The Great Show

The term 'COMERCHINA' - coined from the expressions 'Made in China' and 'Commercial China' – is a play on words that aims to describe the excessive commercialisation that has crept into all areas of Chinese life and exchange over the last decade.


The play on words is almost childish in its simplicity, and yet it is extremely apposite to the situation in today’sChina. Who knows, it just might become as famous as Huang Rui’s ubiquitous '拆那 (chai-na) China'. In 2002, the Beijing artist juxtaposed images of a city being demolished/reconstructed along with the characters '拆那 (demolition here)' and 'China' to express his bitterness in the face of a city whose transformation – widely covered by the media – masked the social upheaval quietly occurring in the background. In China, all good ideas are recycled and, once given the barest of makeovers, re-launched on the market - and the '拆那 China' slogan was no exception. It has become a favourite media quote, as well as a popular T-shirt logo proudly sported by the trendy young bohemians that hang out in Yunnan Dali or Beijing Nan Luo Gu Xiang.


Seven years on, it is precisely this message that 'COMERCHINA' conveys: the fact that it is impossible to escape from the 'over-commercialisation' that is invading China and all things 'Chinese'; a system that has torn free from the usual restraints of commercial exchange to pervade our private thoughts and lives. In recent years, everything has centred on manufacturing output, the money it generates and the power this bestows. We are witnessing the resurgence of a country which, since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, has become the most dynamic in the world in terms of economic growth. On the cultural side China has proven adept at fulfilling the requirements to take its place on the grand global stage. The creative energy of the new millennium that acted as a liberating force - and which initially amazed the West - has dissipated, a victim of its own success. This new era focalises on global communication, business and celebrities. Besides, 'COMERCHINA' does not so much focus on the obsession with commercialisation but rather the fact that it jeopardises our way of life, our way of perceiving, understanding and exchanging. In short, the intellectual side of our lives is suffering at the hands of communication.


'COMERCHINA' highlights some of the images that jostle together in our daily lives: money in the form of bank notes that we had almost forgotten exist in different colours (in this case, the 100 RMB note is red and bears a portrait of Mao Zedong); the stream of images fed to us by the media and advertisers; the touch pad of our mobile phones that monopolises our attention every day. Endowed with critical minds, we should be able to separate and analyse these images, but it seems that once they have been reduced to trivia and stored unthinkingly in our huge memory bank we are less and less able to feel any reaction to them. By isolating them, scrutinising them and singling them out, Huang Rui encourages us to reawaken our critical faculties.

 

The All-Pervading Shadow


Huang Rui starts by creating four huge 100 RMB notes, each made up of twenty-seven 60 cm by 90 cm silk-screened canvases. There are one hundred and eight canvases in total with each series consisting of twenty-five canvases carrying the 'COMERCHINA' mark and numbered sequentially (100 in total) and two canvases in each note without numbers (8 in total). Each canvas is therefore a close-up of a section of the bank note, revealing the details of Mao Zedong’s face or the finer details that we normally miss, such as the lines, flowers, swirls - or even the bank note’s serial number. On a real bank note the blank area contains an anti-counterfeiting feature in the form of a watermark of Chairman Mao’s portrait – only apparent when the note is held up to the light – whereas on the two canvases from each series that form this section his portrait is visible. Superimposed over the Mao Zedong watermark, the artist has added two Chinese characters: 坚持 persistence in the first, 无产 unproduction in the second, 阶级 class in the third and 专政 dictatorship in the fourth. Taken individually, they encapsulate Mao’s major speeches from the time of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Taken together they mean “Maintain Dictatorship of the Proletariat” - a clear reminder of how Mao Zedong used to rule the country. 


Like an athlete building on the success of previous performances, Huang Rui tends to continue working with the same themes over long periods of time, slotting his work into the span of many years’ research. 'COMERCHINA' therefore follows on from '10,000 RMB Chairman Mao', a work he produced in 2006 that exposed the obvious contradictions of a communist society grappling with the symbols of a capitalist economic system.

