In the year of 1980, Yan Bing was born at Almond Bend, a small remote mountainous village in southern Tianshui, Gansu Province. At the age of 18, he left hometown and went to the capital of China in pursuit of college education. And it was only after 3 failed attempts in 3 consecutive years that he at last passed the examination to be admitted to his dream institution, the Oil Painting Department of CAFA. Like most of his classmates, he unwaveringly stayed at Beijing after graduation, starting a life of a professional artist. During the years of his “drifting in Beijing”, he had witnessed Beijing’s expansion under urbanization, and also seen the “elapsing” of his home, Almond Bend. What accompanied the changes of his personal life and his art was the structural upheaval of the Chinese society. During the time he have been shuttling between the two “poles”; needless to say, he felt uncomfortable and uneasy inside. It was only until one day, when he realized and decided that he would choose farm tools, wheat yard, and earth, which had accompanied his childhood and boyhood, as materials or matter of his creative activities, that the unevenness and anxiety would be somewhat eased.
In his apprentice days, which were neither short nor smooth, Yan Bing had honed his plastic skills, his abilities to express, and his tenacious determination. Nevertheless, like many young artists, he strived to free himself from the academic system in search of his own language when he was still studying in college. He wittingly got rid of academic habits and customs of the painting history, and tried to capture by a natural, plain way the natural plainness he experienced. So earth, farm tools, and wheat and potato which were the staple crops in his hometown, became the main themes of his pictures and ideas. He didn’t prepare for his painting by sketching from life or taking photographs; in his own words, it was his inner gaze that dominated the process of painting. So what he did was not so much paint potatoes as reconstruct the human body or human heart. He set the gradient of colors as low as possible, with grayish-brown and black as basic colors; the ambiguity between sunniness and overcast was meant to give a sense of uncertainty; also, the arrangement of brushstrokes didn’t conform to the customs, but being set like piles of grain, earth, or fur, emphasized the relations of blocks and the overall texture; when designing pictorial structures, he either rearranged the relations of objects (or human figures), or merely took out a part of the scene, together with the subtle classical atmosphere, to give the picture a strong symbolic and ritual sense. And this artless way of depiction itself bears an ritual and symbolic air, too. In my view, the whole process from selecting objects to depict to forming the pictorial language is indeed a loyal representation of his mental symptoms. So the darkness and gloominess in his paintings were not sourceless; Yan Bing thinks that perhaps due to his growth environment and his character, he “has always been pessimistic, and often feels bitter in heart”.
On walking into the white exhibition hall, a viewer finds these pictures somewhat distant, even containing an intent to resist his gaze. The scene seems to be commemorating or “condoling” with his vanished daily experience and way of life. And it is not only about what it looks like and how one looks at it, but also about the experience of touch – in a sense the process of Yan Bing’s depicting is one of touching the objects, too. He himself said clearly that he only trusted his hands-touch and experiences. His concern was not so much how to represent objects as how to show his sense of touch and experiences. He has opened up, as it were, a passage for perception and action between images or forms (like brushstrokes) and earth, piles of grain, or fur (including how to work with farm tools). The things in his pictures have their temperatures just like the real things. Paradoxically, they look so strange in pictures exactly because they come from the daily life. So this “familiar strangeness” is producing a visually“stinging point”, while he drags the shaping of the subject(himself) into a complex dynamic structure and a psychological mechanism. It seems that he has awaken some personal experience from his memory, but at the same time he has also extracted it from his life world as an objective thing to depict.
Emotion is the origin and drive of Yan Bing’s artistic practice. But it is not his goal. Quite the opposite: the final presentation of his works is closer to something that is producing some distance from the reality. The temperature of this estrangement’s superficial emotion is near 0 degree, or all the emotions are hidden inside forms. And perhaps this estrangement is his real mental state. Though it is possible that the artist acts as a bond that connects and extends, undoubtedly there have been two vastly different worlds. Here, the subject of the artist is actually divided, all the more so when the work is more abstract or more distant from the rural experience. In general the intervention by experiences is locally, fragmentarily done (e.g.,the materials of his installations), but clearly it also heals the rift in this way. As Giorgio Agamben put it, memory is a kind of video, and video is a being that intervenes between fresh life and dead things.(1) On the one hand, it heals the rift between the two; on the other side, it attempts to produce new rifts. So one may also say that the images in Yan Bing’s paintings are both a kind of memory and a kind of video.
