Eyes Wide Shut: Feng Jiangzhou opens the realm of senses
Among the world’s living creatures, human beings are a species that relies heavily on vision, a perception that fosters itself in art with intoxicatingly bright colors and eye-catching images on canvas and sculpture and allows an equation between art and visual art. This assessment is further reinforced by the conditioned practice that humans have of watching TV, by which they let canned laughs and big grins determine the point at which they should be amused. Perhaps this is what is most exciting about Feng Jiangzhou’s first solo exhibition, “Dharmaguptaka-vinaya,” a multimedia art show that promises enough sensual texture to steer a little bit away from the ocularcentricism of the contemporary art world, and ultimately the world at large.
After producing copious amounts of music under the names of The Fly and Far East Digital Hardcore, and others, and following his 2006 solo release Si Fen Lü (Dharmaguptaka-vinaya), Feng began a move into the realm of multimedia art, including designing stage works for famed director Meng Jinghui. The artist-cum-musician finally had his first solo debut in October 2008.
The show put on display a video and a multi-track sound art installation, the former titled Ni Kan Jian Xu Kong Dui Ni Zha Yan Le Ma?, or, to be more concise, Do You See the Void Blinking Back at You?, and the latter titled Dharmaguptaka-vinaya (also the name of the show as a whole). The video consists of an appropriation of the Yongle Gong (literally “Forever-Bliss Palace”) painting in Shanxi province, a mural dating back to the Yuan dynasty, in which the 200-plus supernatural Taoist immortals of the original wall painting are made by Feng to blink imperceptibly at the audience. Calling reference to a Zen Koan about “the emptiness blinks,” the piece meshes elements of Taoism and Zen, and offers a Chinese cultural label wittier than the Orientalist fantasy of mass-producing Mao’s face in 70 different colors. The appropriation of the symbols in both religions also engenders a look into nihilism characterized by negation.
If this piece grants any pleasure (or more precisely, jouissance), the pleasure comes from — instead of the surprising witness of a Taoist immortal blinking at you after a long wait — how the video exposes viewers to the uncanny gaze of the actually larger-than-human Taoist immortals in a reification of the “Big Other.” It is a bit unsettling to look into the eyes of deities on video, looking into the absolute alterity manifested in the face and the heavy ruffles on the ancient Chinese costumes: this is the otherness whereby death is forever postponed, while I am still stuck in the "being towards death," in a plural form with other beings. It would be wrong to spend too much time on this piece, waiting for a wink from a nameless deity. The piece requires intrinsic power beyond mere size in order to allow the gaze to be activated between the piece and the viewers; otherwise, it could easily be criticized for transplanting Chinese visual icons of any type onto a digital screen and calling it Chinese new media art.
Feng’s Buddhist proclivities led him to titled the show Dharmaguptaka-vinaya (also the name of his 2006 album), which means “the discipline in four parts” and is a title taken from a Theravada Buddhist book of rules. Feng’s audio installation is a 3.5 meter cage-like metal structure covered with black fabric, with amplifiers fixed on the inner frame. This constructed dark space creates total blindness while the amplifiers radiate random sounds from different directions, tickling and distracting the listener from localization within the body of blackness. The disorientation of senses constructs a space that is occasionally disrupted by sound morsels and recalls what anthropologist Edmund Carpenter referred to as “Eskimo Space,” described in his seminal 1973 work, Eskimo Realities, as a place where there is no distance and there are no angles or contours but only a barely-visible cold mist rising from the ice. Similarly, Feng’s piece creates a nomadic space, a stroll in darkness navigated by sensory geography in which the database of perception is rendered useless. As the sounds are produced out of context, the listener perceives the immediate power of the piece without an ability to decode it. It would be cliche to conclude this synopsis piece with a simple diagnosis of regression to the mother's womb. Man, as an animal of meaning, is thrown into this blanket of insecurity (the dark cage), the signification process for the noise — glitches that are the symptom of its signifying system — sounds like a futile attempt. Just as Zizek notes in Lacanian Real Television, the symbolic representation of the subject always ends up as a signifying surplus trying to hide fundamental lack. In this piece, Feng Jiangzhou takes a poetic artistic practice, providing poetry as a known symbolic dispositif pointing to an unknown. This is a subversion of language inside itself, transforming the it-is-very-dark-in-here installation into a smooth plane with only it inside itself.
If I may add another personal point, I would like to express my respect for Feng Jiangzhou's use of numerals in his concepts, explicitly highlighted in the pieces' titles. From Si Fen Lu in this show to Ba Yin,the Mariko-Mori-esque sound installation, the artist successfully brings an aesthetics of musical precision to his work.
This exhibition may claim nothing worth “seeing,” but it makes an effort to trick the senses into the process contradicting our obsession with residues of light reflections.