Text by Li Jia
English translation by Stephen Nashef
…but I caught the half belt at the back of his reefer, held on to it, and asked him, “What did one wall say to the other wall?”
His face lit up. “Meet you at the corner!” he shrieked, and raced out of the room, possibly in hysterics.
from J. D. Salinger’s For Esmé – with Love and Squalor
“What did one wall say to the other wall? Meet you at the corner!” It is likely that many Chinese readers first came across this dry English joke in J. D. Salinger’s short story, For Esmé – with Love and Squalor. Written in 1950, the story’s protagonist Sergeant X resembles to some extent Salinger himself: a young sensitive man in his thirties, yet to fully recover from the mental and physical trauma he suffered in the hellish, loveless world of the Second World War. During that time, his only saving grace was encountering a sister and brother while stationed in southern England. Amidst the pain and loss of war, the strength and innocence still possessed by these two children were the source of what little faith in humanity remained to the young writer. For both Sergeant X and Salinger himself, as well as the countless souls whose spirits are crushed by the world in which they live, the children’s “meet you at the corner” riddle provides a certain hope, that one day shattered lives will be able to come together, “with all their faculties intact.”
The publication of the story coincided with the beginning of McCarthyism in America. With the outbreak of the Korean war, the iron curtain was beginning to descend over half of the globe. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but ever since the publication of this story about “meeting at the corner”, the upheavals of regional politics, the vicissitudes of world history, as well as individual moments of sorrow, joy, segregation and reunification, have been inextricably bound up with various visible and invisible “walls”. Our current discourse and imaginary are informed by questions of closing off or opening up, breaking away or coming together, building walls or dismantling them; ways of thinking that are imbued with more than half a century of ideological mythologies. One of the most famous of these concerns the very real wall built in Berlin in 1961 which, according to President Kennedy, inspired Robert Frost, in one of his best-known poems Mending Wall, to repeat what would become the most symbolically powerful line of the Cold War period: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Similarly, the young people singing “All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall” in 1979, when the rock band Pink Floyd released the album The Wall, would witness for themselves the fall of the Berlin Wall ten years later – on television, on the news, on stage, and in various recordings. But everything seemed to happen too easily. From the rubble arose a new image of a bygone era and around the world humanity celebrated “the end of history”. But less than twenty years later, we have found that our inexorable forward march has taken a turn and brought us back behind another wall. We have discovered that in reality towering walls have always cast our lives in shadow: on the US-Mexican border, in Palestine, in cyberspace, on world political negotiation tables, around the echo chambers of social media, and in the global isolation and daily lockdowns we find ourselves subject to as a result of COVID-19…
It is from moments like these that our work must begin. This is the first Dangxia Young Artists Award exhibition, and all 8 featured artists are selected from a total of 25 shortlisted nominees of this year’s award. All the shortlisted artists were born either in the late 1980s or the 1990s, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Most of them started studying in art academies in the first decade of this century, during a time when the myth of a unified global (art) movement was at its height. In China’s short history of contemporary art, no generation has felt so seamlessly a part of the “global scene”. From producing art and putting on exhibitions to travelling and meeting other artists, it seemed that just like finance, trade, production and consumption, the art industry too was now operating on a smooth and unobstructed plane that spanned the globe, making artists nomads traversing a borderless cultural space, spokespeople for the new and open world. However, so too has no generation had such rapidly changing circumstances foisted upon them. They have been forced to re-evaluate, come to terms with and learn to adapt to an age that is sharply reversing course, a period of localised turbulence and global crisis, while the art world has become severely constricted, commodified and cynical. And all of this has been accelerated and exacerbated by a series of catastrophic events taking place on the world stage. If it can be said that an artist’s primary task is to navigate the relationship between representation and reality, the overpowering force of the present moment has ruptured the stale and fragile former logic of representation, restricted artists’ room for self-disciplined practice, and cast an immeasurable shadow over their futures. These young artists are now at the age that Salinger was when he wrote his tale about “meeting at the corner”. What kind of path lies before them? How can they address the double crisis in both representation and reality? And how will they climb the walls closing in on us to re-imagine, re-envisage and restart our futures?
