Guan Xiao does not care much for the label ‘post-Internet’ – particularly when it is applied, as it often is, to her or her art. Besides a general dissatisfaction with lazy acts of labelling that are the result of ignorance and an impatient desire to historicise, the Beijing-based artist is also unhappy about the idea of naming a new art movement after a tool or technology. However, as is the case with others of the new generation of artists grouped under this label, it is evident that Guan is interested in this tool and its no-longer-novel-but-ever-more-powerful technological advancement. In both her sculptural and video works (which are often also integrated), she frequently draws on imagery found on the net, treating it both as a source and a platform. For the 2015 Biennale de Lyon (amusingly themed La Vie Moderne), she presented, alongside other works, the ten-screen installation One and the Rest of Them (2015), which effectively creates an environment that offers a virtuality resembling that of the Internet – incorporating material representing a variety of time periods and cultures, but presenting it in a manner that flattens that out by being at once immediate and simultaneous.
Interestingly, Guan, a nominee for last year’s Hugo Boss Asia Art Award for emerging Asian artists, claims that it was only in 2010 (four years after her graduation), when she took part in the group exhibition Mummery, at Art Channel, Beijing, that she definitively thought of herself as ‘an artist’. In part this period of gestation is the product of circumstance. To Guan, the 2008 financial crisis marked the beginning of better conditions for young artists in China; her own studies took place before that. Indeed, she decided to study film (graduating with a major in directing) in order to gain a practical education that was as broad and multidisciplinary as the ‘fine art’ courses taught in the West, but that was simply not available at the time in Chinese art schools (in which one has to pick from among media and culturally specific disciplines such as Chinese traditional painting, Western oil painting, print, sculpture and so on). For Guan, film studies offered the possibility of avoiding such strict compartmentalism and creatively combining media in a way that might be both comprehensive and relevant to the times. And these concerns have remained at the core of her output ever since.
Her work is ambitious in that it occupies both the spatial and temporal dimensions of a given space, without treating either dimension as representational of the other. In both instances Guan draws on found or readymade materials (footage posted online or objects ranging from alloy wheels and engines to various ancient or tribal artefacts), but not only is the manifest readymade nature of one different from the other (the footage used in the videoworks acts in a manner that disturbs the readymade nature of the sculptural objects, returning them in terms of both nature and quality to a suspended status); as Guan has it, the two strands in her work depart from polar extremes: while the videowork begins from a conceptual basis, Guan’s sculpture is generated by formal concerns. This difference in points of departure effectively strips one of its self-present, self-sufficient status, and makes it the external but imperative supplement of the other, such that the presence or absence of one in the other is to be considered no less than constitutive. Take for instance Guan’s 2013 exhibition Survivors’ Hunting at Magician Space, Beijing: found in the 2013 three-channel videowork Cognitive Shape’s narration and juxtaposition of historical and contemporary inscriptions is in effect the production of the sculptural work that was also in the exhibition, Cloud Atlas (2013). And, perhaps more pertinently, Cognitive Shape seemingly is moving towards anticipating the future erasure of Cloud Atlas, an entity that is, contrary to its physical form, as ephemeral as the title of the work suggests.
This structural arrangement distances Guan’s artistic practice from that of previous generations and that derived from other cultural backgrounds – her work follows a teleological path that has ‘the abstract’ and ‘abstraction’ as its ends, seeking to reveal an openness within the found or readymade materials with which her artistic process begins. In contrast to the anticipation of newly made, pseudo-messianic virtual reality (allegedly offering a total experience that activates all the senses) that is widely considered to be the shared ambition of ‘post-Internet’ artists, Guan is interested in creatively reactivating discussion about ways of looking by manipulating the environment in which that act occurs. For works such as The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture (2012), Guan recalls the painterly idea of the background by creating in effect a horizon of primitive, tropical, tribal patterns, against which heterogeneous artefacts are presented. This intense arrangement brings out anxiety and urges one to reconsider the nature of things. But as specific as that may sound, it also addresses an idea of expansion that is prevalent in today’s artworld. Transforming the defeatist ‘anything goes’ idea of postmodern art, this kind of contemporary artistic practice reconsiders the ontological and teleological nature of the ‘anything’. In other words, the ontological and teleological nature of the universal raised as a question: what could be meaningfully produced and presented, given that we are first of all tired of chasing after the ‘new’, and second of all sceptical about the emphasis on difference? Used in the formulation of the question is an incredible list of things: from everyday objects such as cans, slippers, car tyres or camera tripods, to literary references such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), to natural phenomena such as snakeskin patterns, and monumental motifs such as the Statue of Liberty, Michelangelo’s David (c. 1501) or the heads on Easter Island.
