Action and Participation: Understanding the Aesthetics of Micro Micro Revolution

On 17/09/2015 by Marianna Tsionki

By Joe Williams

“To be a teacher is my greatest work of art. The rest is the waste product, a demonstration…Objects aren’t very important any more. I want to get to the origin of matter, to the thought behind it.” For Joseph Beuys, who made this claim in 1969, true art was not about what an artist could materially produce, but was a process, comprising education, interaction and, ultimately, social transformation. For Beuys, humanity was the greatest work of art. In that case, art was no longer regarded as the special realm of the artist; all could apply themselves creatively, no matter their vocation. This is the essence of the movement that became known as social sculpture.

Beuys also made a triangulated connection between art, social revolution and ecology. He claimed in 1981 that he “wished to go completely outside and to make a symbolic start for my enterprise of regenerating the life of human kind”. Developing his interest in environmentalism, he wanted to embrace the natural world, as a kind of symbol, into his philosophy of social regeneration. This led to 7000 Oaks.

7000 Oaks was a response to rapid urban development in Kassel, Germany, in which, over a period of years, Beuys and his collective planted 7000 trees, each with accompanying basalt stone, across town. The idea was that it would form part of an ecological intervention that would alter the urban structure and, ultimately, the social fabric. For Beuys, the oak tree was “a symbol of this planet”. Together with the stone, it became an icon of time, and of regeneration: the stone represented the qualities of natural life that were unwavering, while the tree stood for continuous transformation.

Moreover, the process of financing, planting and making sustainable the project, as well as the conceptual innovation and education behind it, and its future sustainability, was also essential: it represented a victory of collective engagement. 7000 Oaks was open democratic participation in action; it was Beuys’ vision of the future. Indeed, the process was the art; the trees and stones were symbols- albeit symbols which aesthetically described the process- that were left behind.

Beuys’ social sculpture thus endowed the rest of the world with a new methodology. It was a non-specific international template with which to explore specific local issues- any artist could develop it as they pleased. Social sculpture’s conceptual genesis may have occurred in Germany, but it was sensitive to artistic discourses in other parts of the world. It gained popularity in east Asia in the 1990s as a response to the environmental/social threat posed by capitalism. Projects included Xlong Wenyun’s Moving Rainbow 1998-2001, a series of participatory artworks and public events and Betsy Damon/Dai Guangyu’s Keepers of the Waters 1995, a programme of installations designed to engage the public in debates on the Funan River. Moreover, the methodology has experienced a renaissance in the last ten years, as the utopia Beuys envisioned seemed to slip further out of reach, and artists are finding new ways to challenge the status quo.

The four Taiwanese artists on show in Micro Micro Revolution– Huang Po-Chih, Wu Mali and Hsu Su-chen/Lu Chien-ming- are all ostensibly and loosely united by their attachment to this idea of art as process. Wu Mali, who spent many educative years in Beuys’ Germany, claimed that she rejects conventional visual art as “a self-contained system”. This is reinforced by associate curator Lu Pei-Yi: “These three projects are all long-term, process-based, and participative and have tangible and important impacts on their local communities.”

For each piece in Micro Micro Revolution, the displayed exhibition is not the actual artwork, nor are the three displays “final”. Instead, what we see is a record of the long lifespan of each respective project, which is itself the art. To quote Beuys once more, the art is the “the origin of matter” behind each project, not the “demonstration”.

But if this is the case, how to understand something, still a work in progress, when it is displayed in a gallery? How can it be understood as art? How well has it been communicated?

Beuys’ social sculpture was of immediate artistic value in the 1970s because it conceived of a radical new form of aesthetics. However, one of the limitations of exhibiting it in a gallery, then and now, is that the art itself has happened, and is happening, elsewhere. While an observer is aware that what he/she is seeing is of social benefit, and while it is implicit, with some understanding of contemporary art history, that each project is art, its overt artistic relevance can be obscured when assimilated into an exhibition space. How can it transcend being simply the display of a community project?

Firstly, it is necessary to begin by exploring the content of each respective project. After all, the process of socio-ecological engagement, in the context of social sculpture (“every man [is] an artist), is the art. This process has been relayed to us through a variety of media, each of which speak of the depth of each artwork.

Hsu Su-Chen/Lu Chien-Ming’s Plant Matter Needed: The Material World of the Riverbank Amis Tribe regards the collective organisation of a displaced tribe, and its involvement in its own project of social recognition. The exhibition includes video footage of tribal ceremonies (which testify as to the creeping presence of modern urban development on the tribe’s land), filmed interviews with members of the tribe and activists, tribal paraphernalia, and photography of the project’s exhibition in Taiwan, in which the tribe’s tools, weapons and clothing were laid out for the audience to observe.

The centrepiece is the reconstructed tribal dwelling. Built from sustainably sourced pallets, it represents the aboriginal philosophy of closeness to the land and also of recycling natural materials. The project is clearly of long term benefit to a previously marginalised group, and is a success precisely because of its insistence of involving that group, together with its array of customs, traditions and objects, into its artistic practice.