There are some experiences and ideas carried both in the ready-mades he gleaned from his hometown, such as wheat, earth, farm tools, and utensils, and in the hands-on way he made his works. However, as in the case of his paintings, Yan Bing didn’t simply use those ready-mades. He also transformed them in form and reorganized them aesthetically. Sometimes he combined them with utensils of modern life to “re-enact” a lost life scene, as in the installation series displayed in Asia Triennial Manchester (Manchester, 2014); sometimes he constructed a new visual or spatial field by tapping into physical properties of materials, as in Trees Depicted by Trees displayed in The Rural Poetic II – Germination (Gland, Beijing,2014). Like his paintings, this “strange” field also produces a distance from audience, and also has a strong air of ritual and monumentality. And another thing worth mentioning: the methods of stuffing, piling, and parceling he often employs in his installations are, in my view, an suggestion of the lack of material products in the past time, as well as a metaphor for the excessive supply of material products in the present time. Or one might say that he hides his experiences and ideas inside the form. But Yan Bing didn’t completely seal them. For example, in Bookcase (2009), The Fan (2009), Stove (2010), My Labour (2011), Farming Poems (2012), and his later practices, he always left an inlet or an outlet for experiences. And in his latest exhibition Love (2015), he completely sealed the black wrought iron receptacle with wheat in it, and abstracted its shapes in a minimalist way. But it is obvious that he still deliberately left a crevice visible when welding the inlet for wheat. Only through this humble inlet could we get into the inside and penetrate into the invisible manifold dialectical relations and narrative threads between materials. Here the material of wrought iron has in effect unleashed a sort of perceptional weight and acutance, and produced together with the white space of the exhibition hall a sacred field of ritual and metaphysics.
In Physics, Aristotle makes a distinction between the natural and the artificial, and considers them as two sources of matter’s existence. He takes the example of bed, an example proposed by one of his opponents, Antiphon. Antiphon argues that the nature of a bed is wood. If you planted a bed and the rotting wood acquired the power of sending up a shoot, it would not be a bed that would come up, but a tree – which shows that it is wood not bed that is the real nature. Of course we could challenge Antiphon by saying that what was planted was not a bed, but wood. The key point is that Aristotle’s real emphasis here is not wood, but the bed with practical use. The question he really concerns is whether the nature of the bed is its shape, form, and use, or its material or matter. In fact Plato had already said before that “the excellence or beauty or truth of every structure, animate or inanimate, and of every action of man, is relative to the use for which nature or the artist has intended them”. Then, “our knowledge of a bed has two sources. One is its use, another its ultimate creator, the God. Though two different sources, they share a point. That is, all the things we see in the reality have their end stipulated by their uses, only the form and shape of a bed stipulated by its use might be made by the God in the very beginning, and exhibited in the world by men’s using it”(2). Therefore, nature and arts is not an opposed, but a concordant pair. Just like the ritual vessels and tools of the ancient China, they are both rooted in a self-satisfied ethical order, and built on the basis of a metaphysics.
By coincidence, one of Yan Bing’s works, the installation Bed (2009), is made with bed and earth. Its structure is very simple: a thick layer of earth covers an abandoned wooden single bed. The interesting thing is, that earth and bed exactly correspond to the aforementioned natural and artificial. And a bed separated from its use shows the facet of its nature, while the layer of earth is given an artificial form and shape. Such a reversal, indeed, corroborates the commonality of the two. Thus, not only the combination reveals the metaphysical basis shared by the natural and the artificial, it also as an artwork displays the use of arts as well as the natural root of art itself.
