The Fear of Being Walled In-Preface to the work of Wen Fang

Li Xianting 

Of the two installations created by Wen Fang, the most creative is “The New Golden Brick”. While it acts as the ideal conduit for the artist’s thoughts, this elementary construction material also plays the role of an intermediary, like a witness. Over the past twenty years, the frenetic urbanisation that has taken place in China has transformed the destiny of the majority of Chinese people and destroyed much of both their culture and tradition. As a result, each brick seems to be infused with the blood and sweat of migrant workers and bears the madness of the bureaucrats as well as the ignorance of the real estate developers. It is for this reason that Wen Fang has chosen the brick as her primary linguistic tool; one as powerful as a stone hurled at full force.

 Second element: the portraits of workers and photographs of housing advertisements captured through Wen Fang’s lens and printed on bricks through an involved process. On the bricks, Wen Fang has used traditional means to print out phrases such as: “What are you looking at? You make me laugh!”, “Topography of Beijing of tomorrow”, “Made by Wen Fang in Beijing in the 57th year of the Peoples Republic of China.” Here, the bricks express Wen Fang’s concerns more clearly: they press the issues of “mankind’s destiny” and “the alienation of Chinese culture”, problems that are to be found within the spirit of every alert Chinese citizen.

 Migrant workers. Low cost labour is readily visible, a phenomenon born out of urbanisation. Contrary to negative reports that present the difficulties encountered by migrant workers, particularly in collecting their wages, and the misgiving opinions of a society concerned about these so-called “powerless masses”, Wen Fang has chosen to photograph their “smiling faces” at close quarters, from a position of equality with her subject. Their “smiles” offer up simplicity and rare optimism. Wen Fang’s methodology is linked to her Buddhist beliefs; that of equality and love for all living beings. To “be concerned about the powerless masses” is an expression filled with superiority. The way I see things, it is not a matter of wondering if we are able to take care of those weaker than us, but rather a question of what attitude to adopt when faced with such people. If we were to consider the entire range of contemporary artists and photographers, their representations of workers and peasants often take the form of stupidity, torpor and inertia. Perhaps these artists are not far off the mark. Perhaps the Chinese national identity, particularly that of peasants, is just that. It reminds me of the debate over “national character” that literary circles have become excited over in recent years. I have no intention of entering into that debate. Of course I understand and admire the profound analysis of Chinese national identity that was carried out by Lu Xun. It corresponded to a need present in that era. However, is the arrogant attitude adopted by today’s artists of the same variety as that of Lu Xun’s time? For me, humanity’s modernization is something other than the pursuit of man’s permanent advancement toward an egalitarian ideal. Each individual’s aesthetic criteria, whether from one group or another, are equally valuable. Moreover, that value must be examined and made to be felt by the group itself. My theory on the equality of aesthetics is a supposition. It is clearly difficult for labourers to express their aesthetic tastes. Even a great painter or great photographer hailing from the working class might well paint or photograph labourers with a scornful eye. But what is of real interest to me are critical criteria for those things in art that are involved in the creation of an image of people from the underclass, and whether artists that I care about portray the people who are their subjects as equals and with affinity, even with love.

 Photographs of housing advertisements. Wen Fang hopes to present the public with an alternate visual reality through her photography; photographs that are not only advertisements, but the urban landscape of Beijing! If fact, this advertising assault is not limited to Beijing alone. These “compositions” of a “European style” are invading the streets and avenues of every city, creating a visual violence that the eye is unable to avoid: Venice Gardens, Grasse Town, Edinburgh Castle, Van Gogh Park…

 These European environments resemble the reconstructed roads of the Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty. They are nothing more than imitation trickery and designs guided by profit; having nothing to do with cultural construction. They incarnate the aesthetic tastes of the nouveaux riche. Confucius, in his era, was already bemoaning the collapse of rites and customs. To the nouveaux riche who dared to “sing with eight choruses in the courtyard of their ancestor’s temple” he angrily said “If you allow yourself such a breach, what would you not dare to do?” The rapid accumulation of wealth among the nouveaux riches deprives them of the indispensable basis on which to construct their values. Often, they copy the tastes of the imperial family to make a show of their nobility. As such, stone lions, a symbol of power from antiquity, now decorate the storefronts of little restaurants, businesses and the homes of peasants who have become rich. The cultural environment of the former nobility has quite clearly disappeared. These days, even the artisans are deceiving. In fact, the stone lions that are presently being manufactured are not worth as much as the Pekinese dog statues created in the Qing era. Those sculptures embodied the extreme skill of artisans both poor and respectful of their craft, though that respect was not of the same calibre as was found in the Han and Tang Dynasty. Be it for the great construction projects of antiquity or the sculpture of stone lions, often commissioned by decree of the emperor, artisans succeeded in capturing the cultural atmosphere of the era and maintained a respect for their work. If one considers all the stone lions created since the Han and Tang, up until the Qing Dynasty, the difference in the cultural imprint left by each era becomes visible. Today, stone lions have clearly become crass and completely ridiculous because their creation is driven by profit. They are a mark of social status that serves only to satisfy the false desires elicited within the buyer by historic sites, books and films. Unlike true culture, which is a lengthy historic accumulation and a self-fulfilling system, making it rich is a matter of acquiring everything quickly. It is an attitude that is not self-sufficient. Copying, whether it is a European style or a Ming era road, becomes necessary in order to demonstrate one’s existence. If fact, be they commercial or political, only short-term gains register. In other words, prosperity born of luxury and the accumulation of wealth is nothing other than political utilitarianism.

