Gravimetry of Value: On Tu Wei-cheng’s Archeology of Civilization
“Parmenides says: lightness is positive, heaviness negative…the two historical drafts maps of the Czech people and Europe were produced at the hands of fated and inexperienced Mankind. In that sense, history and the life of the individual are equally unbearably light, as light as a feather, as light as dust, swept up in nothingness, like all those things that will not live beyond the day.”
During the 2004 “Ancient Art Hall” special auction, Tu Wei-cheng dressed in a Tang dynasty outfit introducing and auctioning his recently competed “ancient artifacts,” an act that immediately raised interesting points of contention as they relate to the issue of “falsification.” This event took the “falsification” of the 2003 “Bu-Num Culture” series and its focus on the contemporaneous nature of constructing value and moved it in the direction of a fluctuating moment, wherein the work is “controlled,” “awarded value,” “commercialized” and “communicated” – the politics of all art. At the same time, this has also involved constantly returning to take inspiration from all previously created works. The artist presents his pieces as part of a collection, though this does not focus on any “strategic” demands. This represents an attempt to face something other artists have chosen to face (or perhaps Tu is less able to ignore) – the extent to which the “past” is deeply rooted in the contemporary moment itself. In his creative life the past has always had a crushingly destructive impact on the present and as such the contemporary for Tu Wei-cheng has become a series of absolute and irreplaceable pasts. In simple terms, the artist faces an absolute past, one that takes artistic life as its stake and not a relative past. At “Ancient Art Hall” ideas of “collection,” “establishing value” and “contemporary politics” were a testament to the fact that Tu’s creative work is not restricted to the realm of conceptual art. Indeed, he has done his best to resist the consumerisim to which the “Bu-Num Culture” series has given rise. The incomplete nature of “Bu-Num Culture” (from 2001 to the present), does not in any way signify limits to the construction of civilization, it actually demarks the battle lines in the struggle against consumer value.
Infusing art with this sense of resistance inevitably involves transcending the antagonism between mainstream and non-mainstream elements, utilizing what may seem contradictory links to create immeasurable “moments” or “unique points” that simply cannot be measured or compared. Such an artist is a creative talent who clearly likes to challenge himself like Damien Hirst or Mathew Barney, or David Lynch or Wang Chia-wei. Each of these individuals has produced unimaginably creative work, stunning moments infused with the spirit of modernism. At the same time, the fact that there is no longer anything of permanent value and the speed at which images are now consumed increasingly causes us to “passionately” raise questions about the continued creative life of such work. Moreover, a creative position that cannot possibly be guaranteed is a polemicalposition. When all indications of the “falsification” of the solemnity associated with understanding contemporary Taiwanese art – including art works, exhibitions/performances, artists, art criticism and viewing – are removed, as in the “Bu-Num Culture” series, our vision is also extricated from the “work” and “value” to a certain depth of problem that make it impossible for any material or form to sustain. This is often the “effect” that conceptual artists seek to achieve through their works, establishing a dynamic relationship from the perception of materials to abstract understanding. Although such “displacement” had led to the gradual connection of art and knowledge in Europe and the US, this is achieved through the real links of economics and power. Once the focus of perception has been detached from a “concept,” it rapidly becomes a puzzlingly abstract “commodity,” one that is an integral part of the consumer behavior of visitors. In Taiwan, this problem has caused a substantive rupture, one that can be seen from the fact that the value of perceptual focus still serves as a cultural scenario with one value. On the other hand, concepts have always been unable to garner sufficient trust and consigned to the deficiencies of abstract value. As concept art in post-capitalist consumer society has rapidly lost its role as a form of social opposition, it has happily resigned itself to being incorporated into the fluctuating value of work. In 2005, Tu Wei-cheng’s “Permanent Collection Exhibition”at MOCA, Taipei, was another political manipulation and an extension of “Ancient Art Hall,” pointing towards an alternative arena where decisions on art are made – the art museum. When an artist copies the works of other modern artists and constructs an artificial permanent joint exhibition, the creative elements extended here are not merely the critical effect created by something “artificial.” The core essence of this approach is the way in which Tu Wei-cheng utilizes “expo-work” to highlight certain problems he has explored since the very beginning of “Bu-Num Culture”: In this context, “old” is an absolute “past,” a perception that belongs to cultural identification. This is an aesthetic question that goes beyond the parameters of concept art and one that begs the question what impact the “oldness” of a certain “past” has in determining artistic value or how to decide what influence it should have in that process. Being “old” is no longer just an issue of “raising the stakes” or “adding value,” it actually serves as the foundation of value. Provisionally, “polemical position” artists of this kind can be referred to as “products” of a “post conceptual” artistic age. They display a continuation of the deft manipulation of the impact of concepts (the power of leverage: the conceptual force of the physical value of torque), whilst at the same time resisting the sort of “contemporary nature” that is “harmful” to Taiwan. Tu Wei-cheng’s “contemporary nature” makes use of “old” things or “remains” to raise questions about “new” things that have already been formalized. In other words, his pieces are not an extension of the Avant-garde spirit but in fact stand in direct contradistinction to the Avant-garde they question. In this way, it is clear that Tu’s art focuses on the “heaviness” of artistic value. In his fabricated works this “heaviness” is a philosophical question that challenges the artist himself but also challenges our sense of cultural understanding.
