subjects and objects, Guan deconstructs notions of old and new. What you perceive as a modern structure—the tripod for instance—may in fact be an ancient form. Guan exhibits a hypersensitivity to the new in her work, but attributes this to her intuition for seeing the old and the consistent underlying new creations.


      The instability and cyclical nature of time is another trademark of Guan Xiao’s work. Her first solo exhibition, “Survivors Hunting,” at Magician Space in 2013, presented a series of monumental totems by the name of Cloud Atlas, a nod to David Mitchell’s eponymous novel in which the past and the future collide. Another series in the show, “Core Sample,” a group of metal tripods with a high-tech gleam, are Guan’s translation of the titular scientific concept. The geological term refers to the practice of drilling out a cylindrical piece of material from the earth and studying its vertical strata on the cross section. Information from distinctive dimensions of time and place thereby lay flat on one single plane. Core sampling appears as a key method for Guan, and runs through her earlier work. The strategy of core sampling not only corresponds to Guan’s reading of the world, but also provides her artistic compositions with a structural format.

      When trying to comprehend the unfamiliar, our brains tend to establish meaning via binary oppositions and top-down categorizations. Especially in an age when we have become dependent on obtaining answers instantaneously through a click on a search bar, dichotomies like old/ new, fake/ real, male/ female, east/ west, and left/ right provide crude shortcuts for our judgment. This is a cognitive trap that Guan Xiao rejects completely. She doesn’t care much for binaries, arguing repeatedly through her work that the two sides of any concept are often collusive, be it past/ future, nature/ culture, land/ ocean, hunter/ prey, or subject/ object. She eschews boundaries, and prefers to believe that things are in a constant state of flux, always subject to change, or, in her own words, to “endless possibilities of transformation.”

      A fluid awareness of the self is given shape—in the shape of a dot—in Guan Xiao’s latest three-channel video, Weather Forecast, produced for her upcoming solo exhibitions in France. In it, she narrates: “all things, with individual entity as a line, cut the world into two, with the individual entity as a dot, merge the two into one; ultimately, we’re driven by the things that grab us, merging together, into the sea of all things, and that becomes another dot in another vast world.” With the dot as an element and medium, an individual entity can freely transform into any form of existence, Guan proclaims. Although one might be tempted to read this as a Kantian metaphysical exercise, it is in fact the artist’s Zootopian take on identity politics. The question “Why can’t we view Europe from a chair?” is punctuated throughout the video. This provocation (from someone located outside the continent) is a radical one, especially in the current context, in a Europe besieged by refugee crisis and terrorism. Guan sees an analogy between the fluidity of identity and the change of weather. Every individual can achieve subjective transformation through a series of encounters at any time, any place. Guan offers a possibility of individual emancipation from the normative constraints of identity politics and geopolitics. She rejects cultural representations of any kind that serve the purpose of differentiating one from another. After all, cultural differences and geographical boundaries have already been broken down on the flattening surface of the internet. What attracts her, far more than the differences between humans, is our commonality.


      Guan Xiao considers “human” to be the only identity for us, for we all share the same cognitive abilities—the faculties for sensing and feeling—everywhere in the world. A universal discussion of our cognitive experiences is central to Guan’s practice. In her work, she persistently looks for a common, and hybrid, meth- od of communication, one that transcends language and culture, that humans everywhere can receive. This communication is delivered in the form of rhythm in her video Action (2014). She sees rhythm as a common denominator of everything that can be understood—all living things and existences in the material world have their rhythms. Rhythm is the linkage that connects you and me, and a stone and a wig: “Everything meets constantly. In the frequency of the universe. Resonate together.” Guan choreographs shapes, sounds, text, humans, objects, animals, plants, clouds, and actions into a rhythmic celebration of human agency—our profound ability to perceive, act, and become.


      The fact that Guan Xiao eschews any geographical or cultural framework when discussing her work and identity is remarkable, even among today’s cosmopolitan set of young Chinese artists. Identity labelling is closely tied to one’s visibility on a larger scale in the contemporary art world, and elsewhere. Some might worry that an absence of discourse around identity politics and ideology among younger artists today doesn’t serve well for national branding on a global stage, but Guan’s practice points to another possibility: the artists that have come of age with the proliferation of the internet no longer share the insecurities that propelled the statements of generations before “Without going to New York and Paris, life could be internationalized.” In their life and practice, artists like Guan willingly embrace postmodernity as a leveling force that shapes them into a new form of being—a “whatever singularity,” as Giorgio Agamben terms it. In his book The Coming Community, Agamben envisions a “new planetary humanity” that rejects any manifestation of identity or belonging: “the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging.” For a post-ideological society entrenched in the global economy, this could very well be the most radical solution to identity politics yet.