 That said, the aesthetic tastes of the nouveaux riche are not the result of modernisation. There exists, in fact, an essential line of differentiation: modernisation looks toward the future, it fights with all its might to create a new culture. The nouveaux riche and the bureaucrats are facing backwards, the destruction of culture having undermined their foundations and values. They are left only with bygone ways of life, particularly those of the rich, like princes, dukes and their descendants. Economic growth and the development of consumer culture have resulted, among these people, in a need and a hope for a life similar to the aristocrats of a former age. That is why European style residences, Roman columns and glazed tile roofs are popping up all around. One should read the slogans that are appearing on the billboards: “Beijing Fairview Garden”, “Chinese style Beverly Hills”, “the neighbourhood of rich Chinese”, “Calm and Quality”, “The Leman Lake Villa”, “Famous Heritage of the entire world”, “Son of Heaven Hotel”, “At the feet of the Son of Heaven”, or even “Enter the palace in an imperial chariot”! In order to satisfy the short-term dreams fostered by wealth, a multitude of plaster roman columns and innumerable stone lions are being manufactured. These cheap copies, crude and artificial, are but pale imitations.

 The installation series “The New Golden Brick” by Wen Fang is entitled “Topography of Beijing of Tomorrow”. In fact, residences like Roma Garden and Atlantic Place have existed for nearly ten years… It is certainly not a matter of place names to be seen in the future. They are very much a part of our present environment! Wen Fang has resorted to a traditional engraving technique to write on the back side of the “Golden Bricks”, the Chinese characters “Made by Wen Fang in Beijing in the 57th year of the Peoples Republic of China.” Who knows if some time down the road Beijing’s name will not be transformed into “Beinice” or “Beijingburgh”! A Chinese friend of mine who has lived in Europe for an extended period was traveling through China. During his stay, he did not recognise the places and areas that were once familiar to him. The residence in which he lived, the bars where he hung out, the supermarket where he did his groceries, everything had a European name, but these pale imitations were in no way similar to the authentic European style. He found that very depressing! Wen Fang was born and raised in Beijing. While still very young, she studied calligraphy, prayed to Buddha and loved classical Chinese literature. She also spent two years studying in France. She knew Beijing before it was completely destroyed and while in France, she became familiar with the architecture of European cities. She is therefore aware of the hidden values to be found behind European décor: the desire to protect culture and tradition and the notion that modernity can not come about through the destruction of existing traditions. However, upon Wen Fang’s return to Beijing, she witnessed urbanisation and the frantic alienation of Chinese culture, the insane building projects recreating western environments. Every brick laid in this urban construction seemed therefore to crash violently into Wen Fang’s heart. Hence the choice of bricks for the creation of her work.

 “Walls” is a piece created before “The New Golden Brick”. The photographs in “Walls” were, without a doubt, the seed from which the installation “The New Golden Brick” was nurtured. Upon Wen Fang’s return from France, she carried with her the dreams held over from her childhood and adolescence as well as the dream of the European urban landscape that hearkens back to days of old. She hoped to find Old Beijing’s designs as beautiful as those of Paris and Rome, but nothing was left but ruins. The crumbling old walls covered in a bright red skin allow a glimpse into the grandeur of Beijing’s ancient culture. Each condemned outer gate doubtlessly concealing a great number of stories of old Beijingers and generating anxiety and sadness in Wen Fang. Though the buildings were destroyed, it is impossible to erase the joy and suffering of those who have moved away and the cultural shifts that have punctuated history. One should not make of these traces on walls an abstract painting, though the colours are rich and the shapes aesthetically pleasing, they are the scars left by the urbanisation of China!

 Wen Fang has created two other bodies of work drawn from her love for Chinese traditional culture and calligraphy: “New History of the Source of Peach Blossoms” and “Books”. In France, Wen Fang received a professional education in photography, but she did not choose to utilise the traditional realist form. She has stated: “many people concentrate on the realism of photography, but for me that is not enough. Perhaps because I have never believed in the expression ‘what the eye sees is real’”. In fact, that has nothing to do with the realism found in photography. As photography is an art, its “authenticity” is a function of the photographer’s personal standpoint. If one or many snap shots are taken at random of an event, things that people do not see regularly or images of strange scenes and people, the fact that the photograph has become a witness to this unique event causes it to seem very “precious”. From a social or journalistic point of view, this kind of reality is indisputable, but the professionalism of the photography makes all the difference: focal length, aperture, shadows, the composition of the image, etc… before being able to speak of art in photography, one must first go beyond the social dimension of “being employed to do something”. Regardless of the fact that a photographic artist is the witness to an event, his unique position and visual sense are of utmost importance. Throughout every moment of the existence of man, individuals have passively received values and opinions, and yet only true personal feelings and a free spirit are able to extract “reality” from art. For this reason I consider Wen Fang to be an artist and her work to be art. I am not talking about photography, which is why I have not broached that belaboured subject: shadows, aperture, volume and space, finding a focus… Clearly all of these are present in Wen Fang’s work, but that does not seem to be the point.

Li Xianting
15th March 2007