Make It New


I seem to have become an art critic by mistake. Not one to cause a fuss, I’ve gone along with it and reviewed the stunning Moving Beyond – Painting in China 2013 exhibition currently showing in Summerhall, Edinburgh. It features the work of some incredible and scandalously-neglected contemporary Chinese artists (in the West at least) such as He Gong and Liu Guofu. The review, for Studio International, also gave me a bit of scope to talk about how modernism isn’t modern, which is the topic of a long essay I’m writing for the debut issue of Gorse, a very exciting new Irish literary journal soon to be launched by the brilliant Susan Tomaselli. Here’s an excerpt from the Moving Beyond review:

‘In the early 1930s, the poet and editor Ezra Pound coined the phrase that would become the maxim of Modernism: “Make it new.” In actuality, Pound had appropriated it from an archaic Chinese source; a bathtub inscription of a Shang dynasty emperor. Whatever Modernism was, it wasn’t strictly modern. The idea of history as an ever-upward process is largely a western delusion.

Of the many aspects that the exceptional Moving Beyond – Painting in China 2013 exhibition explores, one of the most pertinent is that the past and our relationship to it are much more fluid than we usually think. Being partially a fiction we adapt in the present, the past changes. It also, in its half-forgotten innovations and side-roads, contains the future. As William Faulkner wrote, and these paintings reiterate: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The spectre haunting this exhibition is that of Chairman Mao. This diverse selection of artwork was created in his long, lingering shadow. Yet they were made not simply in defiance of state censorship and the prescribed tradition of Socialist Realist art, but with much more oblique and astute methods and purposes. The relationships of Chinese artists to “the Great Helmsman” are complex as one of Moving Beyond’s curators, the poet Yang Lian, acknowledges: “This so-called Cultural Revolution has not disappeared. Among Chinese artists, at least, it has become ever deeper. The difference is that this shadow was once clearly identified as a catastrophe, a disaster, whereas now it has become a seduction that alluringly fills the air.” The title of the exhibition suggests a breaking-away, a move they achieve by recognising, as Pound did, that the new lies in the very old. It is partly, then, a cartography of rediscovered territory and an exorcism…’ To read on

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5 Responses to Make It New

  1. erickuns says:

    I have to say I was more impressed by your writing than I was by the art, though that may have to do with the small Jpegs which can hardly substitute for the full-sized originals. Still, your descriptions were more evocative for me than the art in question. I lived in China for 4.5 years, and yet none of the work speaks to my sense of being there in the way that the films of Jia Zhangke did. His work captured the China I know, but perhaps because his work was naturalistic and centered in the next province over (His work was in Shanxi, and I lived in Shaanxi). But this does make me think about differing art forms and their capacity to capture or evoke a place, temperament, time, or situation. Working with paint seems to start off with a disadvantage, as compared to music or film, which make so much use of technology. Paint is a clumsy and perhaps antiquated medium. All ready at issue is that these artists are using such traditional materials. The work seems good, but if only it lived up to your descriptions!

    • it’s all subjective of course but I think this particular exhibition benefits from the scale of the paintings and the atmosphere and space in which its displayed (a Victorian veterinary college). in a counter-intuitive way, it kind of proves the power that painting still has, a power I think technology and painting’s own comparative redundancy has resurrected in an odd way. in a basic sense, it’s as you say Eric, how could a jpeg compare to a large canvas?
      in a deeper sense, painting’s death has been prematurely announced for two reasons and from two sources. the conceptual artists who declared or implied that painting was dead failed to appreciate that painting has been and often still is conceptual (as well as being potentially narrative and of aesthetic value in itself). they killed a straw man by making it out to be purely decorative. the second view, that technology has made painting redundant is true but that’s precisely why it gives it a strange new strength and relevance. rather than being the primary visual artistic medium as it once was, it is now an escape and the gallery a sanctuary of sorts. most of us are forced now to sit at an lcd screen all day, painting and the contemplation of it offers us something else, I hate the word meditative but it can be an experience along those lines. it’s not a refutation of modernity so much as stepping sideways for a while. in a world where it’s insisted we be plugged in, disconnecting might be a radical activity. it’s not an either/or situation at all and I may be an old fool but I get more excited by a painting by Billy Childish then most of the digital projects I see highlighted on a daily basis. maybe it’s that aura thing Benjamin was on about or some myth of authenticity, maybe it’s just overkill from seeing it all the time.
      in the exhibitions that will follow this one, hopefully there’ll be other voices from other places, making art in other mediums but this for me was a great introduction that challenged my own ignorance and raised all the questions in my head that great art raises. none of it really claims to be definitive and I imagine the artists go out of their way not to be representative of China (as any of us would with our countries), they just do what they do or rather they create ciphers for what the audience wish to take from them and in my case that was a lot.
      I’d be intrigued to see how the different art-forms interconnect in China and elsewhere, something I’ve been thinking about since considering how much Tarkovsky’s polaroids resembled mini-Vermeers or how Caravaggio’s painting are lit like film noir at times. regarding Jia Zhangke, I was blown away by Still Life but the chance of seeing his new one here are less than zero sadly. glad you enjoyed the writing anyways Eric, I appreciate it.