Huang Po-Chih’s 500 Lemon Trees was a pseudo-entrepreneurial enterprise, in which art audiences were encouraged to invest in a wine label, the money of which goes to support migrant lemon farmers, whose crops are then manufactured into a bottle of lemon wine. In creating this transactional element, he not only mirrored positively the character of the stratified contemporary global economy, he also integrated an ethical model of entrepreneurship into the art world.

The gallery is littered with televisions displaying footage of Huang Po-Chih’s delivery of the project. This includes his presence on Taiwanese media, in which we can see the myriad ways in which the project has cultivated wider renown, and also the positive effect it has had on the migrant labourers he is working closely with. There is also footage of the events he has co-ordinated in other parts of the world. Thus, we see how the ethically sourced lemon based recipes have brought different communities together: ecological sustainability and social improvement harmoniously interacting. This is, in essence, the artwork.

Wu Mali’s A Cultural Action at Plum Tree Creek is a series of workshops and mini projects designed to unite and educate a community based on understanding the socio-ecological problems of urban development. The exhibition is predominantly a compendium of footage, and describes what is easily the most comprehensive project of the three. We see a video of residents working together to cook traditional recipes in Breakfast at Plum Tree Creek, in which themes of sustainable eating and ecofeminism are clearly discussed.

Moreover, There’s a Creek in front of my School Gate is a project designed to help local schoolchildren understand better the environmental problems facing the Danshun River, and to encourage them to design artistic responses in the classroom. There are also displays of community art projects, ranging from cartography, theatre, photography and museum curation. The project is vast, all encompassing and thoroughly well thought out. It includes all age groups, runs for a period of at least five years and involves each person in a multidisciplinary artistic methodology that is of obvious benefit to the community and the ecology.

Influenced, both directly and indirectly (Wu Mali the former, Lu Chien-Ming and Huang Po-Chih probably the latter), by social sculpture, each project is a process of engagement, education and organisation and is the actual artwork. In this respect, Wu Mali’s is the most successful. It is characterised by a thoughtful commitment to organisation, a respect for its participants and a sustainable time frame. It is also the most accomplished in terms of involving those participants in the art process.

However, while it is certainly the most comprehensive manifestation of social sculpture in situ, and while we can understand this as art through contextual awareness, social sculpture’s exhibition in a contemporary art space imposes limitations on artistic relevance. Obviously, these processes are happening elsewhere, not in CFCCA. Moreover, they are happening to other people; can we be anything other than a passive observer in the process? This is an inherent and unavoidable flaw in social sculpture, but there are ways around it to ensure its exhibition is more than simply a record. If art is meant to effect a shift in perceptions, there are important criteria which can be met to allow for this form of aesthetics to be perceived, and for this shift to be experienced, by non-participants.

Curatorial and design choices can help to communicate the artistic spirit to a non-participating audience. While they cannot fully recreate the process that characterises each project as art, they can artistically represent that process, and can also leave future viewers with a kind of symbolic legacy. Xlong Wenyun’s Moving Rainbow is a very good modern example. The social sculpture- the enterprise itself- was the artwork, but this was relayed to art audiences in a more than satisfactory manner.

Wu Mali’s piece is undermined by its refusal to confront this restriction. While the rich display is curated as if to reflect the contours of the natural scenery in Plum Tree Creek, encouraging viewers to take their time and digest the material slowly, it is unwieldy in its level of detail and characterised by a lackadaisical aesthetic approach. Of course, the footage speaks for itself- it is a record of the artwork, the most developed in respect of social sculpture- but the overall curation makes it little more than that. Perhaps Wu Mali’s piece is just not destined for a gallery space- its presence feels awkward; participation and place seem essential. Consequently, what we can see is a record of a community project that inadequately represents it for what it is: art.

Plant Matter Needed transcends the limitations more convincingly. Photography of previous exhibitions, and the sculptural manner in which tribal material culture is displayed, not only remind us that this exhibition is one more increment in the long term process of tribal social justice, they also symbolise, for a non-participant, the kind of tribal pride and celebration the project itself embodied. The central dwelling reconstruction embodies this even further. It is not only a striking piece of sculpture. It also, as Hsu Su-chen claimed, “restores the true appearance of their culture and lifestyle”. Its erection is about much more than its material presence; it is a symbol of survival, and of the processes that have already happened, and will continue to happen. This evocation and communication of tribal aesthetics is about more than ornamentation; it is through them that we, as an audience, are able to perceive the piece as art, and not just a record of a community project.

Huang Po-Chih’s displayed work also manages to find ways to connect with gallery audiences. It is characterised most of all by the presence of lemon trees. This is an ideal symbol of his project. Firstly, it makes the experience of viewing more redolent of the experience of lemon farming in Taiwan, and integrates a strong ecological aesthetic into an inner city space. Moreover, their presence also has important temporal connotations: as the artwork is viewed and contemplated by more people, so the lemon trees begin to flower, a process symbolically cementing the relationship between society and ecology. Much like the tree and stone icons in 7000 Oaks, this communicates his work as social sculpture, more than simply a record of a ethical community project, to a UK art audience.