      Written by Lai Fei
      Published on《 LEAP》,  MAR / APR 2016


    • Be Here, Now: An Introduction to an Introduction | Stephanie Bailey




      “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”



      In autumn, 2000, New Literary History published an issue asking if there was life after identity politics, to which Marlon B. Ross responded: “Which ‘identity?’ What ‘politics?’ ‘After’ when and where?” Ross’s point was this: Before “identity politics” there was already a politics of identity—and “wherever there is identity, there is a struggle for power.”1 In the same issue, Eric Lott located this struggle within a “politics of participatory discrepancy,” created when emergent social movements collide and collude to form a dissonant social fabric composed of rampant intersections and interactions between groups.2 It is in this fabric that Lott located a potential for a uni ed, anti-normative politics, in which no one is represented by one movement, and no movement is expected to represent the entirety of a human being.3


      In these hyper-global, hyper-connected, and hyper-volatile times, in which we have seen a new wave of neo-nationalism, regional power grabs, and the emergence of a networked movement in the nightmare image of ISIS, conversations around identity have become dangerously essentialist yet loaded with potential agency. Today, a politics based on difference offers a useful frame to think through the globalized present. This is especially true when considering Arjun Appadurai’s prescient vision in the 1990s of a transglobal, diasporic landscape in which the “materials for a post-national imaginary” are “around us already.”4 As proposed elsewhere, these “materials” are the histories that walk among us—people that transcend the frameworks laid down by the past precisely because their existence is based on being “caught in the discontinuous time of translation and negotiation.”5 As we move between different subjective and objective worlds, we are all such people.


      This condition was explored in a 2014 exhibition curated by Anders Kreuger and Nav Haq at Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA): “Don’t You Know Who I Am? Art After Identity Politics.” Presenting 27 contemporary artists from all over the world, from Amsterdam to Vilnius, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” sought to transcend identity politics as it has been under- stood (and maligned) so as to focus on “identities (in the plural) as part of an overall understanding of complexity”—something “the art system has not always been able or willing to accommodate.”6 (This is certainly true when thinking about the trend of framing exhibitions according to region or nation.) The exhibition considered identities—and thus, histories—as concepts that are neither fixed nor linear: produced within the industrial furnace of globalization, a process tied to capitalist modernity.


      Guan Xiao’s Cognitive Shape (2013) diagrammed this perfectly. In the three-channel video, the artist articulates a worldview constructed from some 30 found images and video clips collected from YouTube, Vimeo, satellite TV, and DVDs, all edited alongside scenes the artist filmed. The video is composed of chapters titled according to symbols constructed like Chines characters from parts of contemporary logos, like Xbox, Google, and Nike. This articulation of a post-consumer symbolism was grounded in Oscar Murillo’s A Bastard Class (2014). The installation-cum-production site is inspired by factories specializing in ceramic coconuts found in Colombia and Mexico, and includes packaging materials stuck to the walls, from Easy Cook Haleem to Sir Edward’s Finest Scotch, and a Chinese Heaven Bank Note. The result highlights the delocalization of localized production—and thus local culture—through the mechanisms of global capital.


      In Cognitive Shape, one part of the video presents a taxonomy of culture organized through images that make up an ever-expanding genealogical tree: from Neolithic arrowheads to a diving suit and rollerblades. These products—the things we fashion to supplement our existence—are described as “stones” of the past and future “rolling on the endless surface” whose meeting constitutes now. In one swoop, the abstract nature of who we are and where we come from is tied to infinite time: history as an expansive and rhizomatic trail of longue durees,in which the past becomes an ongoing tangle of knots, chains, extensions, compressions, constructions, and projections. In this hyper-complex frame, we are at once united by capitalism’s hand in forming us all, and divided by the historical impact this unify- ing—or homogenizing—force has had.


      In “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” this impact was articulated in Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s sound piece and single-channel projection Double-Take: Leader of the Syrian Revolution Command- ing a Charge (2014). The installation includes two photographs. The first is an image of Théodore Géricault’s painting Officer of the Chasseurs Commanding a Charge (1812). The second is a Syrian businessman’s commission in which the French imperial of officer in Gericault’s painting is replaced by the leader of the Syrian uprising against the French between 1925 and 1927, Sultan Basha Al-Atrash. By placing an Arab in the position of colonial conqueror, Abu Hamdan notes, “200 years … are condensed in one moment of a double take, into which a whole history of the colonial project can be read.” Such a double reflection occurred, too, in Carlos Monroy’s Lambada’s Museum, presented at the 19th Videobrasil in 2015: an installation that traced the Lambada’s origins to Bolivia via labor immigration to São Paulo in the late- 1980s through the song Llorando se fue. Written by the Bolivian group Los Kjarkas in 1981, it was remixed by Chico de Oliveira shortly after, and released in Brazil by the band Kaoma in 1989, which then sparked a global phenomenon. Monroy’s cartography reveals the Lambada’s true nature: a hybrid global production. And Brazil does not escape this formal blurring. A postcolonial space once colonized by the Portuguese, it is shown to be a colonizing force in its own right.