In “Tachi Site” (2003), a series of basso rilievo are arranged on a carefully cut loess surface, creating a sublime visual sense of “heaviness.” But what is truly surprising is the way in which this weight uses falsification as a vehicle for extricating “culture” from the locks and chains of history, transforming it into a contemporaneous product wherein consciousness and technique transcend written history. “Bu-Num Culture” is instantaneously a powerful work of conceptual art and the surprise or even shock felt by viewers can be traced directly to not knowing how to respond to the “heaviness” of the work. However, the way in which the series manipulates viewer’s perceptions of objects is no longer directed by the semantic problem of “art for art’s sake” as encapsulated in the Avant-garde movement, but rather the problem of cultural figures. It is perhaps useful to borrow the ideas of Jean Francois Lyotardto aid our discussion: images that are transformed along with changes in discussion. In other words, what Tu Wei-cheng is interested in more than the merely the spectrum of the object’s value system itself (simulated or otherwise). This is essentially a critique of the way in which value becomes “perceivable” though its interaction with viewers also enables the artist to be even more certain that this is without doubt the starting point in the accumulation of “heaviness.”
In order to more precisely identify the artist’s train of thought we need to try and return to the starting point, one that is similarly focused on the transference of “heaviness” but appears in the form of a “game.” Tu’s “Computer Game Toy” series, created whilst he was at university, echoes the atmosphere that prevailed in the 1990’s in Taiwan following the lifting of Martial Law. At that time, artists began to transform surrealist criticism and existentialist pain from the latter period of martial law and into an imaginary universe. Such work combined depictions of modern urban life and existentialist issues of identity and anxiety. The three paintings in this series used a screen as an interface, a transparent film between heaven and earth, so that space in between appeared mirror-like. However, this mirror did not reflect the sort of images with which we are familiar, rather it was a “non-symmetrical” representation detached from pure psychology – and this lack of symmetry is itself a characteristic of surrealist language, signifying the impossibility of measurement and re-presentation. Even with such a simple simulation, Tu Wei-cheng proved exceptionally adept at highlighting what was to become the basic focus or tone of his later work – “disequilibrium.” In this scenario, “how to invert the fixed relationship of heaviness” has become an issue the artist in unable to avoid when facing his own life and creating art. This narrative is unadorned and closely connected to existentialist angst. When Tu taught at Fu-Shin Trade and Arts School he was better able to focus and started to directly incorporate the “disequilibrium” interface was in the depictions between figure fragments. This experience served as preparation for the soon to follow “Confucius” (1999) series, which jumped to the depiction of existing image fragments in concept art. Once the artist’s own smiling face is substituted for a portrait, the depiction or post transformation “use” is no longer simply an issue of methodology, it also focuses on the theme of synthetic images, utilizing mosaics to infuse such depictions with critical language. This unquestionably comes from the important personal experiences and critical forms of many Avant-garde Taiwanese artists in the early 1990’s. Although the series of works clearly marks an attempt to satirize the system of figures established under the auspices of a unified school and national system, the figures cited provide a material foundation that the work cannot easily ignore. In simple terms, the basic training the artist received from art education institutions from 1994-1998 does not serve as silent instruction but more pointedly exists as a physical construct that cannot be separated from the audience. At the same time is does not serve as a vehicle in its own right or perhaps a perceptual construct that contains within itself a “temporal” contradiction. Tu Wei-cheng plays with something that is no longer simply a matter of enlightening ideas but instead depicts and unveils the situation in which Taiwanese artists find themselves. Although depiction can be seen as a lofty form of replication, once “recognized” as such it loses much of its “heaviness.” On the other hand, there is always the possibility that new “heaviness” can be accumulated – that is a new form of heaviness that stands in direct competition with historical time.
