The art theorist Gombrich has a famous saying that, Painting is an activity, so the artists tendency depends on what he wants to paint, rather than painting what he perceives. In todays overwhelming flux of desire and the ever-renewing experience of consumption culture, is Gombrichs principle still applicable? If one reflects upon Jiang Hengs series of femme fatale, perhaps one would find the unique image of the femme fatale. What is more interesting is, among the varying faces of these beautiful women, one symbol transgresses them is their disproportionate eyes. What are those big eyes staring at? To stare into such gaze as an observer, what would you discover?
I believe, the big eyes are a remarkable symbol is perhaps what the artist want to paint in his femme fatale series.
As we know, the consumption society is a highly visual society, viewing is not only a way in which to experience consumption but a proof of existence. The relationship between culture and visual culture have reached unprecedented conspiracy in the present. The time of discovering a good drink in the deep alley has been long gone, what is before us are those in front of our eyes, emitting unimaginable power. The French philosopher Guy Debords so-called Social Landscape has became a reality. The femme fatales eyes while gazing at us invite us to stare back. Therefore, the act of viewing and its artistic representation became the basic top of Jiang Hengs paintings.
Undoubtedly, the painter is most interested in viewing, yet now all painters consciously treat viewing as the object of representation. In Jiang Hengs numerous series, the reoccurring image of the femme fatale became the transgressing emblem, thus entitled the Femme Fatale Series. Examining these women in detail, we cannot help to be shocked by the naked truth about viewing. I noticed that Jiang Hengs femme fatale series are somewhat akin to the ceramic dolls, because their eyes are nevertheless scarily large. These usual proportions have displayed the most crucial sensation for this consumption society with the most exaggerated manner. Moreover, behind the plethora of gazes and stares, myriads of visual enticements sip out. Noted is the highlight of on the dark eyes, from the ambiguous round dot (in Scattered Object 36) to the reflection similar to an exclamation mark (in Scattered Object 54), or the seemingly reflection of the display window (Beautiful Flower 2). These ways of expression reflect the eyes desire to the wonders of this world, and the lingering visions on the enigmas of life. We cannot help but to feel appalled by those exaggerated eyes, drawn to those longing eyes, and attracted to the gazes of desire. Perhaps there is reason of these womens glance is a visual culture fable of the consumption society.
Here, I would like to make a comparison by referring to two paintings, from which we will perhaps decipher the complex meaning of Jiang Hengs images of femme fatale. One of the paintings is the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magrittes The False Mirror (Image I), in this painting, Magritte used the reflection of the eye to represent the realistic image of white clouds in the blue sky. As as surrealist painter, perhaps this painting reveals the dreamlike view found in ones memory, yet are presented in its actual natural form, which can seem to have the somewhat tromp loeil effect. Looking back into Jiang Hengs paintings, Fluttering Butterfly (Image II), the gaze in his femme fatales is filled with curiosity, shes staring into this world. Not only with her won eyes, but uses a magnifying glasses to examine this world, because she wants to see the world with clarity. If Magrittes surrealist gaze reflect the actual view is a sarcastic approach to express imagination, then the gazes of Jiang Hengs femme fatale must be the true expression of utter imagination. In other words, femme fatale as a symbol of material desire of the consumption world, has vividly revealed the truth of todays visual culture: using ones eyes to wager and consume this society. Here, the eyes are highly exaggerated and symbolized. Indeed, with slightest attention to our everyday life, one would notice anything that is attractive is first shown as a spectacle. The entire world has been transformed to images, as Debord stated, the spectacle is caused by facts, in other words, people today are observers. This let to the spectacles monopoly and violence in contemporary society. As people are absorbed in the discussion of the everyday aesthetics, an important fact is revealed in Jiang Hengs work, that is, todays culture is an experiential culture. And the primary approach to experience is seeing, the eyes not only approximate everything, just as the symbolic gaze of these beautiful women, but most importantly, people need to appropriate various techniques to consume such culture visually. The magnifying glass is the representation of various digital technology, communication devices, visual technology and consumption methods. Therefore, viewing, the most common behavior is shown in a rather estranged effect, it displays the visual desire and its gratification has been augmented to ways in which to verify ones existence in the transformation of visual culture of the consumption era I see therefore I am. Magrittes dreamlike mirror is behind us, the beautiful women as the visual object, stares with their big eyes, are visual emblem represented, as well as the invitation to the viewers to enjoy such visual feast. Not only can one experience with their naked eyes, but also with the assistance of the magnifying glass to enlarge such experience.
