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Is the Essence of Art to Resist Death?

Translator: Licheng Zeng 2021-07-25

Living in the caves of Mount Etna, he was the god of fire and blacksmiths in ancient Greek mythology. He was not fascinated by the ease of Olympus but surrounded himself with the Cyclops. He vented his rage in the furnace of craftsmen to hammer iron ingots, alloys and forge all the weapons for gods. This was Hephaestus, synonymous with volcano, and lava was his smithy. He was a burning anvil, who used flames to dry the Scamander River in the “Iliad".

Zhao Yang's new series "Godlike Rage" always recalls Hephaestus, the archetype of anger in Greek mythology. It alludes to a kind of free forging: while spitting out red metal blanks, the metallic minerals are smelted in the blazing fire of a furnace, continuously destructed and reorganised by the artist under the heavy blow of an unplanned force. Everything is deformed during the hammering, at once stretched, thickened, upset, punched, twisted, shifted, cut or forged. This sense of power has been strengthened in Zhao’s recent works. Unlike the stream-of-consciousness vacillation and spacewalks appearing in his early practice, they feature a further attempt to control the power, trying to open up a new passage between the unbalanced and balanced, conflict and restraint.

It is a new expansion of the early wanderers who searched for the possibilities of life in a void. Long existing in Zhao Yang's creative process, it can also be considered an unstable dreamlike state, a habitual postmodern transformation in literature. This situation has reached a new stage since 2012: from the wild expressions of grey and black, surreal wastelands and ruins, to the dissociative somnambulant and men full of slips of the tongue. In his 2018 "Roma Is a Lake" series, this separation based on the mysterious atmosphere brings multiple aesthetic experiences to the stream-of-consciousness theatre of dream and reality, presenting a kind of extreme restraint and implicitness. Here, power is converged.

This kind of convergence has been revealed in the “Godlike Rage” series again like a giant beast. In the eyes of Gilles Louis Rene Deleuze, his direct definition of the essence of art is resistance. He declares decisively that art has nothing to do with information and concludes that art is not communicative. Deleuze believes that artists should devote themselves to resisting, although many of them do not know what they are against, as it is subconsciously driven by mental and physical impulses. That is why artworks should emphasise a private nature rather than a public one.

Using this method to survey Zhao Yang’s works, we can see that there is indeed a correlation. Notably characterised by personal experience, Zhao's work draws from the rubbles or treasures found in his own memory, as well as the slices of his life. The stones that roll down from cliffs, rivers to sedimentary beaches are equivalent to one's life experience, which will be washed and piled up on the canvas—the two-dimensional, static river beach—over time. Though they are no longer the same, the artist still chooses to walk towards the beach.

He salvages the stones on the river beach that have been sharpened by time and throws them into the furnace. This is a kind of resistance to natural forces. He wants to refine and forge them again. It is an ongoing process in his artistic career, but this kind of "anger" tends to grow and the thump gets heavier at the moment. It is certainly not a sudden act, but a deeper resistance to the past. Instead of directivity, it is a kind of emotionality. People are born to resist gravity. If not, then we should all be lying on the ground. Standing and walking demonstrate that the essence of life is to resist the increase of entropy.

Therefore, Georges André Malraux notes that art is the only thing that resists death. But in Deleuze's viewpoint, art is not the only thing that resists. It does resist, as there is a similarity between a work of art and an act of resistance. Artists are no different from others. We are all facing the same world of emptiness, chaos and darkness. Malraux's book “La Condition Humaine” depicts four protagonists that come to the same tragic end. The story is set in Shanghai during the Republic of China. The plights of men—a commander of the revolt, an assassin, a revolutionary, a French arms smuggler—are intertwined in such a background and era. Resistance has also become a kind of nothingness, as people have no idea know what they are fighting against.

We can find a kind of resistance in Zhao Yang's new works. The artist does not want to be bound by anything established, not even a definition. He rebels against all established aesthetic slogans, as well as narratives of politics, society, science fiction, religion and mythology. Nevertheless, he shatters them, throws them into the furnace, then pulls them out and hammers them. Here, lightning is transformed into three-dimensional geometry; only the abstract outlines of classicist human bodies remain, blending with expressionist rich colours; surreal cartoons strike at the plasters and bases; the sci-fi apsaras share the same background with medicines and cones; the falling of a meteorite that cuts through the sky with oil and acrylic threatens the ice cap; mannequins on the workbench and volcanic eruption are next to a group of weird bottles; ruins and six-packs gradually turn into spheres and cubes...