“If there is an invisible wall in contemporary art, it will confine us.” These were the words spoken by Gao Minglu for the exhibition tour he curated in 2005 titled Wall: The History and Borders of Chinese Contemporary Art. (1) This sentiment reflected to some extent the way artists at the time understood and felt about how contemporary art had developed over its first twenty years in China. Now that another twenty years have passed, the way in which we imagine, interpret and project meaning onto walls can no longer be expressed in terms of such binaries as inside and outside, division and unification, open and closed. For Chris Zhongtian Yuan, whose work focuses on architectural research and imagery, contemporary lives have entered a perpetually peripatetic state. As such, his approach transcends binary frameworks to suggest new possibilities for artistic creation that transcend borders and identities. Counterfictions (2018-2019) is based on former president Donald Trump’s plans for a US-Mexico border wall. By alternating between voice and architecture, spectacle and text, real reports, statistics and fictional stories, it envisions how such a border wall will bring about an ecological breakdown in local conditions, the destination to which populist conservatism leads. Chris Zhongtian Yuan believes that the act and product of writing text through image are in themselves tools for the dismantling of walls. In his work Wuhan Punk, shot in early 2020, the landscape of the artist’s hometown, as well as the memories and myths of revolt that characterised the city during its period of tragedy, are brought to life by the camera that wanders through the virtual cityscape accompanied by off-screen narration, allowing repressed emotions to travel freely once more.
By surmounting symbolic and metaphorical walls, artists provide access to the real world’s free-flowing state, allowing us to enter concrete and speculative spaces, places, territories, borders, spectacles… an endless series of deterritorialisations and reterritorialisations that offer an escape route through the boundaries that confine our freedom. Xiong Jiaxiang has imagined the wall of a military control centre. The wall is covered with the official A4 forms used by military departments, on which the artist has made drawings with cosmetic products. Between make-up and make-believe, these drawings operate within a naïve structure of chaos, convergence, divergence and controversy, which stitches together war, crisis and the quotidian. Ma Jianfeng on the other hand has constructed a miniature theatre from painted cardboard to allude to our familiar experience of urban spaces. The instability of the cardboard construction, its unconventional form, and the emotional intensity of its colours and contours – a profusion of interpenetrations, diffusions and dispersals emanating from its centre to create unknown fissures that produce moments of chaos and ambiguity – give rise to a visual turbulence that seems to invite the viewer to physically traverse its cardboard domain.
Within bodies, walls and the spaces they both occupy, changes to our actions, positions and perspectives give rise in turn to relational transformations. The body is therefore always in the process of redefining and unearthing its relations to its environment, their intimate, inconstant and allegorical complexity, and the directness of bodily experience. Zhiliang Zhao carried out a residency project this year in Mexico City. In this project, for which he chose the name “Partition Walls”, images of bodies drawn on paper clay find themselves in a state of being simultaneously sheltered and spied upon. Exploring related themes, he also used concrete moulds to reverse engineer the negative space beneath a plastic stool, which he then inlaid with monochrome mosaic imagery that exudes vulnerability and reveals the latent interplay between body and matter. On his return, and during his fourteen days’ quarantine in a multistorey hotel, he used the only materials available to him – a few rolls of cotton thread – to weave a net the same width as the window and long enough to reach the ground outside. With this piece, which he called Golden Ladder, an almost ritualistic act of labour extended his body, temporarily sequestered in the tower of his hotel building, until it had made contact with the ground below. A similar ritual took place this year when he was locked down in his own home in Shanghai due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Zhiliang Zhao removed the skin from over 200 tangerines, flattened and dried them, and then made them into a curtain that he hung on his formerly exposed window. It is in ways like these that the body is able to find a little support and protection in times of isolation and peril.
