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"Happiness in Self-Consolation" - Song Yonghong's Shower Series

 

"Happiness in Self-Consolation" - Song Yonghong's Shower Series 
Li Xianting
 
  Painting in contemporary Chinese art is a relatively mature medium; one thing it symbolizes is the importation of Western realist painting from the modern period and its reinvention as a type of conceptualized linguistic structure. In 1983, He Duoling and Zhang Xiaogang embarked on this sort of experimentation. In the 85 New Trend, the large scale borrowing from surrealism paved the foundation for a conceptualized linguistic structure. At the time, Zhang Peili's "Gloves" series, and Geng Jianyi's "Smile" series stood out among the mass of surrealist paintings. This was because their works surpassed the mere borrowing from surrealism, but actually became a reinvention of language. Among the post-89 works by Fang Lijun, Liu Wei and Song Yonghong, this linguistic model has become a natural and popular method. Its form is influenced by surrealism, but it is unlike the artistic language used in surrealism: that is, language from the "imagination", dependent on the use of different time and space, and changes and combinations of shapes to achieve an absurd effect. Instead, the model of a vocabulary of imagery relies on actual sensation, the figures used are not symbols of sex or symbolic figures, but figures related to life experience. It is closer to Chinese traditional poetry, "on a wide desert a lonesome smoke rising straight up, on a long river, the sleeping sun is round." In terms of the "truth" in actual objects, it is a simultaneous realm and experience of life. Or, it resembles the traditional Chinese literati painting: plums, orchids, bamboo, chrysanthemum, mountains, rivers and vegetation, while, at the same time, images of people's sensations of the heart. 
 
  It is only that works of imagery in contemporary Chinese art express contemporary people's feelings toward existence; with the traditional literati's classical mood but leaning closer to the direct, toward greater exposure or even toward more disgusting ways of expressing the people's boredom, suppression, humor, and absurdity. Having shouted the slogan of "death to painting" for tens of years, more and more artists are using new media. Yet with the model of imagistic language for painting, especially for newly reoriented traditional painting, new possibilities are revealed and an enlightening topic is provided for the contemporary art world. Thus, the "Shower" series marks a pinnacle in the artistic production of Song Yonghong; and, at the same time, his works can be a model for an imagistic linguistic mode.
 
  1998's "Campus Life – Strange Environment" was Song Yonghong's graduation work.  Already we see the initial appearances of an imagistic language. Even though the actual scene of the piece is complete, just as in traditional realism, there is a special "stillness" or "fixity" to its image that gives a sense of oppression. The showering scene in "Campus Life – Strange Environment" was Song Yonghong's earliest "shower" piece; the artist used showering to express the body or even sex – a feeling of desire and oppression.
 
  In 1990, Song Yonghong and Wang Jinsong held a joint exhibition. I wrote a critique for their work that was read at the "West Hill Conference" in the Beijing art community. The terms of "hooligan" and "cynicism" were mentioned. In 1993 and 1995, I invited Song Yonghong to two shows that I curated: "Post-89 Chinese New Art" and "Coming Out of the National Ideology". Song Yonghong's works at the time were good at revealing scenes of boredom, humor, fun or even the gruesome from everyday life. For example, in "Wind's Coincidental Phenomenon" the wind lifts the skirt of a girl and reveals her underwear. In another example, "Dentistry – Reshape", every patient waiting is fitted with a tool to keep their mouths open, and the image consists of a group of people in a fixed grimace, a scene that is quite laughable and humorous. Song Yonghong followed in this manner until 1999. During these years, there were a few paintings of "Showers". Among these, the water in one painting was portrayed as a white sticky substance, the implication of sex is quite clear, and the portrayal of this substance rouses an uncomfortable sensation.
 
  From the end of the 1990s to early 2000, Song Yonghong was in distress, not knowing how he should continue. At the time, we had many all night conversations. I felt that the most captivating moments in his works were his other perspectives on life, like watching "the peacock open its screen" Song Yonghong another angle from which to view obvious "beauty" – to watch the peacock's fan from behind. However, I was less satisfied with Song Yonghong's works insofar that they were overly redundant or "over-realistic". He needed to simplify his images, select and exaggerate that which was related to his own feelings – those figures that could become imagery, discard the unnecessary details. Otherwise, his works would truly become traditional realist artworks.
 
