Red Dolls, installation view #1, Audain Arts Center, Vancouver, Canada, 2018.
The Doll series is a multi-media installation combined of more than 3,000 plastic dolls. Reflecting on the gradually solidified education system, this series attempts to discuss the abstraction of individuality, as well as the symbiotic relationship between individualities and the capitalist production system, and further question where it goes as the human is being produced into the same form and consumed in this capitalist society.
Red Dolls (detail), 2018.
Red Dolls (detail), 2018.
Samsara 轮回, from Free Fall series, 2020.
Free Fall, installation view #1, Audain Arts Center, Vancouver, Canada, 2019.
The core of this work is the repetitive singularities (e.g. dolls), which I define as ‘grapheme.’ This is not something new in contemporary Chinese art, in which many artists make large-scale installations composed of large quantities of repetitive small units. The repetition and its representation of the relationship between individuality and collectivity have been associated with Chinese ideology and social facts to a great extent. Through shaping the image of the collective, Chinese artists critique the culture, political power, and social environment that drive the formation of the image of the self. Nowadays, the artistic discussion of historical collectivism in China has been connected to the global context of capitalism.
However, my engagement with ‘grapheme’ is rooted in the theoretical framework that links Marxist-feminist theory to artistic form. In the 19th century Europe, aesthetic abstraction in the late nineteenth century originates in and enters into a mimetic relationship with and against real abstraction, by which I mean the capitalist mode of production and ontological shifts it demands, where people become the proletariat, places become cities, and things become commodities. The pointillist method by Georges-Pierre Seurat is considered a way of internalizing disciplinary labour, which casts abstraction in art as a response to the industrial assembly line and suggests solidarity between the artist and the machine worker.
In 20th century America, responding to the celebration of consumerism, the use of grapheme by Andy Warhol is no longer repeated to form a bigger image, but more considered as the abstracted icon. On the one hand, it utilizes the mode of reproducibility to a great extent, while abstraction happens during the process in which the use value of an artwork is losing due to mass reproduction. On the other hand, the recognition of the icon exists together with the erasure of difference. It is a new relationship between the grapheme and collectivism.
The abstraction issues from a misrecognition of the relationship of labour to capital is still happening worldwide today, and such dynamics permeate every mode of cultural production, including at the level of the grapheme. Referring it back to the Chinese context, I found Chinese educational systems as an abstracted mode of production, while students from this assembly line is considered both abstracted labour and products in circulation. This is considered a double-layered abstraction.
Very few would question whether applying to university is a stressful process. For many Chinese students, the process is taken to a whole new level, and applying to art school is no exception. Using the art exam as an example, every year, thousands of Chinese art students travel to the nearest major city for practical exams, part of the application process to get into university art programs. They sit in sprawling hotel conference rooms or athletic facilities, with pencils and paints in tow. Over the course of a full day, or more, they must complete a specified set of art assignments, which will determine their future academic and career opportunities. The tests are highly competitive, while do not cater to any individual styles, nor do they necessarily work in favour of students who want to pursue unconventional approaches to artmaking. In a given exam, for instance, all students will draw the same still life, from a photograph or a setup that sits in the front of the room. In another, students may be given the description of a rare animal and are then asked to draw it, based on the information they received. While some prompts ask that you showcase your technical skills, others are looking for creative expression and individuality—but a lot of the actual scoring depends on the judges.
I see each abstracted individual as a site of agency and potential contestation of the surrounding socio-economic circumstances in China. It proves the fact that, on the one hand, exam-oriented education becomes a factory of producing standardized students, which measured with a certain skillset as currency; on the other hand, students become abstract labour measured with the “socially necessary labour time,” and being erased personality and individual creativity.
I chose to engage a process of abstract labouring with repeated grapheme, as an aesthetic metaphor, to create a spectacle - it reflects not only the circumstance of Chinese education as the realm of concrete abstraction, but also merge into a cultural discussion between individuality and collective. The doll in such 3D interactive space is either a pointillist ‘brushstroke,’ or a recognizable Warholian icon – or, it combines both of them. I see the doll not only as a metaphor of the abstracted student but as a site of agency and potential contestation of the surrounding socio-economic circumstances in China. The doll marks the struggle between external restraint and self-determination. It is a microcosm of the civil war between forms of determination, as well as the practice of ‘aesthetic’ abstraction speaking to the ‘real’ abstraction.
Free Fall (detail), 2019.
Free Fall (detail), 2019.
More installation view see:
Free Fall Solo Exhibition 2019