Empty Layer, Split and Transparency
Dao Zi

Since 2007, Wang Xiaosong, an artist who returned from Germany, has created a series of large-scale paintings. A sense of split would emerge if Wang’s paintings are analyzed in terms of simplicity and naivety in the style of Klee at the early stage of his career, his abstract and figurative style of the 1990s, or contemporary styles of mainstream arts. Of course, such a sense of split is spoken in terms of unity, self-sufficiency of the language of painting, and ontological purity to which modernism adheres. These large-scale paintings are basically made on an ABS plate, on top of which an empty sandwich layer is created. The surface on top of the sandwich layer is repeatedly processed until human figures and unsemantic Chinese characters are densely dotted there, with various holes left on the heavy and thick texture.

This series of works display a single-coloured technique of multi-layers and embody deconstructive philosophy. Intuitively speaking, symbols on top of the empty layer are classified into two types: unsemantic Chinese characters and clusters of human bodies. These symbols are not an appropriation of current ones; they are images generated from Chinese characters. The former type is regarded as confusing encoded symbols; the latter type, though existing between the figurative and the abstract, still has traces of ideographs to be found.

Here, ideographs in a general sense are images or phenomena. They are made by a palette knife into an embossed or carved effect, as if constantly extending miniature city scenes. The embossed or carved plane overcomes the boredom of a pure plane; a repetitive, changing style of painting deconstructs three-dimensional hallucinations, thus bringing a lively sense of motion. Wang’s works seem to symbolize writing, parodic to some extent, and are regarded more as experiments of the language of painting that challenge symbols and meanings. Although the expectation for a meaning fails here, giving a meaning is made more complicated, because the enthusiasm for a meaning is not out of a respect for a new meaning ascribed to a work, but out of an indifference to a phenomenon. Thus, a meaning is not considered by most people to be an absolute value — a psychological status of probability without time limits.

In our visual culture, particularly in the context of cultural nationalist narration, we have already had a crisis concerning ideologies that develop into a vicious spiral, as well as a tremendous waste in talent for feeling art. Too many meanings seem careless that results in suffocation. Everything in our mind or language undoubtedly preexists in our senses, which, however, do not examine inwardly. Every symbol in visual language does not come from an observation toward a material world, including our bodily observation or experiences. Visual language that is always entangled with external, material and bodily things has been used in a complete, metaphorical sense due to its origin and history. Thus, the meaning is not an all-purpose thing, or remains in vogue forever.

The motive for the renaissance of abstract art may be regarded as an escape from giving an ideological meaning. In order to avoid offering a meaning in terms of a grand narrative, the escape is useful in that it treats art as a certain arrangement of a spiritual system, making art seemingly parodic yet serious, providing interestingly multi-dimensional yet ambiguous meanings. Wang’s art of painting transcends linguistic limits of the abstract by adding more levels of sensibility to it and making it more untamed.

It is boring to offer a meaning from the perspective of cultural nationalism, which usually interprets artworks with some images of Chinese characters as those themed with China experience. The limitation of such an interpretation should be clarified. Since the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China’s contemporary experience permeated with politics, though lacking no seriousness and sharpness, has diminished and simplified artists’ feelings and wisdom. Therefore, most of the so-called “China’s contemporary art” was not really treated as “art” because of its naïve social emotions, crazy paranoia, and inadequate thoughts lacking in depth. It may be more appropriate to regard this “art” as a pitiful, out dated by product of an ideology. The world, when the cold war is seemingly as old as stories of the Middle Ages, was infused with false and empty ideas, such as a historical turning point or a matter of life and death. But everything becomes clear if one goes beyond the border. Experience and form are nothing but a boring and ridiculous play, as if a great fight between dinosaurs in the museum. The insignificance lies in that no novelty has been added to humanity’s thoughts; the pretended seriousness intensifies ridiculousness. The pain for Chinese artists is that they have to play the game even if they know it is boring, because it is effective to China. Such effectiveness is a result of the combination or entanglement of superfluous indifference and delight. Thus, we need a spiritual split as well as a deconstruction of language. Zero Point, a short video recently made by Wang Xiaosong, is an experimental example. The narrative element in the video is a black-and-white photograph of Tiananmen Square, around which the film unfolds in multiple levels.

Ideograph-like human figures in Empty Layer walk into the screen, forming a huge crowd. There is no story about them. They appear and disappear in an instant. Three minutes later, the screen shows an expanse of red. The absolute value of time splits when the black-and-white space is overwhelmed by bloody red. Human existence is more illusory and ridiculous than a phantom. The interpretation in terms of a revolutionary narrative fails again. Only in this way can the abstract that the author adopted in the past be superbly reflected in image language. He seems to condense and deconstruct the famous section in Hegel's “Night of the World.”

“The human being is this night, this empties nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity — an unending wealth of many presentations, images, of which none happens to occur to him — or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here — pure self — in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head — there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears.”

In today’s China, a luxurious and dissipated life is just an evil fruit, abnormal and invertedly hanging, that has developed for nearly a hundred years. It is an old, deep culture, once brilliant yet in difficult transition now — an epic-like course of almost anthropological profundity. The uniqueness and excitement of the course lie in the fact that there is no landmark (any handy theory), yet depending on one’s exploration step by step. Standing firm in this era, artists should be armed with such an exploring spirit. Without stressing unfavourable conditions, artists have to pursue the depth of genuineness. Without the necessity of peeking through contemporary Chinese mind, artists have a contemporary mind themselves. Through self-questioning, one would come to a complete, common dilemma toward human nature. This is the idea of transparency.

If contemporariness becomes the standard for judging artistic values, its premise should be the novelty of forms, and its goal the depth of genuineness. The contemporariness of art should go deep underground, under the asphalt, stone plates, and yellow soils. Let mud, sand, underground rivers and magma form the depth of our breath. The heaviness grants significance and energy to contemporariness. Thus, we can understand that the metaphorical world in Wang’s Empty-Layer paintings is a transparent one, though under the veil of confusing encoded symbols.

Transparency is the most advanced value of the greatest revolutionary significance. Transparency means to experience the brilliance of a thing itself, a status when “in the beginning was the Word.” Thus, we set some holes, allowing spatial progression, making the feeling of survival reveal the light and gas under the suffocation of so many ordinary words.

Wang Xiaosong’s Empty Layer abandons interpretation, but gives presentations through a splitting spatial structure. The author relinquishes the logic from top to bottom, from A to Z, leaving himself in multi-layered sceneries to breathe, listen and feel that lively transparency. Until you close your mouth and make no attempts to give instructions of what a painting should be, the painting begins to speak to you. This continues until the China experience is deconstructed through a method of splitting, and the hegemony of the unity of art is demolished in a deconstructive philosophical thinking.

Why would the abstract painting Empty Layer that defies a meaning have much to do with deconstructive philosophy? Here, perhaps we need some necessary interpretation. The greater law advocated by philosophy means other laws are lesser ones, even if aesthetics or philosophy of art, both divided from philosophy, are grouped under philosophy. Philosophy is the ultimate and highest law that determines the direction and destiny of other lesser laws, trying to regulate others by putting them under its control. In this sense, philosophy is uniquely hegemonic, reflecting an exclusive tyranny. If we say that the spiritual unveiling of the law of philosophy manifests the internal historical destiny of philosophy, then the path unveiled by the law of philosophy, the understanding, rebellion and re-categorization of such law, as well as thereby grasping the spiritual orbit of such law, would become an important dimension or visual field for understanding philosophical rules under different contexts.

It also holds true for problems concerning paintings. A vague “scent of oil painting” has nearly dominated China’s oil painting for a hundred years, just as brush and ink become phantom-like ontological entities in traditional Chinese painting. In this sense, Wang Xiaosong’s deconstructive creation in Empty Layer sounds very interesting, with the split as the painting’s texture. When his vision in tackling problems is viewed from the context of overwhelming dominance of oil painting, we can discover the extraordinariness of his perspectives, visual effects, as well as ways and structures of linguistic expressions with regard to his paintings. He has set a different landmark and orientation in the progression of oil painting, and given a deep interpretation of internal tensions in terms of the spirit of avant-garde art.

As for the hegemony of philosophy and the spiritual split, Derrida is representative in deconstructing hegemonic power and encouraging the split. Derrida’s spiritual split predicts a separation of philosophy at the spiritual level or structure. It is antagonistic to the rules or laws of the spiritual world of philosophy that exerted great influence in history. Here, the spiritual split has an important implication for a significant turning-point. The implication that is not unique to Derrida’s thought, but a symptom that serves symbolize the essential interconnection of the spiritual split of the times with the unity of the past philosophical spiritual world, thus manifesting the destruction through such a split, of the past world’s inherence and self-sufficiency.

It is because since Plato, the spiritual world of philosophy has changed from a pure still-observation to a discipline full of rules. Now there is a clear divide between phenomenal changes and self-sufficiency of the spiritual world. Philosophy creates, guards and protects its own law. The law concerning the spirit of philosophy is absolute, pre-prepared, preset, and arbitrary. The origin of philosophy contains some presumptuous confidence, or some sacred dominant control. Under the rule of philosophy, everything is controlled by a fundamental law, similar to invariable natural laws. Therefore, the law of philosophy becomes an exclusive, ultimate law and the law of purpose. Unity and enforcement of the spiritual world are the features of the spirit of philosophy.

In the law (reason) of philosophy, everything is preset, each structure is pre-designed, and every history is logically constituted. The spiritual world of philosophy becomes a carrier for unity and conceptualisation, so the law of reasoning of philosophy becomes a spiritual ruler in the field of thoughts.

When there is such a law, the spiritual path is totally closed. With such hegemony of philosophy, the spirit seems to be in unity at least in appearance. If we measure the probability of the spiritual split, unity and split are in contrast. The former means closeness, firmness and solidification, while the latter means flowing, relaxation and freedom. If the primordial philosophy is manifested by the hegemony of the spirit, contemporary philosophy and aesthetics show signs of split. Besides, behind the phenomenon is the relaxation and freedom of the spirit, signifying a shift of the spirit of times. In fact, the split is directly oriented towards getting rid of and resisting the influence of the past hegemony of philosophy. This way of thinking is to return to human beings the spiritual world that is contrary to them and has the features of objectification and unity. The spiritual split in this sense can be regarded as returning to a secular world in terms of spirit.

Since the spirit of God is essential and sacred, there would be no possibility of split. Once the God’s spirit leaves and returns to human world, we may say the spirit is set free. The secularization of spirit is in nature a manifestation of human freedom. In contrast, the past spiritual world of philosophy is not free, and of despotism and suppression. In this sense, the reflection on various kinds of hegemony in contemporary philosophy and philosophy of art, concerns over the unity of the spiritual world, and calls for spiritual freedom constitute a unique view in terms of the spirit. Only in this spiritual context can we understand the orientation of spirit, as well as what Heidegger said the confusion of homelessness, and the perplexity of the end of art as repeatedly demonstrated by art critic Arthur C. Danto. In Derrida’s view, the above thoughts may be considered as some manifestation of “schizophrenia.” During the progression of “schizophrenia,” the hegemony of philosophy and philosophy of art begins to be deconstructed and dismantled.

“Schizophrenia” embraced in Derrida ’s thought is, phenomenally speaking, to remove the centralism that philosophy constructed, and in essence to take back the spiritual freedom that philosophy possessed in the beginning and was deprived of for a long time. The ontology of philosophy and philosophy of art is consummation, fullness and corroboration of spirit. These features of spirit maintain the autonomy and foundation of art, and guarantee the pure and genuine spirit of art. The spirit of art becomes supreme, and absolute in transcendence. Thus, it becomes the spirit of God. This spirit is the possibility of the most general and the reality of the most popular. As a result, the spirit of God becomes the law of art, a truth that one can apply everywhere. The spirit contains all the possibilities that can turn into realities. This means the spirit of philosophy and philosophy of art (or aesthetics) is to take possession of the past and the future. Consequently, the most free philosophy and spirit of art have lost the freedom since the very beginning.

Actually, the hegemonic spiritual world of philosophy and philosophy of art is in essence a spiritual world of humans with God as object. If the spiritual world of human beings is returned to themselves, there would be a split in the spiritual world. Such a split may be a true expression of human nature. This is because the dual rules of nature and human spirit would inevitably show internal spiritual split in a secular space. This split is both a multi-dimensional rebellion against the hegemony of philosophy, and a multi-level expansion in terms of the space of spirit itself. The philosophical “schizophrenia” symbolizes the initiation and catharsis of freedom, and marks a beginning of the presence of many possibilities or impossibilities. Art is free in nature. If the freedom of art is to be maintained, the spirit would divide and split, undergoing the abstract process during the split, and freely screening out the marrow of thought in current realities.

In this dimension, Wang Xiaosong aims to excavate the spirit that was buried under the crust of philosophy, return the spirit to human beings and exile the freedom. In his Empty Layer series, deconstruction is not damage, but a generation to some extent. The main points of deconstruction are: the generation would stress more of birth, not completion. So long as there are continuous generation of ideas, there would inevitably have a split of spirit in the philosophical or aesthetical sense. With the help of those holes or points to let in light or gas, one would enter a transparent spiritual world implied there. In fact, whether it is philosophy or art, its purpose is to grasp unspeakable things. At this point, there is no distance between the two in terms of spirit. The most perfect mystical time is to join with the God, a truly unspeakable tranquility, in which people can get rid of “advanced” temptation of secular glory, then dismantle all forms of hegemony, and retrieve the gifted freedom.