For Yan Bing, the farm tools (and natural materials like earth and threshing yard) he used in his works, which came from his hometown, have in a sense been absent from his life world, and have even faded away from his past life world. According to his description, it is assumably nothing short of an Northwestern mountainous village. He said: “Nothing abhorring has happened here since the ancient time. The people believe in a life without big disasters and great wealth. Living is good as far as they have adequate food and clothes. Most of the people breed cattle, toil all the seasons, but have to make a living contingent on the good weather. Generation after generation, they grow crops, grow crops, grow crops, grow crops.”Evidently, those farm tools are no different from earth, both a part of nature. One even may say that such a life experience itself carries or is given a sort of metaphysics. In the present time, however, “the influence of the urbanization has seeped into the countryside, disturbing the traditional rural way of life and values. But the new order has yet to come, leaving the villagers to be at a loss what to do. A cruel reality is that agriculture alone cannot provide a living any more due to the rising prices, for the outcome of laboring can hardly cover the cost. So younger men and women are forced to go to the cities to look for jobs, and only elders and children stay in the village. As a result, many lands lie waste, and elders have no one to rely on, and kids no one to learn from.”(Yan Bing) Here the modernization of tools and the replacement are only one aspect of the story – the fact is that the update of the technology does not satisfactorily apply to the barren loess land. The more profound experience, as I see it, is the disappearance of the whole rural life and the disintegration of the traditional ethical values. Hence, the practice of Yan Bing is not only about his emotions and concerns, but also an exhibition of the collapse of the internal self-sufficient order and its metaphysical basis. I once asked him, if to speak only in terms of personal experience, what is on earth the difference between the past and the present. He answered it by making a lively analogy: “A village of the past was like a stone squatting on a slope. When an earthquake broke out, those stones rolled down the slope altogether, which are the villages of the present like. They might find new settlements, and might clash into scraps.”
However, in the early 20th century Heidegger had in fact “overturned” this doctrine of Plato and Aristotle. As he sees it, a tool is matter, and because of being stipulated by serviceability, it is more than matter; a tool is at once an artwork and less than an artwork, because it lacks the self-containedness of an artwork. So if we arrange them in a numerical sequence, tools have a unique middle position between matter and artwork.(3) Thus an tool as it is consists not only in its apparent shape and the related materials, but also, more importantly, in its “readiness-to-hand” and “serviceability”, two existential relations between man and matter. He says: “The being-tool of the tool consists in its serviceability”, but “that itself rests in the fullness of an essential being of the tool. We name it reliability”. Since the essential outcome of “reliability” is “serviceability”, when a tool turned useless, its “reliability” would thereupon wither until it would be degenerated into a pure – abstractly objective – matter.(4) It is in this process of disappearing that tools obtain the boring and annoying acustomedness. But at the same time, it is a proof of the primitive essence of being-tool of tool.(5) It shows that what Heidegger cares about is not artwork itself, but the logic of tools as tools in artwork. This doesn’t mean he has denied and abandoned art: it is exactly when a tool is getting unhandy, for example when it becomes an artwork that is similar to a pure tool, that we need to re-understand its nature and use, in order for it to be possible to be fitted into a system of knowledge.(6) Then, the acustomedness of tools that are wearing down stands out as the unique way of being of tools, and the boring serviceability therefore becomes visible. (7) The meaning of so called “the origin of art” consists just in this. This point could also explain why Heidegger chose van Gogh’s Peasant Shoes as his example, and why Yan Bing chose those subject matters. According to him, it is exactly the distance of time and space that helped him develop his judgement about villages; if he had continued being a farmer, he must have been struggling to get by like most of others, with no time to reflect.(8)