 
And this symbolism carries over from one work to the next, condensed into a single note bearing the omnipresent image of yesteryear’s leader denouncing the irony of a system that, while still claiming to have descended from Mao Zedong’s policies, is based on an economic system that would have him spinning in his grave.

 

Whilst '10,000 RMB Chairman Mao' focused on real notes, which in total accounted for the number in the title and formed the text (10,000 RMB’s worth of notes bearing Mao’s portrait emerged from Plexiglas to form the characters 'Long life to Chairman Mao'), 'COMERCHINA' on the other hand plays with a travesty of a bank note, grotesquely magnified and adulterated up by the text itself.

 

In this work, Huang Rui develops two trains of thought that analyse the power of words, using a totally visual piece where the design of the symbols and the visual effects are measured 'down to the last inch'.

Firstly, we see the power of words as a political instrument that integrated social and cultural memory. Huang Rui is one of the few artists in China to revive the collective memory without recourse to the standard Mao icon or the stereotypical images that supposedly represent Mao and the communist era. By juxtaposing the characters with Mao’s watermark portrait, the artist sums up the essence of the era of the leader who turned the slogan into one of the most powerful of political tools. Text replaces the shadow of a man at the exact spot that should check attempted counterfeiting. Here we recognise the artist’s humour – both acerbic and poetic; for Huang Rui text is image, an image of power whose persuasive force is multiplied in comparison to a traditional representation of portrayed power.


At another level, the work refers to the effect that the passage of time has on a word and its context. Huang Rui chooses words whose meaning has changed through the course of the country’s history and upheavals. Taken from the communist glossary and rooted in the theories of Marxism, the eight characters that mean to 'Maintain Dictatorship of the Proletariat' bear witness to the power and at the same time the vulnerability, of the words we use to record our history.

At first these words were associated with the ideal of the fight against the European bourgeoisie; then, in China, they evoked Maoist fervour, its outbursts and excesses; whilst in the era of capitalism they sound more like an old song whose tune we remember yet whose words no longer have much meaning. Some words, such as 'Dictatorship' now carry connotations of terror, others such as 'class' or 'proletariat' seem totally obsolete in a world driven by competition. In the 'COMERCHINA' context, seeing them jolts us into remembering where we have come from. Through this work, Huang Rui reminds us that words are a living inheritance and their meaning is never gratuitous or incongruous.

 

Value for Money


Huang Rui loves to overlay his work with symbolic logic – and 'COMERCHINA', as with most of his other pieces, is layered with meanings. The way the whole installation is put together and the process of acquiring it mirror the way the art market functions.


Of course each canvas is for sale. The art collector will 'get his money’s worth', as by acquiring a whole canvas he is also buying a piece of bank note. At the same time, the collector is also free to purchase a complete series; an entire 100 RMB note measuring more than 5 metres in length, formed from a mosaic of canvases. At the moment the work is 'complete' and its artistic value at its highest. But what is a collector really buying: Huang Rui’s artwork, an object that counts as a financial investment or the representation of his investment?

 

The Hall of Fame


Money, used daily in transactions, fuels our consumption - but consumption of what exactly? This is the second question that Huang Rui ponders through a second series of works. Four series of twenty-five canvases – one hundred in total – echo the total of numbered canvases that make up the bank note in 'COMERCHINA'. Several months ago, Huang Rui launched an online appeal for people to contribute - according to each individual’s interpretation - commercial or marketing materials, mainly drawn from the press or advertising materials. From this huge supply he then selected around one hundred images to produce a ‘Hall of Fame’ that reflects what our brain accumulates almost every day: adverts for cars, cosmetics or luxury products, celebrities from the show biz or art worlds, magazine covers, pages espousing current social and fashion trends. All these are then used to make collages overlaid with a telephone keypad (those numbers that we ‘see without seeing’ every day), on which in turn are super-imposed the letters - C O M E R C H I N A.