There exists a symbolic disassociation between the artist’s smiling face and the missing icon in the portrait. In this context, the icon cannot be re-presented – whether sublime or admonishing – it is replaced by a “meaningless” smile, the distance between the two transformed into a “prosaic” pre-language state – a joke or a game. The “smile” that illustrates this joke/game undermines the motto and slogan encapsulated in the figure. The artist departed from the game interface and the disequilibrium of existential angst re-presented through that interface to focus on society, history and language. This depiction and usage brings to mind Brechtian “disassociation” because although the “smile” in the game/joke dilutes the “heaviness” of the logo, it does in fact seek “strength” in a certain mirror-image. This allows us to see the “bitter sarcasm” and “wildness” of Milan Kundera up close, but this is much more than just “cynicism” or “sophistry” and can be likened to the paradox that exists between lightness and heaviness in the “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” In the same way, Tu Wei-cheng’s works do not simply criticize they ponder the confusion of value caught between lightness and heaviness. In the 2001 series of works “Print,” the artist used inscription rubbing to record the shape of technology products. Tu has since moved on from using the rhetorical criticism of games/jokes in the direction of “conservation” scenes. “Conservation” has prompted the artist to express particular interest in how best to transform “the past” into a question of aesthetics. Since “Opening Up,” Tu has planned his works with greater attention to detail and complexity as they relate to the “heaviness” of “perception,” “objects” and “memories” and this can be considered a starting point on the road to “Bu-Num Culture.”
The construct of “Bu-Num Culture” can be traced from its unearthing in 2003 to 2004, its main components being basso rilievo that depict folk customs or myths, sculptures of deities and fragments that appear to have been dug out of broken walls and debris. This find produced two significant objects; a stone sarcophagus and the “Gate to the Future” discovered in the main excavation site in 2003 and 2004 respectively. In addition to blending together symbols from heterogeneous cultures and modern object shapes, the core puzzle of the site is focused on the first object “excavated” from the replica dig site – a stone sarcophagus – Which is to say that the first clue in the sequence is “death.” The “Gate to the Future,” discovered the following year,marks an attempt to arrange all the fragments found at the site as an allusion to the existence of a faith focused on atranscendent world. Indeed, the relief carvings on the stone wall allude to a world that radiates outwards from a clear and distinct center.There then followed –as mentioned at the beginning of this article –two events that relate to today; “Ancient Art Hall” and the “Permanent Collection Exhibition”both of which added additional folds to the concept behind the “Bu-Num” series, but at the same time went beyond the “Bu-Num” spectrum in terms of pieces and action. However, it was only starting in 2006 and throughout 2007 that the “Bu-Num” idea was given a new beginning. The central aspect of this new start was the appearance of new objects at a series of exhibitions, re-consolidating two focal points of the “Bu-Num” approach: scenes of conservation and the construction of mythology. The “Crate Opening Ceremony” at the 2006 Shanghai Biennial and 2007 Shanghai Art Fair, along with the Beijing Lin & Keng Gallery special exhibition, allowed displays to highlight the never ending rhetoric of a cultural construct. In 2007, an exhibition at the Palazzo delle Arti Napoli and the “Bu-Num Documenta” in Kaohsiung presented the “Bu-Num Stone Tower,” “Gate of Fleeing Souls,” “Twelve Sacred Beasts” and a large volume of rubbing runes as evidence of some unknown civilization. These event-objects transformed the original basso rilievo and statues of Gods into a more proactive and complex cultural construct. For example, the “Bu-Num Stone Tower” is pieced together against a much more precise religious backdrop focused on folk customs and rituals. The “Twelve Sacred Beasts” boldly constructs a battle myth that involves the defeat of death, whilst the “Gate of Fleeing Souls” takes the world originally re-presented in “Gate to the Future” and transforms it into a secret machine controlling time (or chaos), whereas the large amount of rubbing runes points to an artistic imagination. In other words, Tu Wei-cheng builds a cultural machine, not just a concept art consumer product. These items are archeological objects as opposed to objects of archeology and this represents an attempt to extend “Bu-Num Culture” into a growing civilization of impersonal yet familiar figures. When the “Bu-Num” pieces were first unveiled, they launched a debate on value criticism, value transference and value contradiction which as the series developed gradually came to focus on the question of value growth. In other words, how to use fiction and falsification to highlight the relationship between the construction of value and perception, or how to utilize a series of fictions and fabrications to create a state of impersonal “pre-evaluation” – that is an attempt to realize a language that eliminates the subjective (or symbolic world) through personal artistic creativity. If we return to the issue of heaviness, then Tu is clearly unsatisfied with the current state of concept art; that is the revelation, transference and denial of heaviness (value). Instead he prefers to search for those moments in time and space that individual and historical time overlap, the basic condition for the creation of heaviness (value): motive force or gravity.
This hypothesis on gravity is expressed as a construct constantly revealing and storing value. In the same way, the materials and actions that support this revelation utilize an immeasurable yardstick differential between artistic creation and culture, in an attempt to showcase the gravimetric field where value is created or heaviness “occurs.” Tu Wei-cheng’s Bu-Num Culture can be likened to a smiling face that seeks to subvert cultural heaviness. How artistic performance (the artist’s smiling face) can be injected into and displace cultural heaviness (a cultural portrait) in an era that offers the “end of history” or “hyperhistography,” expresses something that is uniquely Taiwanese – a powerful desire to posses culture that has led to the continued acceptance of OEM work and falsification, whilst simultaneously and secretly destroying existing signs of any culture. In this way, the “smile” is used to cover up a culture infused with “anger that even screaming cannot express.”