As a form of “mourning”, the “readiness-to-hand”of Yan Bing is closer to a sort of daily observation, illumination, and touch. One might rather say that he brings the experiences of operating farm tools directly into the manufacture of paintings and installations. The extension of this perception is evident in the rural air of his paintings and the traces of laboring in his installations. Yan Bing calls himself a laborer. After all, those objects and the relative labor are lying prostrate on the ground, and belong to the earth and nature. Just as he repetitively polished the appearance of those wrought iron receptacles, he wanted to give his works an undercoat color. And the methods he often employs, such as overlapping, parceling, and piling, are themselves a kind of laboring. So there is no essential difference between the piling of paints and the piling of earth and wheat. Furthermore, depiction, polishing, piling, and solidification all contain temporality. It reminds me of the subject matters he often attends to, such as grain pile, steamed bun, and potato. They themselves have a sense of solidification, and most of his installations look like unearthed cultural relics that have not been dusted down. It shows that the matter and form here both have a historical overtones. It is a labor site as well as an archeological site. And what Yan Bing has in mind might be no other than how to bring the time of rural labor into the time of artistic labor, and how to bring the natural germination of earth and crops into his artistic practice. At this point he doesn’t evade the dislocation and awkwardness produced when the two kinds of labor and the two kinds of time meet. For example, in his project Tools exhibited in Art Basel Hong Kong 2013, he humorously clothed with suits a group of farm tools that leaned against a wall. There seems to be an irony about classes in it. Someone once distinguished “the modern labor” from “the traditional labor”(Wang Hui). But for Yan Bing the demarcation line between the two is not so clear-cut. And his goal is not to simply resort to the fashionable theme of the quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns. He feels that “Art reflects your attitude toward life. The speed of the social changes in the present time easily makes you at a loss what to do, and on the other hand, also urges you to constantly examine the relations between yourself and the society. Artistic creation is just a way of that examination, which tries to update ways of human perception and shed light on the essence of things.” I think, it is through the way and path of art that it is possible for Yan Bing to reconstruct the metaphysics of natural life, and to guide us to truly experience and understand its essence.
Meyer Schapiro, an art historian, had twice challenged Heidegger’s exposition of van Gogh’s Peasant Shoes. He emphasized again and again Heidegger’s “misreading” of the “shoes” in that painting of van Gogh, and that Heidegger ignored the art itself. Then he suggested that the shoes here belong not to a farmwife, but to van Gogh himself, and what the picture presents is not the existential world of a farmwife or peasants, but the life and fate of van Gogh himself. To be sure, Heidegger has already stated in the same essay that an artwork in reality is not a tool, and thus if one fathoms the actuality of an art work at the root of matterness, he is sure misguided. For here the root of matterness doesn’t belong to the actuality of an artwork. What Heidegger interrogates is what is tool as tool, or what is being as being, not an artwork itself. But it is precisely through the path of art that he opens up the being of beings or the truth of beings. This is art, not artwork. So in a sense the challenge of Schapiro shows that he and Heidegger had different definitions of art. For him an artwork itself is art, while for Heidegger, art is the truth of being, and artworks only its carriers.(9)
The reason I insert this “academic controversy” here is that Yan Bing indeed relates to these questions but there is no aforementioned “dispute”in him. For him, his artworks are undoubtedly art, and also his life world and the traces of his experiences. At the same time they are penetrated by existential changes of an age, a region, and a social class. In a sense the monumental or symbolic objects in his paintings express the logic of being as being. They point to Yan Bing himself, his family, his neighbors, even the entire class of farmer. Only in this way can we understand why Yan Bing resorts to the atmosphere of touch or labor and re-explores the “reliability” of tools that have already disappeared. Here is no distinction between artwork and tool: artwork becomes a part of tool. In other words, artwork and its self-containedness have indeed disappear in the existential logic of tool as tool. Therefore, he deals out not only himself, but also “art”, until art becomes invisible and being becomes visible. This is the true aim of his practice.
