This article was published as preface of Geng Xu’s solo exhibition Poetics of the Body, curated by Shao Yiyang, Jan 2016, at FM Art Space, Guangzhou.
“Mr. Sea is everywhere“
A young scholar, a wild island, an erotic lure of passion and death… A seductive strange story unfolds slowly in the artist’s carefully crafted film.
The ‘Mr.Sea’ is one story from The Strange Tales of Liao Zhai (a classic literature work with a collection of about 500 stories by Pu Songling of the Qing Dynasty). Short and compact, the plot is: the young scholar Zhang explores a secluded place on a paradise-like island. Unexpectedly, he meets a young attractive woman. The young woman implies that she is an escort for the Mr. Sea, who he is currently away. Zhang is seduced by her beauty. While they are making love, the Mr.Sea suddenly appears and turns out to be a ghost viper. He makes a deadly attack and the woman disappears. Zhang narrowly escapes. In horror, he recalls that beauty can be evil too.
Geng Xue’s film, ‘Mr.Sea’, combines multi-media techniques including painting, sculpture and ceramics to reinterpret this captivating mystic story, and create a fantasy world. While the scenes are imaginary the feelings are very real. Excitement, eagerness, loneliness, sadness, helpless, and all kinds of emotional experiences are vividly demonstrated.
In the Strange Stories from Liao Zhao, female demons are the most attractive. They live in the shadow and are idealistically beautiful as an incarnation of people’s dreams. They do not lust for power, but love.They live beyond the rational world, and are a projection of our sub-consciousness and desire. Among the various sculptural mediums, ceramics best captures China’s traditional cultural essence. It is delicate, and easily broken like the reflection of moonlight on water, and is emotional, yet powerful. Geng Xue’sceramic figurines are cold, sad and appear like huddled souls. Occasionally, they expose the extreme excitement when struggling under the threat of death as represented bythe gush of blood from Zhang’s wound bitten by the Mr.Sea, releasing the powerful force of life.
Just like the other stories in the The Strange Tales of Liao Zhai, the Mr.Sea has romantic elements rarely seen in Chinese literature, including exploring the wilderness, wondering the unknown world, experiencing forbidden love, fleeting happiness, extreme sadness, violence, and the struggle to survive. Pu Songling of the Qing Dynasty uses mystical characters in The Strange Tales of Liao Zhaias a metaphorical portrayal of real life to criticize the social, cultural, political situation at the time. Folk ceramics at that time also involve derotic themes, and the awakening of human desire. In literary and artistic works of this type, sex and violence, as well as sensual pleasure is often used to reveal emotion containment highlighting the perception of the body, and thevalue individual secular existence. Freud once said,“the uncanny proceeds from something familiar which has been repressed.” It is expelled from the rational world, and we are not aware of it and ignore it. But when it suddenly appears, it is fearful.
Geng Xue represents ‘the Uncanny’ story to bring the invisible desires and fears into the visible Mr. Sea. It transcends through ancient and modern, popular and high culture, not only to show visual pleasure, but also the loneliness of fragility of life and survival. In reality, does the “Mr. Sea” really exist? Perhaps, it is just an imaginary personification of violence and cruelty. That is, more or less a fear projected by the woman or Zhang. In this world, as long as the threat is there, fear is there. The “Mr.Sea” is everywhere.
Here, he and I are attached; here he and I separated.
Here, endless sorrow I cried,
I saw him leave, no longer care for me.
– The Poetry of Michelangelo
Michelangelo is an old master of High Renaissance. His sculpture is powerful and full of humanity. In his later works ‘the Unfinished Slaves’, the chisel stone marks still remain. The marks on the works are just as touching as the fourteen lines of poems he wrote to his gay boyfriend showing the struggle between reality and divinity, desire and dedication, confusion and clarity.
The old Michelangelo cut with an axe, and left deep traces in the rock. Young Geng Xue uses her hands to mold very soft porcelain like massaging the human body. Geng Xue says:
“In the pile of mud, there is a wrapped man. While I kneaded and touched the mud, the man begins to form;
When I create his eyes, his eyes open and look at me;
When I create his hands, his hands turn to hold my hand…
When I am almost finished, I breathe in his mouth and his chest begins to rise and fall, breathing in and out.”
The whole process is made into a video like a standard educational film, recording the routine sculpture making process at the Academy. However, the difference is that the caption of the film is Michelangelo’s love poem, which is performed by the artist at the same time.
On camera, she gives the figure from the mud “energy”and “air”to make him alive as if by divine help. Michelangelo said: “But the divine hammer which is raised in the heavens creates its own beauty and the beauty of others by reason of its own strength. ….That is why it will guide my work to good end, if the divine forge lends its aid. Up to now, on earth, it was alone. ”
On camera, she creates him, loves him, and feels his love in return. Michelangelo said: “With your beautiful eyes I see a gentle light, which my blind eyes can see no longer. Your feet assist me to bear a load which my crippled feet can support no longer. I feel that, through your mind, I am raised to heaven. My will is centered in your will. My thoughts are formed in your heart and my words in your breath.”