Therefore, I would like to comment that the scarily large yet real eyes have became the cultural emblem to experience current culture. The dichotomous quality of the femme fatale and their gazes are presented literally. As a viewer, confronted with this painting, we are in fact viewing the gaze of this beauty and stare into her stare. On the one hand, these beautiful women exist as the image in the mirror; on the other hand, while we stare into their stares weve became the image in the mirror of their gaze, this is the dialectics of visual culture. It helps us to further understand Maurice Merleau-Pontys statement, Viewing is like being at the crossroad, it is where all directions meet. What people perceive and made seen, evolves above existence, is the act of viewing.
Ruins---- On Jiang Hengs Paintings
Then lets compare the other painting, the American Pop artist Tom Wesslemanns The Great American Nude 59. I am uncertain whether Jiang Hengs femme fatale series are influenced by this American Pop artist. Although the comparison of these two artists can be mesmerizing. Without mentioning the similarity of their series of works, in terms of their creativity. What interests me is that Wasslemanns Nude series have never painted the eyes onto the women, in order to emphasize the sexy characteristics of women; whereas in Jiang Hengs femme fatale (Fluttering Butterfly 17) the kitsch sexiness seem to be separated from the glassy effect of the ceramic-like dolls, yet highlights the big eyes and her desire filled gaze.
Those who know Jiang Heng well understand that beneath the gentle appearance, he is actually an avant-garde experimentalist with an insuppressible passion for art. In the early 1990s, he appeared in the art society with performance art; then in the following Cartoon Generation wave, with his unswerving courage and distinctive visual lansign, Jiang Heng became an important representative. After more than 20 years ups and downs, he is no longer the green boy but a confident, resolute, unhurried and mature artist.
Reviewing Jiang Hengs personal growth path shows that the development of his art synchronizes with that of the Chinese contemporary art. It is exactly the drastic changes of the social structure, the new social production means, new life styles and the visual experience created that provide a response tactic and approach for Jiang Heng, who acutely enters on from the cultural notions in the consumer society and through subjective intervention, reveals such cultural subjects as the capital, power, desire, consumption, ecology and absence of moral tradition in the globalised context. His recent visual expression still relates to his past visual narration contextually and extends the same style.
To decode Jiang Hengs visual images, one needs to look back on his artistic path and the historical background of his growth. Reconstructing this gives the audience a key to unlock Jiang Heng and his works. Reexamining our life and cultural reality, we will find that Chinese born in the 1970s, such as Jiang Heng, are not burdened with trials and tribulations like their fathers were any more, therefore they also lack of the cultural passion for epical narration. It can be said that Jiang Heng experienced directly the end of an absurd time. But he is also lucky that he equally witnessed and participated in the beginning of a great time when battle between classes is no longer the political priority, when the planned economy came to an end and the reform, opening-up and thoughts liberation gave Jiang Heng a broad horizon and free expression. For sure the reform and opening-up has brought much more than material abundance; it was a world-shaking change and an ethical subversion. A time of fickleness, desire and rapid social development would certainly have immense complexity and create a great diversity of art.
In the 1990s, market economy was rolling out overwhelmingly. Almost overnight, China entered into the time of urban culture and consumption an inevitable result of the impact of globalization. Along with it were continuous evolution of ideology and prevalence of popular culture to the extent that it kept squeezing out the elite culture with a tendency to become the mainstream. On the other hand, the time of images also began to influence peoples way of life and art creation. The combination and interaction of all these factors formed the historical and cultural context of Jiang Hengs personal growth, while the new social structure and new visual experience prompted him to find a way to respond to the upheaval, which underpins the approach of the visual reflection and visual expression in his image narration.