The practice of Yan Bing discloses the nature internalized in life and art, and its (anti-) metaphysical origin. To put it using a phrase of Pierre Hadot, it seems that Yan Bing has lifted the “Veil of Isis”(10). As to this point Heidegger undoubtedly represented an important historical juncture. He transformed the secret of nature into the secret of being, and re-interpreted the aphorism by Heraclitus, “Nature loves to hide”, holding that the concealment and unconcealment of being are inseparable, and being presents itself to us while concealing its essence at the same time.(11) In my view, it is this essence of being that the practice of Yan Bing aims at, as his way of sealing and the apparent shape of his latest work Love indicates. The shapes and uses of artwork conceal the natural properties of earth, wheat, and farm tools, and at the same time the ways of the perception and practice, as well as the symbolism and sense of ritual, disclose the nature and its metaphysics. And it reminds us of Spinoza’s famous maxim: “Think and live”, or “Don’t forget to live”. Pierre Hadot believes that it comes from a gaze of overlooking.(12) Corresponding to this, people living in the northwestern China often say “the face towards the loess and the back towards the sky”, which is also a kind of overlooking. Only the focus of Yan Bing is not the “Sirius”, nor is he cynically loyal to the earthly life; what he is overlooking is the land, labor, and natural life in his experiences. This is a self-reflective gaze. And we may also briefly examine it in the context of the “Rural Arts” since 1980s.
In the Exhibition of Works of CAFA Graduate Students and the National Youth Art Exhibition in 1980, Chen Danqing’s Tibet series and Luo Zhongli’s Father attracted great attention. The natural, classical figures and the near-primitive life styles in the paintings completely turned their backs on the Soviet style that had continued for decades. No matter in its soul-searching for the realism, or in its humanist caring behind, the social basis and conceptual origin of this so called “Rural realism”were still emancipation of human nature and reconstruction of the subject. Later on, though this painting style had been gradually declining, the theme of rural land didn’t disappear. Since 1990s, most of the rural realist painters began to portrait some sort of lifestyle, and much of them existed inside the artistic establishment. Naturally, it had nothing to do with the social reflection and the engagement towards the contemporary culture. Nevertheless, backgrounded by marketization and modernity, it paradoxically stimulated the intelligentsia into reflecting on and reiterating the importance of the “rural land”.
In September, 1992, Gan Yang gave a speech titled “Cultural China and Rural China: The Prospects and Culture of Post-Cold-War China”at the conference “Cultural China: Interpretations and Communications”held by Harvard University. He astutely pointed out: “The rural reform in China since the late 1970s cannot be simply a reform of the communist system established since 1949, but is more of a fundamental reform of the basic structures of ‘rural China’ that had lasted for millennia.” Therefore, he took the rural reform since 1978 as the real historical appearance of the “Chinese modernity”. It is on the basis of this reflection on modernity that he reiterated the historical prospect that “cultural China”would be supported by “rural China”.(13) But against his prediction, not just have the urbanization under the background of globalization left the dream of rural China to vanish like bubbles, but the erosion of rural lands have been further aggravated. The reflection and discussion on the Three Rural Problems with the Dushu Magazine as the major stage around 2000 was triggered in this context.(14) During the period, though some artworks, such as Wang Jianwei’s Circulation – Sowing and Harvesting (1994) and Living Elsewhere (1998-1999), did some relatively ambiguous experiments, and more or less touched the related problems, in most artistic practices rural land was only an identifying symbol under the post-colonial background, including numerous movies or photographs that took rural land as subject matter. A typical example is Mao Tongqiang’s Tools (2005-2008), which is comprised of a large number of sickles and hammers. Essentially it was still composed in terms of ideology. Those abandoned tools were treated as political symbols, and there was no profound interrogation and real reflection that challenged the social changes and their internal mechanism. Furthermore, no short of artistic experiments have appeared in the recent years, which try to intervene the operations of villages in the name of social involvement. Examples include Qiu Zhijie’s Huaxi Village Survey, Ou Ning’s Bishan Community, and Qu Yan’s Xu Cun Revival Project. To be sure, these projects brought a sort of vigor to village life, and the artists derived rich resources and nourishment from it, but what they really engaged in was not the countryside, but the system of contemporary art which has become more and more self-entertaining and parochial, and which Yan Bing, as far as I know, cares little about.