To Guan, identity politics takes up numerous incarnations (the label of ‘post-Internet’ forced onto her being one, ‘Chinese’ and ‘female’ being others), but she is barely interested in any one of them. A postcolonial emphasis on ‘difference’ does not interest her: instead she is dedicated to a further subversion that takes exactly those things that are considered to be universal as her subject: linear narratives, for example. Guan often juxtaposes extremely ancient objects – neolithic artefacts, tribal masks of sacred nature – with the profoundly new – iPhones, touch-screen devices – not for a comparative reading revealing the possible differences between the two as metonyms for grand, political narratives that are obvious and often simplifying, but rather to examine the failure of archaeological endeavours, in a fashion that seemingly deliberately disrespects the genealogical aspect of things: the shared identity in which she is interested is a lack of identity, insufficient contextualisation and dysfunction of the specific objects in both the realm of the artistic and the social. Provisionally, in the moment of the work, both the ancient and the newly invented are to be treated the same, in terms of our knowledge about these elements, our clumsiness in appropriating them and the inevitable commodification and commercialisation that immediately follows.
The pseudo-archaeological and cultural examination in Guan’s videowork David (2013) is a prime example of this. The artist sings along to ubiquitous clips of the famous statue:
This is David / But he disappeared / Yes! He is right here /
We can see him very close/Or/Very faraway/But/
We just CANNOT see him / We don’t know WHY we watching /
We’re / studying him, shooting him, singing for him / … /
We/Cost him/Post him/Eat him/…/
We can make him disappear / so e-a-s-i-l-y /
To make her disappear / Or make them disappear / …
It is made clear that the overwhelming production and misappropriation of David in effect hollows out the masterpiece. The statue is almost treated as a natural resource here: a significant instance of civilisation is presented as a given material that is to be at once consumed and reproduced in all possible ways; and like other natural resources, it is to be exhausted. Our lack of understanding of Michelangelo’s David is considered first of all as not operating solely within the realm of art history, but also in that of the social as a whole; secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is narrated in Guan’s chanting that this lack – of understanding, knowledge, appreciation and respect – is exactly that which passes today as understanding, knowledge, appreciation and respect. What is presented – to a spectator whose national, social, cultural and gender identity and background are deliberately and a priori suspended – is the contemporary dilemma of ignorance that results from careless proliferations. If, in this work, the statue David is not treated as significant merely within the history of art, then neither is Guan so keen on being an artist within a specific, narrow realm. As with other artists of her generation, she is equally concerned with popular culture, often making nuanced allusions to the mechanisms and systems of global pop culture and its impact on everyday life.
It doesn’t stop here: Guan is also concerned with international politics. At the moment Guan is working on her first artist book, provisionally titled Why can’t we see Europe from an armchair?, which will be published to accompany her new videowork Weather Forecast, a presentation in Paris this coming June that aims to reveal the uncanny aspect of the everyday. Just as she refuses to amplify the significance of her national, social, cultural and gender identity, admitting it to be nothing more than an obstacle to fruitful artistic exchange, she considers the present European refugee situation to be embarrassing, testifying to the failure of the nation state and the emergence of a new identity that is marked by a positive and deliberate overcoming of differences. Ultimately, Guan’s work raises questions concerning the notions of background, genealogy, horizon and context through playful manipulations that resemble and mimic modern scholarly, archaeological endeavours.
Guan Xiao will present a new work in association with k11 Art Foundation at the ICA London, 20 April – 19 June, and will have a solo show as part of the Jeu de Paume’s Satellite programme at Concorde, Paris, 6 June – 25 September.
This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia.