Entering the space at OCT Loft in Shenzhen, currently showing the work of Sui Jianguo, you seemingly find the type of monumental and benign public art that will not ruffle any feathers but which looks impressive and probably carries some meaning nobody is ever going to try very hard to grasp. You have, however, been lured into a trap and set up for an unexpected interpretive wallop. After enticing you in to engage in the process you normally derive gratification from in galleries, your interpretations are completely undermined by the “Oh, that’s what he’s doing!” revelation in the back-room videos – showing that your take on this work was miles off-target and making you wonder why you gravitated toward the interpretation you did and what value it really had for you. Do you go gallery hopping to reinforce what you already believe or to be open to new insights and possibilities for change? Furthermore, you begin to realize this is not really art anyway, but a type of anti-art/art cyborg camouflaged as pure abstract sculpture.
So you see monumental pieces of gleaming metals and shining plastics appearing like stone or natural structures and you notice the curves, the shine, the color, the relationships between structures, whether the stuff is rising or falling, the square patterns incised into the work and the grid patterns formed by the scaffolding – all to try to get your meaning. But what you should have noticed were the little grooves or marks on the surfaces throughout the pieces. This is because the videotapes hidden deep within the show reveal that Sui engages in acts of violence in order to create his sculptures. Sometimes he will drop slabs of clay from platforms forming unstable towers of this material, sometimes he will hurl metal balls or bricks into huge chunks of clay, sometimes he will kick into the clay or punch into it. The shapes he derives are due solely to violence shown against this medium. He then magnifies the piece to monumental stature, ironically obscuring the violent origins through grandiosity and inviting you to derive a false (awe-inspiring) meaning from it. The only evidence of the violence becomes the traces of hand or foot prints or the grooves of palm and finger prints.
The monumental stature of these works of violence is, basically, a joke being played on the viewer which Sui employed in the past by creating his giant Cultural Revolution suits. In regard to these abstract pieces in the current show, you attempt an interpretation of Sui’s work as grandiose as the work seems itself, until you realize the origin of each piece is aggression. Indeed, you realize it is aggression magnified to the point where it takes on characteristics of glory, splendor and majesty. Of course, the creation of all art is due to a willful effort or act of aggression. This is a paradox of art – art leads to insights aiding us in our peaceful, pro-social, humane development, but we are being steered toward self-understanding and greater humanity through aggressive, often self-aggrandizing motives – can this work? Indeed, we view aggression in every work of art we look at. Sui could be saying that every work of art ever created has been an act of aggression against a medium… for the betterment of humanity?
One then is compelled to ask where this aggression to create comes from. In Sui’s case, there are several choices. First, he had a very difficult life. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution he was forced to work in a factory and forego formal education (even though he is a highly respected academic at this point). Due to his difficult life he could be filled with such anger and resentment that he simply cannot create anything other than that which reflects violence. Truly peaceful and humane folks do not seem to “create”. Why would they? Their very presence in the world is transformative. My maternal grandmother was a kind and saintly woman who sweetened the world each day she lived – I never saw her hurling steel balls into clay. You need your inner demons to create. Picasso created until he kicked the bucket – the guy had inner demons galore. We trek to galleries and museums to see this kind of stuff.
Perhaps Sui is also pointing out the limits of art – the limited engagement art can have on others. Perhaps you only recognize what you have already experienced in art and it does not open anyone’s eyes. Perhaps this is the source of a rage against the inconsequence of a socially-valued form of expression that can only be acted out by hurling bricks into clay. In any case, Sui does not create, he executes acts of violence and presents this as the only real art that can be created because, perhaps, he knows the uselessness of art. Duchamp said that art gains its economic and interpretive value by being useless, but Sui might be going one step forward by saying art really IS useless, on almost every level except the economic level, including the interpretative level. Art talks big and delivers small, but it contributed more than $700 billion to the US economy last year.
Earlier I mentioned Sui seems to be playing a joke on us. There are, in fact, many quite funny anti-art elements in the work of Sui. The scaffolding presents, for example, a type of mock grid. It seems to be a parody of a commonly used device to project a sense of profundity onto an otherwise mediocre piece – “Throw a grid in there and everyone will think it’s deep”. The scaffolding also seems to be there to support massive pieces, until you look closely and see the works of sculpture are hollow. Brick-like patterns on the pieces take on the curvature of space-time illustrations and seem to serve the purpose of hiding the destructive nature of the process of creation behind the façade of building blocks.
Surely Sui realizes the overriding economic function of art these days, as the buyers and gallery owners have been reigning supreme for some time now, and contemporary art can only exist within a context of market forces which are destroying the planet. So he will not create or he will only create art which reveals his contempt for the process of creation. Or does he realize the self-absorbed pride often involved in artistic creation that accompanies the efforts of the deeply flawed folks who often create? Sui clearly rejects the only thing that art can do: lie. His art is the truth that reveals that art lies. It lies all the time. It does not point to truth, it points to its capacity to lie, if you look closely enough.