The border is completely shattered, and this level of destruction is nothing like the early wanderers. Zhao Yang is looking for a sense of balance in the impact of power. He has a great desire for the dynamic balance, an impulsive emotion that requires no definition, a pleasure of creation and anger at being bound by a framework, because one will enter a trance at that moment of acquisition. It is not only a subconscious act but also an active request, namely the addiction to trance. The artist realises that all arts begin with pretended "anger". Has it become a trigger for the artist's "worship", and has it manifested itself in the "Godlike Rage" series? What does this kind of worship really mean?

Does it create an idol from the artist's work? Or is it a kind of idol that has been hidden universally in human consciousness? As Deleuze says, the essence of art is resistance. So, can we think that at least one quality includes resistance? From Malraux's perspective, the object of resistance—death—is an atheistic interpretation and art is the only thing that resists death. However, it reveals at least one point, this kind of "death" symbolises the expression of nothingness. It suggests an outcome of the increase of entropy. Just like the stones that roll down from cliffs to river beaches—smoothed and smashed over time—and become sediments on the beach, it is impossible to tell which magnificent cliff they come from.

In other words, the metaphor for stones, all the aesthetic definitions of rolling down from different mountains, as well as countless life experiences and philosophies, will fade away into nothingness. The artist throws the stones that have yet to be sands into the furnace and uses fire to refine and hammer them like Hephaestus, making them a "new thing". In atheistic philosophers’ opinion, it is a kind of resistance to the nihilistic life.

As it always confronts nothingness, the mirror behind this power is another kind of silence, just like Zhao Yang’s "Silencer" series. It gets rid of the destructive anxiety and out-of-control state in his "Godlike Rage" series, while turning into a reverse form. The silencer and silence after the burst of power become a still form about life similar to ancient Greek plasters. As the antithesis of anger, the silencer represents two forms of the artist in life. It is a kind of exhaustion, and a kind of surrender lying on the grass after resisting gravity in a jump.

Relativism and atheism are two variants of the same object. They are equivalent and can be converted to each other. Atheism here refers to the opposite of monotheism, which can also be called polytheism. In other words, polytheism is essentially equivalent to atheism. Switching to the perspective of relativism, we can learn that any thought and philosophy including aesthetics can only be a reference. It heralds a conclusion: there is no aesthetics in the true sense, only an infinite collection of aesthetics in the relative sense, just like the worship of a polytheistic world. According to this deduction, its further development to the extreme of relativism is agnosticism. For the artist, it is the agnosticism about art that reveals the arrival of nihilism. Here, the expression of nothingness happens to be "death".

And thereby the biggest challenge to art is how to break free from nothingness, while "anger" is a kind of resistance to nothingness. It can be a subject for the essay on the tragedy of aesthetics. Is relativism a fallacy? From a monotheistic point of view, relativism is also part of the truth of this world, because in monotheism it is impossible to find out the real answer in the world where human lives. It can only be a relative collection of various doctrines, and the real uniqueness can only be an absolute existence that transcends human beings. Monotheism also admits that only agnosticism, nihilism, and death will be found in the end.

So, is there any other way for artists to transcend the fate of agnosticism? Here Zhao Yang explores trance and illusion. It reflects human’s natural desire for transcendence, which brings a kind of instant psychedelic pleasure and state just like the blur in Zhao’s art. This blur has appeared as a roamer and yet demanded an irrepressible increase in effectiveness in the same way as "pilots". Then "anger" arises, gradually materialised to be a progressive expression of emotion and strength. After the power is silence, and power follows again.

Trance makes people feel like gods, which is extremely attractive. The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles believed in Orphism and was obsessed with the Dionysian Mysteries. By drinking the intoxicant herbs and going into a trance, the followers of Orphism believed that they could also gain the ability of Orpheus to escape from death across the underworld. Empedocles threw himself into the volcano of Mount Etna in Hephaestus to prove that he was immortal, but in the end only one of his bronze sandals was sprayed out by flames.

The romantic legend that the talented musician Orpheus charmed Hades—the ruler of the Greek underworld—with his music has influenced countless people. He has become a mythical metaphor that can defeat the god of death in aesthetics. And all aesthetic issues can be traced back to philosophical issues to a certain extent, just as Deleuze believes that artists are no different from others, who are all fighting against the nihility. However, the historian Yu Yingshi says that any philosophical questioning is based on theology, that is to say, the only way for a person to resolve doubts about nothingness is not to rely on illusions, but to ask God for answers.

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Related Exhibitions:
Zhao Yang: Godlike Rage


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