HS Award for Art Criticism: Joy Wang: When Art Meets Faith: Harmonious Society Exhibition at Manchester Cathedral

On 06/01/2015 by CFCCA Administrator

When Art Meets Faith: Harmonious Society Exhibition at Manchester Cathedral


Joy Wang, University of Leicester

As a major show of the Asia Triennial Manchester, Harmonious Society is staged at six venues across the city, five of which are non-institutional (art museum) spaces. This short essay concerns the notion of the ‘institution’ and will take one of the venues, Manchester Cathedral as a case study. It will discuss how art can be viewed differently in this specific environment, with its particular cultural and religious connotations; and how the curators and the institutions face to the new challenge of curating Chinese contemporary art beyond institutions.

 In the past decade, the upcoming trends of Institutional Critique have refocused on institutions. What is worth noticing is that the institutions here no longer simply mean art galleries, but diversified types of museums, cultural and educational organisations as libraries and universities. Biljana Ciric, a specialist in the studies of Institutional Critique in China, proposed that those three parties went through the stage of confrontation and parasitism and entered the stage of co-exit.[i] In this venue, the curating layout happened to coincide with the historical outline and future trend of ‘relationships’.

 Newly refurbished in the 19th Century, many people would mistakenly consider Manchester Cathedral as a contemporary church born with this industrial city. In fact, Manchester Cathedral was built in the 15th Century and has a history tracing back to 1075, before the establishment and development of the city, which signifies that it has witnessed the birth of this city.[ii] It might be hard for us to recognise the ‘identity’ of the three pieces of artwork displayed in the Cathedral. As they do not obviously show any Chinese elements, political symbols or geographical characteristic. Yuan Gong’s performance art Turbulence represents the ‘confrontation’ stage of ‘relationships’, showing the process of observation, desperation to submission that artists experience when being confronted with institutions. To put it simply, this is a raw, common and radical confrontation. LI Wei’s work A Decorative Thing represents the parasitism relationship where artists try to get inside of an institution in a concessionary manner and criticise it in the form of black humour. Artists who are immersed in the celebration of victory actually succumb to a bigger joke made by the curator and the institution. The so-called ‘decoration’ at last becomes a real ‘decoration’.

However, Zheng Guogu’s artwork perhaps can represent the co-exist of institutions and artist in the “relationships”. The artist begins to adopt various exploratory methods through mediums of different organisations to approach the appeal of “parallel”. Brain Lines, formed by 13 sets of large standing light boxes, tries to demonstrate the exceptional brain nerves construction of Jesus and his 12 disciples. As the artist discusses, ‘based on my study, it can be discovered that their brain nerves are connected to form a complete sense, which bridged the gap between left and right brain. It is neither fictional nor real, but just an artistic response. As the art attempts to reveal invisible things, it is like looking at the shadow of ultrasound through nuclear magnetic resonance’[iii]

The understandings of the piece are varied. One can see it in relation to politics, as a united, disciplined and vigorous army that advocates Jesus’ leading role. One can see it philosophically, looking at it from afar, the sizes and brightness of 13 sets of light boxes are the same, while 13 U-Type circuits shine clear with disciples’ names written on, which expressed the beauty of generality. Observing with a closer look, there are slight differences in the circuit sizes and colour of disciples, nerve stretches, which formed a sacred close loop. In this way, Jesus’ loop constitutes a standard sample for other 12 disciples to follow, vis-à-vis the pursuit of excellence in Greek philosophy. To look at it from a scientific perspective, it is possible that the names of 12 disciples represent the movement and function of 12 pairs of nerves in the human brain. We also see the significance of education. Donald Olding Hebb, psychologist and educator once said that intelligence comes from experience, not inheritance.[iv] He explored the notion that intelligence can be enhanced through childhood education. In the famous ‘Hebbian theory’, he proposes the importance of joint nerve system in learning.[v] Neuroplasticity, a crucial subject in contemporary psychology, stresses that adult education can increase human intelligence and remedy the psychological trauma. This research is also applied in the modern Buddhist Studies, emphasising boosting intelligence through training.[vi] Interestingly, this conforms to Zheng Guogu’s previous creation and discussion of Brain Lines:Yuanjuejing[vii]. We can tell that the forms of artistic expression of Yuanjuejing and Brain Lines are similar. But Brain Lines has expanded to a new dimension on the basis of Yuanjuejing, which means an unique methodology has been concluded or is being summarised by artists when they are probing into, sorting out and reflecting upon the created research projects. Nowadays, ‘the Jesus’ created by Zheng Guogu symbolizes generality and harmony, which revealed a tailor-made and balanced methodology. Artists admit the existence of institution and authority in forms of their works. He accepts disciplines, recognises their importance and takes initiative in discussing methods to realise discipline. He puts his thinking and concern in the same direction with the outlet of institutions. This is the significance of ‘the production of knowledge’ in contemporary art and art museum studies.

What the exhibition is dealing with is not only a political statement, but also a new concern of cross-disciplinary features in contemporary art. The physical space of cathedral has been transformed into a public realm. Only in this realm, the meeting between art and faith can be truly realised, and the discussion on the faith through contemporary art can be viewed seriously and differently. The new concerns that institutions face are not the traditional standards, but an unbiased thinking that tends to be more human and routine. Being new institutions, Manchester Cathedral provides a tolerate environment for artists and curators and is the constantly sparking friction in conversations. It is a creation brought by Harmonious Society.


[i] Biljana Ciric, ‘Artists and Institutions: from institutional Critique to the Mode of New Institutionalism’ (first published as ‘Artists and Institutions: Institution in the Future’) in No Ground Underneath: Curating on the Nexus of Changes, Beijing: China Youth Press, 2013.

[ii] The history of Manchester Cathedral, Manchester Cathedral online, available at http://www.manchestercathedral.org/history

[iii] Zheng Guogu, email communication between the artist, Jiang Jiehong and Ying Kwok , 5th March 2014.

[iv] Donald Olding Hebb, Psychologist and educator (22nd July, 1904–20th August, 1985), who has been described as the father of neuropsychology and neural networks.

[v] Hebb, D.O., “The Organization of Behavior“, New York: Wiley & Sons, 1949.

[vi] Richard J. Davidson, ‘Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation’, IEEE Signal Process Mag., 2008, January, 2008, 1;25(1): 176-174, available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/

[vii] Brain Lines: Yuanjuejing, by ZHENG Guogu, installation art, in Images of Magnetic Resonance, temporary exhibition in Tang Contemporary Art, 12nd July to 24th August 2014, Beijing. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment(圆觉经, Yuanjuejing)is a Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtra highly regarded by Zen schools.


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