By including us in the first phase of the work’s development, Huang Rui is pushing us to reflect on the very notion of commercialisation. We re-discover the basic principles of consumer society according to which we must create demand and desire, although intrinsically these are only present to spur on the sale. And we choose our images accordingly: alluring photos and sexy tag lines that clearly show that we are not buying the product but ‘buying into its world’.


Each canvas is numbered from 1 to 100, an implicit reference to the intense competition of the 'star system' that allows only the best, the most glamorous, the most influential to step onto the winners’ podium. We are immediately subject to a full on attack with canvas number 1 – a magazine cover that shows the 100 most influential people from the China art world in 2008: thus firmly putting the art market in the line of fire. The system which has entrapped the Chinese contemporary art milieu is presented in one single image, in which it is clear that creation and the creators must submit to market power and public recognition. It is a fierce game, and competition is as intense as for any other product launched on the market, whether a Mercedes Benz or a new L’Oreal product, that have all been packaged in the same way in the other 99 canvases in the 'Hall of Fame'.

 

While one might expect this jumble of visual information (collage + ‘phone touch pad + COMERCHINA + canvas number) to produce a saturated effect, on the contrary, the information appears clearly, in an attractive, pleasing, even joyful way. Is it because we are so accustomed to these images that we can assimilate them all through so many different layers? "Welcome to the Kingdom of Consumption!” Huang Rui seems to be saying. Having exhibited pieces of a bank note for us to buy, the artist now offers us 'works of consumption' at a price defying all competition in the art market – a price closer to that charged by newly graduated art students. So why use this sales tactic? Is the idea to counter the effects of the current financial crisis; to earn money quickly, or to criticise the soaring prices of Chinese contemporary art over the last few years? Huang Rui deliberately removes our benchmarks and forces us to realise that we are all part of a great game, in which we, the movers in the art world (artists, gallery owners, curators, critics, buyers, investors and so on) invent the rules ourselves.

 

The Great Game


The last piece in the 'COMERCHINA' series is a game. The same basic image – a telephone touch pad on which are printed the letters C O M E R C H I N A – forms the background to a hopscotch court on which children are invited to play. The game, which consists of passing through all 12 squares one after the other, is similar to hopscotch, only there are no squares marked 'Home' or 'Safe'; the player has to make a full tour of 'COMERCHINA' to complete the game. Here of course Huang Rui is drawing our attention to children - who from the earliest age are conditioned to become consumers - while at the same time making reference to the immaturity of adults. The game seems to have no beginning and no end (the player can tour round COMERCHINA indefinitely) reminding us that the cycle of operations is infinite.

              

The Great Show


'Bling bling' and 'marketing' go hand in hand, in every country and every consumer society. China is no exception; in fact, despite 60 years of communism, the country has emerged a master in this field. China can sell itself spectacularly well - as became abundantly clear during the Beijing Olympic Games - but also in every day transactions. In its quest for recognition as a power that manufactures and innovates, China has now secured its place in the world as a 'Society of the Spectacle' to use the apt expression coined by Guy Debord. This type of society is dominated by the production of merchandise, from its packaging to its consumption. The problem lies not in the merchandise itself, but in the existence of an 'abstraction of value' - a world where exchanges take place object to object, in which relations are centred on the production of merchandise and the 'loss of quality in commercial relations.'

 
In just a few short years, driven by spectacle and competition, the art world in China has transformed itself into a vast ‘consumer land’. At the beginning of the 21st century, the emergence of the Chinese contemporary art market appeared as a boon, and the Westerners were the first to set their sights on it – and the first to invest in it. This phenomenon allowed the authorities to display their ‘open-mindedness’ on the international stage. It also substantiated the theory, peddled by entrepreneurs from the 'creative and cultural industries', that there was a 'Created in China' label, capable of replacing the infamous 'Made in China' label that had kept China subjugated in its secondary role as a 'Nation of Labourers'. Finally it opened up a lucrative market which sucked in a whole group of people driven by the idea of monopolising it: entrepreneurs cum arts amateurs, critics cum gallery owners and artists cum entrepreneurs.