On camera, she creates his eyes. If he could see, not only does he see her, he also sees others. She creates ears for him. If he could hear, he not only hears her voice, he also hears the voices of others. The love between themis only an illusion of her passion. Neither she nor Michelangelo can pretend to be God in creating life and receiving unconditional love. Michelangelo said: “Consequently, I recognize now how full of errors was the passionate illusion which made me turn art into an idol and a monarch; and I see clearly what every man desires for his hurt.”
On camera, she coldly cuts off his head and limbs, covering him with a white cloth, and spraying him with water. He leaves her, and in her eyes, he once again turns into a cold object. Michelangelo said: “Here is my love, my heart and life for joy. Here, his beautiful eyes promised to help me, but before long, his eyes moved to the other. Here, he and I are attached; here he and I separated. Here, endless sorrow I cried, I saw him leave, no longer care for me.”
On camera, her hands never leave the mud. Her body is covered in mud. His body is covered by her muddy hand marks. This love cannot be broken, and the pain cannot be forgotten. Real emotion is always the source of artistic creation. Michelangelo said: “I could as easily forget the nourishment on which I live, and which only sustains the body, without pleasure, as your name, which nourishes the body and the soul, and fills them with such sweetness that as long as I think of you I feel neither suffering nor the fear of death.”
Throughout the film, the artist work step by step mixed with subtle emotions. Hot desire and coldcut, tender engagement and violent dismantle mentcreate dramatic inner conflicts. The artist passes her energy through the arm into the mud. Her body heat runs through the film in sharp contrast with the cold clay and high technology of the film, offering a warm poetic quality to the art work.
Bring your whip
Nitezschesaid in Zarathustra: “You go to woman? Don’t forget the whip.” This sentence is a stain on Nietzsche’s academic career. In response, according to Russell, if Nietzsche brought a whip to meet a woman, she will take the whip from him. In fact, Nietzsche was conquered emotionally by a talented woman Lou Andres-Salome and even went crazy for love. In an old photo he arranged, Nietzsche was incredulously under the whip of Salome. Perhaps Nietzsche takes pleasure from sad omasochism, and is pleased to be beaten with the thin leather whip on him.
Geng Xue’s ‘Big Woman Statue’ also poses as a woman holding a whip behind her. Her left hand holds another hand like a strongman’s from behind. The existence of the hand reminds us of the presence of another body. However, there is no body behind hers and there is no image behind her image. The absent presence might be a man, a woman, an ideal, a soul or canbe an empty existence.
The ‘Big Woman Statue’ does not look modern or avant-garde, but rather conservative. The artist usesa classic model of Portrait sculpture fromthe Renaissance.The posture refers to Michelangelo’s ‘David’. David holds a catapult, while the large woman holds Nietzsche’s whip, which is not raised. Just like ‘David’, ‘Big Woman Statue’ is animage of a hero. But she is not the traditional of “guardian” or “martyr”. She has a huge, idealized sacred body. She is not cold and over bearing,but is instead warm and down-to-earth. She does not need a lover to rely on or an evil enemy to contrast with. She is just as powerful as an independent subject, existing between ideal and secular, as well as religious solemn and original lust, free to communicate with any other subject.
Geng Xue’s ‘Big Woman Statue’ continues an affectionate pursuit of the Mr. Sea and Michelangelo’s love poems. Since the Enlightenment, the Western philosophers, like Kant, value individual emotional desire. They think that romantic love can free individuals from religious and moral, material and rationalized social confinements. Modern philosophers, such as Foucault, further state that sex and love are not innate and natural, but socially constructed to represent the power of the regime. The instinct of human nature is suppressed by modern culture. The pursuit of love can be an important way to emancipate the individual from social constraints and achieve spiritual freedom.
Portrait sculpture conveys the poetics of the body. Geng Xue’s works uses the body as clues, and love as a theme, but does not try to fixedly capture the romantic moments or direct a perfect ending. Instead, the work tries to reveal the various unknown threats toour desire, record our hardly held-on memories, and transcendent sensual experiences. It constantly reminds us that the pursuit for love and freedom is instinctive and unstoppable.
 Freud, Sigmund, “The Uncanny”, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol.18. Hogarth Press London, 1955, 241.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.