Here is a fundamental difference. Most of the artists who excessively “poeticized”or “stigmatized”the rural land had indeed no real experiences of rural life, and were constructing some imaginations and utopias based on some established attitudes and ideas. Yan Bing is different. He was born there, grew up there, and though later he left the countryside, the experiences has seeped into his veins; the deep-rooted ethical entanglements have decreed that he couldn’t truly leave his home village. What he does is not so much resort to some reflective gesture as just be loyal to his personal experiences. Similar practices are far from rare. For example, Waste Not by Song Dong and Mulan River Project by Chen brothers (Yufan, Yujun) both have a touch of family affection and ethical temperature, only their urban experiences lack an air of rural land in the first place.
Another notable artist is Jin Le, who also comes from the countryside of Tianshui. He planted an art project “art museum”(Shi Jiezi Art Museum) into the village of Shi Jiezi, his hometown, and has regularly carried out experimental projects interacting with the local peasants. It is no different from the rural practices of the artists like Qiu Zhijie and Ou Ning, mainly aiming at the art system that has become more and more self-entertaining, ossified, and conservative. But no matter for Jin Le, the initiator, or Yan Bing, a participator, it contains a special meaning. After all the two both come from that place. More importantly, this local experience has a special situation and some universal symptoms. And this is the difference between Yan Bing and his teacher Liu Xiaodong. If Liu’s field practice still has a tint of anthropology, for Yan Bing, though he inevitably employed some methods of anthropology, his values are undoubtedly anti-anthropological.
The project Yan Bing participated was Fly Together, initiated jointly by Shi Jiezi Art Museum and Zao Space. Since 2015, this project have invited a total of over 20 artists to Shi Jiezi, and each artist worked with a local villager to produce an artwork or a small exhibition. In March, 2016, at the project’s invitation Yan Bing went to the village of Shi Jiezi to carry out his plan, “An Exhibition in a Village”. The villager who collaborated with him was Jin Tongsheng, a 72-year-old man whose legs were slightly lame. In fact there was hardly any collaboration; the two just chatted, exchanging information about themselves, their families, and the whole life of the village. The main point was whether the artist in residence could truly experience and perceive the life experience of the collaborator and the local life and situations, and whether he could really bring these into his artistic practice.
Within a month, Yan Bing had finished a dozen small paintings, depicting steamed buns, twigs, flowers, wheat seedlings, and daily utensils like thermos bottles and washbasins. All the subject matters came from what he saw and felt during the time. Yan Bing painted in his usual way, which seems to be realist yet really is not. By extracting objects from their backgrounds and intensifying psychological hues, he emphasized the symbolism and reality sense of matter. To be sure, for Yan Bing paintings were just a part of the project, and he cared more about the interaction, deadlock, and other possible relations brought about between those works and the life of local villagers.He expected villagers to join equally in a dialogue with art, and hoped to heal the estrangement and distance between the contemporary art and rural life. The exhibition opened on the day of Qingming Festival, with a dozen works scatteringly hanging from the branches and on the earthen walls in a yard. All the villagers went to the exhibition, and being curious, they were attracted when Yan Bing guided them through the exhibition. But as Yan Bing expected, their focus was not the works themselves, but the objects and tools in the pictures, or the existential logic of tool as tool. There, works were only carriers. For villagers, only the objects in the pictures were what they mostly care about and the life traces they always bore in mind. As Yan Bing said, the painting exhibition was given to local villagers like a gift. And their watching was more like a ritual, conducted in awe for that simple and honest life or way of existence.
That was where it differed from the popular society-participating art. Here was no political posture, and no right or wrong. Simple anti-modernity, anti-globalization, or anti-urbanization is not the theme of Yan Bing’s practice. In fact, while he is revealing the sacred origin of the nature or rural land, he is also re-introducing the nature and sacredness of art itself and its contemporary context. As a gaze of overlooking, his practice provides a overall viewpoint, because what he observes and illuminates includes not only the life world where he once lived, but the life world where he lives now. And it is untrue that he identifies with one and rejects the other. He sympathizes with both worlds, which is a rare attitude. One may also say that the two has merged into one single world. And the thoughts and actions of artist induce us to touch and understand afresh that world’s properties that had been natural, or in Yan Bing’s own words, it is something sexy, reserved, made-by-nature, and sacred.