As social sculpture relies on process, rather than product, performativity is also essential: performance and event implement the ideas behind the artwork, through temporary activation, before an audience.  Similarly, in relational art, a conceptual cousin, the performance is the artwork, and it creates an arena in which social assumptions can be challenged and rearranged. While the idea of relational aesthetics as a means of effecting social change has been criticised- is it anything more than spectacle?- it was nonetheless important that each artist find ways to dialectically engage with UK audiences. If art is about effecting some sort of shift in perspective, which has already occurred in each piece’s Taiwanese context, this performative engagement was essential for CFCCA’s audience.

One of the key ways this occurred was through the organisation of and attendance at a series of symposium seminars and lectures. Each of the three artists spoke about their work, and the programme also featured speeches from curators, art experts and academics. The symposium thus allowed for those who attended to gain a more comprehensive idea of the scale of each project. The artists contextualised their projects, described in greater detail the mini-projects within, and evoked more vividly the humans, environments and changes that their artworks entailed. The abstract artworks were made more tangible and ultimately, more perceivable as art, and it also provided a stronger conceptual and theoretical basis to the exhibition as a whole. The exhibition itself lacked a strong intellectual underpinning- perhaps more literature is required to educate visitors- and the symposium compensated for this with its more educative intentions.

Furthermore, the gallery preview featured a number of “performances” by each artist. In Gallery One, Wu Mali acted as a kind of informal tour guide to her piece, providing a light hearted but also informative commentary on the project. While this added a human voice to the work’s dizzying amount of detail, and encouraged visitors to offer their own local perspectives, it felt like it failed to fully engage visitors with the underlying artistic meaning of the work. In doing so they remained passive observers.

Hsu Su-chen/Lu Chien-ming’s piece involved a live blessing of the wooden construction by the tribe’s leader, including the same proclamation and drinking of ritual concoction as would occur in real life tribal blessings (every house is blessed before it is lived in). It was followed by chanting and en masse participation in an Amis tribe version of a conga line. This certainly caught the audience’s eye and was a strikingly original feature of a gallery preview, but it did raise similar questions as have been directed at more broad relational aesthetics; can this kind of performance cause any kind of aesthetic shift in audience perspective, or is it just spectacle, describing cultural phenomena?

The importance of performativity was perhaps best illustrated by Huang Po-Chih’s piece. In many respects it recalled work by artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, who transformed gallery spaces into communal dining areas, in which recipes were displayed, cooked and eaten, but who has since found his concept questioned (is it expecting too much of a participant?). Huang Po-Chih’s piece was far less about making people participate and far more about providing the prompts to change their perceptions, and in doing so, make them think differently. “Performing” in both CFCCA and the Whitworth, it felt far more relevant as an artistic project than the former two.

He performed three “live” cocktail mixes, in which poetic versions of recipes- containing embedded political observations- were read out, and drinks- inspired by his lemon cultivation and using Mancunian and Taiwanese alcoholic ingredients- were poured and enjoyed by the audience. The performance helped demonstrate that art can encourage positive forms of transaction, and also fostered an atmosphere of conviviality and cohesion that acted as a blueprint for his wider social vision. If we can produce, and enjoy, the fruits of nature more ethically, then we can expect this sort of peaceful interaction taking shape on a more universal level. In doing so, it felt like it may actually effect some adjustment to the way the audience understood the world.

The performances during the gallery preview, coupled with the symposium, thus made it easier for UK audiences to understand each piece as art. My appreciation of the three pieces, as art, was majorly impacted on by the ways each artist communicated their work live (as well as my prior involvement in the research process). For those that did not attend, this more developed understanding is not possible. However, each artwork is ongoing and acts independently of audience schedules; it cannot conform to temporal constraints, and we must accept this limitation if social sculpture can continue to be relevant. We must do our own work, find our own ways to participate, even if only intellectually, in each artwork.

Nevertheless, the limitations and solutions do reinforce the idea that being there is essential. This is not art that can be fully understood as such from a distance (in space and/or time). It is art that necessarily requires some sort of involvement, or at least a passive understanding of the process of involvement. If art engenders a shift in perspective- a shift in how the world is regarded- then social sculpture is still a relevant methodology. As this essay has demonstrated, each project has contributed to a significant change in the way their participants perceive reality. There is no doubt as to their efficacy, nor their artistic value.

Where they differ is how they have made this schema relevant to art audiences in the UK. Social sculpture is tangible as art when it symbolises its process, when it explains its complexities and when it engages with audiences. The danger of not meeting these criteria is that social sculpture becomes merely a record of socio-ecological improvement. Micro Micro Revolution bears witness to the ways in which conforming, and not conforming, to these requirements can have a major impact on how a work of social sculpture is understood as art.




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