We might be tempted to think that the woman in Xiang Jing’s sculpture The End turns her face to the wall and hides it with her hands as a response to the mirror next to her. We might assume the mirror forces her to compare herself with, and she is turning away from, the social expectations of personal beauty which she cannot meet. Yet, it could be that the presence of the mirror is coincidental to her turning to the wall. It, thus, replicates the image of a grieving woman, reminding us that everything we see is a reflection of light and not reality itself. So, if we feel sympathy or pain, the mirror, as a repeated image, invites us to ask ourselves how a mere image can have such a deep effect on us. Why is it strong in some of us and weak in others? Should we all be responding emotionally in the same manner to this woman’s perceived grief?
Is our grief, originating in a psychological process derived from perception and cognition, something “natural” or something we picked up somewhere? Where did the miracles of compassion and mercy come from? Should we abandon or further embrace our compassion once we begin to understand its true origin in evolution, perception and cognition?
Her grief is real and painful to her, but our perception of her grief is an illusion developed into a mental construction that we use to attempt a real connection with a perceived other that suffers. The origin of our own sympathy shows it to be a “something” that can be examined and not just lived, derived from a psychological process. John Locke pointed out that we are not the beasts that Thomas Hobbes said we were primarily because we feel pain when we see others suffer. This often causes us to stop others from causing pain – the awareness we will also suffer from the pain they cause prompts moral action to stop pain in the world.
Or is it really much more simple than this? The woman does not want to look at herself. She fears that she does not meet physical standards and that her life is easily controlled by the desires and standards of others. The mirror is what we use to check ourselves against the standards of others each day, to see whether we are presentable or likable. Will this rejection of the mirror lead to a new awareness for the young woman or continue her pain daily? Of course, you can imagine the selfies which are being shot with this work of sculpture – as people seem to enjoy standing next to this woman and hiding their faces alongside her while another snaps the shot. What if, in fact, the sculpted woman is hiding her face because she is laughing hysterically?
Dream Butterfly by Jiang Jie shows the illusion of a butterfly made from two women facing each other and arching their backs. It could be a counterbalance to the mirror piece, as the perception and acceptance of another, and the realization that the other accepts and loves you, entails humane development reflected in the emergent form of the butterfly. The self becomes an illusion when one is in love or in a deep sense of connection with the lives of others. Our identity is to be found and lost through and in love with another or others. The physical touch is not as important as the emotional touch in this piece, which is transformational.
The wall notes also reference, as you might expect, the famous story of the philosopher Zhuangzi. He claimed that he dreamed of himself as a butterfly, joyously flying about, living in the moment and fully tasting of all facets of life. Upon waking up he wondered whether he was now a butterfly dreaming himself to be a human. There is no discounting the sexual aspects in this piece, and it is two women who comprise the butterfly. Does this piece imagine the fulfillment and growth of someone fully aware of and fully enjoying his/her sexuality, in whatever form it might be? Or, does the piece point to the fact that this type of development coming from one’s true but hidden sexuality is still a “dream butterfly” for many? Is our sexuality phenomenological in that it does not allow for illusion or concepts but only for pure sensory engagement and fulfillment in conjunction with the desire and pleasure of another?
In the Paradoxical Walker series by Wang Luyan we see robotic figures whose feet are not pointed in the same direction as the figure apparently strides forward anyway. The back foot is pointed in the exact opposite direction, 180 degrees in relationship to the front foot. Moving forward has always been represented as both feet pointing in the same forward direction as the intended goal of the person moving. But what if the person moving forward is concerned with moving forward based upon an awareness of and a desire for movement based on reflection, lessons from previous experience and even past failures to respond and react to other people in a human or kind manner.
The inverted back foot now means something. This is the foot of a person who will not make the same regrettable mistakes again. It is the foot pointed to the past to make sure of a better future. It is the foot that learns from mistakes. This is the inverted foot of experience which has changed how the person will live and respond to others in the future. As he/she moves forward, that back foot is rooted in the past and the lessons of the past, that foot represents the benevolent changes in the walker as he/she now moves forward confidently to engage others in a more merciful manner. This seems to represent a capacity to be aware of the preceding choices we failed to make and future responses or actions one now wants to make, in response to the regrets of the past. This is the opposite of living and moving forward in regret while still making the same mistakes over and over again.