HS Award for Art Criticism: Fei Yu, Harmonious Society, or Not.

On 06/01/2015 by CFCCA Administrator

Harmonious Society, or Not…


Fei Yu, University of Leeds.


The exhibition Harmonious Society arrives, whether intentionally or not, in the city of Manchester at a time when conflicts within and around China has been too fierce to be ignored. While the exhibition has invited contemporary artists from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the relationship between these regions have never been such a confused chaos and their intertwined yet divergent histories so in need of being further unfolded. Under this circumstance, it seems but natural to interpret the theme of this exhibition, ‘Harmonious Society’ as the biggest irony to the situation China is currently faced with.

There is no wonder that Chinese artists across these three regions, though sharing certain traditional root, are more likely dealing with their own concerned historical issues respectively. In spite of this, it does not mean that there is no common ground at all in terms of the way they respond to the “harmonious society”, which is more of a rhetorical question than a positive statement. Actually, such a tacit agreement can be detected from the works of Wang Yin and Chen Chieh-jen.

At first sight, there seems to be no comparison between the two. While Chen Chieh-jen has long been a prestigious and well-acclaimed figure in contemporary Taiwan art field, Wang Yin is apparently dwindled by such a fame as an earnest but low profile mainland artist. Furthermore, while Chen is keen to work with video and modern media, Wang always sticks to painting as the major way of his expression. But what they really seem to diverge is probably that Chen likes to create immediate and sensational visual art, while Wang appears to take an ambiguous and even rather vague attitude towards his painting. However, no matter how they differ in their individual approach to the subject concerned, they do resonate implicitly but vibrantly. Placed on the top floor of Art Work, Wang Yin’s three dance related paintings, though receiving the sunlight casting down from the glass roof, are still hard to see through. Unlike realistic paintings that usually work into details and that the more one looks at it, the more subtle description one can find, Wang’s works seem to be made purposefully plain and bland to a certain point that the first sight of his paintings are giving roughly all the information one can ever get from them, and a longer observation simply does not guarantee more findings. The facial expression and hands of those dancers as well as the surroundings have been deliberately reduced to such a minimum that one has on idea about where they are, what they are like and how they feel, except for the fact that they come from minority groups, which is detected from the way they dress and dance. It is not hard to recognize that Wang as the painter has kept a sensible distance from the subject of these paintings as his usual approach. It is exactly this strangeness and unfamiliarity Wang creates that force people to think how we the majority actually know about those minorities other than their most explicit appearance, which is probably what we have paid most attention to, since it serves as a proof of the “harmonious” co-existence of such a diversity of nationalities.

Exhibited all the way in the Museum of Science & Industry, what Chen Chieh-jen’s work expresses seems to be far more intense and powerful than Wang’s dance paintings. Famous for the cruelty and violence in his video work, the Realm of Reverberations looks milder in its visual expression. Nevertheless, the profound effect it generates is no less than his previous works. Four videos are placed separately in an adjacent but oppressive way, which is enhanced by the darkness hovers and surrounds them. Videos themselves look into the abandoned and forgotten Losheng sanatorium from the perspective of four narrators that relate to this very place from one way to another. They are patient, they are hospital cleaner, they are supporter and they are recorder. They are witnesses leading outsiders like us into this miserable land. By his constantly used black and white full-length shot, Chen has expressed a sense of deep depression through the seemingly monotonous. An unforgettable scene is where people celebrating an unknown occasion. All blank faced, they are walking slowly in a seemingly never-ending parade playing a variety of instruments. In the middle of the prolonged and joyous music they are playing, is a resounding low and heavy beat, like people’s dismal heartbeat that exposes their true feeling. In the dream-like atmosphere, one can easily be absorbed to the deep thought of what is real and what is not; of what is the core of a society and what is the margin of it.

Putting aside their utterly different ways of expression, What Wang Yin and Chen Chie-jen coincide is exactly their shared attention on the ‘universal disharmony’ between the majority and the minority; between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. They both cast their eyes on “celebration”, either Tibetan women with vague faces dancing to greet the unknown, or the instrument parade with a trace of indifference doing an unknown celebration. Both trying to be objective observers, they are questioning the celebrating gesture itself, and in so doing reveal the hidden social problems. Both of them are aware, and are also arousing public awareness of the implicit and usually ignored situation of the minority and the disadvantaged, which is too often overshadowed by the more obvious conflicts, such as the one between mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Apparently, no society is truly harmonious. We tend to look outward to blame the disharmony across regional cultures, neglecting the one from within, a more long-standing, more profound, and more intricate inequality. We are the very fabric and standing at the very centre of our inharmonious society. This is what Chinese contemporary artists are pointing to; this is also what can bring us together.


Leave a Reply