That art should become a commodity is a risk faced by all societies, at least in more recent times. It is not so much a question of whether art should enter the financial circles or whether we should reject its commercial value; after all we all fought hard enough for contemporary art in China - considered taboo or even illegal until the end of the 1990s - in order to benefit from the social and financial recognition that would release it from its underground circles. It is more a question of battling against a singular focus on business and marketing that turns all creation into a consumer product, and which is slowly eroding the scope of creativity.

 

The Era of 'Communication Art'


Throughout the 20th century, numerous critics debated the possible consequences the excesses of consumer society might have on creativity. Surely the most important voice was that of Walter Benjamin, who, in his essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1939) laid the foundations for reflection on the authenticity of a work of art in the face of mass production. Some artists however toyed with the consumption game and used it to form the basis of their creativity - such as Andy Warhol who considered himself a 'commercial artist'. Warhol interpreted 'commercial' as 'publicity' and he certainly did have an entrepreneurial spirit. Hoping to please wealthy collectors as much as gallery and museum directors enthralled by all that sparkled, Warhol developed a concept of creation based on the importance of the network rather than the creative process; on the commercial value of the piece rather than its social or ethical value. And his art, contrary to what is often written, was totally free of critical thinking (he never trained his spotlight on American society, although he did exploit it to arouse desire for global Pop culture). He did however work with a team that resembled a small company. Of these two trains of thought represented by Benjamin and Warhol, it is not surprising that Warhol has had the most success in China, where he justifiably represents the successful art businessman. Doubtless because Warhol is 'commercial' and fits in with the current trends at this time.


There exists in China today a strange paradox: that of having fought for 30 years, both socially and politically, to have contemporary artistic expression recognised, to have achieved the financial means to support artistic creation (not yet at a government level but at least in the form of private sponsors) only to have reached a situation where art produces fewer and fewer works of art (although not ‘less’ in the sense of aesthetic thinking, or reflection on conceptual art). The risk now is that one becomes accustomed to 'communication art, business art, celebrity art' - to use the words of Jacques Rouillé - which imply working towards the 'undoing of art'. Now we find ourselves waiting for the creative forces to stimulate us with their message, whatever it is, negative or positive, and it should take us beyond the era of communication art.

 

Epilogue


This last series from Huang Rui is definitely not a facile reaction to the current state of moroseness, or the collapse of the art market, or even to the timorous criticisms of contemporary art in China which are emerging here and there. His ideas result from an in-depth reflection, and the logic of the piece can be seen throughout the works and in the links between the works.

Regardless of the materials he chooses or which subject he focuses on, the recurring themes of Huang Rui’s reflection remain the same from one work to the next: the philosophy of language, art and history. Huang Rui has reached a maturity in his work that allows him to visually transcribe the questions he asks himself, which are both personal and his own, but also from our world. It is rare to find, especially more recently, an artist capable of being so personal without also becoming caught up in himself, an artist that can address such fundamental questions without spilling into the pathos of universal drama. 'COMERCHINA' manages to be both ‘of its time’ and ‘in rebellion against its time’. 

Benjamin once wrote, "The degree to which we are privy to the world of secrets depends on the degree to which we employ modes of perception which demands proof. Thus we take everyday objects to be unfathomable and take anything unfathomable to be a facet of the everyday world. This is nothing less than the way we discover secrets within the context of everyday life." Huang Rui is intimately familiar with modes of perception which demand authentication. In his 'COMERCHINA' works, he uses everyday images to bring to light seemingly imperceptible social conflicts.

 

Bérénice Angremy
Curator, Beijing
Translation from French by Bridget Rooth