Deputy Dean of School of Humanities
Head of Western Art Studies
Central Academy of Fine Arts, No.8 Huajiadi South Street,
Chaoyang Disctric, Beijing, China, 100102
Tel 8610-64770841, mobile 86-13701208015
PhD, Department of Art History and Theory, University of Sydney, 2003
MA(Hon.), Department of Art History and Theory, University of Western Sydney, 1996
BA(Hon.), Department Art History and Theory, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, 1993
Focuses on Western modern/contemporary art history & theory and Chinese modern/contemporary art
Selected Grants & Awards:
China Ministry of Education Award for the Excellency of Academic Research in the New Century, 2012
Chinese Artists’ Association Grant for Young Artists and Historian on Western contemporary art studies, 2010
China Ministry of Education Major Grant for Visual Culture Studies, 2009
Beijing Council of Culture Grant for Visual Arts Studies, 2006
Presentations at International Conferences
Feb.2017, Presentation at International Group, CAA annual conference, USA
Sep.2016, Chair of session 3rd, 34th International conference of art history (CIHA), Beijing, China
Feb.2015, Presentation at International Group, CAA annual conference, USA
July 2012, Presentation on the 33rd international conference of art history (CIHA), Nuremburg, Challenge of Object.
January 2008, Presentation on the 32nd international conference of art history (CIHA), University of Melbourne, Crossing Cultures, Conflict, Migration and Convergence.
March 2007, Presentation on 29th art history conference organized by Verband deutscher Kunsthistoriker (Association of German Art Historians) in Regensburg, 2007.
Oct. 2001, Presentation on annual conference of the art association of Australia and New Zealand, ‘Visual Arts in the 21st Century: From Museum to Cyberspace’, University of Melbourne
July 2000, Presentation on ‘Is there alternative modernity in Chinese art’ at the ASAA 13th Biennial Conference ‘Whose Millenium’, University of Melbourne
Presentations at National Conferences
Sept. 2012, Keynote speech on 6th national annual conference of art criticism in Xi’an.
Oct. 2009, Presentation on 3rd national annual conference of art history in Tsing Hua University, Beijing
Oct. 2008，Presentation on international conference Visual Culture and Architecture in China Art Academy, Hangzhou
May. 2007, Presentation on first national annual conference of art history in Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing
Western Art History Workshops in English
July 31-August 12, participate in Advanced Workshop on Western Art in New York City. Organized by Asian cultural council, New York
May 18-24, participate in Advanced Work Workshop in Western Art and Art History, A Teaching and Research Institute, China Academy of Art, Hongzhou.
July 12-31, 2010, participate in Advanced Workshop in Western Art and Art History, A Teaching and Research Institute, Hong Kong University
Western Art History, Peking University Press, Beijing，2014 first edition, 2017 second edition.
Chuan yue hou xiandai (Beyond Postmodern), Peking University
Press, Beijing, Beijing 2012
Hou xian dai zhi hou(Art After Postmodern ), 1st edition, Shanghai Arts
Press, 2008, 2nd edition, Peking University Press, 2012
Chinese Modern Art 1980s & 1990s(in English)，UMI.il .proquest，USA, 2005
Shao Yiyang, “Whither Art History?”, Art Bulletin, June,2016
Shao Yiyang, “Infinite Social Landscape”, in Ulrich GroBmann and Petra Krutisch, ed., The Challenge of the Object, 33rd Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art, Congress Proceedings, Part 3, German National Museum, Nuremberg, 2013
Shao Yiyang, “The International Identity of Chinese Art：Theoretical Debates on Chinese Contemporary Art in the 1990s”in Jason C.Kuo ed，Contemporary Chinese Art and Film，Theory Applied and Resisted. New Academia Publishing, 2013
Shao Yiyang, “Chinese Art and Education in 1980-1990s”, (English, translated into German), in Peter J. Schneemann und Wolfgang Brückle (Hg.) Kunstausbildung, Aneignung und Vermittlung künstlerischer Kompetenz, Vereinigung der Kunsthistorikerinnen und Kunsthistoriker in der Schweiz, Bern, München 2009
Shao Yiyang, “Why Realism?”in Anderson, Jaynie (ed), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence : The Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress of the History of Art (Comite International d’Histoire de l’Art, CIHA) The University of Melbourne, 2008
Shao Yiyang, “Art Exhibitions Since 1949”，in Pong, David,ed. Encyclopedia of Modern China. vol 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Detroit,. 2009
Shao Yiyang, “Body, Art and Earth”, reviews on Warburton Arts Project in China, 2010
Shao Yiyang, “Body Strategy and Social Politics” (in Chinese), Meishu yanjiu, no.1. 2012
Shao Yiyang “How Painting becomes Avant-garde”, rongbaozhai, no.10. 2011
Shao Yiyang, “See and Seen, Self Portraits of Chinese Female Artist”(in Chinese), meishu guancha，no.4, 2011
Shao Yiyang,“ from Post-colonialisms to Cross Culture” (in Chinese), wenyi yanjiu, no.7, 2010
Shao Yiyang, “Art History and Visual Culture” (in Chinese), in meishu yanjiu, no.4, 2009