Xu Ya-Zhu on how social work recasts aesthetics in the art of Huang Sunquan

from the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia

By Xu Ya-Zhu

Huang Sunquan, Come Out! Utopia, 2013. Photo: Xing Yu. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing

My knowledge of Huang Sunquan comes from his years of radical practice. The ‘artworks’ in his exhibition u-topophilia: Art in Field and Societal Space at Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing are simply byproducts of that. With that I am not saying that contemporary art always needs to manifest itself in new forms. But I am suggesting that by admitting a Huang Sunquan into its ranks, contemporary art reveals its own deficiencies. Huang concerns himself with the potential for change in economic and political processes within a specific historical moment, rather than with the representation of those processes in works of art. If we accept that, then his exhibition unintentionally exposes something false within contemporary art: the ‘marketing operation’ behind the presently popular notion of art intervening in what is called ‘social space’.

Huang’s courses on topics such as social movements, cultural action and citizen media have become crucial wellsprings of student activism, just as his independent newspaper POTS Weekly has deeply influenced Taiwanese youth culture and its political movements for the past 20 years

Huang studied architecture and urban planning, and, when still a graduate student, joined other activists to establish POTS Weekly, an independent newspaper addressing the underground culture and political perception in the time following the March student movement of 1990 in Taiwan. In 1997 he initiated Against the Municipal Bulldozers, the first anti-urbanrenewal movement in the Greater China region. A year later he shot the documentary Our New Homeland (1998), which remains an important reference source in Taiwanese urban-studies departments and which influenced the narrative structure and imagery of later, similar documentaries, such as Lo Chun-Chia’s The Forgotten Corner – A Documentary of Lo-Sheng Sanatorium (2006) and H15 Concern Group and v-artivist’s Home Where the Yellow Banners Fly (2012). In 2004, as the blogging craze began, he established twblog.net, a crucial hub for Taiwanese writers that encouraged activists to use media to reclaim their societal rights. The same year, he established the tw.indymedia.org, part of the global Independent Media Center network born of the Seattle antiglobalisation movement (at the time, 120 cities around the world set up Independent Media Centers as part of the network). In 2004 and 2005 Huang took a visiting-professor position in the Masters of Cultural Studies (MCS) programme at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. While there, he encouraged the formation of Hong Kong’s Independent Media Center, and during the 2005 WTO Conference, he joined the students of Hong Kong on the streets. There, he witnessed the fierce protests of South Korean farmers and the Hong Kong police force’s use of tear gas and pepper spray against innocent students and citizens for the first time. That international demonstration and what accompanied it has inspired wave upon wave of democratic and socially engaged movements in Hong Kong over the past decade. Huang’s courses on topics such as social movements, cultural action and citizen media have become crucial wellsprings of student activism, just as POTS Weekly has deeply influenced Taiwanese youth culture and its political movements for the past 20 years. When Huang subsequently took a teaching position at National Kaohsiung Normal University in Taiwan, he finally had the opportunity to consider social movements from a purely educational perspective. He led students on fieldwork, the development of projects, the curating of exhibitions and the operation of an actual art space: the Monkey- Wrenching Art Center.

Huang’s artist statement for u-topophilia, and the artworks on show within it announce a new position: ‘the artist as social scientist’ does not see ‘the field’ as source material, but rather develops concrete, substantive knowledge systems and action plans for field workers and their subjects. Huang repeatedly emphasises that:

contemporary art is no longer a historical project; it is just interpretation and more interpretation. In large-scale exhibitions,             artworks have become the testimonies of discourses, and the exhibitions per se have become interpretation rather than                events. Art-ism in history has a historical task of its own, which fights for aesthetic norms as alleged. Nowadays, art trends            belong nowhere and drift along the market. Resistance has become the love of imagery while revolution has become an                image; everything could be a commodity, and aesthetics (together with a variety of theories of perceptive distribution) is                  highly approachable.

Huang therefore sees fieldwork and socially active art as key aspects of the true long-term battle (which incorporates various forms of resistance culture) ‘to confront the economic evangelists and physical/moral nurturing of neoliberalism’. This means the artistic consideration of everyday life, a reflection on the definition of art practice and its role in everyday life, the reallocation of pleasure (according to Huang, pleasure, normally the property of the bourgeoisie, has no revolutionary qualities. The real revolution comes in reallocating pleasure: through art schools or movements, enhanced sensory perception, knowledge sharing and so on) and the abandonment of local sentimentality generated by property rights and ownership. If contemporary art implies the universal convergence of politics and commerce, in which everything from inkwash paintings to conceptual artworks become commodities, then Huang’s approach is the only artistic method of lifting the neoliberal veil: understanding societal, political and economic processes within a historical context.