Speaking of traditional painting, Chinese paintings have always emphasized the key of passing on the spirit through the eyes, which explains not drawing the eyes to dragons. Wasslemanns women without eyes perhaps originate in other thinking, perhaps in his view, these nude women have became soulless bodies, therefore it is unnecessary to draw the window to their soul, or perhaps only the lips and nipple can best represent the sexual characteristics of Hollywood symbolism, and the eyes became dispensable. Jiang Hengs femme fatale series on the contrary, depict the eyes are its core emblem. It is not only a must to paint the women with eyes, but had to be done in the most exaggerated approach. The sexy kitsch is no longer a novelty under Jiang Hengs brush, what he would like to express is the symbolic relationship between the eyes and the world, where the world is in a visually dominated era, the joy of ones existence and experience relies on ones visual command. Hence, Jiang Hengs femme fatale series transcends the American Pop art kitsch art, but penetrates into the visual topic of modern culture: the inquest of viewing. Wang Erde has pointed out before that, to view an object is entirely different from having seen an object. We look at the world daily, but could have seen nothing at all. The big eyes in Jiang Hengs femme fatale series with piercing gazes is perhaps questioning the act of viewing, calling on the presence of viewing, transforming viewing from seeing. The objects existence is because we have seen them, what we see, how we see it, depends on the art influencing us. Isnt that the truth the artist would like us to know?
Thus it is not difficult to see at that time, the passion of idealism and the blind worship of modern western civilization were fading away from the historical stage and taken over by an emphasis on personal living space, value of individuals and attention to Chinese social reality. This was particularly so in Guangzhou, the gateway city of reform and opening-up, where people cared more about the matter of living based on individual life experience and emphasized personal way of life and development in the society. As a trend, the collective experience was more and more replaced by individual experiment.
In his book Depoliticized Politics: End of the 20th Century and the 1990s, Wang Hui, distinguished Chinese scholar, addresses the formation of the time of market economy in China and the complicated changes of social structure triggered, The short 1990s unfolded against the backdrop of the end of a revolutionary century. During this time, the meanings of drama, politics, economy, culture and military have all undergone fundamental change and if not redefined, then even concepts as common as politics, nation and people cannot be used to analyze the times; it was also at this time that visual intellects began to shift their eyes and minds from the past to the unfamiliar present. Daniel Bell has also pointed out that A distinctive feature of modern city life is its visualization. To art, city is not only a tradition and a form but a whole new outlook of space, value and future as well as speed and passion.
In summary, I would like to say that the gazes on the images soaked up with invitation constantly approximates and contests the viewers gaze, questioning us whether we have understood the truth from the visual experience of this consumption era? Whether you have transformed seeing to viewing? Have you witnessed the reflexive nature in viewing? As Merleau-Ponty stated, the object is below our eyes, that rejects and disperses their truth form, they question our gaze directly. They challenge the agreement we have reached with our body and this world.
Such is the hotbed on which the Cartoon Generation relies and they consciously translate the visual experience in the landscape society into languages of art expression, for their social surroundings are pop culture, cartoon, animated games and rock roll; they grow up using American computer chips, watching Hollywood movies and eating fries. Such a life style determines Jiang Hengs visual expression approach. Based on his own life experience, Jiang Heng creates a virtual cartoon world in which he uses virtual languages to represent the real world. The animated reality not only overthrows peoples deep-rooted aesthetic experience, values and notions, but also reflects the way of life of the authors generation and their life experience. Irony and ridicule are the keynote of Jiangs visual expression, whereas shadowland and illusion mixed with childish naivety, romance and endless imagination for future are his unique narration style.
Starting from Beautiful Girl and Fish, then to Flying Butterflies, Flowing Butterflies and the latest Rolling on and Surging forward, Dazzling Feast of Flowers for the Eyes, Jiang Heng never stops shifting his view and refining his thinking and uses appropriately with right rhythm and control the contemporary culture and visual experience as his visual expression. In this way he effectively transforms new visual experience into his own pictorial language so he can use what he excels at flat color application as in advert painting, to destroy the original tones of the oil paintings and replace them with symbolized coding to imply a state and experience of life, i.e., a highly commercialized social reality in which men are alienated as goods; they are metamorphosed during the materialization.
Jiang Heng uncovers the characteristic of this popular, earthy culture, or the culture of modern industrial society, especially in south China, a mature consumer society with highly developed pop culture: We are in a time that cannot be escaped from when there seems to be an invisible hand controlling your mind and your consumption. Bombarded by advertisement, campaigns and media, men are losing themselves more and more and continuously alienated as an object in this machine-copy time. The passion, the relation between individual desires and the society, the bright and vivid colors in Jiangs visual images and the transformation of visual resources prove again a fact that the contemporary culture is shifting from traditional printing culture to a visual one, in which various images are experiencing men at every moment.
Through his works, audience can see the hope from the bottom of Jiang Hengs heart. He has an outstanding ability to translate metaphors into a reality that can be accepted by the public through his skillful pictorial expression, and he always possesses an acuteness towards the time and the social reality. The texture and glamour of his paintings give audience an emotion and cultural implication and his visual narration seems to keep create one metaphor after another. Hidden behind the flamboyant appearance is Jiang Hengs ardent imagination and symbolic expression of the contemporary society and his life of art. This is why in Jiang Hengs works, colors can break through the boundaries of objects, being totally free and radiating glaring magnificence and pleasure. In addition, the childlike feeling in his works has certain emotional power that dissolves adult comprehension and judgment, but presents the world through a new perspective. Such a perspective creates a whole new world the time of image - from the original pictorial world. This new world not only changes Jiangs creative concepts and expression means, but also the audiences reading habits and visual aesthetic experience. As to the analysis and decoding of art in the time of image, that would be the task for the future Cartoon Generation when they grow up.
Through creating one after another anamorphic scenario for the audience, Jiang Heng let the realness dissolves in the images while tries to use virtual scenario and products replicated by machine to revive a state, and finally through replicating the replicate to present his experience narrative and value judgment. He brings to the audience both an alternative way of creation and a special way of reading. Therefore there forms a tension between the subject and the object; through the virtual scene established by Jiang Heng, the audience can fully see how image reading has already become peoples essential way of information acquisition. Image reading not only penetrates into everyones daily life but moreover has become a habit in information and knowledge reception. As a result, images often control mens mind, guide their consumption and stimulate their desires.
Jiang Heng fully captures the artistic essence of the landscape society and the public image world, and understands the richness and diversity of social life. Although establishing many glamorous, cold and bewildering dreamland with distinctive images, his works show no trace of emotion expression at all; audience only face the numb, cold, replicated and dull vacuity and illusion. This is exactly what he tries to convey, the format structure of mass production, the repetition of series and abuse of significance. Watching his paintings, audiences are overwhelmed by the force of mass production. Jiang Hengs visual narrative is also about all the fashions, health products, large number of shoddy, tasteless goods and completely materialized objects in this consumer time. Undoubtedly, todays China just bases on these goods, and Jiangs works reflect the consumable transitoriness of the products we depend on, which are practical but short-lived.
Jiang Hengs visual narrative tactic is the triumph of the image time, the carnival of consumer society as well as the victory of sexiness and of the thoughts liberation in Guangzhou at the beginning of the reform and opening-up with its developed market economy. He not only possesses a mature artistic style and ever progressing social critical standpoint, but is also able to convert and mix his own visual symbols and other life elements into his visual expression. Against the background of consumer and landscape society, he timely and wittedly uses this societys own way to satirize and depict it, and hence reveals the coldness, isolation and vacuity resulted from the alienation to men by landscape. Such is the depth of Jiang Hengs art, and the embodiment of his values and his criteria of cultural value.
It is clear that Jiang Hengs visual narrative is immersed in highly commercialized surroundings. Unarguably, he benefits from the notions of the consumer society and wins reputation from it; while on the other hand, he is also an art carrier in the capital civilization of the consumer society: Through personal visual narrative, he portraits an extremely luxurious, prosperous but fake and void landscape and the pain, sorrow, perplexity and helplessness hidden behind the glamorous exterior.
Lately, Jiang Heng has been exploring a diversified visual narrative approach. He never stops challenging limitations, crossing boundaries and surpassing self. His visual image world is still full of liveliness instead of specific feelings and momentary emotions; this is already an elevated state, a calm and easy attitude and a detached perspective. Although the accumulation of life experience and all the sweet and bitterness in the journey of artistic exploration have moderated some of his past indignation and given him a peaceful and calm quality, his passion for artistic innovation has never bated a little. It can be expected that he will continue, through his visual exploration, to reflect on peace and harmony, to praise nature and life, to probe into the crossing and blending of cultures and philosophies between the East and the West and to display the bewilderment over the collision between tradition and present.
T﹒J﹒Clark has a view that the history of modern art is not a flat one, but a history of denials: continuous denials by new movements to the old ones.
Then as an important figure of the Cartoon Generation, what other visual surprises and expectations will Jiang Heng bring to the audience?
We look forward to them.
18:00, Jan. 14, 2014
Sanguandian Palace, East Lake, Wuhan.
Ji Shaofeng: Deputy Director of Hubei Museum of Art,
distinguished curator and critic, the only Chinese critic winning the
Best Curation Award in the 55th Venice Biennale 2013