      • erickuns says:

        Thanks for the great reply, Darran.

        First off, my comment was a bit of a roundabout way of saying how excellent your art criticism is. I think we agree that the tiny jpegs don’t do the art the service they deserve. I’m often frustrated by the tiny images uploaded on the internet.

        And while I think I almost totally agree with what you said about painting – it can be conceptual, and the choice to paint is itself a statement – I’m coming from a bit of a unique perspective. I choose to work digitally, for a host of reasons, but conceptually largely within the tradition of painting (trying to make “new” and evocative imagery), and as a consequence painters who I admire don’t take my work seriously at all. It’s as if, if a work is not made of physical pigment on canvas it doesn’t exist, or is somehow cheating, even if it’s done by someone who has a drawing and painting background. I didn’t have my own computer or work digitally until after I got my MFA, and have stacks of paintings and drawings stored away.

        So, I find the opposite of your statement of seeing digital works highlighted on a daily basis to the neglect of painting to be true. Painting and other traditional media have an edge in that they are one-off physical, and thus saleable OBJETS, existing within a paradigm that people are already familiar with. How do you look at or judge a digital painting? I think a lot of people can’t process it. It doesn’t fit within the traditional gallery/museum system. Being infinitely reproducible, it becomes worthless. When people find out some of my work was created digitally, they dismiss it. This one for example:

        At some point I’ll write an article in defense of digital art. Sure, it’s an abused medium, especially in the range of cheesy manipulations of stock photography, but it seems bizarre to me for artists to not be intrigued by the possibilities it opens up. Having done old school B&W photography and darkroom work, being able to endlessly stack and arrange semi-transparent layers of photos alone would convince me to work digitally. Just image for a second that a da Vinci were alive today. I can’t imagine he’d confine himself to physical mediums.

        When I look at those Chinese paintings, it’s like listening to contemporary folk music. They look like they could have been painted 30-40 years ago. They seem to occupy a frame of mind of another era. And yet one can be completely modern and relevant with traditional media, if the perspective is fresh. I think of Dylan’s “Masters of War” or “12/26” by Kimya Dawson where the message and perspective is so fresh and relevant that if becomes more powerful because of the simple and acoustic instrumentation.

        Lastly, for those of us who can’t visit the veterinary college where the paintings are being shown, it would be nice to see larger Jpegs. We have the technology, and most people are going to access most their art via the internet.

        And, yes, “Still Life” was also the film that most impressed me by Jia Zhangke. He had all the small details of an average city in mainland China, like the constant sound of sledgehammering.

  2. angela says:

    your review was fascinating to read, especially as I am taking a modern art crit course with no background in the subject. one of the criticism of critique was by those that are not formally educated. your critique debunks the idea of several of my peers – one outside the visual arts cannot offer a solid critique. ‘Make It New’, indeed, for the link of almost all that you featured was the traditional landscape gaining voice in the most modern way – wonderful ~ a

    • I’m supremely unqualified for any writing Angela, aside from reading lots of books and having an interest in things. Werner Herzog got into film-making just by reading and then stealing a camera from Munich Film School so it seems there is hope.

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