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Alone In the Swarm

Author: SUN Qidong 2021-11-01

Sont ensemble, mais pas encore.
-Sur Maurice Blanchot [1]

“The hand acts”

“The hand acts” (Die Hand handelt) - when Shi Yong told me that the starting point of his exhibition Turning Inward, Until Disappearing was "to touch reality in the wilderness of words", this was the first thing that came to my mind. What should we make of Heidegger's distinction between "the writing hand" and the "typing hand" in Parmenides[2], when he says that "The hand acts"?

Heidegger associates the writing hand with "Being", that is, with contemplation and meaning. Heidegger places the hand under logocentrism: "Every motion of the hand in every one of its works carries itself through the element of thinking, every bearing of the hand bears itself in that element. All the work of the hand is rooted in thinking."[3] In his view, the writing hand can communicate with "being", making contemplation an action, far from sheer contemplation. Sheer contemplation is concealed, and writing is the only way to make it unconcealed and reach the truth. In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger identifies logos as a habit, specifically the habit of the peasant. Writing treats language as a peasant treats his land. When a peasant faces the unfathomable earth, he can do nothing but succumb. In contrast, the hand typing on a typewriter takes us away from Being. The result of typing is the externalization of writing, the further atrophy of the hand. In accordance with this idea, Shi Yong dismantled Chinese characters into strokes through graphics software, and then re-enclosed the strokes to form a figure, which is an extension of externalization, further aggravating the atrophy of the hand.

Power and Information

Thus, the technology of writing is essentially an agent that can slide. On the one hand, the action of writing connects to contemplation, which is a closed world. The installation work Turning Inward, Until Disappearing, consists of three cylindrical shapes. According to the perspective principle, the opening of the cylinders gradually shrinks and eventually forms absolute darkness at the point of intersection, a closed world, beyond the reach of our perception. Therein lies the absolute writing, the writing of non-writing? On the other hand, the externalization of writing, the typewriting (in Heidegger's time it was a typewriter, now it is a keyboard), or the intentional "( )" left by Shi Yong in ( ) Extends Farther than Conceivable Space, the dismantling and reassembling of Chinese characters by Shi Yong's use of graphics software in the three-dimensional character works Perhaps, Breath, Happen, etc., is, in Heidegger's view, all a manifestation of turning away from contemplation and entering fully into the sequence of action. The parenthetical "( )" in the title of the work  ( ) Extends Farther than Conceivable Space also appeared in the title of Shi Yong's solo exhibition at Boxes Art Museum in 2018, "A ( ) Bird be Released from the Top of a Certain Tower". In my essay for that exhibition, I noted that "As a prefix, ‘( )’ switches the audiences’ focus of the bird from a releasing gesture to the ambiguously pre-releasing state."[4] Here, besides suggesting the ambiguous state, "( )" presents the transparency of a container/platform that can encompass everything - where everything can be perceived and accessed in the form of information.

This transparency is the opposite of the darkness at the intersection of the vanishing point of the installation work Turning Inward, Until Disappearing. Power is inwardly oriented; it is not compatible with transparency and can only reside in darkness. The nature of transparency determines that the existence of transparency resides in the present moment, unlike power which has its secrecy. In the former, the mode of communication is a unilateral output of information, where the party in power pursues an asymmetrical communication; in the latter, it is a natural relationship of communication, where the receiver of information is at the same time the sender. The absence of power in the latter mode of communication is not the disappearance of power, but its retreat to the level of the platform, which is what gives it the ability to exert external power. Here, power does not naturally point to the ancient oriental authoritarian model, nor does the platform naturally point to the western egalitarian model. Understanding this, one also truly understands that the global narrative about the outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 epidemic is self-referential. There is no truth, nor concealment of the truth; there is only information, and the gesture of hunting for information.

“Writing” as an Action

Literature is in decline, more so than you can imagine. Because literature today means a decline in influence, a kind of corruption, awards that are criticized, etc. Literature has become synonymous with institutionalized writing.

