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The Reading of a Novel - on " Shih Yung-Chun : Pre-Construction "

Author : Chang Sheng Kun

A cofounder of the Marxism magazine, French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) believed that the sustainability of capitalist society lies not in human activities of production but in their everyday life immersed in capitalism. In 1947, Lefebvre had The Critique of Everyday Life (French: Critique de la vie quotidienne) published, his signature masterwork in Western philosophy which first brought the term “criticism of daily life” up for discussion. “…sustenance, clothing, furnishing, homes, neighbourhoods, environment... Call it material culture if you like…”(1) Dedicated to studying the space and actions closely linked to the life of ordinary people in social formation, Lefebvre was trying to revolutionize the everyday life in the 1960s through artistic intervention and student movements.

Shih Yung-Chun’s 2009 series Daily Life System and Life Demonstration started his surrealist-ish exploration of art by blending the alienated together on canvas. In a combinative surrealist form and yet still basing his work on people, events and objects in reality though, he constructs images of a disorderly, non-linear universe by detaching narrative subjectivity, simplifying and materializing object symbols as well as decomposing the connection between the subject and the object. The framework of Shih Yung-Chun’s art is built upon the concept of structuralist philosopher Tzvetan Todorov. Taking Todorov’s literary concept of structuralist narratology as the matrix, he’s worked out three information phases in terms of narrative posture: the symbol elements in a work (the context of text generation); the work itself assembled and presented by the artist (the text); and the audience (the context of text acceptance). An organic whole as they seem, the three are in fact in a relationship of mutual influence and containment. When a piece meets a viewer with different life experience, the inherent openness of the symbols would impose objectivity on the narrative’s structure, turn the viewer to his own experience, evoke different emotional ripples, and create the kind of distancing effect attempted by Bertolt Brecht in his theory and practice of narrative theatre. The limitation on the readability of the symbols in the work makes it possible to analyze the distance between the viewer and the work, and the viewer would then be prompted to imagine and make combinations automatically, just like being invited to be part of the last phase of the creation: reading and interpreting.

In a society characteristic of information popularization, artists take in nutrition by observation and introspection and turn it into part of their work through personal vocabulary. “The traditional Western aesthetics is constituted by two primary systems: the ‘observational, experiential’ one advocated by Aristotle and the ‘transcendental, introspective’ one proposed by Plato.”(2) On the surface primitively, Shih Yung-Chun’s artwork is based on his personal experience in life, which happens to characterize him as an introspective artist. But when a work of his is presented to others, its ambiguous visual elements can arouse the personal experience of the audience, making a difference to the way of reading the work. Such is an active touch that invites the experience of the audience and compares it with that of the artist for what’s common in between. The reason why Shih Yung-Chun’s work allows its thematic elements to stand out separately and bring about fusion, repulsion and remarriage in intuitive vision is that his figural yet unrealistic approach to painting real existing objects and his diverse personal symbols marry a strong personal touch with illogical composition. After 2012, he started complicating the composition of his work, abandoning the surreal form of splicing, and organizing ready-made objects, cubical works and physical space into various absurd, surreal and yet substantial scenes by means of mise en scène like making a film. Then after a phase of photo shooting, he would go on to paint from the scenes. So this stage of his art has ushered in his refocusing on representational subject matter in his new series. His realist approach to the compositional perspective and content of a painting blurs the true/false boundary of the subject and the spatial background, placing the work in a grey area between readable and unreadable, which stimulates and challenges the audience visually in different ways, shattering the ambiguous divide between surrealism and realism. Composing in the representational manner, the complicated staged photographing has become the most important ingredient of Shih Yung-Chun’s art. The artist collects material from life for his artistic practice, with his personal taste acting as the anchor of his eyesight that he would cast to various corners of his life. During his collection of artistic material, he’d sometimes dig deep into a predetermined theme like an ambitious archaeologist, and sometimes also return with surprising, unexpected treasure from a pleasant journey like an unrestrained and romantic explorer. The collecting of massive data is a must before every art project of his. And the material collected as mentioned above actually refers to concrete real-life objects such as toys, dolls, pot plants and furniture. In a film-directing way, Shih Yung-Chun designs the characters and positions of these second-hand objects and works them into various absurd scenarios of stories with open endings.

“A director controls point of view by manipulating narrative logic, eye-contact and shot-size…Framing this same action so that we see the actor in profile has the opposite effect, placing us in a more neutral relationship with the subject.”(3) Apart from the visual balance in composition and the painted scenario designed by the artist, the technique of controlling point of view has always been one of the key highlights of two-dimensional painting. Guiding viewers with the scraped scrabbles left by the making of every piece, Shih Yung-Chun creates a dynamic effect of rack focusing or focus shifting, like a filmmaking technique employed in the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague), so, during the observation of the action(s) of the main character(s), the audience’s focus would shift to and fro according to the dominating and auxiliary relation in the composition of the painting. It’s like the link game we did on doodle books when we were little: linking 1 to 2 and 2 to 3. Shih Yung-Chun would also number the finished pieces with a crayon or a ballpoint pen. In such a post processing form of painting, we can see in the artist a more pure and intuitive self-awareness of himself as a creator of art. “Semiology only takes care of the ‘studium’ of an image whose ‘punctum’ can only be dealt with by phenomenology.”(4) It happens that, in Shih Yung-Chun’s art, the symbol elements, in their abundance, embody an approach to the theories of phenomenology that go against semiology. “The essence of photography is that every photo has to signify something that exists for real, and such a signified represents a form of rejection and transcendence of symbolization.”(5) By breaking the boundary between the imaginary and the real in the world of painting, his art has worked out a documentary style that marries painting with photography, rather different from the manifestations of realist painting.