  Many months later, Song Yonghong asked me to look at his new works. They took me completely by surprise; they both astonished and touched me. "The once episodic matters had been taken out, there was a distancing from actual situations; once this distance was established, the attractiveness of the image emerged." Shower is no longer a real instance of showering, but has become a spiritual sensation of existence and imagery. Yonghong's own explanation is that "the person showering expresses the introvert, self-pity, personalized, private, self-comforting, escaping, contradicting, lost in direction, repetitive, ambiguous, violent, feminine, superficial, stubborn, enjoying, positive, tranquil and more, like a mirror they reflect human nature."
 
  Song Yonghong's previous works were mostly about large scenes. This meant that the subjects able to "talk" were easily disturbed by the superficial details of the scene. The "Showering" series uses close-up shots, the figure is restricted to the person showering and the water, the relationship between the person and water then becomes outstanding. The so-called image is also expressed through this relationship between the person and water. Many of the works show a stream of water falling onto the body of the person showering, either on top of the head, back, shoulders, or feet; most of the subjects showering have their eyes closed, lack facial expression, or purposefully avoid the expressiveness of any expression. The focus is on the inner feelings, the feeling of being washed by water. The visual image here can point to and stimulate the viewer's body-sense; it can also raise related sensations, such as that of the innate, self-experience, self-consolation, sexuality, or enjoyment. The way water washes the body is the "language in the language" of the "Showering" series. In comparison to common showering, it is something between resemblance and difference. Similar, because it allows the viewers to use their own experiences of showering to enter the image, different, because they are Song Yonghong's feelings, the water stream is exaggerated as a "force of impact", an image that can shock the body is also this force of water, and it makes the relationship between water and the subject humorous and comical.
 
  Within Chinese contemporary art, the disposition of Song Yonghong's subject is very unique. It has the rigidity of a puppet, but the whole and pure feeling of volume is also strong. On the one hand, this is related to his background in prints, on the other hand, he never uses models or photographs, thus there are no structural details—whatever he feels inside will be drawn out freely by hand. Song Yonghong is a sensitive person, his heart is often heavy and he tends to feel vulnerable and anxious, therefore he feels even more deeply the oppression and absurdity of existence. His puppet-like subjects, humorous and comical at the same time with their lumpish volume, have a rigidity that makes the viewer also feel oppressed. Song Yonghong thinks his works have always been related to his childhood and memories, his childhood was lived through the Cultural Revolution, and society, especially his family, gave him a strict education. He lived through his earlier years feeling oppressed and this caused him to fall back into his childhood oppression in his adult years.
 
  The "Showering" series uses simple colors: it's basically composed of three colors, the background, the subject, and the water. The background is generally uniformly painted to serve as a foil for the subject, and the subjects are basically variations of one tone. In order to maintain the sense of the subject's unified body, among the large colored background and subject, it is only the refined water streams that stand out. The water in this series becomes the crucial touch for the entire work, and is really spectacular. From a realistic perspective, the water becomes ambiguous and unclear, or as in Song Yonghong's own words, "distanced from reality". That is, in the artwork, the material feeling of water is reduced, but its implications are enlarged. Water thus becomes an image of meaning, it seems to have a viscosity, a thickness and a tangibility, it's warm, soft, lively, humorous and enjoyable; it can be protected, played with, or joined intimately; its like milk, honey, or a precious liquid. To be immersed in such water, or to be impacted by this water, can be imagined as touching and playing with someone close, or being self-consoled in a way that allows deep immersion in a wonderful imagination. . . . . . 
 
  The topic of showering has always been Song Yonghong's favorite. Many other artists have left famous works on showering in China or in the West, but his "Showering" still touches us, because he has painted his true feelings. Yonghong's "Showering" series is not inferior at all in comparison to the masterpieces.
 
  In comparison to the recent years of violence, bloodshed, self-destruction, and disgusting artistic method, Song Yonghong's shower expresses another feeling toward existence among contemporary people – self-consoling happiness. It becomes a supplement to the former, or the former (an outcry), and the latter (introverted self-entertainment) are the two sides of the body of contemporary human spirit.
 

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