      Suddenly, the Lambada, like Brazil, is located neither north nor south, nor in-between, but in process: a condition Keli-Safia Maksud visualized through her 19th Videobrasil commission, Mitumba (2015). Composed of a large cube made of Dutch African wax fabrics hanging over a small pond, a solution of bleach dripped over the materials for the duration of the exhibition. For Maksud, the work represents a cleansing act of decolonization that acknowledges the impossibility of erasing the past. The fabrics—which symbolize a historical struggle within and for African identity—will never return to an original state but become something else altogether. This transformation was embodied in Tao Hui’s grand prize-winning work at the same 19th Videobrasil, Talk About Body. In this 2013 video, the artist reads his body like a map, with every feature corresponding to different ethnic sources and the histories associated with such mixing. In the end, the complexity is so great Tao Hui concludes that his body belongs to the soil.


      This is where the title of this issue, “Children of Empire,” comes in. The proposal is that we are all children of empire, regardless of whether we belong to the dominant imperialist forces of the past 500 years or not. Whether we like it or not, our personal, political, and cultural identities are intertwined with inheritances that are painful, violent, and foreign. Consider here 60 archival photos collated by Maryam Jafri that depict inaugural Independence Day ceremonies of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African nations from 1934 to 1975, from Burundi to Syria. Repetitive aesthetics unite each photograph—a pageantry inherited from the colonizers and mimicked in inaugural expressions of postcolonial autonomy. There is a cruelty to these macabre connections. But there is something liberating, too, as illuminated in “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” by Iman Issa’s Material (2009–2012): a series of ten displays offering proposals for monuments commemorating things like “the destruction of a prominent public monument in the name of national resistance,” or “a bygone era of luxury and decadence.” In the work, history becomes a universal template. Each monument could relate to any nation, since we have all been the destroyer and the destroyed, in some way, at some point, somewhere.


      This brings us back to the politics of participatory discrepancy. If our world is indeed both universal and particular, and we are at once post- and neo- everything, then to recognize this would be a step towards what Ernesto Laclau called “a serious theoretical rationale for new social movements” predicated on “a politically forceful universalism shorn of the deadweight of essentialism.”7 But how might such a politics translate beyond the notion of “One World, One Dream”? In the case of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” the suggestion was made in Shape of a Right Statement, a 2009 video in which Wu Tsang re-enacts a 2007 YouTube video made by autism activist Amanda Baggs, In My Own Language. The work is literally “a strong statement.” It argues for “the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in a world in which those who deviate from the norm are considered non-persons.” The point of Wu Tsang’s performance—and this issue in general—is to recognize a shared otherness amongst ourselves without erasing the differences that make us unique.


      It has to be said that there are two specters in this issue. The first is Gulf Futurism without the Gulf specificity—the postcolonial condition identified by artist Sophia Al-Maria to describe the effects of rapid modernization in the oil-rich nations of the Arabian Gulf in the second half of the twentieth century. (The connections between the Gulf’s metropolises and Asia’s are all too apparent, after all.) Yet, it became increasingly apparent, as conversations began to develop, that such a comparative exercise is only possible if rooted in personal—and historical—experience. This brings us to the second ghost, which was raised in Walter D. Mignolo’s contribution, “Verses on Decolonization”— the 1955 Bandung Conference, in which 29 states came together in the hopes of transcending western hegemony.


      Mignolo’s text ends with both a lament and a challenge: What position might the art world take in the world today, when post-colonialism is meaningless, decolonization has failed, and humanity appears lost? The question relates to the proposition the theme of this issue makes: that we, as children of empire, might locate a future politics between us, in which our complexity becomes our agency. But this issue offers no answers, nor does it offer a road map out of our current quagmires. This is, rather, a proposal for a future study. An introduction to an introduction—a gather- ing across time and space narrated by voices brought together through the art world’s trans-global networks in order to explore the complex inheritances that have shaped us all.


      Written by  Stephanie Bailey
      Translated by Gu Qian Fan
      Published on《 LEAP》,  JAN/ FEB 2016


      1. Marlon B. Ross, “Pleasuring Identity, or the Delicious Politics of Belonging,” New Literary History, Vol. 31, No. 4, Is There Life After Identity Politics? (Autumn 2000), p. 832.
      2. Eric Lott, “After Identity, Politics: The Return of Universalism,” New Literary History, Vol. 31, No. 4, Is There Life After Identity Politics? (Autumn 2000), p. 667.
      3. Ibid., p. 666.
      4. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) p.21
      5. Stephanie Bailey, ” Transition Times: Performing Armenity at the 56th Venice Biennale, ” Ibraaz, May 28, 2015, in which I am partially quoting Homi K.Bhabha in a discussion on the body as a historical cartography.
      6. Don’t You know Who I Am? Art After Identity Politics, online catalogue.
      7. Lott, p.670.

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