In an exhibition, different habits would, perhaps, determine whether we see a work “before” or “after” we learn about the title of it. In the case of Shih Yung-Chun’s art, the titles have always been vernacular and straightforward interpretations of his themes. Regardless of what we see first, how he titles a work has always been straightforward in a way that makes us smile and it’s actually also one of the proficient directorial techniques of Shih Yung-Chun. Every element in his work exists in actual real life, although it may be quite unlikely that they are directly related to one another. For example, we have scenarios where antique scales are used to measure two pineapple buns in a Hong Kong-style café or an obsolete refrigerator is used to build a library at home. Shih Yung-Chun designs new uses for these obsolete items from daily life in a setting different from their usual ones and combines them with other cubical works or toy accessories, which creates a nostalgic mood with a rich Asian flavor and attaches more value to his art in documenting the culture of a time. And straightforward as his titles are, they seem able to provoke the audience’s imagination of the actions in his paintings by intentionally elaborating the themes. This way, the audience would be more confident in interpreting the symbols in his paintings according to their own experience and preferences. This is responding to the loose narrative posture attempted by Shih Yung-Chun and the studium/punctum relation proposed by Roland Barthes, which fully demonstrates the artist’s brilliant directorial approach in art practice.

“Let everyday life become a work of art!”(6) “Everyday life” has always been the protagonist of Shih Yung-Chun’s work, judging from which we can generalize three phases of his art-making process: the analysis of actions in everyday life; the re-categorization of actions by type; the re-designing of a scenario from multiple points of view. Everyday life has never ceased witnessing our various intentional or unintentional “actions”, even including the action of a blank stare. Like how the information about space (scene), time (day/night) and people (actor) is illustrated in a clapperboard, Shih Yung-Chun set off by dividing various fragments of daily life, according to different action themes, into different story series, such as the three series Life Demonstration, Daily Life System and Reading Habits exhibited in his 2012 solo at Line Gallery in Beijing, the Daily Toy Set series exhibited in his 2014 solo at Delicate Vintage Shop in Taipei and 2015 solo “Game Instructions” at Art Experience Gallery in Hong Kong, and the Botany and Demonstration of Family Life series exhibited in his 2016 solo “Family Handcraft” at Line Gallery in Beijing. In a persistent pseudo-documentary form, he weaves the various imaginary scenarios about life and even invites his friends from around to play characters inside. The setting can be a private house, a veterinary hospital or a hotel on a journey. “…the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public…which is the publicity of the private… I want to utter interiority without yielding intimacy.”(7) These games practiced in real life reveal a fabricated type of reality, which, documented in the form of photography/painting by Shih Yung-Chun, seems to be an image of a body obscured by a sheet of gauze. The ambiguous silhouettes can better arouse the subjective imagination of the audience while they are learning about the image.

For his 2019 solo “Pre-Construction” held in Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Shih Yung-Chun has written a novel by the same title at a length of about 60,000 characters, which underlies all the general concepts of the solo exhibition. The story starts from the landlord taking back the space the artist uses as his studio, so, to safeguard the memories with it that he doesn’t want to forget, he covers the inner surface of the two-storey house with 476 wood boards to make a mold for a replica he later rebuilds in an abandoned plant near his abode so that he can once again live in the familiar house. As the story unfolds, the protagonist encounters a few strangers with disorderly behavior and illusionary appearances, dreams a few dreams and receives an electrical kiln left by a strange old man, and, to extend the “existence” of the old man, he carries on with the unfinished ceramic work of him. Expounding the “origin of every work” in the exhibition, the novel is actually also a creation by Shih Yung-Chun, which helps him forge a creative context reversely by means of text or some nonexistent explanations for the substantial exhibits, reinforcing the relationship between the “exhibition” and the “works” on a larger scale and thus attracting the audience into the mist between reality and imagination.

As we know, the idea and message an artist intends to deliver in a work would be reaching the audience who get to read it. But what you can learn from the overt messages of Shih Yung-Chun’s pieces appears to be a playful taste of living and even partakes of elaborated horror and sweetness. Instead of conveying any philosophies or meanings, his art seems more inclined to invite the audience to be part of this work-interpreting game by actively blending in their own memories. As to the meaning hereof, he’s perhaps just reminding the audience sarcastically that, in this world full of fiction, we should work more out of our life more actively and deliberately. Just as the title of the last chapter of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (French: Fragments d’un discours amoureux) suggests, one should place himself in “sober ebriety” (“Sobria Ebrietas”) since, perhaps, only by losing control soberly can we attain infinite fun peacefully.

(1) Henri Lefebvre. Everyday life in the Modern World, Sacha Rabinovitch trans., P.14. ( original French title: La vie quotidienne dans le monde moderne)

(2) 吳時紅, 馬克思主義美學研究, 第16卷, 第一期 Wu Shihong. , Vol.16, Issue 1

(3) Steven D. Katz. Film Directing Cinematic Motion, P.5

(4) 路況, 思想與明星:中西文藝類型的系譜與星圖, P.20 Lu Kuang. , P.20

(5) 路況, 思想與明星:中西文藝類型的系譜與星圖, P.23 Lu Kuang. , P.23

(6) Henri Lefebvre, 法國1968年的學運《五月風暴》口號, Henri Lefebvre. The slogan of the May 1968 student revolt in France

(7) Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida, Richard Howard trans., P.153 (original French title: La chamber)

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