In projects ranging from a student field research programme conducted in the Cijin Island District of Kaohsiung over the past few years to trips he took with students to the Sichuan earthquake disaster-zone to help build houses or to Shilidian, a village at the centre of China’s agrarian-reform revolution, while serving as a visiting professor at the China Academy of Art, Huang’s field of operations is defined by the initiation of societal understanding. In an era of readily accessible aesthetics, Huang addresses their allocation; in a world of spectacular artifice, he prefers to study alongside fools, poor people and the lower social classes, in order to penetrate its apparent unity of construction and seek the possibility of upheaval. As Huang sees it, social movements and ‘the field’ are opportunities both to reconstruct historicity and to awaken consciousness.

His capacity for precise perception mastered during his architectural training cannot be overlooked. His works are not located in space – they are space

At the same time, the capacity for precise perception Huang mastered during his architectural training cannot be overlooked. His works are not located in space – they are space. In A Day (2012–13), the viewer enters a space of perpetually shifting light. Using mobile phones, 20 workers documented an ordinary day in their lives in a demonstration of mechanical reproduction. The work attempts to focus the viewer’s attention upon the labourers hidden in the shadows of glittering metropolises. The Islands series (2012–14) is the result of fieldwork begun by Huang’s team on Cijin Island in 2011. Drawing on workshops and field interviews, the project bridges historical and contemporary landscapes as well as 2. and 3. by utilising Augmented Reality (AR) techniques. Huang’s so-called memo-scape links the fractured landscapes and societal relationships of past and present, while Kaohsiung Jukebox (2014, part of the Islands series) offers a blended auditory reproduction of historical and contemporary voices. The works in this series connect people with historical sentiments, and offer viewers with their own unique memories the opportunity to recreate connections in the present. They are the history, time, memory and feelings of the island, and the presently reverberating images, sounds and spaces within the gallery – but also resonances within the bodies of individual viewers, creating connections and awakening awareness at the level of historical consciousness. It is an authentic, experimental action aimed at recreating public histories.

Come Out! Utopia (2013), Huang writes in the u-topophilia catalogue, offers a rush of anxiety that ‘extracts the utopian ideality of cities and the embers of formalist tragedy’: a lone reflection caught between past ideals and projections of present reality. The viewer faces a colossal tower of mirrors broken up by chinks through which historical ideals are visible within: models for utopian urban plans that were never implemented. By seeing both ourselves in the mirror and also the unrealised practices behind it, we realise that we are not in fact insiders, or at least that a part of us remains projected outward. Within the ideals of history, people always seem to have opportunities to act as historical subjects, but in the end, they are usually no more than historical objects.

During a panel on u-topophilia, the artist Chen Chieh-Jen had this to say about Huang: “The perceptions of each individual are both constructed and cut o«, both produced and obstructed… he remains a certain kind of architect, not an architect who builds houses, but one who disrupts the habits of our mental frameworks, the naturally concealed ways in which we govern ourselves, or are governed. This kind of mapping is displayed by the exhibition space.” Chen went on to say, “Huang Sunquan is always critiquing artists and the art system, but the true target of his critique is always the set of discursive structures, narratives and standards of art history that were imposed upon everyone beginning in the late nineteenth century, constructions that cannot be avoided anytime we try to speak our own language and appropriate discursive power. Do we truly create our own mental framework and the conditions of our lives, and have we authentically conducted fieldwork, research, face-to-face, body-to-body, searching between one another? If we have not done fieldwork, then our most novel perceptions are the outer walls of Come Out! Utopia, the formal extremes, the external expression of governed, allocated perceptions.”

Jacques Rancière states that contemporary art is ordinary art, just as he states that aesthetics must be democratised – but how do we accomplish that? Huang has provided an answer in his practice. This is the reason that the contemporary art museum needs Huang Sunquan: the same reason that contemporary art needs his practical experience of art in the field and in societal space.

This article was translated from the Chinese by Daniel Nieh, and first published in the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.