How to understand the artwork in-situ The Waste Land, when Shi Yong selected a passage from Eliot's The Waste Land[5], printed it out on the wall, and then removed it with transparent tape? And how to understand the series Oblivion Lasts Longer than memory, in which Shi Yong transcribes Ulysses[6] and This Is Not A Pipe[7]etc., then erases the transcriptions, again and again, until the paper becomes fragments in the repeated transcriptions and erasures? What if writing does not point to a result, but to a process, to the fact that it becomes a kind of "writing" as an action?

We do not have to wonder which classic passages of The Waste Land we have missed, we do not have to guess at the relationship between the passage erased and the action of erasure, because together they constitute the erasure, both as an object and as a process. The "deterritorialization" of language, the loss of the artist's action and signified meaning, discard a kind of institutionalized thinking (or ideology, the "condensation" of invisible consciousness into a form), the thinking of "cold war" (or poetics) of language.

At least The Waste Land, Ulysses, and This Is Not a Pipe, do not need to be, and should not be, re-canonized in the exhibition. Shi Yong establishes a simple style through the process of "copy-erase" and makes it absolute. This simplicity, in my opinion, reveals an indifference to the taste and political correctness of "noble people" or intellectuals, and a disdain for taking a stand. Even if the Covid-19 epidemic has caused a change in the world order, such as the closing of the gates of various countries, anyone who says that one solution is the best one to fight the epidemic and protests in that name is definitely not seeing the tension between democratic principles and the networked system of expression, which is both united and confronted.

The Surrealist Collage

The democracy of form - the wall that retains traces and the paper that is repeatedly written and erased - breaks the defined logical relationship between expression and content. It is not dedicated to the averaging of the intellect and sensibility of those who view the work, but rather revealing the rupture: the rupture between reality and words, the abyss of the way different people use language, the isolation of different human experiences of existence.

Your epidemic, is not my epidemic.
Your contemporary, is not my contemporary.
Your anger, is my most valued medal.

Our works no longer speak to curators, critics, cultural and political elites, those who act through words, but to a blurred group of faces, men and women, old and young, who only occasionally cast a glance toward contemporary art, in between the movement of their eyes toward other information. Even this interval of time becomes a favor from him, because they really have no time, their eyeballs are divided up. Writing is no longer a resonance between approvals, but simply the combination and disassembly of words. The "writer" becomes the user of words, the geologist of words, the first person to decipher the oracle bones, the first person to decipher the ancient Egyptian script…Behind it is the history of the times, the history of civilization, and the stratigraphy of society. The abyss between inside and outside is not natural, but truly man-made. Shi Yong only gently uses surrealism here to collage a few stuck preludes to a seamless world dominated by power. It is violence, violence no less than that of the dominating power. However, this violence of creative works never eagerly commits itself outside the art system. It is merely Shi Yong's interpretation of what he observes and what is happening at the moment.

In the age of digital media, each person is alone in the swarm, which is in a concurrent relationship. If Plato had lived in the present, he would have made a new judgment about the status of the "Vita Contemplativa" and written a new Philebus. He would rethink freedom because of the dominant presence of digital media.

[1]Emmanuel Levinas, Sur Maurice Blanchot, p.38.
[2] Parmenides was a lecture course given by Heidegger at the University of Freiburg in the winter semester of 1942-1943.
[3]Martin Herdegger, Was heißt Denken?, Tübingen1971, S.51.
[5]The Waste Land is a long poem written by the English poet T. S. Eliot.
[6]Ulysses is a full-length novel by Irish stream-of-consciousness writer James Joyce, published in 1922. Ulysses chronicles the appointments and encounters of the itinerant Leopold Bloom in Dublin in the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904.
[7]Belgian painter René Magritte's famous pipe series, in which a pipe is painted with the phrase "This is not a pipe," demonstrates the complex relationship between graphics and language and has generated much interest and discussion in the fields of philosophy and painting. In this book, Foucault interprets this group of Magritte's pipe paintings from the perspective of graphic poetry, showing his strong philosophical discernment as well as his keen observation and sensibility, and his humorous and amusing side.

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