For women, sexual minorities and marginal groups, what is just as powerful and just as real as the yearning for association and the desire for solidarity is the need for support, belonging and safe spaces. This is something we see in Zhiliang Zhao’s “Partition Wall”, which provides shelter to the bodies it segregates, as well as the relational transformations brought about by freedom of movement. In the work and creative practice of these artists, every courageous transgression rewrites the current power arrangement and conceptual structure, liberating the objects of silencing and oppression. yy? (Xue Ying) attempts in her work to address the visible and invisible acts of violence to which women are still frequently subject, and to give a concrete representation of the intersectional and structural difficulties women face in their daily life. In her work, everyday domestic objects such as cutlery, dishcloths, pots, hair ties and knitting needles – objects that speak to the labels assigned to women in the private and public sphere (“dedicated”, “fertile” and so on) – are used to form symbolic connections and restructure narratives. These somewhat humorous visual analogues awaken in the viewer the imaginative power of empathy. In an essay titled We Demand It All, she writes: “It is only until today that it dawned on me that, the thing that I have been trying to seize but failed to, the one thing that I have exerted my strength to obtain among all, is the process to unfold my imagination under a hegemonic circumstance.”(2)
This commitment to imagination appears in the work of different artists in different guises. Yuyu Wang works with sculpture and video performance art to explore liminal states concerning the body. Using mostly silica gel but also industrial materials like mixed metals, cement and fabrics, as well as organic materials like hair and plants, she creates sculptures of sagging or flowing shapes, such as tubes, blocks and sacks, exposing each of them in their moments of congealment. The different states occupied by nature and femininity as they appear in fictional narratives form the focus of xindi’s work, which makes use of a range of media such as writing, installation and image to create a parallel virtual space. Her Stories of Sowing：U, X, I, Y, G, H, V, B, J, O, D, S uses dynamic images to categorise the living things around her, providing them with backgrounds, names, and stories: “I have collected and sown a few linguistic fragments to represent, rewrite or create some individuals and groups.”(3) In Tan Jing’s video installation Trancing Lap Hung
, a series of apparently disconnected objects – old-fashioned tiling, scattered photographs, the scents of tropical Asia, and forms floating in and out of view from behind patterned glass – come together to form a suggestive space that acts on both sense and sentiment, and causes the viewer to loosen their grip on the objects of perception and to allow them to collide and surge. But it is precisely when the body has relaxed that those heretofore concealed personal narratives, those neglected emotions, and those clues that guide us toward another history begin to float gradually to the surface.
Imagination will eventually lead us to break through the barriers that enclose our age. To return to the beginning of this essay, when Salinger wrote “with all your faculties intact”, he wasn’t only writing about himself but the entirety of humanity. It was less an expression of passive anticipation than one of faith and conviction. The co-existence of walls with our ideals also forms a story, a story about freedom, overcoming, preservation, departure, and all the prospects, memories, setbacks and advances tied up with such a project. It is precisely in a story of this kind that the uncanny and porous nature of walls begins to reveal itself. One of the most unforgettable elucidations of the contradictory nature of this question was provided during an encounter between Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière. Deleuze speaks of the world of fraternal individuals that is “in process, an archipelago”, an image of “a wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has a value in itself but also in relation to others.” Rancière on the other hand sees the inherent paradox of such a wall, calling it “one of the last of the great, strong images that Deleuze has left us. It is also one of the strangest. We understand that ‘loose, uncemented’ stones conflict with the architectural layout of communities founded on the law of the Father. But in a text whose Messianic connotation is so marked, certainly more so than in any other, why does the image of the whole in motion that must guide the explorers on the great road have to be the image of a wall?” (4) Rancière’s response has in no way diminished the significance of Deleuze’s image but has rather imbued it with greater and more exciting imaginative possibility. If the wall itself is made up of stones that are loose – libre, free – then is this perhaps how the ideological myth surrounding walls comes to an end? Just as in Salinger’s allegorical riddle, the corner at which one wall meets with another is precisely the point at which the stones will come together like birds beneath a sky of hope.
“An Interview with Gao Minglu: Dismantle the invisible wall of contemporary art” interview by Xia Yanguo, https://www.cafa.com.cn/cn/opinions/reviews/details/83973
yy?, “We Demand It All”, LEAP 22 (winter 2021): 37
xindi, statement of Stories of Sowing：U, X, I, Y, G, H, V, B, J, O, D, S
Jacques Ranciere, “Deleuze, Bartleby and the Literature Formula”, The Flesh of Words，Trans. by Charlotte Mandell, Stanford University Press,2004